Budapest is possibly the most underrated travel destination I’ve experienced thus far. This beautiful, elegant, and lively city is steeped in rich history. Hungary is a complete melting pot of different cultures, making it a unique stop for history buffs, art/architecture lovers, foodies, winos, amateur photographers, and partiers.
It’s a region that has undergone one regime change after the next, constantly shifting the country’s cultural identity. From the Magyars, to the Ottoman Turks, Austro-Hungarian Hapsburgs, Nazis and Communists… All of these different political regimes, mixes of race, hardships and triumphs have created an eclectic culture that is enticing.
From what I could understand, much of Budapest was bombed during Wold War II with areas left in rubble throughout the communist era. The last twenty or so years have seen the city completely rebuilt into what is now, again one of the most vibrant cities in Europe. The city is split into several parts: Buda (The former capital of the Hungarian empire, located to the west), Obuda (Old Buda) and Pest (On the East Side). We stayed in Pest, right off of Vaci Utca, the biggest shopping street. It was a nice, central location for seeing both Buda and Pest.
The Turkish influence can be seen everywhere in a distinctive color palette – reds, golds, deep greens. These warm and bright colors permeate every aspect of Hungarian culture, from the traditional Hungarian embroidery and crafts to the frescoes on the sides of the buildings. The Hapsburg influence is perhaps the most pervasive architecturally… from the glitzy Parisian style cafes, to the elegant Opera House set along the enormous Boulevard called Andrassy Street, parts of the city feel like they’ve been torn straight out of Vienna or Paris. In 1896 the Hapsburgs embarked on an ambitious building project to celebrate the 1000 year anniversary of Hungary becoming a country. Hero’s Square was built just for the occasion, with sprawling gardens, a replica of a Transylvanian Castle (Haiiiii Dracula), the famous and postcard worthy Szechenyi Baths (One of many baths built over hot springs throughout the city), and several beautiful museums.
Our visit coincided with 3-4 days of freezing cold weather, that kept most people indoors until they were forced to emerge for dinner late in the evening. While this gave the city a spooky, mystical quality it made my favorite pastime, wandering and people watching, a bit difficult. On the coldest day, we took the funicular (A Cable Railway) up the hill into Buda, to visit Buda Castle and see a bit of Old Buda. I don’t particularly recommend the area when its cold, but we still managed to have a great time, despite being frozen solid.
All of my interactions with Hungarians were incredibly positive. The people I met were open and friendly, but not overly so (a refreshing change, coming from several weeks in Italy). I think that Hungarians might be the most beautiful group of people I’ve ever encountered. I wish I could have found a way to take pictures of everyone without being a complete creep… they were that gorgeous. My sister and I sat slack-jawed, staring at our handsome waiter, while we grabbed lunch at a trendy, hipster restaurant called Platz. Right next to St. Stephen’s Cathedral, I was drawn to the place because of their Scandinavian design aesthetic and beautiful branding (I’m a firm believer that good design usually means good food, and this definitely proved to be true). Little did I know, these were not the only aesthetically pleasing aspects of the restaurant. Our waiter had sandy blonde hair, honey colored eyes, and a nervous smile that just shouldn’t be allowed to exist on this earth. He recommended that I go with the Hungarian Ratatouille, and it ended up being the best dish I had in Budapest. The slices of sausage were crispy, and there was just enough spice. My sister got a salad with roasted goat cheese and grilled chicken. If you’re ever around St. Stephens Cathedral and looking for a variety of great dishes, Platz is a great option.
With young people, Budapest is maybe becoming best known for its awesome nightlife. I only managed to make it out one night (Because I’m turning into a total grandma who’s afraid of the cold), but when I did make it out, I had an awesome time strolling around the Jewish Quarter for dinner, live music, and way too many drinks. The original Ruin Bars, that Budapest has become known for, can be found in this area. These venues are built in what were abandoned old buildings. They’re known for their quirky, artistic atmosphere, huge crowds, live music. I walked by a few of the Ruin Bars during my trip, but it was just too cold, and I was too much of a chicken to go in on my own. I’m hoping to return during the summer at some point to get the full experience. Instead, I spent the majority of my night out eating Goulash and drinking wayyyyy too much beer at a small cafe, where an older Hungarian man with a large greying beard sat strumming away to English tunes by Frank Sinatra and the Beatles. After a great rendition of Girl From Ipanema, I clapped and cheered. We talked for a minute about how that was one of my favorite songs, and for the rest of the night he would look over and serenade me every few minutes. Dinner, drinks, and an almost private show?…. less than 5 euros.
One of my favorite things about Budapest was the design and art inspiration EVERYWHERE. We wandered into the Hungarian National Museum, which focused more on history than art (switching things up on this trip). In telling the country’s tumultuous history, the museum managed to represent the best of every era, along the bleaker aspects. From the ornate costumes, furniture design, propaganda posters, and art, the museum showed that through everything Hungarian culture has adapted, yet remained distinct. In the redevelopment of the city, Hungary has managed to preserve a mix stylistic features: a heavy influence of Art-Nouveau, a hint of Oriental, the stark modernism that came with communism. Nothing was obliterated when it went out of style, as is the case so often in the US.
On our last morning in Budapest, we wandered into Spiler Bistropub in the Jewish Quarter for a quick breakfast. I’d noticed this restaurant the night before while wandering through, and it had been packed solid all night. We sat there discussing how the quirky, artistic area reminded us of Brooklyn or East Bay, and ran through the typical… “if we could only invest” conversation. I was flipping through the restaurant’s menu and a little booklet lying on the table, marveling over its graphic design and interior design. What was mind blowing to me, was how they matter of factly represented the history of Budapest in their design. The graphic design was clearly influenced by the propaganda posters I had seen in the National Museum. The building resembled the ruin bars, built out of the rubble that was the Jewish Ghetto during the holocaust. The decor was collected from local furniture designers, the Budapest flea market, old warehouses, and apple farms. — It captured what I loved about all of Budapest. From the people, to the food, the art, the architecture, the music… it’s a culture that has been through the worst but has chosen to accept their history and move forward.