With Korea as popular as it’s ever been, I thought now would be a good time to write about the Busan vs Seoul debate. Fair warning: I love both of these cities equally—I’m not going to take a side.
Ideally, you would bookend your larger trip to Korea with Seoul and Busan. If you’re coming from North America or Europe, this would likely entail starting in Seoul (where your flight will land) and ending in Busan; travelers from within Asian can reverse the order.
Of course, we don’t all have a lot of time and flexibility, even if I imagine we’d all love to spend weeks and weeks in Korea. I’m excited you’re here to listen to what I have to say, regardless of what you end up deciding.
How I Got to Know Korea’s Cities
Before I delve into specific ways to compare Busan vs Seoul, I thought I would explain my own process of getting to know both. As I imagine is the case for most traveler, Seoul came first. I made my maiden voyage to Korea’s capital during the summer of 2015, when the MERS virus was sweeping through the country—this seems more significant in retrospect. I’ve returned several times since, most recently in the spring of 2019.
My first trip to Busan, meanwhile, was in late 2017. I’d been living in Thailand, and a blast of cold air was better than the best anti aging skincare you can find in Korea. I visited Busan again during the aforementioned spring 2019 trip—I started there and made my way to Seoul, completing what is to date my most comprehensive exploration of South Korea between the two touchstones.
Top Ways to Compare Seoul and Busan
Seoul’s attractions are some of the most famous in Asia, from the N-Seoul Tower, to the Myeongdong shopping and nightlife district, to Bukchon Hanok Village. While things to do in Busan (such as “Santorini of South Korea” Gamcheon Cultural Village and the city’s own eponymous tower) aren’t quite as well known, they’re still eclectic and satisfying.
If this were the only metric by which you compared Seoul vs Busan, it wouldn’t be a competition. Seoul is home to 10 million people in its city center alone, which covers 605 square kilometers. While Busan is bigger than many Western cities, with 3.5 million people, it simply isn’t as populous as Seoul (or as dense: Busan’s land area, at around 770 square kilometers, is larger).
Like most Asian capital cities, Seoul offers a full range of hotels, from simple business hotels, to rowdy backpacker’s hostels, to traditional hanok, which are Korea’s answer to Japanese ryokan. In Busan, on the other hand, it’s more of a binary choice. And an unsatisfying one: None of the city’s hotels are especially memorable.
Dining and nightlife
If you love Korean food, you’ll be pleased no matter which side of the Seoul vs Busan debate you end up falling on. From sumptuous bibimbap rice bowls, to savory beef and pork cooked bulgogi style, both of the country’s large cities are paradises Korean cuisine (and drink—who here loves soju?) .
Although Busan has some international flights to countries within Asia, namely Japan and Taiwan, it’s difficult to arrive there directly from North America or Europe. Seoul, on the other hand, has direct flights to almost every major city in the world. It’s for this reason, as much as any of its merits, that so many trips to Korea begin and end in Seoul, whether you go from Busan to Seoul or vice-versa, from Seoul to Busan.
Is Busan Worth Visiting?
Busan is an eclectic, enjoyable city, but certainly not as cosmopolitan or accessible as Seoul. I love the fact that you can spend the morning on the sea, be it at urban Hyundae Beach or far outside the city at Haedong Yonggungsa temple, have lunch in the city beneath Busan Tower or near Bosu-Dong Book Street and then ascend to one of the city’s main mountainous viewpoints in time to watch the sunset.
Should you choose Busan or Seoul? Well, in terms of the Seoul vs Busan discussion, I feel the the merits of visiting Busan intensify as a result of Seoul’s strengths. Busan, while huge compared to many Western cities, as much more breathing room than Seoul, and also feels more detached from the wider world. Overall, it feels like a bridge between the capital and other destinations in the country, which is why it’s such an essential part of any Korea travel palette.
Other FAQ About Busan vs Seoul
What is the most beautiful city in South Korea?
This depends not only what you’re looking for, but also how you classify a “city.” For example, while ancient Gyeongju or seaside Sokcho are objectively gorgeous, they also tend to be feel more like towns when compared to Seoul or Busan. On the subject of Korea’s two largest cities, Seoul’s cityscape is more striking, while Busan has a more beautiful natural setting.
How many hours is Busan from Seoul?
Seoul is 325 km from Busan as the crow flies; domestic flights between the two cities take less than an hour. The most convenient way to travel between Seoul and Busan, however, is a high-speed KTX train. Depending upon which departure you take, this requires between 2-3 hours of travel time.
Is Busan expensive?
Busan may be slightly cheaper than Seoul in some respects, but I don’t think most travelers will be able to discern the difference. Taken in the larger context of travel in South Korea, however, this is unimportant. While South Korea is more expensive than Southeast Asia or China, it’s also a great deal cheaper than its famously expensive neighbor Japan.
The Bottom Line
Is Busan better than Seoul? For me, there isn’t much of a competition when it comes to Seoul vs Busan—and I don’t mean this to say that one city clearly wins out over the other. Rather, these cities are so different from one another, and yet both so essential to understanding South Korea that I can’t imagine not visiting each of them, even if you can’t manage it on the first trip. While Seoul is Korea’s hub of cosmopolitanism and the place where you’re likely to discover the country for the first time, Busan allows you to dig deeper into Korean cuisine and culture, without giving up all the convenience and comfort Seoul offers. The best way to ensure your post-pandemic Korea trip is a hit? Hire me to plan it!