In Zagreb, our apartment was a short 20-minute walk to and from the train station, and happened to be along one of the most beautiful routes in the capital. This would be train #2, so we felt mildly more confident than we did going into train #1. We checked and rechecked the board, spoke with the information desk, checked the signs posted outside, and boarded. This time the train has sleeper cars so our assigned seats were within a sectioned room of sorts. We try to ask a woman if we are in first-class going to Budapest but she barely spoke English. We checked the seat numbers against our reservations and they matched. Well, that was easy.
Some more people came down the narrow aisle to our room, all speaking Croatian. Some stop, some leave, we’re still debating whether we are in the right car and right room. The woman who barely speaks English asks where we are going again and after we respond, “Budapest,” she frantically shakes her head and says, “Um, no, no, um….no.” She can’t find the English word. What do you mean no? We quadruple checked the boards! We finally gather through a game of charades that she meant we were on the right train, wrong car. The front three cars go to Budapest, the back three had a different destination. We’ll get this train thing figured out eventually…
In case you didn’t gather from this long intro, we went to Budapest!
The most I knew about this city was from George Ezra’s hit song Budapest and I still don’t know if it’s Hun-gary or Hun-gry. Some new fun facts about this city:
- Budapest is the capital and largest city in Hungary.
- The Hungarians arrived in this territory (formely the Roman town of Aquincum) in the late 9th century.
- In 1873, the three separate towns of Buda, Óbuda, and Pest were officially unified and dubbed “Budapest.”
- According to a legend recorded in chronicles from the Middle Ages, “Buda” comes from the name of its founder, Bleda, brother of Hunnic ruler Attila (as in Attila the Hun!)
Our apartment was centrally located (of course) in the hip Jewish District, just a short drive from the main train station. The weather was a perfect 72º so we ventured out to walk the Chain bridge and catch a free walking tour on the Buda (West) side of the Danube River. In case you were worried about Isabel’s UNESCO criteria not being met, the central area of the city along the Danube River, as well as many other sites, are all UNESCO sites!
The Chain bridge, aka Széchenyi Chain Bridge, is a suspension bridge that spans between the Western (Buda) and Eastern (Pest) parts of Budapest. It was designed by an Englishman, built by a Scotsman, and named for a Hungarian. There are a number of bridges between Buda and Pest so don’t get confused!
Our walking tour wasn’t as good as the one in Zagreb, but the guide was very nice and quite enthusiastic (plus it was free, so guess we can’t complain). We couldn’t understand much of the tour so instead we took the opportunity to soak in the views and explore the area around Buda Castle. If you notice a dark storm cloud behind me in the photo above, it’s not a mistake, the sunny 72º weather turned sharply, and we were caught in a brief though torrential downpour on our journey home.
As its name suggests, Buda Castle is the historical castle and palace complex of the Hungarian kings. We walked around the area because these days it houses the Hungarian National Gallery and The Budapest History Museum, both of which we did not venture into.
The surrounding sites are much more appealing to the eye anyway. First we have another church, this time it’s Matthias Church. Nothing much to mention here except that it’s pretty. If you are secretly a church snob or hope to be on Jeopardy some day, you can read more about the history of the church here.
Right next to Matthias Church is Fisherman’s Bastion, or what I imagine Disneyland to look like in real life. Supposedly the funny name came about because the Buda side castle walls were once protected by the fisherman’s guild. Yet despite its features, appearance and location atop the hill overlooking the river, it was never actually used for military or defense purposes.
While on our walking tour, the group’s attention got derailed when a large military procession gathered near us. Someone important was being welcomed, but that was as far as we could see. The welcome crew marched along to the beat of the drummer, and our group parted as the parade passed right through us.
My [Mark’s] ears perked up when our guide mentioned that the area surrounding Buda castle where we were circling was at one point the location of the traditional Jewish community of Budapest. Artifacts from ancient synagogues were found buried under the very roads we were walking.
The next morning, we began our day at Dohány Street Synagogue (after sharing a bagel, fittingly enough), staying on the Pest (East) side of the Danube. When I called my parents from Istanbul, eagerly telling them all about how stunning the old mosques and churches were, my mom couldn’t help herself in asking me after three months of travel phone calls, “Any synagogues?” There hadn’t been any on our itinerary so far, and after three months of buddhist temples, churches and mosques, I was excited to finally visit a place of significant Jewish importance.
After waiting on the line to get our entrance tickets, walking inside I felt proud. I was thinking back to the simple yet obvious question my mom had asked, and felt gratification in stepping foot into not merely any old synagogue, but one of the most prominent in all of Europe as it happens to be the largest synagogue on the continent. Complimentary informational tours were provided, and I smiled to myself when the guide asked around how many people had been to a synagogue before. Maybe half put their hands up. It felt really cool that a synagogue, a place of my faith, was a top tourist attraction, one that tourists from all over the world chose to spend part of their day discovering. The way I felt walking into all those temples in Southeast Asia, hopefully these first-timers found themselves in a similar kind of awe.
I’ll bite my tongue on regurgitating all of the notes I jotted down from the tour (ask me and I’ll send you screenshots, they’re quite extensive), and only echo the highlights:
- Its design is nontraditional from most synagogues, as the neologia Jewish community that had it constructed pulled themes from churches and mosques, particularly those of Oriental/Moorish influence.
- Jutting out from behind the altar are massive organ pipes, not usually found in synagogues, as instruments are not allowed on Shabbos (Sabbath) and not normally a part of their services. The organ itself actually sits outside of the synagogue and is played by non-Jews, thereby skirting the rules.
- She opened the tour with the familiar joke, this time used to describe the different sects of Hungarian Jews of the mid-1800s: What do you get when you put two Jews together in a room? … Three opinions!
- This was the site of Theodor Herzl’s Bar Mitzvah, who grew up just down the street. (Not to be confused with this famous bar mitzvah).
- In the garden behind the synagogue sits a large stained glass art installation, built by a Holocaust survivor. She survived, her husband it was assumed had not, and eventually she remarried and settled down in Budapest. Fast forward several decades later, at the ripe age of 87 she held her very first art exhibit. And who was the first person to walk into the exhibit? Why, her first husband, of course!
Since HQ was in the hip district, we were able to eat and drink pretty well during our stay. We ate traditional Hungarian food at a restaurant recommended by a friend (thanks Adam!), Gettó Gulyás. Never thought goulash could be so good! Besides chicken goulash with egg noodles, we also tried hortobágyi, a Hungarian crêpe filled with meat. Both were incredibly delicious! Despite looking heavy, the sauce is quite light and flavorful. The crepe is also light, and the minced meat was perfectly proportioned. Another night we visited a restaurant fittingly named Mazel Tov. There was a long line to get in, which moved along quickly enough, and the ambiance was great. Tuesday night was jazz night, and our table was comfortably close to the musicians — a keyboard player that I swore could have been Josh Gad, and a drummer who resembled the bad guy from National Treasure. The food was of course delicious and the restaurant was beautiful.
On the recommendation of the same close friend (thanks again, Adam!), we also visited Szimpla Kert, the most famous of the city’s ruin bars. The ruin bar (romkocsma) concept: dilapidated pre-war buildings furnished with hastily bought furniture from clearance sales and designed floor-to-ceiling with off-beat knick knacks of all sorts. It was a very cool space, with many different rooms and vibes. Right next door was Karavan, an outdoor food truck park serving up all kinds of different cuisines.
On top of the food mentioned earlier, we also ate even more local delicacies because Hungarian food is so good! As Mark’s cousin Sabrina advised us, “Eat all of the lángos and kürtőskalács!” Lángos are discs of fried dough, covered in sour cream and sprinkled with cheese. If it sounds gluttonous, well, it tastes that way, too. We even saw a place that sold lángos burgers! Kürtőskalács may look a bit more familiar, as they’re commonly known as chimney cakes. Getting its shape from being baked on a spit, its cylindrical interior leaves it open for all kinda of fillings (we chose a modest singular dipping packet of Nutella, thank you very much).
I highlight all of this to say, I thought it was so cool that the Jewish neighborhood was the hip part of town. I don’t believe that sentence can be used to describe many cities of the world, but in Budapest it certainly rang true. Not that I have any connection to this city, but it gave me a strong sense of pride nonetheless. I even messaged some friends back home in New York, telling them, “finally, we’ve found our place!” Far from being the sole reason why, but it certainly was a contributing factor to my love for this amazing city.
One “must-do” activity in Budapest is to go to one of many thermal spas in the area. There are a number to choose from but we chose to go to the bath, Széchenyi Medicinal Bath, the largest medicinal bath in Europe. The water is supplied by two thermal springs and the complex has 3 outdoor pools and 15 indoor pools! Why is it a referred to as a medicinal bath? Well, the thermal pools are mineral-rich and some believe in balneotherapy, or the treatment of disease by bathing in mineral springs. Whatever your reason for going to the baths, it’s quite an experience.
To start, the place is packed. Unlike resorts and private clubs where the average attendee looks like Heidi Klum, Széchenyi is full of regular people of regular shapes and sizes. Tan, older gentleman play chess while bathing, some sit at tables on the decks playing cards while their wives gossip in the pools. Many groups convene on the side steps, sitting in the warm water while discussing the day. It really is quite a sight seeing so many different kinds of people congregating in one place.
While men and women have separate locker rooms, the pools are unisex. It seems odd at first to be neck-deep in 86º water (some get as hot as 104º), but it was actually fantastic. It’s relaxing and soothing even with all of the people. If crowds aren’t your thing, consider going early in the morning, the pools tend to open around 6 am. Many places also offer massages, sauna rooms, even a Beer Spa (still unclear on what this is).
While the baths are a well-known attraction, we always like to visit the less popular attractions, like the Flipper Muzeum. We took the tram to a quieter part of the city and found ourselves in the basement of a residential building. Started by two pinball enthusiasts, this museum houses 140 pinball machines, some dating back to 1947. An entry ticket gets you unlimited play on almost every machine. They even have one of largest pinball machines in the world, dubbed Hercules!
Another destination that wasn’t mobbed with crowds was the Semmelweis Medical Museum. While the museum itself houses items that would really only spark interest in those fascinated by medicine, it’s still an interesting site due to the story of Dr. Semmelweis, the “savior of mothers.” The museum is actually in the same house in which he was born! After witnessing an astonishing number of women die in the maternity ward, Dr. Semmelweis encouraged fellow doctors to wash their hands via antiseptic, drastically cutting the death rate. Unfortunately, Dr. Semmelweis was not taken seriously, his work was ridiculed and eventually he died without knowing how profoundly influential his work was. Insert a few instances of political turmoil and well, life wasn’t always so kind to the Doc.
If you enjoyed this history lesson and want to learn more about medical history, I recommend reading The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine, by Lindsey Fitzharris. Quite scientific but fascinating nonetheless.
Just as in Istanbul, we packed our days with sightseeing. We saw Heroes’ Square, rode famous trams, walked along the Danube, and watched a free history movie. It was a 3D short film about Hungary and it was brutally honest – centuries of invasions by enemy empires, wrong side of history in WWI, Nazi allies in WWII, Communist rule, a little bit of sunshine followed by high rates of suicide and alcoholism. Oddly enough, we’ve seen worse films.
Budapest is an incredibly beautiful city, rich in history and Hungarian culture. While it’s not the most walkable city because sites are quite spread out, the public transportation is super easy to figure out. The Budapest Metro is actually the oldest electrified underground railway system in Europe! If you are relatively new to the aesthetics of Eastern Europe, Budapest is an excellent starting point. It was also cool that we started in the Ottoman Empire, moved on to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and will be headed to the Habsburg Empire next. It’s crazy visiting all of these sites and rediscovering how it’s all connected!
Four nights in Budapest proved to be merely a tease, a stay that left both of us Hungary for more! (get it?)