Like a forever twisting colourful kaleidoscope, Budapest dazzled me with its infinite colours and attractions and much to my delight there are many sides to this wonderful city.
Upon my arrival I was keen to quickly dump my bags in my friend’s living room and head straight out, following the flowing Danube on one of those never-ending walks to take in the city’s charm and Budapest did not disappoint. It sparkled in the sunlight and instantly the grand buildings that are dotted around the city charmed me – together with a dense population of statues on every turn imaginable. Some communist statues were even mopped up and kept at Memento Park which has serves as their resting space since the fall of communism.
Hungarians are the friendly type of people that will engage in a full debate on whether or not you need a haircut after asking directions to the nearest barber. Indeed, my first interaction with a local was a complete surprise as after asking a young blonde girl for directions to the market, she was happy to take me for a coffee in one of the many grand squares and help plan my first day around town. I was offered Chimney Cake, which I scoffed at first, wondering if my new friend was a heavy drug dealer looking to sell a dodgy cigarette. I was however pleasantly surprised after a large hollow tube of cinnamon came my way, and filled me for the day.
The central market was top of my list and its sheer size did not disappoint. Three stories crammed with stalls selling literally everything, from kids’ toys to tonight’s dinner and a good selection of Palinka, Hungary’s famed whiskey. The market is a fantastic crossroad for locals and tourists and you can literally stuff yourself tasting all the different salami on sale. It might take a while to get used to using thousands of Forint’s on every purchase, but do not be alarmed as Budapest is not one of Europe’s expensive cities, with cheap hostels and restaurants scattered around the place.
Waltzing around Budapest aimlessly it is not hard to notice the communist backbone that shaped the city. Horrible concrete structures are squeezed in right next to the most elaborately designed grand buildings from its slightly richer past within the Austro Hungarian Empire. Its massive streets are lined with buildings intricately decorated with lions’ heads, life sized stone statues of princes and kings, and, curiously dogs holding swords and shields.
Each step sent my head in a whirlwind of directions as I tried to inspect every beautiful building which may today host students of Hungary’s 12 universities, but once were home to Europe’s finest aristocrats.
Budapest’s young population will guide you to its many squares where people gather and gossip and drink ridiculous amounts of fresh lemonade. I spent the remainder of my afternoon people watching near the Budapest Wheel, where hundreds basked in the glorious sunshine, keeping their feet cool by the water fountain. People here have a natural friendly trait and will forever try to guess where you are from.
Getting ruined in Budapest was not a part of the plan, however this city has an amazing approach to recycling waste. Where bulky refuse do not exist here, pub owners started a trait called Ruin Pubs, taking over old derelict and often huge buildings and re shaping them into pubs. While this practice is not uncommon anywhere, here in Pest they do it while keeping the ruin intact, filling it with whatever rubbish people want to throw away. Szimpla Kert is cluttered with fascinating items, such as a bath tub as a sofa, old Super 8 projectors showing black & white movies, retro cars as table booths and graffiti instead of wall paint. The owners gave artists freedom to create whatever they desired, and the result is a fascinating blend of organised chaos that keeps the beers flowing.
If the lure of Szimpla was not for you, then a few metres down you can find a club specialising in the “top-40 of sleazy hits”. Here smoke machines hide everyone’s embarrassing dance moves and once you emerge from there a sweaty slobby mess, the evening walk will take your breath away.
Budapest glows at night, with each building lit up proudly, guiding you along the romantic Danube overlooking the ancient castles of Buda opposite the grand Parliament building.
On my way home I stumbled across the smallest of flower shops selling an assortment of bouquets and booze at 04:30 and so I left with a bunch of the former and wondered if I could pass it through customs the next day.
Over the river
Budapest, as every local will constantly remind you was once two cities: Buda, housing the richer types, and Pest, where I spent most of my days. Joined by Chain Bridge and its lion statues, Buda’s lights lure you in like a bug to a bulb as each one is more beautiful than the next. The castle district looks like it belongs on a movie set and the views from the Citadel are breath-taking.
Sandwiched between Buda and Pest you can also wonder onto Margaret Island, one of my favourite features of the city – a whole island dedicated entirely to sports, housing tennis courts, handball and basketball courts, rowing clubs, football pitches all roped together by a jogging track. No driving is allowed on the island which makes it a prime spot for joggers.
I walked until my feet were steaming, strolling from one wonder to another and was particularly impressed by the Fisherman’s Basilica’s patterned roof top, a gentle reminder of just how important Hungary was to Europe in its hay day.
Its past follows you everywhere, and the horrific suffering of the Jewish community is also noted with a monument of shoes placed along the Danube, which saw the execution of thousands of Jewish settlers during the Second World War.
After spending what felt like three days marching around the city it was finally time for a break, where I headed to the Szechenyi Baths. This huge spa will soothe every ache and help you catch your breath, as you switch from the cold sections to the warm. More impressive architecture greets you as you soak up and spoil yourself rotten. To carry on your relaxing session the outdoor park will welcome you and by sheer serendipity I happened to catch some folk dancing in front of Heroes’ Square, a collection of (more) statues celebrating the lives of the people who died fighting for the country’s freedom.
Budapest really charmed me and though I crammed as much as I could into a short stay I feel a return is on the cards, perhaps next time renting a car and heading to the neighbouring countries, spoiling myself rotten in culture and historical tales which lace the region together. I was lucky with the weather in June, however the Danube is known to freeze over during some winters, so pick your dates for this grand capital wisely.
All images on Instagram: Stribesun