Ok, so 24 hours in any one given destination hardly seems worth it to some people. What’s the point, right? It’s this “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium” type of travel that conjures images of Asian tourists with visors and cameras around their necks and fat Americans in shorts piling into large buses. I know; it’s not a pretty picture.
But I like to stretch that dollar, and if I find myself in a trifecta of destinations, I’m going to do what I can to hit all of them. And what’s the worst that can happen? You have a day somewhere and realize that you love it and want to return, or you get a so-so vibe and can at least check it off the list.
I don’t regret my whirlwind visit to Budapest, and here’s how I spent my time.
24 Hours: Budapest
Budapest is an intrinsically beautiful city. It’s hilly, there’s a river, and the architecture is ornate and overwhelming. The Danube cuts through it creating two distinctly different cities, with Buda on the west and Pest on the east. As it seems to go for many cities, the western part is more business oriented, and the east is a little more residential and artsy. I didn’t have many preconceived ideas of what Hungary or Budapest would be like, namely because there aren’t many movies with Hungarian characters, and so they don’t make for great stereotyping material. Blast. Unfortunately I had to think for myself, and here’s what my initial research told me:
3.) Chain Bridge
And, you know, when I think back on my short time in Budapest, those really are good places to start. One of the best things about Budapest is that it’s a steal in terms of European traveling, so you can really feel like you’re splurging without blowing your entire budget. Throw in a little Liszt soundtrack, and you’ll have yourself a good intro.
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 – Liszt
Liebestraum – Liszt
Hungarian Dance No. 5 – Brahms (even though Johannes Brahms is from Germany, this ditty will provide the manic energy you’ll need to get you through the fast-paced 24 hours in store)
See & Do
Budapest has more thermal springs below it than any other capital in the world, so when in Budapest, take a bath! To be completely honest with you, I (nor the rest of my group) had the greatest time at the baths, but I think it’s just something you gotta do. Relax in the hot springs, plunge into the cold bath, take a steam, and check out some naked people. That can never be a totally bad thing. . . . I guess. We went to the Gellert Baths, and while I definitely wouldn’t say that the atmosphere is snooty, it wasn’t the most relaxed place in the world either. The ticket for the day was about $15 with a 30 minute massage costing about the same. English was not widely spoken here, and it’s not the most intuitive of places. Please, for a moment, imagine our group of 8 wandering around in bathing suits aimlessly, huddled together like a school of fish. An employee directs us to a door, which we quickly realizes leads us outside – outside to the bitterly cold, Eastern European winter. We see nothing resembling a bath, so our scantily-clad group hesitates for a moment, takes a deep breath, and then exits. Abruptly, powerfully, horrifyingly, the heavy door slams behind us and we wonder if maybe we’ve just been Budapunk’d. We all internally freak out for a moment, and then burst into uncontrollable, hearty, undeniably American guffaws of laughter. Once we reclaim some semblance of composure, we climb the stairs, giggling, and find a pool full of silent, unamused bathers. Like much of Europe, I think they want quiet people there. Oh, and another side note, remember when I wrote about my indestructible Rainbow sandals? The Budapest Bathwater destructed them. Forever.
Gellert Spa & Bath – this is the “fancier”, more touristy bath that our group went to
Szechenyi Bath & Spa – this looks like a gorgeous place and sounds like it’s a bit more “local”
Chain Bridge (Lánchíd) – there are eight famous bridges crossing the Danube in Budapest. All are lovely in their own way, but the Chain Bridge is the grandest. It’s beautiful, but it’s also a great way to get to/from the foot of the Castle Hill district to Andrassy Ut, which is sort of like the 5th Avenue/Rodeo Drive/Champs Elysees of Budapest. You’ll also have a fantastic view of Hungarian Parliament, which is a gorgeous, fancy wedding cake of a building. It’s about a 20-30 minute walk from/to either of those points, picture taking time included.
Castle Hill – an absolute must-see in Buda. You can either walk or take a tram to the top of the hill to explore the winding streets of the district, plus catch amazing views of the city. Here you’ll find cute tourist shops and cafes, the Royal Palace, Fisherman’s Bastion, and Matthias Church.
Hungarian State Opera – tickets range from literally $2-$60, and since this is known to be one of Europe’s most beautiful opera houses, you should try to check it out. I went into the building, but I didn’t join my cousins for La Bohème, which they said was lovely.
When traveling, one of my favorite things to do is to go to a local market. I love the European-style open-air places, replete with stalls filled with a variety of local goodies. It’s not only a great microcosm of the culture, but they’re usually delicious and cheap places to eat. The market in Budapest is called Központi Vásárcsarnok, or the Great Market Hall. It’s a beautiful old building in Pest with a gorgeous tiled roof and soaring windows. In it, you’ll find a wide variety of meats, produce, sweets, and spices (they are cray cray for paprika), plus places to find typical Hungarian dishes, like good old goulash.
Great Market Hall – the main floor is mostly a market, but the top level is full of food stalls where you’ll find traditional Hungarian dishes (and lots of chintzy souvenirs)
Baldaszti’s – there are three locations of this lovely little outfit, and I was lucky enough to go to two of them: Grand and Kitchen. John and I, after being apart for a few weeks, snuck away from the group (shhh) and had cocktails at Grand, a very chic, “sparkly-rustic” (my current favorite style) little nook on the Andrassy Ut. The next morning, we were happy to find that a second location, Kitchen, was right down the street from our hotel. We had a great, relaxed breakfast in the beautifully designed, adorably decorated space, and all for quite a steal.
Entrees and cocktails were all about $10-12 USD.
Chagall Cafe – we stumbled upon this cozy café on our first night in the city. The menu was a delicious offering of hearty, rustic style food like deer ragout and confit duck leg: exactly the sort of thing you want after on a cold night after a long day of traveling. Everything was really beautiful, and again, no entrée was more than $13.
We stayed at a really cool boutique design hotel in Buda, right near the foot of Chain Bridge. I highly recommend this hotel. The rooms are fun and funky, the staff is really helpful, it’s in a nice location with fabulous views of the Pest riverfront, and it’s a great deal!
Lanchid 19 (doubles about $90/night)
Others that I came across that look like excellent options:
Atrium Fashion Hotel (doubles about $80/night)
Home Made Hostel (dorm, $13/night; private room w/ bath, $50/night)
New York Palace Hotel (the winter rate was $149/night for a double – not too shabby for what the New York Times calls the best hotel in Budapest)
After all is said and done, I enjoyed Budapest, I’m glad that I went, it’s fair to say that I could have used more time there, but I didn’t have an instant connection with the city. The food was great, the people were (generally) welcoming, but I don’t have a strong desire to return. Budapest is like Eliza Doolittle, pre-Henry Higgins: she’s obviously beautiful, but with a foul-mouth and dirty face.
One could argue that this mixture might give a place more character, and that could be true and perhaps explored with more time, but my initial reaction was not one of unadulterated swooning.
Prague on the other hand . . .