Not everyone is aware that South Korea is in fact a very different place from Japan. Having spent quite some time in the northeastern part of China as part of my work, and with good knowledge about Japan, I would say that many South Korean cities are in fact more similar to northern China culturally and socio-economically speaking, than to anywhere else in Japan. Even when it comes to food culture, there is much in common between Korea and north-eastern China.
We spent a weekend in Busan just to take a short break from work. Most of our travel “adventures” are centered on food and restaurant visits and we don’t tend to challenge any to-do checklists, instead choosing to explore a new place spontaneously on foot, often outside of obvious landmarks.
Busan is South Korea’s second largest city. To give you a general sense of Busan’s geography—the city itself is on the south-eastern tip of the country, overlooking Japan’s Fukuoka 210 kilometres away. Busan Airport is to the west of the city, while Jung-gu could be considered the city center with lots of shopping places and street food stalls at night. Busan’s famous beach is in Haeundae-gu, which is to the east of the city and about a 30-minute cab ride from Jung-gu. Shinsegae Centum City, also in Haeundae-gu, is the world’s largest shopping mall complex and is open from 11am to 8pm. Another popular mall would be Lotte Department Store in Jung-gu. You would be able to find everything, from clothes, furniture, and electronics all the way to groceries and proper restaurants and cafés in these two shopping malls.
Currency-wise, ₩10000 is around US$8 or HK$64 as of the day of writing.
Google Maps does not work well in Busan, so be sure to download Kakao or Naver maps before going. Nobody you meet will likely speak anything but Korean in South Korea.
Meal #1: Ganjang Gejang (Raw marinated crab)
Ganjang Gejang is raw marinated crab in soy sauce. It’s a local delicacy, with the raw blue swimmer crab tasting mostly like alcohol and soy sauce with a texture profile similar to raw shrimp sashimi and a bit of raw egg yolk. I think it is something to experience and I do really like it, especially with the rich crab roe and the white sesame and scallion topping. The soy sauce does tend to get a bit overpowering, and the way locals sometimes enjoy this dish is to mix some raw crab, egg yolk, dried seaweed and rice (all provided with the set) on the crab shell. Then, spoon the mixture out and enjoy!
Raw marinated abalone was super crunchy and a bit strange, but still interesting to try. Prawns were nice and plump. The restaurant we visited was meant to be a very reputable one and it was a 80/20 local/tourist clientele on our visit. A raw crab set comes down to ₩19000-24000 depending on crab size (+₩15000-20000 per extra crab). An assorted seafood set with one crab, two abalones and three prawns would be ₩36000. Coffee is free. You can help yourself by the self service machine.
Restaurant: Golmok Gejang 골목게장
📍32-1, Chungjang-daero 9beon-gil, Jung-gu, Busan (+82 51-468-1250)
$$, 11:30 – 20:30
Recommended Dishes: Raw Marinated Crab Set (₩19000-24000)
Meal #2: Barbecue
Korean barbecued meat is loved by many, and a trip to Korea wouldn’t be complete without it. Bulgogi (불고기) usually comes marinated whether it’s beef, pork or chicken, and it’s the sweet and tenderness of the meat plus the aroma of char that makes it so hard to resist, especially in winter.
OBanJang is a trendy hangout for young locals and doesn’t close until 7 in the morning. Local staff are a bit casual and if you are a picky tourist then you might find service quality terrible here, especially given how busy the place is. That said, the meat is fresh and flavorful, the grilled egg an absolute delight and the side dishes spicy and delicious. Pricing is also super reasonable. Hygiene is not so good, but this is typical for SK.
I’d recommend ordering boneless short rib (marinated or not) (₩11000/120g), skirt meat (₩10000/120g), pork collar (₩10000/140g) and pork jowls (₩12000/120g). They have soju and three kinds of local beer to choose from, all around ₩4000-5000. If you are vegetarian, they also have various kinds of stews–kimchi and soybean paste–as well as cold noodle soup.
Restaurant: OBanJang 오반장
📍20 Gunam-ro 24beon-gil, U 1(il)-dong, Haeundae-gu, Busan (+82 51-747-8085)
Recommended Dishes: Boneless short rib (marinated or not) (₩11000/120g), Skirt meat (₩10000/120g), Pork collar (₩10000/140g) and Pork jowls (₩12000/120g)
Meal #3: Jagalchi Seafood Market 부산자갈치시장 (Bada Restaurant 바다횟집)
If you are a fan of seafood, do go ahead for a sensational experience of Busan’s seafood market, purportedly South Korea’s largest one. While the market extends along the coastline there is a big building in which you could pick your favorite seafood from the seemingly endless number of stalls on the ground floor and have it freshly sliced or cooked upstairs.
We decided to pick a proper restaurant called Bada (a minute walk from Jagalchi market) for lunch, where we had five kinds of freshly steamed clams, an assortment of raw sea bream and sea bass slices, as well as live octopus that still wriggles violently on your dish as you eat it. After ordering these three items, the waiter started to fill our table with nine complimentary “side dishes” including cold noodles, salad, pumpkin, grilled salmon, raw marinated prawns, lettuce and a few pickled dishes. That was seriously quite a feast. All the seafood we had were super fresh and sweet. Services were prompt and the place was clean.
Restaurant: Bada 바다횟집
📍Nampodong 4(sa)-ga, Jung-gu, Busan (+82 51-245-1693)
$$, 10:00-22:00 (-00:00 on weekends)
Recommend Dishes: Live octopus (daily price, roughly ₩25000-35000), steamed clams (₩25000), any live seafood that you like
Landmark: Jagalchi Seafood Market 부산 자갈치시장
📍52 Jagalchihaean-ro, Nampo-dong, Jung-gu, Busan
Zoo Café, Print Bakery, Kidzania, Gamcheon Village, etc…
Street food stalls abound around BIFF square in the Nampo-dong area in Jung-gu. They were especially enticing given the cold outside. We tried a non-spicy dak bulgogi (marinated chicken) skewer and it was pretty good, but nothing wow.
On our walk back to our hotel we saw a wok-fried octopus food stall but didn’t get it because we were already full. We regretted that so badly… but we ran into an entire building that is a zoo-themed café separated floor by floor depending on the animal species. There were animals like meerkat and rabbits and squirrels, even a small lamb and piglet, reptiles, birds, fish and lots of cats. The café also serves mini melts. It is the most beautifully furnished animal “café” that I have been to with an extensive range of animals and a beautiful indoor garden. The area is also very clean. The entrance fee is ₩5000 per person and includes a free drink.
Landmark: Cafe with Zoo
📍28 Gudeok-ro, Nampo-dong, Jung-gu, Busan
For more details and photos/ videos, you could visit their official Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Cafe-with-Zoo/406704316828804
On the day of our departure, we went to check out Gamcheon Culture Village, which is a picturesque village on the foothills of a mountain, built and populated mainly by refugees of the Korean War in the 50s. Many houses were painted in bright colors and the main street area had been specifically redesigned as a cultural hub a couple years ago where artists and residents had been commissioned to create murals and sculptures to further enhance the area. There are many cafés, souvenir shops and food stalls to browse, as well as photo-shooting hotspots that are very popular with tourists.
We took a cab from our hotel to the village, spent about twenty minutes in the area and then walked from Gamcheon back to the Nampo-dong area (Jung-gu) in the city center. It was about an hour’s walk down steep staircases and narrow alleys, often with a cat or two lying in the sun. I would highly recommend taking that unbeaten path, as you get to see an authentic Busan without make-up. Just use Naver to get a general sense of direction.
Landmark: Gamcheon Culture Village 감천문화마을
📍부산광역시 사하구 감내2로 203 (감천동) | 203, Gamnae 2-ro, Saha-gu, Busan
Kidzania is a mini replica of an adult city for kids and was originally a Mexican concept, but it is the first time I have seen it. The four-storey world of Kidzania includes shops, theatres, cinemas, restaurants, an airport and even a Kidzania bank where money earned through completing tasks could be saved. Kids wear a bracelet so parents can keep track of where they are. If you are bringing a kid or two along, this might be an interesting place to take them to, especially if you want to keep them somewhere while you shop.
Landmark: Kidzania, located inside Shinsegae Centum City
📍35 Centumnam-daero, U-dong, Haeundae-gu, Busan
print bakery was also located in Shinsegae Centum City. It was created by Seoul Auction in 2015 and sells art pieces, mainly contemporary, from well-known and up-and-coming artists. Each piece of work is unique or at least very limited in number, and print bakery works with these artists to provide those items featured in the shop at a huge bargain (relative to the artists’ other pieces) to the public (hence the name “bakery”—where customers could visit and buy art like they would bread).
Last but not least, Koreans love their coffee, so I thought coffee in South Korea would be good. Of the three cafés we tried, vecchia & nuovo, located inside Lotte Department Store (Gwangbok, Jung-gu), was the best, but it was not cheap. We had a signature drip coffee (₩9000 / US$7.4) as well as a straight Americano (₩7700 / US$6.3). Drip was more citrusy and flowery, while Americano came from an espresso roast that was bold enough and full-bodied with caramelly flavors. In general, though, I prefer coffees anywhere in Europe over those served in cafés in Japan and South Korea.
Bread & Cakes is Busan-based, also located in Lotte, and serves all kinds of fresh bread and pastries that look so temping. Some argue that it is the best bakery in Busan. The cheese and chestnut puffs are particularly well-known. We got that and I also had a cheese-crusted bread. They were all scrumptious and left me wanting to go back. The shop is very busy and the queues are generally long. Do go earlier if you don’t want to leave disappointed.
Landmark: Lotte Department Store (Gwangbok)
📍2 Jungang-daero, Jungangdong 6(yuk)-ga, Jung-gu, Busan,
Visited: January 27-29, 2020