Seoul or Busan has been the question for a lot of travelers to Korea and it isn’t as easy as saying Seoul is better than Busan or Busan is better than Seoul. There are a lot of factors you should consider before choosing one over the other and in this post, that is exactly what I will be aiming to do. There are plenty of great places to see in Seoul and also a lot of great places to see in Busan as well. I have heard a lot of travelers go to Korea and only stay in Seoul for 1-2 weeks while not knowing there is another great city just 3 hours south by KTX which is arguably the best city in Asia (according to Lonely Planet).
I think the best way to determine which city is better, Seoul or Busan, is to argue why people traveling to South Korea for the first time should come to each city. Also, it is important to list the benefits that each city has over the other. As with any 2 large cities in any countries, the advantages and disadvantages are always up for debate 🙂
Seoul vs Busan
Why Seoul is better than Busan
Seoul is the largest city in South Korea and in that it has the most going on. What I mean by that is everything is bigger and better in Seoul as most people like to say. There are more flights coming into Incheon International Airport than Busan’s Gimhae International Airport which generally means cheaper flights (depends on where you are flying of coarse). Being a much larger city it also means there are more places to explore and more activities to do compared to Busan.
As Seoul is the largest city, it is where a lot of festivals and music concerts are held which means if you are wanting to catch an artist, it is most likely going to happen in Seoul (while Busan also holds a lot of concerts, Seoul easily has a lot more). Seoul is arguably a bit more foreigner friendly in that English seems to be spoken slightly more in Seoul (especially in the university areas) than Busan which helps the common tourist navigate a little easier.
Koreans in Seoul are a bit easier to understand (if you speak Korean) as they have a slightly lighter accent compared to the Koreans in Busan who use quite a bit of slang 사투리 from my experience. If you are driving in Seoul (which you really don’t need a car as the transport is great) you will find it a little easier compared to Busan as the drivers aren’t as heavy on the brake and they actually use their indicators.
If you are living in Seoul you might find it is a little more convenient as Seoul has the largest foreigner district in Korea called Itaewon which is great for those wanting to eat some comfort food from back home. I particularly noticed this after living in Busan for more than 2 years, as I would always hit up Itaewon for some good western food as it isn’t that easy to come by in Busan (compared to Seoul). It is also easier to find social groups in Seoul for foreigners, whether it be sports, music, gaming etc which makes life a little more comfortable.
Let’s talk about the sights of Seoul as there is really a lot of great places to visit and it is arguably one of the reasons Seoul is better than Busan (depending on your taste). The famous Namsan Tower is a great way to see the layout of Seoul from a high viewpoint. So is the newly built Lotte Tower which is fantastic, I can’t recommend it enough. Another thing that Seoul has going for it over Busan, are the large shopping malls and markets. Dongdaemun is a shoppers paradise with limitless amounts of leather goods and clothing.
Gwangjang Market is a foodies get-a-way offering some of the best street food in Korea. Gyeongbokgung Palace is one of the best ‘Welcome to Korea’ places to visit as it has a lot to offer. One of the best tours in Korea is the DMZ tour and although it is very unfortunate Korea was split into two countries, it is worth getting to know the history of Korea and there is no better way (maybe apart from the War Memorial of Korea) than traveling out to the border.
The biggest difference between Seoul and Busan is the nightlife. While Busan has plenty to offer and a range of great neighborhoods, Seoul easily is the best and liveliest place in Korea at night. Whether it be restaurants, cafes, bars, nightclubs or other activities, Seoul is the place to be! Sinchon, Hongdae, Itaewon, Dongdaemun and Gangnam all boast a range of things to do at night and is the golden standard as such when it comes to going out in Korea.
Although the weather isn’t as warm as Busan, it does means that ski sports are a lot more abundant and accessible from Seoul than they are in Busan. So if you are wanting to ski or snowboard in Korea, Seoul by far gives you a better chance to experience that.
Going to Seoul?
These are the Hotels in Seoul I have stayed in and can personally recommend:
57 Myeongdong Hostel – Myeong-dong
This hotel is located just minutes away from the madness of Myeong-dong and is priced very well. If you aren’t looking to break the bank and need a comfortable stay, this is the place.
Studio 41st Hostel Seoul Korea – Hongdae
I have stayed here a few times on my visits to Seoul and have always liked the location of this hostel. Its close to the Hongdae University Area and is very affordable. I can recommend this hostel to anyone looking for a room in Hongdae.
Kimchee Gangnam Guesthouse – Gangnam
One of the better guesthouses I have stayed in and is fantastic if you plan on shopping at the famous streets of Garosu-Gil and Apgujeong. Again, price, location and convenience are what makes or breaks a place to stay and this place has all those boxes checked.
Best Western Premier Hotel Kukdo – Dongdaemun
If you plan on doing some shopping at Dongdaemun Market and need a good rest, this hotel is a very good option. When I stayed here I really needed a good night sleep after shopping into the early hours at Dongdaemun Market. Everything was spot-on and I will be back the next time I am in Seoul.
Still undecided on what area to stay in Seoul? Check out my detailed breakdown of where to stay in Seoul.
Why Busan is better than Seoul
OK, so now it is time for Busan to be in the spotlight. Why is Busan better than Seoul? For one, those of you who like the beach will much prefer Busan as it has a number of good beaches to visit such as Haeundae Beach, Gwangalli Beach, the locals beach in Songjeong Beach (where I had my wedding in Korea) and Songdo Beach (Cable Car) overlooking the coast. Seoul lacks any kind of beach obviously as it is not a coastal city. Being a coastal city means a wide array of seafood which is heavily intertwined with the local cuisine such as Hagfish, Eel, Spicy Fish stews and more.
Busan’s climate is a bit warmer than Seoul and therefore it rarely snows which means it is a lot easily to live/visit Busan if you aren’t too excited about cold weather. Although it can get quite hot and humid in the summer it definitely isn’t a hot climate compared to other cities around the world.
As Seoul is the biggest city in Korea, it also tends to be the most expensive in terms of living and being a tourist. Myeong-dong for instance is by far a lot more expensive for Korean food than say Seomyeon is in Busan. Although you won’t be broke from visiting Seoul, Busan is the cheaper city and your money which stretch a little further there (on average).
While the nightlife is not as busy as Seoul, there are certainly a lot of great scenic views in Busan to experience. The first one being Gwangalli Beach, which after 8pm lights up the Gwangandaegyo Bridge and makes for a spectacular view overlooking the shoreline. The beach is lined with restaurants, cafes and bars of which to enjoy food and/or a drink. It really is one of the nicest views in Korea at night. Seomyeon has a large range of restaurants, cafes and bars in Busan and you will most likely find what you are looking for.
The area which I like a lot in Busan is Nampo-dong, which is the port area of the city. It contains the famous Jagalchi Fish Market which in my opinion is a lot better than Noryangjin Fish Market as you are right next to the ocean. Gukje Market is another open-air market selling an array of items which makes the area of Nampo-dong a must see in Busan. Busan Tower provides a place to look out over the port area which is a nice vantage point.
The temples in my personal opinion are a bit nicer in Busan and allow for some greats hikes as well. Haedong Yonggungsa Temple (although a little touristy), Seokbulsa Temple (a nice hike up there), Beomeosa Temple and Samgwangsa Temple (especially nice during Buddha’s Birthday) are all worth spending some time at.
In terms of day trips from Busan, there is a huge advantage. The famous historical city of Gyeongju (which was once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Silla) is only about an hour away by bus. Other coastal cities like Geoje Island, Yeosu and Suncheon are all within a 2 hour drive which is great if you want to get out of the big city. A popular choice for day trips from Seoul would be Nami Island where a lot of famous Korean dramas are shot.
Busan is closer to other Asian cities which means less flying time. If you are planning a trip to Japan or Taiwan you might find Busan is a bit more convenient as the flying times are a little less and might also well be cheaper. You can even catch a ferry from Busan to Fukuoka in about 3.5 hours. If you feel like a day-trip to Japan you can visit Tsushima Island which is about 50km off the coast.
Going to Busan?
These are the Hotels in Busan I have stayed in and can personally recommend:
Kent Hotel Gwangalli by Kensington – Gwangalli Beach
This hotel is where my family stayed while in Busan for my wedding at Songjeong Beach and they all had a great experience. It is very conveniently located in the heart of Gwangalli Beach and the views from the rooftop bar overlooking Gwangan Bridge are well worth it.
IBIS Budget Ambassador Busan Haeundae – Haeundae Beach
A very affordable and well located hotel that I have stayed in twice. You can easily walk to Dongbaek Island and Haeundae in a matter of minutes. I have also had friends stay here while visiting me and they loved the price and location.
Angel Hotel – Seomyeon
Arguably one of the most popular hotels in Busan is the Angel Hotel located in Seomyeon. In terms of location this Hotel is at the top as you walk out the front door and you are in the middle of everything Seomyeon has to offer. I have stayed here and so have my friends, there is a reason why it is so popular, Location and Price.
Boutique Hotel YTT Nampo – Nampo-dong
Good location, well priced and very comfortable is what you will get at this hotel. Very popular and one of my favourite hotels in Nampo-dong. Everyone who I know who has stayed here has been more than satisfied.
Still undecided on what area to stay in Busan? Check out my detailed breakdown of where to stay in Busan.
The Verdict on Seoul vs Busan
So should I go to Seoul or Busan? As you might have guessed it really comes down to why you are going to Korea in the first place. If you want to enjoy the nightlife in Korea then Seoul is definitely the correct choice. If you want to enjoy the scenic views of the Korean coast, then Busan is much better than Seoul in that regard.
Wanting to shop all day everyday? Seoul is unmatched with areas like Dongdaemun, Namdaemun and Myeong-dong providing much more than Shinsegae Department Store and the Seomyeon Underground Shopping Mall.
When comparing day trips from Seoul and Busan, both cities have fairly good options however day trips from Busan provide more variety and is located near one of Korea’s most historical cities in Gyeongju.
In terms of places to visit and the weather, it really comes down to preference. If you like the big city feel, you will have more fun in Seoul than Busan. If you like coastal cities then Busan will easily be your favourite. Like winter sports? then Seoul provides a lot more options than Busan.
What about other cities in Korea?
If Seoul or Busan doesn’t really appeal to you or if you are coming back to Korea for the second, third, fourth time etc and are looking for something slightly different, then both of these options below are worth considering.
Why Jeju Island? Well if we were going to compare Jeju Island vs Seoul, or Jeju Island vs Busan, then Jeju Island actually has a lot of interesting sights that neither Seoul or Busan have.
First, is the amount of great beaches Jeju Island has compared to Seoul and Busan. Second, the food on Jeju Island is second to none (it is more expensive in some places though) as the seafood there is as good as it gets in Korea.
Third, it is a lot less crowded compared to Seoul and Busan if you go to the east or west end of the Island. Taking a car and driving around Jeju Island was one of the best times I had while living in Korea.
As I mentioned, Gyeongju (which was once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Silla) is only about an hour away from Busan to the East and really only needs 1 – 2 nights to see all it has to offer. If you are coming to see the mains sites you could just make a day trip to Gyeongju. There are buses leaving every 15 minutes from the Busan Central Bus Terminal (near Nopo Station – Subway Line 1 after Beomeosa Station) and the ticket costs about 4800 won each way.
The main reason of traveling to Gyeongju is to experience the history of Korea that is on display at Gyeongju National Museum 국립경주박물관 and enjoy the temples and other great sites there such as Bulguksa Temple 불국사, Anapji 안압지, Tumuli Park – Daereungwon Tomb Complex 대릉원 천마총, Seokguram Grotto 경주 석굴암 and many more.
As usual, should you have any questions or would like to add to the Seoul vs Busan debate please leave a comment 🙂