Boarding a train from Croatia’s capital Zagreb, we were headed to Budapest on probably the craziest train trip we have ever been on. The scheduled five hour train journey turned into three trains, two buses and ten hours later. We moved from train to bus, alighting straight onto the tracks; carriages were detached and reattached seemingly at random. With English being far from the local language, I am surprised that we did actually make it to Budapest. While we travelled with many disgruntled passengers, all Ben and I could do was have a laugh with a couple of Aussie’s we met heading the same way.
When we finally arrived in the Hungarian capital, we collapsed into bed absolutely exhausted. The next morning we woke and headed straight to Vörösmarty tér square for a free walking tour with United Europe Free Walking Tours. This fateful tour not only defined our stay in Budapest but also altered the trajectory of our journey in ways we could not have imagined. Our guide and soon to be friend, Orsi, expertly guided us around the beautiful city, sharing her invaluable local knowledge and giving us a crash course in Hungarian history and culture.
For lunch, Orsi tipped us off to a cosy local restaurant, Frici Papa Kifőzdéje (Budapest, Király utca 55) for a decent Hungarian goulash. This has got to be up there with one of the best local food experiences we have had so far. The rich strew-like (yes, stew-like, I am cautiously weighing into the age-old debate “is goulash more a stew or a soup?”) was full-flavoured with tender beef and spicy paprika. Paprika here is referred to as both the spice and the capsicum looking vegetable. Embarrassingly, it took me a good two days to realise that paprika is not just a spice but a vegetable. Even with the generous potion size, I considered ordering another bowl! We were told that a good Hungarian restaurant is not only defined by the taste of the food but the quantity given to you – bigger is better. Lets just say we were very satisfied with the food in Budapest. The value for money is also second to none with the Dollar going a long way.
One tip when eating out in Hungary for the gluten eaters: usually meat dishes, such as schnitzel, are served without sides. If feel you need some veggies to counter the enormous amount of protein and bread, order it separately.
We ended our first day visiting Gozsdu Udvar, a popular passageway full of bars and restaurants in the heart of the vibrant Jewish district. We backed up a big lunch with a big dinner of pork ribs (an absolute must-try when in Hungary) and a few drinks.
Day two we ventured out to the somber House of Terror (Budapest, Andrássy út 60), a museum and memorial to the victims of the two regimes, fascist and communist, that terrorised Hungary in the 20th century. It was a chilling experience walking through the nondescript building that imprisoned and tortured so many people. If there is only one historical activity you do in Hungary, I would highly recommend this.
For anyone who has been to Hungary, one of the first things that strike you is the impossible language. It’s closest relative is Finnish and impossible to decipher. One word we did master in Hungarian was ‘cheers’, egészségére, pronounced like “I-can-shake-a-tree” (thanks Orsi). This came in handy on a Free Pub Tour with Orsi that cemented our friendship with the friendly local and introduced us to some very strong Hungarian spirits. Different to the usual backpacker pub crawls, The Pub Tour promised information on Hungarian drinking culture, the history of the famous ruin bars, new friends and of course some old fashioned drinking. The night began at the Vörösmarty tér square meeting point where we were about to set off when two lovely Belgian girls, Sofie and Hanne, came running up to the group, just making the start by mere seconds of what was set to be an epic yet fateful night. From the first few moments of the pub tour, we knew we were making some lifelong friends.
There were a few important lessons about Hungarian drinking learnt: one, pálinka, the highly potent national spirit, is a multi-use beverage. Used not only for partying, it is also said to cure just about any ailment or illness – emotional or physical. Two, aerated vodka, known as “shine” is amazing. Three, Ruin bars are equally as amazing with their quirky interiors and friendly atmospheres. Four, go to Szimpla (Kazinczy utca 14, 1075 Budapest), apart from the awkward camping style toilet, this place is great.
Needless to say, we woke the next morning a little worse for wear and headed to the famous and largest medicinal bath in Europe, Széchenyi Thermal Bath (Állatkerti körút 9-11). It was impressive – the water is supplied by two natural thermal springs – and you can find a range of indoor and outdoor baths and saunas with varying temperatures. Whilst the bath is a little out of town don’t be afraid, it is a tourist magnet and you won’t be alone. I took the opportunity to book myself in for a massage leaving Ben behind to bath in the pools. I entered the very picturesque waiting room filled with lounges, hammocks and a bar serving herbal tea and fruit. With Hungarian not my strong suit, I simply pointed and paid for a “hard” massage and was shown to a little room with a mattress on the floor. What followed was one of the strangest experiences I have had on this trip – the masseur, an extremely large Hungarian man, proceeded to massage and contort my body. There was more than one moment where I seriously wondered what in the world I just paid for! I left the room a little mortified but I have to say my body felt unusually good. I found Ben (after accidentally walking into the male change room – this was obviously not my day) with our new Belgian friends, Hanne and Sofie. We quickly discovered that we were not the only ones seeking a hangover cure in the medicinal waters.
Side Note – Budapest has one of the oldest and most established metro systems in the world. Just be very careful than you not only buy a ticket, but validate it in the stamp machines prior to entering the station. Another layer of complexity is that you must buy a transfer ticket if you plan on taking two trains as part of one journey (i.e. switching lines on the metro). The level of enforcement is crazy – your ticket will be checked nearly every time you leave a platform, and the inspectors don’t play nice. We didn’t ‘get done’ but saw many people who didn’t do their homework.
Later that night we all met up again after receiving an invitation to Orsi’s house to taste some homemade pálinka. It was a great evening laughing and swapping stories from our respective homelands. It was sad to see the Belgian girls go but we promised to adjust our travel plans to see them again, adding Belgium to the projected itinerary in the coming weeks.
We cannot recommend Budapest enough. It was a friendly city brimming with history, culture and a thriving night life. It is also a perfect destination for the budget-conscious traveller. There is still much more to discover, and even though we were sad to leave, we left with a promise to return.
*all photos are mine except the Széchenyi Thermal Bath pic I took from National Geographic – did not take my camera into the baths!