Exploring the Capital of Hungary
It was while sitting in a sauna at 72oC, naked as the day I was born, sweating like Lee Evens after a two-hour gig at Wembley, that I really took to Budapest and its charm. After all, a city that encourages public nudity (albeit, in an enclosed environment) is a city that’s going to attract backpackers in their droves.
Backpacking in Budapest is as good as it gets and you can easily spend a week in the city and still not see everything. Not many cities in the world can boast such an achievement.
I travelled around Budapest with two friends recently and I absolutely loved the city.
Budapest is one of the surprising jewels of Europe. Located centrally, it’s just hours away from the cities of Vienna and Bratislava, and if you want to travel a little further the countries of Slovenia and Germany can all be reached within a day.
Budapest is dissected by the River Danube, one half making Buda, the other half Pest. Most of the backpacking hostels are found on the Pest side of the river, and that’s where we stayed.
We arrived in Budapest under the cover of darkness. Time was ticking away and we didn’t get to our apartmet until gone 9pm. As usual, after a day of travelling, we only had one thing on our minds - food.
We stumbled upon a lovely little restaurant named Gerloczy just around the corner from where we were staying (the reality is it took us an hour to find, but like stubborn backpackers we refused to give up the hunt for a restaurant that was voted the country’s best). Even though we got to the restaurant just after 10pm, we were treated to what was one of our nicest meals in Hungary. Hungarian cuisine is quite simple - meat, one veg, and bread. Nothing too fancy, but what they do, they do very well. Oh, and beer. The Hungarians like beer.
With dinner done, a drink of our own was in order.
One of the friends I was travelling with is Irish. The Irish have an uncanny ability of sniffing out a pub to within 100 metres of where they’re standing. They’re like some sort of human divining rod, yet instead of water, they divine Guinness.
In true Irish fashion, my friend found us a pub just around the next corner from where we were standing. And not just any pub. An Irish pub. An Irish pub that sold Guinness. He was happy, so we were happy, and we drank Guinness to celebrate.
Finding the 'ruin bars' of Budapest
After what must have been two or three pints, we found ourselves in Szimpla Kert, dubbed ‘simply the best ruin bar in Budapest’. We soon discovered that a ruin bar was a run-down building with dozens of bars inside. We also discovered that Szimpla was simply the best the best ruin bar in Budapest.
Ruin bars are a great use of space and it’s no wonder they’re so popular. They’re huge, some having more than 20 different rooms to choose from. In many respects, they’re like Johnny Depp; fun, full of energy and somewhere you’d like to spend the night.
One of my friends (not the Irish one; he somehow managed to bump into a third cousin-once-removed and they were putting the world to rights over a pint of the black stuff) summed up ruin bars perfectly, saying: “The transformation of disused yet magnificent ex-industrial and residential buildings into transient retro and artistic bars where everyone from local students and tourists mingle sums up Budapest and its ability to blend the old with the new.” I had to agree with him. It sounded like he knew what he was talking about...
The top five ruin bars in Budapest
Sausage and Palinka
Hungary is famous for its sausage. It’s also famous for its palinka, a fruit brandy that will warm you up on the coldest Hungarian night. We asked the locals what palinka meant and they said “rocket fuel.” It was either that, or they said “rocket man”, which could have been a reference to one of their friends in a blue tracksuit who looked a lot like Elton John. He was eating a sausage at the time but that’s where the similarities between the two ended.
Anyway, the sausage and palinka festival was, well, a sausage and palinka festival. It served sausage. It served palinka. All at a festival. And it was lovely.
It was a really amazing experience and something that was particularly unique to Budapest and Hungary.
It was all set in Buda Castle, one of the most well-known and visited tourist attractions in Budapest. It dates back to the 13th century and has been the scene of several major battles. Today, it’s not just a castle but a symbol for Hungary’s constant battle for independence.
While we were up on Castle Hill we also checked out the Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias’s Church, two other tourist attractions in Budapest. Their architecture was a cross between neo-Greco and Gothic with influences from all over Europe, making them two of the standout monuments in the whole of Budapest.
Castle Hill draws the eye from wherever you are in Budapest and it stands above the city almost as if elevated to the position in love and respect from the city’s inhabitants. It's a beautiful backdrop and is considered the heart of the city, driving and beating life into all Hungarians.
The Turkish Baths in Budapest
One of the main attractions in Budapest is the Turkish baths. There are dozens in the city to choose from (two dozen to be exact) and 13 spas. Bath culture has been around for centuries; hot baths, cold baths, old baths and new baths. There are even a few naked baths!
The baths cost around 1,300-4,000 HUF (depending on the bath) and they are a great way to spend a relaxing morning or afternoon. However, it always pays to know the local customs. Unfortunately we found out the hard way...
We went to the Rudas Bath on an all-male day. Not knowing what to expect, we wore trunks, walked into the baths, and immediately noticed that we were the only ones not completely stark-bollock naked. We tried to stand by our decision but after about five minutes we felt so self-conscious that we went back into the changing rooms to lose the trunks (even now it seems the complete opposite of what we should have been doing but we didn’t want to stick out, or not stick out as the case may be).
Mini-guide to the Turkish Baths
- Take a pair of trunks, a towel, flip-flips / crocs (for walking around the baths) and lots of water to rehydrate afterwards.
- Pay your entry fee. You’ll be given an electronic ‘watch’ with a token on it. This grants you access to the changing rooms.
- Talk to the changing room attendant. He’ll allocate you a cubicle to get changed in (if you’re in a mixed bath, don your trunks; if not, let it all hang out).
- Have a quick shower before you enter into the baths.
- Once showered, head straight for the 37 - 42oC pool, then the 70oC steam room, then the 16oC plunge pool. Medium, hot, cold. Do this three times, five minutes in each, or until satisfied.
- When you’re finished, shower again, get changed, and buzz out.
The top three Turkish baths in Budapest are:
Budapest free walking tours
The Budapest Free Walking Tours are famous (check out Facebook). Set up by a bunch of uni girls, they wanted to give city tours that were not only informative but cheap. And there’s nothing cheaper than free - there’s absolutely no obligation to pay, no hidden charges, no nothing. However, they do work on a tipping service, so if you think they’re worth it (and in my opinion they are), then tip. They suggest around €5-10 per person but if you’re backpacking you may want to give a little less.
One of the great things about the Budapest Free Walking Tours are the girls (not in a perverse way). They’re so informative and they really brought the history alive. You could tell they really loved what they did and they were happy to answer any question.
There are four tours to choose from; a morning tour, an afternoon tour, a Communist tour (you don’t have to be a Communist to be a part of this tour) and a tour of the Jewish Quarter (one of the oldest quarters in Budapest).
We opted for the morning tour and it took us all around the city, from the banks of the Danube all the way to the top of Castle Hill and back down to Parliament on the other side of the river. Make sure you’ve got your walking shoes on!
Top five sites in Budapest are:
- Castle Hill (includes Buda Castle, Fisherman’s Bastion and Mathias’s Church)
- Parliament (includes the banks of the River Danube )
- Heroes’ Square
- Central Market
- The Jewish Quarter
Central Market in Budapest
Central Market is a great place to spend an afternoon in Budapest for one reason and one reason only; the food.
We went to the Central Market after spending the morning in the Gellert Baths.
We were famished and the only thing we wanted was sausage in and around our mouths. There were quite a few on offer, but we went for a normal Hungarian sausage, a blood sausage and a liver sausage, with a hefty portion of chillies and pickles on the side. Simple, yet simply delicious.
There's a number of dishes to choose from in Central Market. I suggest trying a little of everything but if you're on a tight budget then go for the langos. At 500 HUF it's one of the cheapest dishes and it'll fill you up for the rest of the day.
The Central Market is a great place for picking up souvenirs and other local bits and bobs at half the price than in other parts of Budapest, so if you want to take something back with you then this is the best place to buy it. One of the best souvenirs to buy is paprika.
Top 5 Hungarian delicacies
- Sausage / salami
- Stuffed cabbage
- Goose liver pate
An alternative afternoon
For an alternative afternoon in Budapest make yourself a big packed lunch and head up to Heroes’ Square. After taking in the square itself and the surrounding museums, walk over to the park adjacent to the square. There’s a beautiful little lake with benches in shadow of Vajdahunyad Castle. Unpack lunch and enjoy. They are few places in Europe that can beat the setting.
Travel around Europe, including Budapest
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