It’s difficult to say just how much fun I had in Budapest, nor how far in love with it I have fallen. It’s pretty deep, I can tell you.
Here are my top ten reasons–not necessarily in order– you should visit.
PS: RECIPES are linked!
1) The Food: It is amazing. We aren’t talking the schnitzel and wurst you’ve heard bad rumors about. We aren’t talking meals heavy on overcooked meats and bland vegetables. We’re talking rich deep flavor, plenty of fond, amazing cheeses and casseroles with layers of deliciousness.
Let’s talk for a moment about street food. Budapest is obsessed with it. They even have a Street Food festival. I want to be happy for them that they celebrate food. Instead I am jealous. Very jealous. And sad. Because I should still be there.
So think a lovely red pepper or tomato sauce topped with hot melted cheese, or sausages and roasted veg. OR think Nutella with bananas and whipped cream and tried cherries. Or slivered almonds and dripping farmstead honey. Or walnuts with roasted apples and caramel sauce. I’m salivating…seriously. And thinking about going out to buy a fryer.
Burgers are everywhere. They are big and they are juicy and they make a vegetarian want to go raise, butcher and eat their own herd. FYI: The best burgers are from the food trucks. These guys seem to be working harder at making a better burger and it shows all over your face when you are dripping grease and smiling from ear to ear. Also wicked cheap. About $4 for a huge burger and $1 for fries. Ketchup extra!! (??).
A little inside scoop on eating in Budapest: there are many, many, MANY wonderful restaurants, cafes and casual restaurants of every sort. Try the Italian and Turkish spots off the beaten path, which are especially and surprisingly good, given that you are in neither Italy nor Turkey, but that there are a lot of Italians here and that Budapest was occupied by the Turks for 150 years.
OF COURSE you should make lots of belly room for Hungarian specialties. There are Michelin starred restaurants in Budapest, but I wasn’t super thrilled with any of them compared to less publicized places. Budapest has so much to offer, so I wouldn’t advise staying in just one neighborhood or relying only on your guidebook (which you should toss out the window anyway).
Two of my favorite spots are in the Buda Castle district. Favorites because A1 made me go to them 4 times and I didn’t order a dish I didn’t like. And because we were so happy and romantic and relaxed there…. Pest Buda Bistro is owned by the same family that owns 21, Pierrot and Balthazar. It’s true they are dangerously close to the Hilton and so make my Too Touristy designation, but they make up for it with great food. Balthazar has a slight edge for romance since it is a couple of blocks off the main drag.
….On the other hand….
…is this place: hidden, sort of barely post-Communist feeling and full of locals. That’s why I love it. Across from the Hilton, in the large yellow building (look for the Fortuna Etterem sign), there is an arch. Pass halfway through it, en route to a quiet, hidden courtyard (which happens to have several hidden souvenir shops housed in a glass church). On the left is a door. Pass through it, go up the stairs (check out your skinny self in the mirrors, cuz that won’t be the view on the way down), and enter the vacuous, old-school, self-serve cantina whose name I really don’t know. .
Go all the way to the opposite end of the room, grab a tray and proceed through the cafeteria line where old school dishes with bulgur and cabbage and filets and sauces and mushrooms and paprika and everything you ever loved about your grandma’s kitchen is waiting for you. It’s awesome.
2) The Baths: they are incredible and they are a wonderful way to meet the locals and checkout the international scene.
Hungary is a land-locked nation. The Danube River runs through Budapest, but it also flows through nine other countries and is more or less a nautical highway so of course you wouldn’t dip a toe in it.
Budapest’s beach is its 123 natural springs and several thermal baths. We went to the Szechényi baths, located near the zoo, circus, Hero’s Square and City Park (none of which we visited, which tells you quite a lot about us).
This is where Bono comes in.
Imagine that I am lying, naked as a jaybird, on the massage table, soft breezes and the murmur of the crowd below floating through the open window, the scent of aromatherapy oil and cheap candles pervading the room, my face settled into that little hole where all you can do is stare at the floor and focus on relaxing.
A1 is also in the room, opposite me (but he has his trunks on). The masseuse, probably thinking she is creating a nice mood for us, puts an actual TAPE into an actual TAPE PLAYER of U2 dubbed by a deep, rich, operatic, Eastern European accented baritone. The first song is With or Without You, sung as slow and as longingly as possible so that it actually makes you want to weep with the sadness of it. Followed by Where The Streets Have No Name, equally longingly. I was trying hard to recall all the movies with the prototype Russian bar singer wailing covers of old love songs, but all I could come up with was Tina Fey and Kermit from The Muppets.
The voice of the tragic baritone was transformative. And awesome. And the exact reason why I love to travel: you can’t get this anywhere else but in that place, in that moment! Check out what a relaxed noodle I was. Entry to the baths and a one hour massage for $45 US.
After your exhilarating swim or therapeutic dip, you can eat in the restaurant. Its not bad- Hungarian specialties like fried pork cutlet, plus fresh fruit, beer, sodas and a couple of desserts and grab-and-go candy bars. My suggestion is either the roasted chicken or the awesome spicy sausage, served with a side of potato croquettes.
3) The drivers: We all know that driving in most American cities is a risky proposition. In Budapest, the transit system of trolleys, busses, subway and trains is really easy to use, so a lot of folks don’t drive. The folks who do have a healthy respect for pedestrians, and vice versa. Here’s what they means for the traveler: crosswalks are sacred territory. Inside the lines is like being accepted into a sanctuary. Outside the lines, you are free game. I like that kind of clarity and clear expectations.
Beware that many busy intersections have stoplights for pedestrians as well as cars. I didn’t see a single case of jaywalking. I did see surveillance cameras on every block. That should tell you something!
4) History– you are literally steeped in it. Every step is a lesson in Western Civ. In order to appreciate Budapest, you need to appreciate the story of how and why it came to be. History touches EVERYTHING about the city, from how it was laid out, to how it looks today. Don’t just get off your cruise and stumble around town, not really knowing what you are looking at. Even if you have to walk with the tourist guidebook, take a second to appreciate the centuries of settlement, destruction and rebuilding these people have endured.
5) The “muzeums”: You could get to know the best parts of Budapest simply by staking out the museums, which are all over town. Even if you don’t like museums, you should go to them here. Some have a modest entry fee ($5-8) and some are free. Most have excellent English descriptions of what you are looking at. Otherwise, just get the audio guide.
Our favorites are below. If I get any extra energy or time I give more details on each later, or you can email me:
- Budapest History Museum
- Faust Wine Cellar
- Hospital in the Rock (super cool!)
- Hungarian National Museum
- Terror Museum (sad, but moving. You won’t stop thinking about what you see there)
- Memento Park
- Ethnographic Museum
- Military Museum
6) The people: I had never met a Hungarian in my life before I went to Budapest. I LOVE HUNGARIANS!
Since we stayed at the Hilton, we had to endure busloads of tourists coming in from the Viking Tours. I heard several ignoramuses say the Hungarians are rude. WHAT??
OK, if you compare Hungarian rapport to some other nations, their naturally curt, slightly suspicious nature may seem rude. But since you are traveling, you should have an open mind and do as the locals do. For example, when you walk the street in the morning, don’t feel compelled to look everyone you meet in the eye, say good morning and ask if their mother is well. Just walk. Do your thing. Mind your own business.
When you need help, don’t try to be best friends. Don’t feel compelled to draw the person into your loveliness as if your circle of sunshine will make their world bright.
Their world is what it is, and its fine without you, so ask your question, get the answer and move along.
If the answer is no, don’t look for excuses as to why or expect a list of alternatives. Just take what you get, and move along. When the supermarket check out lady throws the receipt at you, don’t take it personally. Watch: she does this to everyone. I LOVE this black and white, low maintenance, no need to brush your teeth or put on a bra because you won’t be talking much and no one is looking at you anyway approach.
7) The Danube: Have you ever seen light like that? Have you ever gaze at a concrete-lined river and actually wished you could travel it? Did you ever look at the Potomac and really think it could take you to places you’ve only read about or dreamed of? PS: its not Blue. It is shades of green and brown depending on the weather and season.
8) The life: these people LOVE to party! Seriously, the entire town is lit up at night and there is always something going on in Budapest. If folks aren’t at a festival or a cafe, they are having parties on private rooftops or in gated courtyard gardens.
9) The Wine: it is truly fabulous, and the Hungarians are understandably proud of it. I really don’t know why its not more popular in the US, and anticipated importers making it the next best thing here soon.
There are several wine regions in Hungary. Don’t get tied to the popular Tokaj whites or Bulls Blood reds from Eger. Just try as many as you can.
The best way to do this is at a wine festival. Imagine your town’s main street turned into a wine tasting room and that is Budapest’s idea of a weekend activity.
You pay 900HUF ($3) for a Spiegelau wine glass, plus however much you want for tickets. You use the tickets to pay for wine by the glass. Most of the glasses are about 400HUF ($1.75), with really special cuvees up to 2400HUF (about $8). You could reasonably spend $10 US on a night out. A lantern lit, romantic night, no less.
Or you could pony up for a wine tasting, a day in a wine school, or a visit to a specific wine region.
10). The Churches: Yes, Budapest was formerly a Communist nation. But before, during, and after that time, it was primarily Roman Catholic, with the requisite appreciation for medieval church history and macabre artifacts like St. Stephen’s right hand and St. John’s foot.
St. Matthias Church on Castle Hill is a perfect example of what I mean.
The flags that line the interior of the church are from actual battles against the Turks in the 16th century. The balconies were built to accommodate women when the church was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman occupation. This church is where King Stephan and countless kings after him were married and crowned.
You should also visit St. Stephan’s Basilica, the Great Jewish Synagogue on Dohany Street (one of the largest in the world, with fabulous architecture and art and a Jewish Museum), or any of the smaller cathedrals in between these.
11) The architecture and monuments. Oops-there are more than ten reasons I *heart* Budapest. Monuments, statues, bullet holes in buildings, royal entries, parapets, domes, paintings…it’s literally Disney land for adults.
12) Did I mention the food? If not, imagine for a moment what these would taste like. Don’t lick your screen.
If you’ve made it to the end of this post, congratulations! I hope you are inspired to go to Hungary. You can of course, comment or email me and I will get back to you ASAP.
Here are some recipes I am going to try this fall, as I seek to recapture the sense of relaxation and wonder I had in Budapest.
- Gingerbread Linzertorte by Martha Stewart
- Nokedli Dumplings (aka spaetzle) also by Martha Stewart
- Poppy Seed Bread Pudding by The Spicy Goulash
- korozott cheese dip by The Hungary Dish
- Layered Potato casserole (a la Pommes Anna) by Hungarian Titbits (no that, is not a spelling error!)
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