Rising to the east of Haeundae beach, over which Busan’s morning sun makes its first climb, is the pine tree lined outcrop of land known as “Dalmaji Hill”. When translated into English, the word “Dalmaji” literally means “Moon Watching Place”, and I couldn’t think of a more suitable name for this vibrant, yet tranquil neighborhood, where the moon is just one of a myriad of things to do and see.
Dalmaji has been drastically gentrified over the years, from its once ghetto-like origins to its current status as a cultural hub and home to some of Busan’s elite set. The numerous upscale restaurants and cafes act as popular hangouts for local celebrities and film makers, as well as those gallery hopping along the hill; while the long stretch of road attracts motorcyclists, outdoor sports enthusiasts, and those just out for a stroll and look at the spectacular view of Busan’s coast.
To the east of Dalmaji Hill, a fishing village called “Cheongsapo” still exists, though the hill’s visitors easily overlook it as Dalmaji road turns smoothly back down the hill towards Jangsan. The eight kilometer road is known as “The 15-Road” for the 15 curves it makes as it snakes along its way.
Starting from the west side of the hill, Dalmaji road begins at a junction with Mipo road which begins its ascent at the farthest end of Haeundae beach. From there, it begins its steady incline along the cliff. The architecture of the neighborhood contrasts the area surrounding Dalmaji almost instantly, with hotels, cafes, galleries, and spas of white terracotta, red brick, and grey cobblestone.
The seaside of the hill is lined with wooden, and then brick walkways from which soil-paved trails can be trekked down the forested coast towards lovely ocean observation points and Cheongsapo harbor. Along the trail there are four “story spots” that post tales of local legends about those areas. All along the walkway are park benches and Korean pagoda-style resting spots where the seascape, including Haeundae Beach and Gwangan-li’s Diamond Bridge can be admired.
For those visiting the hill for the sake of gallery hopping, there is a Dalmaji Art District map which pinpoints nearly twenty gallery and museum spaces at the entrance to the neighborhood on the west side of the hill. One of the first on this side is the Korean Art Center, which has gallery spaces on the first two floors; the third floor acts as an event hall, and the fourth and fifth floors have Italian restaurants called “The Kitchen” and “The Table”, the latter with a rooftop patio. The former gallery director remarked that they frequently hosted parties on the rooftop, which were popular with foreigners and Korean celebrities.
Further up the hill, where the road meets a smaller side street, is JoHyun Gallery. JoHyun Gallery features a variety of well-known foreign and local artists. Works including those of Damien Hirst, Paik Nam June, Julian Opie, Joseph Beuys, and Georges Rousse, whose anamorphic art installation remains on the stairwell where the gallery meets Café Van. Café Van often acts as an extension of the exhibit space, and it serves a variety of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages as well as sandwiches, which are as pricey as most cafes on Dalmaji. The artsy interior décor, and gorgeous balcony patio with an ocean view are the main appeal to its clientele.
Heading back towards the west, up the smaller side street, is the popular Hae-O-Pabu café, with its extensive menu of imported gourmet coffees and its triple-decker sandwiches with real dill pickles, which is just to the right of Kim Jae Sun Gallery. Kim Jae Sun Gallery has an art center, as well as a jazzy café-wine bar on the first floor. There is a large, green wooden patio, also with a stunning view, however I have never visited this venue and seen anyone other than myself and a single member of their staff. The bar has a grand piano, microphone and speakers to rent for private events.
Another nice spot for private parties and live music is Buena Vista Café, which just opened a year ago. This place boasts of its Mojitos on the sign out front, and they’re surprisingly authentic and reasonably priced. A regular, and rather large mojito is priced at 7,000 won, with an Absolute Vodka or Jose Cuervo for 8,000 won.
The point that can best be considered the peak of Dalmaji Hill has evolved a lot over the past year as the coffee chains have staked their claim to Dalmaji’s pricey real estate. Tom N Toms, Angel in Us Coffee, and A Twosome Place have all sprung up in a row, with a Beans Bins up the side street that sits nearby even more art galleries. For some good eats there is The Pho, with a menu of reasonably priced Vietnamese food including (self-assembled) rice paper spring rolls, Pho noodles, Vietnamese coffee, and vegetarian options. The glass door front is propped open on warm days and nights to create that patio-like ambiance.
Across the street from this strip of coffee shop chains is a parkette, which is known as a meeting spot for a local motorcyclists group. There are a number of resting spots here, as well as a tourist information center, and entrance points to the trails on the cliffs.
From here, the monstrosity of a building called Bar Alexander cannot be missed. Imagine a mansion-like wooden cabin, with a brick roof, decorated with imitation neoclassical statues, and you’ve got Bar Alexander. There are European chefs employed here, and I have been told that the food is really good, but whether or not it is worth the even-expensive-for-Dalmaji price is purely up to you.
Off the main road, near the International School of Busan, right at the top of the hill, are a couple of Dalmaji’s hidden gems. The first is Cafe Opera, which serves a good, yet pricey menu of Western cuisine, such as thin crust pizzas, and steaks in three or four course meals.
Along the road from The International School (aka Waedae) and next to the ‘World’s Mystery Library’ is the long-running StarFace bar. With a relaxed pub atmosphere, it has existed on Dalmaji as one of Haeundae’s original drinking spots for foreigners and Koreans for over 14 years now. It is now an Anglo-Korean venture, and though a remodel took away some of its ‘spit ‘n’ sawdust’ image, it remains just as popular as it ever was. It still gets busy on Fridays and Saturdays when it hosts live music, as well as a variety of special events, such as the popular Blues Night, Hip Hop Night and Sunday pub quizzes. They also serve a variety of authentic Italian, Mexican and British cuisine. And keep your eyes peeled for the occasional Korean celebrity who casually saunters in for a drink.
In short, for those of you who skipped to the end: Dalmaji is a place where you can catch a good view of luxury cars cruising by, and see swarms of Harleys roaring downhill, boats sailing along the coast, young couples out on dates, the sea of people crowding Haeundae Beach, local live music, birds singing along the forested trails, and the upper class hobnobbing in gallery cafes. Even more hot spots appear to be in construction on this ever-transient hill, though it will always be best known for its namesake “Dalmaji,” the moon watching place.