In my efforts to become the world’s latest travel blogger (as if it needs another one), let me tell you about my whirlwind weekend away in the Hungarian capital.
So, a friend from uni and myself decided to take a trip, even though we’re both broke. I said yes, as I always do. What can I say? I’m a travelholic. We booked our flights and Airbnb and set off for the city I’d always wanted to visit.
Now, a word about Wizz Air, the low cost Hungarian airline we flew on. Arguably one of the worst I’ve ever flown on, though admittedly it was partially my fault, since I didn’t read the cabin baggage info. This proved to be fatal. You know how on Ryanair you’re allowed your mini-suitcase of travel baggage? Not so on Wizz Air. You get to carry your handbag and that’s about it. I shelled out an extra £50 at Luton because I foolishly assumed that nobody would be worse than Ryanair. After seething a little at my lost cash, we boarded and began our journey.
Our Hungarian taxi driver spoke no English, and I only managed to say one word in Hungarian, so we mainly just sat and looked out of the window. I wouldn’t normally get a taxi but the public transport to/from the airport is a bit of a pain, and at that time of night it just seemed easier. Plus, it’s not like Budapest is a particularly expensive place.
It was my first time in an ex-Communist country, and I was fascinated by the mix of architectural styles I could see. You can see Soviet flats right next to art nouveau apartment buildings, fin-de-siecle museums, and all sorts in between. Our apartment building was from the turn of the 19th century, in the heart of the Jewish quarter, and just what you’d want from a stay in Budapest. I’ve also got a thing for mezzanine floors, and this flat had two, so I was delighted. To get to my bed you had to climb up a ladder in the kitchen! I love things like that because it feels like you’re on an adventure. The flat is here if anyone is interested in seeing it.
This was how I felt when we arrived.
The next day, I wanted to cram as much in as possible, cos that’s how I roll. We made our way to the beautiful Hungarian Parliament, an ornate, standout building that’s apparently the largest building in the country. I thought that was pretty neat. We made our way through Erszebet Square, which was filled with all the fun of the fair. Sadly we considered ourselves too old for this sort of merriment, plus we were running late, and didn’t have time. Onwards!
Getting to the palace past creepy men who were staring was no fun. Maybe it was because I was wearing shorts, but I should be able to look damn fabulous and not be stared at. Anyway, on arrival I panicked a bit because I didn’t have any ID that proved I was eligible for EU discount (how many more times will I be able to use that? :'(), but they didn’t check, thankfully. Hungarians seem a very chillaxed sort of people.
This building looks great from all angles. Sadly I don’t.
The interior of the building was just as grand as the outside. It was lavishly decorated with golds, greens, reds, and lots of glass, mirrors and patterns. I suppose it was like being inside a storybook, but more political. We even saw the Hungarian Crown Jewels! I think my favourite room was the Grand Hall, pictured below. The tour guide was really informative and helpful, it started our trip off on the right foot, for sure. Really good value for money.
At the end of the tour, you looked round a museum detailing the building’s history. It was used in the Soviet Era and it was maintained, with only one noticeable difference: the big red star atop the orange dome. I personally have no issue with communism as a belief and I actually agree with a lot of its Marxists tenets, but the harshness of the USSR was brought home to me in Hungary. Particularly how they brutally suppressed the revolution in 1956.
We wandered about the rainy square, and down by the Beautiful Blue Danube™, on the way to get some lunch. Our dietary requirements meant we could only eat vegetarian food, which as any traveller knows is a real bugger to find on the continent. Thankfully, houmous saved the day, and we had some tasty falafel and pita with it. We stopped to have a look at St. Stephen’s (massive) basilica on the way back to our apartment, but owing to my complete aversion to paying to go into religious sites, didn’t go in.
Later on that day, we went to the place I’d been desperate to visit since I saw it on Michael Portillo’s Great Continental Railway Journeys (yes I am that sad). The Szechenyi Baths are a bright yellow landmark in Budapest’s beautiful city park. The thermal spa is rich in sulphuric water (so it’s a bit smelly), but allegedly it’s good for you, and it’s a site to see in itself. The grand outdoor pools are complemented by equally lovely indoor ones, and they all have their own temperature. So if you wanted to bathe like a Roman or a Scandinavian, here’s your chance. Top tip, though: go in the afternoon to take advantage of cheaper entry!
Though it was chilly outside, the warm water was a relaxing paradise. Aside from the creepy blokes, that is…
I discovered a real passion for thermal springs while I was in there. I can’t remember a time, recently, I was happier than when I was splashing around in that water. Honestly, I could have stayed in those baths for hours, dipping my toes in each one and letting my muscles soak into the stinky water. But, the clock was ticking, and we had to mosey on home before it got too dark.
The next day was to be another whistle-stop tour. Budapest is actually comprised of two towns: Buda, the older and hillier part of the city, and Pest, where all the action is. We crossed the Danube via the Szechenyi Bridge (I have no idea how to pronounce this guy’s name, but apparently he was a key politician in Hungarian history). Then, we got in the queue for the funicular to get up to the Castle District. I’m usually a very thorough researcher, but this was clearly something I missed. Did not realise there’d be a queue. Thankfully, it wasn’t that bad, but if you’re short on time I’d probably get there super early. To be fair, though, we did get an excellent view.
Onwards and upwards!
Buda Castle is actually an art museum these days, which I was a bit disappointed about because I’m a philistine and fine art is usually wasted on me. I’m probably the world’s worst traveller/historian because I find museums can actually be quite dull if they’re not done in the right way. Anyway, we sneakily used the cafe toilets for free, and had a walk round the picturesque grounds. The view from the top of the hill was incredible, and we both got some killer pictures – see the previous post for one of them 😉
We also tried the only Hungarian delicacy we could both stomach – kürtőskalács. It’s a bready, sugary, cinnamony funnel cake, tastes a bit like a doughnut but not as nice in my opinion. I did like it, especially because it was a hot treat on a chilly day, but it was a bit too rich for us. That didn’t stop us from grabbing lunch later on at the world’s most mediocre cafe, speaking to some French tourists, and complaining about said mediocre cafe.
Buda’s Castle District, like the Parliament, is something out of a Germanic fairytale. Turrets, colours, and adorable Gothic windows abound. For me, the highlight was the Fisherman’s Bastion, a very jazzed-up viewpoint outside St. Matthias’ Church. You can clamber spiral staircases to take excellent pictures from the battlements, turrets, and towers, all for the excellent price of about £2.50.
Well worth the money, I’d say!
We had the best sort of evening. ‘Twas nothing short of a gastronomic adventure around the city. After failing to obtain vegetarian goulash (Hungarian soup which is clearly always meaty), we had a pizza in Vörösmarty square, which is basically the main shopping plaza of the city.
Then, we crossed it to get to Cafe Gerbeaud. Budapest is famous for its cafe culture, and I wasn’t leaving until I’d got a taste of it. Arguably one of the grandest cafes in Europe, the pearl of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was surprisingly quite reasonably priced. I could never afford anything at the Ritz, but sharing a sundae and a hot drink at Gerbeaud was well within our budget. Admittedly we both died trying to finish the sickly sweet delight after our day of munching, but it was worth it for the experience alone.
I’m the queen of dessert, but this knocked me for six (or should I say, sicks?)
It’s so fan-cay.
To end the night, we visited one of Budapest’s famous ‘ruin bars’, Szimpla Kert. This was basically a massive disused space that has been converted into a mega-bar. We drank a mocktail or two and explored. I loved the multicoloured lights and shabby chic decor, it was very much my scene. There were loads of different rooms you could dip in and out of, if you wanted to go somewhere quieter. I could have spent the whole night there, it’s very much my scene, but I was tired and we had some packing to do. The only rowdy drunks here were Brits, unsurprisingly. We saw them and knew it was time to leave.
Sadly, this was the best I could do. If I’m ever going to be successful I’mma need a professional photographer.
Our third and final day was spent wandering the Jewish district. We stopped by the Synagogue – the second largest in the world, would you believe – but didn’t go inside. You know my rule – I don’t believe in paying. Though admittedly this time it was mainly because we didn’t have time, we were rushing to the market, which turned out to be closed (whoops, another faux pas on my part). It does look quite grand on the inside. Guess I’ll just have to go back to Budapest…
So we walked along the old Soviet thoroughfares (distinctive because of their sheer width, and once used for shows of military strength) to get to the marketplace. Though it was closed on Sundays, what I did see reminded me of the lovely Ottoman shopping areas in Greece. I suppose that makes sense since Hungary was basically the farthest north the Ottomans got in their attempt to invade Vienna. But according to my interwebs research, the similarity is a mere coincidence.
Got some more dank pictures by the Danube, a quick look at the Liberty Statue (in the distance below, a Soviet statue the Hungarians reworked after the fall of the USSR) then grabbed some lunch. And then ice cream in a cute shop next door, because food is important.
Strike an (awkward) pose in the name of #fashion.
We hopped on the metro back to the airport mid-afternoon, then changed for a bus, ended up at the wrong terminal, only to find our flight was delayed. The bus that carries low cost passengers from the arse end of the airport to the terminal building was late, so we couldn’t get to the plane. I couldn’t help but feel jealous of the British Airways passengers departing on time, and probably enjoying some free wine while they were at it. Me, I bought a cheapo bottle of Hungarian plonk in the airport to get me through the flight, and tried to ignore the irritating stag do in front of us.
That about rounds up our trip! Thanks for sticking with me on this journey of discovery. In sum, I’d go back to Budapest in a heartbeat. After all, there are four more thermal spas I need to explore…
Soon, I’ll be posting about my road trip around Spain and Portugal, so follow the blog for all the updates!
Peace out, hope Trump doesn’t get us all killed in a nuclear war.