2016’s future-cult-classic Train to Busan follows a father and daughter on their journey out of Seoul, which has just fallen victim to a zombie outbreak. There was no undead cargo onboard my own train to Busan (unless you count the child loudly munching a seemingly bottomless bag of chips in the seat behind me), but I was just as eager to reach South Korea’s second city as Seok-Woo and Soo-an, even if my life didn’t quite depend on it.
To be sure, while Busan has long been near the top of my Asia bucket list, many travelers are all but unaware of it, for a variety of reasons. No matter where you fall on the continuum between people like them and people like me, you should absolutely make a beeline to Busan when heading to South Korea —here’s why.
Where to Stay in Busan
Busan hotels cover a somewhat limited range, from the quasi-luxury on offer at properties like Boutique Hotel YTT Nampo to simple, stately Hotel Gray, whose main selling point is its proximity to the train station. Indeed, since you probably won’t be spending as many days in Busan as you should (more on that in a moment), location is the key factor you should use to determine where you stay. TIP: If you do choose Hotel Gray like I did, make sure to have a cup of coffee in the attached café, which gave me major Scandinavia vibes.
There are enough Busan attractions to occupy a long weekend, which might surprise you if you’re part of the contingent that’s written the city off up to this point. The two most beautiful are Busan Gamcheon Culture Village (a colorful hillside neighborhood that’s increasingly known as the “Santorini of the East”) and Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, which is remarkable primarily because of the rocky, beautiful stretch of coastline where it’s built.
I’d be lying if I said these two places didn’t account for 90% of my motivation to visit Busan, but there are many more first-rate things to do in Korea’s second city. Some of these have names and claims-t0-fame, like Haeundae Beach, South Korea’s most-visited sunbathing spot. But I also loved simply walking through the streets of central Busan, which called to mind many secondary Japanese cities—minus the Hangul script on the signs, of course.
Bring Me a Higher Love
It’s impossible to miss the stratospheric Busan Tower, even if you don’t take the escalator (yes, there’s an escalator) from the Gwangbok-ro shopping street up to Yongdusan Park, where you can buy a ticket to ascend the tower. On the other hand, Busan has dozens of places to enjoy a panorama of the city, the majority of which don’t have dirty windows or make you put up with an obnoxious glare.
Or any windows at all: Whether you scale Jangsan, which sits just to the east of the city center, or the less visited (but more convenient) Cheonmasan, the best places to get a higher perspective on Busan are outdoors. In my opinion, the latter of these is your best bet. From the top, it provides a clear view of the rainbow-colored Gwangandaegyo bridge glittering behind the city’s harbor; on the way back down to the Jagalchi subway station, seeing the bridge framed by the rows of houses that line the steep streets will make you feel like you’re in San Francisco (or Busan Francisco, as it were).
Save the Best for Last
Speaking of Jagalchi (and to riff, once again, off an underrated song from my youth), the Busan fish market (officially Jagalchi Market) is the very thing you’re looking for, but the one thing you can’t see from Cheonmasan. It’s also best visited in the morning, which means walking down there after enjoying a Busan night view would be fruitless.
Actually, I can’t imagine this place ever being fruitless—and I say that as someone who usually abhors markets, or at least the hype built up around them. Jagalchi Market is a revelation, offering up stall after stall of beautiful and delicious seafood, in a setting almost completely unmarred by tourists. It also happens to sit near Bosu-Dong Book Street, which is somewhat less picturesque, but quirky and worth at least an hour of your time.
How Many Days in Busan?
If you’re considering Busan day trip from Seoul, I’ll stop you right now. You need a minimum of two days to see the places I’ve mentioned thus far—and that’s if you’re comfortable waking up at dawn and traveling at the breakneck pace I do. (Or “break-forehead” as it were: I literally slammed into a utility pole while I was using Google Maps to plot my next move!)
To be sure, if you want to truly give the city center the attention deserves, or to venture outward to peripheral temples like Beomeosa, you need 3-4 days in Busan.
The Bottom Line
Once you’ve decided to make the trip to Busan—and accepted that it’s not simply a day trip from Seoul, or secondary to the Korean capital in any way—this Busan travel itinerary will help you plan your visit to one of Asia’s most underrated cities.
Whether you spend two marathon days tearing through the city’s main attractions like I did, or give this coastal metropolis the time and attention it truly deserves, you’ll feel like anything but a zombie once you disembark your own Train to Busan.