With Korea being a peninsula you might think we’re spoiled for beaches out here.
Yeah, not so much. Rugged, rocky coasts we have in abundance, but sandy shores and gentle waves are harder to come by.
If you’re looking for a beach you can usually find one, though. And if it’s summer vacation you can expect the majority of those beaches to be crawling with people.
Korea’s most famous beach — Haeundae — is a good example. Located in a ritzy neighborhood of Busan, Haeundae Beach is apparently the spot to get your splash on. During a recent visit I witnessed a dense canopy of red and white parasols shading every inch of the beach, couples eating and smoking, children screaming, old folks slurping ice cream as they shuffled through the sand, and people standing nearly shoulder to shoulder in the surf.
The place was a zoo.
Koreans tend to have a fairly high tolerance for crowds. You’d have to when you live in a country with some of the highest population densities of anywhere in the world. Me? I’m from that part of America for which the song “Home On the Range” was written. You know, the one about deers and antelopes and wide open spaces and all that?
All things considered, I do okay with the crowds in Korea. But when I head to the beach I prefer swimming to communal bathing.
Lucky for me, Haeundae isn’t the only beach option in Busan. Far from it! Read on to learn more about one of Korea’s best kept beach secrets.
Gwangalli Beach: Busan’s Hidden Gem
I am seated on the outdoor terrace of a cafe that overlooks the ocean. Although it’s warm today, a steady breeze rolling in off the sea keeps me cool. Where the sea meets the sky the triangular forms of sailboats are barely visible.
I’ve just come back from a swim. The water was chilly, refreshing. Yes, the ocassional plastic bag floated by, but the water wasn’t too polluted. And the crowds were manageable. Even on a Friday afternoon in August I had plenty of space to myself.
After a vigorous swim it feels great to be enjoying an ice cold drink at one of many beachfront cafes. In another hour or two I think I’ll head down to a nearby sushi restaurant for dinner. I’m on vacation and life is good.
This is Gwangalli Beach (광안리 해수욕장) in Busan, Korea. And while Haeundae gets all the publicity, Gwangalli Beach quietly thrives as one of Korea’s hidden gems.
A nice beach, cafes, nightlife, restaurants, entertainment — there’s plenty to do, and something for everyone.
If you’re looking to swim, the thing that sets Gwangalli Beach apart from Haeundae isn’t so much what it has as what it lacks: namely, massive crowds. On our visit the beach got busier as the day wore on, but it was never overwhelming — even for a crowd-averse country boy like me!
Ready to dive in? Grab your swim trunks and your flippy-floppies, and keep these things in mind:
- Lockers in which to store your stuff are available for 2,000 won a piece. You’ll put 4,000 won down up front and get 2,000 won back when you turn in your key.
- If you want to relax out on the water innertubes can be rented for 3,000 won. No time limit, so float to your heart’s content.
- You can rent a parasol for 5,000 won for the day. As you might expect, none of the vendors on the beach take credit or debit, so you’ll want to have cash in hand.
- After you’re done swimming you can rinse off in a gender-segregated shower tent. It’s like a sandy jjimjilbang.
When the sun sets it might be time to get out of the water, but it isn’t time to leave the beach. After dark Gwangalli Beach takes on a different but equally cool vibe.
Gwangalli Beach Eats: Millak Raw Fish Town
Gwangalli Beach is set in a cove. Spanning this cove is Gwangan Bridge — a massive, 6.5km long, doubledecker suspension bridge. The bridge is a fairly imposing sight by day, but at night it lights up and looks amazing reflected on the surface of the water.
Of course, Gwangan Bridge isn’t the only thing to flex its neon muscles after dark. Like every other entertainment destination in Korea, Gwangalli is awash with neon from dusk til dawn. Honestly, I’d guess that even a small Korean city could give Times Square a run for its money when it comes to bright neon lights. Korea is so drenched in neon I bet you can see it from outer space.
The road running from one end of the beach to the other is loaded with cafes, restaurants, bars, and higher-end hotels. If you’re in the mood for food there’s a decent variety on offer. Everything from fancy western-style places to Ma and Pop holes-in-the-wall slinging tasty Korean grub. But if you’re in Busan you really ought to eat fish — the fresher the better.
And the fish doesn’t get much fresher than you’ll find it at Millak Raw Fish Town (민락 회 타운). Dining at Millak is an experience not to be missed. It really deserves its own post, but here’s a quick overview.
Located on the north end of Gwangalli Beach, Millak Raw Fish Town is a ten-story building devoted to the fine art of fresh fish.
The ground level is a live fish market. You walk around while being accosted by incredibly persistent fishmongers until finally settling on a scaly beast that whets your appetite. After that, you haggle over a price.
Knowing a good deal from a bad one when it comes to fish isn’t exactly second nature for us here at Korea Connection. We purchased a decently sized sea bream from Millak Raw Fish Town for 30,000 won. Was it a bargain? Were we had? Who knows. But it seemed a fair enough price.
Once dinner is purchased you’ll head up to one of the many, many sushi restaurants above the fish market. When you make your purchase the fishmonger will tell you what floor and which restaurant to go to. At the restaurant you’ll be seated and after a few minutes your fish — looking quite a bit different than it did just moments before — will arrive at the table.
Time to dig in! Freshly prepared sashimi is an absolute treat, and our meal at Millak Raw Fish Town was about as good as I’ve ever tasted. If you find yourself hungry at Gwangalli Beach, make it a point to dine here.
Need a drink after dinner? You won’t have to look far. Just about every one of Korea’s coffee chains (not to mention that most invasive of interlopers, Starbucks) has a beachfront presence. If you’re after something stronger, there’s more bars to choose from than you shake a drunk ajosshi at.
Thursday Party, a franchise bar located on the north end of Gwangalli Beach, usually hosts a good crowd of Koreans and English-speaking foreigners on the weekend. If loud music, overpriced drinks, and an opportunity to mingle and mix are your thing, you could do a lot worse.
Of course, you could also just grab a few brews from a nearby convenience store and hit the sand. Nothing says relaxation like an ice cold beer and a starry night spent on the beach.
Gwangalli Beach is easy to access via Busan’s subway system.
Take Line 2 (the green line) to Gwangan station (광안역 no. 209) and use exits 3 or 4. A cab ride from Gwangan station to Gwangalli Beach should run you the minimum fare. If you want to hoof it, just head straight down the main road (광안리-로) that runs behind exits 3 and 4. It’s about a ten minute walk.
A note on using public transportation in Busan: If you’re travelling to Busan from Seoul your T-Money card will work, but make sure you’ve got plenty of money on it. Charging a T-Money card in Busan is a serious headache. Avoid it if you can.
One day at Gwangalli Beach wasn’t nearly long enough. Honestly, this is the kind of place that I could build an entire vacation around. So the next time you’re in Busan skip a trip to Haeundae. Instead, travel to Gwangalli Beach and enjoy one of Korea’s hidden gems.
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