Budapest was recommended to me by a Swedish girl that I met in Croatia, and after copious amounts of research (and confirmation of the low cost of a visit, let’s be honest) I was seriously considering adding it to my birthday trip. On a whim I searched through the Hostelworld monthly deals, and lo and behold, there was an offer from HomePlus Hostel in Budapest for a minimum of three nights at €7 each. Since I’m not one to argue with destiny, I began booking like crazy (€21 flight with Ryanair from Dublin to Budapest, what what) and asked my friend for advice since she’s Hungarian. Davi’s Pro Tip #1: it’s actually pronounced Budapesht, and while you might feel like a pretentious wanker at first, Hungarians really appreciate the effort of saying it correctly. Davi’s Pro Tip #2: visit the House of Terror. And finally, Davi’s Pro Tip #3: Ruin bars. As a bonus, Davi’s wife Kitty threw in her own Pro Tip: DUDE THERE’S A CAT CAFE! So right on the heels of my Irish adventures, I arrived in Budapest. It was far too late to take public transportation, but thankfully there’s a cheap minibus service that you can organize from the airport. Basically, the drivers ask for people with destinations in the same area and then drop them off. It’s possible to walk up and get transport right then, but I recommend booking in advance through this site: http://www.airportshuttle.hu/en/.
My favorite way to get to know a new city is through a free walking tour. Sandeman’s New Europe (http://www.neweuropetours.eu) offers tours in a bunch of different cities, and a lot of hostels will offer to put you in contact with free tours. It’s a good way to get a brief history of the place that you’re visiting, it lets you get your bearings, and it can be an excellent way to make friends. I went to breakfast at my hostel and got invited to a local tour by some people who were staying there as well, and within half an hour we were gathered in a square with other travelers. As the guide explained, Budapest is divided by the Danube into two parts: Buda, where the gentry lived and ruled; and Pest, the commoner’s side. We walked along the Pest side for a bit, getting the early history of Hungary and visiting some of Budapest’s statues. Seriously, I have never seen a city with stranger or more creative monuments, including a bronze painter working on an easel and a creepy child in a long pointed hat sitting on a railing. One great memorial commemorates a shooting near the Parliament building with large metal balls embedded in the walls for each bullet hole.
When it came time to visit Buda, we crossed the Chain Bridge and walked up Castle Hill to the old Buda Castle. The views were amazing, but the best part for me was the Matthias Church and the surrounding Fisherman’s Bastion. The tile roof of the church completely entranced me, and the views from the white “huts” on the Bastion were unparalleled. This is where the tour eventually ended, and my two hostel friends (Gabriel and Mel) agreed that we should stop by the city’s oldest bakery, which just happened to be two minutes away, for a lunch of delicious cake. We drifted back towards the Fisherman’s Bastion and spent forever taking pictures, because frankly it looked like something that a kingdom of gnomes might construct and I adored it. A walkway ran along the top of the huts, and for a fee you could climb up there. The attendant was gone, so my new friend Gabriel shrugged at me and tried to lead the way up (in his defense, I totally followed), but we got caught and mildly scolded. Thus rebuffed, we made our way down Castle Hill and crossed the Chain Bridge again to explore Pest. We found many more curious memorials and a lovely little square with crafts and local food, and I tried mulled wine for the first time (delightful!) and took pictures of Mel and Gabriel in silly hats. There was a massive booth with food, but it was ruinously expensive. While we’re on the subject of money, I do want to add that Hungary doesn’t really use the euro yet (though my hostel did accept them). Instead they use the forint; €1 is equal to 320 forints as of right now, and $1 is equal to 269 forints, so don’t be shocked at the “high” prices.
After exploring for a while, Mel and I separated from Gabriel and struck out on our own. We found the Cat Cafe, and while the cats were pretty aloof until we had their official treats, it was still a great experience. I had a cat-puccino, which is a regular cappuccino with cinnamon paw prints on the top. Their biggest rule is to avoid feeding the cats anything but the snacks that they provide, and I’d like to make my stance clear: eating people food is detrimental to a cat’s health, whether through an allergy or the increased calories, so pretty-please-with-sugar-on-top, DON’T DO IT. Giving them the little beef sticks that the cafe sells is totally fine, and it’s guaranteed to get you a lot of attention. Mel and I hung out there for a while, chatting and trying to make the cats love us (cats are a-holes, in case anyone is wondering) and then we headed out for dinner. After a minor conflict in which everyone wanted to eat at this Italian restaurant (keep in mind that I’d been in Italy for five months at this point) and I was placated with goulash, we returned to the hostel and joined their ruin bar crawl. I’m not one to join official crawls, but I had heard a lot about the ruin bars and I wanted to visit a few.
The quality of this picture isn’t great, but it’s the best visual example of a ruin bar that I have. So the story behind these uniquely Hungarian features is that a couple of decades ago, a lot of property went up for sale: old apartments, warehouses, storefronts, etc. Rather than tear them down, a group of businessmen bought the properties and fitted them with bar accoutrements, but left the rest of the individual structures intact. A lot of them have dirt floors and open roofs like the one above, and they’re filled with strange art and crumbling doorways. We went to four different ruin bars that night, and each one was incredibly unique. The first was a bit expensive (and by that I mean normally-priced) but the other three were ludicrously cheap. We’re talking the equivalent of full pints of local beer for €2. During the course of the night I made a lot of friends from the hostel, along with one lone traveler who happened to be in Budapest for business and hooked up with our group for the night. Together we drank and danced and generally made adorable fools of ourselves, and when it came time to leave our new American friend invited us to continue partying in his hotel suite. Apparently he had to catch a taxi to the airport at 4:00 am, and he wanted to stay up for a couple more hours. Under normal circumstances I would obviously never do something that screamed please murder me quite so loudly, but there were six of us, including a burly Brazilian who was over six feet tall (drool). Suffice to say that it was a surreal but tame experience.
The next day I went wandering on my own, which, as most travelers will tell you, is essential at one point or another. There are many joys associated with traveling as part of a duo or team, but it can be just as rewarding to strike out alone. I walked along the river to the Parliament building, which is honestly one of the most gorgeous structures that I’ve ever seen. If Morticia Addams were an architect with a deep love of London (think of how dreary and full of ghosts it must be; can you see it?) then I could see her designing the Hungarian Parliament building.
Instagram drama aside, this is actually an accurate photo. I arrived just in time to witness a ceremonial changing of the guard, and then spent some more time staring in adoration. So it turns out that I just need to marry an eccentric millionaire who will love me passionately and let me build an exact replica for our home, and really, this is just further proof that I’m waiting for Gomez Addams.
During my wandering I found myself on the same street as the House of Terror, so I paid a visit. Two things should be said immediately about this building: It is one of the most effective and beautifully designed museums that I’ve ever seen, and it’s not for the faint of heart. You begin your visit with an elevator ride up to the top floor and then work your way through each level, where you will learn the bloody history behind the fascist and Communist regimes that controlled the city for decades. The House of Terror was basically where people were taken to give “information,” and from which they rarely returned unscathed. Throughout the course of the museum you will come across video interviews with survivors, and the horrors that they recount are nearly on par with those found in camps like Auschwitz. An upper-level room that stuck out for me was the one dedicated to a highly-publicized trial from the Communist era; the entire room, chairs, walls, tables, everything was covered in transcripts and testimonies, and the recorded parts were on a loop. It made you feel submersed in the facts, which was how the citizens of Hungary must have felt because of the extremely public nature of the trial. Directly after that was a room plastered in brightly-colored propaganda posters with cheerful 50’s music playing, and after the grim nature of the previous rooms it was incredibly jarring. At first it seemed benign, but the longer you looked, the more insidious and horrifying it became because so many people believed in that portrayal. It was the candy coating over the razor blade.
All of this was merely the build-up to the Basement, where thousands of people were tortured, imprisoned, and “interrogated.” When I realized that it was where the museum’s path culminated I nearly begged a guard to let me get off the elevator at the ground floor, but ignoring a horrible truth doesn’t make it any less real, so I swallowed my dread and went down into the darkness. I read the stories, and I visited the cramped cells where they were kept and the drain-bottomed rooms where they were tortured. At one point I even rounded a corner and came face-to-face with a row of gallows that had seen hundreds of executions, but the room that hit the hardest was the very last: the Hall of Tears. It’s a small room lit only by a couple dozen light bulbs on bare metal stakes that float like tiny golden suns, and there are hundreds of victims’ names backlit on the walls. I’m very thankful that I was alone, because as I stood in the entryway I began to cry.
Feeling spent but grateful, I made it back to the river in time to watch the sunset from Margaret Bridge, and I can’t recommend the experience enough. There is a great little part of the wall that you can climb on, and that was my perch for almost an hour. Once the sun set I crossed over to Margaret Island, which is apparently a great park to explore during the day. My attention was caught by a fountain that constantly changed colors, and I spent far too much time being amused by the rainbow water before heading back up. Both the Buda and Pest sides of the river are beautiful at night, and Margaret Bridge is covered in globes of light. It’s a super romantic spot, so keep that in mind if you’re in the mood.
That night my hostel mates and I decided to strike out on our own, and we ended up on the battered second floor of a ruin bar, laughing and drinking until late. Another benefit to solo travel is that it awards you the opportunity to meet new people rather than cling to your traveling companion, and that can be extremely rewarding.
My last full day in Budapest began with another easy stroll along the river with my new friends Steph and Katie, where we visited a few street markets and discovered one of Budapest’s most evocative memorials. Along the Pest riverbank, close to Parliament, there is a line of metal shoes filled with flowers and candles. This is to pay tribute to all of the Hungarian Jews murdered by the Nazis, especially those who were lined up on that spot and shot so that their bodies fell into the Danube. Like the Hall of Tears, it uses stark, heartbreaking beauty to remind us that in the wake of the horrors that we have inflicted on each other, there is always the potential to heal.
My last major stop was at the Széchenyi Baths, the city’s most popular Turkish bath house. You can find all the basic information at http://www.szechenyibath.hu , or check out http://visitbudapest.travel/activities/budapest-baths/ for a comparison of the city’s best bath houses. If you do choose to visit Széchenyi, I highly recommend spending the extra €2 or so (a pittance) for a “cabin” instead of just a locker. For one thing, you are required to purchase a locker no matter what (it’s included in your ticket price) and a lot of people go with just the bare minimum, so the lockers go quickly if it’s later in the day. Another benefit is the additional privacy; the cabin is basically a tiny changing room, but it’s better than stripping in public. Since this particular bath house is for unisex use, bathing suits are required but shoes like flip-flops are optional. After you purchase the wristband that acts like your ticket from a desk in the gorgeously decorated front room, head into the changing area by scanning it on a sensor. Consider scheduling a massage beforehand (more on that later) but keep in mind that the massage rooms are outside of the baths themselves, and once you leave the baths you have to turn your wristband in.
The inside is incredibly extensive, and Steph and I had an amazing time wandering from pool to pool while admiring the architecture. We soaked in different thermal pools and had a brief session in their herbal-infused sauna, after which you’re required to take a brief shower. If you’re feeling adventurous, take alternating dips in the tiny immersion pools that are 18 and 40 degrees Celsius (that’s 64 degrees and 104 degrees in Fahrenheit, in case you were wondering). I started in the cold pool and gave the required internal shriek, much to the amusement of several older Hungarian men who were casually lounging in the icy water. One of them helpfully splashed my bare back as I came further into the pool, and they all giggled at my gasps. When I became “accustomed” to the temperature, I traded it in for the 40 degree pool, which was like heaven. I’m extremely fond of hot showers, and so my bones melted when I hit that water. Somehow I found the inner fortitude to switch between the immersion pools twice more, which did super interesting things to my pores (i.e. they opened like Godzilla’s maw and then shrank tighter than a Baptist’s butt hole). Steph’s massage was a half hour before mine so I spent some alone time in the massive outdoor thermal pool, watching old men play water chess and enjoying the sight of the yellow and white buildings. I felt quite fancy, like a rich 1950’s expat, and this was helped along by the sublime massage that I received after retrieving my clothes and leaving the main pool areas. It was an indulgence, yes, and not a cheap one, but after my riding accident in 2013 the small of my back is often tight and sensitive. Between the thermal pools and the massage, I was practically purring.
All that was left of this latest adventure was one more night out with my new hostel friends. I’ve had a couple of amazing birthdays, but this year I turned 25 in a ruin bar in Budapest, drinking local beer and eating carrots with an international cast. That’s going to be pretty hard to top this year, but let’s see what we can do, eh?