Embarrassing revelation: It took me all of four years of being an expat in Korea to finally visit Busan (save for the time I was in the station to rescue Hunter, but I’ll save that story for a different day). But yes, it is true. I’ve been here, there, and everywhere, but never actually the second largest city in Korea.
It was time to finally bite the bullet and go. While I didn’t have a long weekend at my disposal, I figured an overnight trip would be just the thing to get my feet wet. Excited for the measly 2 hour trek on the KTX, I finally did what I should have done long ago.
Honestly, it was a little weird. It’s not a bad weird, but I guess just different? It felt strange to be in another large Korean city with such a different vibe. There were things I definitely appreciated, but I am glad I live in Seoul. While I will return to Busan to check off more on my bucket list, I don’t ever see myself relocating there. That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it from afar, though. More into that in a bit.
So, if you’re going for just one weekend, where should you go?
Hands down, the number one thing was surprisingly not the beach but SPA LAND (which is actually in a Shinsegae). As a very outspoken lover of jjimjilbangs and all aspects of jjimjilbang culture, I was giddy to visit the supposed Mecca of them all. Was it pricey? At 20,000 won, it was the priciest one I’ve ever been to. Was it worth it? I vote YES.
Here’s the thing: I had this mental list of all the procedures I wanted. I really wanted a classic scrub, hair wash, and massage. I also wanted a facial. I was ready and willing to shell out a pretty penny for the ultimate spa experience. (Guilty pleasure side note: I live for Korean skin care and procedures. It’s done wonders for my acne prone skin. I should probably write more about my trips to my favorite clinic.) However, once I was there, I found myself so consumed by everything else, that I didn’t feel I would have time to do what I wanted.
Obviously, you can’t get pictures of the baths themselves (because everyone is naked), but the changing area and tubs were top notch. You really are getting what you pay for. I actually rate jjimjilbangs on the variety of baths they have, as opposed to saunas. I tolerate saunas, but I live for dipping in (most of) the tubs. Sometimes, I’ll be lured into a new jjimjilbang because it’s so nice looking, but the tubs will be few and either super hot or super cold (Garden 5, I’m looking at you.). SPA LAND has a great variety, and what I loved the most is how the massage tub with the jets had these tile loungers so you could be laying on something as the jets massaged you.
Other than the tubs, they did have a solid variety of the hot and cold rooms in the main area. I didn’t check too many out, as I spent an ungodly amount of time in all the baths. Also, the main area is super nice. The whole place has a good ambiance to it.
A bonus touch was had they had this outdoor, coed, foot bath. There were an assortment of pools based on temperature and texture, kind of like the stone paths at many Korean parks meant to massage your feet. You go in these with your jjimilbang outfit on and you can sit outside and enjoy fresh air while part of you is still in water.
It should go without saying that walking Haeundae Beach was a goal, as that’s a popular tourist destination. The tiny area I was in seemed kind of boring, older (in terms of infrastructure), and (gasp!) not very safe. I’m actually a very “positive expat” in Korea and really enjoy the people and country overall, so this was very shocking for me. It’s 150% the tiny area where I was, so I’m sure someone else has stayed in Haeundae and just loved it, but my accommodation definitely smeared my perspective on the beach. It just had an overall gritty feel to it. I can’t even recommend a place to stay because where I stayed was so disgusting and unsafe. Due to South Korean Defamation Laws, I can’t tell you any more, but if you see a lot of begpacking and trash, you probably found it. I will, however, say that I really enjoyed the food I had nearby.
Other than that, Haeundae Beach overall was pretty cool. More importantly, a beautiful Sunday morning walk and walk around Dongbaekseom Island made it worth it. This was super easy to walk to, a great way to get steps in, and I felt it was quite visually appealing as well.
But even better than Haeundae is Gwangalli Beach. Gwangalli was everything I hoped for from Haeundae but didn’t get. Gwangalli was clean, chic, and had cute spots. I found it to be super safe and attract more of a cute and fun crowd. There’s one hotel I stumbled upon, Gwanganli Hotel 1, that I would love to stay at someday.
Right across the street from Gwangalli, was the perfect cafe. It was exactly what one might expect from a trendy Korean cafe: adorable drinks and pastries, instagrammable everything, lots of different seating options, and a fantastic view.
What should you make sure to eat?
Hordes of seafood notwithstanding (if that’s your thing), here’s just a couple of Busan staples that I found to be great to have in such a short amount of time. I was excited to try different (or at least different variations of) Korean food. I definitely do love to try something new (I even once went so far as to try scorpion in Thailand!), but some of the more adventurous seafood options (live octopus! squirming on your plate!) are just not for me. I was happy to find more regional specialties or twists on foods that I already knew I liked. Because I stayed in Haeundae for the night, most of my eating time was spent there. Luckily the food almost made up for everything else.
Upon arrival and dropping off bags at our dungeon, we were in starvation mode. Luckily, Haeundae had a variety of different Korean foods to choose from. As it is summer and cold noodles are a necessity, we figured a good bowl of Milmyeon would be a good choice. For about 7,000 won, an incredible staff, and stumbling into some kind of hole in the wall place plastered with autographs of Korean celebrities, this bowl was awesome. I was told that I had to have the famous pork and rice soup (dwaejigukbap) if I was in Busan, that not doing so is akin to being in NYC and not having a bagel. Fair enough, you don’t have to tell me twice. It was super worth it and not spicy. This is a selling point for someone who thinks medium salsa is living life on the wild side. I was also informed that Ssiat Hotteok is another regional specialty and would be the perfect dessert to hold around and walk the beach at night. Just like the other two, I was not disappointed.
I’m hoping to do another fall trip to Busan, to visit SPA LAND once more and to finally experience the world famous fish markets. Stay tuned.
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