A summer filled with surprises in Budapest

Considered by many to be the Paris of Eastern Europe, and arising from the two ancient crossroads towns of Buda and Pest, Budapest fascinates and delights on a multitude of unexpected levels while being one of Europe’s best values.

Younger visitors might not realize that Hungary has modestly and valiantly weathered two devastating world wars, Nazi occupation, the Holocaust, and an insidious postwar Soviet-facilitated regime, including a bloody 1956 revolution. Occasional and conspicuous artillery holes are left in some of the older building walls as a reminder to never forget darker times. But that’s OK. Hungarians — or Magyars — want to tell you about it. Having a language dissimilar to any other on the continent will not keep most from knowing some English or German.

Budapest, this writer’s birthplace, was one of the top travel destinations in the world prior to the Warsaw Pact alliances. The 1990 collapse of Soviet influences marked the beginnings of a tumultuous surge of privatization that also catalyzed Hungary’s rocky return to the realm of a premium and enriching cultural experience that doesn’t break the bank. Magyars, the proud indigenous Hungarians, predominate, but Budapest being a historical east-west conduit also reveals a larger cultural melting pot of Slavic, Jewish, German, Austrian, Italian, Russian, Croatian, Tatar, ancient Roman, and Ottoman influences all in one place.

As with many European destinations, summer is peak time, but visiting at other times will reveal reduced tourist crowds and costs. With latitude and seasons comparable to eastern Canadian cities, Budapest is ripe with outdoor festivals and activities to take advantage of their longer summer days. Another warm-season advantage is the underrated inland beach experience of the Lake Balaton resort area. The largest lake in Europe, and three hours from Budapest, this freshwater beach getaway is also enjoyed by residents of other countries in the region who want to avoid the throngs of the Mediterranean and Alpine lakes. Hip and lively Lupa Beach will seem like a Hungarian seashore without a sea. Who knew?

Exploring the city

Budapest is an easily explored friendly city, and penny-pinching history buffs will be in Nirvana. Walking tours are fun and supplemented by effective and cheap public transportation. With an underground metro, commuter trains, trolleys, streetcars, and buses, one of them will surely be headed to where you want to go. Just hop on. Most use a single ticket system, allowing travel as far as necessary on the vehicle boarded. Punch the ticket in a device that is periodically set for random and preset holes. Most riders do not do this because they already purchased a monthly pass, or berlet, suitable for residents. Do not “let it go,” because enforcement officers are consistent in their random verifications. A discount ticket book is a bargain. Taxis are best at a hotel or stand. Avoid unlabeled taxis, since some drivers occasionally take advantage of foreign visitors.

Start with Budapest’s green heart, Margaret Island. Like a magnificent Central Park splitting the Danube River in two and accessible only by two bridges at each end, this is one of the best urban parks in the world. The open space oasis still has a subtle air of residual exclusiveness from the beginning of the 19th century, when members of the royal family transformed it into a landscape garden. Today, the entire island is off-limits to cars and includes a plethora of walking, biking, and skating pathways, riverside sunbathing, a multi-pooled outdoor public swimming and medicinal complex, picnic areas, a tennis center, and a Japanese waterlily garden. Rent a four-wheeled, pedal-driven cycle car to tour the island.

Other premium city attractions include the Castle Hill historic district, the 1905 Fishermen’s Bastion, with a spectacular city vista, and the 1849 Chain Bridge, which was the city’s first permanent link between Buda and Pest. Leisurely strolls will reap the benefits of breathtaking views, a rich history, and a high probability of meeting new friends.

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Museums and such

Switch history gears with the Aquincum City ruins — the capital of the ancient Roman Empire’s province of Pannonia. Back in Buda Castle, don’t miss the National Gallery, displaying one of the finest collections of art from the 13th century to the present. Need more? The Hungarian National Museum chronicles the country’s history from the Roman era to a collection of 20th-century communist posters. Built by the Hapsburgs in 1854, the Citadel fortress of military lore on Gellért Hill also doubles as a prime, scenic photo opportunity.

The Museum of Fine Art includes one of the largest collections of Spanish paintings outside of Spain, an antiquities section, and various 19th- and 20th-century art. Check out Heroes Square constructed in 1896 to mark the 1,000-year anniversary of the Magyars’ arrival. Hungary’s 1904 Parliament building is the second largest in Europe still functioning as the seat of government.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. A somber example of this lesson is the House of Terror Museum, educating visitors about lost lives in past regimes. Afterward might be a good time to lighten up at the House of Hungarian Wines with 450 under-recognized wines from Hungary’s 22 wine regions, including a tasting and a wineglass. The rich, red “Bull’s Blood,” or Egri Bikavér, is a famous favorite.

Other venues

The Zoo park and garden complex is a favorite getaway spot for 130 years without having to get away. Catch a musical performance at the State Opera House, Franz Liszt Music Academy, or back at Buda Castle’s Matthias Church — all of them also historical wonders in their own right. Anyone visiting on June 24th wins the museum appreciation lottery during the annual Night of Museums, when culture crawlers can visit all of the participating institutions with one all-inclusive wristband. Some locations have special programs and outdoor exhibitions.

Cafés, dance clubs, concerts, and bars are especially lively in the summer, with many staying open until dawn. Some of the most popular thrive more on word of mouth rather than advertising and entrance signage. Summer is also when the fun goes outdoors on the Buda side of the city, with all-night concerts. An exceptionally unique experience are the Budapest Bath Parties, where movies, music, and dancing transform Budapest’s pools and medicinal baths into a combined venue of waist-deep water.

Go quirkier with a Ruin pub. Not a place to get ruined, but rather a repurposing of ruined old buildings into trendy bars. For some reason, most are in the Jewish Quarter, with Szimpla Kert appearing to be the most popular.

The Romans were the first to build public baths and pools in Budapest, and a dip must be part of a full city experience. The 16th-century Ottoman invasions followed, leaving some of the grandest Turkish and medicinal baths in the region. They have mineral-enriched, indoor thermal and swimming pools of various temperatures for lounging, chess games, and lap swimming amidst the original architecture. The two most famous are Rudas Gyógyfürdő and Király Gyógyfürdő. The Gellért Gyógyfürdő is part of the famous Gellért Hotel, featuring a bathing complex of art-nouveau décor including thermal pools, saunas, outdoor wave pool, and an indoor pool covered with a stained-glass skylight. Nestled in the popular City Park and one of the largest spa and bathing complexes in Europe, the Szechényi Gyógyfürdő has a myriad of indoor and outdoor pools, saunas, steam rooms and mud baths.

Food

An incredible (frightening?) degree, Hungarian life and social interaction revolves around food and meals — and that’s an understatement. It is impossible to visit anyone without being forced to eat and drink with them. To not do so is a deviant and catastrophic faux pas. You are not hungry? You are full? No one cares. What is this “not hungry” of which you speak? So, if visiting with someone or attending a social event, plan on eating your main meal at that time — they will be pleased. And, if it seems excessive, just know that it is some of the best and underappreciated gastronomy in Europe.

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Much of the entrée cuisine revolves around stews and soups called pörkölt and gulyás (“goulash”), utilizing whatever meat that may be handy in a sauce that universally exhibits the liberal use of the country’s primary consumable staple and export — paprika, mild and hot. One of the most authentic gulyás examples can be had at the elegant Opera House eatery. The universally common chicken version is a national favorite called Chicken Paprikás. It must be served with spätzle (small dumplings) and cucumber salad. Vegetarian versions utilizing mushrooms and peppers are also popular. And, whatever you do, under no circumstances confuse these with what is known as “goulash” in the U.S., which is not even close. Oh, the horror! The humanity!

Other foods are similar (but not identical) to German and Polish meat and potato dishes, including an abundant choice of pork and various meat sausages with pepper, cucumber, cabbage, or squash accompaniments. Snack foods center around cold cuts, cheeses, and substantial, crusty breads, as well as the world-famous Teli salami. Don’t miss the primary nonmeat street food, lángos. A deep-fried bread not unlike a kind of a savory big flat doughnut topped with sour cream, cheese, and garlic that can be digested all day in a boa constrictor-like manner, it doesn’t fool around.

Do not leave this country without sampling the cakes, pastries, and strudels. Try them with their prized espresso coffees, where tea plays second fiddle. A favorite substance of addiction is their version of a crêpe or blintz called palacsinta. This writer’s favorite is filled with a sweet cheese (as in cheese Danish filling), which I have eaten in an astoundingly embarrassing amount, ending in a guilt-based shame spiral. They are also available with poppyseed, walnut, fruit preserve, or chocolate fillings, as well as savory versions with meat.

But where to eat? A recent citywide phenomenon is the proliferation of rooftop bars and eateries that offer far-reaching dining vistas and photo opportunities so popular that finding a table is a challenge. Some choices offering dazzling 360’s include Pest’s historic Paris Department Store, 360 Bar, high-end High Note SkyBar over Aria Hotel, and St. Andrea Wine & Skybar atop the historic building of Váci 1 in Budapest’s famous Váci Street shopping district. Topping it off are various rooftop cinemas showing outdoor movies in English.

Finally, a hot tip for curing a guilt-based shame spiral is to work it all off at the city’s free outdoor gyms. And speaking of tips, some consider it lacking in etiquette to check a restaurant bill, but do so anyway. Like some taxi drivers, a few waiters have also been known to take advantage of foreigners.

Cultural events

Budapest offers numerous indoor and outdoor concerts and festivals, a favorite being the two-week long Budapest Spring Festival. Additional opera, drama, and ballet also happens during the Budafest Summer Festival. Staged at the magnificent State Opera House, tourists and locals enjoy first class performances at low prices. The winter season boasts the best New Year’s celebration in the city including the Franz Liszt Piano Recital Series.

For something different try the city’s Formula One Grand Prix, and one of the European racing circuit’s most important annual events. Check out Hungary’s very own modern Woodstock on the Danube at Óbuda Island Sziget Festival drawing from all over Europe. The weeklong event in August features foreign and local rock, folk, and jazz groups on multi-stages to the wee hours of the morning and camping is available. Far out, man.

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St. Stephen’s Day is Hungary’s national annual event, celebrating its founding with a not-to-be-missed fireworks display over the Danube. The Danube Carnival is a gathering of both Hungarian and overseas dance groups with performances around the city. The National Jewish Festival features a spectrum of Jewish-related events in various locations. The Budapest International Wine Festival in the Castle District offers wine tastings, displays, auctions, and folk music performances. The World Dance Festival provides both Hungarian and overseas performances including the Hungarian National Ballet.

Getting there

Nonstop flights to Budapest are currently not available from U.S. cities, but a multitude of options are available with a single plane change in such hubs as London, Frankfurt, and Zurich. A shopper will notice competition among the U S. domestic airlines that code share with a foreign carrier such as British Airways, Austrian Airlines, or SWISS. Check the foreign lines’ websites for their own fares from a U.S. city to Budapest with a plane change. Sometimes the foreign carriers may have surprising specials or temporary direct flights that do not make it to U.S. consolidators.

An under-publicized hot tip is to get a nonstop flight from the U.S. to Vienna, which may have more favorable flight choices and pricing, and after checking out the city, take the five-hour Danube River hydrofoil ride from Vienna to Budapest. Reverse your route to return home or fly back from Budapest. The rural and serene Danube scenery is not to be missed as an adventure in its own right. For those ready to splurge, the newly popular Viking cruise ships up and down the Danube offer a premium yet downsized ocean cruise approach to inland destinations. This also allows for more choices in air routes to and from various applicable cities of departure or arrival.

Staying there

Budapest is ripe with affordable accommodations, and the more in advance the reservation and the longer the stay, the better the value. Private rooms in homes and apartment rentals are the best buy for longer stays and a great way to be a resident rather than tourist, but require a bit of research. Start with the national tourist agency IBUSZ and if already in Budapest, look for signs displaying Szoba Kiadó or Zimmer Frei. Local and chain hotels are numerous and easy to book online but can be pricey in summer. If budget concerns are secondary, go for the city’s famous medicinal bath and spa hotels. Depending on the amenities, a spa vacation package may be a good value if that is the goal. As part of a significant medical tourism initiative, some hotels provide collaborative arrangements with wellness and elective health professionals providing cosmetic or dental surgeon services at significantly less cost than here.

Safety

Budapest is relatively safe regarding violent crime when using common sense, but visitors are not immune to occasional pickpocketing or other scams. A few perpetrators have an uncanny ability to sense a traveler or tourist by simply looking at them, no matter how much they may think they blend in. Less common but sophisticated ploys involve accomplices distracting you while another one lifts your money or bag. Organized crime can control a few questionable bars that may occasionally pressure you to buy inflated nonexistent admission or overpriced drinks for “guests” before being allowed to leave.

Make it happen

All the how-to and contact information needed can be found here:

Andrew Der

Der is an environmental consultant and travel journalist specializing in water science, nature, eco-travel, and cultural destinations

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