Updated: Feb 3, 2019
We spent 2.5 days in Budapest and by golly it was good!
Neither of us had been there before and only heard stories of mad stag dos and of a friend who got conned by a couple of stunning local ladies offering him advice on what pub (yes a pub!) to go to. In the pub he was brought a very large bill for 3 drinks he had to pay for. It appears the pub was in cohorts with these lovely ladies. A very common occurrence for single travelling guys and number 8 on the list of 'Top ten things to look out for'.
Preconceptions aside and open minds wide open we were impressed by the history, architecture and very, very, very cool bars. It is 2 cities rolled into one with Buda on the West and Pest on the East. Buda is the grown up side, with a palace, castle and expensive houses situated around the hills where life moves slower and there is just a few places of interest for the normal tourist. Pest is the young vibrant side where all the business and socialising takes place. This is where all the action happens.
Budapest is somewhere in between Florence and Tirana (capital of Albania). If you have read our previous posts you would have heard us rave about Florence's lovely buildings and wonderful culture. We also talked about Tirana's very quirky and lively cafe and bar culture, with cheap drinks. Well Budapest has even better bars and an ecletic mix of old architectural history and modern day artists who litter social spaces with hanging bicycles and cool graffiti, brightly decorating buildings and the local's spirits. The polar opposite to the Communist regime.
A prime of example of what makes Budapest great, for those still young at heart or with a keen interest in mixing socialising with modern art, is their Ruin Pubs. For those who don't know, they are drinking holes located in run down buildings within the Jewish quarter which have been empty for years or typically "ruined". These locations are chosen specifically from buildings built in the communism era, which arguably stained the city with very cheap high rise housing offering zero quality or beauty - dampening spirits. Talented artists, or soon to be bar owners, would then create colour and vibrance within this once grey and depressed area.
Today it is buzzing with cool hipsters that represent the creativity and pride locals have in their freedom from oppression. Or the bars might just be there as they have cheap rent and can sell lots of cocktails at good prices so that everyone gets pissed and has a great time. Either way, it works. There are many other quirky non-ruin pub bars that would not look out of place in Shoreditch of London or Williamsburg of New York. Passing through these areas was one of the most exciting and interesting evening walks I have had in a city when I did not touch a drop of alcohol.
Other points of interest include their fantastically impressive Houses of Parliament designed by a local architect who lived in London for years and loved ours so much so that he pretty much copied it and built Budapest's in the same fashion. Apparently when Freddie Mercury toured there he offered to buy the building when he saw it, perhaps not quite knowing what it's purpose was and perhaps inebriated, but was kindly told it was not for sale.
We walked across the river Danube (which, for pub quizzers, is the only one in the world that goes through 4 capitals - guess which ones?) to climb up the small hill where their very own Statue of Liberty perches, overlooking the city. One of the more impressive views I have seen over a large city where you are in such close proximity at that height without going up a tower. Worth a little walk to the top if you visit.
Another interest for us was food. A highlight was going to a traditional Hungarian restaurant (no.2 on Tripadvisor no less!) called Hungarikum Bisztro. We had to book a table for the next night as it only seats about 50 people. They had half a dozen 30 - 40 year old blonde women as waitresses who were genuine and professional with their service.
They served fantastic fresh breads and we ordered a mixed platter starter, beef stew (which was the best I had ever had - until Prague!) and crispy duck, followed by a local 40% fruit liqueur as we were leaving. It was only about €8-€10 for our mains, very good considering the quality and service. If in Budapest check it out. We also had another superb feed one lunchtime at a veggie place called Felafal, where I had a frisbee sized veggie burger and Lucy munched down a bowl from the help yourself salad. Good to be healthy (if we had had smaller portions perhaps).
They say that Budapest is the Paris of the East and I can see why. We walked the main boulevard that runs from the city centre to the main park where the palace and zoo are. Sadly there is barely anything there. It took us about 45 mins to reach it and, despite the tourist map having lots of green areas, a zoo, palace and restaurants pointed out, it was no Hyde park. It was run down with an emptied lake. Bit of a let down so would not recommend going there in a hurry. That said, the saving grace was the boulevard which does look like a Parisian street offering high end fashion and impressive tall and elegant buildings where we believe the rich may reside.
In summary, it had a slightly poor park and was a little grubby in places, but the fantastic food on offer, bars aplenty and cheap prices rolled into a rich historical package of a city made us fall in love a little bit. Ok, it was a bit more lust than love but we almost liked it better than Florence which is saying something. We enjoyed just being there as you could almost feel your creative juices flowing, as we did one morning sat outside drinking coffee at 'My little Melbourne' where beards, skinny jeans and racer bikes flowed passed us. A must visit cafe for a morning pick me up before some city hiking.