We’re finally here - the final stop on my whirlwind three week European adventure.
Since this was our final stop of the tour, we had the chance to extend our stay by a few days and the fact that we were in Budapest the longest meant that it was one of my favorite cities. The more I travel the more I realize how much I love getting comfortable in a place. Days with “wander” on the itinerary tend to end up being my favorite. Plus - the end of the tour meant the end of early morning alarms - which meant the start of later nights and more alcoholic beverages.
Instead of recapping our time in Budapest minute by minute, I’m going to write about my top memories and recommendations.
Part of me wants to save this for the end of my post, but I don’t want to bury the lead. If you’re in your twenties and in Budapest, you MUST go to a sparty - a spa, party mash-up that’s like a Vegas pool party but at night and somehow a lot less sketchy.
There are multiple baths in Budapest, but the sparties happen from April - December at the Szechenyi Baths (the largest thermal baths in Europe).
We pre purchased our sparty tickets and the website does a good job explaining the different ticket options (you pay more for express entry, towels, etc.) All entry comes with a wristband that acts as a key to a locker where you can store your things while you sparty.
There’s also a Sparty Pay Card that you should fill up with money for drinks when you get there - you can’t pay with a card or cash in the pools. The initial “top off'“ is good for about three drinks. Any money on your card at the end of the event you can ask to have refunded to your bank account - just make sure you don’t lose it!
Once we got in to the Sparty, we stashed our things, took a few pictures, and made our way into the pool (only the main pool is open for the sparty). It was nice and warm, and while it was definitely crowded it wasn’t unbearably so.
We quickly realized we were a little too short for comfortably standing in the middle of the pool - that required extreme tippy-toe action along with aggressively trying to hold our beers above the water line. So we stuck to the perimeter of the pool and took it all in.
There was obviously a DJ, there were insane lights, acrobats, pretty sure there was some fire happening at some point. And I have a vivid memory of the Backstreet Boys playing and Allison and I being in our glory.
People were friendly and, most noticeable, no one was getting overly intoxicated to the point of sloppiness. I feel like this scenario in the US would quickly escalate into some seriously gnarly scenarios and we didn’t find that to be the case at all in Budapest!
Sparties last from 10:30 PM - 3 AM and we probably showed up around 11/11:30. The rest of the time flew by and by the end, we were definitely sad for it to be over.
My advice: don’t bother doing your hair before the sparty. Within 5 minutes of being there and starting a conversation with a group of people, someone dumped water over our heads.
If sparties don’t sound like your thing, the thermal baths are beautiful during the day too - with even more options. Some of the most popular are Gellert, Szechenyi, and Rudas. You can read reviews online to figure out which one is the best pick for you.
We never made it to one during the day, but if I’m ever back I’ll definitely be treating myself to a massage - the prices are super reasonable (under $100 for entry, locker, 60 minute massage and access to the baths!) This website has a lot of information about all of the different options.
2. Fisherman’s Bastion
Honestly, my research on this tourist attraction in Budapest didn’t turn up many interesting, quotable facts but that doesn’t change the fact that our hike up to it was one of my favorite parts of the trip. In a city full of beautiful architecture, this took the prize for me. On the top of Castle Hill, it was a trek to get up there but totally worth it in the end.
Fisherman’s Bastion itself is beautiful to walk around and look at, and the cherry on top is the incredible panoramic views that it offers of the Danube and Budapest below.
We just walked along the free terrace overlooks, but you can also pay to go up in the turret (there are 7 of them total). Everything I’ve found says that once the ticket office closes, there’s really no one enforcing payment though.
*On your walk over to Fisherman’s Bastion, stop along the Liberty Bridge. You’ll find people out sitting on the bridge, having picnics, enjoying a drink - it was so unique! And I’ve since learned that in the summer, they shut the bridge down to vehicular traffic so people can enjoy it! This article has some awesome images. And if I’m ever back in Budapest, this would be high on my list of things to experience!
3. Night Cruise Along the Danube
Do yourself a favor and book a cruise down the Danube, but make sure it’s at or after sunset so you can see everything lit up! It’s truly dazzling.
There are a ton of tour companies -this is the link to the one we booked, but it didn’t stand out in any way that makes me a huge proponent of using them. Honestly, I picked it because the ticket price included a drink. But the drink was a sugary frozen concoction that was about two sips big - we ended up buying ourselves a bottle of bubbly to enjoy as we made our way down the Danube.
What I did like is that it wasn’t a huge boat - we weren’t taking the tour with 237892 other people. And they didn’t really talk at us the whole time. We kind of just looked and drank and talked and took pictures.
Did you know the Danube used to separate Buda and Pest - two different cities? They became Budapest in 1873 after the unification of the cities of Buda, Pest and Obuda.
Now, the Buda side of the city is the calmer, more residential side while Pest is what you think of when you think of the real “city center.”
I digress. Our cruise down the Danube was so pretty - seeing the massive Parliament building lit up with definitely one of those images I’ll always have in my brain.
Fun fact: the Danube flows through 10 different countries. Can you name them in the comments? (I can’t).
4. Ruin Bars
Part of me expected the “ruin bar” scene to be sketchy or overrated but we really loved our nights out at Szimpla Kert.
We first stopped by in daylight which I highly recommend. It gave us the chance to explore this massive bar that can fit up to 600 people at a time. There’s a mix of indoor/outdoor spaces, tons of different rooms, multiple bars, balconies, etc. and the entire thing is like a giant experimental art museum. It actually reminded me of a more lived-in Teufelsberg in Berlin.
You could spend hours wandering around looking at the weirdest things. The concept of a “ruin pub” is that they are located in what served as the Jewish ghetto during World War II in the ruins of abandoned buildings, stores, restaurants, etc. Szimpla Kert is the first, largest and arguably the most popular. That being said, it’s also the most touristy (some articles suggest that 80% of guests are tourists).
Many of them serve as community spaces in addition to being bars/nightclubs.
My favorite part about Szimpla Kert? The lady with a basket of carrots that walks around the bar at night. You better believe I purchased a carrot and had a full on root vegetable photo shoot.
I knew very little about Hungarian history before I arrived, but quickly realized that this country has endured a lot of turmoil and sadness.
The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 against the Hungarian People's Republic soviet-imposed policies is regarded as one of the first “rips in the Iron Curtain.” One day in particular, called Bloody Thursday, was particularly interesting to me.
On October 23, 1956, a group of peaceful student protesters assembled in Kossuth Square at the statue of Polish General Jozef Bern - who was a hero of the Hungarian revolt of 1848. They wanted to broadcast their demands at the Radio Budapest building, but were stopped by State Protection Authority forces (secret police of the People’s Republic of Hungary).
At this point, the crowd had swelled to over 200,000 people and the State Protection Authority (AHV) opened fire to disperse the crowd.
Amidst this atmosphere of civil unrest, unarmed protesters gathered outside the parliament building on Thursday, October 25. Shots are fired and tanks are brought in - killing somewhere between 300-800 people dead. It was such chaos that very little is known about Bloody Sunday. Some sources claim only 22 people were killed, and no one can say exactly who fired the first shot.
A memorial was created in the ventilation tunnel under the square and it was so interesting to me that other than providing information and acting as a place to memorialize the victims, one of the main messages is asking anyone with information to come forward since so much is still unknown about Bloody Sunday.
I thought it was a really well done museum/memorial - it was really moving, informational and when we went down it was almost empty.
If you visit - be sure to look at the Ministry of Agriculture Building - where a very understated but powerful tribute shows the bullet holes that still cover the building.
6. Pay Tribute at the Shoes on the Danube Memorial
In 1944, Hitler overthrow Hungarian leader Miklos Horthy and put Ferenc Szalasi in power. Szalasi established the Arrow Cross Party - a fascist, anti-semitic government that. During their rule, 80,000 Hungarian Jews were marched to the Austrian border, and their deaths. Over 20,000 were shot along the banks of the Danube River.
This chilling tribute created by film director Can Togay and sculptor Gyula Pauer demonstrates the merciless way these men, women and children were killed. They were forced to step out of their shoes, which were a valuable commodity, before being shot point blank and falling into the river below.
The 60 pairs of shoes along the river are a horrifying yet beautiful tribute to these victims.
7. Statue of Imre Nagy
To be honest - I didn’t know much about the history of this statue when I stopped to take a picture of it. I just knew that it was a gorgeous, well composed photo op. But since then, I did a little research.
This picturesque sculpture with the parliament building in the background portrays Imre Nagy who twice served as Hungarian Prime Minister. He was the Prime Minister who led the revolution in 1956 - he had the support of the people as the non-Soviet-backed government but was brought down when the Hungarian Revolution failed.
He was tried and executed by hanging in 1958 and he became a symbol of freedom. He was buried in an unmarked grave and not allowed to be spoken of during Communism. Then, in 1989 he was reburied. 200,000 people gathered for the funeral.
8. Eat Lángos
Moving away from the heavier topics…let’s talk about food.
If there’s one thing you need to try while you’re in Budapest, it’s langos! There are three main reasons to try this Hungarian street food delicacy.
Dad (our tour guide, David) didn’t lead us astray - I’ve since come to learn that the place we stopped is pretty unanimously agreed upon as the mecca of langos in Budapest. It’s an inconspicuous little street food stand near the entrance to the Arany János metro station.
Retró Lángos Büfé serves langos with tons of different topping options for a cheap price - but the combination of cheese and sour cream is the classic.
9. Go For A Run
Allison and I were lucky and there happened to be a race going on while we were in town. We signed up and had a great time running the 10K race around Margaret Island.
Even if there’s not a race while you’re in Budapest, Margaret Island is a beautiful place to go for a run - complete with a 3.1 mile rubber track along its perimeter. It’s absolutely beautiful.
Another great park to get in some miles is the City Park (Varosliget). Not only is the route along the perimeter a decent 2. 5 miles - you’ll pass a ton of landmarks including Heroes Square, botanical gardens, thermal baths, a swimming pool, Vajdahunyad Castle, multiple museums and a zoo.
Just walk around, a lot! This is such a lively city with a ton of interesting history. Here are a few other random recommendations and tips:
This was a super trendy restaurant in the Jewish Quarter - it was a beautiful space with a great atmosphere and delicious Middle Eastern food.
Budapest is a city made up of 23 different districts. Similar to the arrondissements of Paris, each district is unique. Do some research ahead of time to find which district is your perfect mix of atmosphere, location and price! This helped me a ton.
The metro in Budapest was eye opening even for me - someone who has lived in Manhattan for 7 years and is unfortunately used to a large amount of homelessness. I was shocked by the number of homeless people living in the subway stations.
Since our time in Budapest, they’ve passed a law essentially banning the city’s homeless population from living in public spaces. While I can recognize that the number of homeless people living in the subway system was a definitely societal problem - it’s hard to think that signing a law into effect will do much to help the situation.
Another note about the Budapest metro system - make sure you validate your ticket. This means stamping the date/time on your ticket using one of the orange boxes that kind of looks like a parking meter. If you don’t do this and you’re asked for your ticket once on board - you can face serious fines!
And lastly, if you’re at the Arany János metro stop (to get your Retros Langos) notice how close to the street the subway is! David pointed out just how shallow this subway line was dug and it blew my mind!
Erzsebet Square (elizabeth square)
This is another happening place to be - grab a six pack or a bottle of wine and “botellón”! (A genius Spanish word for congregating in a public place with friends to have a drink!)
You can even hop on the Budapest Eye for a birds eye view at sunset.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:
Here are the rest of the places we visited on our whirlwind three-week Eurotrip! Thanks for your patience as I took a year ++ to catch up!