Korea continues to attract the mounting number of travellers that visit this tiny yet powerful Asian nation for various reasons. For many visitors, Korea is a perfect destination for an exotic cultural experience. Collectively known as ‘Hallyu’ or ‘Korean Wave,’ the remarkable growth of Korean popular culture over the past few decades, encompassing everything from Korean dramas and films to K-pop music and idols, embodies the modern charm of the country. At the same end of the cultural spectrum is Korean quality beauty and cosmetic products the country takes pride in. Places like Myeongdong and Dongdaemun shopping streets are sometimes referred to as a destination for K-beauty pilgrimage, and you will find so many sojourners indulging themselves in the joy of duty-free shopping.
Korea is indeed very rich in culture and history. Those types of popular culture are an indispensable part of Korean society - but there is more to it. One way to experience Korea to the fullest is by visiting the country’s second largest city, Busan. Located in the Southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula, this amazing port city, known for its sandy beaches, is one of the most popular holiday destinations for both the locals and expats. A perhaps lesser known aspect of the city of Busan is the abundance of historical and cultural resources available for visitors to enjoy and reflect on. A while ago, Expat Guide Korea presented to you 5 Reasons Why You Should Visit Busan. Today, we are back with more practical travel tips and the top 5 places in Busan where you can have authentic Korean cultural and historical experiences.
Photo: Haedong Yonggungsa Temple
Website: Haedong Yonggungsa Temple
Nestled on a stretch of coastline in the northern part of Busan, Haedong Yonggungsa Temple has a deep history that goes back to the last phase of the Goreyo Dynasty in the late 1300s. The temple was founded in 1376 by Naong Hyegeun who later ushered Korea in the following Joseon era that saw the nation-wide expansion of Buddhism. However, the temple suffered severe damage from the Japanese invasion in the late 1500s and had been left in ruins for centuries. It was only in the 1930s when a monk by the name of Ungang visited the temple and embarked on the reconstruction. Ungang’s spirit and the reconstruction project were inherited to his fellow monks, and the temple was rebuilt into what it is today during the 1970s, with particular attention given to the Korean traditional colours used in such historical and cultural structures. The name Haedong Yonggungsa Temple was given during this time as well.
As compared to the majority of ordinary temples in Korea that are located deep inside mountains, Haedong Yonggungsa offers a rare sight of such religious sites built on a cliffy coast. And by virtue of its unique location, Haedong Yonggungsa Temple is recommended highly among travellers. Special sites inside the temple include Daeungjeon Main Sanctuary and a three-story pagoda with four stone lions standing right in front of it, with each statute representing four different feelings - joy, anger, sadness, and happiness. The famous 108 steps that run through the entire site and stone lanterns also add beautiful complexity to the temple.
If you are new to Korea, visiting Haedong Yonggungsa Temple on New Year’s Day will provide a whole new cultural experience where you join the locals who are making a wish for the new year while observing the first sunrise of the year. Additionally, spring brings different scenery to Haedong Yonggungsa Temple as it is when cherry blossoms reach full bloom under Busan’s blue sky.
It is a great idea to visit the village in the evening when the entire site gets lit up. Photo: Gamcheon Culture Village
Website: Gamcheon Culture Village
Gamcheon Culture Village is an exciting art-filled area, situated nicely in Saha-gu, Busan. Having become one of Busan’s iconic sightseeing sites, Gamcheon Culture Village is a famous destination for many travellers - but do you know its history? The Korean War during the 1950s substantially affected the area and the population. The place where Gamcheon Culture Village stands today was flooded with internal refugees fleeing from the war and became one of the most impoverished parts of Busan. Poverty was well visible even during the 1990s.
What changed the entire situation was a governmental initiative led by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism in 2009. Named “Dreaming of Machu Picchu in Busan project,” the initiative sought to revive the village by bringing reparations and reconstruction. Many talented artists were hired, created creative works, such as trick art and sculptures, and worked in tandem with the local residents to transform the village into a brand new artistic and architectural suburb. As a result, Gamcheon Culture Village won the UN-Habitat Asian Townscape Award in 2012 and rose from the ashes into a dynamic town where culture thrives.
Visitors encounter a number of art exhibitions, art galleries, and craft shops throughout the village. There are a number of themed and traditional cafes where you can have some afternoon tea with Busan’s signature snack ssiat hotteok (씨앗호떡). The entire village is quite huge, so you might want to plan your journey beforehand by stopping by at the Haneul Maru Tourist Information Center, which also functions as an observatory deck where you will get an amazing view of Busan. You can get lost in the beauty and history of Gamcheon Culture Village on your own or book a group tour at the information centre.
Website: United Nations Memorial Cemetery
Located in Namu-gu, the city of Busan, the UN Memorial Cemetery is another historical site that enshrines the horrific yet important memories of the Korean War. Established in 1951, the UN Memorial Cemetery memorialises the international effort, represented by the UN soldiers and aids from a total of 21 nations that participated and were killed in action during the Korean War. The memorial is made up of various sites including Memorial Service Hall, Memorabilia Hall, two Turkish Monuments, Greek Monument, Australian Monument and British CommonWealth Monument. On a massive 130,000 m² field, over 2,000 graves have been erected in remembrance of the perished soldiers, most of which are dedicated to Australian, British, Canadian, Dutch, and Turkish ones.
The entire site provides an amazing green inspiration, thanks to generous donations of trees and shrubs made by governments, organisations, and individuals over the past decades. Admission is free and places like the Memorabilia Hall show introductory videos in multiple languages to help visualise what is remembered at the memorial. If you do have background information and want to deepen your historical knowledge, there are many third-party tours available, with experienced tours guides who can provide detailed and informative explanations on each site as you walk through the park complex. The UN Memorial Cemetery is open 365 days a year although please be aware of its operation hours that changes slightly (Oct-Apr 09:00 - 17:00/May-Sep 09:00 - 18:00). Regardless of whether you have a personal connection to the Korean war or not, the UN Memorial Cemetery is a great place that allows you to both learn and reflect on the tragic event.
Photo: Busan Museum Facebook
Website: Busan Museum
Another authentic cultural and historical experience is available at Busan Museum. Located in Nam-gu, Busan, Busan Museum has played a leading role as a custodian of Busan’s history, tradition and culture since its inception in 1978. The museum is conveniently located in the vicinity of the UN Memorial Cemetery, so it might be a great idea to visit them all on the same day to make the most of your time down in Busan.
The structure of Busan museum consists of several regular exhibition rooms and one outdoor exhibition hall. Each exhibition room displays a wealth of artefacts, products and relics ranging from the Prehistoric age to the present day. In 2002, the museum underwent construction, adding the Exhibition Hall 2 to its structure, which houses relics obtained through the museum’s excavations and purchase as well as private donations.
One of the museum’s signature charms is definitely the outdoor exhibition. At the beautiful garden outside the museum proper are around 40 sculptures of precious pagodas, Buddhist statues, and other related monuments. The Special Exhibition Room holds special exhibitions once or twice a year, and designs and themes that are not featured at the permanent exhibitions are displayed. Busan Museum also organises international exchange exhibitions annually, and has brought rare products from foreign museums, such as Russia and Taiwan, to the city of Busan. Stay tuned for upcoming exhibitions by checking out Busan Museum’s Instagram account.
In addition to such visual and material sources, a more attractive aspect of Busan Museum is its interactiveness. The Cultural Exhibition Room on the ground floor allows you to actually partake in traditional cultures of the nation and Busan. For instance, you can have an experience of printing a rubbed copy with a small fee of 2,000 won while you can dress up in Korean traditional costumes (Gonryongpo, Ikseongwan, Hwalot, Wosam) and take photos. Busan Museum runs traditional tea-tasting programs 4 times a day (10:30, 13:30, 15:00, 16:30). While onsite reservations are possible, please keep in mind that the tea-tasting programs are extremely popular - I’d recommend making a booking prior to your visit, which can be done on the Busan Metropolitan Homepage. For more information on these activities, please refer to the museum’s official website.
Website: Jagalchi Market
By the time you finish your journey through all the sites and places listed in this article, you must be feeling hungry! In fact, no visit to Busan is fully complete without experiencing the city’s another cultural product - fresh seafood. Jagalchi Market, which is located on the shoreside road Jung-gu, adjacent to Nampo Port, is known as Korea's largest seafood market, dealing in both live and dried fish. As compared to the majority of markets in Korea that have developed over a long span of time, Jagalchi Market and the community of vendors that constitute it were precipitated by a massive influx of people fleeing from fighting during the Korean War. Living through the post-war poverty and aftermath was a challenging time, but people soon started to make ends meet by building shacks from discarded and salvaged materials and exchanging products wirtin the community. This self-sufficient sprint and cooperation have given rise to the formation of today’s Jagalchi Market.
Perhaps because of its unique root, Jagalchi Market is a very dynamic place and full of positive energy. As you will notice, most of the vendors selling fish are women who are friendly and talkative. For those who are visiting from landlocked countries, the streets full of stores that have dried fish and other seafood products piled up in front of them would look like one form of a cultural artwork, and you will enjoy just having a stroll around, whether or not you are dining at the market.
By the ocean, you will see a seven-story building, which is the actual original Jagalchi Market (but the entire area is collectively referred to as “Jagalchi Market”). On the first floor, you can walk through streets of fish tanks. Talk to one of the Jagalchi ajummas to negotiate the price, and she will slice up the fish for you. Based on my personal experience, a 30,000-40,000 won plate was enough to feed around 3-4 people.
The greatest thing about the market is that it has an eat-in space. Just tell the vendor that you would like to eat in and you will be escorted to the dining area, which is usually located conveniently on the second floor. For an extra table fee (around 4,000-6,000 won), you will be given small side dishes, vegetables, and sauces, in addition to the fish you just picked.
Please be aware that you, by virtue of being a traveller, might encounter vendors that are looking to make a quick buck off your wallet. If you do not have a command of the Korean language sufficient enough to haggle over price, I’d recommend that you do a preliminary research on average food costs or bringing local Korean pals to assist with you.