For my 30th Birthday in 2015, my partner Jon surprised me with a 5 day mini break to Budapest, Hungary!
Being totally gullible, I actually thought we were having a mini break in London and Jon wove this whole story of how we are going to be using his friend’s apartment who is currently away in Europe with work, which means that will help keep costs low (London hotel prices are fucking ridiculous!) and how he’d like to take me to Camden market because I have never been. Even when we got to the airport I still hadn’t clocked what was happening because Jon told me we had to meet his friend at the airport to pick up his apartment keys before he boards his flight. This story seems plausible right?
So we sat on the floor “waiting” for his friend to show up and Jon says “I’ll give you one of your birthday presents now and you’ll get the second one later.” He handed me a little rectangular gift that I opened to discover I was holding a Lonely Planet guide book of BUDAPEST! It took 20 minutes for me to realize this was real and I kept repeatedly saying “So…We are not meeting your friend then?” and “Are we really going to Budapest?”. My puzzled face was a picture and my emotions were a mixture of excitement & confusion. I just couldn’t believe I was getting on a plane to another country for my birthday! How romantic and how special?
I am not usually one for city breaks but I did fall in love with Budapest because it was just so quirky. This is actually a city I could live in and if I was offered the chance to perform or teach a workshop there, I’d go back in a heartbeat. Budapest has much to offer and because it’s a little hidden gem in Europe it is still cheap to fly to at only £58 return. Unlike Prague and even London( which are both extremely expensive thanks to tourism and over-popularity), Budapest has the Prague-like charm and whimsy and the London-like elegance on a cheaper budget.
We stayed at a hotel that was literally across the road from the main train station which would come in handy later on when we decided to go on a day trip to Vienna, Austria towards the end of the holiday. From our hotel it’s a 20 minute walk (or 5 minute bus ride) to the city centre. We opted to walk because on the way you find hidden little churches and beautiful statues or water fountains dotted about, not to mention a lot of the buildings along the way are also worth stopping to marvel at. Budapest is an architect’s dream because you are surrounded by such beautiful designs and interesting sculptures.
Budapest has a long and varied history but most of the buildings that can be seen today date from when the cities of Buda and Pest expanded and were merged into Budapest in 1873, followed by a grand building programme in 1896 to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of the arrival of the Magyars in Hungary. Every architectural style is covered, including some beautiful Gothic designs and “Szecesszió”, Hungary’s very own interpretation of Art Nouveau so we will certainly have a busy time exploring.
During your stay you can also visit the numerous thermal spas for a healing soak which is part of most Hungarian’s daily routines, relax on a boat trip across the Danube river, enjoy a chimney cake or Langos and listen to a Gypsy musician busking in the subway. The beer is also very cheap.
What I loved most about the Pest side to Budapest was the bohemian energy it exuded, many people here cycle to where they need to go, there are statues and monuments galore, hidden gardens, secret water fountains, plentiful art galleries, pop-up art shows and gorgeous fashion boutiques situated in the heart of the city.
Pest is the eastern, mostly flat part of Budapest, Hungary, comprising about two thirds of the city’s territory. It is separated from Buda, the other part of Budapest, by the Danube River. Among its most notable parts are the Inner City, including the Hungarian Parliament, Heroes’ Square and Andrássy Avenue. In colloquial Hungarian, “Pest” is often used for the whole capital of Budapest.
The name Pest comes from a Slavic word meaning “furnace”, “oven” and related to the word пещера (meaning “cave”), probably with reference to a local cave where fire burned.
Much like London, Pest has an underground, however unlike London it’s a lot easier to grasp, even if you can not speak Hungarian, the train system in the underground is much more simpler and airy to navigate and people are more approachable in case you need help. Most of the time Jon and I opted to walk around but when it rained it was good to know the option of using the underground was available.
Budapest as a whole is a must for the history buff and travel geek and we felt like we didn’t quite get enough time to squeeze in visiting all the grand buildings and picturesque chapels. Do make sure you have a wander over to the majestic parliament building which will envelop you in days gone by with changing of the guards dressed in their fine, regal uniforms. For anyone interested in a romantic afternoon stroll, you could opt for a walk to Gellért Hill where the Statue of Liberty (yes there is more than one) was first erected in 1947 in remembrance of the Soviet liberation of Hungary from Nazi forces during World War II.
Along the Danube riverbank you can visit the shoe memorial exhibition just outside Parliament building, a very poignant reminder of the Holocaust and the horror faced by many. The children’s shoes were the hardest to digest.
We spent quite a while here, just looking at the shoes, and the Danube, and imagining what these poor desperate people must have felt, not being able to protect themselves.
Pest is the art centre of Budapest, many artists have designed huge metal sculptures throughout the city and on a warm summer’s day, parades, bike races & performers are plentiful along the cobbled streets. Budapest also boasts eight stunning bridges that span the Danube river, all of them have their own characteristics and all eight link Pest to Buda. Each one is walkable or you can cycle or drive across. Every tourist visiting Budapest needs to cross the renowned Chain Bridge at least once and most people stand amazed at the front of the enchanting Elizabeth Bridge or become entranced by the mythical falcon-like birds on the top of the Liberty Bridge. Take your pick, all are magnificent in their own way.
Budapest is one of those cities that constantly ranks in various Top 10 lists, yet it’s still hardly visited by many travelers. Many travelers have yet to commit to Budapest due to old fears. Its part of Eastern Europe so people tend to have misconceptions of what to expect. English is very commonly spoken, and I assure you there is no communism here. It’s a must visit for tourists looking for something a little off the beaten path.
Hungary and therefore Budapest are serious Roman Catholics so please do be respectful when visiting a church or cathedral, they are open to the public but Mass is delivered daily. Budapestians are largely quite open minded and happy to receive tourists from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds. So much so, there are quite a few restaurants that offer Halal food such as the Szeráj Török Étterem which is Turkish Cuisine, Kohinoor Indian and Pakistani restaurant and the Al Amir Restaurant. There are also three known Mosques, three Hindu temples and the eye catching Dohány Street Synagogue.
Cultural influences from both East and West have left their mark on Hungary’s capital, from the grand cafes of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire to neglected statues of one-time Soviet heroes. Budapest is a city which exudes a heady mixture of Vienna’s elegance and boho coffee-house culture and Berlin’s rough-edged contemporary art scene, Budapest is a delicious fruit salad and leaves you reeling with options for exploring, starting from its world-famous baths right down to the kerts, picnic areas in ruined courtyards, and the much loved Goulash, a world famous local dish which you can enjoy at the main market.
The central market was a favourite destination of mine because I just love bustling market places of vendors selling local produce, we tried Ghoulash in the food court and some home made cinnamon swirls in the bakery (although Chimney cake wins hands down in regards to dessert and I wish it was sold/made here in the UK, it’s the same texture as a doughnut but is in the shape of a funnel!) and at home in the UK my favourite part of grocery shopping is the fruit and veg aisle! I love the smell of market places, I love the cheery sellers and I love that it is a social gathering offering areas to meet and greet over a hot beverage and even shop for unusual gifts.
The city has a remarkable multi-faceted nature; it really does seem to have something to offer everyone from history and culture buffs and fans of architecture to beer-guzzling hedonists and all-night ravers.
Pest is simply spectacular and there is much to do and see here, so much so that within the few days we spent on this side of the city we had to try and cram everything in as we whizzed around each area. We sadly didn’t get to experience the thermal baths but we did venture around the botanical gardens and local park the main baths were featured on and a Hungarian friend of mine living and working in the UK has offered to take me back to Budapest to explore more within and beyond the city. I instantly felt at home here, even though Hungarian is one of the hardest languages in the world to learn, I could still live here, I loved the variety and the artyness, I loved the elegant hipster fashion and I loved the welcoming atmosphere. Pest you have stolen my heart because you are the only city in the world I feel at home in.
Stay tuned for the next post about the Buda side of Budapest!
Until then here are other travel archives that may tickle your fancy:
16 days traveling around Morocco
10 days traveling up the Dalmatian coast of Croatia
Excursion from Croatia to Montenegro
21 days backpacking around Nepal
Random places in the UK
I will be writing up about Bulgaria over the summer so stay tuned for that too.