South Korea's second-largest city -- it's home to 3.7 million residents -- Busan (formerly spelled Pusan) is filled with towering apartment complexes, crowded streets, and a modern subway system. That description may remind you a bit of Seoul, but don't be fooled -- this is a very different city. The people of Busan are in some ways more formal and traditional, but in other ways more easy-going and open. Their accents are strong, just like everyone's in Gyeongsang-do, and even native South Koreans sometimes have trouble understanding them. Still, the people exhibit the same open friendliness you'll encounter in the most rural towns. Busan's residents are not what you'd expect of those living in a modern metropolis, but that's just part of the city's charm.
Due to its natural harbor and gentle tides, it is the largest port in the country and the third largest in the world. Located on the southeastern coast of the peninsula, Busan is in the South Gyeongsang province (Gyeongsangnam-do) and is about 763 sq. km (295 sq. miles) in area. It is nestled in the Nakdong River Valley, surrounded by the ocean on one side, and mountains on the other with hot springs scattered throughout. Busan is called South Korea's summer capital, as its six beaches attract hundreds of thousands of tourists from throughout the country. So, it's not the place for a peaceful vacation in the summers, but off season (especially winters) brings quieter shores and a less hurried atmosphere.
Because Busan grew up along its coastline, the city is unusually long in shape -- as a result, it has more than one city center. The area around Busan's ports bustles with energy as boats arrive daily from all over Asia, and nearby Nampo-dong is home to the massive Jagalchi seafood market. The tourist center of Haeundae boasts some of the country's finest resort hotels, while the Seomyeon neighborhood is a paradise for fashionistas and anyone who loves to shop. And the old city center, Dongnae, in the north toward the mountains, is a great place to experience hot springs and Korean-style bathhouses.
Although Busan is an important city, it never served as a long-term center of government -- it is not home to any palaces. It's likely best known for its role during the Korean War, when over four million refugees flooded in seeking shelter. Most of those temporary residents returned home after the war, but some stayed, particularly those who hailed from what is now North Korea. As a result, Busan has a diversity not seen in many other places in South Korea. It also boasts major Buddhist temples, shrines, a fortress, major markets, hot springs, and, of course, the beaches and surrounding islands.
Busan gained some international recognition when it hosted the 2002 Asian Games and some of the matches of the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Known for its international conventions, it even hosts the Korea Festival Exhibition, where visitors can experience South Korea's 112 festivals in one place.
It can thank its major international port for its modern growth, and its cultural festivals and natural seaside beauty for its attraction as a major tourist destination. I hope you'll enjoy not just the beaches and cafe culture here, but the genuine warmth and hospitality of the people.