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How to Spend a Layover in Busan

Gwangan Bridge lit up at night in Busan, South Korea
Gwangan Bridge lit up at night in Busan, South Korea | © yochika photographer / Shutterstock
Gimhae International Airport is the fastest-growing airport in Korea, predicted to exceed 16 million passengers in 2018. The terminal building, however, isn’t especially exciting — so what can you do on a layover? Here’s our guide to getting into Busan, and what to do there.

What is there to do in Busan?

Busan is Korea’s second largest city, home to beaches, nightlife, culture and more. Even better, its transport system is fast and user-friendly — you can be in the trendy downtown shopping area of Seomyeon a mere 40 minutes after leaving the terminal building.

Busan’s most famous beach is Haeundae, but that’s also the one furthest from the airport. You’re best to head to Gwangalli Beach (which takes an hour to get to by subway), to see the beautiful Gwangan Bridge and enjoy its numerous beachfront cafes.

In terms of shopping, Busan has plenty to offer. It’s home to the world’s largest department store (Shinsegae Centum City), Korea’s largest marine market (Jagalchi Fish Market), underground shopping malls, and beauty shops galore.

The city is famous for its seafood, and you’ll see odeng (fish cake skewers) sold at street food stalls everywhere. You can find a good Korean barbecue restaurant by going to Seomyeon, Nampo-dong, Gwangalli or Sasang and picking one that looks busy — you can recognise barbecue restaurants by the vents that dangle over the tables to catch fumes from the sizzling meat. The best street food is to be found at BIFF Square, in Nampo-dong.

Spicy tteokbokki, one of South Korea's most popular dishes © Republic of Korea / Flickr

Getting around Busan

The easiest way to get around Busan is by subway — trains run every few minutes, and stations are well-signposted in English, so it’s hard to get lost. Bigger stations such as Seomyeon have a dedicated interpreter whose job it is to look after tourists. You can buy your ticket at a machine in any subway station. Tickets are inexpensive, costing 1,400 won (US$1.25) per single adult journey. If you’re planning on doing a lot of travelling, it may be more cost-effective to buy a one-day travel pass (also available from ticket machines) that allows unlimited transport on Busan’s subway lines at a cost of 5,000 won (US$ 4.50) per person. You’ll need to get your travel pass at Sasang station, as it doesn’t include the Gimhae Light Rail line.

Where to stay

Gimhae International Airport closes overnight, and you can’t stay in the terminal. Although you can normally snatch a few hours of uncomfortable sleep in the hard chairs of the nearby bus ticket office, it’s much better to book accommodation nearby. There are a couple of airport hotels, but it’s best to take the six-minute light rail trip to Sasang, where there are lots of cheap hotels and motels. Top pick: Sense Motel, approximately two minutes’ walk from Sasang station.

Another option, if you don’t have much luggage, is to stay in a jimjilbang, or Korean bathhouse. Most of these are open 24 hours, and have designated areas for sleeping. You can slough off all the aches and pains of travelling in the water, relax in a massage chair (if you’re feeling brave, try a body scrub and emerge with newborn-baby skin) and eat snacks such as tea eggs. Fancier jimjilbangs have facilities such as all-night karaoke rooms and entertainment.

Families and friends take a rest at a jjimjilbang, or Korean spa © peace ken / Flickr

How to spend a short layover

If you’ve just got a few hours to kill, it’s still worth heading into the city. Here’s some of the best ways to get the most out of your time in Busan:

Go shopping in Seomyeon

Seomyeon is less than forty minutes by train from Gimhae Airport, and packed chock-full of things to do. It’s Busan’s trendiest district, and has lots of cool clothes shops, an inexpensive underground mall, street food vendors and a generally lively atmosphere. Head to one of its hip independent cafés to wind down.

Stuff yourself with street food in BIFF Square

Head to Nampo-dong (an hour from the airport by subway) to sample some Korean street food. BIFF Square is always crowded with vendors, and you can munch your way through Korean delicacies including tteokbokki, mandu, chicken skewers and the Busan speciality ssiat hotteok.

See Gwangan Bridge and dip your toes in the ocean

Gwangalli Beach (less than an hour by subway) is a great photo spot. The famous Gwangan Bridge stretches out over the bay, blue water laps at the shore, and at night the sea glitters with reflected light from the many bars and restaurants around. It’s the beach most favoured by locals, and there are a number of decent places to eat around. It’s also a good spot for people-watching, and there are usually buskers in the evening.

Gwanganli Beach, Busan © Daniel Lee / Flickr

How to spend a long layover

If you can spend the whole day in Busan, there’s plenty to do. Here’s some of the best things to do when you have time to spare.

Go to the Culture Village and Nampo-dong

Gamcheon Culture Village is one of Busan’s top attractions. Get lost in its brightly coloured alleyways, marvel at the artwork all around, and eat bingsu (Korean shaved ice) in one of its many cafés. Head back to Nampo-dong, and drop by BIFF Square for some street food snacking. Eat dinner at Jagalchi Market nearby, where you can choose a fish and have it freshly butchered and prepared in one of the restaurants above the market. Finally, climb up to the foot of Busan Tower and take in the city view below.

Pamper yourself at Spa Land

Head to Centum City in Haeundae for some relaxation. Spa Land is a mega-jimjilbang complex that houses 22 different jimjilbangs and saunas, including a foot spa, Finnish sauna and Roman-style baths. It has a restaurant, entertainment lounges and various different beauty treatments on offer. Take the day to unwind from your travels — you can even sleep there!

Party the night away in Seomyeon

The lively area of Seomyeon isn’t just good for shopping — it’s great for nightlife, too. If you’ve got lots of energy, leave your luggage in storage at the airport overnight and hit Seomyeon’s bars and pumping clubs until the sun comes up.