The Gwangan Bridge opened in 2003, connecting the neighborhoods of Haeundae and Suyeong, and instantly became one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. Also referred to as the Diamond Bridge, it’s a beautiful structure, especially after dusk when brought to life by colorful lights.
After a night on the town, it’s something of a tradition of ours to grab an ice cream and sit on Gwangalli Beach, to look at Korea’s second-longest suspension bridge. Sounds kind of lame, bridge-watching, but somehow it never gets old. The lights of the bridge change color and reflect beautifully in the water. When the night is pleasantly cool and you’ve just put another busy day behind you, there’s no better way to wind down.
Apart from the beach, the best spot to appreciate the bridge is from the astronomical observatory on Geumnyeonsan Mountain. A cheap taxi ride from the Geumnyeonsan Metro station will take you there, and the views from the observatory over Gwangalli Beach and Suyeong are unparalleled. It’s also a good area for hiking during the day.
I suspect that, years from now, when I think back on our time in Busan, the Diamond Bridge will be the first image that pops into my mind.
We’ve heard people claim that Seokbulsa is not just the best Buddhist temple in Busan, but the most lovely in all South Korea. Although we’re in no position to judge, Jürgen and I are in agreement that Seokbulsa is the most amazing temple we’ve seen during our three months here.
Found high up Mt. Geumjeongsan, Seokbulsa (석불사) is difficult to reach, but well worth the effort. We began our journey by returning to the cable car we’d ridden during our first ascent up the mountain, on one of our very first excursions in Busan. Back then, we had been visiting the Geumjeongsanseong Fortress, but this time we headed off in the opposite direction. An easy, downhill path led us through South Gate Village (남문 마을) and then followed a stream for a couple kilometers. It was a beautiful walk through the woods, fairly crowded with other hikers.
Eventually, the path ended at a T, and we immediately knew that we’d have to take a right to reach the temple. No, we’re not master navigators, nor did we have a map — there just happened to be a gray-clothed Buddhist monk sitting on a stone, up towards the right, bald head buried deep in a book. When you’re searching for a temple, a monk in the woods is a good sign you’re on the right track.
The final twenty minutes of our journey was steeply uphill, and very difficult. But the sight that awaited us made up for the sweat. Seokbulsa is a small temple lodged unforgettably into the side of a mountain. There are a number of buildings and cave altars to explore and, probably because of how hard it is to reach, not many other people around to detract from the experience. In fact, we were completely alone during our visit.
The altar buildings are impressive, and from the courtyard you have a superb view over Busan, but the highlights of Seokbulsa are the massive, 30-foot Buddhist figures carved out of the mountain rock. I don’t know who any of them were, Bodhisattvas of some sort, but my ignorance didn’t make them any less incredible. Past the figures, you can visit a small altar and squeeze through a narrow opening in the rocks to another cave where candles have been set.
Our trip to Seokbulsa was the only time we’ve experienced that sense of adventure that went hand-in-hand with exploring the ancient Buddhist temples of Sri Lanka. Not only is the temple itself worth the effort of hunting down, but the beautiful hike and entertaining cable car ride combine to make this one of the most rewarding excursions in Busan.
The Nurimaru House was built for the 2005 APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) Summit, which brought together the leaders of its twenty-one member nations. With a striking location in Dongbaekseom Park overlooking Haeundae Beach, the house now serves as a memorial to the meeting.
Dongbaekseom used to be an island, before a natural accumulation of earth and sand attached it to the mainland. The suffix -seom means island, and the dongbaek is a kind of tree. Today, the park is a beautifully wooded nature preserve, offering a number of trails and unbeatable views of Haeundae Beach. A popular coastal path connects the beach to the APEC House, which is found among amid camellia and pine trees.
Along the coastal trail, the large statue of a forlorn mermaid is unmissable. According to legend, this is the Princess of Topaz from the Kingdom of Naranda, found far beyond the sea. She was married off to the King of Mungungnara, and now sits immobile, crying for her lost country. Her name comes from the topaz bead given to her by her grandmother, which she grips during her endless lamentations for home. It would be hard to imagine that this story isn’t an allegory for the Koreans who left home during the struggles of the Japanese occupation and Korean War.
The Nurimaru APEC House was built for one solitary purpose and, like the Mermaid, now sits frozen in time. During the 2005 APEC Summit, leaders from the countries of the Pacific Rim discussed a number of topics of common interest, such as Copyright Protection and Aviary Flu defenses. Possibly its most notable achievement was to get George W. Bush into a Korean Hanbok. I don’t like the guy, but this isn’t actually a bad look for him.
Touring the APEC House was kind of strange. We got to see the round table at which the various heads of state sat, and were able to admire one of their meals. There was some information about what was discussed, and about each member state. But that was about it. By now, this incredible house, which showcases Korean architecture in a pristine location, should have found new life — it’s not as though the 2005 APEC Summit was a meeting of such historic importance that it needs to be forever memorialized. Put a plaque up or something, and move on!
Armed with a map of Busan’s best walks, a bottle of water and bellies full of doughnut-power, we set off on a long hike through the peninsular neighborhood of Amnan-Dong, southwest of Nampo. The seven-kilometer route would bring us over the Namhang Bridge to Songdo Beach, and down the coast to Amnan Park.
We got out of the bus at the foot of the Namhang Bridge, where fishermen were throwing lines into murky-looking water. The bridge crosses the western end of Busan’s port and, after ascending in an elevator to the pedestrian walkway, we had a great view of the Jagalchi Fish Market and the heavy maritime traffic bringing in the day’s fresh catch. Construction on the Namhang began in 1985, but it only opened to the public in 2008, due to delays caused by financial difficulties.
At the western end of the bridge, we found Songdo, which was Busan’s first public beach. There were a couple whale statues in the water, but nobody on the sand, save a couple optimistic foreigners taking in the sun. The swimming at Songdo didn’t look all that inviting, thanks to the huge number of barges right off shore, but the beach itself is beautiful; horseshoe-shaped and surrounded by an never-ending supply of restaurants, most of which specialize in fish. I’d bet that when the lights come on at night, it’s a cool area.
On the far end of the beach, we picked up the Songdo Coastal Walkway, which hugs the ocean and offers some incredible views back over the bridge and down to red-colored cliffs. Midway through, there was an open lot with a long line of fishermen on the rocks, and a makeshift market where their wives (I’m assuming) were selling the freshly caught octopus, squid, oysters and sea squirts. Each stand had a small eating area in the back; you probably couldn’t find this kind of meal cheaper or fresher anywhere else.
After the market, the walkway increased noticeably in difficulty. Up and up and up, and then down, then up some more. By the time we reached Amnan Park on the southern extreme of the peninsula, we were exhausted. There was a great view, and some interesting modern sculptures were strewn haphazardly around the park, but we were mostly just happy to be finished, and found a taxi to take us back to Nampo-Dong.
Busan is amazing for hiking — while in the woods along the coast, with nothing but the sound of the ocean for company, it’s hard to believe that you’re still in the middle of a major metropolis. In how many cities of Busan’s size can you feel totally secluded in nature?
Turns out that Busan is the kind of city which can have a giant mountain right in its center, topped by an ancient fortress, accessible by cable car… and it’s not a big deal. We were shocked when we learned of the cable car up Mt. Geumjeongsanseong, and Busan was all “Oh yeah, that. I forgot about that.” It doesn’t even appear in the various “must-do” lists we’ve read for Busan, while in most other cities it would be the top highlight!
The origins of Geumjeongsanseong Fortress lie obscured in the past, but it’s thought to date from the Three Kingdoms period of Korea (57 AD – 668), when Busan was part of Silla. Rebuilt in 1707, it’s the largest mountain fortress in the country, spanning 3.2 square miles. A wall in various states of repair marks the perimeter, with gates and watchtowers spaced along its length. Nowadays, the interior of the fort is used for hiking (an über-popular Korean pastime) and nature retreats.
The cable car up the mountain was fun, although the day was so hazy that our view was severely limited. It takes about five minutes and runs for over a kilometer. On arriving, we had to hike twenty minutes uphill to arrive at the fortress’ South Gate, which has been recently renovated, as have long stretches of the wall.
After passing through the gate, our day really started. We had underestimated the size of the park, and immediately realized that our planned hike to the North Gate wouldn’t be happening. We walked along the eastern wall for a couple hours on a well-marked but very hilly path, dodging the caterpillars hanging from trees, and enjoying some incredible views over the city.
For a mountain fortress on a Tuesday morning, this was a surprisingly busy place. We encountered a ton of other hikers, and every single one of them was completely outfitted in Ultimate Hiking Gear. The pants, the jackets, the backpacks, gloves, sticks, caps, etc. It was like we had landed in a commercial for hiking clothing and equipment.
On the way back to the South Gate, we got lost — getting lost seems to be a pattern for us in Busan. We were within 500 meters of the exit, but turned right instead of left, ignoring the sign for something called “Nam Mun” and continuing for an hour before finally pausing and thinking, “… wait a second”. Turns out, Nam Mun means South Gate. Oh silly guys, how did we not recognize the sign that so clearly pointed the way to “남문”?!
Although we were completely exhausted by the time we arrived back home, it was a great day out and I think we’ll be back. The Western Gate of the fortress is supposed to be impressive, as is Godangbong, the city’s highest peak. There’s enough to see on Geumjeongsan Mountain to occupy days.
We're Jürgen and Mike, from Germany and the USA. Born wanderers, we love learning about new cultures and have decided to see the world... slowly. Always being tourists might get lame, but eternal newcomers? We can live with that. So, our plan is to move to an interesting new city, once every three months. About 91 days.