June 30 – July 28, 2016 (Summer)
Greeting: Jó napot
Currency: Forint (Ft)
Cost of living: Medium
Could we have picked a more confusing place to follow Bucharest? Maybe jumping back and forth between the Balkans and Baltics would work. But beautiful Budapest was worth the trouble. It rivals Prague as the most glamorous former Eastern Bloc capital, and without even the international ambassador that is Czech beer. The architecture is world-class (and world-famous). Add in a beautifully developed riverfront on both banks of the Danube, expansive parks, and unique attractions like Széchenyi Baths, and the home city of Hungary definitely deserved a slot in our itinerary. Even the name is fun and memorable, a mash-up of its precursor cities Buda (and Óbuda) on the west bank, Pest on the east. But the most appealing aspect might be the ridiculously low cost of living for such a premier location. We spent less here than almost anywhere else in Europe north of the Balkans, and felt like we got more than our money’s worth. This stay was easily one of the best values in our travels.
Where we stayed
Our Airbnb↗ was located in the Angyalföld neighborhood, far outside the inner city core but within walking distance of both Margaret Island and City Park. Moreover, the price was a bargain. We kind of got what we paid for though. The two room layout was our smallest yet, essentially a studio save for the thin wall separating the bedroom from, well, everything else. The WC and shower were in parallel closets on either side of the entryway, which formed a tiny hallway and muffled a bit of noise from the airy central lobby. Even though we spend a lot of time in each other’s presence, the confines of this apartment tried our patience more than usual.
The kitchen counter doubled as a standing desk, though this was far from ideal as it was also our sole dining space. There wasn’t much to the kitchen, but at least it had most everything we needed. The one quirk was the mini fridge, situated in a split-door cabinet clearly designed for a full-sized unit. It was just tall enough that we had to open both doors to reach the tiny appliance within.
July’s weather was expectedly warm, but unfortunately our space not only lacked aircon but even a basic fan. To survive, we closed all the doors and shutters during the day to cling to our residual cool air. At night we found that opening outside-facing windows and lobby-facing door created a wind tunnel effect, efficiently drawing in cool night air. We also had a huge patio, nearly as large as our living space. But we were on the ground floor. Right below the dozen decks where every upstairs resident spent their smoke breaks. This left us at the butt end of a constant rain of cigarette ash. There was enough of an overhang that most of our clothes drying on the rack survived unsinged, but the porch was pretty much unusable for dinners or a peaceful evening sit.
We put some of the blame for our middling experience on Airbnb. For one, the building was outside the implied location bubble by quite a bit. Fortunately it was well-connected and convenient to a tram and bus stop. Walking is always preferable, but we needed to schedule at least half an hour to get downtown by foot. In the summer heat, that was a big bummer!
What we did
The city of Budapest is of course an attraction all its own. The Hungarian Parliament’s elegant facades are among the most iconic around, but are only a small part of the overall allure. Buda Castle, unique fountains, Széchenyi Baths, walking streets, Fisherman’s Bastion, and ornate buildings of worship all combine to make the city feel like the grand capital it is. At night, the buildings along the river front bask in floodlights. We booked a nighttime river cruise for the best possible views. Though the top deck was overcrowded, we found quiet corner on the boat’s main level. As the famous and beautiful bridges slipped by above us, we admired the stirring skyline while toasting sweet Hungarian wine. Speaking of bridges, Liberty Bridge was a treat. It begins just outside the Central Market Hall and was open exclusively to pedestrians, to stroll and, to a lesser extent, to climb around on. The city clearly loves its river. Many more bridges spanned the breadth, and tour boats and river cruises plied its length.
Taking advantage of a spectacular setting on the Danube River, the Red Bull Air Race flies into Budapest more than any other city. Lucky for us, our visit coincided with theirs. Less luckily, the weather refused to cooperate. High winds prevented fliers from making their dramatic entrance under the Chain Bridge. Nevertheless, the event was an absolute blast. Planes wove► tight lines between the gates suspended in the middle of the river, pulling incredible moves we’d never seen outside the borders of a TV screen. Braving the unseasonable chill and rain at least earned us a plum viewing spot next to Parliament (we definitely showed up on the telecast). Though the competition was eventually cut short, it was impossible not to enjoy the impressive runs► we did get to witness.
A grand city deserves grand museums, and, well, the Budabides. Buda Castle houses several, including the Hungarian National Gallery. In summer they host an event called Wine Wednesday, featuring samples of Hungarian wines and after-hours gallery access. We watched the sunset from the building’s colonnade and then tinked glasses while we pondered paintings. Tickets sold out and the galleries ended up being quite crowded. Fortunately the building is large and we did manage to find quiet wings some of the time. Our favorite exhibit let us create our own art using old computer programs and equipment. Though not as well known as some other works, the painting Discovering the Body of King Louis II↗ similarly stood out. We checked multiple times to confirm that the canvas was flat and that the paint effects were responsible for the lifelike depth of the earth. The Budapest Pinball Museum provided us with an even more amusing evening. Their interactive collection is essentially an arcade, with machines from all eras of pinball history. Plaques on each listed the year of release, so we were got a quality history lesson as we played. All the games were free to play with admission, so we had no excuse not to try everything. We emerged from the stuffy basement several hours later, a little bewildered and with clangs and pings still echoing in our ears. The Museum of Ethnography and the Hungarian National Museum were less noisy, but no less interesting.
Budapest isn’t solely concrete and stone; many expansive parks dot the cityscape beyond the big ring road. Városliget, or City Park is the best known. For one thing, it is home to famous Széchenyi Thermal Baths. We weren’t interested at first, expecting just a big old spa. But we were invited by a fellow traveler, and discovered it was actually a grand and sprawling celebrations of all things aqua. The pools are supplied by thermal springs, and though the claims of health benefits are dubious, the comforting warmth was indisputably relaxing. A few cooler pools offered opportunities to wind down from potential heatstroke, and our hearts stopped when we jumped from the hottest hot tub to the coldest ice pool. Also in Városliget is Vajdahunyad Castle, built for the country’s 1896 Millennial Exhibition. It was primarily patterned on Corvin Castle↗ in Hunedora (then part of Hungary). Nearby, the grounds are littered with busts of great leaders and cultural contributors. Margaret Island was a much different park. The southern tip is a short walk from the Parliament building, and is more popular and developed. Pools, playgrounds, bars, and venues cluster on that side of the island, and thin a bit into lawns and playgrounds by the northern bridges that we crossed to get there. We found this to be a quieter option. Parts felt a thousand miles away from the bustling city on the other shore, even at the height of summer. It was the perfect choice for a relaxing escape↗.
Finally, one of the most moving spots in the city is the restored Dohány Street Synagogue. The building is impressive enough from outside, but the interior is especially inspiring. The ornate and gleaming ark is the obvious focal point, but our gaze kept drifting to the colorful patterned ceiling. Apparently the design was influenced by Christian churches in order to better blend in with the culture of the city – right down to the organ. It was heavily damaged in World War II, and only restored in the 1990s. The Jews of Budapest were particularly devastated by the war. More than 10000 were marched from the city’s ghettos to the river by Arrow Cross (Hungarian Nazis) and executed so the current could carry their bodies away. A memorial – the Shoes on the Danube Bank – marks this spot. The yard outside the Synagogue doubled as a cemetery, holding the remains of more than two thousand WWII-era victims of starvation, disease, and terror. Hundreds of thousands more were deported to death camps. The Emanuel Tree serves as a poignant memorial to those victims. Nearby another marker commemorates Raoul Wallenberg (and others), who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.
Food & Drink
Where our apartment lacked in proximity to tourist attractions, it made up for in grocery stores. Coop, Spar, Tesco, and Lidl were all just a few moments away, so we always had a wide stable of ingredients. For harder to find items like Poptarts(!) and Asian goodies, we trekked downtown to Culinaris, a boutique grocery. And for fresh fruits and locally-produced spices and preserved meats, there was no better place than Nagy Vásárcsarnok, the Central Market Hall. There, we picked up Italian plums for mere pennies a pound, spicy & smoky paprika, and paper-thin kulen. Fresh and tubed meats where on offer here as well, but when we discovered Lidl had a stock of incredibly cheap duck there was no going back. Ninety degrees or not, we spent many evenings basking in the radiant heat of oven-roast duck.
Despite being a big tourist city, eating out was not that overpriced. Right outside our own door, City Gyros tempted us with tasty smells. We happily devoured their kebab and chocolate(!!) baklava on multiple occasions. Only a little further, Rétesbolt is TripAdvisor-famous for their strudels. Any one of their dozen-plus flavors guaranteed deliciousness. Lángos, a fried doughy flatbread topped with sour cream, cheese, onions, or any number of other veggies and jams, was another great take-away snack.
We also tried several sit-down restaurants this month. The representative that sold us our phone cards clued us in to Holy Cow Burgers. Turns out, they made some of the best burgers we’ve eaten outside the US. At a place called Blue Tomato, we had a dinner of goulash (the traditional Hungarian soup of course, not the bewildering Midwestern dish↗ of the same name) and pork with a side of fried potato donuts. All of it was incredibly filling. The goulash was especially memorable, bright red and spicy with all the wonderful paprika. Central Market’s upper level featured quite a few small restaurants selling local cuisine. We tried the stuffed cabbage and goose leg, and though it wasn’t quite as delicious as the other spots, it was good for a quick bite and a beer. The Alexandra Book Café was worth stopping in for a drink for the ambiance alone.
Budapest, being part of central Europe, is a decent city for beer. Not to the extent of Germany or Poland – nothing stood out to us at the time – but in retrospect and compared to countries further south, definitely acceptable. Brews were cheap and ubiquitous. The most common brand was Dreher, and their “Bak” (bock) was a pretty good offering. We also happened upon the Czech Beer Festival, which made for a decent afternoon and once more prodded Prague up our future to-go list.
Hungary produces plenty of wine, though much of it on the desserty side of the spectrum. The most prestigious were the sugared-up whites from the Tokaj region. Grapes from this area often become infected with botrytis, a type of fungus that makes wine sweeter. Our favorite wine was a Tokaji from 2003, rich with sugar but light enough for hot weather. Reds exist too, of course, with some unique local styles like Egri Bikavér. This wine is based on kékfrankos grapes, but can be rounded out with any of a dozen other approved varietals. Meanwhile, the local fruit brandy, palinka, was not our favorite. We didn’t even try Unicum, a famous local herbal liquor described as Jägermeister without the sweetness.
Budapest thankfully made it easy for us to get around despite our remote accommodation. Bus and tram lines easily connected us to the city center. Transit tickets cost about $1 each if purchased in packs of ten. To activate a ticket, we simply had to stick it into the punch box on entry, which stamped it with the start time of our journey. Most modern boxes validated and printed automatically, but some of the more archaic trams still had manual punch boxes that required a surprising amount of force to stamp! Though Uber↗ is available in Budapest, we used public transit instead as it was plenty reliable and affordable for our needs.
Our host sent a family member to pick us up from the airport for a nominal fee. To get back on our way out we purchased a van transfer. Public transit would have gotten us there eventually, but only after two or three connections. For less than $20 the transfer proved to be worth it, saving us from lugging heavy packs around on what proved to be a very soggy morning.
Stuff of interest
SIMs↗ this month came from Vodafone. A prepaid plan with 2 gigs of data plus calls came to about $20 each.
The Hungarian language (Magyar) is unrelated to other European languages and honestly, our eyes glazed over a bit at the Hungarumlaut overload. Fortunately, English was understood nearly everywhere and smiling/pointing/Google Translate made up for the rest.
There are tons of expats living and working in Budapest. This made it easy to find Meetup groups to connect with. Word of the low cost of living and good quality of life must be getting around, and with good reason – it’s definitely a city ideal for the digital nomad lifestyle.
Our stay coincided with the release of Pokemon Go, and it was pretty neat to see the phenomenon engulf this place as it did everywhere. Our apartment was near a series of parks that were flush with Pokestops, and we saw lots of people (of all ages) walking in circles staring at their phones. Cynical people might look at that and think we were missing out on the real world around us, but our experience was quite the opposite. The game exposed us to lots of curiosities and details we never would have noticed. Just about every Pokestop in the city was a plaque or monument to some great person of history that we simply walked right by the day before. While the gameplay got old fast, that glimpse at a truly value-added augmented reality future was really exciting.
What we learned
The cheapest apartment isn’t always the best choice, even on a tight budget. Airbnb’s location indicator isn’t always that good of an indicator. And don’t underestimate the importance of a fan at the height of humid continental summer.