My trip to Budapest in November 2016 was one that I will cherish, and has propelled the city into my top 5 mini-break locations. It was a solo trip; I flew over alone with no plan other than to befriend people in my hostel and the locals where I can. Travelling alone can be a really wonderful thing; there’s no compromise for starters. You want to go to the baths? Sure, go now. You want to lie in and recover from that hangover? Yep, do that too. I find that solo travel enabless me to meet new people from many walks of life, but usually with a shared passion for life, and that has to be one of my favourite parts of the way I travel.
This post is the second about my trip to Budapest, if you’d like to read the first then you can find it here. I’m going to pick up the story on the morning of my third day in the city. Well, by morning I mean lunchtime! I had to sleep off my large hangover from the previous nights’ antics in the ruin bars, so I was in no fit state to do anything until 1pm; so unlike me as I don’t like to waste my mornings!
So, due to my self-inflicted pain I only really managed to ramble around the Jewish district again. I took in some of the creative street art that was visible on the side of the buildings, and enjoyed getting lost in the little streets. I heeded some advice from a friend who had told me to “look up”, as this meant I was able to see some of the more intricate stonework in the architecture on the upper levels of buildings. When Hungary was occupied by the Soviet Union they removed much of the “frivolous” architectural features at street level so you really do need to look up in Budapest to appreciate what is there to see.
I did however know where I wanted to head for brunch/dinner/food. I was taking the recommendation of my Lonely Planet guide and heading for Kadar in Erzsébetváros which was touted as “probably the most popular and authentic etkezde (diner) you’ll find in town”. I was keen to try some traditional Hungarian fare and Kadar did not disappoint! I had some sour cabbage salad, fresh bread and what I think was pork knuckle in a rich gravy, served with little potato noodles. It was really tasty, with some of that Hungarian paprika spice coming through in the sauce. It filled me up nicely as my first bit of food in almost 24 hours! The only confusion came when I had to pay. I did not realise that you tip the waitress at the table, and then head to a counter by the exit to pay for the food. The very attentive staff that worked at Kadar tried to explain to me in gestures, but in my slightly broken, hungover state I was not up to the task! Eventually, we got an understanding and I went to pay. The total was something ridiculous like 1600 forints, which is about £4.50! Well worth the money, and very tasty too.
I finished my day in a lovely little cafe in the Jewish quarter. Budapest supposedly has excellent coffee, but as someone who still can’t stand the stuff I cannot comment. However, the hot chocolate I had in this cafe (that I cannot remember the name of) near the Grand Synagogue was delicious. I spent a couple of hours here, people watching, drinking hot chocolate and reading my book. Such a perfect way to spend some downtime!
Day four was a much more productive day than day three! I started by heading to the bakery downstairs from my hostel and grabbing a light breakfast of bread and yogurt. Then I wandered over to St Stephen’s Basilica which opens at 10am in the off season. There were a lot of people on the steps trying to recruit tourists into giving money for various causes, but as I had no way of corroborating if their causes were real I scooted inside and paid the requested donation of 200Ft to explore the most important Catholic church in Hungary and to climb one of the bell towers. The 302 steps to the top were a good work out, but well worth it for the reward of the views from the top. It was a briskly cold morning, and I was wrapped up well, but it was so easy to take in this beautiful city in the fresh, clear morning skies. The entire building is so ornate; gold leaf everywhere, stunning stained glass windows. It never fails to amaze me how grandiose most religions make their prayer houses, absolutely stunning and a treat to view in person.
My afternoon was spent wandering to the East side of the city to visit Heroes Square. This involved a long walk down Andrássy út, a boulevard flanked with many beautiful townhouses and museum. Apparently it is now a World Heritage site. As long, straight roads go, it was rather lovely and really reminded me of Paris. At the end of the road is Heroes Square. It is positioned at the entrance to the City Park, and commemorates the nation’s war dead and earliest ancestors. It is a very powerful monument, dominating the skyline around it, and there were many local people there who appeared to be paying their respects. It evoked similarities with Brandenburg Gate in my mind, although I haven’t actually been to Berlin so I may be over-reaching. I then continued into City Park and saw an ice rink installed next to a castle. Genuinely almost a postcard perfect scene; some fresh snow would have really made it feel like a festive wonderland! I watched people skating around for quite a while before I continued into the main body of the park to explore.
My main destination was Széchenyi Baths in the middle of City Park. I knew I wanted to visit at least one of Budapest’s thermal spas, and I quickly decided that Széchenyi Baths was the one for me. Budapest lies on a geological fault line meaning it has abundant access to scalding hot mineral water every day. Hence, the city is known for its spas and “taking the water” is a traditional Hungarian experience. Széchenyi Baths date from pre-WW2 and are the largest and hottest baths in the city. There is a combination of indoor and outdoor pools and the building itself is stunning. The yellow facade, grand in every way, makes sitting outside in waters up to 38°C magical. I enjoyed a routine of a quick dip in the cold deep baths to really bring my temperature down, and then head straight into a sauna to get my skin tingling as it warms up quickly.I am not usually a spa goer, but I spent almost 3 hours relaxing at Széchenyi and could have easily spent longer! I’d like to go back on a Saturday at some point as they have spa parties in the baths with music and the like, which sounds like an awesome way to spend an evening. I was hoping to be able to visit more the baths available in Budapest but unfortunately I did not have time. I guess it means I’m just going to have to go back!
By the time I left the baths the sun was beginning to set so I headed back into town. I walked pretty much everywhere around Budapest, only getting the metro or a tram 4 times over the 5 days I was there. I treated myself to my first langos; deep fried dough topped with lashings of sour cream and cheese. Gluttonous, naughty, but so, so delicious. I headed to Margaret Island to take a look around, but it was pretty empty and desolate in the beginnings of the winter frost. A good friend of mine had recommended a pinball museum in Northern Pest, so I headed there for a bit of light entertainment before dinner. 2500Ft gets you unlimited playtime on the 100+ machines dating from early 20th century wooden machines to modern day ones. I had so much fun! I was like a kid in, well, a pinball shop! Except I didn’t need money to play, I could just pick a machine and keep going until I wanted a new challenge. It was great, and I highly recommend it to anyone who visits Budapest.
I then headed for dinner, having earmarked another restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet in Pozsonyi Kisvendéglő. It served up huge portions of food! I had some kind of dumping to start floating in a tasty broth. I still don’t know what I ate, I really hope it wasn’t sheep’s brains as I was avoiding that whenever I went to a local restaurant, but the dumplings had an odd texture and an unidentifiable taste! For main I had duck which was a little overcooked for my liking, but it was very tasty and filling after a long day pounding the pavements. I walked back home along the banks of the Danube again, enjoying the views out over the Buda part of the city, and seeing new buildings that I had not yet seen in daylight. I also saw the Shoes on the Danube monument, a really evocative display of shoes walking into the Danube. It’s designed to commemorate the hundreds of thousands of Jews, and people identified as Jews, who were victims of the Nazi occupation of Hungary during WW2. It really is very powerful, and even at night there were a handful of people there paying their respects and laying flowers.
As my trip to Budapest drew to a close, I realised how much I had enjoyed my time there. The people were friendly, but not overly so. It was so affordable and had so much character. The history of Hungary is also fascinating and I am keen to learn more. Hungary has only been free from Soviet imposed communism since 1990. It’s so interesting to visit a place with such a rich, recent history.
I spent my last morning in Budapest visiting the Parliament building on the South side of the Danube. It is almost a mirror image of our parliament building in London and is thought to be inspired by it. Given its size it is under almost constant refurbishment, at least in sections, but it is still a wonderful building. The Parliament is almost directly opposite the Royal Palace on the North bank of the Danube, designed to show that the future of Hungary lies in democratic rule, rather than monarch rule.
My final hot chocolate was in a pretty expensive, touristy cafe near the basilica, but it was amazing. It was like drinking pure melted chocolate; divine! I finished it off in super quick time and headed back to the hostel to pick up my bags.
My five days in Budapest were over, but it definitely stole a piece of my heart. I packed a lot into my time in this enchanting city, yet still left many pages unturned and “must-sees” unseen. Until next time Budapest..