I’m having rather a hard time containing my enthusiasm about the latest leg of my trip. Anyone in close proximity now becomes subject to my gushing about Budapest. And I guess you, dear reader, have signed on to be my next victim.
It began on Thursday evening, when I landed in Budapest from Zurich (via Brussels). Leanne, my travel buddy for the coming month, had already arrived a few hours earlier. As exhausted as we both were from our respective journeys, perhaps reinvigorated by our reunion, we decided to join a night time river cruise along the Danube.
This was the perfect introduction to beautiful Budapest. First of all, lit up at night, the city was radiant. It is apparently the second most illuminated city in Europe, following Paris. And secondly, the excitable backpacker crowd on board was the first taste of the crazy fun we would have in the days to come.
The following morning, Leanne and I joined a free walking tour of the city. It was hot, sunny, and I was immediately taken with every site and story. We walked from Pest to Buda, seeing the comparisons between the old and the new(er). We visited churches, monuments, and vantage points of the city. We learnt about the traditional Hungarian dishes. Another great introduction to the city.
We noticed the same company ran a Jewish legacy tour in the afternoon, so we decided to sign on for that one as well. We discovered that the Jewish quarter is actually one of the coolest areas of Busapest. It’s packed with trendy restaurants, popular bars, colourful street art, and general atmosphere. The tour covered the lives of Hungarian Jews before, during and after the Holocaust, visiting memorial monuments and various points of interest. I was fascinated to learn that there are today more than 100,000 Jews who live in Hungary. Imdeed, we visited three robust synagogues, passed kosher restaurants, and so on.
That night, we joined our hostel (and a number of other hostels) for a pub crawl. This was no ordinary pub crawl, but saw us stop off at a number of ruin bars. These are bars in old, dilapidated buildings, and are a trademark attraction of Budapest. They look ready to be torn down, but inside they have been decorated with all sorts of bits and bobs, and transformed into cool, grungy places to have a drink – or five. Needless to say, the night was lots of fun.
Another one of the reasons that Budapest is so freakin’ cool is that it has an aminal cafe. The following day, a little worse for wear, Leanne and I decided to take it a bit easier and join some new friends from our hostel on an expedition to said cafe. It was the most wonderful place. Cats lounging on the tables. Bunny rabbits, reptiles, and even hedgehogs all delivered to your table to play with. Best. Place. Ever.
Afterwards, we went to explore the market hall. It’s set in an amazing building over two levels, and contains a variety of food – fresh produce as well as traditional Hungarian fare. There are also a whole lot of souvenirs to peruse. For lunch, we had langos. That’s a Hungarian delicacy; deep fried bread with topping. It sounds a bit like pizza, but it’s more like a savoury, flat donut. The traditional topping is sour cream and cheese, but they will put pretty much anything on it.
Later in the afternoon, we decided to visit the baths. There are thermal baths all over Budapest, and it’s an essential activity during any visit to the city. It was simply heavenly. There are pools of all temperatures, both indoors and outdoors. After many days on the go, it was delightful, and much-needed, to relax for a while. Moreover, the baths are set in front of a backdrop of these grand old buildings. A fun addition to the experience was a big screen showing a soccer match in which Hungary was playing. Apparently, it has been many years since their team had progressed this far in the competition, and everyone was right into it. In the end, Hungary drew with Iceland, which means they are still in the competition. As we left the baths, people were celebrating wildly on the streets. It was quite a spectacle.
The following day was our last day, and we had a lot we still wanted to see, so we packed it all in. We started off by going to the Parliament. You couldn’t go inside, but the buildings which make it up are impressive, and set right on the River Danube. Continuing along the river, we saw Budapest’s most significant Holocaust memorial. It’s an evocative collection of bronzed discarded shoes, commemorating the people who were brutally shot into the Danube.
We crossed the river over the chain bridge, which I’ve since deemed is my third favourite bridge in Europe. First is London’s Tower Bridge, then Florence’s Ponte Vecio, and then this impressive structure. In Buda, we climbed up to Matthias church. Unfortunately we couldn’t go inside as they had Sunday services going on. But from the outside it was fairly spectacular; whiter and cleaner than others I’ve seen like it. The colourful tiled roof made me somewhat less impressed with that of St Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna, which you may recall I raved about at the time.
We then ventured to the Citadel, an old Acropolis perched on the highest hill in Budapest. Rather than the citadel itself, the primary appeal is climbing up to it and having brilliant views over the city.
Next on the agenda was the Great Synagogue, which we took a guided tour inside, having seen it from the outside during the Jewish legacy tour. This was far and away the most aesthetically impressive synagogue I’ve ever been in. The finishings were beautiful, and rivalled any cathedral. This is a feat not often achieved by synagogues, in my opinion. It’s the third largest synagogue in the world, behind one in New York and one in Israel.
Also at the synagogue is a mass grave site, where many people who died in the Budapest ghetto during World War II are buried. There is also a tasteful memorial garden, which honours the Hungarian Jews killed in the Holocaust, as well as paying tribute to a number of the Rigteous Among the Nations.
Finally we visited St Peter’s Bascillica, a significant landmark in Budapest. As well as marvelling at its vast yet intricate interior, we took a lift to the dome. Up there you get panoramic views over the city.
I didn’t want our time in Budapest to be coming to an end. So much so, that despite our 6am train to Zagreb the following day, we went out with our new friends instead of having a sensibly early night.
I think I loved Budapest for a number of reasons. Certainly a big part of it was our hostel, which was the top level of a heritage listed building up about 1000 stairs. With only 22 beds, all the guests and the staff were like a family. They belong to a group of about five ‘party hostels’ who all get together every night for the various activities. It’s so much fun. A friend recommended it to me, so if you’re reading this and you have plans to go to Budapest, please ask me more about it. It’s one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in, and I would love nothing more than to recommend it.
But just generally, Budapest is an awesome city. It’s got so much to offer in both a historical sense and a contemporary sense. It’s beautiful in parts, and endearingly dingy in others. The food, the vibes, the people. I am complete besotted and want to go back and see more than I could in just three short days. Hands down my favourite place of the trip so far. And I’ll be pretty surprised if anything can top it.
But nonetheless, there’s lots still to look forward to. Next (well now, technically): Croatia.