We landed in Budapest from Frankfurt and easily found the bus heading to the center of town (thank you airport information lady!) which was a much cheper option than a taxi cab or one of the many airport shuttle services. The bus was not crowded so we were able to comfortably sit with our bags until we arrived in the city center. After a few hiccups with the metro system and our map app, we arrived at the Hotel Oktagon. After having spent July in Albania, mostly in guesthouses, Hotel Oktagon felt very swanky indeed. They even had a nespresso machine in the room!
Unlike in the US, where every hotel room has some kind of coffee maker, European hotels often do not. I am someone who likes to have my coffee first thing in the morning. I don’t want to have to dress and leave my hotel room to get coffee even if it is in the lobby. When we don’t have coffee in the room, Phil lovingly goes for the coffee. Often it is simply on the main floor of the hotel but on occasion, he has had to leave the hotel and go out into the world, to a café usually, to get us coffee. I’m pretty lucky I have him. Usually, the best you can hope for in a European hotel room is a kettle and instant coffee which is totally cool, but a nespresso machine, c’mon. What luxury. We had just arrived and I already liked Budapest.
We walked around the city a bit and found a spot to grab some Indian food. It was cheap, delicious, and spicy! Of all of the places we have visited thus far, Budapest has had the most spicy flavor options, which was a welcomed change.
After our meal, we decided to check out the area in the Jewish District known for their famous ruin bars. Ruin bars started in the early 00’s, the first and most famous of which is Szimpla Kert. Szimpla Kert is housed in a building that was scheduled for demolition when some entrepreneurs looking to open up a bar/community space decided that instead of completely rehabbing the property, they would work with it’s ramshackle estectic. They added funky furniture and art, saving the building from ruin, while maintaining the “ruined” aesthetic. The bar was a success and other buildings in the area were saved from ruin by other bars popping up and incorporating the same funky esthetic. The district is now the hub of nightlift in Budapest.
Many of the ruin bars were closed as it was still relatively early in the evening. Szimpla Kert, however, was open so we stopped in for a quick beer. I’m really glad we did. The ruin bar aesthetic isn’t really Phil’s thing but I like it quite a bit, funky and quirky. It was a huge space with little nooks and crannies and rooms tucked off here and there, both downstairs and up.
The next morning we were up early for a walking tour of Budapest. We intentionally scheduled the tour for early in our visit as several times we have had tours and after the fact, we’d wished we had more time to explore some of the places mentioned by the guide. It doesn’t always work out to schedule tours early on in a visit but I highly recommend doing so if at all possible, paticularly walking tours or food tours as the guide is usually a local and full of great recommendations for restaurants and sites to see. Our Hungarian tour guide, Monica, was no exception.
On our way we stopped at Cafe Gerbeaud. I had bookmarked the cafe on our shared map of things to do based on the many great reviews (and a near 20-year-old Rick Steves episode). We found out during our tour that Cafe Gerbeaud is the oldest cafe in Budapest (opened in 1858). Monica informed us that in the early 1900’s Budapest had many cafes and coffee shops that were hang-outs for artists. Oftentimes, the artists were cash poor and talent rich so in exchange for their bill, they would write a poem or give a drawing to the owner. Cafe Gerbeaud was one of these artist cafes. Now, however, it is quite posh and expensive and although we did not inquire, I doubt they would have accepted a few stanzas in exchange for our coffees, brioche bun, and tasty cheese scone.
After breakfast we had just enough time to meet up with Monica and the tour group. There were about fifteen folks all together hailing from all over the world including Brazil, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. We were the only native English speakers on the tour. It never fails to remind me how privileged we are to have been born in an English speaking country when tours are offered in either the country’s native language or English, those are the two choices. If you’re born in Hungary and only speak Hungarian, your options for world travel are pretty limited to Hungary and a few other eastern european countries. We are very lucky.
We walked along the Danube River on the Pest side of Budapest (once two different cities, Buda and Pest). We first stopped outside the Vigadó Concert Hall, a very cool building with statues and busts of famous Hungarians adorning the outside. Then we walked around Vörösmarty Square, stopping for a photo op with a famous statue of a rather jolly looking police man. It is tradition to rub his belly for good luck. This is obvious when looking at the statue as his belly is the shiniest, smoothest part. The statue was quite hot to the touch on the almost 100 degree day but I gave it a quick rub nonetheless. I will say, we had very good luck while in Budapest.
Next stop was the Első Pesti Rétesház, or the Strudel House of Pest, which dates back to 1812. We watched a man cutting the long strudel into individual servings, each time throwing away the very end of the studel. Phil and I agreed we would happily eat the end pieces. In fact, I think they could easily sell the end pices in their own box like donut holes, Anyway, we weren’t very hungry but, when in Hungary, so we ordered a portion of the sour cherry and cheese and the cabbage strudel to try. I didn’t even know that they made savory strudel and they don’t make many but cabbage is a traditional one so we had to get it. Both were delicious, especially the cabbage.
On we went, stopping outside of St. Stephen’s Basilica, Liberty Squre Park, and a very cool art nouveau apartment building that reminded me very much of the style of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi. Our last stop was the Hungarian Parliament building which is truly something to behold. One cannot even capture its enormity in a single photo.
After our tour, Phil and I decided to check out Margaret Island. Margaret Island is a little island on the Danube between Buda and Pest. The Island’s namesake, Princess Margaret (later St. Margaret of Hungary), was the daughter of the King and Queen of Hungary who lost their land to the Mongols. Her parents vowed that if their land was liberated from the Mongols, they would dedicate their child to religion. Princess Margaret was born in 1242 and at age four was sent to a Dominican convent in Veszprém. Six years later, she was sent to the Monastery of the Blessed Virgin on Rabbit Island (now Margaret Island) near Buda where she lived until her death in 1271. Margaret is buried on the Island near the remnants of the Monestary.
Margaret Island has all kinds of cool places to check out. In addition to the ruins, they have biking and walking trails, many gardens including a rose garden and Japense garden, fountains, restaurants, cafes, and large thermal pools. Phil and I decided to rent a bicycle built for two (side by side, not tandem) and cruise around the park. Yay! I like bike riding but having grown up in the country, learning to ride a bike on gravel roads, biking in any kind of town or city makes me very nervous. The park had very little outside traffic and offered large lanes and bike/pedestrian only paths, so I was pretty stoked. The side by side bike allowed us to leisurely cruise around the island (my quads hurt for like two days after so maybe I should bike more often) at our own pace, stopping as we pleased to literally smell the roses.
Two hours later we returned the rented bike. Time flew by and we had a blast. We walked back toward our hotel over the Margaret Bridge, stopping to take a few photos.
On our walk back to the hotel, walking through Vörösmarty Square, we saw a sign for a rooftop bar. Being suckers for rooftop bars and being a bit peckish, we decided to head up. We were greeted on the bottom floor by a hostess who asked if we had reservations. We did not but she phoned the rooftop and reported back that if we could be finished within an hour, we could go up. We assured her that would be no problem and up we went.
The St. Andrea Wine and Skybar offered spectacular views of the city and a great food and drink menu. Prices were a bit steeper than we would usually pay but in a rooftop bar situation, you are paying for the view and if the drinks and food are good, it’s a bonus. We got a pretty large bonus that evening as the drinks were lovely and the food was even better. I had a rosé champagne (admittedly, that one is hard to mess up) and Phil had a refreshing summer cocktail that neither of us can quite remember what was in it but we’re pretty sure basil was a part of it and trust me, it was good. We ordered some snacks of shrimp cecivhe (tasty but a rather small portion), “dirty fries” with truffles and cheese, and the star of the show were street style octopus tacos. They were amazing and spicy and tasted of lime, avacado, and jalapeno.
Later that evening, we ventured out to take in the city at night. During our walkabout, we happened upon a bench, on a small, dark side street, with four, unopened bottles of champagne just sitting on it (photos below). I told Phil I thought it was a trap and we better steer clear. I stand by my decision. Who knows what kind of witch would currently be fattening us up in her dungeon had we fallen victim to her clever ruse. I’m glad we rubbed that statue’s belly.
The next day we traveled to Memento Park on the outskirts of town. Memento Park is filled with Communist Era statues that were removed from their original locations and relocated to the park. I think this type of museum would be a good solution for Confederate monuments in the US. Remove them all and put them in a statue park. If people want to see them, they can and if they don’t, they can avoid the park, as opposed to trying to avoid a confederate statue that is outside of their town library, for example.
Anyway, we headed to the park first taking the overground tram system and then a bus. We had some time between the tram and the bus so we walked to a place across from the bus stop to get something to eat. On the bottom floor of the building was a super market and on the upper floors there was a farmer’s market with stalls selling fruits, veggies, and other goods. The top floor had an old mall food court with a variety of food choices. A chinese place caught our eye. We hadn’t had chinese food in more than a year and a half so when we saw it, we had to have it. We shared a few different dishes, lo mein with spicy beef and green beans and rice with spicy chicken. We chose spicy because we could. As I’ve mentioned before, Spain did have much to offer in the way of spicy food and the other, eastern european, countries we have visited haven’t been any spicier. We were very happy to be in a land that embraced a little heat.
After lunch we headed back across the street and caught the bus out to Memento Park. We arrived about an hour later. We were surprised by how few people were there but figured if one only had a day or two in Hungary, schelping all the way out to the park would take up quite a bit of their sightseeing time.
At the entrance of the park, there is a small booth where one pays a minimal entrance fee and can purchase Communist era [replica] souvenirs, and a variety of beverages. We opted for ice cold water as it was a very hot and sunny day and the park offered no shade or respite from the heat and sun. The first statues that greet visitors upon arrival are Lenin and another of Marx and Engles.
The park has many large and interesting statues. A few of my favorites below.
As you leave the park, in the distance, you see these boots:
A closer look:
Across the road from the statue park, there is a small museum with information regarding the Hungarian revolution which also has a little theater playing a documentary about the methods of the secret police. In the museum we learned about the statue of the boots: In 1951, an 8-meter tall statue of Stalin was erected in Budapest in honor of Stalin’s 70th birthday. The statue was later torn down by enraged Hungarians during the Hungarian revolution. All that remained of the statue were his boots.
After making our way back into the city, we headed for our hotel but were sidetracked by the Budapest Museum of Illusions. It sounded intriguing so we decided to stop in. While not really a museum, it was fun and had several optical illusions and fun rooms for snapping photos. We enjoyed ourselves like a couple of kids.
After the museum, we stopped and grabbed a cold beverage to enjoy in the park. It seems as though Hungarians love sour cherry and not just in their strudel. Meggy, or sour cherry ale, is quite popular in Budapest. Almost every mini-mart, liquor store, or bar sells it. In fact, I’d had one at Szimpla Kert ruin bar when we visited (though they didn’t call it a meggy, only sour cherry ale). I sampled several different meggies during our time in Budapest, ranging in flavor from a little tussin-y to refreshing and delicious. All in all, I liked it quite a bit.
That night, Phil and I took a cruise on the Danube. There are many options for cruises and we decided to take one at night to see the lights and the one we chose just happened to serve bottomless glasses of prosecco. I have professed my love for prosecco many times (particularly in this post) so I was very happy about the situation. At one point before the cruise, I said to Phil, “How much prosecco can you really drink in an hour and a half anyway?” It turns out quite a lot as evidenced by the young, quite drunk, British 20-somethings exiting the boat following the 7pm cruise as we waited to board the 9pm. Needless to say, we enjoyed ourselves and got some great photos (and were able to disembark the boat unassisted which is more than I can say for the Brits).
The next day, we headed to the Buda side of Budapest to see Buda Castle. The Buda side was a bit quieter, at least the day we were there, and we strolled down brightly painted, cute residential streets and snapped photos of cool buildings.
Our goal was to get to Buda Castle and tour it before it closed but we had some time and weren’t in a hurry. We stopped into the oldest synagogue in Budapest from the 13th century. They even had some tombstones ranging in age from 1278 to 1686.
On we walked and happened by a sign for the Koller Gallery. The sign said it was free and we like fine art so decided to check it out. I’m so glad we did. We wandered through the doors off the main street, through a courtyard with a few statues and up to the door. We rang the buzzer and a woman let us in. The gallery is housed in the former home and studio of Hungarian artist and sometimes actor, Amerigo Tot. The top (3rd) floor of the gallery is a memorial room for Mr. Tot. Fun fact; Amerigo Tot played Micheal’s bodyguard in The Godfather: Part II. A few of my favorite works from the gallery and it’s statue garden out back:
We enjoyed our time at the gallery but had to hurry in order to have plenty of time to get to the Castle and see The Hungarian National Art Gallery, which is housed inside. On the way, we passed Fisherman’s Bastion, a 17th century fortress, as well as St. Matthias Church. Both are popular tourist sites but you can’t see it all and we had a castle to get to.
We also passed a super creepy statue of St. Stephen, the first king of Hungary. I’m convinced this was the inspiration for the white walkers in The Game of Thrones TV series. This dude looks like the straight up night king.
We arrived at the castle with plenty of time and were happy to hear about their temporary exhibit, Art Deco Budapest. A few of my favorites from the exhibit are bleow.
That night we finally ate our first Hungarian meal since being in Hungary. This wasn’t by design, Budapest just had so many other cuisine offerings plus, even though I felt like I needed to try the famed Hungarian goulash, it is a soup and it was soooooo hot the entire time we were in Budapest. I wore short shorts for chrissake! Our Hungarian meal was delicious and while we did not have goulash, we did share two dishes, one of a smokey paprika tomato sauce and pork and the other a traditional (we were told by the waitress) pasta dish made with thick, wide egg noodles with creamy cheese that was actually lightly sweet and lemon topped with pork cracklings.
After dinner, we headed to Hero’s Square to get a few night pics and scope out the Museum of Fine Arts that we planned to visit the next morning before we had to catch our train to Bucharest.
Hero’s square honors leaders and other famous Hungarians. It is lovely during the day but even better at night. We also saw the night king again with a few more white walkers.
Behind the square is a park and Vajdahunyad Castle. Luckily, the gates to the castle were open and we wandered in. It looked like a fairytale all lit up. There were a couple of weddings taking place on the grounds as well and we overheard their merriment as I strolled along with my handsome prince.
The next morning, we toured the Fine Arts Museum as planned before boarding the fifteen-hour (!) train to Bucharest. You can see more of the art we saw in Budapest in Phil’s post here.
I so enjoyed Budapest. It is on the top of my list of new places we have visited this summer. It is clean, has a great vibe, and a very old-world European feel. Our friends Rob and Amanda who we met in Turkey, told us Budapest was their favorite European city to visit and they do so as often as they can. I certainly understand why they feel that way. We will definitely be back.
Next stop: Bucharest! Choo choo!