Our first adventure to Eastern Europe! We landed in Budapest, Hungary on Thursday, April 14 just before midnight and spent the next 3 days exploring Buda, Pest, and Óbuda, the three cities that united to form Budapest, capital of Hungary. Budapest has quite the list of World Heritage Sites and I think we actually made it to all of them, including riding the second-oldest metro line in the world.
We’re officially hooked on the free walking tours offered in many major European cities. They’re a great way to orient yourself in a new city and learn about your destination from a local. And, it’s a fabulous opportunity to snag some recommendations for off-the-beaten-track places. First thing Friday morning we joined one of Budapest’s walking tours which hit up most of the main landmarks and gave us an overview of the historical significance of each site. We also heard a bit about the impact of Communism in Budapest. Before this trip, I hadn’t realized that Hungary was fighting for independence through 1989.
Our first impression of the city was that certain areas were grittier than many of the polished places we’ve recently visited, thanks in part to the not so distant painful past. Bullet holes in buildings were common. I’m pretty sure our Airbnb in the Jewish District was at the center of some kind of traumatic siege. But, everything was much more affordable than Western Europe. 4 nights in this place cost similar to what we’ve paid for a single night in London. Warm weather + cheap beer/food/accommodation + gritty = college student/bachelor party/hipster heaven.
“Ruin bars” in the Jewish District are popular among the 20-something set but we didn’t end up visiting any… even walking by them is a bit overwhelming. The 7th district of Budapest was left empty and abandoned in the 40s after thousands of its Jewish inhabitants were deported during WWII. The area fell into serious disarray and has only recently started to revitalize, thanks in part to the hipster/bohemian ruin bars that started popping up in abandoned buildings in the 90s. They started as laid-back “take back our city” drinking dens and have since grown into a major tourist attraction. The bars are giant and maze-like, many outdoor, packed with people. Furnished with mismatched, discarded furniture and decorated with all sorts of abandoned items from inflatable clowns to old cars to someone’s paper mache rabbit collection, these places embody the resourcefulness, grit, and party heart of Budapest.
Also, the people walking into these bars look like CHILDREN due to the very low drinking age in Europe.
We were more interested in trying Hungarian wine and so one night we went to a great wine bar that I would wholeheartedly recommend called Doblo. I tried a Tokaji white wine and Connor had a Cabernet Franc, both recommended by the staff, and both very good. Hungarian food isn’t much to speak of, but we did have a fantastic dinner at a modern Hungarian restaurant called Mak. Great spot if you want a nicer dinner out.
One completely new experience was visiting a thermal bath. There are a lot of these in Budapest, each with its own history and set of rules, and we decided to try the Szechenyi Baths since someone recommended it and they allow women and men in the pools at the same time. We hopped on the historical M1 metro which was so cute, though definitely old and loud, and crossed our fingers that the baths wouldn’t be a super weird experience.
The inside is massive and we had no idea what we were doing. The signs were all in Hungarian and the only thing we could decipher were the signs posting the temperature of each pool (in Celsius. I hate Celsius. You can’t do the conversion in your head so it just seems mean). They each have different mineral levels, and we swam in 5 or so of the pools, and they were definitely mineral-y but I didn’t come out cured of anything so I’m not so sure about that part of the experience. We tried the sauna and it was so hot my eyeballs started shriveling as soon as we shut the door.
This particular bath venue turns into a giant party with questionable activities in the evening, fueled by the on site bars and presumably the goodies in people’s backpacks. We had our own picnic up on a balcony that was labeled VIP (could this really have been the only English sign??). The weirdest thing about the whole place was that the outdoor pools were extremely warm and I felt like I couldn’t stay in for very long. Especially with the sun out. But it was very fun and relaxing and the Art Deco building was beautiful, and I would definitely do it again. Sorry, no pics of the inside since we locked up our belongings.
The area around the baths had quite a bit to see so we visited City Park, Heroes Square, Vajdahunyad Castle, and wrapped up the afternoon by walking down the UNESCO listed street Andrássy út. The House of Terror is located on Andrássy and while we didn’t go inside, we stopped to read some of the signs posted on the street. The building was headquarters for the Nazis and then the Russians and used to imprison, torture, and interrogate victims. Today the building is a museum and a memorial to victims.
Our final day we went to mass at St. Stephen’s Basilica then walked to Margaret Island. There was a half-marathon that morning in the area. (How fun would it be to do a race in a foreign city? I bet it’s a great way to see a new place.) The island was an important religious center back in the Middle Ages and today it’s mainly a getaway from bustling city life. A Dominican church and convent are now in ruins and after paying a quick visit we had a picnic on the river bank.
Budapest has commuter boats that zigzag up and down the Danube so instead of walking all the way back to the center of Pest we hopped on one of these. They’re much cheaper than the boat tours and dinner cruises that are all over the place, and it was really fun seeing the city from the water. We actually ended up with a free ride because the guy working on the boat looked at me blankly, like I wasn’t even there, when I asked about buying tickets.
We took the boat all the way south to a stop near Gellert Hill in Buda and then climbed the hill. At the top is the Freedom Statue, considered a symbol of the city, and old army barracks. The view was magnificent and worth the climb.
- Budapest is gorgeous and the least crowded place we’ve visited. If you can avoid the party scene, it’s a fun trip. You just have to look a little harder for the gems.
- There are markets everywhere and they seem to have the exact same booths at each market. Paprika is basically the same price everywhere.
- Hungarian street food isn’t that bad.
- I regret not trying Pálinka, a fruit brandy famous in the area that I’m sure I would have hated.
- Bring earplugs if you are staying in the Jewish District. We did and it saved us.
- Most people under 40 speak English, but if you learn hello and thank you Hungarians will be so so thrilled. A little effort goes a long way.
- Their currency is the Florint and while Euros are accepted most places, it’s better to use the local currency.
- Sitting on the Danube at night looking at the lights is gorgeous.
- My new favorite beverage is a Borsodi Friss Bodza. Only 1.5% ABV and comes in a variety of flavors including elderflower, grapefruit, lemon, orange… I only tried the first two and they were amazing.
- Free entertainment tip: sit on the Danube where the Viking River Cruises park and watch their dinner entertainment. We watched some local dancers jump and twirl in unison and it was hilarious. Especially without hearing the music.