Budapest. The Hungarian capital is fast becoming one the of the most popular destinations in Europe with the unique combination of stunning architecture, thermal baths, caves and relatively cheap prices. I had never had Budapest on my list of places to visit while in Europe – but once my friends repeatedly told me that it was one of their favorite cities to visit, I was anxious to learn more.
Arriving to the central bus terminal, we wanted to organise the next leg of our journey before we left. There were a few speed bumps in what date we could leave, so I’ll just say this…make sure you check if buses or trains are running certain days before purchasing tickets or booking your accommodation.
Our hostel was anything but ordinary. The Shantee House, located just outside of town, was the first hostel in Budapest to welcome tourists after the fall of the ‘Iron Curtain’. I have to say it was one of my favorite places to stay so far on my trip. Walking up rainbow steps into the eclectic decoration of the common room and smelling the incense, it has a unique and relaxing vibe. Backpackers have the option of staying in a common dorm inside, a yurt or tents in the garden.
We grabbed a bite to eat locally that night and hung in the backyard meeting other travelers from all over the world and hearing about their travels and recommendations for the rest of our trip.
The next day we wanted to do the free walking tour to get acquainted with the city – but we slept in and ended up just missing it. Disappointed, we settled for heading to one of Budapest’s iconic Turkish Baths. Thinking it was only a short walk to Széchenyi Medicinal Baths, we set out along the world heritage site Andrássy Avenue, passing the Opera House, luxury shops, mansions and town houses on our way. We hadn’t had the chance to read too much about the city – so when the immense Heroes Square opened up at the end of the avenue we were blown away.
The baths were beautiful – bright yellow Neo-Baroque buildings surrounding multiple pools filled to the brim with people. Jumping in the water on one of our first hot days felt amazing and I convinced my boy to spend the entire afternoon here.
We had heard about the famous “ruins bars” of Budapest and were eager to go and check them out. At the turn of the century, these bars were opened, illegally, in old factories and tenements marked for demolition. They became so popular in some cases that the organisers were able to purchase the property and become legitimate. We went to the original one, Szimpla, set within an old stove factory gutted and furnished with what you would find in a junkyard as seats and tables. Backseats of cars, old office chairs, beautician chairs, outdated computer monitors with the old screen savers flashing – it was like nothing I had ever seen. To make it a true Hungarian experience we capped off the night with a few shots of pálinka, an Eastern European fruit brandy which smells sweet but tastes like fire. Time flew by as we danced to old rock and roll songs and moseyed home as the sun rose.
Making an effort to not miss the walking tour the next day, we learnt so much about the history of Budapest (starting with the correct pronunciation Buda-Pescht which is a combination of the names of the cities on each side of the river Danube) and Hungary. We walked through both sides of the city and finished with spectacular views of the Parliament building over the river Danube.
Starving after our long walk and eager to try some local cuisine we grabbed some dinner just down from St. Stephens Basilica; Chicken Paprikash, Goulash and a Hungarian Platter. For dessert we headed to Gelato Rosa – just near the steps of the basilica, this is one place it is worth lining up around the corner for. This special place serves you incredible gelato and sorbet sculpted beautifully into the shape of a flower.
Our hostel was great for recommending things to do while in town and caving was top on the list. Dressed in full length jumpsuits (Props to our friends posing for the picture) we followed our tour guide out to the caves. She told us that these are labyrinth caves so it’s easy to get lost and to make sure we stick together. Already nervous, I turned on my light and followed her into the dark. Our guide, an experienced caver, told us about the formation of the caves and the ecosystem, before jumping and disappearing down a hole and expecting us to follow suit. We crawled, belly rolled, slid and wiggled our way through the caves for 2 hours before we found ourselves back in the open air. Such a great experience. Our two friends from the hostel were leaving Budapest today so to celebrate successfully making our way through the caves we went for another flower ice cream. This time I tried the sorbet and managed to get a beautiful and delicious combination of flavours.
To wrap up our trip to Budapest we wanted to check out a few shops and some more of the famous Turkish baths. Heading to the vitage store, Retrock, I was able to find a long flowing skirt for my travels before heading to the Gellert Baths on the Buda side of town. Taking a dip in the warm water in one of the most photographed baths in Budapest, I know I will be back soon.
Next Stop: Zagreb and Plitvice Lake