A Traveler’s Guide to 48 Hours in Budapest
On the morning of March 19, I had no idea where I’d be the night of March 19. We went to the Aer Lingus ticket counter, roller bags in hand: Budapest had the cheapest flights, so to Budapest we went. I knew very little about this city, but now that I know roughly three days worth, I’ve read a Lonely Planet guide, and I’ve hung out with a friendly ex-pat, I’ve strung together a complete guide for your convenience should you ever find yourself in the same predicament.
Need to Know
Currency: You may be surprised to learn that Hungary does not use the euro. Warning: The ATM at Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport will reject your request for 200 American dollars worth in forints, and you will panic and call your bank immediately to make sure this wasn’t one of those hacker ATMs that now has both your card and PIN. The bank representative will inform you that you actually attempted to withdraw $20,000 and that you should perhaps re-google the conversion rate. You will feel like an idiot.
Language: Hungarian, but your attempts to say, “Szervusz! Van egy asztalt két személyre?” will simply result in the waiter looking at you sideways, and then responding in perfect English that she can seat you now. You will feel dejected and spend the rest of your evening moping into the bottom of your glass, occasionally refilling it with a full-bodied wine tasting slightly of olives. You will avoid the use of Hungarian from then on, and when you need to pass someone, you will say “Pardon!” in French or the much more fun Italian version, “Scusi!” because you want to feel at least somewhat international.
Money: ATMs are NOT everywhere despite Lonely Planet assuring you that they are, and no one accepts credit cards. You will wander from Heroes’ Square towards the train station into increasingly dodgy areas looking for a restaurant that takes Visa. Finally, you will give up and ask a waiter at the hip place you actually wanted to eat at where the nearest ATM is, and he will inform you it’s by the police station. The police station is 30 minutes away, and you’ll already be tired, so fuck it, you’ll end up eating at that Chinese place you saw a quarter mile back that magically takes credit cards. It looks so-so, and there will be only one other full table in the place. The food will be perfectly standard, but you’ll definitely compare it to a vastly superior Chinese restaurant in San Francisco.
Transit: Take the metro or bus for easy, clean and fast public transport throughout Pest and Buda. But do not resuse the same ticket throughout the day or next day. Getting caught reusing the ticket may result in a hefty fine, which can be negotiated down to half the amount in cash on the spot depending on how easy it is to bribe that particular metro policeman. Taxis are also readily available.
Cuisine: You will drown in paprika.
Where to Stay
Pay an absurdly low rate to stay at a hotel with a view of Heroes’ Square by booking through Hotel Tonight. The Mirage Fashion Hotel is an odd name, and you’ll need to do that thing you’ve seen in other European hotels where you insert your room card into a slot which turns on the lights and power for the room. Some sort of energy saving system, you think. It will annoy you. Fortunately, the mini bar will be well stocked.
Day 1 Itinerary
Heroes’ Square – Great Synagogue – St. Stephen’s Basilica – Parliament Building – Margaret Island – Sketchy Russian Spa [MAP]
Take a lovely walk on your first day through a lovely city. Budapest is Prague without the tourists. It is also Paris without the dog shit, and Vienna without the Austro- half of Austro-Hungarian Empire. Lovely city.
Heroes’ Square, referring to its statues of the country’s early patriarchs, crowns the entrance to City Park. Museums flank this square, and despite the educational nature of the monument, Hungarians will need to wikipedia the list of names when you ask who the marble carvings represent. Because you are an American and cannot properly list U.S. presidents before Teddy Roosevelt, you will give the Hungarians a pass.
From Heroes’ Square you should walk down Andrássy út, a broad street lined with trees and well-kept buildings from the late 1800s which range from embassies at the start of the walk to universities and stores and cafes towards District VII.
You will come to the Great Synagogue at the heart of the old Jewish
ghetto quarter, which is purportedly the hippest area of town nowadays, and features various ruin bars at which you will later get smashingly drunk. The Great Synagogue is the second largest synagogue in the world after one in NYC, although Wikipedia will confuse you when you search to verify this claim. Built in the mid-1800s, this Moorish Revival designed temple stands next to the birth place of Theodor Herzl, father of the modern political Zionist movement. Your history fetish will be well-fed by this.
After squeezing your partner’s hand in the synagogue when you hear the story of Jews in Hungary during the Holocaust, you will cry once again after the tour in the adjacent Jewish museum. Your tour guide, an old man, a holocaust survivor, will tell you in a slow, matter-of-fact voice how he escaped murder with his mother. He was one of the tens of thousands saved by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who issued protective passports to Hungarian Jews, allowed Jews to live in the protected Swedish embassy, and when room became scarce, he rented 32 buildings throughout Budapest and declared them protected by Swedish diplomatic immunity. Our tour guide’s father died as a dig-ditcher for the Soviets. Wallenberg died in a Soviet jail.
“There is no justice in the world,” you will whisper to your partner.
Your tour guide will tell you he’s just had a fourth grandchild, named David. “Mazel tov!” you will congratulate him.
” ‘Our revenge will be the laughter of our children,’ ” you will whisper to your partner.
From the Great Synagogue, take a short walk to St. Stephen’s Basilica, dedicated to the first king of Hungary, Saint Stephen I (c 975-1038) and famous for displaying his dead, blackened hand in a gilded glass box. You will be unable to find it in yourself to take a picture of a dead, blackened hand for your Budapest travel blog, so make sure to head one block down for lunch at Café Kör.
At Café Kör, your partner may wish to order the flattened grilled chicken covered in poached peaches and sesame seeds with a green salad, and you may want to go for something more traditional such as the chicken cuts cooked in a thick, creamy paprika sauce with tender noodles.
That night, and days later, and weeks later, you will dream of the chicken in paprika sauce. It will call to you from a place you once walked, a street you can smell. You will want to return to its bed of a simple white ceramic plate, but the thought will fall to ashes in your mouth the further you fly from Budapest. You will google “chicken paprika sauce recipe” and wonder if you can find the same paprika in your home country, which generally sells an unflavored version of the spice for it to be used as a colorful garnish rather than a sensual aromatic. But in your deepest fears, you will know it cannot be the same. You will age in your obsession, and at your death bed, your nonplussed children and grandchildren will gawk hearing your final breath: “Budapest,” your heart will slow, “To be there once more… I want some chicken.” You will die unfulfilled.
Continuing the walk, the Parliament Building is a must-see! Built in the late, late 1800s, the parliament building houses Hungary’s unicameral body (just like Nebraska!), and is almost always under repair due to the poor quality of original materials. Designed in the Gothic Revival style, it sits on Pest side of the Danube.
Despite everything you’ve learned, you will be shocked when told that 15% of the parliament belongs to an openly anti-semitic political party, a leading member of which recently said that it’s time to “tally up people of Jewish ancestry who live here, especially in the Hungarian Parliament and the Hungarian government, who, indeed, pose a national security risk to Hungary.”
Instead of going inside the parliament building, you may opt to go to Margaret Island both so you can walk through a beautiful park and so you can visit the “modern luxury spa” at the opposite end and see about booking a low-priced massage. When you finally arrive, you may realize you made the wrong choice, and it is actually a Sketchy Russian Spa. The modern luxury spa is a soviet-era throwback and smells of chlorine the moment you walk through its grocery store styled doors. Despite this, you will enjoy Margaret Island, and recommend it to anyone who asks. Similar to the rest of the city, you pass dozens of Hungarians walking dogs. This makes you like Hungarians even more because you are very likely a dog person.
Day 2 Itinerary
Buda Castle – Matthias Church – Fisherman’s Bastion – Ruin Bar #1 – Ruin Bar #2 – And so on [MAP]
After enjoying the Pest side of the Danube, venture out to Buda for a walk around Castle Hill. There you will find Buda Castle, home to the Hungarian kings of old since the 13th century as well as the conquering Habsburgs, and now home to museums. You’ll be a little tired of museums, and although you’ll also be tired of stunning cathedrals and basilicas, you will go into Matthias Church and snap some pictures and look to see if this church also has a dead, blackened hand on display. You should pay a small fee to walk up Fisherman’s Bastion (located right next to the church), and get some great shots of Pest from Buda, but your heart isn’t fully into it because you will just generally be tired now. You may wish to give up touring for the day.
Despite drinking two espressos despite not being a coffee person you will fall asleep in the cab and then in your hotel bed until dinner time, which takes place at Kőleves, a hipster restaurant in the hipster District VII. You will still be waking up here. Pots stacked on top of each other for decoration? Old books at each table for you to peruse? Concert posters in fancy geometric designs as wallpaper? HOW. WHIMSICAL. God, you need a drink. But before that, you will line your stomach with the restaurant’s signature carbs and proteins because you know exactly how you drink now that you’re not 18 or an idiot. With age comes wisdom, a higher tolerance, and fewer bullshit cocktails with Midori.
Now that you’re fully awake and not quite such an asshole anymore, you’re ready for an evening in Budapest’s party scene and famous ruin bars.
At about 9 pm, serendipity shines on you. Accidentally coming to Budapest means you can meet up with Nick Robertson, your fellow Daily Nexus editor in chief of a few years before your time, now an ex-pat in Budapest and editor in chief of the travel magazine Where Budapest. You’ll probably be out for not so long because it’s been a long week, but let’s be honest, you’ll be out until 2 am when your partner has an allergy attack and you unfortunately need to leave “early”.
Nick will take you through the dumpster-decorated ruin bar scene complete with mismatched chairs, Chinese lanterns, red plastic strip doors, and bicycle parts all recycled from garage sales and donations. Watch old black and white film clips projected on the bar’s far wall. Hear the bulky goons ask for a cover charge in the middle of the bar. Warning: Be sure to firmly say, “no”. See a giant whale sculpture suspended from the ceiling. Look across Budapest from a roof top ruin bar. Quickly pull up your pants when someone starts banging on the bathroom door and feel letdown when you open the door, see no one there, and realize you won’t have a good bar fight tonight. Dance crazy to a Hungarian band playing American music while trying not to spill your wine. Speaking of which, the next drink will be a good time to ask, “So I read in Lonely Planet that you shouldn’t clink beer glasses in Hungary because that’s how the Habsburgs toasted when they defeated the Hungarians in the 1848 war for independence. Is that a thing?” Nick will give you a sympathetic look, the kind where you know it is not really a thing.
Eventually, your partner will have an allergy attack at 2 a.m. and you will need to leave Nick and the nearby drinker who claims to have been the top heroin dealer in Oakland. You will doubt this, but you also don’t really care. And things will be somewhat hazy besides.
Transport out of Budapest
When you eventually wakeup, you’ll need to slowly climb to the minibar for a water bottle to chug with your favorite breakfast cereal, Advil. Everything will be so loud. Perhaps you will notice that you did not bother to remove your makeup, and you look a mess. When the invisible man inside your skull stops stomping on your brain and floats away, it’s time for you to catch a cab to the Budapest-Keleti train station.
Instead of a help desk, you will somehow find yourself in a Kafka novel. The woman at window #5 will say, “Number?!” You won’t know what number she means, although maybe she means train number? “Vienna? Train number for Vienna?” “Number?!” she will ask, this time more impatiently. She will point. You really won’t know what you’ve done wrong, and you will search the wall for what she was pointing at. You will go to another woman at window #6. She will tell you to go to #5. You will go to #5. She will point. Eventually you will find a machine on the wall that operates only in Hungarian. You will push buttons and eventually get a number for window #5. Suddenly she will speak English. “You want a train ticket to Vienna? Get another number for window #6.” You will push more buttons until you find one that prints a number for window #6. At this moment, you will really want to point out that literally no one else is in line or in the room even, and for the love of god, can’t one of them just take your money already?
Somehow, you will get on the train to Vienna. It will not be Budapest. Nor will anywhere else you go. You will want to return as soon as you leave. And you will dream of paprika chicken.