After passing it over more times than you can count, you’ve finally arrived in Busan. South Korea’s second-largest city is more laid-back than Seoul, nearly 300 miles to the northwest. It’s home to the country’s largest port—not surprising given its location along the southeast coast—and third-largest airport. It’s surrounded by white-sand beaches (there are six within the city limits) on one side. Verdant mountains—dotted with nature reserves, hot springs, and temples—are on the other. While Nampo-dong, the center of the city, is full of cafes, markets, and mouth-watering street food. So what’s first on your list?
Actually, none of the above. Don’t worry, you’ll explore them all while you’re here. But you need to see Gamcheon Culture Village first. Though its name sounds like a tourist trap, it’s really a poor neighborhood that was revitalized about a decade ago. Gamcheon was once home to Busan’s poorest people. North Korean refugees, flooding the village during the Korean War, made conditions even worse.
But there was beauty amidst the poverty. The village sits on the side of a mountain overlooking Busan’s port and the East Sea. Its brightly colored houses were each positioned to not block the view of the ones behind them. While steep streets and twisting alleys wind between them. It needed to be saved. So in 2009, artists descended upon Gamcheon-dong. They restored and repainted old houses. They added murals, sculptures, and craft boutiques. They even introduced a scavenger hunt, in which visitors receive a prize if they’re able to find eight spots and get their maps stamped as they follow potted plants to the top of the hill. It’s now called Korea’s Machu Picchu, the Santorini of the East, and, perhaps more believably, Lego Village.
It still sounds like a tourist trap. Agreed. It’s also home to 4,500 mostly friendly people. A small museum, appropriately called the Little Museum, displays old-fashioned household items collected from older residents. Plus the street food is just as tasty as in more touristy Nampo-dong. Fried chicken. Fish cakes. Ssiat hotteok, a fried pastry stuffed with sugar, honey, and nuts. Patbingsu: red beans on shaved ice with condensed milk. Are you drooling yet? All you need is comfortable walking shoes, your selfie stick, and a Hanaro Card for the metro. You’ll have no trouble getting happily lost from there.