- Critters of the Roman Ruins
Ancient Rome is one of my favorite historical topics, so I knew that I had to check out the ruins of Aquincum. I love how the culture, infrastructure, and bureaucracy of the Empire plays such a central role in the foundation of so many European countries. Like Britain, the history of Hungary starts with its annexation by the Roman Empire. And like London, so too was Budapest founded by the Romans. I took the HEV (suburban metro) out to Óbuda where the site from which the Budapest metropolitan area can be traced to a humble- but not insubstantial- collection of columns, temples and amphitheaters was to be found a short walk from the station. Turns out the folks that lived in the administrative capital of the Roman province of Pannonia had it pretty darn good. The city boasted central heating, a load of public bathhouses, and a gladiatorial arena that featured beast fights, all the while surrounded by the most beautiful countryside in the world.
Before checking out the ruins however, I took a look inside the museum to buy my ticket and grab some breakfast. The old feller at the ticket counter took ages to acknowledge me so I was just standing there awkwardly for about five minutes (though it felt like fifteen). After pretending my bronchitis was flaring up a few times, I was able to get the guy to say “Szia” in the most disinterested, noncommittal voice ever. I bought a ticket for the museum and the ruins, but he didn’t have any change, so he disappeared for the better part of ten minutes to find some. After he came back, I noticed my stomach was about to riot, and hopped over to the little gift shop where I could buy a substandard donut and a black instant coffee. The woman was very nice and asked me all sorts of questions. I ate quickly though, because I wanted to see the ruins.
The museum, though not very big, was excellent. I was very impressed with the artifacts and the information- which was written in perfect English. What makes the history of Hungary so interesting to me is that it is touched by larger subjects in world history that I’m already interested in. In addition to Romans, I learned about Mongol hordes, Popes getting shanked, and the real life inspiration for Count Dracula.
It was gorgeous weather outside, and as I took photographs of the wildflowers, old stone walls, and the restored painter’s house, I noticed something. Darting across the sun-blasted rocks were little green lizards, not unlike the kind I used to see every day when I lived in Houston, Texas.
- The Football Shop
I’m a sucker for antiques, memorabilia, and anything vintage. I was walking down Váci utca when I noticed a narrow alleyway that led to a clandestine shopping arcade. I passed the dingy stairway that led to the erotic massage parlor and entered a vintage store full of old gypsy outfits and handcrafts. It was cool to look at but I didn’t buy anything. I said goodbye and left. I was then drawn to the place next door- a vintage sports memorabilia shop. I tried the door but it was locked. Before I could walk away, the owner from the antique store came running outside with a set of keys.
“This is my hobby shop!” he grinned, and let me inside. I took note of all the sports pennants hanging from the ceiling, and told the shopkeeper about how I liked to collect American baseball and football pennants. I then asked him to spell the Magyar word for pennant for me, and I wrote it down in my journal. Jelzőzászló. I then asked him if he knew the soccer player László Kubala, whose statue I had seen at the Camp Nou in Barcelona. Being a sports nerd like myself, he obviously knew, and went on to tell me that Kubala’s people, like his own, were of Czechoslovakian stock, and that Kubala was a Czech name. He told me how Kubala played internationally for Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Spain. He rifled through a set of drawers to find me some Kubala swag, eventually producing a fridge magnet with Kubala in his Barca jersey. That is lush, I thought, and I purchased it along with a basketball pin.
- The Cave Church
One of the more quirky things I visited was a Catholic church situated in a cave inside the Gellért Hill. It was really interesting to walk around in, and we were allowed to take photos too. The monks had fixed the place up real nice with shrines and candles and other shiny things, and there was something pure about a rocky cave that I just don’t feel inside a building. If I was gonna find religion, it would be in a place like this, somewhere dark and damp and cool, where you feel connected to the Earth. I checked out all the rooms before turning back. I never know what to do inside a church to be honest. It was visually interesting, but once I’d seen everything I figured I might as well move on. I wasn’t going to say a prayer or light a candle, or sit for a while in the pews waiting to feel something. I had places to go and things to see, so my stay was brief. I felt weird about leaving so soon, but then again I’m not religious, so there wasn’t really anything for me to do.
- The Citadella
When I left the cave I decided to climb the Gellért Hill to the Citadella. I guess I’m in dire need of a new diet and a personal trainer, because I was blowing out my ass by the time I was halfway up. It didn’t help that it was scorching hot. I paused on the ledges and rocky outcroppings to take photos of the Danube below, before willing myself on. It’s funny how something as simple as just walking up a bunch of steps can make you hate yourself. At the top I joined a long line of red-faced tourists and bought a mineral water and a Solero- my favorite European ice cream brand. It’s just so refreshing. I didn’t go inside the Citadella- an imposing Austrian fortress with a Cristo Redentor thing out front- because I was pressed for time.
- The Folk Concert
That evening I attended the only thing I booked before coming to Hungary- a concert at the Duna Palota, showcasing some authentic gypsy folk music and dancing. I was interested because I was getting to see a little sliver of rural, rustic Hungary, and the beauty of one of its enduring, oppressed minorities. The foyer was lavish and all that with its marble columns and red carpets, but the theater itself was a lot more intimate than I expected. There weren’t many seats, but that was cool because it meant we were a lot closer to the action. I ended up really enjoying myself- the music was very good and the dance stuff was interesting too. It kind of reignited my appreciation for classical music. I was especially interested in the clothes of the gypsies. They all wore frilly, puffy white shirts beneath dark waistcoats. The difference, however, was that the men wore long, colored pants that they tucked into boots and the women wore colorful skirts and white stockings. The men had their waistcoats open and the women were buttoned up. The dance moves involved a lot of clapping hands and snapping fingers, as well as tap dancing. It gave me this impression of gypsy culture as being something vibrant, rustic, upbeat, and unpretentious. I imagined these kind of dances taking place in the light of campfires in the countryside. I don’t know if that’s a true image or not, but that’s what I imagined.
- My Brush With Fame
After the concert was over, we were taken to a luxury boat on the Danube for a nighttime buffet. My stomach was fucking screaming because it was 10:30pm and I hadn’t had supper yet. I wondered if perhaps I was the only loner on the boat. They allocated me a seat on a table with couples. It was there that I met two Brazilian women- who we shall refer to as J… and M… for the purposes of privacy. It turned out that J…, who was about my age, was in fact a successful TV producer and journalist back in Brazil, who was traveling around Europe with her feisty mother M… . It was sweet how proud M… was of J…, and she delighted in Europeans having heard of J…’s news station. We drank champagne together, and I was so interested in getting to know them that I didn’t even go back for seconds at the buffet. M… didn’t speak too much English, but she was thoroughly extroverted. I thought she was very graceful and funny. J… reminded me a lot of my friend Elizabeth. J… was very expressive, laughed a lot, and had one of those distinctive, charming smiles that seem to define a person’s spirit. Here are some highlights of my conversation with J… as she and I went out to take selfies together on the deck:
– It turned out we both studied at American universities in the Midwest, her in Michigan and I in Wisconsin. She even knew Eau Claire (the school I went to) because their football team played against her school.
– She started out as a journalist writing reports, and rose through the ranks quickly to become a producer. Now she dictates what the reporters on camera have to say. She covers things like local politics and social issues- such as the poverty of the favelas.
– She advised me that the best beaches in Brazil were to be found on the country’s many islands in the Atlantic. These tropical paradises off the coast were much cleaner and less touristy than the beaches of Rio de Janeiro and the like.
– I asked J… if there were many Michaels running about Brazil, and if I would be called Miguel if I was born there. Turns out the name Michael is actually quite popular. J… said that “Gringo names” enjoyed a surge in popularity during the 80s and 90s because middle class Brazilian families deemed them to be classy.
– I also asked J… about the Amazon rainforest. She described it as a “magical place” and we ended up having a long conversation (that later continued online) about Amazonian folklore. Her favorite was a popular legend about a pink river dolphin named Boto cor de Rosa, who during the night transforms into a handsome man and rogers all the unmarried women in the nearby villages. Then, when all the seemingly unspoiled maidens started to become preggers, everyone was confused, and ended up blaming it on the were-dolphin. So whenever someone would see a pink dorsal fin, they thought it was a serial rapist.
- The Budapest Eye
It’s not quite as grandiose as its London counterpart, but Budapest has its own giant Ferris wheel. It was a fun little aside to sit in the capsule and take photographs of the cityscape. I came here right after buying my Hungarian hat, so naturally I was curious to see how I looked…
- The Bloody Thursday Memorial
As I was walking around the impressive Parliament building I saw some stairs leading underground. I went down and found myself in a small museum about the horrible massacre that took place outside the Parliament in 1956. At this point I was ignorant of Hungary’s suffering at the hands of the Soviet regime, and I remember being shocked when I watched the educational videos. One of the more poignant features of the museum is a 3D projection of a tank that plays in front of an image of the Parliament. The tank rolls into place, before turning to face you, lining up its gun and firing. It puts you in the shoes of the Hungarians that the Soviets opened fire on, and when the projection of the tank fires, you flinch.
- The Moisturizer Lady
When I was rushing through the Budapest airport to reach my departure gate a woman stopped me. Usually I never stop for anyone, especially someone trying to sell something. I don’t normally have a problem being rude to fundraisers, cold callers, or any kind of salesperson. But for some reason, I stopped, and let her sit me down and show me her wares. She told me that I was looking particularly sweaty, and that she just had to stop me and talk to me about all the oils in my face. I guess I was looking worse than usual, since I was wearing my leather jacket to save space in my carry-on. The woman went through her entire sales pitch, and for some reason I didn’t object, even though I knew I wasn’t going to buy anything and I was going to miss my flight if I stayed any longer. I was slightly interested in the science behind it all, and I know I need to take better care of my face, but at the end of the day I just couldn’t be arsed, so I declined her offer and left.
- The Train Operated by Kids
Wanting to see something a little different to the bustling city, I decided to go on a tour through the Buda Hills. It wasn’t a guided tour or anything like that, just a list of stops to make that I found in my guidebook. I got a streetcar to the western edge of the city and then a train up through the steep, forested hills that overlooked Buda. When I reached the top, I became disorientated and found that the itinerary in my guidebook was super vague. I couldn’t make much sense out of it so I decided to abandon it and follow my nose instead. My first stop was a little mountaintop café where I got myself some deep fried mushrooms and a Coke. I shared a table with an old German couple, since it was busy, and I tried to impress them by throwing what Deutsch I could remember from my school days at them in a random order. They smiled but I don’t think they were too impressed.
I then set off in search of the famed Children’s Railway, a cogwheel train operated exclusively by the owners of undescended testicles. I found it, and hopped aboard. The train snaked through the forest, stopping here and there at touristy towns with little shops and cafés. I figured I ought to get off and see some stuff instead of just staying on the cogwheel the whole time, so I got off at this secluded station in the forest. There was nothing around but trees. It was quiet and green and beautiful. I asked one of the kids if I could get back on the railway on another train with the ticket I had. It turns out that I would have to pay for a new ticket, which I thought was cheeky, so I decided Sod the railway, and went off for a walk in the forest. I had no idea where I was in relation to Budapest or any of the other train stations but I honestly didn’t care. There were plenty of walkers and joggers, and I took photographs of the flowers as I walked. Pretty soon I found signs for the Zugliget Chairlift, which was on my itinerary, and which I now realized I was doing in reverse order. The walk to the chairlift wasn’t bad at all, and I was delighted to get on and be treated to some stunning views of the Carpathian countryside to the west, which unfolded before me as a breathtaking vista of densely wooded valleys and hills. And this lush scenery was about the same as it would have looked when the Romans and the Huns were knocking about, and I thought about this as I took it in, trying to visualize armies marching through forests.
In addition to my thematic posts regarding my trip to Hungary, I’d also like to share with you some rapid-fire asides. These are little stories that aren’t big enough individually to warrant a blog post, but which- collected together here- can hopefully give you a good impression not just of Budapest, but of me as a person.
- The Presley Serenade
On my first full day in Budapest, I decided to wear one of my (many) Elvis Presley t-shirts, since I was stopping at the little park named for him. In the evening, I wandered around Buda looking for a place to eat. I’d had a long day walking around Margitsziget, the Hungarian Parliament, and video calling my American roommate Aaron, so I pretty much jumped at the first place I found. That place was a restaurant called Kasca Étterem. It was only when I stepped inside that I thought I had made a mistake: this joint was hella It was by far the most posh restaurant I went to on my trip- I’m talking chandeliers, elegant wood panels, framed paintings of rural idylls- and here I was in my dorky Elvis graphic tee and my wrinkled jeans.
I was the only patron in the entire place, and the service was exquisite. Near to where I sat there were two musicians playing classy music on a piano and a violin. As I ravaged through the complimentary bread and olive oil like a feral dog, it suddenly occurred to me that I recognized the song they were playing. Well I’ll be a sonuvabitch if that ain’t “Love Me Tender” them fellers is playing, I thought. I looked up and both the musicians were grinning at me, waiting for me to notice. They pointed at my t-shirt and winked at me. I’ve never been treated so good in a restaurant. I raised my glass to them and continued eating. A few more people entered the place- most of them lone diners like myself- and the musicians went back to Hungarian folk music. Ten minutes later however, they started playing “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and I couldn’t help but give them the goofiest grin and snap my fingers at them. They winked back, and before I left for the night, I gave them each a handsome tip. It amazed me that they just had Hungarian folk versions of Presley classics on standby in case an absolute direhard like me came in.
- Using Three Currencies
It’s best when visiting Hungary to take a decent amount of Hungarian forints. However, I ended up using both euros and pounds during my trip. I had some euros I wanted to get rid of in my wallet so I gave them to a waitress for helping me write down some things in Magyar in my journal. The pounds I spent at a little kiosk outside the Citadella. I wanted to get my kid brother Frank a present and I saw this awesome pewter statuette of a Roman centurion. Frank (like me) loves Ancient Rome, and Hungary was a part of the Roman Empire. I didn’t have any forints left and the guy at the kiosk didn’t accept cards. I told him the centurion was a gift for my brother, and asked to pay for it in pound sterling. The guy agreed and he got his phone out to calculate the price. I was prepared to give him what I knew was probably too much, since I only had tens and twenties. However the guy said he felt uncomfortable taking too much from me and insisted on looking up the exchange rate and giving me the correct change in forints.
- The Shifty Guy
Prior to arriving in Budapest, I read that violent crime was very rare. What was rife in the Hungarian capital however, was supposedly scams and petty theft. I had to keep my wits about me- this being my first true experience of traveling alone and all that. The only time I felt in danger was on my first day, when I was walking around Margaret Island. Even though it was a gorgeous morning and there were plenty of folks enjoying the island, I happened on a path along the bank that was quite deserted. I stopped to take a photo of the river, and out the corner of my eye I see this shifty-looking motherfucker coming towards me. The path was so wide that it was strange for him to be standing so close. I turned and looked at him and he stopped, jerking to the side. He looked like he had some rough experiences in his life- his face was craggy with dark lines and heavy bags under his eyes. He wore a scruffy leather jacket and he had the saddest, most beat-down expression I ever saw. He pretended to be admiring the river as well, probably waiting for me to look away again. At that moment I made a decision to walk away and not worry that it looked rude to do so.
- Public Transport
During my time in Hungary I used almost every type of transportation available. I got trains, subways, buses, trams, and taxis. The bus ride from the Buda Hills back to the city was free, which amazed me. The trams were also free, and easily the most convenient way of getting around. In general, the standard of transportation was very good and very affordable. I got the HEV (the suburban metro) a few times when going on excursions into the country, and it was very simple. The first time I didn’t have to pay. I told the hotel receptionist about my free ride later that evening and she said “Sometimes this happens in Hungary!” and laughed. The HEV was efficient, and from an aesthetic point of view it was slightly run-down, but in a way that I found kind of charming.
- The Homicidal Ticket Barrier
I went to a bathhouse in Buda late one evening and when I got out it was completely dark. I walked through the parking lot, where a ticket booth had its barrier raised into the air. I wondered why it was stood up like that in a permanent way, but shrugged and kept going. It was only as I passed under it that the barrier decided to suddenly drop, and I jumped a country mile and screamed “Fucking Christ!” at the top of my voice. Whoever was in the booth must have heard, and immediately stopped the barrier’s murderous descent, lifting it back to its upraised position. Whoever had started lowering it must have had no idea that someone was out there in the darkness about to get their brain caved in.
- The Bogroll Incident
After reaching the northernmost tip of Margitsziget, my intestines notified me of an urgent fax that needed sending. I turned back and headed down the western side of the island. I’d seen everything I wanted to at that point, and the next thing on my agenda was to stop at the Palatinus Strand thermal spa. They’d have the facilities I needed there too. By the time I reached the entrance to the bathhouse I had a pained, horselike gait. I paid my ticket, bought a towel, and rushed up several flights of stairs to the changing room toilets. I realized only too late however, that the cubicle I was in didn’t have any bogroll. Fuck, I thought, this is going to be like Door County all over again. So I check the other cubicles, and they don’t have any paper either. Now I’m stumped. This is the civilization that produced Ferenc Liszt and Sandor Petofi, that invented the ballpoint pen and the Rubik’s Cube, the engineers of one of the most beautiful cities in the world, the freaking descendants of Attila the Hun aka THE SCOURGE OF GOD. There’s no way they got this far, and accomplished all that, without wiping their buttholes. There had to be a logical explanation for all this. So I go back to the part of the restroom where the sinks and hand-driers are, and find that the bogroll dispenser is right next to them. I had to grab a load of paper and go back into the cubicle, and come out and get more again if I needed it.
Of course, I later found out that not all restrooms are like this- but some are. I encountered the same situation in the Kiraly Baths.
- The Beggar Woman
I was walking towards the Hungarian National Museum when I was approached by a middle aged lady in a square. She was wearing a black dress and had those pointed glasses you associate with 1960s librarians. I thought that she looked very classy, that she might be a fashion designer or a dance instructor or something. Intrigued, I decided to stop and see what she had to say. She spoke a strange mix of Hungarian, English, and Italian, and said something along the lines of “I’ve been watching you and I can see that you are very nice…” and in my utter hubris I thought that she was trying to recruit me as a male model, that she was inspired by the contours of my face. I asked her what she wanted, already imagining my wealthy life as her pet. Then she started making eating gestures with her mouth and hands and I felt a pang of shame and sympathy. I gave her some money and went on my way, and I couldn’t stop thinking about her story.
- The Taxi Driver
I got many taxis- perhaps more than was wise- but there’s one journey that sticks out. I was walking downhill from the Castle District and decided to get a taxi the rest of the way to the Lukács Baths in Buda. I flagged a taxi down and hopped on in. The driver was a tall, muscular guy with a shaved head and a jaw the size and shape of a picnic cooler. I imagined that he was ex-KGB or something. He laughed that he was on his way home, but it was fine for me to use him. We ended up chatting a lot and I asked him what sports he was interested in. He said football (soccer) was at a very low standard in Hungary, and symptomatic of a larger societal decay. Today, he argued, young people want money but don’t want to put in the work. The same, he said, was true of footballers- instead of focusing wholeheartedly on their craft, and creating “good product”, they were driven by money. I tried to steer the conversation around to something positive and said “Ah, but that Puskas was a helluva player though wasn’t he?”
He replied “You must not think this, this was long time ago. This is not now. Puskas wanted to work, create good product, and only much later came fame and money. Now is opposite.”
I asked him if he liked basketball and he said “Basketball is ok. Men’s- not so good. But women’s basketball is quite good.”
Somehow the talk transitioned to politics and he said the country was going downhill. He then added that “Mr Cameron is very good boy,” and went on to say that the former British Prime Minister visited Hungary or something, and the Hungarians were very impressed.
It was at this moment that I realized he was driving me in the exact opposite direction of where I wanted to go. I pointed this out and he frowned, confused. I showed him the Lukács Baths on Google Maps and then he realized. He became very embarrassed and said that he thought I wanted to go to the Rudas Baths, which are the other end of Buda. He turned around and drove me northward, repeatedly apologizing. I said it was okay, I wasn’t in a rush, and it had been me asking him all these questions. He wouldn’t let it go though, and said “I just go on talking, chatting away…silly…and you, looking on your phone, and me…chatting away.”
I really tried to let him know that I didn’t care at all. He parked up and when I got my money out, he refused any payment. I insisted, and eventually convinced him to accept half the money, which he proclaimed he would give in full to his children.
- The Peaches & Cream Club
Going to Budapest was always about trying new things and developing my sense of self-confidence and self-sufficiency. I’d been clubbing exactly 3 times back home, and even though that was enough to know it’s not really for me, I wanted to see what I was capable of and do something a little more wild and youthful. I went for dinner at a restaurant in Pest, near Kossuth tér, and drank a few beers as I was eating. I looked up nightclubs in the local area and tried to discern which would be the best choice. I left the restaurant just before 10pm and went looking. My first choice was closed for some strange reason, so I had another look at Google Maps and found a place called the Peaches & Cream Club. From the outside, it reminded me of one of the futuristic clubs you’d get on the Citadel in Mass Effect. It looked very stylish and I wondered if I had inadvertently stumbled upon something out of my price range. I got in line behind a group of guys and thought Well this isn’t that scary. I listened to their conversation and they seemed worried that it would be too fancy and expensive. Looking in from the outside, you could see the bar lit up in bright pink, and the dark silhouettes of ladies’ legs as they waited in front of it, with the rest of the place in shadows. It was a good design technique to have the bar adjacent to the windows like that, so you could see the outlines of people having drinks and waiting to be asked for a dance.
Eventually the bouncer let in the group in front of me. He asked if I was with them and I said yes. The entry fee was not much at all. I paid a small amount to have my jacket in the coatroom, and then I entered.
On my left, snazzy leather couches where couples and small groups had intimate conversations. On my right, a medium-sized dance floor. And dividing the two: the bar. My biggest anxiety about clubbing was what to do with myself, so I decided to get a drink. Not only would vast quantities of alcohol take the edge off, but I figured the image of leaning on the bar was inoffensive and unsuspicious. I started drinking rum, and the bartender didn’t ask me to pay for any of my drinks. I had the money ready, but upon serving me, he would jump straight to the next person. In fact, I didn’t see him taking money from anyone. Several drinks later, I decided that I had to start dancing- the final step in overcoming the anxiety of clubbing alone. I saw some guys standing at the edge of the dancefloor, watching, and joined them. More people started dancing, and eventually I made my first movements. Nothing too flamboyant; I just kind of bounced up and down very lightly, sometimes swaying to the side. The Commander Shepherd. That’s what I did. I consciously did the Shepherd for about three hours, and after the first twenty seconds or so, it was no longer awkward. I realized that no one was looking at me, that even though I was surrounded by people, we were all anonymous. No one cared, and that was a very comforting realization.
I also realized that all clubs are different. The ones I had been to in Bristol, England seemed very trashy by comparison. They were dark places where everyone was squashed together, with people making out or getting in fights. They seemed like scary places. I had attended a club in Bristol called Ramshackle for my friend’s 21st birthday, and I remember tattooed rough lads pushing my friend around or taking a swing at bouncers. Hands grabbed at every butt and boob that passed by. Even I was getting molested as I made my way through the crowd. Sodom and Gomorrah, I thought.
But the Peaches & Cream was different. The guys didn’t seem threatening or thuggish- they looked very normal, as though they didn’t really know what they were doing either. No one was making out or doing anything sexual. I wanted to meet people and I hoped that by putting myself in this environment I would end up somewhere completely random. That didn’t happen, and by 1am I was exhausted from all the dancing, so I gave up and left. I had mixed feelings about it all. I was glad I did it and got over my fear of nightlife to some degree, but I was also disappointed that I didn’t make any friends or have a funny story to take from it. I just went to this place with all these people, danced among them, and left, and no one even knew.
- The Hat
I went crazy for souvenirs in Hungary. As with any culture I visit and become fascinated by, I try to assimilate as best I can. I like to eat what they eat and wear what they wear. I want to experience what makes them beautiful and unique. And it’s a wonderful thing to do. Nothing upsets me more than those pretentious twatwipes that complain about cultural appropriation, and make that complaint out to be a cornerstone of the liberal identity. You’re not a progressive. If you’re worried about traditions and aesthetics becoming diluted and corrupted by the inclusion of others, then you’re a conservative. Culture belongs to everyone, and I like to educate myself on how others live, and experience first-hand their way of life. As with anything in life, you just have to go about it with respect and empathy. In Texas, the cowboys I met delighted in my enthusiasm to get fitted with a Stetson and a pair of boots. In Budapest, I saw a lot of young Hungarian men wearing these caps and I decided to buy one for myself. I even asked the vendor if I looked Hungarian and he laughed and said yes. He even gave me advice on which hat would look the most authentic. So I bought one and wore the hell out of it for a week!
I found myself drawn to Andrássy út more than any other street during my week in Budapest. One way or another, I always seemed to end up there. I thought every street in Budapest was beautiful- in the sense that I may look at it and find it aesthetically pleasing- but I would think of them each as being parts of the greater whole of Hungary’s capital; as contributing to its collective charm. For me, Budapest was the summation of these little parts. It was the collection of old boulevards and alleyways, of streets big and small, that together gave life to what we may call the “charm” of the city.
However, there was one street that seemed to have an identity of its own, that seemed more than just another rib in the figurative thorax. Andrássy út had a particular sense of character to it; a tangible, affecting style that I remember feeling and thinking about while I was there. Located on the Pest side of the Danube, Andrássy connects Erzsébet tér with Városliget. The famous útca was recognized in 2002 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its historic townhouses and landmarks. The Neo-Classical facades, rows of trees, and the wideness of the boulevard contributed to a distinctly Parisian vibe that brought back memories of getting lost and debating the wisdom of accepting an offer of help from an Albert Fish lookalike- but that’s a story for another time.
As I wandered past the luxury boutiques and international embassies, I took in several of the things on offer. The first thing I did on Andrássy was take a tour of the famous State Opera House. I was surprised by how interesting I found it. The tour guide spoke very good English and told us little anecdotes about the building. Even in the 19th century, there were designated smoking and non-smoking areas. The smoking area was a corridor that separated the bar from the balcony, and supposedly it would get so thick with clouds of tobacco that young unmarried couples would use the cover to make out in secret.
The tour even ended with a mini opera concert. Professional singers came out in full costume to sing for us, and I was in awe of what they could do with their voices. As I watched them recite a few operatic favorites, the happiness in my ears spread to the rest of my body. I thought about how lucky I was to be able to be there and experience something like that, and just how special it was. It was probably one of my favorite moments of my entire trip to Hungary.
After leaving the opera house I decided to hunt down some indie bookstores I’d made a note of on my phone. I turned onto Nagymező utca- a quiet cobblestone side-street lined with theaters- that is referred to by the locals as “Pest Broadway”. I was searching for a place called the Mai Manó Gallery, but after walking up and down the street several times like an indecisive window cleaner, I ended up in a fancy place called the Budapest Operetta Theater. There were a bunch of stage hands setting up props and pulling wheeled racks of flamboyant costumes. I asked if I could use the bathroom, and afterwards decided to sit in the lounge and get a drink. I ended up chatting with the barmaid, who was super friendly and seemed to laugh at everything I said. I asked her where I could find the Mai Manó Gallery and after a fit of giggles she pointed directly across the street.
Mai Manó ended up being one of the little spots that would steal my heart. It was the perfect hidden gem I had been looking for. I entered what looked like an open door to a Neo-Classical apartment building, and found myself in a beautiful yet silent lobby. I had the strange sense that I shouldn’t have been there. Seeing nowhere else to go, I started up this staircase and came to a balcony that looked down at the lobby below. At that moment, a fellow popped his head out of a door and gave me a look. I asked if this was the bookstore and he immediately clapped his hands together and led me down a narrow corridor and into a small room with a narrow window that overlooked Nagymező utca. I felt like I was in a very nice-looking attic. A young woman in a woolen cardigan sat at the desk reading a novel. She smiled at me and asked what I was looking for.
“Books,” I said. I looked around. “What kind of books do you have here?”
“95% of them are photography books,” she answered.
I browsed the little selection, enjoying the artsy feel of the place. These are my kind of people, I thought. Sensitive, artistic, creative. Almost certainly left-wing progressives. Interested in love, beauty, and self-expression. And so keenly attached to their fantastic city. I could tell just by their faces that they loved living and working in Budapest.
I picked up a book of black and white photographs of Budapest, each accompanied by these really interesting and poetic remarks on the city. One quote particularly resonated with me:
“Budapest is a city of startling contrasts. It is both beautiful and ugly, ostentatious and poor, filthy rich and poverty-stricken, a thousand years old and unfamiliarly new, restored, pampered and dilapidated, dynamically developing and a thing of the past.”
What a perfect description of Budapest by the book’s author- Tamás Révész. This seemed to collect my impressions of the city into a single, delicious sentence. I also picked up several postcards I liked, as well as a framed photograph of a woman standing by a train that struck me as being very Hungarian. I asked for the name of the model, hoping that she was Hungarian, and the woman at the desk studied my purchase.
“She’s beautiful,” the woman commented. “But I do not know the name.”
The machine that scanned my items wasn’t working, so the woman had to add up all of my many purchases on paper. The whole thing took a good ten to fifteen minutes and there was some confusion about the price of one of the postcards. The man came back in and took over.
“It is my first day,” the woman said, grinning.
I wasn’t in the slightest annoyed. I liked this place and I liked these people. They were very good to talk to and we shared a few laughs. When I left, I was in high spirits. I continued up the road and found myself at the Oktogon- a bustling intersection in the very heart of Pest. A hub of designer clothing stores, coffeehouses, streetcars, taxis, tourists, cyclists- life.
I returned to the Oktogon via tram on the last day of my trip. I had a few hours left to explore before going to the airport, and I continued up Andrássy utca from where I had left off that day I went to the Opera House. I grabbed lunch at a place called Like Étterem. The setup reminded me of a veteran’s kitchen or something. It was very casual and unpretentious. You pick what you want from a bunch of trays on a hot plate, kinda like a school canteen, and the chef dollops it onto a plate and heats it up for you. I asked him for his recommendation and the chef said that the venison goulash was very good. I got that, and it was swell. Every goulash I had in Hungary was different. Some were more like soup, but this one was much drier- more like a casserole. I really enjoyed how hearty and rustic it tasted. I drank some grape juice and became fascinated with the look of these Hungarian cartons.
After I finished my last meal in Budapest I crossed the street, carried on up the boulevard and entered The House of Terror. Perhaps the most poignant place I visited on my trip, the building that had once served as the headquarters for the Arrow Cross (the Hungarian Nazi party) now served as a museum of both the Nazi and Soviet regimes. There were SS uniforms, Stalinist propaganda posters, old firearms, and even a tank. It’s definitely a place worth seeing if you’re ever in Budapest and want to learn about the suffering this great city has endured in the 20th century.
Upon leaving the museum, I went back to the Oktogon and waited for the tram to take me back to Buda. The streetcar arrived and we all crammed ourselves in like sardines in the carriage. Next to me stood a woman with a placid dog. Some teenagers got on and cooed over the dog’s fluffy features and blank expression. A guy leaning on the wall, listening to music through his headphones. Before the doors hissed shut, a man in a suit jumped on. His tie was loose. I was surrounded by all these locals, just living their everyday lives here in Hungary. I wanted to know everything about them, right down to the most mundane and trivial of details. I was sad to be leaving, and observing all these normal people got me thinking about how life in the city goes on. The city doesn’t know it’s meant to be sad because it’s my last day. What Budapest is depends on the observer; the things we feel for it come from within. Someone else on that tram could have been gazing in wonder at the sights, experiencing it all for the first time as I once did, and many others were so used to the scenery that they thought nothing of it. For them, there was no romance to be found in a streetcar ride. And though we were all taking the same ride at the same time, none of us interpreted it with the same set of connotations.
I was sat in the shade of these giant, leafless hardwoods with bone-white, chipped and peeling facades when I opened my journal for the first time under Hungary’s sun. I hadn’t expected Budapest in April would be so darn hot. My leather jacket I’d bought years ago in the Wisconsin Dells- such an integral part of my identity- ended up doing nothing all week except take up needless space in my unforgiving RyanAir carry-on baggage allotment. It was nice that the weather was so sunny for my visit, but I did feel a little disarmed without my favorite jacket. I take this thing everywhere. However the rest of my look was still intact- I had the cowboy belt I got in Texas around my waist and my trusty Jordans on my feet. I drew strength from these things. The kind of strength I figured I would need to travel alone, but which I later realized, wasn’t even necessary. I was surprised how comfortable I was in my own company. During a video call with my roommate Aaron back at the boat, he told me “I don’t want you slipping into the meek persona. No apologizing, no bumbling, no worrying what people will think about you. I want zero fucks given. You wear a goddam cowboy belt and a pair of Jordans for Chrissake. How many people there are gonna be wearing that? Think about what makes you unique and let it empower you. If you’re gonna wear those fancy sneakers, you need to live up to the spirit of Michael Jordan. Can you do that?”
It was time to do what I’d come here to do and swallow as much of the city as I could, for all its colors and ambient vibrations to be stored somewhere deep inside of me. So I brought this fresh journal- whose scrambled notes I am now translating into a coherent blog post. The journal seemed just right. It was a gift from my mom. She’s quite the traveler herself, and picked this journal up at a famous bookstore in Porto, Portugal called Livraria Lello, that was supposedly a source of inspiration for J.K. Rowling. The paper isn’t lined, so I was free to splurge my pen directionless over that inviting, unspoiled white. I included pictures and diagrams where necessary, and within minutes the thing was covered in a hasty series of mind-maps.
The breeze that touched my skin under that beautifully barren canopy, I realized, was the same that had touched the cheeks of those Dominican nuns almost nine centuries ago. It was a religious air that carried through the trees, and landed now on the cheeks of little schoolchildren. The island had always been a place of tranquility and contemplation for the Hungarians. I decided it would be the best choice for me to start my week in Budapest with- especially since Margitsziget is so close to my hotel. I’d walk around, collect all that precious ambience I craved, before taking a dip in the island’s spa- the Palatinus Strand. The meditative culture of the island goes back to its settlement by the Knights of St. John in the 12th century. After the Mongols ravaged Hungary and returned east for the funeral of the Great Khan, King Béla IV gave his daughter Margaret to the Dominican convent on the island, believing that a child dedicated to religion would be reason enough for God not to ask the Mongols to come back. They didn’t, and the island was renamed to Margitsziget (Margaret Island). Before that, it had been known as Nyulak Szigete, which translates as Rabbit Island, or Island of Rabbits.
The first thing I noticed was that there were dog walkers everywhere. Budapest loves dogs! I saw two sausage dogs excitedly investigating a big, fluffy gentle giant that looked like a husky mix. Alongside the dog walkers were runners and cyclists. There were no cars. I could hear the birds singing, a sound that escapes the ears when in the rest of the city. I felt soothed by the sound of the bike rental woman as she swept the empty road with a wide broom. Old folks sat on benches while groups of teenagers rented bikes and scooters. The far off din of playing children. Couples strolled through the trees hand in hand. Some of the trees had bright colors, others were barren. The grass was dotted with dandelions. There were a few homeless people sleeping on the grass. On a nearby tree trunk two lovers had carved “Pau + Heni” inside a crude heart.
I walked up the east side of the island and found a miniature zoo. I let the donkey kiss my palm and moved on, going north to the ruins of a Franciscan church and the old Dominican convent where Saint Margaret had lived her entire life. I imagined her admiring the birds as she collected water from a well, looking across the Danube and gazing in wonder at the outside world. I bought a little dish of ice cream and set off for the Japanese garden at the north end of the island. I sat on a bench and made notes in the journal again as a young Hungarian couple had their engagement photos taken by the pond. After finishing my ice cream I went up a narrow path, only to find another young couple deep in love. They stood facing each other and holding both of their hands between them, talking very intimately. I wondered if the guy was about to propose so I doubled back and took an alternate route. I don’t think he did though- I’ve since come to the conclusion that the Magyar people are naturally very passionate.
I left and headed south down the western side of the island. I looked at a group of English girls peddling one of those rental buggies, giggling and screaming. For a moment I thought that I was limiting myself by traveling alone, and couldn’t help but imagine doing something like that with my friends. I messaged these thoughts to Elizabeth, and she texted back “I really think there is something special about seeing a place by yourself. Going with others limits your independence and closes your eyes to certain things. I honestly think this trip is going to be something you remember for the rest of your life as the best decision you ever made.”
She was right. My trip wasn’t lesser; it was just different. My experience of the city would have been completely different if I had gone with friends or family. Now I can go back and discover Budapest all over again through the lens of a roommate, a friend, a brother, or a girlfriend. And I would definitely take my future travel companion to Margitsziget so that I might observe their fresh reactions to the same spiritual breeze that so affected me.
Budapest has a thriving café culture. A big reason why I decided to stay for a full week and not a weekend is that I wanted to take the time to sit in these cafés and just soak in the ambience. I wanted to drink coffee and do a little people-watching. I wanted Budapest to be to me what Paris was to Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller. I needed to see this city while I was young and have it leave a strong impression on me. I wanted it to become my city, and I figured the best way to find that sense of ownership and belonging was in cafés.
It was during my time in Houston last year that I discovered coffee, and now I can scarcely imagine my life without it. The 200,000 words that make up this blog didn’t come out of nowhere. They needed fuel, and that fuel was caffeine. And I got the strangest feeling ordering my first Hungarian coffee- I was struck by how naturally and confidently I asked for it. Less than a year ago I was introduced to the sweet almond coffees my roommate Anne-Marie made for me, and for a few months I very carefully tried to replicate the exact cups she had crafted. Now I’m fine drinking the blackest, bitterest coffees out there, and it doesn’t bother me where they come from. I was like “Look at me, ordering coffee like a true connoisseur!”
Address: Budapest, Frankel Leó út 12, 1023
What I Got: Bécsi virsli (Vienese Sausages), Americano, Ribizili (Cake)
My Visit: I found this place on Google Maps and saw that the reviews were pretty darn good, with particular praise singled out for the lunch menu. I was after some breakfast however, and needed someplace with which to fill my wailing gut, having not eaten much at the airport the night before. Café Gusto waited for me on a quiet street lined either side with parked cars. There were few pedestrians, and aside from the little Café Gusto, the place looked pretty residential. I was only a block away from the Danube, but the street had the charming quality one finds in cities like Toulouse when they stray away from the buzz of tourism, and realize they have crossed over into a territory that is so thoroughly its own. It’s like walking into a shotgun house out of the pouring rain and coming out on the back porch to find yourself bathed in sunshine.
I entered the café and it was near 10am. The place was quiet, and there was only one other patron- a young woman drinking coffee and reading the newspaper on the terrace with her bike propped against the wall. I sat on the inside to get a feel for the place and ordered some Vienese Sausages. The sausages were excellent, and went perfectly with the mustard. I wasn’t sated however, and ordered a slice of cake after I was done. The interior design was super-cozy, the tables adorned with flower pots, the walls with classy paintings of Budapest and idyllic Hungarian country scenes. Pop music played, not too loud. I admired the little lamps that hung from the walls.
It was here that I learned that you shouldn’t be put off if a Hungarian first comes across as reserved. The waitress was quiet and professional, but I persisted in offering her smiles and acting deliberately goofy. When she took my plate away I said “csodálatos!” which means “wonderful”. She paused and I said “wait!” and typed it into my phone on Google Translate. Then I showed her my phone and repeated the word and she laughed, thanking me. When the cake arrived I asked her for the Magyar spelling. Ribizili. She told me how to spell it and I wrote it down. Obviously, I could have looked it up online, but I was committed to talking to as many locals as possible and bringing them out of their shell if they were on the shy side. According to Dale Carnegie a good way to get someone to like you is to ask them for a favor. I wondered if most of the natives’ exposure to the English was the boisterous lads on Stag-Do’s that paraded down the streets in spring chicken onesies and puked their lángos out into the gutters come morn.
Address: Budapest, Kossuth Lajos tér 18, 1055
What I Got: A Magyar kedvenc: szalámis-körözöttes svendvics (Hungarian’s favorite: salami with creamy paprika flavored cottage cheese), vizet (water), blue-velvet latte
My Visit: This place is on the Pest side of quirky, and was easily the most hipster lunchroom I went to during my stay. What makes this café so awesome is that it doubles as a florist. I sat inside and the air was thick with the aroma of fresh blooms. I came here for lunch after leaving Margitsziget and ordered what the menu described as the “Hungarian’s favorite”. I like salami and cold cuts, so it went down very well. I’m not really a latte person since I don’t like my coffees to feel filling. I am most definitely a drinker of black coffee. However, I decided to try the blue velvet they had on offer here, because it seemed in keeping with the colorful tone of the place.
Smuz had a different atmosphere to Gusto. My breakfast was had at a little hole-in-the-wall, a hidden gem, the kind of place where the staff are on first name terms with the regulars. Smuz, however, was located right next to the awesome Parliament building and had a distinctly cosmopolitan vibe to it. The place was full of natural light, which made sense given it was also a flower shop. It lacked that cozy feeling, but the staff were very friendly. They were young, spoke good English, and they were very helpful when I asked them for the names of things for me to write down. As if the place couldn’t get any more quirky, there was an old school nacho machine on the counter like you’d get at an old American movie theater. The music was all 1960s counterculture; John Lennon and Don McClean. I found this amusing, because the last song we listened to on my last shift at the warehouse was “American Pie”.
Callas Café & Restaurant
Address: 1061 BUDAPEST, ANDRÁSSY ÚT 20
What I Got: Sült ananász quinoa-val (Baked pineapple w/ quinoa), Coke, slice of cake
My Visit: The Callas Café sits right outside the Hungarian State Opera House. I came here for lunch before I took my tour. It was a little late, so there were few other patrons. The restaurant is very opulent- everything is clean and gold and shiny. The staff were very professional, and I don’t know whether this was an intentional hiring policy or not, but all the waiters had shaved heads. It made me wonder whether this was considered proper in Hungary, that the best waiters ought to be bald. I sat right next to the cakes in the window and admired them as I wrote in my journal. Hungary is a damn good place to go if you enjoy cakes alongside your coffee. Most places I went to offered a slew of cakes as the primary dessert options, and I came to learn that the cake is a big part of Hungarian cuisine.
I wanted a light lunch because I didn’t want to feel like one of those pythons that had just swallowed an entire Caiman when I went for my massage in a couple hours. I also realized that this café was a little fancy and I didn’t want to spend too much money. I looked at the other patrons and imagined that they were quite well-off. I imagined that the British guy opposite me held a managerial position of some kind, that he was divorced, and that the woman with him was his secretary or something. I ended up getting the baked pineapple with quinoa. Fucking great choice. I wasn’t sure what a baked pineapple would taste like, but it turns out the answer is delicious.
Address: Budapest, Vörösmarty tér 7-8, 1051
What I Got: 2 slices of pistachio & raspberry cake (yolo), black coffee
My Visit: Gerbeaud is regarded as one of the grandest coffeehouses of Europe, and the fanciest in all of Budapest. I had this place written down on my bucket list at the front of my journal. This, it seemed, was the heart of Budapest’s vibrant café culture. I took the streetcar to Vörösmarty tér in the morning and found it a real hub of activity. The square was filled with stalls selling traditional products, handmade crafts, and all kinds of street-food. Music played and people danced on the balls of their feet, bouncing from side to side with hands on hips. I tried Gerbeaud but the door was locked. A sign said something about not being open until lunch. I was surprised and disappointed. It messed with my plan for that day. I decided to damn it all to sod, and eat street-food for breakfast. I found a stall and got in line. Just as I was about to give my order, I saw that there was another door at the other end of the building, and this one opened. I left the line and went inside, and it turns out the bistro and the coffeehouse are separate entities.
This place was next level fancy. There’s a distinct Gründerzeit flair to the architecture, and the whole place just seems to shine. It’s elegant beyond compare, with its grandiose chandeliers and polished woods, and wonderful staff. I felt like I was really being looked after here. I decided on cake for breakfast, and the slice was so moist and so delicious, I promptly ordered another one when the waiter came to take my plate.
Near me there was a family of four, I think from Russia or somewhere like that. The husband was ginger with a very tidy goatee, and the wife was blond and somewhat Claire Underwood in her appearance. The parents spoke in Russian to each other but the little children- a boy and a girl- spoke perfect American English. The kids were adorable. The little girl had French Braids and was clad in a white, floral dress. I thought it was very sweet that despite her young age, she had the affectations of an adult, with exceptional posture and manners, often trying to calm her baby sibling. I couldn’t help but smile when she got up and stood next to where her mother sat, and caressed her mother’s arm, as though soothing her. Everyone around me seemed to be smiling at this perfect little family as well. The tiny girl seemed wise beyond her years, and said “Papa, you can’t ever judge a thing by its cover.”
New York Café
Address: Budapest, Erzsébet krt. 9-11, 1073
What I Got: The Writer’s Dish (cold cuts & cheese platter), Wiener schnitzel w/ mustard potato salad, New York lemonade, raspberry ice cream sundae
My Visit: I had my eyes on the New York Café above all others, since it developed a reputation in the early 20th century as the preferred hangout of impoverished writers. This place seemed to sum up my vision of what I wanted from my trip to Hungary. A place to eat, drink, and get my creative gears turning. I can’t help but think this establishment must have changed over the years though, because it was easily the most expensive place I went. I walked all the way from the Szechenyi Baths, through Varosliget in the rain, on my bloodied toes to get here. When you enter you have to wait to be seated, and then they lower the rope. It felt nice to be allowed entry. My hair was fluffy from the bath and I was dressed in jeans, my Texas belt, my Jordans, and my UHCL Hawks t-shirt. I was sat in a quiet corner beneath an enormous chandelier.
I opted for the Writer’s Dish for my appetizer since I came here with an interest in the café’s literary history. I actually enjoyed this more than my main meal (the wiener schnitzel), since I do like Italian cold meats and cheese. Opposite me was a table of vacationing Americans. Just like I did in Gerbeaud, I tried to listen to their conversation and imagine their lives. The women talked like the stereotypical suburban wasps, no doubt with tennis instructors and several cars. They tied the sleeves of their sweaters around their necks or waists when it got hot. The men were equally trim and clean-looking, and I overheard them talking about business. They all clinked glasses and one said “from the bottom of my heart, I love everyone at this table”. They discussed their visits to Barcelona and Copenhagen and offered each other travel tips on what to see and where to stay. It was interesting to catch a glimpse of their world. It’s been several years since I used my iPod and I don’t see myself ever needing one again. People are so interesting, and you can learn so much just by getting out of the house.
In Hungary people don’t clink their glasses and cups together. Apparently this is because of the Revolution of 1848, when 13 generals were executed by the Austrians. The story goes that after each execution the Austrians would clink their beer steins together, and so that is why the practice does not exist in Hungary. It’s all about honoring the memory of those men.
“Hungarians are well renowned for their love for freedom, their noble and generous hearts, and their heroic courage. Their hospitality is legendary.” – CHARLES-LOUIS MONTESQUIEU
I only have three regrets from my trip to Hungary:
- I never got to sample some Tokaji- Hungary’s sweetest wine.
- I never touched the pen on that anonymous statue in Heroes Park that looks like a grim reaper. Supposedly, if you touch it, you become a great writer. Which explains a lot, because Hungary has produced a lot of awesome poets and novelists.
- I never got to see a Mangalitsa pig. They’re a special breed of Hungarian swine that are famous for their wooly coats. They honestly look like pigs wearing a sheep-disguise. I want one…
“Hungary is a thousand-years-old state, a historical and geographic whole, welded together by centuries, and held together by internal attractions. This unity cannot be torn apart in a moment, neither by weapon, nor by pen.” – G. FERRERO
In Hungary, the lucky number is 96. Buildings in Budapest are required by law not to exceed 96 feet, and the Hungarian National Anthem- if sung at the proper tempo- should last 96 seconds. This is all because the first king of the Magyars, Arpad, was crowned in 896- which marked the birth of the Hungary as a nation.
“Hungarians are of Turk race and their leader goes to battle with twenty thousand horsemen. The land of the Hungarians is filled with trees and waters. They have a lot of croplands. These Hungarians are handsome and beautiful people, tall, and wealthy – which they owe to trade. Their clothes are made of silk. Their weapons are laid with gold and silver and pearls.” – AHMED IBN RUSTA
Here’s a haiku I wrote in the hotel bar while drinking Soproni:
views of the Danube
I watch the clouds plunge into
a moving charcoal.
“I admit I have a Hungarian temper. Why not? I am from Hungary. We are descendants of Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun.” – Zsa Zsa Gabor
The first thing I did in Budapest was check out a small park named for my favorite singer of all time. It turns out Hungarians love Elvis Presley almost as much as I do. Just a few years ago, Elvis was posthumously made an honorary citizen of Hungary and the small square I visited was renamed for him. The reason for this was a performance of “Peace in the Valley” that Elvis gave on the Ed Sullivan Show, which he dedicated to the Hungarians in the wake of Bloody Thursday. Elvis was appalled at the brutality of the Soviets and wanted to raise awareness of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. Back then, there were only a few TV channels and Elvis was the most famous human being on Earth, and so millions of people became aware of the suffering in Hungary and a lot of money was raised for relief efforts.
“The Hungarians bear labor, toil, searing heat, cold, all kinds of necessity well. They love freedom and splendor.” – LEO the WISE
The Romans didn’t just colonize the area of modern-day Budapest for its strategic location on the Danube. Bathing was a huge part of Roman culture- both as a means of hygiene and recreation. The ancient city of Aquincum- which served as the administrative capital of the province of Pannonia- was founded so that the Romans could enjoy the hot springs there.
Budapest contains a whopping 80 geothermal springs and boasts the largest underground thermal lake in the world. When the Ottoman Turks occupied Hungary, they too made use of these springs, and built several decadent bathhouses that are still in use today. The three Ottoman baths- Király, Veli Bej, and Rudas- are some of the most popular in the city. You can tell them apart from the other spas by their Turkish design- the main baths are all octagonal with high, domed ceilings.
By the early 20th century, Budapest had established itself as the “City of Spas”, and frequenting its many stylish establishments soon became a staple for tourists looking for the Budapest experience. The thermal baths are part of what makes Budapest unique, and I decided before I arrived that I would go to one spa every day- and not do any repeats.
Here’s how it went down:
DAY ONE – Palatinus Strand Baths
The first thing I did on my first morning in Budapest was visit Margitsziget (Margaret Island). After walking around its tranquil gardens, I stopped off at the Palatinus Strand to relax and take in my first Hungarian spa experience. Supposedly, this is where the locals go, since Gellért and Széchenyi are loaded with tourists wielding Gopros and selfie-sticks.
It’s certainly the least historical of the spas I went to. The design is modern and slick. But it’s also got this relaxing, summertime vibe to it. Outside there are several pools surrounded by pine trees. There’s an outdoor gym, a wave pool, an Olympic swimming pool, and loads of sunbeds where people sat with newspapers and novels. It’s easily the biggest of the spas I went to, and you really feel like you’re on vacation here. It reminded me of my time at the Mt Olympus Water Park in the Wisconsin Dells.
However, when I went there was a lot of construction going on so a bunch of the outdoor stuff was off-limits. Also, no matter how long I stood in the wave pool with hands on hips and eyes narrowed, the waves didn’t come…
DAY TWO – Rudas Baths
The Rudas Baths are very popular with the locals. A taxi driver told me “Rudas is very good baths, very good”. I went here on the evening of my second full day in Hungary. I’d been all over the place- to Roman ruins, Opera houses, indie bookstores and massage parlors, and it was gone 7pm when I showed up at the Rudas Baths with a hungry stomach, depleted phone battery, and toes ravaged with blisters. The Rudas Baths, while retaining their historic charm, are obviously well-maintained. Even in the late evening it was more touristy and busy than the much larger Strand. The best feature that the Rudas has is its rooftop terrace bath, which offers a breathtaking view of the Danube and the rest of the city.
DAY THREE – Veli Bej Baths
The Veli Bej Baths, built in 1574, are said to be the oldest in the city. I went here upon returning to Budapest from a day out in the village of Szendendre. It’s said that these baths are Budapest’s best kept secret- since they aren’t as well-known and admired as the likes of Rudas and Gellért. It’s very similar to Rudas- they’re about the same size, and they’re both of Turkish origin. However, I think I preferred Veli Bej. It wasn’t too busy, and I really felt like I was living in the Middle Ages. The historic main bath is so wonderfully-preserved, and it had perhaps the best atmosphere of any of the baths I went to. I felt like I was a Turkish Sultan, unwinding after a busy day of conquering.
There’s a good range of saunas on offer, a swimming pool, and best of all- a Jacuzzi. I spent ages in the Jacuzzi just sitting there with my eyes closed and mapping out the plot for my next novel. The only reason I got out was so that I could rush back to the locker room and write my ideas down- so I attribute all that inspiration to the work of the bubbles.
DAY FOUR – Gellért Spa
Gellért is often listed as the best bathhouse in Budapest. It had number one spot in all the power rankings I could find, and is celebrated for its opulent, Neo-Classical architecture. I got the feeling, when I entered along with a stream of other excited tourists, that this was “the big one”. Before I even stepped out of the locker rooms I knew that the other baths I had been to were small-time compared to this. The locker rooms were unisex, and for a while myself and a bunch of other lads were left scratching our heads and wondering where to change, since you had to pay extra for a cabin.
“I guess it really is mixed. Boys and girls. I’m cool with that,” the man near me said.
I recognized his accent as American and so I asked him where he was from. Turns out he’s a radio announcer from New York. I ended up chatting with him and his family for a while. They said I sounded American. I get that a lot, but mostly from British people. I told him I was raised in Wisconsin, but when I learned that his son was a trained linguist, I modified my story to say I was half-American.
The pools here are very grandiose. You feel like you’re in a fancy, 19th century hotel, which isn’t exactly untrue. I hobbled around the tiles on my heels, since my toes had open wounds from which poured blood and a strange colorless fluid. The way I was walking you’d have thought I just got released from a lengthy prison sentence, if you catch my drift.
The pools were super-busy but super-good. I spent well over an hour hopping from one to another before trying out the Finnish sauna, which reminded me of that scene in The Witcher 3 on the isle of Hindarsfjall.
DAY FIVE – Lukács Baths
The guidebook I brought with me rated the Lukács Baths second to Gellért, but for the opposite reason. The Lukács Baths are also famous for their Neo-Classical architecture, but the scene is much more quiet and low-key. Most of the people here were Hungarian locals, and there’s this sense of authenticity that comes with it. It’s also the most confusing of the baths I went to. I got lost several times when I was here. Heck, I got lost just trying to find the entrance to the damn place. And inside it’s a bit of a maze too. The Lukács Baths offer a plethora of spa experiences, including massages and a wide range of medicinal treatments. The main indoor thermal bath smelled strongly of sulfur, which, combined with the run-down tone of the place, actually added to its historic charm.
DAY SIX – Széchenyi Baths
This place was probably my favorite. It’s undoubtedly the most popular with younger folks, and it’s the iconic bathhouse travelers go to in order to get their “gap yaar” and “bucket list” Instas. This was the only thermal bath I went to in the morning, since I wanted to avoid it when it got real busy. But even at 10am the place was packed. There were people from all corners of the world taking selfies by stone statues and frolicking in the water. There were old people bobbing up and down along the edge, roaming packs of teenagers splashing each other with glee, and of course the obligatory young couples fondling each other with hungry hands beneath the surface.
I really enjoyed Széchenyi because it’s so big. Even though the Strand had a bigger area, Széchenyi had more pools by far. One of the indoor pools even had this thick, minty aroma which I thought was an interesting touch. The architecture is so grandiose and really channels that antiquity vibe. I liked the steam room because those tend to be less overwhelming than the saunas. I don’t feel like I’m gonna collapse and be discovered face-down next to the coals. The Finnish sauna was very good too though. The young woman next to me took her top off. I wasn’t sure if this was allowed or not- perhaps my Hungarian readers can enlighten me in the comments. I didn’t stare, because I didn’t want to make her feel self-conscious. I believe in topless equality as much as the next guy. I didn’t look away either though- because that would be rude, wouldn’t it?
DAY SEVEN – Király Baths
Király was interesting, because it was easily the most run-down of the bunch. It’s one of the oldest baths, and probably in dire need of some refurbishment if it wants to capitalize on that sweet tourist cash flow. The only bathers here were Hungarians, and it wasn’t busy at all. Unlike the Lukács Baths, Király is not stylishly-dilapidated. It’s not got that Victorian hotel feel. But it has got an atmosphere all its own. It’s one of the oldest baths in the city, but it’s just been forgotten about for some reason. I came here not just for my last bath, but as the last thing I did before I got my taxi to the airport. I’d already checked out of my hotel at this point. I liked the idea that I was bathing with the locals- working class Hungarians with tired expressions. No selfies, no Gopros, just ordinary folks looking to unwind from the stressors of daily life.
It’s not the biggest spa complex, but it does have a Jacuzzi, and a pretty good one at that. I stayed in the Jacuzzi for a long while, and I swear it took a soul-crushing amount of effort to drag myself out.