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Haedong Yonggungsa Temple and Haeundae Sea in Busan, South Korea (Photo: Daengpanya Atakorn/Shutterstock)
Haedong Yonggungsa Temple and Haeundae Sea in Busan, South Korea (Photo: Daengpanya Atakorn/Shutterstock)
4.0 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating

Gayle Keck
Cruise Critic Contributor

Port of Busan, South Korea

Located on the southeast tip of the Korean Peninsula, Busan is South Korea's second-largest city, but it lies closer to Japan than to the capital, Seoul. It's home to 3.5 million people and is the country's largest port city, as well as either the world's fifth-busiest or ninth-busiest cargo seaport (depending on whose stats you believe). The city's name translates from Sino-Korean as "Cauldron Mountain," believed to be a reference to nearby Hwangnyeongsan Mountain.

Many elements, both old and new, come together in Busan. On the historic side, Bokcheon-dong, to the north, is home to fourth-century burial mounds that have yielded many iron weapons, indicating a complex and powerful society during that era. Further north, Gyeongju was the ancient capital of the Silla dynasty (668 to 936 AD); royal temples, tombs and golden artifacts remain. Gyeongju's royal eighth-century Bulguksa Temple earned a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, and other ancient temples are scattered throughout the Busan area.

Busan is also a shopper's dream, with both markets and huge mega-malls. It's home to the world's largest department store as well as Korea's biggest fish market. Depending on your preferences, you can pick up the latest K-cosmetics (Korean cosmetics are hot all over Asia) or snack on a wide variety of street food.

The city is known as the "summer capital of Korea," thanks to its six beaches, nearby parks and hiking spots. You'll also find museums, Korea's largest aquarium and plenty of other attractions to keep you busy.

Shore Excursions

About Busan, South Korea


Pro

A busy, modern city that also has deep historic roots; you'll find malls and markets here

Con

While there's plenty to do, some of the top attractions require a long trip from the port

Bottom Line

Whether you're a shopper or a history buff, you'll find something of interest


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Port Facilities

Cruise ships dock at the end of a pier, with a basic building housing only immigration, security screening services and a small waiting area. Wi-Fi is available here, though there are only a few seats. Outside the building, Busan Bank sets up a mobile currency exchange truck on the cruise pier that's also equipped with two ATMs. About a 10-minute walk up the pier is Busan Port International Passenger Terminal, which serves ferries. Inside the modern building, there are a few shops, including 7-Eleven, places to grab a bite and a tourist information center -- plus restrooms and Wi-Fi. Just be prepared for potential crowds coming and going on ferries.

The passenger terminal is about a 10-minute walk from the Busan metro's Choryang station (Line 1) and a similar distance from Busan train station, which also has a Line 1 metro stop.

The piers and passenger terminal are separated from the rest of town by a highway and a train yard. Your best bet is to take the free shuttle bus to Busan Station. If you're walking from the pier, go to your left as you face inland to skirt around the train yard and pass through the train station, which also has shops and eateries.

On the other side of the train station, you'll find Texas St., an infamous drinking and red-light district for American servicemen in times past, and now known for bars and shopping. A few blocks to the north is Choryang traditional market, a covered market with food and other items.

Good to Know

Depending on the current situation between North and South Korea, you may or may not want to discuss politics with your guide or other locals. Our guide was very forthcoming with her thoughts, and we found the conversation quite interesting.

When we visited, Google Maps was searchable for locations, but would not give directions from one place to another. If you're taking a taxi to a particular destination, it would be a good idea to print out the name and address in Korean. (Tip: Google usually lists both languages in the results when you search in English.) Some restaurants are difficult to find by address alone. If you're taking the metro, there's often information online from others who have been there, offering directions from a metro stop.

Getting Around

On Foot: Unless you like to wander, it's probably not very efficient to tour the city by foot, since it's very spread out. There's not a lot to see in the port area, which is not in the center of things.

By Shuttle: The port operates a free shuttle bus that runs between the pier and Busan Station (about a 10-minute drive), where you can catch the metro. There was also a second shuttle ($10 charge) when we were in port, making the 20-minute trip to the city center, and dropping passengers at the Phoenix Hotel. There's a metro stop near this drop point, too, as well as Yongdusan Park, Lotte Department Store and several markets.

By Metro: Busan's extended subway system has six different lines, with Lines 1 through 4 serving the city. To make it easy, you can get an all-day pass, available at any ticket machine in a subway station. There is also a loaded-value card, called the Hanaro Card, which can be used for discounted fares on the subway and buses and regular fares in taxis; you can buy them at metro stations, Busan Bank and convenience stores.

If you don't get a pass or card, know that the fares are based on a two-sector system, so the price depends on how far you are traveling. Ticket machines have an English option, and only accept bills and coins of 1,000 won or less. On Line 1, you can reach several markets, including Jagalchi seafood market; and Gamcheon Culture Village. Line 2 gets you to the Skywalk and Centum City. Subway signage and announcements are also made in English.

By Bus: Busan has a city bus system with both regular and express buses (priced differently). Enter and pay (no change given) by the front door and exit at the rear. You can also use a Hanaro transit card to pay, which gives you a lower fare and the ability to transfer twice within 30 minutes of exiting the bus, though you must touch your card as you leave the bus to get this benefit.

By Hop-on Hop-off Bus: City Tour Busan (BUTI) operates four different loop buses, including one that picks up at Busan Station. The first Red Line bus leaves the station at 9:30 a.m. and the last one stops there at 4:30 p.m. The various loops hit several beaches, cross the bridges and visit museums, shopping spots and the United Nations Memorial Cemetery, among other destinations. See the website for schedule and details. Note: Buses don't operate on Mondays, except for on holidays.

By Taxi: Taxis are available at the pier, and drivers are usually good about using the meter -- but check to make sure, because there are a few unscrupulous drivers out there. Note that there are two types of taxis: regular, and the more expensive red-and-black deluxe taxis, which are much more expensive. Regular taxi fares are 20 percent more at night. It should be fairly easy to flag taxis around town, unless it's raining. Taxis also accept the Hanaro transit card for payment.

Currency & Best Way to Get Money

South Korea's currency is the won (pronounced "wahn.") For current currency conversion figures, visit  www.xe.com. When ships are in port, Busan Bank sets up a mobile currency exchange truck on the cruise pier that's also equipped with two ATMs. You'll find ATMs that accept foreign cards at convenience stores and banks, as well. Most businesses don't accept U.S. dollars but do accept credit cards.

Language

Korean is the official language in Busan. Although it was once written using Chinese characters, since the 15th century there has been a phonetic alphabet, known as hangul. So, while the written language may look very pictographic, it's actually more easily deciphered than Chinese. Don't expect English to be generally spoken -- though it's likely that there will be English speakers at popular tourist attractions and some shops. Cab drivers will probably not speak much English, except in the more expensive deluxe cabs.

Food and Drink

You probably know a few of Korea's most famous dishes, including kimchi (fiery fermented cabbage), bulgogi (a hearty beef dish with vegetables in a savory sauce) and bibimbap (rice topped with vegetables, meat and an egg). And, of course, there's the savory grill-it-yourself Korean barbecue. You'll find all those dishes available in Busan -- but, of course, there's much more to Korean cuisine.

Most meals include an amazing number of small side dishes, called banchan. The most common side dishes are gochujang (chili sauce -- beware!) and kimchi, all served with rice. You'll also probably have soup and boiled or pickled vegetables. The banchan are traditionally served in small dishes to be shared, but as tourists, you may be given your own banchan.

A couple of popular dishes in the Busan area are dwaeji gukbap and dongnae pajeon. Dwaeji gukbap translates as "pork" (dwaeji), "soup" (guk), "rice" (bap) -- and that's exactly what it is. Pork bones are simmered for hours to make the broth, and other ingredients can include miso, rice wine, sesame oil and soy sauce. It's great comfort food on a cold or rainy day. Dongnae pajeon is a savory pancake made from eggs, rice flour, wheat flour and scallions as well as kimchi, meat or seafood. Usually, the scallions are left whole and lined up in a row, which makes the dish easy to recognize.

Street food is also wildly popular here. One interesting dish to try is hotteok. These are sweet, filled pancakes made from a yeast dough. The traditional filling is made with chopped peanuts, brown sugar, honey and cinnamon -- however, you can now find a variety of creative fillings, including green tea and berries.

Ssangdoongi Dwaeji-gukbap (or Twins Pork Soup): This is one of Busan's most popular pork soup restaurants. You may have to wait in line, but the line moves quickly, and servers can speak basic English. Order the set menu for extra pork, but if you don't like offal beware -- there is tripe on the menu. (887-1, Daeyeon1-dong, Nam-gu, Busan; daily 9 a.m. to midnight)

Jang Su Sam: You may not be familiar with the traditional Korean dish served at this restaurant. Samgyetang is soup made with a whole young chicken, stuffed with garlic, rice, jujubes (red dates) and ginseng. It's typically eaten in hot weather. This restaurant serves an excellent version, and offers warm, welcoming hospitality, with some English spoken. (501-4 Suyeong-dong, Suyeong-gu, Busan; Wednesday through Monday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.)

An Ga Korean BBQ: Many claim this restaurant near Haeundae Beach serves the best Korean barbecue in Busan. Come here for grilled seafood, ribs and various cuts of beef and pork, in a pub-like atmosphere. (1276-1, Jung-dong, Haeundae-gu, Busan, South Korea; Tuesday through Sunday 11:30 a.m. to midnight)

Mugunghwa: For an elegant, high-end Korean meal, head to this restaurant atop the Lotte Hotel. Named after Korea's national flower, it presents modern interpretations of traditional Korean foods in a chic, sleek atmosphere. Reservations recommended, but you can book online at the hotel's website. (772, Gaya-daero, Busanjin-gu, Busan; 82-51-810-6330; daily noon to 3 p.m. and 6 to 10 p.m.)

BIFF Square: Located in the same neighborhood as the Jagalchi fish market, this area offers lots of street food stands to choose among, including plenty serving seafood items. (20, BIFF gwangjang-ro, Jung-gu, Busan)

Shinsegae Food Hall: If you're shopping in this massive Centum City department store, head to the basement to grab a bite from one of the many eateries. Nampo Sujebi serves Korean noodle soup and other dishes, Myungga offers many varieties of bipimbap and there are also Japanese, Thai and other international restaurants. (Centum Namdae ro 35, Haeundae-gu, Busan, daily noon to 11 a.m. and 8 p.m.)

Yong Ggum (Dragon Dream Cave Bar): For something different, head to this bar and restaurant inside an old bomb shelter. The lighting is low and you'll hear the sound of water dripping in the cave. Nibble on dongnae pajeon (green onion pancakes) and seafood dishes, while trying a range of typical Korean alcoholic beverages -- including dongdongju (rice wine), poured from iron kettles, and bamboo soju. (13-13 Beomil 1-dong, Busan; daily 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.)

Shopping

Busan offers shoppers everything from cheap market stalls to the world's largest department store. The latter would be Guinness World Record-holder Shinsegae, in Centum City, where you'll also find a golf range, an ice skating rink and arguably Busan's best Korean-style spa, Spa Land. The metro Line 2 stops there; it's about a 50-minute trip. (Centum Namdae ro 35, Haeundae-gu, Busan; Monday through Thursday 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday through Sunday and Holidays 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. )

Closer to the port (about a 25-minute walk, 15-minute taxi ride, or 8-minute metro ride), the Nampodong Street area is popular for shopping. Not far away is the Jagalchi fish market, Korea's largest (52 Jagalchihaean-ro, Nampo-dong, Jung-gu, Busan). Across the street from the fish market, the International Market (Gukje Market) was started by refugees after the Korean War, who sold products obtained from the U.S. military, including canned food and uniforms. Now there's a mishmash of everything from food to socks (25 Gukjesijang 2-gil, Gwangbok-dong, Jung-gu, Busan).

The Seomyeon area (about 20 minutes by taxi from the port; 10 minutes by metro) is a trendy shopping and eating area popular with young locals. Many of the streets are pedestrianized and it's fun to wander in and out of the various shops. The most interesting area is a couple of blocks south of the Seomyeon stop on the metro Line 1.

One of the most popular things to shop for in Korea is cosmetics -- in particular "sheet masks." These are packets of one-use face masks saturated with seemingly magical beauty elixirs. You'll see them everywhere, promising to help all sorts of skin issues, from redness to enlarged pores.

If you have female teens or tweens back home, they'll likely lobby you to buy them K-pop paraphernalia. South Korean boy groups are hugely popular with young people, even in the U.S., and all sorts of swag is available. Markets are one of the best places to look. In Gukje Market, GM Music sells K-pop CDs.