A Little Buda with Your Pest: Our Travels to Budapest

The day after our trip to Slovenia, we headed by BlaBlacar to Budapest! Our trip to Hungary was a little scattered. We came to Budapest for just a night to sleep, left the next day for a Work away in the countryside, and came back to Budapest for just 1 day before hitting our 2 week Balkan road trip. You’ll hear more about our work away in another post, but our first impressions of Budapest were not exactly good. On our return from the Work away, we decided to stay a full day in Budapest for their National holiday. We heard from many Hungarians that it was a blast and we had to stay, so we took their word for it. But it would come to be that our day in Budapest would be a series of unfortunate events. Starting at the subway to go to the airport, we got stopped for not having valid tickets. The employee said that we had entered a controlled area without a valid ticket, while we were trying to find a place to buy a ticket. We would be fined 16,000 HUF or about $60. Of course that was more than half of our days budget, so we argued with the man. He then was joined by 2 more employees yelling that we needed to know the laws of the places we visited (nothing was posted about this “controlled” zone), and continued to swear at us in Hungarian, which we only knew from our Work away. After my passport got taken, and they tried to take Matt’s wallet, we decided to pay them the fine. We left fuming, and later learned that it was potentially a scam. C’est la vie right! We were just thankful it didn’t get more out of hand. After confusion about picking up the rental car, finding a parking spot, we make it back to Budapest. The day just continued to get worst, so we ended up sitting at a coffee place so far off the beaten path that no one else would bother us. What a great first impression of Budapest! But the redemption came that evening when we caught up with my high school friend Cara, and 2 friends from our work away. We had great conversation, great Hungarian food and enjoyed walking around the city.

Fast forward 2 weeks, and we are back in Budapest for a week. After our last experience, we were really nervous we had made a mistake coming back. But luckily, things started to turn around. We gambled on a hostel called Casa de la Musica, which turned out to be great and cheap! That night, we went to a friend’s garden party and celebrated Matt’s 27th birthday. We had an amazing time meeting more Hungarians, and were grateful that they were so kind and welcoming to us, even speaking English as best as they could. We drank and sang, and maybe drank a little too much Palinka. The night ended with us stumbling back to our hostel around 2:00 am, but satisfied that we had an amazing 1st night back. The next days proved to bring more joy, as we encountered many people who were so kind to us. A lady at the grocery store, a man helping us with the subway, and a 3 year old boy who was so happy to practice his English as we talked on our way to the gym.

What was nice about this portion of our trip was that we were staying for a bit longer, and had time to explore the city leisurely. Out first sightseeing adventure was to the Buda side, up to the Royal Palace. Spoiler – it’s not longer a palace, but 2 art museums which unfortunately we had no interest in seeing. We decided to walk around the Castle Hill area, exploring the twisting roads and scenic views of Pest across the river. We had heard of this “attraction” called the Labyrinth, which was a system of cave tunnels underneath the city. While meandering, we saw signs and decided to check it out. When we got inside, we realized this was not a family friendly attraction, or one for the easily scared. The 1 kilometer of tunnels were all pitch black, which you would light up by carrying 1 small lantern. My phone light didn’t even help due to the heavy fog and humidity in the caves. The caves were creepy, wet and clearly designed to keep you on your toes. The caves were broken into a few different sections which housed various exhibitions. The local Opera house had donated the sets and costumes from a previous show, “The Masked Ball of Count Black” at the entrance of the tunnels. The sets were filled with waxed figured dressed in Victorian couture ready to attend a masquerade ball. While the costumes looked beautiful, I had worried that some figures looked too real to be wax. Legend has it that King Matthias of Hungary had kept Dracula in the cave tunnels when the monarchy used it as a prison. This section, known as Dracula’s chambers, were exceptionally frightening. There were torture props, fake heads on spikes and 2 cages filled with fake bodies that gave me nightmares. One you could only see a small glowing light, and when you held up the lantern, could see two Grudge-like children glaring back at you…again not for the faint of heart! The last section had an exhibit about other famous caves from around the world. We were happy to say that we could check a few off our list, and added a couple more on for future adventures. After we escaped the blackened tunnels, we finished exploring the churches, beautiful houses and panoramic views offered in Castle Hill.

The next day, we decided to take a free walking tour of Budapest. We have found these to be great in the other cities we’ve visited, not only for budget travelers like ourselves, but great to do once you reach a new city. They usually take you to the bigger sites, get you oriented in the city and tell some great stories and history. This tour was good on the history and stories, but took us back to many places we had already seen. We continued that night exploring Gellert Hill, the Victory statue and the Cave Church.

On our last sightseeing day, we decided to go down on the Danube. We took a boat trip along the Danube to the Parliament building using our weekly metro pass. Tip: instead of paying $20+ on a boat trip, just buy a ticket for public transit and ride the boat for as long as you like! It was great to see Buda and Pest from this vantage point; both historical and beautiful in their own rights, and yet so different. When we got off, we walked to see the Shoes on the Danube memorial. This memorial was created for a tragic night during WWII when a group of Jewish citizens were taken from their beds, brought to the banks of the Danube and shot, only after leaving their shoes behind.  While it is such a sad and shocking sight to see, there is something powerful about standing on the sight of serious history which struck up conversations and curiosity between us. Lastly, we ventured to Margaret Island, a long island located in the Danube between Buda and Pest. If you’ve ever been to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, it had a very similar feeling: you’re surrounded by this major city, but all you can feel is the trees and relaxing, fresh air. The park had fountains, some old churches, Roman ruins and other touristy stops . But what we enjoyed most was walking through the trees and lawns, finding small gardens and chilling in the shade. It was a perfect escape from the hustle of the city.

But we didn’t want to escape too much, as Budapest is known for some kick ass nightlife, especially in the Ruin Pubs. These are bars located in the Jewish quarter, which was abandoned after WWII. Recently, the area has been given new life as people bought the abandoned buildings and converted them into retro, artistic “ruin pubs”. Filled with old furniture, crazy sculptures and many with open gardens out back, there’s something fun for everyone! We had a short venture to one on our return from our Work away, but we were too tired to really experience it. Matt and I decided to try again and returned to Szimpla Kert, a larger ruin pub.  We met some great people, had a few beers and danced until 3:00 to the best playlist of 80/90’s music ever! When we left, Matt commented that we didn’t stay out late enough to get the full effect…

So the next night, we met up with Hungarians from our Work away for another night out. We started at a small outdoor bar, which was hosting a meetup event for locals. We weren’t aware that you had to be on the guest list, and merely walked in. It was a perfect place to catch up with our friends, and get a good buzz on. By 2:00, we were drunk and headed back to the ruin pubs, this one called Instant which is more of a club meets “Alice in Wonderland” atmosphere. We drank, danced and got a little silly. A poor passed out soul on a couch became our “bachelor” and we held photo sessions with him and strangers throughout the night. The way I see it, at least someone was looking after him! We had so much fun, and didn’t arrive back home until 6:00 am. While we were impressed that we could still party this late, we were more amazed by our friends who were not only a few years older, but also had to work at 8:00. It is true that people in Budapest sure know how to party.

Matthew & Stephanie

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