Family Travel: Bustling Busan, South Korea

The best of what nature and an urban landscape have to offer in this city by the sea

by Abbie Pumarejo | Wed, January 17, 2018

Busan (formerly Pusan) is South Korea’s second largest city, located along the south-eastern edge of the coast. Home to the country’s busiest port and most popular beach, Haeundae, it’s also a great family-friendly destination and has something on offer year round. While many feel they need to visit Seoul or Jeju Island to get to know the country, I’d like to suggest something a bit different and less touristy.

Busan South Korea

My husband, who travels regularly to Busan, had always wanted the family to join him to see this coastal town, also full of nature and great gastronomy. Who am I to say no to a mini vacation? We went with our 18 and 16 year-old sons during Chinese New Year this past February and experienced true Korean hospitality, relaxation and delicious food. We had a great long weekend exploring around the city, and since it’s just over an hour and a half flight, you can pretty much go anytime; Korean Air offers multiple flights out of Pudong direct which take around two hours.

Hot springs and city life

Hot Springs

There’s no doubt that a big part of any great vacation is dependent on where you stay. The Busan Paradise Hotel is a five-star property right on Haeundae Beach (a 1.5K stretch of golden sand overlooking the Korea Strait). The hotel isn’t just located on prime real estate, but also boasts a casino as well as family-friendly amenities. Since our teens like their own space (okay and we do too), we booked two double rooms from ¥1,515/night at the time of writing, via the hotel’s website, but a family with smaller kids could easily book a junior suite from ¥3,060/night (prices subject to change depending on timings). The buffet breakfast each morning was generous, well prepared and overlooked an immaculate grassy area with decorative trees on the beach. The star of the hotel though, was the outdoor ocean spa and pools. The natural mineral water hot spring pools are infused with aromatic plants, such as eucalyptus, and have temperatures ranging from 40°C to 44°C. The pools are divided into five areas: Art and Nature, surrounded by green pines; Ocean, on eye level with the beach; Therapy, including bubble massage jets; Rest, featuring a dry sauna; and Kids Zone separated with a small Jacuzzi and water-spray area.

The entire family can don their comfy robes and slippers provided by the hotel and head outdoors for impressive ocean views and a little R and R. There’s even a swim-up bar to enjoy something to drink or eat while soaking in nature. Of course, as it was February the air was chilly, but once you immerse yourself in the hot springs, you could easily spend the afternoon enjoying all the pools and an impressive afternoon sunset. Heading out of the hotel, visitors can walk along the beach, stroll along the promenade, watch a game of beach volleyball or attend any one of the festivals hosted year-round. It’s definitely a popular spot with easy access from downtown Busan, but it doesn’t feel touristy because the majority of visitors are local or from other parts of South Korea. 

If you want to jump right into getting a feel for the city, and see all manner of items to shop, there’s Gukje Market. One of the country’s largest markets, the alleyways are bursting with stalls and it connects with Bupyeong Market, Kkangtong Market, and some other smaller ones as well. It’s open from 9am until 8pm daily and has anything you could imagine. We also checked out the smaller Haeundae Market, within walking distance of the hotel. We were amazed and a bit freaked out by all the sea life, in particular the live octopi. Given the time of year, we wanted to explore more than just the beach area, so we spent one afternoon walking through the narrow streets and alleys of the Gamcheon Culture village – think Tianzifang up on a hill. Gamcheon is colorful, artsy and full of interesting cafes, stores and art studios. Be sure and try the delicious hotteok (1000KRW, approximately ¥6), a sweet-filled Korean style pancake, and purchase some soothing hot tea for 500KRW (¥3) – my favorite was magnolia – from a variety of vendors while strolling through the labyrinthine village. Just as in Shanghai, those with the longer lines will ensure you’re getting a quality product; perfect after walking up and down and taking in sweeping views of the ocean and city. 

Nature lovers

Busan not only has the beach as a playground. With mountains surrounding the city, there’s more than enough nature for every type of traveler. We spent one morning hiking right outside of the city center up to the top of Jangsan Mountain. You can enter through the Daecheon Park just fifteen minutes from the city center. Passing waterfalls, a small temple and many families enjoying the outdoors, the hour long hike becomes slightly challenging as you ascend the rocks. But hey, if the very fit and smartly attired septuagenarians and octogenarians can do it, you can too! A large observation deck offering 360° views is your reward at the top. The trip down seemed much faster and we all had to stop and try out the outdoor gym, where young and old alike take turns on the machines very similar to what you can find in parks in Shanghai. We dare you to see if you can bench press more than the bald gentleman who is at least 85 and seems to be a regular fixture. Or, even better, try taking off your shoes and walking along the stone reflexology paths. It’s not nearly as easy as the locals would have you believe! 

Foodie heaven

Since our family never says no to a good meal, we were thrilled with two in particular. One with my husband’s team at a Korean-style sashimi restaurant; featuring thinly sliced sea bream and rockfish along with multiple mini side dishes and fresh, spicy kimchi. The adults washed it all down with cold soju and beer. Amazingly we didn’t roll out after lunch but were able to remain upright and still feel light. Secondly, if fresh (raw) seafood isn’t your cup of tea, then I would recommend visiting a traditional Korean BBQ establishment. Haeundae Somunnan Amsogalbi means, “Very popular beef rib restaurant in Haeundae” and itwas absolutely delicious. The boys ate their fair share of the thinly cut, marbled strips of beef and short ribs (galbi) along with plenty of vegetables, garlic and kimchi. Famous for its marinade, this restaurant has been around since the early 1960s and you can expect a wait; but it’s well worth it. Make sure to end the meal with the sweet guksu, potato noodles, which are served as dessert. Expect to pay between 60,000- 80,000KRW, (approximately ¥350-¥465) for a family of four in restaurants; but this could be more depending on beverages.

With so much to do, these are just a few of the things your family can experience when you head to Busan. Even though it was winter, we left rejuvenated and felt like we had actually experienced a beach vacation. Part wellness, part urban, it was a memorable trip. Being in between sea and mountains with such interesting activities, I can only imagine what it might be like in the summer and how much more we could do.

Good to Know

•    17199.71 South Korean Wong (KRW) is approximately the same value as ¥100.

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