Saturday, July 5, 2014

Field guide to Budapest

Four days in Budapest was not enough. It's easily one of the most beautiful cities I've seen: 19-century-style buildings flank the blue Danube river, and steeples, bridges, and statues dot the skyline. The river divides two sides of the city, Buda and Pest. Buda is known to be a bit more touristy and more expensive, while Pest is more local and a bit more convenient. We quickly learned that the further you travel from the river, the less touristy the neighborhoods are. It's a good tip to remember if you're looking for traditional food or cheaper shopping.

I still can't quite wrap my head around Budapest's history. It seems they've been under the control of one power after another for most of their history: the Huns, the Ottoman Turks, the Hapsburgs, the Nazis during WWII, and the terrifying Soviets. Today it's technically a democratic republic and a member of the European Union, but I get the feeling from some locals we met that they aren't too happy with the way things were going.

But I'm no expert on European politics (for that, please ask my friend Will). But I can offer a few suggestions for how to spend your time in Budapest. So without further ado, here's my tiny field guide to Budapest. 

1. Take a hike. On a free walking tour. 

This was the perfect way to begin our stay in Budapest. We spent three hours and who knows how many miles exploring the city with a group of travelers and a young Hungarian woman who called herself Sarah. (Really, she said her name was too difficult for non-Hungarians, so she picked something similar and easy—Sarah it was!)

I mentioned before that talking with a local is one of my favorite things to do in a new place. Like Mario in Dubrovnok, Sarah had a lot to say about her city, some good things and some bad. She told us how her mother will vote for the corrupt party in power because she's a government employee and this party gave all government workers a 13% pay raise this past year, although she doesn’t believe in their politics. Sarah's young friends didn't plan to vote at all, thinking that the race was corrupt and their votes didn't matter. Some things are the same in all countries, I suppose. 

2. Go for a dip at Széchenyi Thermal Baths.

Taking the waters at Szechyni Baths was the highlight of this trip. We thought we wouldn't be able to make it thanks to our busy schedule, but in the end we decided we couldn't visit Budapest and NOT take part in what the city is known for, so we woke up at 6 a.m. to squeeze it in. We opted for Széchenyi because it's one of the few bath houses that allows men and women to bathe together in bathing suits. Online reviews also promised it would be one of the loveliest venues, and wow, it didn't disappoint. 

One thing you won't find at the baths at 6 a.m. on a weekday is someone who speaks English. Somehow we managed to figure out how to buy a wristband/locker lock and find our way to our separate changing rooms. From there we wondered around until we discovered a handwritten sign on A4 that said "POOL." 

I'm still kicking myself for not taking our camera into the baths. The above photo is the only one I snapped on my iPhone, after we noticed a group of local senior citizen bobbing in circles and making a whirlpool in the center section in the pool. I have to admit, I wasn't originally sold on the medicinal effects the baths are meant to have, but by the end of this day, the patch of psoriasis I'd developed on my face was absolutely gone. Those waters work wonders! 

After a dip in two outdoor pools, we headed into a eucalyptus steam room. Don't miss this--I don't think I've ever breathed as well as I did on the way back to the hotel! 

3. Eat Hungarian food; end up in food coma.
If you love meat, gravy, spicy peppers, and sour cream, then traditional Hungarian food is for you! I don't know if I could eat this everyday, but what a comfort it was in the midst of a chilly September. We were lucky enough to go to Kéhli Vendéglő,  which served traditional cuisine while band played traditional gypsy folks songs. But my favorite meal in Budapest? After our walking tour, our guide offered to take some of us to lunch at a local cantina. I wish I could tell you the name of this little restaurant, but I never saw any signs. It was a hole-in-the-wall cafeteria, the only place where you could buy "hot, proper food" in Buda on a budget, according to our guide. There was no English anywhere on the menu, so our guide had to explain everything. Jon had stuffed cabbage; I ate chicken paprikas, all for $11. It wasn't the grandest meal I've ever had, but it was delicious, completely humble and homey, and the most authentic meal we had while on vacation. 

I will say that we witnessed a vegan protest march while we were walking through town, so the national cuisine may be changing. 

4. Look up. 
Yes, I know New Yorkers will hate me for saying this, but there's so much beauty floating above this city. Whether it's an art nouveau lamppost or a neoclassical obelisk, you don't want to miss anything. 

5. Sip Hungarian wine and pálinka.
I tried Furmint, a white Hungarian wine grape variety that produces dry wines (as I had) and better-known Tokaji dessert wines. And when you’re ready for something stronger, move on to pálinka, a Hungarian brandy. If you're not feeling bold, you can order cocktails made with the liquor.

6. Plan your day around desserts.
It’s true—we planned some days around which cafes we wanted to pop by in the afternoon for a coffee and cake. I heard that in the city's heyday, Budapest hosted more than 700 cafes! I always think of 19th-century Vienna as the cafe capita of the world, but maybe Budapest tied for that title. 

My favorite stops were Ruszwurm in Buda and Bookcafe in Alexandra bookstore on Andrássy Avenue. There was a bit of a wait at Razwurm; it's close to the touristy sections of Buda and has a spectacular reputation. The cafe dates back to 1827 and once served the emperor and empress of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire. 

But Bookcafe was spectacular. Just look at this ceiling!

I wish we could have made it to the New York Cafe, but we just didn't have the time. If you're able to squeeze in a visit, I'd love to hear about it. ( it a coincidence that 3 of my recommendations deal with food?)

Other attractions not to miss? The stunning opera house, St. Stephen's Basilica, the Parliament building, the National Museum, Fisherman's Bastion. There are too many beautiful and historical places to go on about, and I don't want to bore you with words. Photos will have to suffice: 

Can you believe this is a ceiling in St. Stephen's? There's another view of the rotunda in the following photo. 

So what did I miss? I know we didn't discover everything that makes Budapest great. I'd love to know your travel recommendations for this city.