I had never been to Eastern Europe before – the furthest East I had been within Europe was Berlin. So naturally, I was bursting with excitement when I arrived in Budapest. The plane slowed to a halt, the seatbelt sign turned off and I raced for the exit, itching to get off the stuffy Ryanair flight. As I proceeded down the metal stairs, the bitter air felt icy against my skin. I was reluctant to hold onto the handrail – in my head I had cartoon images of my hand getting stuck to the freezing metal like a tongue to ice.
Soon I was in a taxi heading towards the city centre. This part of the trip is often a highlight – that bursting feeling in your chest that leaves your heart beating twice as fast, the explosive emotions that whizz through your mind as you see the landscape of a new country for the first time. I stared out the window for the entire journey as I soaked up the surroundings. The countryside reminded me slightly of the Netherlands with its neat farmland, quaint rural cottages and a single railway line that ran level and parallel with the road. As I got closer to the city, the buildings grew taller. They reminded me of an Eastern European version of Somerstown – tall grey buildings that dissolved within their monotone background. I felt like I was in Soviet Russia.
I proceeded into the city from the Buda side. As I approached the centre, lavishly tiled synagogues and city halls popped up between the grey blocks of flats, creating an unimaginable contrast – poor and rich, side by side. Traditional Hungarian buildings crept up on us until I was surrounded. I crossed the Danube on the Erzsebet hid [Elizabeth Bridge], turned onto Kiraly Utca and pulled up outside a modern apartment block, our home for the next few days.
I had come to Budapest with my boyfriend’s family, for his aunt’s fiftieth birthday. There were five families here to celebrate – you could almost hear the locals cry as we poured into the modern apartment block. We thought we looked more tasteful than the ‘Benidorm’ style crowd – we’d learnt the odd Hungarian greeting on the plane over, but because of this we probably came across as even more annoying.
We unpacked our bags and headed out to explore. The sun had set but we were still desperate to get our bearings. After hours of wandering, we stopped at a pizza bar on Kiraly Utca and got pizza for 20p a slice, then headed back to the apartment. Luckily, some of the people we were with were our age, so the holiday worked as both a family holiday and a trip with friends. One of these friends, Jenny Sterne, had travelled to Budapest before whilst inter-railing on her a gap year. She told me why she enjoyed her time in Budapest so much. “Budapest was my favourite city while inter-railing because it offered me the culture, the beautiful views and the nightlife of other European cities but at a much more reasonable cost,” she said. “The nightlife the best I experienced in Europe – although this may have been because I spent the same on a big night out in Budapest as I did on a sandwich in other cities.” This gave us very high expectations.
Our first stop of the evening was on Oktober 6 utca, the street that was home to quirky restaurants, a misplaced Costa and several Italian restaurants. It is also the main street used to get to one of Budapest’s landmarks, St Stephen’s basilica. With its St Pauls-style central dome and four large towers, it was a smaller, European version of the Taj Mahal. We headed to a bar called Innio wine bar and drank prosecco, Aperol spritzers, Hungarian white wine and listened to jazz. This was one of the less lively bars in Budapest. It was great for a relaxed drink and was definitely one to remember with its overly modern interior and unisex toilets.
After this, we headed to Szimpla. This alternative/indie nightclub a fifteen minute walk away from the basilica, embedded within the history-rich Jewish quarter of the city, near where we were staying. The Jewish quarter, also known as the Budapest ghetto, has barely survived centuries of war and terror. Although the area is home to many new buildings, it is also littered with ruins. Because of this, many of these ruins were put to good use – they were turned into pubs. Szimpla was the first of these ‘ruin bars’; a battered old factory building with no roof and craters in the walls. The club is run-down on purpose, which adds to the effect – upstairs, the toilets are just holes in the floor, which really takes you back to basics. The club is freezing, especially at 3am, so it is vital to keep your coat on. It also helps if you consume a lot of cheap alcohol – with cocktails the equivalent of £3 and a Hungarian pint even cheaper, this is easy to do. The club was crawling with students, gap year teens and the occasional middle-aged tourist that had read about the venue on tripadvisor.com. It was the place to be on a night out in Budapest – you simply can’t come to the city without visiting it.
The next day we spent as hung-over tourists. I explored the city and its many sights: the chain bridge, Buda castle, the parliament buildings, the great market hall, opera house and the Heroes Square. Each sight was rich in history and definitely worth a visit. They were all free, besides the parliament building. I bought a student ticket in advance – it came to around 1260 HUF (£3). This was worth it as there were long queues on the day. Later, I browsed Christmas markets that were full of skinned bears and stuffed foxes – things I’d expect to see in Mr Burns’ mansion during an episode of The Simpson’s.
To find out where else I should visit, I spoke to Stephen Pollard, a student who lived and worked in Budapest last summer. “The sheer beauty of Buda Hill from a boat trip down the Danube” was one of his highlights. He said its beauty was enough to “convince anyone to pay at least a visit to the Hungarian capital”. Although expensive, this boat trip didn’t disappoint.
In the evening, Budapest was overtaken with strikes. I asked a protester what was going on. Apparently, tens of thousands of people had taken to the streets for a peaceful protest against the right-wing government’s plans to tax the internet. Many locals were outraged by these taxes and demonstrated their anger rather than just complaining as we would do in England. Being in the city during this time was a great experience – it was inspiring to see how politically active Hungarians are.
I made my way through the protests to an Italian restaurant named TG Italiano. It stood opposite the basilica, which was invasively illuminated with floodlights. The food was mouth-wateringly rich and tasty, as Italian food should be. The soufflé was the best dessert of the holiday – I was in gooey, chocolatey heaven. It was also half the price of your average restaurant in London. My boyfriend and I had a main, a dessert and a drink each, and the total bill only came to 12,870 HUF (£32.99). This would have been doubled if it was opposite St Paul’s cathedral.
On our final day we went to the Gellert Baths, which is one of the biggest baths in the city and dates back to 1918. There are many baths dotted around the city; each one is filled with warm water from Budapest’s natural thermal springs.
The main bath hall is decorated by intricately patterned, towering columns. Turquoise, royal blue and burgundy tiles swirl and twist in decadent patterns across the walls, floor and the bottom of the pool. The luxurious, ancient architecture makes a strange contrast with the elderly women participating in an ‘aquarobics’ class.
We moved through the maze of the building to other baths. These rooms were splattered with coloured tiles and Versace-style patterns, along with grandiose statues of cherubs. Walking through these rooms made me feel like Hungarian royalty; I expected a maid or servant to hand me a towel when I got out the pool. Although the decoration was mesmerising, it was in need of a facelift. The fading colours of the ancient broke the illusion of being a bourgeois.
We then headed to a restaurant on top of a hill just outside these baths. This was probably the most expensive bill of the trip, but from the first mouthful I understood why. I had a mushroom risotto with a barely-poached egg on top. The creaminess of the risotto mixed with the succulent mushrooms and the watery egg created an explosive taste in my mouth. The saltiness contrasted with the spices and made the taste rich but not overpowering. The panoramic windows with views over the outskirts of Budapest added to the atmosphere. The pink sun cast shadows over the miles of buildings before dipping behind the snowy mountains in the distance.
On the final night we headed to Brody House, a live music venue and bar. It was very ‘hipster’ with its pink furry lampshades and psychedelic lighting. Somehow, I managed to eat more. The free buffet was overflowing with Hungarian food and desserts in jam jars – I ate at least five of these. With a stuffed belly, I was in heaven again.
Every part of this night was the perfect way to say goodbye to Budapest: cheap drinks, irresistible food, pretentious cocktails, an indie bar and yes, more food. Even the DJ that looked like Grace Jones and refused to play anything but music from the 90s summarised the quirky city. Budapest is lively, rich in history, architecturally magnificent and cheap. As you can probably tell, I can’t wait to go back.
During the trip, Abi got to catch up with a Budapest local to find her opinion of the city…
On the first night I had dinner with a local, Adrienn Hanti. Before moving to Budapest, Adri lived in London. She told me about Budapest’s beauty, its rich history, its nightlife and its amazing food and wine. The restaurant she brought us to reflected all of these.
The restaurant was in the Jewish quarter, a few steps from our apartment. It mirrors all the other terraced buildings with its sandy brick walls and large windows. From the road you can see a sign that hangs above the door, ‘Kőleves Vendéglő’ [hot stone soup]. The warmth of the restaurant is a drastic change from the minus degrees outside. Foreign chatter and spices fill the warm air.
Is living in Budapest expensive compared to London?
“It is expensive for Hungarians but for Westerners – I can’t believe I still need to use this terminology – it is ok. Beer is cheap compared to the UK, as is alcohol in general.”
Why do you think students love Budapest?
“Well, obviously, young people want to party… and Budapest is great for that. There are a few classic clubs you have to visit: Tivadar, Koleves… these are pretentious, while Ellatokert and Kertem are more relaxed. If people have energy after all the drinking it is nice to do some sightseeing -”
What sights would you recommend?
“People should walk along Vaci utca. This is where the very first Western shops were built – McDonald’s is just off here. People used to queue to get in – including me! The Castle are on the Buda side is beautiful as well, with amazing views of the Pest side of the river. “
“I also think it is good for young people to go to the House of Terror as this shows the horrible things that happened in Budapest – not even a long time ago.”
After the trip, Abi caught up with a George Ezra fan who got aboard the Ezra Express…
Last summer, my friend Rory Martin entered a competition to go on tour with George Ezra, singer of ‘Budapest’, and won. His favourite city on tour was Budapest. He told me a bit about his time touring and being in Budapest with George.
“George played in venues in other cities along the journey but the gig in Budapest was by far the best. On the journey, we got to know how much it meant to George to be finally playing in Budapest, after revealing he felt slightly cheeky due the success of the hit song ‘Budapest’ but never having been.”
He also told me about his favourite gig of the tour.
”The final gig, held in Hello Baby, Budapest, was an amazing night. It was by far the best. The venues across the trip were all spectacular, from an abandoned power station in Munich to a vintage underground bar in Paris, they all made for such memorable nights. Travelling with George and his entourage gave the whole experience such energy, his clear excitement was contagious and the atmosphere all along the way, culminating in the final night, was amazing.”