While limited in my experiences, I’ve seen enough to say that Eastern Europe is well worth the visit. This is a place where modesty and appreciation for the simple things are most important- a place where the infrastructure for tourism is relatively new. Here there is a dichotomy between locals skeptical of all of the rapidly occurring changes and those who enthusiastically embrace and welcome foreign visitors. Much in contrast to our time in Krakow and Warsaw, Budapest proved itself beautiful and unique while making us work for comfort and familiarity.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
We choose to make the trip from Krakow to Budapest by bus. Taking into account our last congested train ride, the Flixbus seemed like the right choice. We quickly found out that Flixbus is not very well integrated into the existing bus stations.
Travel Tip: If you’re looking to book travel while in Europe, check out GoEuro. They often have better deals that the travel companies themselves.
BUDAPEST IS DIFFERENT
Arriving late in the afternoon, we enjoyed a little walk through the park and city and towards our Airbnb. Bus stations always exist in authentic, local neighborhoods, so we were able to appreciate a little matrix of local vendors selling household goods and produce along our way. I always enjoy a window into the community through open-air markets.
Városliget, Budapest’s city park, is adjacent to the bus station and under significant construction. Along the main thoroughfare were a number of tent communities established as some sort of protest to the park construction.
Travel Tip: Use the Airbnb link above to receive $40 off of your first booking with Airbnb. Each referral helps us to travel longer, giving us a $20 credit.
After the park we wander through a neighborhood full of three- and four- story apartment buildings fringing just on the center of the city. Along the way I witnessed my first encounter with predatory behavior- a creepy man following a group of young girls on a bike. They informed us that there were “lots of creepy older men” in Budapest and kept moving. This seemed to be the first city where shameless gazes were the norm. It was also the first city where the median age was under 25, creating a large age divide between the voyeurs and voyeured.
Finally arriving at our cute, little, shared apartment, we were able to get cozy and settled. Our flat was nestled in a local building complete with an expansive courtyard and dilapidated marble staircase. Balanced by price, location, and amenity, we had a fridge to fill with local goods and a quick exploration to take on before the fatigue of the bus ride overcame us.
EXPLORATION BY FOOT & BIKE
Budapest is composed of two parts, Buda and Pest. At one point they existed as two separate entities. But now they are one city divided by the Danube River. We stayed in Pest, east of the river and home to most of the downtown and concentrated tourism. We spent our second night trying to acquaint ourselves with our host city on foot.
The grandeur of the city along and near the river is spectacular. Some highlights include the Hungarian Parliament Building, Fisherman’s Bastion, and Matthias Church. Be sure to walk the Danube Promenade and the Szechenyi Chain Bridge along the way.
And if you’re renting bikes through the local bike share, make time to go north to Margaret Island. Dominated by cyclists, pedestrians, and green space, it’s an oasis right in the middle of the Danube River.
The first thing you’ll notice on the Buda side is the Buda Castle. Grand in stature and high on the hill, it is great for the views of Pest. You can opt for a cable car ride to the top, but you’ll miss some of the views on your way up. It was here that we noticed information for the annual Budapest Wine Festival.
I’d say always capitalize on unexpected opportunities. The Budapest Wine Festival is one such instance. Not having known about the festival before our arrival, Brittany and I made arrangements to stay an extra night in the city in order to attend.
This event covered the grounds surrounding the Buda Castle and admission included entrance to the castle’s museum, which unfortunately close long before the night wrapped up or we made it inside. Wine vendors from all around the country showcased their regional specialties, though Hungary itself specializes in rich dry reds. In addition to admission, each wine sample carried its own fair price tag, which, in my option, is a realistic and reasonable way to go about it.
When all was said and done the festival’s price tag fell well short of the experience. Brittany and I spent $71 in total for entrance, tastings, and bites. We enjoyed the whole spectrum of Hungarian wines, white and red. Our absolute favorite… drum roll… the 2008 unfiltered Cabernet Franc from Malatinszky Kuria Organic Wine Estate. Wow! Deep rich fruit notes paired with the oak tannins and a body to stand up to almost any flavor. We chose our own pairing, the most insane potato pancake you could ever imagine.
We couldn’t have been more delighted with the experience of the festival. The atmosphere of truly happy vendors and crowds alike made each visit to a booth a treat. There were three stages of music, two expansive food courts offering meals or pairings, or vendors showcasing other consumable goodies. If you get the opportunity to experience a national wine festival, do it!
SZECHENYI THERMAL BATHS
If you do any research during a visit to Budapest you’ll surely end up coming across some information on enjoying a good soak at a thermal bath. Brittany and I couldn’t resist the calling of the city’s biggest and most established facility, the Szechenyi Thermal Baths. Here you’re bound to find the right pool or sauna to suit your taste and you might even have a little fun spinning around in the literal whirlpool with some strangers.
Located just northeast of the epicenter of Pest, Szechenyi sits right in the center of Varosliget Park. As you arrive you’ll appreciate the grandeur of the building and perhaps a whiff of sulfur in the air from the thermal activity. Admission is a bit steep at 11,000 HUF for both of us. This included a private “cabin” to change and keep our belongings.
If you arrive early enough to have a cabin, it’s a unique amenity to enjoy. Spend the few extra dollars for it. The most expansive area you’ll find, fittingly so, is a grand outdoor space with pools. There we partook in the bubbling and whirling waters of the east pool and the warmth and the fountains of the west pool. Unfortunately, the grand central pool was closed for maintenance.
The interior baths offer a wide spectrum of atmospheres and temperatures. We spend quite a lot of time just wandering about dipping ourselves in one mineral bath after another. Of course, you must elevate the therapeutic experience even further sweating a bit in one of the saunas. The experience there is completed with the offering of shaved ice to cool down your seat before burning your bottom and the pairing of an icy pool for an after-sauna polar plunge.
The visit to Budapest would have been incomplete without a visit to a thermal bathhouse. The ritual of this sort of recreational outing has a wonderful history in the culture of the city. One of my favorite moments was admiring the local old fellow’s chess match in one of the pools.
If you find yourself wondering the streets in this part of the world, be sure to send a morning or afternoon relaxing and giving yourself a bit of soaking therapy, you’ll appreciate it.
THE RUIN PUBS IN ALL OF THEIR GLORY
Another of Budapest’s world famous attractions is fittingly known as a ruin pub or bar. These odd spaces, now a staple Budapest, were first established in 2004. The simple premise being that these pubs exist in buildings that have been deemed inhabitable by most social standards and would otherwise fall into ruin.
The first pub, Szimpla Kert, was an investment in a building that was otherwise slated for demolition. Cleverly working with the buildings ramshackle state, these proprietors outfitted the spaces with quirky art and furniture. The result is hyper-unique captivating space in which to share company.
We visited Szimpla Kert at around 9 o’clock just as it was transitioning into a younger more lively scene. Just in the hour we enjoyed our beers in a bathtub turned couch, the pub went from populated to packed. Complete with a line out the door, the security staff were ready for the crowds, patting down new arrivals. It’s fair to say that you’ve got to be ready to join the party if you’re going to hang later in the evening at any of the ruin pubs.
Walking the Jewish Quarter around Szimpla Kert gave Brittany and I an experience worth pondering. The sidewalks in the area were bustling with night tourism. Group after group of youthful pub crawlers were bouncing from one bar or restaurant to another. Among them were the inconspicuous locals. Here were people walking their dogs or headed home from work or errands. It was an immediate insight into how quickly places can change and the impact gentrification has on the quality of life for residents.
Because of these experiences I’ve been following a new motto. Acknowledge and greet locals we encounter along the way. It might seem silly but I know it instills a little good into the world. A smile, a hello, a courteous awareness makes the sharing of space with others so much sweeter.
As beautiful as it may be to walk right into the heart of a city, I make a point of it to explore the outskirts where you will find the hidden gems. True, walking away from the densities of shops and restaurants it may not be immediately rewarding. But take the time to appreciate the architecture of the buildings, the residences you encounter, and be sure to notice those little spots with long lines.
Our one great find off the beaten path in Budapest was Csirke Csibesz. This little corner sandwich shop has no seating amidst the efficiently laid out dining area. Each standing height table had a place to stow your tray after you had enjoyed your tasty sandwich and of course there was a little sink in the corner just for washing your hands after the fantastic experience.
The fantastically efficient crew working the line there didn’t speak much, if any, English, but they were friendly and awesome. There was a line, but it moved faster than just about any line you’ll find. The sandwich was amazing, hot, and super cheap, 550 HUF. I’m certain that we were the only tourists, but that’s exactly how it should be when you find these gems.
While we had a number of positive experiences in Budapest, our ability to plan on-the-go was really put to the test. Because we weren’t sure how long we were going to stay or the dates that we would be arriving or departing, planning accommodations was difficult. We thought we had a gem in our first apartment, but we had only booked two days and quickly realized that it wasn’t very clean and the sand flies were abundant.
Our second reservation was in a 12-bed dorm in a mini hostel near the center of downtown. The place was spotless, but it was our first experience with oblivious and painfully young roommates. 3 AM wake up calls when they came stumbling in and heat like you would not believe.
We booked one more night at another hostel before departing Budapest for Ljubljana. This made it difficult to find comfort in Budapest, as we were in a constant state of change. But it was the first city that we were able to slow down and spend a bit of time writing and creating some sort of daily routine for ourselves.
THE WHOLE PACKAGE
We found a little bit of everything it in Budapest. The sights, the contrast, the hustle, the food, the relaxation, the experiences-all by foot in five days.
Budapest is a faster city with a younger and more internationally diverse tourism population than most others I’ve visited. When I had the opportunity to meet the locals they were earnest and hard working. Considering its size, it was easy to navigate relatively quickly. Get over there and see it for yourself. And don’t forget to eat a chimney cake.