Pre-Post-Pandemic Travel - Part II - Budapest, Hungary
Updated: Oct 16, 2021
After Italy, we had two more destinations to look forward to before returning home to life as normal: Budapest, Hungary and Tbilisi, Georgia. At that point, neither of us had been to either country nor to any parts of the Central European and Eastern European region. With little to no idea of what to expect, it felt like we were fully in travel adventure mode as we headed to Bergamo Airport, a different airport again, to catch our Friday afternoon flight north-east to Hungary for the weekend...
Arriving in Budapest the first thing we were told was that we didn't need to wear masks anymore—anywhere. Throughout our three days, it felt both normal and extraordinarily surreal (and that's after 20 months of seriously wild stuff, ahem). Some places, like the large Westend Shopping Centre we went to on our first day, felt like scenes straight out of the before times. It felt weird. But hey, we got on with it. You could argue for and against this but it was certainly nice to fully see faces and smile at people again (small upsides).
Our first impressions of Budapest were of rain, which we'd expected thanks to our friendly Airbnb host Peter, who wins the prize for being an all-round legend in every single way. After providing the most fabulously detailed instructions imaginable for transiting from Budapest Ferenc Liszt Airport (love this name for them) into central Pest, we easily made it to our charming 'Cottage In The City'. Legendary Peter met us to check in and he gave us a long list of recommendations for his hometown. We had great chats before letting him go join his family and enjoy their weekend. Praise Peter!
We stayed in the northern part of the Pest side of the city. Again, Aoife's planning wizardry really paid off here, as there was no shortage of great restaurants and everything we could want nearby (Aldi's and Lidl's with vast beer selections for instance because priorities). Our cottage was right on the street but hidden away behind a block so it really felt like a dreamy inner city treehouse and had everything we needed to feel cosy in chilly Budapest. Thank you, Peter!
We spent our first night at a local Hungarian restaurant called Blue Tomato and while we don't have pictures, we devoured an enormous meat board (more on this later). Needless to say, an excellent experience. The following morning we ventured around the corner to another of Peter's café recommendations, Sarki Fuszeres. This parkside nook was everything you could want: leafy surrounds, blankets on the chairs, chill and comforting meals, and bloody great coffee. We honestly loved this neighbourhood spot so much that we made it our temporary 'local' and returned for brunch on Monday, too. We also sourced some Hungarian sausage for Rob J from here and, again, we have heard only good reviews on how their products travel. 10/10 for these cute options in the 'hood! There were many more spots in this suburb, Újlipótvaros, that we liked the look of and we'll delve more deeply into everything we missed when we go back to Hungary.
Every day we basically walked and walked and walked. This is on brand for us but it really did feel like we hit the pavement hard in Budapest. On our first full day, we went for the breakfast above then actually did a ton of shopping admin that we'd been waiting to do while in Europe. One of us got hiking pants (Simon) and one of us spent extensive time in the Lindt shop (Aoife). Success of all kinds was had (both of us) and though going to a shopping centre is something you can do at home, it's also quite fun to go see what's different and observe these normal parts of life for people. After dinner near our Airbnb, we retired for a quiet night. We'd planned a big day of eating and thermal spa soaking for Sunday so resting up in the cottage was a-ok.
On Sunday we walked to breakfast and happened to stumble upon the House Of Parliament, one of Budapest's countless unreal historic buildings, on the banks of the Danube River. Aoife had been trying to navigate us to go via St Stephen's Basilica and this just happened to be a breathtaking miss-turn along the way. I can't imagine what a job in the parliament would be like here if this was your office and transit into work every day. It's just so stately and majestic. Budapest is veritably soaked in history and this particular area had a memorial museum for the 1956 Uprising that we wished we'd been able to visit. This museum, along with many other buildings, museums and sites of cultural and historical significance are all on our list for next time. It's still tricky to go to some of these places with the pandemic and though we did set aside some of our final day for the National Gallery unfortunately, due to our poor planning and various other factors, both the gallery and other landmarks we attempted to go to wound up being closed. (We traversed this same area, Kossuth Lajos Square, again on the Monday and Aoife took this video while we were hunting for a bus ticket machine...)
Another of Peter's excellent recommendations was Szimpla Kert, which translates to 'Ruin Pub' in Hungarian. It's basically a big old commercial complex that was due to be condemned but instead was co-opted by market operators, merchants and publicans who turned it into this:
A lot more seems to go on behind the scenes here. Beyond being a cracking spot for a pint on the weekend, they run an indie cinema, recording studio, and host of other community-centred activities. A vending machine dispensing CDs and tapes from local artists gets a big tick from us! Read more about it here.
It has given rise to others in the area, big and small, with indoor and outdoor areas (or a mix). Subsequently the food and nightlife in the area (Jewish Quarter) was great to wander around in. I can foresee coming back to do a Goulash/Debreciner/BBQ/(insert chosen delicacy) crawl in this area in future. It really has something to offer everyone. I can confidently say I had the best shawarma of my life just outside Szimpla Kert at a Lebanese street food place called Manouche (I'm by no means a connoisseur but it set the bar very high). The following few photos are from around the blocks that make up this neighbourhood.
Budapest is held in high regard for its spa facilities, so of course we had to put this to the test to know for certain and we set aside the full afternoon to adequately assess the offerings. It was off to Rudas Baths for us!
Going from hot to cold spas doesn't ever get old, does it?
One word of advice if you are planning to go here—don't take the watch off unless you're leaving. The plastic watches they give you permit access into the various areas. I'll spare you the confusing story, but suffice to say we got it sorted and continued to enjoy the facilities. Oh, and do BYO towel AND thongs.
In the old Turkish area (pretty octagonal bath above) there was a dear old lady in her 80s hugging the nutsack fountain, and wouldn't give it up for anything or anyone. Its nice to be somewhere where you can be yourself!
In our post-spa haze, we walked back towards Pest in search of dinner...
...with romance on our minds, which very fittingly and thrillingly we found in the form of a post-spa feast...and then some.
We've received some feedback/heckles about the lack of food photography. Well...get a dog up ya! (below).
We were only in Budapest three days but every meal was exceptional. We found ourselves gravitating towards the carnivorous Hungarian fare like moths to a flame but there was no shortage of vegetarian and vegan options, and just about everything else you could want for. We stuck to meat and loved every minute of it.
Also this good gear below is like a Hungarian doughnut, called a Kurtoskalacs.
Go ahead, try saying it.
The full spiral-tube-thing is usually served on its own, and a half-tube usually comes with ice cream. Aoife opted for the dried raspberry coating because she's a wild thang. Are you ready for the pronunciation? Here it is in a video that's crying out for a trap remix:
Too soon were we dragged away from the sights, sounds and smells of this wonderful city. If we were to try picking nits we'd struggle to come up with even one. Maybe we just got lucky? Perhaps, but we'd both go back in a heartbeat — there's so much to see, so much to eat, and so much to learn. Before signing off from this city that's made its way into our top favourites power rankings, here are some final photos in a slideshow below: a cute little tank engine park we saw on our way to the Sunday market; outside the Grand Budapest Hotel (not really, but it sure is v. accidentally Wes Anderson); a heavenly-looking store; and, tarmac-bound for the midnight plane to Georgia.
Köszönöm, Budapest, we'll be back!
Love, Aoife & Simon xx