Six months after ending our South American sojourn, Stefje and I packed our bags for another international destination. This time we were off to Hungary, sandwiching a weekend trip into our otherwise busy schedules.
By departing after work on a Thursday evening, we were sufficiently exhausted upon touching down at the airport after midnight, but it was still a long slog on two busses through the city’s outer reaches before reaching our accommodation for the night.
Almost immediately we passed out, but what seemed like just a few minutes later we were awoken by the sun on a clear Friday morning in Budapest, eager to set off and see what the city had to offer.
It only took a few minutes for our eyes to bulge with outlandish neo-classical architecture in the form of the grandiose St. Stephen’s Basilica. It hadn’t hit the priority list of our vague plans for the day, but we immediately made a detour to accommodate exploring the massive dome which rose up like a sentinel standing guard of the city center.
From the observation platform at the beginning of the dome’s steep upwards slope, we were granted our first sweeping panorama of the city. Apartment buildings that stretched a city block wide and featured impressive and intricate exterior facades instantly caught my eye, while Stefje’s gaze was drawn to ornately decorated roofs of vibrant color that were sprinkled throughout the city.
Using some topographical vision and GPS triangulation, we were able to get a good hold on the city’s landscape. Currently in Pest, on the Eastern banks of the Danube, we set our sights on exploring the rolling hills of Buda to the West.
To get to Buda we had to cross the Danube and decided to do so at one of the city’s most prominent locations: the chain bridge. Ahead of us lay the grand palace and Castle Hill district full of splendid structures, while the imperious parliament building behind us offered a fantastic glimpse of insanely detailed design.
By trading the cable car for the power of our own two feet, we were at the top within ten minutes instead of waiting in line; our reward was a ridiculous sight.
Five bridges spanned the river and offered connections between the two distinct areas. In between the roar of the city and all its inhabitants was reduced to a slight din, offering both a breath of fresh air and some much needed silence to our day.
Although both Stefje and I concluded that the grand palace appeared much more grand from afar and the structure's architecture disappointed up close, we nevertheless had a great time exploring the grounds and getting slightly lost as the sun’s brilliant lights began to slant across the Western hills of Buda behind us.
With just a bit of light left in the short, crisp Winter’s day, we quickly navigated over to the Castle Hill District’s other top attraction, Matthias Church. Arriving just in time to watch the sunlight slowly creep up its shining white surface, we stared in wonder at the green and orange tiled roof, which was so detailed that it must have been painstakingly hand-painted.
With just minutes to spare we followed the path around the church’s courtyard to the Fisherman’s Bastion. A series of seven turrets connected by a long walkway led to arches that gazed out across the river. This prime location offered the best views yet of the entire city.
Despite hundreds of tourists flocking to the scene, we were even able to find the set of arches that perfectly framed the parliament sitting along the banks of the Danube.
A few more hours of exploring in the Castle Hill District offered insights into what has traditionally been one of Budapest’s wealthiest neighborhoods, but the lack of inhabitants and plethora of tour groups had us itching for some more cultural immersion.
As we navigated down the hill back to the Danube’s river walk, we were even treated to an outrageous view of the parliament building, brilliantly illuminated and reflecting in the glimmering water of the river.
Saturday morning we were interested in some of the sights in Pest, so our feet again led the way. This time we took the wandering route through one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. Throughout the city center, the exterior of the buildings baffled us with their beauty: most had works of art worthy of museums inlaid in gold, and some even sported busts or statues of long lost heroes.
Our first destination was the central market, where the motifs of Hungarian cuisine were omnipresent. Bread, meat, and cheese rule the day here. While we wandered the hall exploring the various types of stalls selling honeys, jams, and spices, I satiated myself with dozens of free sausage samples, ranging from fatty and savory to scintillatingly spicy.
On the second floor we could gain a vantage point to take in the hall’s splendid Christmas decorations and even ogle at some impressive hand-quilted traditional Hungarian garments, but it came at the expense of our personal space. In every direction tourists crammed into the tiny alleyways, forcing us to leave soon after for fear of claustrophobia.
But on the way out we were sure to grab a traditional cherry pie which exploded in flavor instantly upon hitting the tongue.
Next up we spent a few minutes simply admiring the views from the Liberty bridge, which proved a popular spot for a Saturday afternoon picnic.
Eventually, our feet started wandering forward along a street dominated by souvenir shops and touristic restaurants. However, if you could pull your eyes away from the mess of humanity, the top stories offered a master class in Hungarian architecture and Stefje and I did our best to take it all in.
Holiday season in Budapest means the onset of no less than half a dozen Christmas markets, and this particular street spilled right into one of the most popular ones. Although dozens of unique dishes were on tap, the one that really caught my eye was the “Chimney Cake.”
Dough balls are spread across special hollow barbeque skewers and then slowly roasted over a charcoal grill before being doused in sugar. The end product is piping hot as it comes out, creating a column of steam and promising a taste that is both sweet and smoky.
Our day’s exploration ended with a stroll through the city’s Jewish quarter. Although these days it is known primarily as the vibrant home of one of the country’s largest ethnic groups and home to the world’s second largest synagogue, it was also the scene of ethical atrocities during World War II. Tens of thousands of Hungarian Jewish citizens were cordoned into an area just a few city blocks wide, were thousands died and countless more were sent on to concentration camps.
Just a few steps away from the synagogue we dove into one of Budapest's unique attractions: ruin bars. The game plan for constructing one of these idiosyncratic locales seems to be quite simple.
- Acquire a dilapidated building
- Decorate said building with ridiculous items from flea markets
- Invite friends
- Serve beer
Szimpla Kert is one of the biggest ruin bars in the city and we had a great time on Saturday night exploring the trippy rooms and admiring all of the unique decorations. In fact, we even returned just a few hours later for a brief taste of the Sunday morning farmer's market that turned the bar into a local meeting place.
Afterwards we took a long walk down the historical street of Andrássy út, where grand houses in various states of disrepair led us along a path towards the city park. The street culminated in a bang by dropping us off at Heroes Square, a lavish and striking area that was overrun with tour busses and the perfect spot to snap some great photos on the clear sunny day.
A long stroll around the park got my stomach ready for some traditional hungarian fare, so we stopped in at another one of the Christmas markets for a local staple: sausage and potatoes.
Yet the real highlight of Budapest's city park was the striking combination of a castle flanked by a massive ice skating rink. After discovering the line to simply rent skates snaked all the way around the block, we forego our plans of ice skating in exchange for a warm afternoon coffee in the high class restaurant overlooking this view.
Afterwards we spent some time exploring the castle's grounds before making our way over to the Szechenyi Baths in the back corner of the park. While the day transitioned into evening and slowly lit the sky into a raging fire behind us, we indulged in the warmth of the thermal waters, letting all our worries rinse away.
Needless to say, that night was the perfect culmination for our trip. By the time we were forced to pack up the following day, it was clear that the spell was complete; Budapest had beguiled us, and I was already planning my next trip to this charming and intriguing destination.