Though we stopped in for just one night, Budapest may have been Brendan and my favorite city so far on our tour of Europe. It is the best place we have found to witness the post-WWII/post-Soviet rebirth that is happening in Eastern Europe - an exciting thing to experience, especially in contrast to the staid atmosphere of Vienna, where we had just been.
I say post-WWII and post-Soviet in one breath here because the results of both are still very evident in Budapest. The city was devastated in the war, occupied by the Nazis and under siege from the Soviets. The big landmark buildings along the Danube have been rebuilt - including the gigantic parliament building, the castle, and Fisherman's Bastion - but not far away from the city center, many buildings are in different stages of ruin and rebuilding. On the other hand, decades of retarded growth and government mismanagement mean that the rebuilding that did take place in many parts of the city came in the form of rather ugly, gray, uniform apartment/office/commercial buildings. But young Budapestians have embraced their city and reclaimed its crumbling spaces to make it their own. Added to Budapest's grand landmarks, this makes for a vibrant city.
We arrived by train from Vienna at Keleti Station, which you may have seen on the news, filled with Syrian refugees, back in early September. We saw no evidence of the refugee crisis there, but instead found a somewhat crumbling, but clearly previously grand and beautiful, train station.
Our hotel - full of other international tourists (the French and Italians have discovered Budapest, too) - was a short walk away, down a street lined with buildings of the Soviet-era variety. After checking in, we hopped on the metro and headed for the landmark we knew best - the Hungarian Parliament. Budapest is actually a combination of two historic cities - hilly Buda on the west bank of the Danube and sprawling Pest (pronounced "Pesht") on the east bank - and the Parliament building dominates the Pest waterfront.
To get the best view of this giant, though, it's best to head for the higher ground of Buda, so we set off for a pleasant stroll along the walkway that runs along the Danube, and then across the Chain Bridge.
One thing we noted about Budapest is it is full of public art, with a mix of older, marble pieces and more modern bronzes. Along the waterfront, we ran across a statue of poet Attila Jozsef and a collection of iron shoes, memorializing the Jews of Budapest murdered by Hungary's own fascist party in WWII (it actually references a specific instance in which Jews were forced to remove their shoes, then were shot so they fell into the river, leaving their shoes behind). To get a taste of some of the rest of Budapest's statues, check out this blog.
Once across the Chain Bridge, we hiked up through a lovely park to reach the castle. From the terrace in front of the castle, we grabbed some mulled wine (the best we've had on our entire trip so far!) and enjoyed our first view from on high of the Pest waterfront - what a sight! Around the back of the castle we found more interesting statues.
We grabbed some lunch at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that served some really delicious goulash, our first of the visit, and what Hungarian cuisine is really known for.
On exiting the restaurant, we discovered that the setting sun was giving off this magical, glowing pink light. We rounded a corner and stumbled upon Matthias Church just in time to enjoy its white stone all aglow.
The church is right by Fisherman's Bastion, a terrace built at the turn of the century, and rebuilt after WWII, which boasts some of the best views in Budapest. The seven towers of the bastion represent the seven Magyar (Hungarian) tribes that founded the country.
Here's an idea of the view you get from there:
And what it looks like at night:
Looking for a place to grab a coffee and a snack, we ended up finding a marzipan museum, and we just had to go in to see what it was all about. It turns out a marzipan museum means sculptures - rather impressive ones - made out off marzipan and other sweets.
That evening, we headed out to discover Budapest's ruin bar scene. The ruin bars are just what I was describing earlier - the reclaiming of destroyed spaces for a young, hip culture.
For dinner, we stopped in at a place called Mazel Tov, which I had read about in a magazine article about ruin bars in the hotel. Its entrance feels a bit sketchy and you could easily miss it from the street - it seems like just another abandoned, semi-industrial gate along a street of similar gates - but once you pass through the entryway, it opens up into a light, high-ceilinged, modern restaurant. (The first photo below is the Google street view to show you what I mean). The space is actually between two buildings, but they have built a roof over it to make it indoors, and they use the ground floor inside one of the two buildings as the kitchen. The food was Middle Eastern/Israeli, and both it and our cocktails were delicious.
Afterwards, we headed for the original ruin bar - Szimpla Kert. This place is wild, and more fitting of what the term "ruin bar" might evoke. The place is composed of maybe 15 different rooms plus a few outdoor courtyards, most with their own bars, some with a theme - for example, there's a wine bar room, and one bar that also sells food. It is dimly and colorfully lit, winding and confusing, rickety and cluttered, covered with graffiti, and full of a random assortment of furniture, including an old car and a bathtub.
This place has become so popular that they have a velvet rope and bouncers, but we arrived early enough in the evening that it wasn't packed and there wasn't a line yet. We were so full from dinner that we hardly wanted to have a drink, so we each drank about a half a beer and just wandered around the place to get the feel of it. I did pause to add our own graffiti to a table, though.
After, we walked around downtown Pest for a bit before hopping the metro back to our hotel.
On our second day, we had until around 2:00 pm to get in another Budapest experience before hopping on a sleeper car to Brasov, Romania. We decided we just couldn't come to Budapest and not go to some of the thermal baths, so despite the freezing rain that was falling when we woke up, we grabbed our bathing suits and headed out.
Budapest is built over natural hot springs, and its many bath houses are a big part of the culture. We chose the Szechenyi Baths in the City Park for our experience. We didn't totally know what to expect, but they make the whole experience quite user-friendly. You can either use their locker rooms, or pay a very reasonable fee for a private changing cabin where you also store your belongings. You get a bracelet that lets you in to the facilities and also unlocks your changing cabin - very cool! There are some indoor baths, as well, but we headed right for the big outdoor pools that the building surrounds. It was really the perfect weather for it, I think. It was chilly, but above freezing, and the steam was coming off the pools in huge clouds. The building itself is pretty cool, and there are also statues and fountains all around the pools.
We swam around for a half hour - like in a hot tub, that's really about all you need before you get too hot. It was really a fun experience, and the only thing I would have done differently is to bring (or rent?) flip flops. There was gravel on the ground around the pools that was just killer!
We had just enough time after for a stroll through the park, and then a brisk walk down a broad avenue, lined with old mansions, back to the hotel and to the train station. Along the way, we saw ducks enjoying a steaming fountain, a huge outdoor skating rink that we wished we had time to use, and the epic Heroes' Square. This square, the metro line we took to get to the baths (the oldest in continental Europe, originally pulled by horses), and the avenue we walked down to get back to our hotel (Andrassy Avenue) are all part of end-of-the-19th-century Budapest and what makes it a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Ultimately, despite limited time there, I feel like we really got in a great Budapest experience. It is a great destination for experienced travelers, as well as anyone with some Europe under their belt who is looking for something a bit more off the beaten path. I would love to visit again.