Budapest: Rich History, Ruins Bars, and Cheap Eats on the Danube

The growing and fascinating city of Budapest, Hungary was the first stop on my spring break journey, which lasted from March 3rd to 10th. I spent until the 6th in Budapest, and I learned to love the complex and beautiful place so quickly. I had no expectations, since I knew little about Budapest other than the few TripAdvisor searches I had done a few nights before. I was humbled by the beauty and personality of the city, especially it has endured such destruction and pain in its recent history.

After a short flight and a series of buses and commuter trains, we arrived in the city center, disoriented and confused. The short walk to our Airbnb, situated just steps from the Parliament building, immediately gave us a new perspective. While the currency was complicated (1 euro = 300 forint) and the language seemed impossible, we were happily surprised to find that English is spoken widely, and that everything was so affordable after converting the prices. We started the trip with a quick stop in a local cafe for a cinnamon cappuccino before walking to the meeting point of our free walking tour.

Our guide, Barbie, was so sweet, and we had a great time exploring the main monuments of the city with her. We explored the Pest side of the city first, making stops at St. Stephen’s Basilica and square, a park with a beautiful Ferris wheel, and a few statues along the scenic tram line on the river. The statue below is called the Little Princess, and it was made in an attempt to create a public work free of political meanings. Soviet statues used to dominate the city, and the influence is still present throughout some of the city’s architecture. Every once in a while, there will be a building that looks like a dirty, old 90s office building – that’s the Soviet architecture, for you!

We then crossed the Chain Bridge into the Buda side, home to castles, hills, and politicians. After a short break for hot chocolate, we climbed the steep hill up to Buda Castle. We then walked through what looked like a storybook to Matthias Church, and the beautiful lookout behind it, called the Fisherman’s Bastion.

We crossed the river back into the Pest side after stopping at a souvenir shop to get dinner. In the old Jewish quarter, there is a covered block of restaurants and bars with open courtyards, called Gozsdu Udvar. It proved to be the perfect place to eat – I got salmon, fries, and a cider for less than 10 euro! We then retired for the night and spent some time lounging around the apartment before going to bed, more than satisfied with our first day in Budapest. At this point, we had already sung George Ezra’s “Budapest” a dozen times, and it instantly became the soundtrack of our trip.

We woke up the next morning and took the scenic tram along the river towards St. Stephen’s Basilica, where we toured the inside before heading to the top. Finished in the 1950s, the church looks much older than it is, and was equipped with an elevator! While we almost blew away, the views on the top were absolutely stunning. We then grabbed lunch at an amazing cafe that had interesting lemonades and fresh-grilled chicken sandwiches, flavored with paprika (Hungary’s favorite spice).

Next, we boarded a bus and drove along Andrassy Avenue towards the thermal baths. While our friends bathed with a few thousand steamy people, Jenny and I opted for the House of Terror instead. Located in the headquarters of both the Arrow Cross (Hungarian Nazis) and the Soviets from when they each occupied Budapest, the office/prison-turned-museum was a powerful and emotional attraction. I was moved by the artistic and innovative presentation of the museum, from sculptures, videos, and propaganda, to artifacts and offices from the original headquarters. The basement was filled with recreations of prison cells, each designed to discomfort prisoners in different ways. I left the museum heavy-hearted and a bit scared, but immensely grateful for the experience.

We met back up with our friends and freshened up before grabbing a quick dinner at a kebab place and spending the night at Szimpla Kert. Named the second best bar in the world, this abandoned apartment complex was two floors of eclectic and vibrant decor and people. There were six or so bars, hookah for rent, and indoor and outdoor areas. The drinks were cheap ad there was no cover charge, which was also a plus! We ran into a friend from the JFRC there, which was a blast. On our way home, we saw two Hungarian girls struggling to sing along to Beyoncé’s “Diva” in the street, in addition to a man dressed in a penis costume and a frizzy white wig. Giggling, we strolled past trendy restaurants and cafes before turning in for the night.

After sleeping in and wandering around the Parliament building for a few, we headed towards a public monument dedicated to Hungarian Jews that were executed along the river during WWII. Shoes on the Danube Bank was a beautiful tribute, and the candles and ribbons left behind showed the endurance of the powerful piece. While the Chain Bridge was stunning, we opted to take a bus across it this time, since we were going all the way to the top of the hill again.

At the top, we stopped in a famous bakery before getting lunch in a traditional Hungarian restaurant. I had chicken paprikash, which was yummy but surprisingly not as flavorful as I expected! A short walk through the colorful streets brought us to another part of Budapest’s complex history: the Hospital in the Rock Nuclear Bunker Museum. Built in preparation for WWII, it was utilized for many different events throughout the years, including a failed revolt against the Soviet rule. It was prepped to serve as a nuclear bunker during the Cold War, as well. The museum was filled with a few hundred wax figures, which made imagining the crowded and difficult conditions in the hospital simple. The guide focused on the dedication of the doctors and the importance of peace, which made for a lighthearted tour. However, there was no escaping the racks of gas masks and showers that were to be used if a nuclear attack occurred.

We left the museum immensely impressed by the resilience of the city and its people. It started to rain, so we grabbed a quick dinner at a burger place near the Jewish Quarter. Our train for Vienna departed around 11 the next morning, but we were already missing this unexpectedly stunning city.

 

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