Regular readers of this blog might remember that we spent the month of February working a gin bar, serving breakfast and performing other duties at a quaint boutique hotel called The Thatched Cottage in the New Forest in southern England. (If you missed it you can find that blog post here!) Near the end of our stay, while working the gin bar one evening, we met a couple that were living in London but were from Budapest. While Betsy served their gin and tonics, they struck up a conversation. They were very interested in what we were doing and when we mentioned that the Hungarian capital was on our wish list, they wrote out four pages of recommendations for us! When Betsy finished her shift, they spent an hour talking about the city and some of their favorite sites. They were so excited about us going to visit their home country and their enthusiasm was infectious. We already wanted to go to Budapest but they really lit a fire under us. Thanks Bea and Imi! The things you can learn while you are on the road!
Fast-forward to the end of April and we found ourselves with a week between our commitments in Poland and our preparations for Small Group Trips in Tuscany. So off to Budapest we went! We absolutely loved it and here are some of our favorite things about this historic city.....with great thanks to our new friends who were instrumental in creating this list!
1. Free Walking Tours – One of the ways we like to get to know a city is by taking walking tours. Budapest has a wonderful group of tours led by local guides who do a great job of showing you around the city. We did the The Original Walk and The Communism Walk. Both of the guides were very knowledgeable and fun. They were both certified guides, had been with the company for at least a couple of years, and since they work for tips, they are motivated to give outstanding service every time. And they do!
2. Fisherman’s Bastion/Mathias Church – Budapest is divided by the beautiful Danube River, and the skyline on both sides is absolutely spectacular. The east bank is the Pest side and dominated by the beautiful Parliament Building. Across the river on the Buda side, sitting on a hill, is the wonderful Mathias Church perched over the Fisherman’s Bastian. It always seems to be crowded but the views of the city, the river, and the bridges are unmatched.
3. Night time cruise on the Danube – One of the best ways to see the beautiful skyline of this dynamic city is from a boat and after dark it is lit up like no other. While we were there we heard that Budapest is the second most lighted city at night in Europe after Paris. I believe it! There are many boat operators offering all kinds of options including full dinners, wine and drinks, or parties. We settled on a no-frills trip for $10 each with Portum Lines. Our experience included a welcome drink as we boarded, kinda cheesy music, no audio guide, and cheap patio chairs; but we saw the same skyline people were seeing from boats where they paid a lot more. I’d do it again!
4. Great Synagogue – Before WWII, Budapest had a very strong, progressive Jewish population and the Great Synagogue is a reminder of how important that community was. The building has more of a cathedral feel to it complete with pipe organ and pulpit. It is a beautiful building but a cemetery and courtyard sculpture reminder us how much the Jews suffered during and after WWII.
5. Museum of Terror – This museum, with its striking architecture, is a memorial to the plight of Budapest, Hungary, and other countries behind the iron curtain during the communist occupation. Like some of the sights in Berlin, this is not a joyful place to visit, but as George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The fact that many of these atrocities happened during our lifetime makes it all the more chilling.
6. MÜPA – This is a wonderful concert hall. It is home to the Budapest Festival Orchestra and an amazing array of events. The calendar is filled with multiple programs daily, from free concerts in the foyer during the day, to pre concert lectures, as well as dance, theatrical, and musical presentations all year long. It is quite amazing. And tickets are cheap! We heard the Festival Orchestra play Bruckner’s 8th Symphony. We had great seats in the balcony and our tickets were about $25!
7. Ruin Pubs – This is a concept that started in Budapest and is beginning to catch on in some other European cities, where some enterprising people take possession of an abandoned building and with very little renovation, open a drinking establishment. We visited the original, Szimpla Kert, and had a blast! The complex features many rooms over a couple of floors. Each room seems to be run by a different group. Wandering around the space you can find a wine bar, live music, silent movies projected onto a wall, craft beer, and art everywhere. There is also food offered at a couple of places but a better bet is the Food Truck Park down the block. We showed up at around 8:00 and walked right in. By the time we left around 10:30 there was a line halfway down the street! Incidentally, Szimpla runs a farmers' market on Sundays where you can see the space in daylight.
8. The Baths – Another hallmark of life in Budapest are the numerous bathhouses scattered around the city. You may remember our visit to Nordic Spa in Quebec, Canada and the Turkish Spa in Copenhagen from previous blogs, but we’ve never experienced anything quite like this. Our first visit was to the Szechenyi Baths, one of the biggest in the city. It was quite the party atmosphere with three large outside pools of various temperatures and smaller pools, steam rooms and saunas inside. Outside you could see people swimming laps or playing chess, but mostly just socializing and enjoying the water. You can also schedule a massage and other body treatments including a thermal beer spa. Crazy! There is food and beer available and the place is massive. For a different take, we visited Lukacs Baths. It was much smaller, but very nice if not a little past it’s prime. And where at Szechenyi we were some of the more "mature" visitors, at Lukacs we were the young guns. Both were very enjoyable experiences largely because we avoided the ice plunge at both locations.
9. St. Stephen’s Basilica – This is one of the most beautiful buildings in Budapest, it is also one of the busiest attractions. In spite of its classical architecture, it was only completed in 1906. The church houses many concerts throughout the year as well as St. Stephen’s mummified hand. It is possible to climb up to the cupola for 360° views of the city. It's unbelievable to think of the square in front of the basilica as a parking lot during the communist occupation.
10. Great Market Hall – You know we’re going to talk about food. We love to go to markets and Budapest’s Market Hall is a great one. Covering three floors, it is enormous. In the basement you find fish, pickled foods, and other smelly things. The main floor has all the other meat, produce, and packaged food vendors. It is the perfect spot to pick up Hungarian paprika to bring home. The top floor is filled with clothes, novelties, and most important, the food court. Several closely packed stalls sell traditional Hungarian dishes including goulash, fried sausages, stuffed cabbage, and lángos, a fried dough disk with various toppings. We had the traditional, garlic sauce, sour cream, and grated cheese....amazing!
Bonus Thing to do in Budapest
11. Food and WIne - The food here is awesome. The traditional foods are rich and hearty - rest assured you won't go hungry in Budapest. Look for pork schnitzel bigger than the plate, chicken paprikash served with nokedli (spätzel), foie gras, sausage cones, and cucumber salad. Don't forget the local liqueur, pálinka! We were also surprised with the high quality Hungarian wine. Both red and white varieties of grapes you've probably never heard of make for some very tasty wine tastings. A few quick recommendations - Doblo, a great wine bar with very good charcuterie and cheese offerings, GoodSpirit Whiskey Bar for amazing cocktails, and Frici Papa for traditional Hungarian fare.
We have been able to travel across Europe the last nine months by a combination of WWOOF, WorkAway, and Trusted House Sitters, often for up to a month at a time, in exchange for room and board. Budapest was especially nice for us because we moved into a great little Airbnb at a reasonable price where we were able to feel like a local for a week. We were the first people to rent this newly renovated apartment and we enjoyed having the space to ourselves. In work exchange situations, our hosts often determine our schedules. They have been very rewarding experiences, but it was nice to be on our own and spend a week really exploring this dynamic city, all at our own pace.
Our next Small Group Trip to Tuscany in March 2019 is fully booked! Hurray! We are now planning another Tuscany Trip for May 2019 and a Piedmont Italy Trip in October 2019. Be watching for these itineraries. If you are interested in either of these trips or would like help planning a trip of your own, please contact us. Remember that we are always available to you and your friends and family for custom trip planning to Italy, France, Ireland, England and all of Europe. You can always reach Betsy at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to help you make your travel dreams to Europe come true!