I liked Budapest. It surprised me how much I enjoyed our time there. Maybe it was because it was our first European city after months of traveling in Asia and Australia, but what I remember is the unique, gritty character of the city.
This blog will be a bit different. By the time we reached Europe, Jon and I needed to slow down. Jon had to return to working more hours and we needed to catch our breath. We stayed in Budapest for 11 nights, renting an apartment and taking our time to explore the city. Most mornings we spent working, Jon at his job and me on the blog and planning more of our travels. This left us the afternoons to explore the city. We also relaxed and caught up on some of our TV shows! Budapest has been influenced by many cultures. Early during our time in Budapest, we took a free walking tour. Our guide described how Budapest retained traditions brought by other cultures during their occupation of Hungary, such as French architecture, Turkish baths, and German food. Rebuilding itself again, after communist rule, Budapest has a cool, slightly dark vibe which allows ruin bars and escape room games to flourish. Best of all, Budapest is cheap. We were able to explore many parts of the city, enjoy many meals out, and do it all for not much money.
Day 1 – Monday, April 27, 2015
Our flight had a layover in Moscow and we arrived in Budapest late in the day. Our shared taxi dropped us off at our first Airbnb apartment in the district of Erzsebetvaros. We were initially concerned when entering the building as it seemed very dark and rundown, but those concerns were eliminated when we entered the apartment and saw that it was very nice and recently renovated. The building was old and had a big courtyard in the middle, giving it a lot of character. We settled in and got some much needed sleep.
Day 2 – Tuesday, April 28, 2015
The buildings of Budapest were all of similar architecture and size. Thick stone walls with arches for doorways supported more decorative upper stories. Some buildings had huge statues in place of columns supporting balconies. The architecture of the buildings was a bit heavy and monotonous, but it was a refreshing change from Asia. Occasionally we would see a dome or spire stick out from the rest of the buildings and we’d be drawn to it. In this manner we came across St. Stephen’s Basilica, Szabadsag ter (park), and the Hungarian Parliament Building. The wind and rain started to pick up as we approached the Danube River, so we turned back to get dinner. We walked towards Liszt Ferenc ter (a pedestrian mall) and the restaurant our host had recommended we try, Menza. We had to wait a little while to be seated, but the time went by quickly. The atmosphere was nice, and it felt good to be back in the western world. We started the meal with an antipasta salad. It was decomposed into separate elements on the plate; patee, cheeses, spreads, mushrooms, and a slice of salami. Neither of us were able to finish our main courses which were a pork chop (served like a pork schnitzel) and beef stew with spatzel. The meals were good, but not much different or any better than we can find in German restaurants in America.
Day 3 – Wednesday, April 29, 2015
There are a number of free walking tours (for the cost of a tip) around the city and we had decided to try the 2:30pm tour with FreeWalkingTours. We met the tour group in Vorosmarty Square. There was a very large number of people there (I think close to 40). Two energetic girls were signing in everyone who had come. We were divided into two groups and set off to see the city. The tour took us past the Danube River, Erzsebet Square, St. Stephen Basilica, across Chain Bridge and to the Royal Palace and Matthias Church, among other sites. More interesting than the buildings was the information about the Hungarian history and traditions that the guide talked about at each stop. By the end of the tour we had seen a lot and were tired. We had dinner reservations at 9:30pm, but we left at 8pm to check out a ruin-bar that was on the way. Ruin bars are unique to Budapest, they are bars which have opened in dilapidated buildings that would require extensive renovation work to become an apartment or office space. Instead the buildings were taken over by bars who use the space to create elaborate and themed art installations. We went to Instant which has an ‘enchanted forest’ theme. The building is very large and contains 25 rooms, 7 bars, and 7 dj booths. When we were there it wasn’t crowded and music wasn’t playing throughout the building, but we were able to wander around through the rooms. Each room is different and some are very small and hidden away. The centerpiece was the large two story courtyard decorated with a tree, owl-like Pegasus, and rabbits hung from the ceiling. Other rooms had old-fashion flora wall paper and a random assortment of chairs. There was something a little creepy and offsetting about the ruin-bar that makes them exciting. Our dinner reservation was at Hungarikum Bisztro, a restaurant that serves traditional, authentic Hungarian food. The restaurant has gained popularity through tripadvisor and is difficult to get into. We were advised that normally 1-2 days in advance a reservation is needed, however that particular week they were busier than normal. We each had a glass of Hungarian wine which the waitress told us was well known and it was much better than the house wines we normally try in restaurants. After ordering, we were given small appetizers of bread with an onion dip on them. Our main courses were roasted leg of duck with cabbage and potatoes and pork lion in paprika sauce with spatzel. Both were good and very filling. We preferred the Hungarikum Biztro to the food we had eaten the previous night. At the end of the meal our waitress brought us complimentary shots of palinka, a traditional fruit brandy.
Day 4 – Thursday, April 30, 2015
We wandered around the city for a while, and one thing became clear; Budapest has a bar culture. We passed bar after bar offering drinks and no food or a limited selection of burgers and fried food. Our luck changed when we passed Gozsdu Udvar. Gozsdu Udvar is something of a combination of a Budapest courtyard and a pedestrian mall. This narrow space between buildings was full of restaurants, cafes, and bars and it seemed like the place to be. We were seated right away at Spiler. Spiler was interesting in that it has a west side (European) and an east side (Asian) menu. We split a very good bowl of goulash and a veal steak with risotto. It was a fabulous meal with good wine. The carrot cake dessert was different than an American carrot cake and not to our tastes, but the peanut ice cream served with it was fantastic. It was a bit expensive by Budapest standards, but not as pricey as we are used to in DC.
Day 5 – Friday, May 1, 2015
By luck, we were in Budapest on Europe’s Labor Day, a national holiday. Banks and grocery stores were closed, but the rest of the city was busy. Hungarians from around the region gather in Budapest to celebrate. We had done a quick search online and found that the city center was having an airshow and car race as part of the celebration. We couldn’t find specific times, but around 11am we started to hear the buzz of planes overhead, so we ran out the doors and to the Danube River. As we got closer, we could see three planes doing acrobatic loops and dives in the sky. We got to see a good amount on the walk, but would lose the planes as they dipped behind buildings. When we reached the Danube near Chain Bridge, it was crowded. The three planes we had seen earlier had gone but something was being announced. Jon told me there was a passenger jet coming. I assumed he meant the stunt planes had stopped to let a commercial fight pass. I was wrong, 2 minutes later a large jet skimmed low over the river and passed the Chain Bridge. Once we had found a spot to stand we were ready with cameras when it came by again.
After the airliner, a helicopter started to do tricks. It banked vertically up, which I didn’t know helicopters could do. Then it made a series of hops and sharp turns along the length of the river. Next some parachutists jumped from a plane and tried to land on a small platform in the middle of the river. The first parachutist landed on the river bank. The second looked like he would hit the platform but he overshot it and landed in the water with a splash. The third parachutist successfully landed on the platform. After the parachutists, three old-fashion planes did several flybys. The airshow had some nice things, but it was slow moving between events. We were getting tired and Jon wanted to find some food. We had to walk while a bit to find food in a town square (we didn’t see any food stands set up especially for the holiday). While we were in line for food we heard more planes. Occasionally we could see a stunt plane spin up into the sky and dive down in a free fall before pulling up. By the time we had our food and made it back to the river we saw the plane fly under the Chain Bridge. That seemed to be the end of the show.
We started to walk to the parliament building, but crowds were already forming on the sidewalks to watch the next event, a formula 1 race. We decided not to miss the event and found a spot to wait on the side of the road. Unfortunately, the event was still an hour or more away. As we waited, more crowds gathered behind us. At 2:30pm the race started. Formula 1 cars, one at a time, would leave a starting point and complete a timed circuit which went along the Danube, crossed the Chain Bridge into a roundabout, and crossed the bridge again before ending in a longer straightaway. We were standing right at the end of the roundabout. We watched several cars come through, including some sets of two before leaving. Now it was my turn to eat, so we walked to the langos (a traditional Hungarian snack) stand that had been recommended to us. There was a long line, but we waited anyway. Even after ordering it was 15 minutes until our order was ready. Langos are a funnel cake’s savory cousin; fried dough topped with garlic sauce, sour cream, and cheese. It was very much like a pizza built onto a funnel cake. In the evening, we headed back out to join the FreeWalkingTours pub crawl. The pub crawl had the same meeting point as the previous day and then walks to 4 or 5 bars in the Jewish District, including at least 2 ruin bars. Along the way, 3 free shots are guaranteed. When we arrived, a few people were already there and we started talking with a couple from Vienna and another from San Francisco. The overall group size was much smaller than our daytime tour, which we preferred. The first bar we walked to was Szomszed in Gozsdu Udvar. At the bar we were given our first free shot, which was strawberry syrup with carbonized vodka. We were also advised at Szomszed to try Hungarian craft beers which we probably wouldn’t be able to find at most bars. I had a Kapucinus (lager) while Jon tried a dark IPA. The second stop on the bar tour was to the oldest bar in Budapest, which has been around for a whooping 30 years. The bar is very nondescript and walking past we wouldn’t have even known it was a bar without our guide (I never did get the name because there was no sign out front). Inside we were able to buy shots of Palakina, a Hungarian fruit brandy, for 550FTH, then we were ushered back outside and to the next stop on our tour. Ellato Kert and Taqueria was the first ruin bar of the night. The bar was mostly in a small courtyard whose walls were painted with looney tunes characters. We were given our second free shot of the night there, a grapefruit juice and vodka. The last bar of the night was Fogas Ház. Fogas Ház was another ruin bar in which old narrow halls led into a huge courtyard. We were given another free shot (some dark liquid) and bid-farewell to our guides. After one drink, we left with our new friends from the tour group and decided to try out Szimpla Kert, the most popular ruin bar. When we arrived there was a long line to get in, so we decided to grab a bite to eat instead and call it a night.
Day 6 – Saturday, May 2, 2015
We had plans with our friends to try to get into Szimpla again and were going to meet them that night. Before meeting them we went for dinner at Kiado Kocsma. Kiado was something we randomly found on Trip Advisor and it was a great find. The restaurant is in a small, dark bar, but the menu was filled with great looking food. We each had a cup of goulash along with our meals of spinach gnocchi and sausage. Next we met our friends at Szimpla Kert ruin bar. It was 10pm when we got there and their was no line to get in. Much better than the long line we saw at midnight several times. Szimpla is the most popular ruin bar and for a good reason. It is completely intriguing. Wandering from room to room you are immersed in a mixture of graffiti and intended art installations. In the courtyard and stairwells you can sense the old building’s structure. It really does feel like stumbling into a secret party in an abandoned building. We got drinks and found a table in a quiet corner of the lesser crowded second floor.
Day 7 – Sunday, May 3, 2015
Not wanting to waste another day, we decided to take a day trip to Szentendre on the Danube Bend. The Danube Bend has several small towns that we read about again and again in guidebooks. Although Szentendre is the most touristy, we choice it for the same reason as most people, because it is the closest. We were able to take a train for less than $10. After being in Japan, the trains in Hungary didn’t impress us and neither did the confusing ticket system and self validation (A train ride requires multiple tickets. In this case one for Budapest proper and a second ticket once we passed out of it). It was raining lightly when we got off the train in Szentendre. From the train station there is a slight walk to the town center, but it was easy to find. We had trouble finding what differentiates the Danube Bend towns from one another and Szentendre lived up to our expectations; it was cute, and had many shops, restaurants, churches, and winding streets. A sunnier day might have been better, but after walking around for an hour on a chilly day we had seen enough. We got lunch at Elizabeths, which was good and then caught the train back to Budapest.
Day 8 – Monday, May 4, 2015
We had a full day Monday even though it didn’t begin until mid-afternoon. Mt. Gellert was our day’s activity. Walking to Mt. Gellert took us more south than we had been before. As we neared the Elizabeth Bridge we saw a crowd on Belgrad Rakpart Street and let our feet lead us there. Belgrad Rakpart was a cute street to walk down, even if it was very touristy. Our stroll led us to Fovam Square and to the Central Market Hall, which I’d been meaning to visit anyway. The Central Market Hall is as it sounds, a large building housing produce and butcher stands. I had heard that it was worth visiting for a meal, so we entered and walked through the isles of deli cases. Central Market wasn’t nearly as big as the markets in Asia, but it was also cleaner and less crowded. Because of the reviews I’d read, I had expected food stands with ready to eat offerings, but there were very few of those. Most of the stands sold raw meats, prepared whole salamis, or fruits. Mt. Gellert was a short stroll over the Szabadsag Bridge from the market. At the base of Mt. Gellert we has great views of the Danube and we were able to see the Cave Church, a church (turned tourist attraction) built into the Gellert hill side. Most tourists head to Mt. Gellert for one thing; a view of the city below. Like all Hungarian hills, Mt. Gellert isn’t huge and is fairly easy to hike up. I found the hike to be quite pleasant and would recommend it for its own sake if you had extra time while visiting Budapest. Criss-crossing paths and stairways lead up the hill. Along the way are many hidden viewpoints peeking out over the hillside with benches to sit on. At the very top of Mt. Gellert is Citadel Fortress and the Hungarian Liberty Statue.
We took our time coming back down the hill as well. The north side, from which we exited, didn’t seem to have the same number of viewpoints and hidden benches as the south had. We crossed Dubrentei Square and sat down at a restaurant with outdoor seating. After a break, and when we throught we had killed enough time, we climbed Castle Hill to Buda. We arrived at Labirintus (2000FTH) just before 6pm when their oil lamp tours start. Buda (the city on the west bank of the Danube) is built on top of an elaborate cave and cellar system which connected a lot of the town via underground passageway in the middle ages. For several years, a large area of this labyrinth was open to tour, with features such as the large crowded head statue. A few years ago the cave was shut to the public, and finally Labirintus opened allowing visitors to walk through 1 kilometer of the caves. At 6pm, the lights are shut off and visitors and tour the caves by oil lamp. On our way in, three girls hurried past with flashlights. I caught a small snippet of their conversation, “I could never tour these caves in the dark, I’d be petrified. I was petrified touring them in the light.” Touring the cave by oil lamp was creepy and fun. For part of the way, mannequins in Victorian era clothing are positioned in scenes from the ‘A masked ball’ opera. We had a lot of laughs; some were nervous giggles and others riotous shrieking as, in the dark, Jon walked into a flooded room and danced around trying to find higher ground. Even if you go during the day, there is one area where you can experience walking through a portion of the cave in the dark (we had our oil lamps for this as well). The creepiness of the caves reaches a peak with the exhibit about the days when the cave was used as a prison and its most famous prisoner, Dracula. In this area faceless mannequins in dark capes stand behind bars, projections of skulls are shown, and there is a display of impaled wax heads. As if that wasn’t scarier enough, this part of the cave had very high humidity creating fog so thick we could barely see. After walking past the Dracula exhibit, the rest of the cave wasn’t as bad. It was a surprise to emerge from the Labyrinth to daylight and clear skies. Nearby was St. Matthus Church and Fishermans Baston, so we walked to them to enjoy a great view of the Danube and Parliament. For dinner we stayed in Buda and ate at Horgasztanya to try their fish stew. We each ordered a kettle of soup, Jon had catfish and Alexis had carp, which were laden with tender fish and very good.
Day 9 – Tuesday, May 5, 2015
Our first stop of the day was the House of Terror (2000FTH). The House of Terror is a museum about the Nazi and Communist Occupations of Hungary and how they ruled using terror. The museum hadn’t been very high on our to-do list until another couple we met raved about it. The museum is housed in a building that used to be the headquarters of several political parties. The concept is that the building itself has lived the history it is educating. The exhibits are mostly in Hungarian, but each room has a page (or more) of English at the door. The museum has a modern design that makes each room intriguing, however for us the museum was a bit confusing. I think if we were more familiar with the history of WWII as it relates to Eastern Europe politics we would have gained more from the experience. We also couldn’t tell why the objects on display were of importance and often times the displays and videos seemed more like performance art than historical antiquity. One example which I’m convinced was performance art was a video showing men and woman, one at a time, walking into a room and changing from German Nazi clothing to Soviet Communist clothing. From the Terror Museum we jumped on a metro and went to Szechenyi Bath (4500FTH). Szechenyi Bath is the largest and most popular (with tourists) of Budapest’s bath houses. The bath houses are a reminder of the Turkish occupation of Hungary and have become part of the Hungarian culture. There are no fewer than 6 bath houses operating in Budapest to this day. Szechienyi has indoor pools, outdoor pools, saunas, and steam rooms. We started in a warm indoor pool, but soon headed outdoors. The outdoor pools are what we most often has seen picture of, and they were crowded. I assume that they are built to resemble Roman or Turkish pools and are surrounded by archways, columns, and statues, however the effect to me was more of the 1920’s. Two semicircular pools were on either side of a lap pool (which was closed at the time). We started in the nearer outdoor pool, but soon left it to see if the others would be less crowded. It wasn’t, but we got in anyway. There were some bubble jets coming up from the bottom of the pool but they were all taken, so we found an empty spot in the center of the pool where there are two concentric walls. We enjoyed the water for 5 minutes before Alexis got punched in the ribs; or at least it felt like that as a strong water jet turned on in the wall next to her. Pretty soon we noticed the jet had created a strong current which was hard to fight. As a matter of fact, many jets had come on all pointed in the same direction and creating a whirlpool effect around the circular walls. For a while we joined the crowd and let ourselves get pushed around the circle. Soon more and more kids ran over to join the circle and it was crowded so we used some effort to escape it to a calmer area of the pool. We left the outdoor pools when Jon needed a snack. After eating we decided to explore inside of the building, of which we had only seen a small portion of before. The pool building had high arches and domed ceilings but the decoration was minimal. A few of the pools at each end of the building had columns rising up to the ceiling but not much else. We tried a sauna for a while and many pools of different temperatures. Near the center of the building Jon tried a wet steam room while Alexis soaked in another pool, both of which were menthol scented. Before leaving we took a quick dip in the hottest pool we could find, which came the closest to the hot tubs we are familiar with. Szechienyi Bath is in City Park, and if you are making the effort to get to that area of the city for the bath, I highly suggest you visit the park as well. Not far from the bath is Vajdahunyah Castle, a lovely building which seems to fly under the radar in travel guides. The castle had nice gardens and statues, but the architecture and gates are what stood out. Just outside of City Park is Hero’s Square where column promenades and statues are surrounded by Greek style buildings. For dinner we decided to play it cheap and easy and get a burger. Many websites have lists of the best burgers in Budapest. It was a pleasant surprise to see that a restaurant less than a block from our apartment, and which we’d walked past many times without giving a second thought to, was on several of the lists. W35 had delicious burgers which were are both in agreement are the best we’ve had since leaving America 4 months earlier.
Day 10 – Wednesday, May 6, 2015
It was time for us to visit St. Stephen’s Basilica. To enter there is a required 200FTH donation, bring exact change unless you want to donate more. The church was highly decorated inside. The dome was quite stunning as were the alters and organ. I was disappointed that there weren’t any English signs or pamphlets besides for one that explained a small alter. For the cost of the donation you can also enter the chapel where the basilica’s relic is kept, most of St. Stephen’s hand. It is another 200FTH to see the hand. When we left, it was a beautiful, sunny day and we wanted to stay outside. Nearby we noticed an extremely long line at an ice cream shop. Jon looked at Trip Advisor and saw that Gelato Rosa, the number #3 place in Budapest, was next to us. Gelato Rosa is popular for their unique flavors and also for the way their gelato is shaped into a rose before serving. We decided to try one and ordered three flavors; olive oil, chili chocolate, and basil lime (which was our favorite of the three). From the St. Stephen’s square we decided to walk to Szabadag Square and on to Parliament to enjoy the nice weather. A fountain was spraying at Szabagag Square and flowers were blooming at Parliament. We walked around Parliament along the Danube and past some statues. We continued north planning to intersect the streetcar line, but when we reached it we found that the line was closed for construction leaving us with a very long walk back to the apartment. At 7:15pm, we headed to Claustrophilia. Claustrophilia is an escape room game, something we’ve wanted to try for a very long time. Escape rooms started in Budapest, but are catching on around the world. In Budapest, they are much cheaper and more plentiful there than anywhere else. We had a blast and I highly recommend it. For dinner we ate at Fulemule, which was recommended to us by another couple on the walking tour who had eaten their chicken paprika (aka popercash). The restaurant was dim lit and quiet, a good place for a fancy date, although I think we would have preferred something more lively. The house wine was very good. Our meals each consisted of three pieces of roasted chicken in paprika sauce along with spatzel noodles.
Day 11 – Thursday, May 7, 2015
At 5pm we had a wine tasting in the Faust Wine Cellar. The walk there took us an entire hour. When we arrived at the Hilton, where the wine cellar is, we got lost trying to find it even though they had sent us explicit directions. From the hotel lobby, you have to cross into another building. Arched halls with some reused remnants of stones lead to a staircase. Down we went, then we came to a stone cellar room with a raised bridge which crossed to spiral stone stairs. The way to the tasting room was very cool. When we arrived we were seated. Although we had needed to make reservations far in advance, the room felt empty. We chose to do the ‘Red Lovers – short’ tasting. Short means 6 wines instead of 9. The tasting also comes with a small amount of water and little scones. The first wine wasn’t even red, it was Rosa. The next two wines were nice reds, one with a strong tobacco smell that changed to strawberries when aerated, and the other notes of cherries and blackberries. The fourth wine was dark red, but sweet. Too sweet for us. The final wine was a ‘forfeited’ red wine, basically a port (sweet dessert wine) that wasn’t from Portugal. The sixth glass was a call back, meaning we got more of our favorite which we had tried. The sommelier was busy, but I enjoyed what he had to say when he was with us. It was a slight disappointment that we didn’t get to try a Hungarian ‘Bulls Blood’ wine. There were two on the long red lovers menu but they were both omitted from the short tasting. After the tasting we walked towards a popular area to find a restaurant. Our first choice, Bock Bistro, seemed a bit too expensive. We ended up eating at Ket Szerecsen Kavez where we both had goulash for our final meal in Budapest. I followed my meal with a salad while Jon had lamb.
Day 12 – Friday, May 8, 2015
We packed up and walked to the train station to move on to our next location: Vienna, Austria.
Please see our follow up post, Budapest; Travel Insight for information on visas for Americans, transportation in Budapest, restaurants recommendations and more.