In my last post ( Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna, Salzburg – why? ) I spoke about my decision-making in planning a mini Eurotrip for October 2014. It was an adventure that would see me visit three countries and four cities over ten days – starting in Budapest!
Honestly, I didn’t really know what to expect from Budapest. I think if I was going for the first time now it’d be less of a struggle but at the time it didn’t seem like anyone was talking about this destination. I was a bit of a novice traveler at the time so maybe I was just looking in the wrong places but Budapest and Hungary were both a bit of an unknown for me.
I didn’t know anyone who had visited and I had never learned anything about Hungary in school so I went there just hoping for the best. In some respects I’m quite thankful I went there blissfully unaware – within a couple of hours I was mesmerised by Budapest and I think it helped with it coming as a surprise rather than the feeling of “I’ve seen this on Instagram 1,000 times already” that I have when visiting some places now.
I don’t know what the catalyst for change was. Shortly after I booked my trip George Ezra released his hit ‘Budapest’. Without boosting his ego too much (George blatantly reads my blog, right?) I can’t help but feel that it put a little spotlight on Budapest. Alternatively perhaps people were just waiting for the seal of approval from myself before visiting. Whatever the reason (probably not the latter), Budapest appears to be a much more popular destination than it was when I visited in 2014.
Anyway, back to my trip. It’s October 2014 and I’m counting down the days until my adventure begins. My first bit of excitement came when I was exchanging currencies. I picked up Euros for Slovakia and Austria but I also had to get some Hungarian Forints for the trip. I think the exchange rate at the time was around £1 to 300-350 forints which left me walking away with thousands in my wallet and feeling rather rich.
Soon enough I was flying out to sunny Budapest and leaving the miserable English weather behind. I arrived in to Budapest around lunchtime on Saturday and went on the hunt for my hostel – that took some finding. I don’t know why but I never seem to find hostels too easily and I must walk past them several times as they blend in to the other buildings around them. Bizarre.
With three days to explore I didn’t really want to waste any time so I dropped off my things and started to wander towards the river Danube. It was only a short walk from where I was staying and seemed a good place to start my exploration of Budapest. My first impression of Budapest was one of disbelief, I’d been blown away by the beauty of the city and I couldn’t understand how I’d got here without knowing how stunning it is.
With the blue skies and beautiful scenery Budapest had won me over instantly! I continued my walk alongside the Danube, admiring everything in all directions and then I stumbled upon the Hungarian Parliament building for the first time. Wow! I’d seen photos of it online but photos don’t really do it justice. It’s my favourite piece of architecture I’ve seen anywhere and, even with my London bias, it is much more impressive than our own Houses of Parliament in Westminster.
I don’t know how much time I spent admiring the parliament building, it doesn’t matter what angle you’re seeing it from it isn’t any less impressive. As afternoon quickly turned to evening I decided I should find somewhere for dinner and somewhere to entertain myself for the evening. It was at that point I realised how cheap Budapest is. I’ve always been good at numbers but I was left second guessing myself if I’d calculated the exchange rate correctly – “that must be wrong” I thought as I came to the conclusion that a beer, dinner and a tip was still ridiculously cheap.
After a couple of drinks I called it a night and had a relaxed first evening in Budapest, keen to get off to an early start the next day.
I started my day off with a “free” walking tour, I find that these are a great way to familiarise yourself with a city and you usually learn a few things along the way. For instance I quickly learned that one side of the city was called “Buda” and the other side of the river called “Pest” and between them they formed one city called, that’s right, Budapest! Who knew?
I wasn’t overly impressed with the specific tour-guide but overall it was a good tour, covered a few of the sights and gave me a better understanding of the history of the city. It also offered me a little inspiration for other things to see in the city that weren’t covered on the tour. The tour began on the Pest side of the river but it finished off in Buda, I was staying in Pest so hadn’t ventured to this side of the river yet so it was quite convenient to explore a little more over here.
Buda is on much higher ground so offers great views overlooking the river and the Pest side of the city – in particular the parliament building which is perhaps best viewed from the Buda half of the city.
After a little wandering I made my way back over to Pest in time to catch a tour which explored the Jewish district a little more. I was fascinated to learn how involved Hungary were in the rise of the Nazi regime around World War 2 – a history, much like Germany, that they’re not proud of but don’t shy away from re-telling.
The tour was really interesting, not just telling the history of the Jewish district but also showing it off in a modern climate. You’ll find the largest Synagogue in Europe here but also plenty of street art, restaurants and bars making it one of the livelier (and cheapest) parts of the city to enjoy an evening.
Following the tour I found some dinner in a nearby restaurant and then headed back to my hostel for a little downtime before deciding what to do with my Sunday evening.
I was sharing a 4 bed dorm in my hostel and on my return I found a fully occupied room. The other 3 guys coming from Scotland, Switzerland and Pakistan. We quickly established we were all in the same boat – traveling solo around Europe and up for a night out with new friends.
Budapest is famous for its ruin bars and it wasn’t long before we were heading out in search of the city’s most famous – Szimpla Kert. Words don’t really do it justice as to how unique it is but it’s a must visit and you can find some photos of it here: Szimpla Kert
From the outside you’d never know what was awaiting inside in what is one of the quirkier bars you’re likely to visit. It attracts both tourists and locals alike, perhaps more the former as it’s one of the highest rated bars in the world. Tripadvisor had it rated as the 3rd best bar worldwide at the time of my visit I believe. It’s definitely worth a visit and if you don’t fancy the crowds in the evening they do host a farmers market during the day on a Sunday too.
After a few beers and a few shots we called it a night and went in search of a kebab house on the way back to our hostel. It was a great night and a highlight of my time in Budapest.
I’d ticked off a ruin bar on my Budapest bucketlist, the other thing the city is famous for are its baths/spas which was on my list for Monday. I’m not a spa type person but “when in Rome..”
The Szechenyi baths are Budapest’s biggest and most famous and perhaps the one you’re going to see recommended most – they even have a bath party on Saturday nights during the peak season. However it’s worth noting there are several in Budapest and if you want to escape the crowds you’ve got other options too. I chose the second route and found one on the Buda side of the city. If you’re in to that sort of thing they’re probably well worth a visit but I found the experience a little underwhelming and made use of the pool more than anything.
It did however set the tone for the rest of my day. I felt fairly relaxed and in the end I decided rather than rush around trying to do a million things in a day to just enjoy the city at my own pace. By this point I knew I’d be coming back to Budapest some day and I didn’t want to spoil my experience by rushing around when it could wait for future visits.
After a little breather I went and found a lunch spot near my hostel and had the most amazing goulash – not something I’d normally eat but I was in the mood for something a little more traditionally Hungarian and it was a really good decision – probably my best meal in Budapest!
The rest of the day was just spent wandering before settling down in a bar for a few drinks.
I woke up on Tuesday morning a little down-hearted. I didn’t want to say goodbye to Budapest yet and there was definitely a part of me tempted to change my plans to stay a little longer. However I knew an extra night in Budapest meant a night less somewhere else and I didn’t want to miss out elsewhere. I made my way to the train station suffering a bit of the holiday-blues at the realisation that I was leaving.
Then it dawned on me. Yes, I was leaving but not to go home. I was leaving Budapest behind and heading onwards to part 2 of the adventure. I still had 3 cities to explore, why was I moping about?
I used up the last of my forints to book a train to Bratislava and then grabbed a beer until it was time to leave.
I took my seat in a small enclosed carriage on the train and said farewell to Budapest, however the adventure wasn’t over. I was off to Bratislava!
More on that soon!