Busan beach stays active, day or nightEvery summer, the TV networks head to the beaches in Busan to show the now-standard shots of parasols covering every inch of sand as people from all over the country fight for turf so that they can enjoy some surf.
Haeundae Beach is by far the most famous because of its larger, beautifully curving coastline. At Haeundae, you will find Busan’s poshest hotels and facilities that are familiar to Western beach towns, like nightclubs, an aquarium and diverse restaurants. Although the beach is not completely cosmopolitan, compared to other areas of the city, it has a young buzz to it, so you wouldn’t want to turn up in an old, ratty bathing suit.
But 15 minutes by car to the south is Gwangalli Beach, where you don’t have to worry about wearing an old swimsuit. In fact, most people don’t wear swimsuits at all; they just jump in the water in shorts and a T-shirt.
The casual attitude that reigns on Gwangalli Beach doesn’t mean that the scene is any less energetic ― it’s the second-busiest beach after Haeundae, according to the Busan city government. It’s not as pretty or as wide as Haeundae, but Gwangalli offers a rare glimpse of co-existing cultures, Western and Korean, and old generation and new generation.
The water is a good place to escape the heat, but tough feet are needed. Depending on the tide, the shoreline can be dabbled with shells, pebbles, and other ocean debris. Gwangalli is also less well equipped than Haeundae ― showers and toilets are hard to find.
Gwangalli Beach is better suited for sports, such as windsurfing, beach volleyball and boating. At a boat rental dock, beachgoers can rent a boat and sail in the harbor. With the Grand Gwangan Bridge serving as a beautiful backdrop, many sports clubs hold training sessions and competitions on and off the shores of Gwangalli Beach.
There is no wooden boardwalk, but since the beach is very narrow, the concrete sidewalk and street are very close to the sand. This main “boulevard” is called Cafe Street and is lined with eateries and street stalls that sell ice cream, cotton candy, frozen bottles of water and other sorts of goodies. Stands also sell chicken kebabs basted with hot pepper sauce and other street food.
While Gwangalli is a wholesome, sporty place in the daytime, at night the area turns into a crazy entertainment zone.
The people who were tanning on the beach or stayed at home during the day come out to Gwangalli Beach in the evening and open up bottles of liquor to drink the night away. Many families come to cool off armed with ample containers of food and chilled beverages.
At one end of the beach is the Millak Hoi Village, a group of tall buildings filled with restaurants that serve hoi, or fresh raw fish. One can order an assortment of raw fish slices, which come with side dishes and a hot, spicy fish soup. You can also buy live seafood at the market and take it to a restaurant to have it prepared.
The restaurant owners are out in force on the streets as they urge people to come in. The prices at most restaurants are similar, and the differences will be in the quality of fish. If you don’t know much about raw fish, the more expensive wriggling eels and sea cucumbers may not be worth trying, as quality can vary. The best thing is to go with a Busan native or someone who knows their fish.
Most visitors to Gwangalli just come to eat raw fish and drink soju, a popular distilled liquor. But don’t expect to get anything made by Jinro. In Busan, restaurants will only serve C1, a local brand that is less popular elsewhere.
Plastic palm trees that were not conspicuous in the day light up in tacky neon colors on the boulevard next to the beach. Somehow, they fit right in with the rest of the atmosphere.
The most interesting and wonderful thing about Gwangalli is that it still has a combination of old and new, Korean and Western.
For instance, on the main street, you will see a very old restaurant selling raw fish next to a Starbucks. A couple doors down, there is a Lotteria fast food outlet and GS convenience store; next door is a “night club” where middle-aged singers sing songs from the 1970s.
No boardwalk is complete without an amusement park, and Gwangalli has one, with several rides and arcade stalls where you can pop balloons with darts or shoot down cans to win huge stuffed animals that you wouldn’t pay good money to buy in the first place.
The few amusement park rides and games would not be so exciting if they were in downtown Seoul, but in Gwangalli Beach, everyone is slightly giddy from the bright lights, salty air and loud music ― not to mention the C1 soju.
Accommodations in Gwangalli Beach are very humble and most places are very old, so most tourists opt to sleep in other parts of the city. For those who are too tired or inebriated to go very far, motels are conveniently located right on Cafe Street, with the newer ones at the two ends.
But because summer temperatures do not fall too far at night, the soft sand of the beach can serve as a bed for the romantic, the broke and the drunk.
No matter where you go in Busan, Gwangalli Beach is where you want to end your day. Somewhere within the neon lights and ocean breeze, you can come in contact with a different kind of Korean culture.
by Wohn Dong-hee
Gwangalli Beach is located at Gwangan Station on subway line No. 2 in Busan. It is about a 20-minute ride from Busan Station downtown.
Buses and taxis also run frequently from Busan Station and take about 30 minutes if the streets are clear, but Busan is known for its horrendous traffic.