It’s Budapesht, not Budapest
Budapest, or Budapesht as the locals call it (seriously, don’t say ‘pest’ or you will very quickly be corrected by locals or that one traveller who seems to be at every hostel), is a city of extremes. Beautiful old buildings stand in the shadows of ugly concrete beasts built under Soviet rule. Trendy hipster bars serving craft beer and vegan burgers spring up in old ruins of buildings forgotten by the government. Drug dealers stand on the corner, across from one of the largest synagogues in the world, whistling and offering a ‘good time’ to passers-by.
Budapest is in fact two cities – Buda in the hills and Pest in the valleys. There is so much colour and life in downtown Pest. The streets sprawl with tiny woven alleyways full of cafes and market stalls. Buda is the serious classy older sibling. The streets are wide, clean, and orderly. Beautiful sombre monuments stand upon the hills and look down upon the crazier streets of Pest.
I love Eastern Europe and Budapest is no exception. Here are some of the parts I loved most about Budapest.
The Jewish Quarter
If you are looking for an interesting, vibrant and entertaining area to visit then the Jewish Quarter (or District Seven) will offer all of that! There is a seemingly endless supply of trendy bars and hipster cafes throughout this district. It seems strange for a former ghetto which held so much suffering and stigmatism to now be a place for revelry and hedonism. While you’re exploring, check out Karavan which is an alley lined with street food vendors just off of Kazinczy Ucta. I ate ALL of the food there. Seriously, all of it. From sourdough wood fired pizza, nitrogen ice cream, to a contemporary take on the traditional goulash (pack elastic pants!). There is a healthy mix of tourists and locals in this area. Karavan’s eating area is crammed between old ramshackle apartments with drying washing strung between the balconies. While I sat there enjoying numerous delicious meals, I couldn’t help but think of the times when people did not come to the Jewish Quarter by choice. When these streets and apartments were not for the hipsters and tourists but rather were waiting rooms for death. There is such a rich and sad history in Budapest and it would be remiss to forget that.
Due to the influence of the Ottoman Empire, Budapest is home to many thermal baths which make use of the rich mineral water deep underneath the city. You can choose from several baths but the main ones frequented by travellers and locals are the Gellert Spa and Széchenyi. I went to the Gellert Spa on the Buda side and it was like having a swim in an art gallery. I felt like I should be holding a glass of wine and pretending to know something about composition and brush stroke. The ceilings and walls are decorated with beautiful tiles and mosaics. If you’ve never been to thermal baths before (like me!) then be ready for a unique experience. The changing rooms are always an awkward interchange of flesh and averted gazes. There are several options available, but I took the cheapest one with just entrance and a locker (yay for being a budget traveller!). There were cool and warm outdoor and indoor pools complete with a sauna and steam room. While you let all the lovely minerals soak into your skin, enjoy the parade of colourful customers! I loved watching all the old Hungarian ladies who came to the baths to gossip. There were serious and solemn old men who lounged on the edges of the baths with their white chest hair billowing in the water. And of course, the couple who were getting a little too close in the steam room.
Budapest is full of cute, colourful cafes in almost every street but particularly within the Jewish Quarter.
Check out Blue Bird Cafe for breakfast or stay on when it turns into a bar later at night. It is a sweet colourful cafe with a bright mosaic floor which makes clear the link between Budapest and the Ottoman Empire. What is so special about this cafe, is they roast and brew their own coffee. For a good coffee starved Londoner, this cafe was heaven! Have the Pancake Sushi to go with your morning caffeine hit!
Want to find a place where deep fried dough meets literature? Then check out the Donut Library. Donuts and books – name a more iconic duo. Visit not only for quality coffee and fattening donuts but also for the cute library. Bring a book to donate or exchange for another.
If you have more time:
- Head to the Schezinyi baths. These are huge outdoor and indoor baths on the Pest side.
- Take a hike to see the Liberty Statue which looms over the city. This is a memorial to those who died during war.
- Head to the outskirts of the city to Memento Park. This is a surreal place where all the old statues from the communist era have been placed. Seriously, quirky Eastern European charm.
- Take a tour of the Dohany Street Synagogue and pay respects at the Holocaust Tree of Life Memorial which presides over the mass graves of those murdered by the Nazis. This is the largest Jewish house of worship outside of New York City. But remember to visit before or after the Sabbath. There was always a massive line outside the synagogue so pre-booking a ticket is advisable!
- Party at Szimpla Kert – one of the largest and well known ruin bars in the city. Yes, it is full of tourists but because of the edgy live music scene, you will come across locals as well.
- Visit St Stephen’s Basilica. Yep, another old church in Europe – surprise! But definitely worth checking out for the stunning architecture. And, with so many tasty gelato shops nearby, who could blame you for stopping for dessert?
But it would be remiss to leave Budapest with only a glossy polished impression. The inner city of Budapest is teeming with life and culture but the outlying suburbs tell another story. In the golden yellowing Autumn forests, there were numerous tents and makeshift houses set up. Buildings had crumbling facades and were covered with graffiti tags. Railway tracks criss crossed through suburbs cutting through backyards while children squatted next to them playing with rocks. I fear that it is too easy to visit a place and only see the bright shiny exterior. It is too easy to breeze past those already forgotten and focus only on the manufactured image. After travelling, I am often left wondering how to help the places I visit.
Have you been to Budapest? Have I missed any of the places you’d recommend?