We didn’t exactly start Budapest on the best foot. We rode in on an overnight train that had no air conditioning, making our couchette a sweat lodge. Eva was attacked by enough mosquitoes from our open window at the 3 hour border stop (?) to look like she had a bad rash, but poor Jeremy had the worst night of his life. The kidney stone kicked in hard, the painkillers didn’t work, and we had no access to a hospital. Every rock of the train was like a knife in his side. Arriving early in the morning, we were in rough shape.
Then we checked into our Hostel (Grund Hostel, 10€ per bed, close to the metro. It’s a 19th century building under restoration) and were lucky enough to have a dorm room all to ourselves, and got cleaned up. With an open mind and very few expectations, we ventured into the city famous for spies, thermal baths, the ravages of communism, and it’s two distinct halves: Buda and Pest.
Hello, wonderful city. The people are friendly, the food is amazing and our timing was perfect. As we walked along the Danube River, single-prop stunt planes flew loops under the bridge. The next day it was jets in tight air-show formations above the Buda Castle. How awesome is it to be in Budapest for Red Bull’s Flugtag, a world famous stunt-plane competition!
Oh, but wait, it gets better! We were also in time for St. Stephen’s Day. To celebrate, the castle had a huge cultural fair that lined the winding route leading up into the main square. There were live bands, stage shows, folk art presentations, and a variety of other events — meanwhile we filled ourselves to bursting with Hungarian fair food like Goulash, sausages, Kürtös Kalács (shh, it’s actually from Transylvania!) and ending with fresh baked cherry Strudel.
Afterwards, 4 of the bridges across the Danube, and much of the river in between, gave the biggest, most spectacular fireworks show we have ever seen. The only thing we could have added to the checklist was the massive Sziget music festival (we were a day late!)
We didn’t get a shot, but the Minnesota Hungarians captured the lavish spectacle of St. Stephen’s.
The magic of Budapest is that the city doesn’t even need these events to make it a worthwhile destination. There is community at the renowned thermal baths, history at the Buda Castle, scores of museums, quirky stops like the Budavári Labirintus, and amazing architecture lining wide, easily walkable boulevards.
Yes, some of the neighborhoods are in some disrepair, but the city is growing, in the act of rejuvenating. Summertime sees free concerts in the park, while everywhere youth culture pushes to find a place of their own with new, independent businesses.
Pest, divided from Buda by the Danube, is the city’s more modern side. Our hostel was here, as were most museums, bars, shopping districts and fashionable avenues. Historical Buda is crowned by its high hilltop Castle. Entrance into the Castle district is free, and you won’t need to go much further.
Sweet cobblestone streets make for nice walking, and the Fishermen’s Bastion overlooks the vast Pest panorama. The central site, Matthias Church, was under heavy construction during our visit, but it didn’t keep us from returning to the Castle district more than once.
The labyrinth we mentioned above is an tongue-in-cheek treat (sadly, a little steep at $11), while the real treats are sitting in the case at Ruszwurm.
To relax, we visited the Gellért Baths ($18) and though the complex, particularly the separate male/female thermal dips, is gorgeous, we would recommend the Szechenyi Baths instead. The price is a more reasonable $14, and the complex is much bigger and less prissy. Worth mentioning are also the Rudas Baths (around $12). This structure feels more like a hammam and was built by the Turks. Check opening hours carefully, we missed our opportunity (separate days for men and women at Rudas). The atmosphere of a rather bygone era still hangs in the air, and figuring out what you’re supposed to do once you step inside is a bit comical. Expect to get ordered around by brusque staff, at least at Gellért.
With their first free elections taking place less than 20 years ago, it’s easy to assume Budapest is still the gray offspring of an oppressive, even terrifying political power. What we found most humbling was that the people took the bad along with the good, and had endless wells of pride in all their home had experienced.
Rather than destroy the city’s massive collection of Communist-era sculptures after the fall, they were brought together at Memento Park ($8.50, closes at “dusk”) just outside the city. Seeing so many of these statues all at once is a bit ironic, and the once manicured space has become somewhat of a wasteland. We felt it was not to be missed, for atmosphere alone. Give yourself plenty of time to get there as the public busses serving the site are very “strategically labeled,” and be sure to watch the movie about spies.
There is simply too much to see on any visit to Budapest. Over 60 museums and galleries all vie for your attention, while numerous public spaces and gardens lure you in to wile away the afternoon. We found Margaret Island in particular to be a fetching lure. Set on the Danube between Buda and Pest, this car-less green space is a quick getaway from the action of the city. Ruins, fountains, gardens and even a small zoo interrupt your walk, and the place to be is Holduvar, a restaurant, open-air bar (free WIFI!), garden, gallery and open air cinema (only in the summer).
It seems this is a country finding its pace, with a healthy respect for history, yet with it’s eyes on the future as they grow into the 21st century. Many European travelers have already discovered the unexpected charm of Budapest, we’re glad the city is getting the well-deserved attention.
Even with a full week, we missed out on quite a bit:
- A day trip to Szentendre. There is a HEV train that runs up to the village in 40 minutes, but a bike tour sounds pretty good as well.
- A cooking class
- Caving in the Matyas Caves. Still not sure we’re brave enough to conquer “The Birth Canal,” but we talked to lots of fellow backpackers who found it exhilarating.
- A ferry ride on the Danube — all the way to Vienna or Bratislava!
- Hungarian National Gallery (Magyar Nemzeti Galeria). Hungarian art from the late 19th century is truly incredible and unique, many of the best artists are among this gallery’s 10,000 works.
One thing worth missing out on is the Ecseri Flea Market — it’s a long, long trip that’s very fruitless.
* Funny side note about the Hungarian Forint, seen in the first image of this post:
Our first run in with Hungary’s currency was at a Citibank ATM, where we tried to quickly estimate how much, in Forint, we’d need to pull to cover us for a few days. The “quick cash” choices on the machine topped out at 15,000, so we figured around that must be good. We pressed the button and the machine began to whirr through its stacks of cash. The cash slot opened… and out came ONE bill. “Shit!” we thought — “who’s going to break this massive bill?” Turns out the Forint is around 180 to the US dollar, and our massive 10 grand was a whopping $56.
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