I’m a sucker for new places. When Julian’s high school friend invited us to his wedding, I managed to find a way to get there despite unreasonable high ticket prices (gotta love Mom and her million – literally – airline miles). Before arriving, I knew very little about Hungary – I had an old babysitter from there, it was in the Eastern Bloc, Hungarian is a really hard language, they make good wine, and most importantly, it was some place I’d never been. My impressions after – it was a lovely city with friendly people, a lot of history, and plenty to do. A long weekend in Budapest wasn’t long enough to see it all.
The city of Budapest is split by the Danube River into two parts – hilly Buda to the west, and bustling Pest to the east.
We stayed in Buda and spent a lot of time wandering through Pest. And I loved it!
If you find yourself with an opportunity to visit Budapest, go for it! And while you are there, you should:
Go on a tour, or two
In addition to my standard free tour (see below), I splurged on a food tour (Jewish Cuisine and Culture). It was a bit pricey ($85) but it was a small group – just 3 of us with the guide – and included several stops for food and drink. We enjoyed matze ball soup, goose liver pate salad, some baked bean/goose leg dish, stuffed goose neck (it was like a sausage), and a layered dessert with poppy seed, plum and apple goodness. Everything was delish – and perhaps more importantly, something I’d never order on my own.
We also wandered around the Jewish Quarter discussing life for Jews in Budapest. For many years, Jews faced persecution in Hungary, culminating when the Nazis occupied Hungary in 1944 (they were aligned during the war, but at some point, Germany got mad at Hungary for talking with the enemy, Russia, and turned on its ally). Most of the Jews in the countryside were sent to concentration camps, while Jews in Budapest were forced to live in horrible, cramped conditions in the Jewish Ghetto.
The Great Synagogue with its Holocaust Memorial
Currently there is a controversial memorial under construction in the city. It is meant to depict “evil Germany” preying on Hungarian Jews. But many people – the German government, the US government, Jewish organizations, and most importantly, Hungarians (Jewish and not), have spoken out against this monument claiming that it whitewashes the actions of Hungary and places all the blame of the atrocities of the war on Germany, when Hungary spent many years prior to WWII persecuting Jews, and it was Hungary who took it upon itself to send Jews to concentration camps. Since the start of construction this spring, families of Hungarian Holocaust victims have protested the memorial, with their own memorial of sorts.
The protest memorial in front of the construction of the actual “memorial” in the back.
While I enjoyed the tour, it was, as I said, a bit pricy. I’m slightly hesitant to recommend it on that account, but I do recommend food tours in general (I did my first back in Philly and it was fabulous!). And there are other (free) tours of the Jewish quarter as well.
My second walking tour didn’t disappoint. Free tour options in Budapest included a standard city tour, a Jewish quarter tour, and a Communism tour, which we did. It was great. Our tour guides were enthusiastic and informative (without being annoying). We focused on everyday life in Budapest under Soviet control, as well as post-communist Budapest.
Communist housing blocks from above
At the end of WWII, Hungary was “liberated” from the Nazis by the Soviets. Although liberation is not quite the most accurate term. Hungary was actually one of the most “liberal” communist countries of the Eastern Bloc, and after the death of Stalin in the 1950s, they lived under “happy communism.” Budapest is home to the first McDonalds behind the Iron Curtain.
We learned about housing, media, health care, education, and travel on our tour. Related to travel, there were 2 different types of passports in communist Hungary. The blue one was commonly issued and let one travel to other Eastern Bloc countries. In line with communist propaganda, travel among communist countries was heavily subsidized. A week at a seaside resort along the Black Sea would cost about 40 euros (travel, hotel, food…). If you wanted to travel outside of the communist countries, you needed to apply for a red passport. It was expensive and could take several years to get it issued, and when you were authorized to travel, you were often supervised (by tour guides who basically served as spies) or had to check in often during your trip.
We also discussed the challenges which Hungary is facing today as a post-communist country. It has only been 24 years since they have emerged from communism, but in terms of the economics, political system, and social policies, there is still a lot to be desired (at least according to our Hungarian tour guides).
All in all, it was a really interesting tour, especially if you are like me and did not learn any post-WWII history in school.
Drink some wine
Who knew that Hungary is known for its wine?! At first I was a bit skeptical after reading all the different varieties they produced (how can they be good at producing so many?) but it turns out that as Hungary is at the border of several different geographical regions, it is full of many microclimates and soil types. I first had Hungarian wine a month before our trip. Friends brought back a bottle after their own trip, and greedily gulped down several glasses, despite not typically being a fan of white wine. Every glass of wine I had in Budapest was delish. The wedding we attended was held in one of the wine regions that is especially known for having good wine. Next time I’m back in Budapest I’d like to do some tastings at one of the many wine bars to further explore Hungarian wines.
The wine list at a nice restaurant we ate (and drank) at – all Hungarian wines!
Hungary also has some nice craft brews (TasteHungary has a craft brew tour too). We had a yummy black IPA (for $2.50 a pint, heaven!) at Csak a jó sör (translates as Only Good Beer), a great little bottle shop and pub.
And I had a massive (ok, just 0.5L but a huge glass) award-winning Legenda Joker IPA at a cute little café near our hotel (that we only discovered on the last night…).
Visit the Great Market Hall
Remember in Stockholm how I said I had a bit of a fear in shopping at the market halls. Well, still there – but I did manage to buy (with the help of Julian) some paprika, dried fruits, and danish-like treats.
We also enjoyed the famous langos (fried dough covered with sour cream and cheese). Supposedly it is perfect for hangover recovery, but also good for second breakfast.
Market Hall tip: get there early! We were there before 10 and it was easy to move around and explore, but when we left an hour later the crowds were rather unpleasant.
Go to the baths
Budapest is built over thermal springs and there are several thermal baths around the city. We decided to visit the Szechenyi Baths, the biggest thermal baths in not only Budapest, but all of Europe.
There are outdoor and indoor baths but we stayed outside (as suggested by Rick Steves), where there are 2 relaxing pools and one swimming (laps) pool. The water is between 86 and 100F and the sulfate, calcium and magnesium in the water is supposed to be good for inflammation and such. The baths also seemed to be good for 30-somethings who were still a bit sluggish after a long night of drinking and dancing at a wedding…
Szchenyi from above (on the bottom left you can see the pools)
While there were plenty of tourist, the place was also popular among the locals. It wasn’t a luxury experience though (in my mind, I was comparing it to the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, although that is quite the tourist attraction as opposed to a local hangout like Szchenyi). Things like the locker room and shower areas were, not really dirty, but certainly outdated and not sparkling clean.
Even though there were many people, it was quite relaxed and a really fun experience!
Drink up at a ruin pub
Ruin pubs came about in 2004 when the city was determining what to do with all the buildings and courtyards that were in disrepair after years in the post-communist era. For one particular block the plan was to tear down many buildings, but someone came up with the idea to wait until fall for the demolition, and use the space as a pub for the summer months. The idea was a hit, the concept stuck, the buildings weren’t torn down, and now there are tons of what are now called ruin pubs around the city (concentrated near the Jewish Quarter).
Typically you enter through what look like abandoned entry ways and find yourself in large open courtyards or halls with funky and eclectic décor. The above picture is from when we popped in early in the afternoon to check it out, but when we arrived at “happy hour” time for drinks, there was more atmosphere and energy.
We visited the original ruin pub, Szimpla Kert, but there are over 20. Rick Steves even has a ruin pub crawl in his book.
Enjoying Hungarian beers at Szimpla Kert
Take in the views
Castle Hill (the neighborhood we stated in, in Buda) has great views over the River Danube and Pest.
View from our hotel room window
While there are some attractions at the top of the hill (the castle, some museums…), we chose to just walk around and take in the views in the early evening when there were not many people around.
In a nutshell, my trip to Budapest was fantastic! There was so much to do (there was a lot that we never got too), a lot of interesting history, and a great atmosphere. I highly recommend making the trip. In fact, maybe I’ll join you. I do still have to try the goulash…
(Wedding recap to come as well!)
Hotel: We stayed in a great little hotel in the Castle District – Bellevue B&B. It was a good price for a clean and rather large room. The location was both a plus and a downside. Plus in that we had great views, it was quiet, and we got to explore a neighborhood we would have been likely to skimp on otherwise. The downside was that it was a bit far from the rest of the attractions (30-40 minute walk or 10 minute metro ride) so you once you were out for the day, you tended to stay out.
Transport: From the airport, there was a shuttle bus system that would drop you off at your destination. Not as fast as a cab, but cheap and easy. Within the city it is easy enough to walk around, but the metro system is also fast and convenient. Trips were about $1.50 each. Budapest has Europe’s oldest metro line, and what must be (at the time of writing this) Europe’s newest metro line – it just opened in April and is really nice.
Food: I didn’t eat any goulash, whoops! But we did have a really great dinner at Klassz. I actually was surprised to find Budapest wasn’t all that cheap (about the same as in the US), but for about 40 euros at Klassz, we had several glasses of good wine, an appetizer, and entrees, all in a great atmosphere. Another favorite was Hummasbar – simple, yummy, and to die for lemonade!