My initial impressions of Budapest are unintelligible. The nondescript thoughts forever preserved on the coffee-stained pages of my journal.
“…Fragmented pictorials of the city zoomed in and out of focus that first day. More out than in as they softened around the edges, some fragments entirely glazing over. I wandered along the Danube’s riverfront unable to rouse a reaction either negative or positive. My mind was as clouded as the winter fog obscuring the bridges linking Buda with Pest. I was there, but I wasn’t really there…”
It was mid-December. A time when ricocheting off planes, trains, subways, and water taxis at breakneck speed defined my M.O.
Budapest marked the tail end of this two month sojourn, falling victim to sleep deprivation as I arrived from Venice living off nothing more than 11 hours of sleep in the past 96. I was forced to muster up the energy just to muster up the energy to venture out into the cold, gray city. Which I did. Albeit in a zombie-like trance.
Or maybe we should dispense with the zombie pretense altogether. They can maim, kill, and infect. I couldn’t even put one foot in front of the other.
Traveler burnout does exist after all.
Without the wherewithal to fight it I gave in to the fatigue, watching endless museum itineraries, architecture tours, and food walks dump into the Danube as I chose instead to perfect the art of the hangout. A type of travel where I sort of just…well…hangout. Wandering aimlessly around the streets and giving into my every whim.
In doing so, I was exposed to Hungarian culture in ways no pre-scheduled agenda could ever allow for, discovering off-the-beaten-path things to do in Budapest along the way.
These local experiences are something I’d recommend to anyone planning a visit to Budapest.
Stay in the 11th District
I was light on experience with Eastern Europe. My only visits consisting of a drunk weekend in Prague and an equally as drunk weekend in Vienna at the age of 21, making Budapest my first “real” foray into the region. A time when seeking out cultural learning opportunities trumped hitting every expat bar on the block.
My interest in cultural quests makes sourcing accommodation in new places a massive challenge. Staying in touristy city-centers no longer appeals to me, yet I don’t like straying too far from the action either. Blending in with locals while having easy access to historic sites I’ve been reading about since the day I purchased my first travel book is no easy feat when knowing next to nothing about a city’s neighborhoods. And when it came to Budapest, you know nothing
Jon Snow Kristen couldn’t have rung truer.
It didn’t help that I was traveling with 3 other people and my research kept bringing up the same central areas I was intent on avoiding. So how’d I wind up in District 11?
After weeks of arguing over where we would stay (I liked funky hostels while Henia preferred Marriotts and Alicia pushed boutique hotels) we decided to try a quick AirBnB search. Where we found this:
Just like that the choice was made – with almost no thought given to where the apartment was located.
Like I said, we lucked out.
Only steps from the river that splits the city in two with Buda lying on one side and Pest on the other, District 11 sits on the quieter, residential side of Buda. The area is chock-full of character with its numerous funky cafes, low-key bars, and local restaurants. It’s home to a university, a popular shopping center, and plenty of outdoor green spaces. Straddling Budapest’s Old Town, District 11 is out of the way without being out of the way. The perfect base from which to explore the famed Castle Hill and the healing waters of the Gellert Baths. Even the lively area of Pest is only a few tram stops away. As it’s a bit off the tourist trail, the prices are cheaper and locals mingle around every corner.
There are only a few hotels in District 11 so I recommend taking a look at AirBnB for a true slice of local living. If it’s your first time on the site, sign up via this link and get $35 off your first stay!
Local Neighborhood Highlights
Cafe Ponyvaregeny (the one on Bercsenyi St) – descending down into this cafe transports you into a cozy den reminiscent of an earlier era. Flames roar in the fireplace, candelabra dot the white-clothed tables, vintage knickknacks grace the ledges, black and white photos hang from the walls, books line the shelves, coat-racks linger in corners, and velvet couches beckon you to stay awhile and enjoy a cup of coffee or two.
Szatyor Bar – a fairly new ruin bar (and one well out of the reach of the more famous conglomeration of ruin bars on the Pest side of the river). It’s a haven for creatives as not only is the bar a piece of art in and of itself, but it houses contemporary art galleries and puts on live concerts. More on ruin pubs later in the post.
Fehérvári Street Market – a more local alternative to the famed (and often touristy) Great Market Hall, the Fehérvári market is spread out over three stories and offers Hungarian produce, butcheries, fishmongers, spices, an impressive floral display, and much more.
Gellert Hill – climbing to the top of Gellert Hill will give you some of the best panoramic views of Budapest. Not to mention all the monuments and sites you’ll pass along the way including a church set within a cave, the Hungarian Statue of Liberty, WWII artillery exhibits, an old fortress and more.
Tranzit Art Cafe – once a former coach station, it’s been converted into a mellow cafe with outdoor hammocks, colorful couches, interesting art decor, and live music. It’s family-friendly as well with scheduled “silent cinemas” where kids are given headphones to listen to a movie flickering on the cafe’s large projector screen.
Lake Feneketlen – a beautiful green area perfect for picnics on the grass, relaxing with a good book, and enjoying the summer sun. In the winter? Maybe not so much fun. Let’s just say I wasn’t able to enjoy this beautiful area the way I should have!
The Gellert Baths – Budapest’s claim to fame is their extensive network of thermal springs resulting in the creation of some of the world’s most famous bath houses. Perhaps the most famous (and most photographed) is the Gellert Bath in District 11 which is built in the gorgeous Art-Nouveau style. I go into more detail on the reality of Budapest’s baths later in this post.
Rudas Baths – this bath was recommended to me by a fellow traveler I had met in Scotland. A spa and bath connoisseur, he spent several years perfecting the art of thermal spa-ing while living in Russia and the Ukraine. i.e. he knew what he was talking about when deeming Rudas one of his favorite baths in the world. Before you go, make sure to check out the different session rules. There are only certain dates and times when women are permitted to use the baths.
Its Local Restaurants – I felt I couldn’t rightly exclude the local eateries from the District 11 Highlight Reel. However, I failed to write down the name of one single restaurant we ate at. Looking back on it, I’m glad I didn’t. Finding the hidden, local places were part of what gave the district its charm. My friends and I set out to wander the back streets and alleys (avoiding the main Bartok Bela St) and found places serving wonderful food while devoid of any other foreigners.
Not a hard feat when staying in District 11. What with its plentiful metro stations, tram stops, and bus services just minutes away. Taking public transport in any city is one of the best ways to get a feel for local living. As Budapest’s transport network is convenient, efficient, and simple to use – there’s no excuse not to hop on board.
Rickety yellow street cars have rumbled over the city’s landscape since 1887 and getting around on these trams is my personal preference for exploring Hungary’s capital.
Transportation Information and Route Highlights
All public transportation is operated by BKV. Full timetables and ticket information can be found here.
Tram 2 – one of the most scenic public transport routes in the world (don’t take just my word for it – National Geographic named it one of the top 10 trolley rides in the world). It hugs the Danube River and provides gorgeous cityscapes that encompass Buda Castle, the House of Parliament, Gellert Hill, the city’s architecturally beautiful bridges and so much more.
Heritage Trams – on weekends and special occasions, the city breaks out vintage tram cars – many of which are over 100 years old. Visitors can step back in time as they traverse the same route as Tram No. 2 on the Duna Heritage Line or spa-hop between the numerous baths on the Thermal Heritage Tram.
The Christmas Tram – running throughout most of December, you can try and catch one of the elusive Christmas trams. Decked out with over 30,000 lights, these decorated trams trod along popular routes, spreading the holiday spirit. We only saw the tram once as it ran through District 11 (yet another reason to say in the area!).
Transportation Museums – at the risk of sounding like a complete dork, I have a fascination with transport museums. Maybe it’s because I love public transportation in general – so much so that I haven’t owned a car in 6 years – and am amazed by the history of these complex, interconnected systems. Budapest has two museums dedicated to public transit. The Millenium Underground Museum and the Urban Transport Museum Szentendre. I made plans to go to both but sadly I didn’t realize they were closed during December so make sure you check opening dates and times.
The weird home-brew Hungarians consume out of habit rather than desire. At least that’s my take on it because why else would they routinely subject themselves to the hellfire that is palinka?
Palinka and I first met while rambling through one of the Christmas market stalls gracing the pedestrian promenade where, like most flirtatious meet cutes, I admired the attractive outside packaging while harboring only a mild curiosity for what was on the inside.
“Wanna try whatever this is?”
“Nah, I think I’m gonna stick to mulled wine.”
Shrugging my shoulders, I followed Alicia to the vendor scooping steaming red wine from a pot made of copper, the bottle of palinka already discarded from my mind. It wasn’t until a few days later when my friends and I parted ways that I revisited my curiosity. Saying our goodbyes, I watched them pile into a taxi similar in design and color to the ones you’d find speeding through the streets of New York.
I opted to linger in Budapest a bit longer. In part because my favorite part of traveling is engaging with locals to learn more about their culture and day to day life. I find it’s the best way to grasp an understanding of whichever country I’m visiting; however, the more people you travel with the harder it is to open up to strangers. With my friends now gone I was determined to put myself out there.
Those of you who regularly read my blog know alcohol is my preferred icebreaker. I feel comfortable in bars and find that everyone in them always has a story they’re willing the tell. I attribute this to growing up in a small, southern beach town where the social scene revolves around bars and everyone knows everyone. If you show up by yourself it doesn’t matter all that much since someone you know is bound to show up before the bartender ever takes your order.
So surprise, surprise I went to a bar.
I hadn’t been inside the door five minutes when I spotted a woman seated alone at the end of a long wooden communal table. She sat pouring clear liquid (from an equally as clear bottle) into a shot glass. Asking to join her, I took a seat.
Her name was Reta. A resident of Budapest who worked just around the block. She shot back the liquor like it was smooth as water.
“You want some?”
Confident with her reaction (or rather lack of reaction), I threw my own shot back. Yep. It was smooth as water. If by water you mean acid. Pride held me back from spitting it across the table. But as my eyes began welling with tears I realized even pride has its limitations. Smirking, Reta poured us both another round.
Her uncle had made this particular batch of palinka, infusing it with plums in the basement of his home. I can’t tell you what kind of alcohol palinka actually is. I just know it can be infused with a variety of fruits – apricots, pears, apples, blueberries – and that a New York Times article once referred to it as Hungarian Moonshine.
We sat there for hours, Reta continually challenging me to keep up as she poured shot after shot. “This is nothing. My grandma has two shots everyday for breakfast.”
She wasn’t joking.
The almost pure alcohol worked the exhaustion I’d been feeling throughout my trip out of my system. With this newfound enthusiasm came an idea, “Reta, you should plan out the rest of my time in Budapest!”
“Give me your map,” was her reply.
So I did. Watching as she scribbled and marked places to go, foods to try, drinks to consume, and many more that I’ve outlined throughout the rest of the post. Then we went dancing on the 8th floor of a secret club (one I promised not to divulge the name of) until the sun breached the horizon.
Other Hungarian Drinks to Try
Order a Glass of Hungarian Red – it may not have the fame level of wines from Napa or Burgundy but Hungary produces some fine reds. Hungarian wines are easily available in most restaurants and wine stores. Tokaj is perhaps the most reputable wine region in Hungary so you know you can’t go wrong when ordering the Tokaj label. A venture out to the vineyards of Tokaj is also an easy weekend trip from Budapest by car or through a tour company.
Add Coca-Cola to that Red Wine – don’t even ask because no matter how many times Reta tried to sell it to me, I could never understand why she would ruin such a delicious wine. If you’re feeling up to the challenge, tell the bartender you want a VBK which is equal parts Coke and red wine over copious amounts of ice. Froccs is another popular wine mix but it’s more of a summertime beverage so I didn’t try it.
Accompany Dessert with Tokaji Aszú – sweet wines used to be a cultured trend back in the day but modern times have seen it fade into the background. It wasn’t until I made a trip to the Douro Valley of Portugal a year or so ago that I fell in love with dessert wine. I was happy to revisit this love in Hungary and sip the honeyed flavor of the Tokaji Aszú.
Try Unicum – this alcohol has been around since the 1700’s and still uses the same secret recipe. Or as legend would have it anyway. There is only one Unicum-producing distillery in the world and it’s open for tours near Budapest’s city center.
Learn How to Pronounce Egészségedre – knowing how to say “cheers” is good to know for any country you visit.
Skip the Goulash and Have Chicken Paprikás Instead
“Where should we go to order the best goulash? I heard it’s a must try.”
I stared at the concierge of the hotel we had randomly popped into. Smiling, she pulled out her map. “I know just the place.”
We thanked her, tucking the map away before exiting onto the street. Two hours later, my friends and I were fat, happy, and mystified over the portion sizes we had just consumed – for LUNCH.
And we’re American. The one thing we should never be surprised by is over-sized platters of food.
I questioned whether I’d ever be hungry again before deciding it didn’t matter. The goulash was damn good. Another local delicacy to cross off the list.
Or so I thought until I met Reta.
“We don’t really eat goulash. It’s an old, traditional dish from way back. Even my grandmother doesn’t make it. Restaurants only put it on the menu because guidebooks say visitors should eat it so if they don’t offer it, tourists will choose a competing restaurant that does.”
Turns out it’s all about the chicken paprikás. Reta was salivating as she described the paprika-induced sauce smothering the chicken and the delicious, tiny dumplings that typically accompany the dish. Reaching over the table, she grabbed my journal and scribbled down more tasty recommendations:
Other Delectable Dishes to Try
Langos from Lehel Market – there’s no shortage of street food in Budapest and langos is one of the city’s most popular snacks. You’ll be hard-pressed to walk down the street and NOT see a vendor selling this yummy fried piece of dough covered in sour cream and grated cheese. So why choose to order one at Lehel? Well, that’s easy – lying in District 13, it’s a local neighborhood market with barely a tourist in site meaning you’ll know the langos is authentic. Not to mention cheaper.
Blood Sausage from Belvarosi Disznotoros – pig is a big staple in Budapest and this place has delicious blood sausage and other pork delicacies. Beware, this place gets quite busy so try to avoid the lunch rush.
Doughy Treats from The Box Donuts – Reta’s favorite place to splurge? The Box which serves square-shaped donuts. That’s right, the Hungarians have a sweet tooth and donut shops aren’t uncommon. I tried both the salted caramel and the original Box flavor because I’m gluttonous like that.
Coffee from the Espresso Embassy – cafe culture in Budapest is huge with many functional cafes (like Cafe Gerbeaud and Ruszwurm) dating back to the 1800’s. I didn’t visit many cafes on this trip but I did try Reta’s suggested Espresso Embassy. While everyone inside was a foreigner, you can’t argue with how good the coffee is. For a more local place I’d recommend Cafe Ponyvaregeny which I mentioned earlier.
Appreciate the City’s Artistic Achievements
Rising from the ashes of a complex and conflict-ridden history, Budapest has transformed into the Paris of the East with its concert halls and theaters, cultural museums, emerging foodie scene, and its treasure trove of architectural delights.
Much of the city’s structural landscape is fairly new compared to its Western European counterparts. The Hungarian resilience persisted through years of war and destruction as they restored and rebuilt their city over and over again. Led by the architect Odon Lechner, they even developed their own interpretation of the Art Nouveau style. Lechner combined Hungarian design with Indian and Syrian stylistic elements to create a style of architecture that’s specific to Budapest. Great examples can be seen in the Museum of Applied Arts, the Libyan Embassy, and the Postal Savings Bank.
Hungary’s rich cultural heritage isn’t pigeonholed into just architecture, it’s also reflected in its contemporary and modern artistic pursuits. From opera to film to dance to music to photography to composition.
Reta let me in on some of her favorite (and now some of mine!) places to see Hungarian art in action:
A Local’s List of Artistic Highlights
Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art – as the name states, the exhibitions at the Ludwig Museum highlight modern and contemporary pieces. Though it holds international collections and exhibits, the museum places a focus on Eastern European art; in particular, Hungarian artworks from the 1960’s onward.
Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center – a must for photography lovers (and one I had never heard of until Reta told me about it). This lesser known museum offers a program of rotating photography exhibitions and includes some of Capa’s less-famous works – those where he experiments in color. This museum is well worth visiting.
Urania National Movie Theatre – in addition to being one of the most beautiful theaters in Europe, the Urania celebrates the cinematic arts and showcases Hungarian film as well as international cinema with both modern and classic film screenings. The theater also hosts several cultural performances such as dance, opera, and stage plays.
Budapest’s Rooftop Tiling – confession: this was not one of Reta’s suggestions. I just didn’t really know where else to stick it and the colorful rooftile mosaics in Budapest are so tremendous that I had to tell you about them. When strolling the city make sure to look up!
Pay the Ruin Bars a Visit…During the Day
When it comes to nightlife, Budapest can give all other capital cities a run for their money.
Seriously, I’ve never seen another culture party the way Hungarians do – and trust me, I’ve partied in A LOT of cities.
One of the most popular things to do in Budapest is get your drink on at one of the many ruin bars bedecking the old Jewish quarter. The effects of World War II hit this neighborhood hard, leaving much of it to rot and deteriorate. Sometime after the war, gatherings and parties started forming in the abandoned buildings and lots. Giving way to the development of massive, multi-roomed and storied “ruin bars.”
Imagine if an entire street block lined with your great-great-grandma’s house, thrift stores, art galleries, junkyards, and antique shops was to spontaneously combust, creating a chaotic scene of leftover remnants jumbled together on the front lawn. Well, that’s what the interior of a ruin pub looks like. A car bumper rest casually beside a porcelain owl. Couch cushions provide seating in bathtubs. Old radios hang from walls as if they were a painting. Disco balls descend down from exposed pipes. A bike’s wheel acts as a chandelier. Live trees emerge from beneath broken concrete.
Experiencing the ruin bars among a heady mix of locals and international travelers at night is one thing. But hanging out there during the light of day is a whole different ballgame. Most visitors to Budapest are unaware this is even a possibility. Hell I hadn’t a clue either until Reta told me to go to Szimpla Kert (the most popular ruin bar) around 9am Sunday morning when the booze was replaced with a farmers market. Residents shopped for bread and produce while I munched on local Mangelica sausage. Check out more information here.
Take in the Baths with a Grain of Salt
And no – I don’t mean bath salts.
Or the kind that accompanies tequila.
I mean it in the metaphorical sense the phrase was invented for.
Read anything about Budapest and it’ll tell you to visit the famed bath houses. The city sits on a hotbed (no pun intended) of thermal springs that were utilized as far back as Roman times though it was the Turks who revived this bathing culture into what it is today. The grain of salt came along in the 1920’s when the city realized the commercial draw these baths could bring to the capital. With this realization came the restoration of old baths, the construction of new ones, and loads of tourists.
The evident commercialism that still exists today made me extremely underwhelmed when visiting the thermal spas. The world-famous Gellert Bath was overcrowded and loud, the voices of children (as well as some grown-ups) echoing off the tiled walls surrounding the heated pools. It was more reminiscent of a waterpark (with high pricing and all) than a place for relaxation; albeit the most beautiful waterpark in the world.
I confessed my disappointment to Reta who nodded in agreement before explaining how the majority of locals don’t use the baths as often as they used to since the rise of tourism brought along an increase in pricing. Most citizens can’t afford to go on a regular basis and those you do see soaking in the pools are often elderly. The aging population uses the thermal waters for medical purposes as it cures many ailments so it’s not uncommon for doctors to write them a subsidized prescription for the baths. Some baths allow group pricing for locals who join a spa collectively.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying you shouldn’t experience Budapest’s bath houses.
There were elements I enjoyed and I did have a lot of fun. The steam rooms and saunas offered a respite from the craziness as they were quiet and less busy. I also loved the green tea room at the Gellert which was an experience all its own. Steam reeking of tea leaves accumulated into a fog so thick I couldn’t see the hand I’d placed two inches from my face. Trying to find the room’s bench was led by silent chants of please don’t sit on someone, please don’t sit on someone.
The bath settings are stunning and the artwork alone is reason enough to visit. I just wanted you to be aware of the local bathing culture so you could realize what a privilege it is to have the means to soak in Budapest’s famed waters.
Also, I do know the Gellert is a popular tourist hotspot; therefore it’s bound to be crowded and expensive. Since this website is more about getting off the tourist path and living like a local, I’ve outlined (with the help of Reta and other Budapestians) how to have a more local bath house experience:
Tips for a More Local Bath House Experience
Be Healed at Lukács Baths – this is a local favorite in part because of the medicinal benefits and wellness programs it offers. It’s probably safe to say this is the least touristy of the bath houses.
Soak in the Unpretentious Settings of the Király Baths – probably the least beautiful architecturally but the clientele is very local and it offers a less crowded, relaxing experience.
Discuss Business at The Rudas Baths – one of the 4 bath houses in Budapest that was built during Turkish rule. This is very much a “gentleman’s club” as women can only visit on certain days and times and it has a reputation for social business discussions between local men.
Visit the Széchenyi Baths at Off-Peak Times – okay if you’re dead set on going to this popular, tourist-heavy outdoor bath then try to go at the most “local” time. Which would be during the winter right around opening time.
Indulge in Public Displays of Affection
Last but not least – wear your heart on your sleeve.
Like. All. Over. Town.
Because I’ve never seen so much butt grabbing, hand holding, or kissing on public streets before. Can’t say I blame them.
Even on the foggiest day there’s no denying the romance of Budapest!
Have you ever been to Budapest? Any other local gems I should visit on my next trip? Tell me in the comments below!
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