The South Korean capital Seoul is known for its high-tech buzz, restless pace and radiant neon lights, but visitors wanting to tune down a notch or two should contemplate a trip to the country's second city Pusan (or, as it is also written, Busan). A welter of nightlife and a surfeit of shopping opportunities (including the world's largest department store) mean that there's Seoul-style glitz, but it's softened by laid-back beaches and gorgeous scenery, with hiking trails aplenty and unforgettable views over the Korea Strait. Springboarding off its packed festival calendar which includes the famed Pusan International Film Festival, held every October, as well as large rock-music and performing-arts festivals the city is also turning itself into something of a cultural hub. Here are five great reasons to check it out.
1. Beomeosa Temple
In English, the name of this Korean Zen (or to use the proper term, Seon Buddhist) sanctuary means "The Temple of the Heavenly Fish." It's a reference to an enchanted fish that, according to legend, descended from heaven and still lives in a mysterious well at the summit of Geumjeongsan, on the slopes of which the temple was constructed in 678. Rebuilt in the early 17th century, Beomeosa sits today on one of the most peaceful hiking trails in South Korea. A long, gentle stroll might even put you in the mood for meditation classes (taught in English) by the monks of the Jogye Order, the sect that the temple is affiliated with. Call (82-51) 508 3122 for bookings.
2. Haeundae Beach
Old-timers will tell you that Pusan's iconic beach was much prettier before developers, hotly anticipating a tourism boom in the wake of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, started throwing up the hotels and apartment blocks. Nonetheless, this broad powdery strip has become the city's pleasure ground, lined with thumping bars and popular eateries. Haeundae is best enjoyed during the film festival, when large screens are set up on the sand. Crowd levels can be daunting during summer months, so head out early to grab your patch of sand.
3. Jagalchi Fish Market
Love seafood? Then you'll flip over this cluttered bazaar in southern Pusan, www.jagalchimarket.org. It's the nation's largest seafood mart and the prices charged for freshly landed catches will have you happily salivating. Try gulche (or hairtail, a long skinny silver fish) for about $3 each, or abalone at just $10 for three way below what this delicacy will fetch in the Chinese restaurants of the world. Many vendors clean and cook your purchase on the spot, or prepare it raw if you want to consume it as sashimi.
4. Busan Aquarium
Located right beneath Haeundae Beach, this mammoth aquarium exhibits 35,000 marine animals from around 250 species including penguins, otters and piranha and will keep you happily roving around for hours. Don't miss the 80-m underwater tunnel. Adults pay $14 for admission at the ticket booth, but families get a discount if they order online ahead of time. See www.busanaquarium.com for more information.
5. Shinsegae Department Store
Shopaholics can unite over Pusan's grand tribute to consumerism, www.shinsegae.com, listed by Guinness World Records as the largest department store in the world at just over 290,000 sq m. (It convincingly trounces the previous record holder, the Macy's store in Herald Square, New York City, by a whopping 95,000 sq m.) After browsing just about every product the human mind can conceive, stop by the colossal spa on the second floor or the golf driving range at the top.