I finally got to see Budapest, a city that had long been on the list. I knew this was one of the places I wanted to hunker down and spend a bit of time in. It’s a city that’s not only beautiful, but is also a European rarity these days in that it’s easy on the traveler’s bank account. I did opt for a slightly pricier apartment to rent off Airbnb, mainly because I fell in love with the uniqueness of it when I saw the pictures online. It didn’t disappoint.
It turned out to be a good call, since I got a couple of massive work projects and had to spend quite a bit of time indoors, working. My little “office” area with a desk was a nice place to get some work done.
When I did make it out of the apartment, though, I knew instantly that staying nearly three weeks was a good call. Architecturally speaking, Europe is an inspirational place to visit, and Budapest is not exception. My number one favorite activity in a new place is simply wandering and taking pictures, and this is as good a place as any for that.
Two years ago I was in Norway visiting my friends Morten, a Norwegian native, and Nicole, originally from Hungary. On that trip she made the most delicious goulash EVER, which inspired me to learn how to cook a bit of Hungarian food on my own. It just so happens that my gracious host from Airbnb, Kata, also gives cooking lessons to travelers, so I jumped at the chance. The result, chicken paprikash with homemade noodles as well as cottage cheese balls, was delicious, although I was more of an observer in the cooking process than an active participant.
The final few days of my stay got a bit more exciting, as Chris and my friends Molly and Justin arrived. This would be the first stop on our way through Central Europe and Southeastern Europe, including stops in Slovenia (which had long been at the top of Molly’s bucket list), Croatia and Italy. Here are a few of the things we got up to when they visited:
Eating and drinking:
When I wasn’t busy botching Hungarian cuisine with my lack of cooking skills, we visited a number of restaurants that we were really impressed with. The first was a place near my apartment called Borsso Bistro. I actually ate here twice – first on my own after stumbling upon it accidentally, and a second time with Chris, Molly and Justin since I knew the restaurant to have great food and by far the best service I’ve ever had at any restaurant in Europe. You wouldn’t think that’s saying much since Europe is notorious for bad restaurant service, but keep in mind that I’ve spent about six years of my adult life on the continent. I’m sure at some point I’ve had good service in Europe – and this place blew that away.
Another place I was impressed with was one arranged by my friend Nikon Gergely, of Antarctica fame. He and his lovely lady Ivett took the four of us to a place called Café Kor. It was Chris’s birthday, so Gergely, Ivett and the restaurant staff arranged for a massive, sparkling cake that put a smile on Chris’s face while leaving the rest of us worried that the entire place would go up in flames at any point.
Hungary’s capital is also full of great places to grab a drink, boozy or otherwise. One I discovered by accident, just around the corner from Borsso Bistro, was the aptly named Tip-Top Bar. I had to climb about six floors worth of stairs to get there, but once I had reached the top, the view was easily worth all the work I put into it. The views were matched only by those from the castle on the Buda side of the Danube, so naturally I had to take Chris, Molly and Justin there once they arrived.
Canon Gergely, also of Antarctica fame, and his lovely wife Judit also revealed a local’s secret in inviting us to Book Cafe on Andrassy Street. Located atop a modern bookstore, this enormous hall filled with fresco-style paintings and topped off with a grand piano is the most stunning, artistic and sophisticated café I’ve ever seen. Nikon Gergely and Ivett were not the only ones with the idea of birthday cake – Canon Gergely and Judit surprised both Molly, who had celebrated a birthday a few days before, and Chris with their own delicious birthday sweets. I made sure to help them test these out.
And, of course, what would a trip to Budapest be without a ruin pub thrown in? We sought out a few, but I found none to be as fascinating as Szimpla, in the Jewish Quarter just across the street from my apartment. I’ll let the pictures do the talking, especially since I didn’t understand half of the “art” work there (although that didn’t keep me from properly appreciating it).
Getting trapped in a basement:
A final highlight worth mentioning was Trap, an escape game that is starting to become a thing, even in cities beyond Budapest. If you’re not familiar with it, this is where a team of two to five people volunteer to be trapped in a room and have one hour to solve puzzles in order to get out. The room is equipped with an audio feed and video cameras, so if your group gets stuck you can get a bit of help from the staff. The four of us were eager to put our brains together and prove our smarts.
The result? We’re even smarter than we thought. We escaped the rooms (there were actually two of them) in 42 minutes – not a record for Trap, but close – and we did so without any help whatsoever (a rarity according to the staff). Although we didn’t get the full hour’s worth out of our money, at about $50 per team it’s still a reasonably priced and fun afternoon activity.
A few “musts” and some of what I missed
Of course, we also did a few of the Budapest “musts” – a trip around the parliament building and St. Stephen’s Cathedral on the Pest side; a hike up Buda’s hills to see the city’s famous castle, Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion.
I’m ashamed to admit, however, that despite nearly three weeks in the city, I missed some of its must-see attractions. These included, but were not limited to:
House of Terror – a museum detailing the atrocities committed against those detained, tortured and in some cases killed in the 20th century by the country’s fascists and communists. Molly and Justin did make it to the museum and, despite finding it worth a visit for anyone interested in Hungary’s history, needed at least two stiff drinks afterwards. Apparently the place is heavy.
Memento Park – an open-air museum in which all of the communist-era statues of dictators and marxists have been rounded up and put in one place. Another supposedly somber yet fascinating sight that I’ll have to leave for my next visit.
Thermal baths – I know, I know. How can a person possibly go to Budapest and not visit a thermal bath?! I felt I wasn’t missing out on too much since I did one in Istanbul the year before, plus I have to leave something for next time.
I realize it’s cliché in the travel-blogging world to proclaim that I’ll definitely be back someday, but Budapest truly was one of my favorite European cities and there’s no doubt it’s one of those places I’ll return to. Many many thanks to Gergely, Ivett, Gergely and Judi for taking time to come out and for offering tips, and thanks to Nicole for the additional city tips!