A Love Letter: Busan’s Big Tranquil Beauty
In the dark morning I watch the blue horizon, waiting for the new sun. A minute before the first hopeful light, the sea turns silver, gently slapping at the shore of smooth and slanted stone. From where I stand, I hear the chorus of Buddhist monks chant their morning mantra. A wood block echoes the rhythm of solemn voices. A bell rings. The sun comes up.
Perched at the edge of land, water, and sky, Haedong Yonggungsa (“Eastern Sea Dragon Temple”) is an extraordinary place to greet the dawn. Built in the 14th century, the seaside complex is a jumble of fancy tile rooftops held high by rows of tree-trunk-sized pillars. Elaborate dragon statues lead me up the path of gold and marble buddhas—some stoic, others laughing. Venturing past the ancient shrines and twisted junipers, I catch the gorgeous panorama of the rising sun.
The air breathes warmer and the light grows, brightening the unmarked blue sky. Down the coast, the gleaming city of Busan shines like a beacon on the water.
Busan is Korea’s “other” city— home to 3.5 million people and the geographic (and cultural) opposite to the capital Seoul. Fiercely proud of its unique and separate identity, beautiful Busan sits at the southeast corner of the Korean peninsula, facing the “East Sea” (or the Sea of Japan), with a parade of cargo ships that come and go all day, all night.
Constant motion is part of the architecture in this maritime metropolis. Busan is the largest seaport in Korea by volume and the fifth largest in the world. If you own a Samsung television or phone, or drive a Hyundai or KIA vehicle, chances are it reached you via the bustling port of Busan. Like a separate cityscape of shifting blocks, the colorful stacks of shipping containers flow in and out of ships at a dizzying speed.
International trade built Busan, and the strategic harbor made it the ideal headquarters for the South Koreans and their allies during the Korean Conflict (1950-53). I pay my respects at The United Nations Memorial Cemetery, where neatly-trimmed trees, flowering rose bushes and flawless green lawns cast a reverent mood over this final resting place of 2,300 war casualties from 22 different countries. Standing at the black marble Wall of Remembrance, I notice a team of dozens of local volunteers—Busan residents old and young who come to maintain the grounds. I’m touched by their respect and dedication in remembrance of their own recent past.
With its long history of welcoming refugees from all over the country, Busan represents a vastly cosmopolitan Korea. Nowhere is the city’s diverse flavor more evident than in the famous cuisine, which spans everything from extra-fresh seafood to some out-of-this world street food.
Indeed, Busan holds the unofficial title for best food city in Korea and my own experience backs the claim. Every meal and snack I encounter becomes a unique and delicious adventure. I taste the city’s famous fish cakes and scallion pancakes, I indulge in flounder sashimi, delicate grilled eel, and steamed crab so fresh I watch it yanked out of the sea mere minutes before it hits my plate. I slurp spicy noodles and ask for more, then sip phenomenal tea between miniature gourmet pastries. My advice is to come hungry and stay open-minded—chances are you will try something new and you will like it.
Food is pretty much a contact sport in Busan, and there’s nowhere more action-packed than Jagalchi Seafood Market. Picky chefs swirl their hands in tubs of live octopi while shrewd home cooks size up gigantic salmon that swim in the tanks fed directly from the sea. Scallops, razor clams, and periwinkles fill the stalls, along with dried and smoked fish, and more kinds of seaweed than I ever thought existed.
Down on the pier, I watch a young boy fishing, his rod pointed into the waves, line bobbing as he waits patiently for a bite. His father and grandfather stand next to him—three generations of fishermen, following a tradition as old as Busan.
Despite the vast urban layout of this city-by-the-sea, Busan is cradled by immense nature. Wild mountains, tall trees and quiet green spaces keep the city from ever feeling too overwhelming or sterile. The city’s balanced design seems aligned with nature, inviting visitors to step away from the rush of the manmade world. The sounds of cars and people disappear on my long walk through Dongbaek Park. Instead I hear seagulls and songbirds, as well as the surrounding ocean. Challenging my own fear of heights, I venture out on the all-glass Oryukdo Skywalk that hovers away from the cliff’s edge. I lean out in the open air for a marvelous view of the rugged seacoast and a taste of the mild sea breeze.
As a destination, Busan is more of an experience than a list of places—and a big part of the experience is the beach. A wide strip of golden sand frames the high-rise epicenter of Haeundae Beach, where joggers fly past and families with children play near the calm water. The relaxed mood feels more like Malibu or Sydney than some major Asian business hub, but maybe this is simply Busan.
Like the Buddhist temple by the sea, the city achieves a rare tranquility in spite of itself. I feel it in the recovered wetlands of the Nakdong estuary, where I witness more than a thousand pairs of whooping swans thriving in the tidal marshes where the river meets the sea.
In the soft hour before sunset, Busan seems like a veil of white lace draped across the slopes of so many pointed evergreen mountains. But the city glows brightest at night, when the buildings and bridges take on a whole new dimension spelled out in colored lights. Showcasing LED technology on a grandiose scale, nighttime Busan becomes an immense glowing sculpture that lingers in the air like a slow-motion dream. Electric skyscrapers float upon the water, tilting up from the sparkling city painted on the dark mirror of the harbor. A night cruise shows me the astonishing scale of the lit-up architecture. Passing beneath Busan’s iconic Diamond Bridge, I am in awe of the purple, blue, and golden lights.
I am in awe of the unstoppable beauty of this city that is both light and dark, ancient and new, quiet—yet always full of life.
Silversea Cruises’ story on Busan was created as part of a content partnership with the Korea Tourism Organization, NY.