10 Days in Budapest: Exploring the Eastern European Treasure Chest
by Theodora Young
Budapest really comes into its own in the summer, with rooftop parties, open air cinemas and breathtaking events such as the Red Bull Air Race down the Danube river. I spent ten days there, with a large group of my friends, all of us from England (ashamedly hardly speaking a word of Hungarian) and duly learnt about the do's and don'ts of this magical city. What I really wanted to do in my time there was get to know it as more than just a random, revised pattern of lefts, rights and metro stops that took me where I needed to be. I wanted to be a part of it, get to know the streets and their stories for the special slice of time I was allowed. With that goal so important for many travellers, I wrote down a few tips learnt as we wove through the city. Of course, it's still a tourist's account, but it might just come in handy for anyone else navigating Budapest in the summerimte.
Before arrival: get your currency, and get your head around it before you attempt to use it! The first part sounds obvious, but I was rushed off my feet before flying and found myself getting a bad deal at the exchange desk at Liszt Ferenc airport, losing out on a fair bit of cash. Rookie error, really, but not the best way to start the trip! The latter part may also sound obvious, but the locals have about 20 million visitors to their city a year. If, when it comes to paying for something, you're still fumbling around awkwardly and mumbling an apology as you hand over the complete wrong change, don't be surprised if your service is missing a smile! However, if you do hand over the correct change, you'll definitely be a hit with your barman or lady.
Firstly, accommodation: due to the size of our party, finding a reasonable place on Airbnb was easy, and proved to be a huge plus. The Jewish Quarter has a plethora of reasonably priced hostels for young travellers, with staff full of advice and activities to help travellers get to know the city better. However, our apartment was right by Kazincsky street, the main focus of the resurgent cultural quarter, and allowed us to have our own more authentic inner city experience. It was nestled in a block of townhouses, overlooking a quiet, tiled courtyard facing away from the busy street. Our host, a local guy, was also happy to share any advice with us. If your budget allows, I'd highly recommend renting a place in the city. Otherwise, the party hostels such as Grandio and Infinity are also an unforgettable experience!
Speaking of bars, whilst in the Jewish Quarter you really should try to visit as many ruin bars as possible. These crumbling, cavernous fun factories are the pride of the city. Each quirky venue has its own, distinct character, and an open air layout that brings a breezy, refreshing quality to warm, inner city nightlife. A novelty for an English city girl like me, used to being tightly crammed into any bar which hails itself as being trendy. To name a few ruin bars, Szimpla, Instant, Ellátó Kert, Fogas Ház and Kuplung, however this list is not exclusive and discovering the bars is part of the fun!
Szimpla has been named the mother of all ruin bars, spurring the trend at the start of this century, It's a dreamlike place to find oneself, like a child in a bizarre playground. You'll find throngs of like-minded travellers and locals sipping reasonably priced drinks in amongst ramshackle furniture, faces lit up under multicoloured lanterns. Each bar also has its own perks - Kuplung offers all drinks at half price on a Monday, Fogas is a great place to visit on a Sunday as you can guarantee there'll still be a party happening, and Corvintéto offers a stunning rooftop experience on one of the tallest buildings in the city centre (and an open air cinema during summer months!).
Next point of call: thermal baths. My two personal favourites were Szicheny baths, located in the city park (Budapest's second biggest park, right next to Heroes Square), and Gellért baths which are on the Buda side of the Danube, nestled under Monument hill. Both uniquely different and offering a chance to explore two different sides of the city. I would recommend getting there early on a warm day in order to beat the crowds, and by buying tickets online or from your hostel you can also beat any queues.
For foodies: you won't be stuck for choice of delicious, affordable meals out. One of our favourite spots for munching was Karavan, a unique street food experience a few doors up from Szimpla. Open all day and late into the evening, this festive little strip of tasty food from semi-permanent vans and stalls is fun, and will leave you feeling satiated!
Architecture: the city's buildings are a beautiful melange of art-deco and neo-renaissance architecture. You'll find yourself just staring up in awe at the buildings around you, but another way to soak it all up would be to catch sunset at the top of Gellért hill in Buda, which has a magical view across the river of the Pest part of the city. Also be sure to stop by the Parliament, a UNSECO World Heritage site famed for its breathtaking architecture. Walking tours also help you cover the best sites in the city in the space of a few hours.
If shopping is your thing, be sure to find as many of Budapest's exciting vintage shops as you can, such as Retrock and Sputnik, and be prepared to fall in love over and over once faced with their beautiful wares!
Finally, the trip wouldn't be complete without a steep learning curve about Budapest's history. We visited the House of Terror one rainy day, and were blown away by the experience. It's a well-thought out collection of exhibitions, tracing the history of nazi, communist and fascist regimes in the city and commemorating all of the victims of these. Definitely not to be missed. In front of the parliament you'll find the poignant 'Shoes on the Danube' memorial, and on the Buda side of the river you'll also find Memento Park, a unique outdoor museum shedding some light on what life was like behind the Iron Curtain.
Despite my hopes that this advice sheds some light onto how best to delve into the city's cultural experience, no-one needs guidance about how to become mesmerised with Budapest. That part is both involuntary and unavoidable! Enjoy, ladybugs!