Adapt and Thrive
Budapest has everything you would expect from any major European city and more. You’ll find everything you could hope for in a family vacation or all the drunken depravity you would need for a good party. Budapest was an easy city to live in, but we still managed to find a few challenges.
That Could Have Gone Better
Go Speed Racer, Go!
All work and no play can make anyone dull. One sunny day, when we found ourselves fried from putting in far too many hours working, we decided enough was enough. We needed to go outside and feel sunshine again. After taking a much-needed shower and making ourselves look presentable, we finally found our front door and the elusive “outside.”
Making our way up our street and turning the corner, we were very surprised to find fences blocking off access to the street. Crowds of people were pressed up against the fences for as far along the street as we could see. There was obviously something going on today that we hadn’t gotten the memo about. Usually we keep ourselves better informed about what’s going on in the city we’re living in, but we had clearly failed. Luckily, we were saved from missing whatever was going on by sheer dumb luck. We still weren’t sure what we were attending at that point but at least we were there.
That’s when we heard the engines. It was race day in Budapest and suddenly, race cars were tearing down the street in a loud exhibition of mechanical power. In a complete failure of my masculinity, I honestly couldn’t tell you what kind of cars were racing because frankly, I’ve never cared about cars. All I’ve ever cared about in my cars, is that they had a good stereo and got me to where I was going as loudly as possible. But today we were race fans. Go black car!
Weird, But Effective
The Stag/Hen Party Capital of the World
A guy dressed as little red riding hood is walking down the street surrounded by a pack of wolves. It wasn’t Halloween. This was just another day in Budapest. I can honestly say that we have never seen so many stag or hen parties (bachelor or bachelorette parties for the Americans) as we saw in Budapest. My only guess is that somewhere in England, there is a travel agent teamed up with a wedding planner, booking groups of drunken English people by the plane load for a wild weekend in Budapest.
The fun part about these groups are the costumes. Anyone who perceives the English as proper to a fault, has obviously never been to Budapest. Embarrassing the bride or groom is the priority of any stag or hen party. The English take finding ridiculous costumes to achieve that result to a level that can’t even be imagined by mere mortals. The great part about it is that, the whole group participates. You haven’t truly lived until you’ve been drinking at a ruin bar next to a group of “Where’s Waldo’s,” who have dressed the groom like a giant penis.
If you’re bored in Budapest, then you’re simply not trying hard enough. Whatever amount of time you’re planning to spend there won’t be enough. The funny thing about the sights there is that they have very normal, almost boring sounding names. Parliament doesn’t sound like any fun unless you’re talking about great funk bands but it’s the most iconic building in Budapest. Fisherman’s Bastion might sound like a crappy seafood restaurant but it’s a fairy tale work of architecture that looks like someone built the best sand castle ever on the banks of the Danube River.
Margaret Island is undoubtedly one of the most impressive park areas we’ve ever had the pleasure of strolling. Besides its large grassy areas, it also hosts a national aquatics complex, a concert venue, restaurants, bars, a Japanese garden, an exercise track, playgrounds, the ruins of a Franciscan Monastery, Palatinus Bath (worth Googling), hotels, boat rentals, a sculpture park, and well…. you get the idea. There’s a lot to see and do there.
Tripadvisor.com lists 594 things to do in Budapest. Like all their list of things to do, there are multiple listings for basically the same tour, statues that are nice but not worth going out of your way for, and an itemized list of things that are all really at one location and not deserving or their own separate listing. But even if you’re only interested in one tenth of them, that leaves a lot more to see than you could count on all your fingers and toes. (59.4 to be exact but who’s counting)
For the history lover, the Hospital in the Rock is a must visit. It’s a sobering look at what Hungary was like during war time. Caverns under Buda Castle were converted to a desperately under-supplied hospital and then later into a nuclear fall out shelter. Look for the signs directing you to it while you’re at Buda Castle and go down the stairs to find it since it’s a little bit hidden. It’ll be well worth the visit when you find it.
Night time in Budapest is possibly even more beautiful. The only down side is that far less will be open at night but it’s still worth taking a walk around. There were many nights after an enjoyable dinner and a couple of bottles of wine, we’d find ourselves walking around enjoying the peaceful tranquility of the city at night.
An Unwelcome Surprise
No Airbnb rental has ever been perfect, but we weren’t looking to buy either, so sometimes you get what you can, and make the best of it. Our apartment in Budapest wasn’t too bad. There was a big tub which was great for baths but if you wanted a shower, you showered sitting in the tub with a hand-held spray nozzle. No biggie. The bed sheets we were given were so bad, we ended up buying new sheets. Not a big deal.
It wasn’t until the last month we were there that we started to hate our apartment. Not because of the rusty dishwasher that we couldn’t use. We could hand wash dishes with the best of them. No, it was because of the complete renovation that started just below our apartment. Waking up to the whole building shaking is nothing new to two people who lived in California for as long as we did. It was waking up every morning at 7am to pounding sawing, and the floor of our bedroom shaking, six days a week, until 6pm.
Our Airbnb host Balazs, (who we called Balls) denied that they were starting that early, but we were there. We knew what time they were starting. He claimed to have called the owner of the apartment below us and got him to agree to a later start for the construction crew but apparently, the construction crew never got that message. What was a good relationship with the host, gradually deteriorated over that last month, but not enough for him to refrain from asking us for a five-star review when we left. It had gotten so bad that we started sleeping on the big couch in the living room because it shook less than the bedroom, and we could manage to get another hour of sleep sometimes. Five-star review my ass.
Budapest has what’s known as ruin bars. They were spaces that were abandoned at one point, then taken over by people looking for a cheap place to drink and hang out. Local artist was invited to convert the spaces into eclectic and colorful spaces that threaten to overwhelm the senses. The randomness of the mismatched decoration and color is what give them their charm. Inevitably these spots became popular places to hang out and party. They eventually transformed into fully legitimate businesses popular with locals and tourist alike.
Our favorite was the oldest ruin bar in the city called Szimpla Kert. It had everything you could hope for in a bar, but it also houses a recording studio and a farmer’s market that opens every Sunday. Besides being dangerously close to our apartment, it was also located down a street with a series of other fun bars. Some nights, when we felt like a night out, we would make a stop at each place while drinking our way there and back.
Another popular drinking option in Budapest are the pedal bars. A group of friends, or strangers who soon become friends, pitch in to pedal a bar on wheels down the streets of Budapest while draining a keg of beer. It’s easily the slowest but most fun option of transportation available in the city. I’ve never been someone that mixed exercise with drinking but to each their own. The taxi drivers in the city hate them because no one sitting at a pedal bar is in a hurry.
Hungary has many traditional dishes that are a must try when you’re there. Goulash is a soup/stew that was one of my favorites and it went down well with another traditional favorite, Langos. There’s nothing healthy or light about most Hungarian dishes but Budapest is a big city with lots of options. The Buddha Bar is a sushi place that had a surf and turf roll that I would sit through a David Hasselhoff concert for if it meant I got to eat there afterwards. The Hof being the worst concert possibility I could think of in my opinion.
Cirkusz was our favorite place for breakfast and we went there often. Mazi was an incredible Greek restaurant with a friendly owner and amazing food. Dessert being my favorite meal of the day, there was a place famous for their desserts called Café Gerbeaud. I would argue that their desserts are delicious works of art, making me and my sweet tooth, quite the art collector. These works of art are still (kind of) on display and can be seem at the expanded exhibition space of my belly.
We have a whole separate blog about meeting the Foo Fighters but it’s worth mentioning that we had a great time at their first concert in Hungary in fifteen years. Exploiting the fact that the security guard blocking our way to the backstage area didn’t speak English, we flashed our California drivers license at him and said that we were expected backstage. Somehow it worked, and we were lucky enough to meet the band after the show.
Summer time in Europe is when most of the festivals take place and Budapest had its fair share of events for us to attend. It’s something we always look for when we move to a new city. During our time there we attended the Spring Festival, which was a collection of booths featuring local foods, drinks, and crafts. It was a bit more of low key event but still very fun.
We also attended the Burger and Beer Festival, which is self-explanatory. Mimi is a vegetarian, so she sampled a burger from the Las Vegans food truck with her beer. I love burgers, but I don’t like beer usually. I enjoyed my burgers with cider until I found out that I enjoy cherry beer. It’s not the manliest beer available of course but I wasn’t drinking it to impress anyone. They tasted great.
The Rose’ Festival was probably our favorite because as you may have noticed, we’re big fans of wine. It took place in a beautiful park and featured rose wines mainly, but every type of local sparkling, red and white wines were available as well. Drinking wine by a lake in the park was a beautiful and fun way to spend a weekend. As a bonus, full bottles of what we sampled were available for sale, so we left there with a few “souvenirs” of our favorites to enjoy later.
To be honest, we didn’t know that air races were even a thing. So, when we saw the big signs advertising the upcoming race, we made sure to attend. We started off the race high in the hills looking down on the race course and worked our way down to river level. With the Parliament building and the Danube River as a background, it was an impressive sight. People were gathered all along the Danube, turning the atmosphere into a festival like vibe.
Music blared from DJ’s set up in different areas, food trucks served up hot plates of festival food, and families had staked out areas for a picnic style gathering. The whole day featured aviator daredevils flying between inflated floating cones and doing aerial stunts. Time trial results were displayed on screens in a few places, but most people seemed content to enjoy the races regardless of the results.
Over the Hills and Through the Woods
Trains are one of the greatest things we enjoy about Europe and it’s something we look for before we move to a new area. We knew from looking at train schedules that it was only a two-and-a-half-hour train ride to Vienna Austria and Bratislava Slovakia. So, we planned a couple of trips, giving ourselves a few days for each city. We noticed festivals upcoming in each city, so we planned accordingly to make the most of our visit.
Closer to home, we cruised the Danube to explore the nearby town of Visegrad and see its namesake castle. Historically, it was always a good idea to build castles on top of hills for strategic purposes. For someone like myself, who doesn’t enjoy climbing hills, the incentive is always overshadowed by my love of castles. It’s hard to moan about climbing a hill one time for a visit when you put it into perspective though. The workers that built it had to climb that hill repeatedly, hauling up huge building stones and timber. So, my whining about getting a little exercise while playing tourist just sounds stupid.
Let Me Sum Up
Before we moved there, Budapest was a place seen in spy movies for us. Agents dressed in trench coats and hats with the brim pulled low should have been on every corner but, it was a very typical European city. It had all the beautiful architecture of any of the more popular European cities, tons of things to do, lots of history, and friendly people. Budapest is vastly underrated in a lot of ways. It might not be as famously iconic as Paris or Rome, but to us, it represents the perfect balance of everything that we love about Europe.