Budapest, Something for Everyone

Before I get into reminiscing about one of my favourite cities in Europe, I just wanted to say – hello! Welcome to the blog! It's been a while! Over the next few weeks I'll be recapping mine and my friend Laura's mini Euro trip adventure we took this past May/June. We spent two weeks travelling through Budapest, Vienna, Prague, Berlin, and Amsterdam, and now it's finally time for me to commemorate the trip and consolidate my experiences (three months later…procrastination at its finest!).

Laura and I spent 3 days in Budapest... and it was the Budabest. The tourists don't swarm here. The architecture is incredible and detailed and delicate. The Danube river that divides the two sides of the city is a perfect backdrop to pictures. The food, the wine, the nightlife, the history, the baths – Budapest feels like it truly has something for everyone, no matter what you're interested in. Here's a breakdown of some things Laura and I raved about during our time in Hungary's capital.

Take a Free Walking Tour

We ended up doing this in every city we went to, but the walking tour in Budapest blew us away – and it was 99% due to our incredible guide, Zoltan. He was animated and hilarious and knowledgeable, complete with a very Hungarian looking moustache that curled up to his cheeks. The company we did it with was called "Free Budapest Walking Tours", and they meet at Erzsébet Square every morning.

Walking tours are my #1 choice for orienting myself in a new city. I love handing over the reins to a true local, someone who lives and breathes the city I'm in. I love asking what local spots I should eat at, where I can buy metro tickets, or what the local liquor is (and if I can handle trying it).

Our Budapest walking tour covered a lot of ground in the city. We started with the impressive and domineering Szent István Bazilika (St. Stephen's Basilica) on the Pest side, and walked over the Széchenyi Chain Bridge to the Buda side. There, we explored the entire Castle District and wrapped up at Matthias Church and the Fisherman's Bastion.

The two sides of the city – Buda and Pest – are like fraternal twins. Buda, with its flat terrain on the Eastern side, is the younger, grungier, hipper sister. It feels raw and humble, but it’s still punctuated with grandeur behind narrow alleys or atop low-rise buildings. This is where the life of the city is, the artistry, and the Jewish district with its infamous ruin bars.

Pest is the older, refined, elegant sibling. It's a grand hill on the banks of the Danube. It's the castle and the royal home, frivolity and fanciness. Street art hasn’t navigated it’s way over here from Buda, but that’s because the ornate buildings don’t need any extra flourishes. Pest is a stunner all on its own.

Do Your Own Walking Tour

Once we were acquainted with the general lay of the land, Laura and I embarked on our own wanderings. Armed with Zoltan’s recommendations and Google Maps, we crisscrossed and zigzagged our way throughout the streets, stopping every few minutes to take in the heartbeat of this city and document its beauty.

I loved seeing the surroundings change, morphing from the extravagance along the banks of the river to the grungier interior closer to the Jewish district. Budapest was fluid and ethereal, with multiple personalities and surprises – a food truck market tucked into an alley, a prettily painted window display, children running through dancing water fountains, and bright yellow trams dotting the streetscape.

Soak in the Baths

After walking and walking and walking some more, Laura and I decided to reward our tired bones with a spa morning. Budapest and baths are pretty much synonymous, as the city is built on natural hot springs. The tradition of “taking to the waters” has been around for centuries, and it’s an experience we didn’t want to miss.

There are a million options of which bath to go, and each local will have their favourite/go-to/recommendation. We decided on Szechenyi Baths because it’s the largest, has an outdoor area, and based on my Instagram location stalking, is prime for picture taking. 

I’ve only had one other spa experience in my lifetime (the ultra-fancy Scandinave spa in Blue Mountain), so I wasn’t quite sure if there was a specific circuit or order of pools we were supposed to go through. Instead, we made it our mission to dip a toe into every single pool, and peek into every sauna room as well. We even accidentally joined a seniors Aquafit class, which was way harder than it looks!

After a multitude of photos and hours spent in scalding water, we felt light, refreshed, and warm all over. This is definitely a tradition I wouldn’t mind having here in Canada, as long as the affordable pricing options migrated over as well.

Sip on Some Wine

When I think European wine, France and Spain are the countries that come to my mind. Hungary would probably draw a blank face. And yet, this country has its fair share of delicious, unique, and interesting wine options. From sweet whites to rich and tannic reds, I enjoyed trying the array of wines Hungary offered. Our hostel even had a wine tasting night that Laura and I took advantage of to learn about the grape growing regions and try some options firsthand.

When in doubt about what to order, I asked in restaurants if they had any sweeter, less acidic options (since that’s where my tastes lie). My favourite Hungarian varietal ended up being Tokaji Szamorodni, a fruity and sweet white wine. 

Experience Local Food…

While we didn’t check off every single traditional Hungarian food, Laura and I enjoyed a broad range of what Budapest is infamous for. Langos, Gulyas, and Doner Kebab were the three main things we tried and loved, and they all shared some things in common – they were heavy, greasy, and hella yummy. 

One of our favourite things we stumbled upon in Budapest was Karaván, a night market / food truck assembly tucked into an alleyway near the ruin bars. The ambience was friendly and convivial, with string lights adorning the night sky, amazing smells wafting into the air, and many food options to choose from. This is where we had Langos, a doughy cheese bread that pre-empts heart attacks. Thank goodness we shared.

When it comes to street food, Budapest is known for one thing – Doner. The Turkish influence isn’t just alive in the city’s baths, but also in its handheld sandwiches. Since we decided to share this heavy meal too, we opted for a plate of rice, grilled chicken, and minimal veggies. The sauce is what sets apart one place from the next, and I can highly recommend Budapest Doner Kebab for a filling and tasty meal.

Gettó Gulyás came highly recommended to us from a few people, so we perched upon their patio one day for lunch. While goulash is traditionally heavy (noodles + meat), I was pleasantly surprised by this smaller and lighter portion. The tastes were still rich, but not overwhelming, and the menu and décor were modern and fresh. 

… and Twists on Local Food

A solid travel day includes some authentic, hole-in-wall, cheap-as-hell places to eat… perfectly balanced with some fancier, more modern, and unique eating options too. I loved two places in particular in Budapest – an adorable brunch spot called Zoska Café, and a hip and innovative eatery called Kiosk.

Part of what made Zoska so endearing was the post-it notes strewn upon the walls from former visitors. It’s such a neat design element in itself, and our breakfast sandwiches were fresh and filling. A very tasteful and homey place that I highly recommend!

I also really loved Kiosk, which had a massive sprawling patio in front of the Church of the Blessed Virgin. The patio was laid with green turf and stretched along the whole building, with local families and couples on dates surrounding us. The two of us shared the “Triology Platter”, a modern spin on Hungarian classics like sausage, pate, and bread. It also came with an amazing eggplant dip and cottage cheese spread, and was presented almost too prettily to eat.

Party at the Ruin Bars

Budapest has some insane nightlife. It might not be Berlin in terms of pure hedonism, but the vibes are friendly, welcoming, and fun. It’s best known for its ruin bars, where the interiors are constructed of “found trash”. It’s stylish steampunk, and partying feels like you’re partly in the past and partly in an alternate futuristic universe. Case in point: at Szimpla Kert, there was a room that projected a macro live-stream video of two artists playing with random materials. What in the world?! It was weird and cool and oh-so-Euro all at once. We embraced it with some help of being under the influence.

Shop at the Market

Our hostel was conveniently located right across from the Great Market Hall, a cavernous warehouse-style building with hundreds of food, craft, and grocery stalls. We made the mistake of exploring it right during the lunch hour rush, which necessitated some nimble maneuvering around tourists and locals alike. Eventually, we just settled in for lunch at the upstairs restaurant, where we split a massive Hungarian tasting menu. It was pretty expensive for a simple, traditional meal, but the view looking over the hall made up for it.

Learn Some Heavy History

On our second day in Budapest, we woke up to grey, dreary skies and a steady putter of precipitation. Our plans of going to the baths would have to be put on hold, and a quick Google of “What to do in Budapest on a rainy day” led us to another destination – the House of Terror. Not a haunted house, but rather a museum chronicling the darkest history of Budapest and Hungary, Laura and I truly valued our time here. The self-guided audio tour lacked some clarity, but the overall learning lessons made us fall more in love with the resilient, brave, kind Hungarian people and their country.

The history of Budapest (and literally every other city ever) also lay in the architecture, the statues, and the plaques on each corner. A beautiful castle in the middle of a lake. A memorial turned photo opportunity. A grand square filled with Hungary’s heroes. Budapest does a fine job of weaving together its not-so-wonderful past with a hopeful, regenerative, and optimistic future.

Budapest, thank you for your hospitality. For the spark and love you lit in me for Europe itself. For the delicious food, the easy-going-down wine, and the romances I had with some of your citizens… and with you, the city itself. Until next time!