Budapest was one of my favorite places we visited and I’m so happy we have finally arrived (in the series that is). If you’re just joining in feel free to look at past posts for Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris Part 1 and Part 2. We only have two stops after Budapest and our series will be over. It’s been really fun to reminisce while writing these posts, but I am looking forward to sharing a bunch of desserts with you when we’re done.
We weren’t sure what to expect when we got to Budapest. We had originally planned to go to somewhere in Southern Germany for this portion of the trip but it didn’t work out because our travel dates overlapped Octoberfest. Michael and I aren’t hard core beer drinkers so we opted for a less crazy route and ended up in Budapest. Friends of ours highly recommended it as well. Flights from Paris to Budapest are really reasonable and you don’t have to fly RyanAir to save money. We learned almost instantly (waiting in a coffee shop until our host could meet us at the apartment we rented) that the people are friendly, almost everyone speaks some english, and that everything is really really CHEAP.
Coming from Paris, it was almost shocking how cheap or maybe just affordable everything was. I am not joking by any means. We rented a really nice 2 bedroom apartment in the 6th district, Terezvaros, for $60 USD per night to add a little perspective. Our location was great, just off of Andrassy Ut which is a main road modeled after the Champs Elysees in Paris. The oldest underground metro also runs below Andrassy Ut and I’d recommend taking a ride. When you walk underground it’s like stepping into a time warp. The electric rail was completed in 1896 and really hasn’t changed much. It’s actually amazing that so much seems original. Make sure you pay your fare since there are real people hired to check (no turnstyles or machines here).
The first restaurant we ate at recommended by our host was Menza. We had small sampling of Hungarian dishes including Garlic Soup with Fried Bread, Chicken Sesame Salad, and Mixed Pickles (or Prickles like the menu says) which included a super spicy pepper! Sneaky. A light lunch but delicious and filling. After lunch we bought groceries near our apartment and planned our evening. Budapest used to be two cities divided by the Danube. The West Bank Buda and the East side of the river Pest. The cities were united in 1873 and serves as the Capitol of Hungary. Budapest was freed from communism in1989 which is truly not that long ago and sometimes you sense this lasting oppression walking down the street.
We walked all over the city in glorious sun. The sun shed light on dilapidated buildings next to renovated buildings and I picked out a few for Michael and I to live in. Did you catch that? The SUN! We finally had gorgeous weather for the second half of our trip! We walked down to the river near Parliment and watched the sun set and city lights turn on. All of the bridges are very intricate, though I learned they had to be rebuilt after WWII destroyed all of them. Some relics remained in tact though like the lions on the Chain Bridge. The river was peaceful and there were a bunch of locations with steps into the water lit with candles, memorials I think. The Danube was the site of a Jewish massacre when the city was controlled by Nazis. They killed people on the edge and the river washed their bodies away. There is a monument of bronze shoes along the water commemorating the location where many Jew’s lives ended. It was good to sit at the water and reflect for a while.
We found out there was a Nobu location southeast of the Chain Bridge at Erzsébet Tér Park and my eyes lit up. Nobu has two of my favorite dishes of all time. They are dishes I’d request as my last meal and they are stellar and simple: Miso Black Cod, and Yellowtail Sashimi with Jalapeño. I was introduced to Nobu back in 2009 when Michael was working in Waikiki, Oahu and I haven’t forgotten that meal since. Four years later it was still as amazing as I remembered. Nobu is probably not in everyone’s price bracket and we were hoping that since everything in Budapest was cheap that somehow the food there would be too, but it was about the same as the restaurant in other cities. Aww shucks. Michael still spoiled me and I loved it.
The next day was one of my favorites of our whole vacation. The city was holding the National Gallop while were were there. Saturday morning we ventured out to Andrassy Ut, lined with tents, closed to traffic and full of festive people. The National Gallop is a horse race held in Hero’s Square in City Park. Cities and towns from all over Hungary send their best equestrians to compete for the title and for their town. It’s similar to the horse races in Sienna Italy. The square is transformed into a race track complete with stands and tents to place bets and gamble on horses. It was a spectacle, even just watching from outside of the fence.
From Hero’s Square we headed west around the park to the Széchenyi Thermal Baths. For around $20 US Dollars you can enjoy a day at the Turkish Thermal Baths. When Turkish people settled in Budapest in the 1500’s, they built a lot of baths to make use of the natural springs in the region. Széchenyi is not as old as other bath houses in the area but it’s the biggest and most impressive. This complex is spectacular with three large outdoor pools (two warm at around 85˚F and one cold lap pool for exercise) and 15 indoor pools of varying sizes and temperatures. The water source is a natural hot spring which runs below the site and the spring water contains minerals people believe to be healing. There are saunas and steam rooms in addition to the baths and some of the steam rooms have scents and colors to change your mood. Michael and I altered our moods with a relaxing one hour full body massage after soaking in the pools for an hour or so. The massage cost $30 US Dollars… so cheap Michael was convinced to have one too. After our massages, we made the rounds trying out each pool and a few saunas and steam rooms. The cold plunge pools were the hardest. It felt like jumping into ice cold Lake Tahoe. We took a break to drink water and eat snacks then resumed our floating and plunging. We ended in the early afternoon feeling rejuvenated and relaxed.
With the horse racing well underway outside, the streets were filled and there was a ton of delicious street food to eat. Giant cast iron woks filled with meat and peppers, giant sausages, potato pancakes, strudel, candies, and my new favorite street food I’ll have a hard time finding in the states Kürtőskalács (kur-toe-squa-latchs). Easier to say “Chimney Cake” as it’s translation. It’s a sweet bread treat wrapped around a wooden dowel, rolled in sugar, and grilled over coals on a rotisserie until the sugar crystalizes and the bread puffs and cooks to a golden brown. Then they sprinkle an assortment of sugar mixes on top when done (we opted for traditional cinnamon and sugar) and they serve it to you in a bag piping hot. It’s a wonderful pull-apart treat and fun because it’s hollow. I want to make these someday. I have no idea how I’d do it without a rotisserie but maybe someone I know has a fancy grill and I can try it out. I’ll need to befriend a woodworker with a lathe too…
We ate so much food that afternoon I don’t know how neither one of us exploded. That evening we wandered to a “Ruin Pub” called Szimpla Kert. It’s a funky mish-mash of bar, concert venue, and outdoor garden space built in an old factory building destined to be demolished. We hung out there for a while sipping beers sitting in the back half of a rusty old car (cut in half). We listened to a band warm up and play a few songs. Michael drew on the wall, and then we headed to a late dinner at Zeller Bistro.
Reservations are recommended at Zeller since this restaurant ranks among the top in the city according to travel sites. We didn’t have one, but decided to stop by early that evening and see if there were any openings or cancellations for the night. When I asked, they told me to come back around 10pm and they’d seat us. Our lunch was late and gigantic so a late dinner seemed appropriate. We eat fairly late most nights anyways so pushing it an hour or two later than normal wasn’t a big problem. When we came back, the host greeted us with a small glass of wine and a chocolate truffle. The wine and chocolates are house made and the restaurant is a family business that just celebrated their one year anniversary this March. One of the owners was our waiter and he gave us some fantastic recommendations. I did have a very strange (and traditional) starter of fried tiny fish called Aquadelle with dipping sauce and lemon. There were so many I couldn’t eat them all. After eating about 2/3 of the appetizer it started to get too fishy and I couldn’t help but imagine eating a basket full of minnows. They aren’t actually minnows, but little baby sardines and they came from our waiter’s parents property. It’s easier to think about eating sardines than minnows too. Never say never though, try new things! (at least try them once).
Michael had a goose liver pate to start. He likes trying weird foods too. He also likes duck and had duck confit as his main dish. Duck was a reoccurring meal on our trip (remember the duck story from Paris?). I had goulash that night. It was hearty and delicious and warmed me from the inside out. It also made me a little sad because I think it was likely veal goulash. Ahh, I’m a baby cow killer! Our meal was complete with a bottle of house made wine and dessert. I honestly can’t remember dessert but I do believe I forced Michael to eat something chocolatey with me. Tipsy, we strolled the few block walk home.
The next day we started with a walk to St Stephens Basilica. The church is beautiful on the inside and you can go up to the top and walk around. On your way up you can walk between the inner and outer domes, a treat for two architects. The views from the top are fantastic and you can see a long way in most directions since the landscape is fairly flat. After our church tour we had lunch at Hummus Bar on Október 6. utca. (That’s the street not the date!) The falafel platter was so good, maybe better than our favorite falafel place in San Francisco, Truly Mediterranean at 16th and Mission. Yum. Perfect healthy and light lunch. And they have free wifi which is always helpful while traveling. We stopped across the street at First Strudel House of Pest Restaurant to get a couple of Strudel to go. We bought one Almás (apple) and one Mákos (poppyseed) and headed across the river via the subway.
The Buda side of the river is hilly and home to Matthias Church. The church is located in the Castle district which is an old site looking down over the Danube and Pest. It was originally built in 1015 in the Romanesque style and has undergone a series of renovations and rebuilding over the years, settling on the Gothic style in the late 19th Century. We entered the city through a long tunnel which is part of a Labyrinth of tunnels below the city. You can do a tour of the tunnels, but the free portion where you can enter the city (a not well marked door) was enough for us. The buildings within the Castle District varied a lot in style and the farther from Matthias Church, the quieter it became. We sat on the west side of the castle wall for a while enjoying the day’s last few hours of sun. We also took this opportunity to eat our Strudel. The Apple was great and what we expected, and the poppy seed was strange! I imagine a drug test following the amount of poppy seeds we consumed would have turned out poorly. The poppy seed is a symbol of wealth among Eastern Europeans with the seeds representing tiny coins, and they use them in a ton of different dishes. The strudel had a ground poppy seed paste which was a little bitter. Since our palates aren’t used to the shear amount of poppy seeds in that small sampling of dessert, I’m sure it’s the reason we didn’t enjoy it as much as the apple.
After our lazy afternoon in the Castle District, we walked down the hill towards the Danube and hung out on the river. The view of the Parliment Building from the Buda side of the river was magical in the setting sun. The pure white building glowed golden in the evening light. The walkway at the river is about 15 feet below street level. We dangled our feet over the edge and laid back for a bit to rest our tired legs. Apparently our bodies were tired too because we both fell asleep for a while and were startled awake (20-30 minutes later) by a loud car horn! We continued our walk back to Pest on the Margit Bridge. On our way to dinner we watched families roller skate in Szabadság Park and unfortunately made a poor choice for dinner. We should have eaten at the chicken restaurant on our list but it was closed and the closest restaurant to us was Mexican food. Why did we go ahead and eat Mexican food in Budapest? Well, because the Iguana Bar & Grill had good reviews and we wanted something different from meat and potatoes. Next time we’ll know to stick to meat and potatoes (or make sure we go to the Chicken restaurant on a night it’s open). We ended the night with a scoop of gelato shaped like a flower (it’s what they do) and walked back home.
The next morning we were off to the train station, Budapest Keleti, for our next adventure in Vienna, Austria. Stay tuned for the next episode of our travels through Europe! If you want to see the rest of our vacation photos please feel free and click this link (or just click any of the photos and they should take you there too!).