Budapest, the capital of Hungary, is nestled on the Danube river, with its two sides Buda and Pest, which were separate cities until 1873, and to this day are very different in their personalities. Pest is lively, filled with history, noisy bars and cafes, streets full of shopping, fine art museums, and art nouveau buildings. Buda on the other had is quieter, and while you walk up its hills, you will find royal palaces and Ottoman-era spas. A city ready to entertain a variety of travelers.
We arrive at our Airbnb located in the Jewish quarter of the city. The Airbnb is within walking distance to the Dohany Street Synagogue, Andrassy Avenue, and Budapest’s famous ruin bars. We are pleased with its location, right off a street full of cafes, restaurants, and open-air bars. There, on our first night, we nestle into a restaurant near by, along with crowds of Hungarians all wearing matching shirts. It was Hungary’s first match in the Euro Cup tournament, and it had been 50 years since their last qualification, so as we ate our dinner, we cheered alongside our fellow peers. Luckily the first game was a win and so we rejoiced down the streets of Budapest, while groups of people sang the national anthem and cheered on until the wee hours of the morning. We didn’t hesitate to celebrate as well, but instead of following the masses to the neon lit bars where Chris Brown’s auto-tuned voice echoed through the speakers, we found a dark little bar, Doblo, where we sat to listen to some live music and drink some delicious negronis.
Over the next couple of days we took long walks that led us over the Chain Bridge and into Buda, where we hiked up Buda Castle, and enjoyed an over-priced cold beer in Fisherman’s Bastion overlooking the majestic Matthias Church on one side and panoramic views of Pest on the other. We rode the mustard colored trams that line the city, all the way to the Ludwig Muzeum, and spent the day learning about the influence of Hungarian pop music and visual art, in the 'Rock/Space/Time' exhibition. When the hunger pains started to kick in, we headed over to the Great Market Hall, where we grabbed a traditional lango; delicious dough deep-fried flat bread topped with sour cream, cheese, peppers, tomatoes, and sausage (a definite heart attack waiting to happen, but very well worth it). After a full belly we made sure to take a stroll through the different fruit and vegetable stalls, and counters piled with meats, cheeses, and baked goods. In the evening we enjoyed grabbing drinks at the local bars in our neighborhood, our favorites being Hivatal, Koleves Kert with their enormous backyard filled with swings, and Bar Pharma.
To learn a bit more about the rich history of the Jewish Quarter and the significant events of WWII, specifically the Holocaust history of Hungary, we took a free walking tour. We made stops at the Dohany Street Synagogue, the second largest synagogue in the world, Rumbach Synagogue, and Kazinczy Synagogue. We looked up at all the colorful buildings and the murals hidden on the outside, we saw the last piece of the ghetto wall, and after a history overload, we ended the tour with a beer in hand at the famous Szimplakert ruin bar. The ruin bars are formerly dilapidated buildings and courtyards, that our now turned into bars filed with derelict mismatched seating and tables, graffi-tied walls, and old random communist furnishings left behind. Visiting the bars during the day gives you quite a different experience then heading to the bars after midnight, when all the 20-year-old-something crowds start their night. The fact that we enjoyed some beers, setting them on our antique Communist fridge, while a few people gathered around us, relaxing to some laid back tunes, may be a sign that we are getting old. But if you are under 30 and are up for waiting in line, you can enter Pest's best party scene (a definite check off that European inter-railing trip).
On our only rainy day in Budapest, we decided to veer off a bit outside the city, and spend the day gazing at oversized Communist statues, at Memento Park. The statutes in the park, once stood in public spaces throughout the city, when under Communist rule, but were removed immediately after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. We wandered around gazing at the various figures, seeing what remains of the enormous Stalin statue, and watching a secret agent training video. What we really wanted to do was hop in the Trabant 61 car, and drive it as far as it would take us.
The highlight of the trip for us, was getting to celebrate our one year wedding anniversary in this charming city. We started off the day walking on the side of the Danube, making our way down the river, passing the remarkable Hungarian Parliament, until finally crossing a bridge onto Margaret Island. An island in the middle of the Danube, covered by parks and recreational areas. We aimlessly meandered the paved roads through beautiful Japanese gardens, sat on park benches and people watched, and laid around in the grass staring out at a fountain, its water dancing around to different pop music. When we got hungry we grabbed some Kolbasz, the traditional Hungarian spicy sausages, at one of the park side vendors. To finish off the evening we sat on the edge of the Danube, our feet dangling off the sides, toasted with beers in our hands, and enjoyed watching the sunset over Buda. Not too shabby for a one year anniversary.
On our final day, we soaked in the Szechenyi Thermal Baths, just like the natives have done since the Roman times. It is unthinkable to visit Budapest and not take a dip in one of its many spas across the city. We chose to take in the waters of the 25 different pools at the grand Szechenyi Baths located inside the City Park, a nice walk from Heroes Square. Upon arrival you are escorted to the changing rooms, where you can throw on your swimming attire and place all your valuables in an assigned locker. You are then free to roam around through the beautiful maze of baths, both indoor and outdoor. Start off, soaking in a small indoor pool with 35ºC water, as you gaze up at the intricately painted ceilings and ornate light fixtures hanging down. Move along towards a medium sized pool where you can join some older locals enjoying a class of water aerobics. Soak in the medicinal baths and feel your body aches melt away. Get lost trying to make your way to the massive outdoor pools, passing along rooms with Roman columns and magnificent tile mosaics. Once you have made your way to the courtyard of the palace, take your pick from its three pools (just make sure to wear a cap if you choose to take a swim in the lap pool, they are stricter than the security agents at the airport).
We spent most of our time splashing around in the outdoor pools, standing underneath fountains that massaged your neck and back, watching the many chess players try to outwit each other, floating in a whirl pool, basking in the sun, and watching both locals and tourists lay in delight. To finish off your day at the spa, make sure to jump in a small 18ºC degree pool to close up your pores, minimize any swelling, and relax your muscles. After a full day of soaking it is only natural that you are in need of a hearty meal. We chose to feast like kings at Menza, tasting all sorts of Hungarian classics like, goulash soup and beef stew, finishing it off with a somlo sponge cake (I’m salivating just writing about this).
Budapest, with its myriad of charms, will never cease to amaze, for the paprika loving foodies, the thermal spa addicts, art nouveau snobs, and the party-goers, there is something for everyone. As Anthony Bourdain said, ‘Its beautiful here. They said that of course, that Budapest is beautiful. But it is in fact almost ludicrously beautiful”.