After teaching 5-year-olds for 15 months in South Korea, an American escapes to the coast

The Lily in Busan

(Soo Kim for The Lily)

Kind of like how everybody’s got a cousin in Miami, everybody’s got a friend who has taught English in South Korea. After spending more than a year there teaching kindergarten (and acting in not one but two children’s musical theater performances), I understand why people flock there. It’s a country that has mastered how to be serene and chaotic at the same time. And it has the best damn food I’ve ever eaten. Before I left, I made sure to spend one last long weekend in the coastal city of Busan.

(Note: Addresses in English can be tough in South Korea. Click on the headers to see where each location is on a map.)

Dongbaek Park

This park is a green thumb of land that juts out into the Sea of Japan on the western side of Haeundae Beach. It’s a real taste of what much of the country’s coastline looks like: lush and rocky. Along the cliffs, there is a trail that offers incredible views of the city and the sea. It’s a wooden boardwalk, which makes this an easy trail to fit into any itinerary.

Dongbaek Park. (Photo courtesy of Samantha Krotzer)

Tips:

  • Explore some of the secondary trails attached to the main path. While most of the coast is extremely rocky, there are a couple sandy spots where you can watch locals fish and trap crabs. If you’re lucky, you might spot some of the famous women “mermaids” selling their catches.
  • Pack some snacks, beer and soju. If you don’t, you will definitely be jealous of the Korean master picnickers along the trail.

Haedong Yonggungsa Temple

Also known as the Temple by the Sea (or the Water Temple among foreigners), this Buddhist temple is one of the most famous in South Korea. Most temples are found high in the mountains. Since this one is positioned directly on the jagged eastern coast of Busan, it’s unusual and stunning.

Haedong Yonggungsa Temple. (iStock)

With rising stone pagodas and towering gold Buddha statues, you might find yourself only looking up. Don’t forget to look down, too. There are small, funky little statues scattered all over the grounds. My favorite thing to do when visiting temples is to see what people leave as offerings. Best thing I’ve seen: a Big Gulp from 7-Eleven.

Tips:

  • Take a taxi here. The subway doesn’t go out that far, and the bus will drop you off at an inconvenient and confusing location. It’s worth the extra cash to save time. Plus, taxis are cheap — from Haeundae to this temple wouldn’t be more than ₩20,000 — so it’s really not a huge expense.

Nampo-dong

This area’s narrow alleys are packed with fashion bouquets, make-up stores, street food stalls and hip restaurants. It’s hard not to be impressed with how there is something packed into every inch of space (some stores can only fit one or two people at a time), and how many lights and signs one building can sustain. I love the juxtaposition of the women slinging cold noodles outside of a designer clothing store.

Nampo-dong. (Photo courtesy of Samantha Krotzer)

Tips:

  • If you end up shopping and want to stash your bags somewhere, you can find lockers at this area’s subway station.
  • Wander around Lotte Mart. Sure, it’s a big department store, but it’s also a window into Korean life. Like, why do they sell apples in huge gift boxes for $100? (I never really found out.)

Raw fish and seafood BBQ in Gwangan

Right next to Gwangalli Beach on Millaksubyeon-ro, there are several fish markets and restaurants. You can point to a fish you want and say hway, which means prepared sashimi style and served with a spicy dipping sauce. This was a touch expensive but worth it. It’s fresh and you can enjoy it on the beach before heading next door to grill up fresh mussels, squid and shrimp at your table.

(Photos courtesy of Samantha Krotzer)

Makgeolli in Seomyeon

The Seomyeon neighborhood has several bars specializing in Makgeolli, a traditional rice wine drink that’s milky white with a slightly creamy mouthfeel. The best is the one that is only known (as far as I, my friends or most of the English-speaking Internet know) as the penis bar because of the wooden penis outside the entrance. Penis aside, this bar is cheap and has an incredibly crispy and spicy kimchi pancake to pair with the drinks.

Ask someone at your hotel for the best directions to this bar. You’ll ultimately want to take the subway to Seomyeon Station and take exit 2. A lot of foreign teachers like to eat and drink in this area, so feel free to ask someone if you have trouble finding it.

The Party

Multiple locations

This is definitely a treat-yourself kind of meal, but it’s worth the price tag. The Party is an extremely popular buffet, especially for weddings. Most buffets in South Korea are high-quality and delicious. Go here to try as many Korean delicacies as you can in one sitting. My recommendations: spicy marinated crab, ribs, pumpkin porridge and rice punch.

Spaland

Shinsegae Centum City, ₩8,000 to ₩14,000 depending on day/time

Korean spas range in luxury-levels, from I’m-here-to-literally-only-bathe to this-spa-will-solve-all-of-my-problems. Spaland is the latter. Plan to spend at least a few hours here to experience all of the different soaking pools and sauna rooms.

Gamcheon Culture Village

This neighborhood used to be a slum, but in 2009 the government wanted to transform the area into a creative community. Wander the steep staircases and allies to discover funky street art, galleries and incredible views of the pastel-painted buildings.

Spend

Go shopping. As much as I wanted to bring a kimchi pot back with me, I just couldn’t. What you can bring back with you, and realistically get more use out of, is the massive selection of trendy clothes and beauty products. My favorite product is Skin Food’s Black Sugar Perfect First Serum 2X Essential. I still use it every night.

Save

The convience stores are your friend. I was partial to the GS25s, but any of them are reliable and cheap. If you’re really trying to save money on food — but you don’t want to miss out on a cultural experience — this is the way to go. Seriously. Pick up a rice triangle, a bag of buttered squid chips and a liter of beer, and you have an authentic Korean lunch.

There are five subway lines in Busan, and I found that that’s the easiest way to get around. Metrocards are sold at all of the convenience stores. You can fill them up at the store or at the station’s kiosks. You’ll definitely want to get a card and load it up so that you won’t have to wait for a free kiosk every time you want to take the subway.

When navigating to specific locations, try to find the most convenient subway exit to take. Google Maps doesn’t provide this information on its point A to B directions, but if you zoom into the subway station, you’ll see the exit numbers. Also, most travel blogs will provide exit info.


An illustrator’s vision

Soo Kim

A New York-based designer, Kim was born in Daejun, South Korea. She is the founder of HanType.

“Busan is known for [its] seafood, the sea, fish cakes and anything related to water, so I knew I wanted to incorporate water references. Busan also has a very distinct dialect that, to me, is very fluid and endearing so ultimately, I knew I needed to create letter forms that were very free-flowing and smooth.”