Budapest, sliced by the Danube River, is easily one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. Buildings from another era surround the tree-lined streets, and on every corner is another excellent bar to sit, have a drink, and watch the world go by.
The buildings are adorned by bullet holes and peeling paint. This is not a city that has had a recent makeover, but one that has survived through Europe’s darkest history with scars to prove it. Budapest and her people are a testament to living with battle wounds and a greater appreciation for life because of it.
Today, a vibrant underground nightlife blends in perfect harmony with relaxed, stop-to-smell-the-roses kind of daytime. It is a city that needs a head in the clouds approach and a will to get lost.
Where to stay
Pest. For those of you who don’t know, Budapest is actually two cities: Buda — the castle district, the hillier side, and indeed where the wealthy live, and Pest — the home of the Hungarians who reside in this beautiful city.
How to get around
A bicycle is the best way to see the city. Unlike many cities, there is a healthy level of respect between cyclist and motorist. Cycle lanes run along the main streets, and all the main sites of Pest are easily reachable. If you feel less energetic, the trams are easy to work out, as are the trains.
Whatever you do, do not jump in a taxi on the street. They will charge you ridiculous prices, take you long routes, and possibly scam you hundreds of Euros. Or tens of thousands of Forints (the currency of Hungary). Wherever you are — bar, restaurant, ice cream stand — ask them to call you a taxi. Your wallet will thank you.
Where to drink
Instant Bar is a maze of knocked through walls, twisting staircases, and bathrooms in unexpected places. There is a craze in Budapest at the moment of ‘ruin bars’ — a collection of hipster bars in formerly abandoned buildings. Of these, arguably the best is Instant, a series of old apartments jammed together with a few bars chucked in.
Oh, and just a few awesome artists who wandered in and left their mark in the random graffiti and trippy sculptures. The place is a maze, and you’ll spend half the night exploring it. They even have a giant owl flying over the indoor courtyard. I want to bring everyone I’ve ever known and actually like to this bar. Fridays and Saturdays — don’t expect to find a table.
Where to recover
The Szechenyi baths are some of the most beautiful (and well known) baths in Budapest. Unlike other baths there’s no gender segregation, so no need to check what days you’re allowed in — just turn up. This is not a nudie bath, although there’s plenty of those around if you need your fill of naked people.
Think of the Szechenyi baths as a super luxurious swimming pool, only without small children. Head downstairs if you want a shock to the system — a sauna so hot they provide ice to hold onto, followed by a pool chilled to 15 degrees. It’ll wake you up better than a triple espresso, but I would recommend refraining if you have a weak heart or a baby in your belly. So would a doctor, probably.
How to do things differently
Check out the Hospital in the Rock, the underground military hospital in the Castle district of Buda. It’ll take some hunting to get there, but the reward is an experience like nothing you’ve seen before. During the WWII years, the government made use of an old series of tunnels by turning them into an underground, and therefore secret, hospital.
During the cold war years, they turned it into a nuclear bunker. The tunnels have only reopened to the public in the last couple years — surgical equipment, gas masks, and various supplies still litter the hallways. Dozens of life size wax statues bring the hospital to life. Sound cheesy? Yes, I thought so too — until you actually go in. They go a long way to bringing the whole, horrific place to life.
Where to be cultural
The Opera House is definitely worth a look, not least because of its undeniable beauty. If the timing’s right go ahead and see an opera — it is some of the best in the world, and a good deal cheaper than more Western opera houses.
If there’s nothing on that’s appealing, do a tour of the Opera house, and pay the slight extra to hear an aria at the end. The must-do-the-cultural-thing-instead-of-just-drinking part of your psyche will be happy, plus it has an interesting history. The much-loved, unbelievably vain, and ever-so-tragic Sisi of Austria had a private box at the front of theatre purely so the audience could watch her, instead of the opera.
What not to do
Ladies, you don’t have to worry about this one. Gentlemen, whatever you do, don’t go to a strip club. Just don’t. In fact, don’t follow the pretty lady to a cool bar down the street either. It’s a common occurrence that men get dragged into strip clubs on false pretences, somehow have to buy the strippers drinks, and get beaten up or taken at knifepoint to an ATM when they refuse to pay the several hundred Euro tab. If you want strippers, go to Amsterdam instead.
What to eat
Lamb. The lamb is amazing. Just eat lamb all day, every day, and you’ll be happy. Note, this only works if you like lamb. There is also Goulash.
What to drink
What to bring home
What to remember
Your camera and good walking shoes – the pavements are hard work.
But, don’t take my word for it. Go to Budapest yourself. Form your own opinions. And then get back to me.