Budapest has accumulated its own sense of vibrant mystique over the years. It has had a tumultuous past that’s set it on its own distinct trajectory compared to other major cities in Europe like Paris, London, Rome, or even nearby Prague.
When I went in mid-April, spring was just beginning to emerge. The weather was warm, and the trees were beginning to blossom. The many iconic buildings and sights were brought to life amidst tender pink blooms and budding leaves in shades of vivid green. Even walking around without spending a dime is enough reason to visit this place. Budapest speaks for itself.
Getting the lay of the land
Budapest straddles the Danube River. The Pest (pronounced “pesht”) side is the flatter half of the city where the Jewish Quarter is situated. Perched on a hill at the western bank of the Danube you will find the Buda side. From the vantage point of the Szechenyi Bridge, which connects the two halves of the city, you can see the historic Romanesque buildings standing with dignity against the vast backdrop of blue sky.
On a sunny morning I strolled from the Jewish Quarter across the Danube to the Fisherman’s Bastion. If you take your time and allow yourself to get a bit lost, this walk will take an hour or so. At the Fisherman’s Bastion I stopped to have lunch in front of the stunning St. Matthias Church with its dazzling orange and white tiled roof. I ate at the adjacent Piknik Pavilon, lured by the pork shoulders roasting on a spit under a green and white canvas tent. This restaurant offers a remarkable view of the church and an opportunity to dine al fresco on a glorious spring day. The menu features a myriad of local dishes.
On my return from the Fisherman’s Bastion, I crossed back to the Pest side of the city and walked along the river for a while pausing to sit with my feet dangling over the water’s edge.
Things that are totally worth doing
Spending a morning at the thermal baths is an absolute must! The traditional bathhouses of Budapest are paved in colorful mosaics and accented in marble. They are a quintessential element of daily life in the city. I went to the famed Széchenyi Baths, which are astonishing in their grandeur. You will see that many of the attendees are elderly Hungarians. It is not uncommon to witness a pair of old Hungarian guys with potbellies and big mustaches playing chess in the water. What is more eastern European than that? Go early because the baths get crowded with these folks and others. The interior is a maze of corridors clad in shining tiles and lined with pillars. Inside there are steam rooms, saunas, and smaller pools.
Know that it is common to be pretty exhausted and dehydrated after a session at the thermal baths. It’s a good idea to plan time for a nap afterwards. If you do choose the Szeychenyi Baths, walk to Heroes Square and down the impeccably elegant Andassy Avenue on the way back.
This might be a product of my own idiosyncratic fascination with the morbid, but if you’re looking for a different kind of perspective on the city, head over to the prominent Kerepesi Cemetery. Here lie many important figures in Hungarian history including poets, academics, inventors, and politicians. The tombstones and mausoleums are enormous and extravagant.
The reason I felt inspired to come here was because of the following description in Milan Kundera’s book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “Cemeteries in Bohemia are like gardens. The graves are covered with grass and colorful flowers. Modest tombstones are lost in the greenery. When the sun goes down, the cemetery sparkles with tiny candles… no matter how brutal life becomes, peace always reigns in the cemetery. Even in wartime, even in Hitler’s time, even in Stalin’s time.” Although the book is set in Prague, the story stirred my intrigue for the sense of magic and folklore infused into the stark histories of this part of the world. The cemetery is both striking and stirring, indeed.
Food & drink
Naturally, one of my main priorities for any trip is to eat like a local or at least test out some of the best regional cuisine I can find within my budget. So once my feet were sore from walking around and I needed a pick-me-up, I had some tea at the very bohemian Mozaik Teaház. The space was dim and the wooden tables were decorated with fading mosaics.
Even more so than teahouses, traditional cafes and coffeehouses are the big thing in Budapest, and they are exceptionally grand. I seriously recommend visiting at least one of these during your trip. You’ve probably read about Gerbeaud. It’s very pretty inside with its lavish period décor (try sneaking inside to have a look around), but not worth the expenditure at all. I kid you not, a slice of cake is $15. Instead, I went to Central Kávéház in the Palace District and had the delicate Esterhazy torte, a dessert that is traditional to Budapest. Central Kávéház is just as grandiose as Gerbeaud, and offers a perfect depiction of the art nouveau aesthetic.
While much of Eastern and Central European cuisine gets a bad rap, I found the food in Budapest to include a variety of tasty dishes. For dinner, go to Macesz Huszár. The interior is simple but replete with old school charm. They serve traditional Jewish cuisine as an ode to the large Jewish community that once resided in Budapest. I had a medley of different dishes made with goose including goose liver and sausage paired with pureed beets. Each meal comes with matzo and traditional Jewish poppy seed bread instead of your average dinner roll.
I also went to Kispiac. It is a quiet little bistro, and the food and wine are seriously phenomenal. This place was a 20-minute walk from my hostel in the Jewish Quarter, and it’s located in a part of town that offers a nice escape from the more touristy hubs of the city. Upon arrival, the staff gave me the pleasant impression that they had been patiently waiting for me to arrive. (This may have been due to the fact that I emailed them an hour prior to see if I could bump my reservation to an earlier time because I was hungry and just generally pumped to eat.)
Either way, they made sure that I dined like a queen. My meal consisted of Hungarian goulash served with succulent roasted chicken, spätzle, and a dollop of fresh sour cream. At the suggestion of my waiter, I added a side of assorted pickled veggies, a common palette cleanser to accompany a Hungarian dinner.
Budapest is also known for its wine. If you’re in the mood to do some tastings, try Doblo. It’s a pretty upscale wine bar with a great selection of local wines on offer. Kispiac also had a pretty solid house wine, regionally sourced, of course. Really, this stuff could rival many French varieties, in my humble opinion.
There are a smattering of ruins converted into bars located throughout the city, which draw a lot of notoriety to Budapest’s nightlife scene. I went to the sprawling, multi- level club called Szimpla. The venue is literally housed within the structure of crumbling ruins, and its many rooms are filled with super eclectic and intriguing décor. Plus, there is a large outdoor patio to absorb the large crowds of people who come here each weekend.
Where to stay
As for the accommodations, I stayed at Unity Hostel. The staff creates a great sense of community among their guests. They offer complementary breakfasts in the morning set at a round table in the small common room. It was here that I met people with whom I ended up spending much of my trip. Unity Hostel is located in the heart of the thriving Jewish Quarter, right in front of a bus stop where you can catch a lift directly to the Budapest-Keleti Railway. Prices for staying at this hostel are pretty cheap as well; I stayed here for only about $13 a night!
For me, Budapest was a city of enticing yet underappreciated beauty, fleeting friendships, and excellent cuisine. The locals are friendly, and the city is striking in its resiliency. There’s no other place quite like it.