Warning; this post is less about what I did in Budapest and more simply a rambling, possibly incoherent love letter to the city itself.
Despite past flings with places like Malta, Stockholm and Lisbon I've always resolutely considered Budapest my favourite city in Europe. Three years after my visit, I'm now at the end of my week-long, 5th trip to the Hungarian capital and I'm STILL kicking myself for not managing to squeeze in all the things I wanted to do. So why do I like Budapest so much? With all of Europe to explore, why do I keep coming back here? I've written about Budapest on this blog before but honestly, after going back and reading some early posts, I kind of wanted to just delete the posts, then delete the entire blog and then just quit the Internet for good. They were not quality pieces of work, is what I'm saying.
I don't think there's any specific science about why some people just feel more at home in certain places. It must be some combination of the the look and feel of a city, the people, the food, the stuff to do there, the weather, how long you spend there, the people you're with and the memories you make there. For me, Budapest is the perfect storm of all those factors coming together to make Budapest my favourite place. When I came to Budapest for first and second time, Chuck was living there before starting English teaching in a smaller town in the Hungarian countryside. It was the first European city I'd visited, on my first solo trip overseas and I had an absolute blast. I came back a month later on a Top Deck tour and then came back again two months later on my own to see and do all the things I still hadn't done. That was so successful I had to come back for a week on my most recent European escapades. Obviously I've made some great memories of the place.
Budapest is also beautiful. I'd happily stick my neck out and say it's THE most beautiful capital in Europe. The entire city is a proper melting pot of architectural design and planning; Budapest is where east has met west for hundreds of years. Today Hungary is slowly casting off its five decades of Soviet influence and looking west and the city and the people represent that. Anyone under the age of about 30 speaks at least some English, many of the more modern parts of the city have a distinctly western feel to them and sometimes it feels like you could be anywhere in Western Europe. There's also the easy going, more relaxed feel of Eastern Europe. Everywhere you can see traces of the past; the grey, drab buildings in the communist style (or lack thereof), the grand classical grandeur harking back to the height of the Austrian Habsburgs and the subtle but present feel from Ottoman occupation in the 16th century. The open plazas, sandstone buildings and wide, Parisian avenues make Budapest, in my opinion, the quintessential European city. Budapest also makes great use of its position on the Danube as well. The city is divided in two, with Buda on the western shore of the Danube and Pest on the eastern side and with half a dozen enormously beautiful bridges combining the two. It seems you can't walk more than a minute or two in any direction before you come to a tér (a square or plaza). Small and intimate or enormous and full of markets or people relaxing in the sun, these spaces give the city an open and airy feel.
The nightlife is excellent (Szimpla and the ruin bars!), the history of Hungary means there's no shortage of things to see and do and it's just nice to walk around and enjoy the atmosphere. The Hungarian culture and language are so different from anything else anywhere and the food is amazing. To top it all off, it's ridiculously cheap. There is literally nothing at all to not like about Budapest, except for the annoying amount of coinage you'll very quickly collect that's basically worthless.
Anyway, in no particular order, here's a list of stuff I did in Budapest;
- I went to bars. Oh so many bars. Between going on a pub crawl, getting brought along on a lads weekend with some guys from London and literally following a bunch of kiwis back to their hostel until they were friends with me (it's not that weird, we were staying at the same hostel. I guess it was a bit weird), I ended up visiting quite a few bars, including My favourite bar ever in the world, Szimpla Kert the ruin bar. This took up most of my nights and a fair chunk of my mornings as I struggled to get out of bed and deal with the consequences of my having drunk a small, totally healthy and responsible quantity of alcohol the night before.
- Went caving under Buda. This was really cool. I found a company that takes people out to the outskirts of Budapest to a big series of underground caves and leads groups through them. We spent about three hours underground exploring the caves, which was a good amount of time. Anymore I think I would have started going a little crazy. There was a French guy in the group who looked exactly the same as Elijah Wood, aka Frodo in Lord of the Rings which concerned me more than it should. I recalled the tragic events of Elijah Wood's last expedition and became increasingly concerned about the possibility of encountering trolls, goblins or worse.
It was also quite hard work in some places. I'm not a huge guy but there were a number of parts I literally wasn't sure I'd be able to keep going and had to crawl through on my stomach like a snake.
- I climbed Gellert Hill to the Liberty monument (erected after the soviet "liberation" of Budapest) and the ancient citadel built into the hill behind it. Hard work but not a bad view from the top.
- I found an enormous May Day/Labour Day festival happening in one of the big parks in Budapest. As a formerly communist country, Labour Day is still kind of big deal here.
And speaking of big deals, you just KNOW this dude was a badass
- I rented a bike to ride around the city and Margaret Island. Margaret island is cool, it's kind of like Central Park in New York City, Hyde Park in London or Parque del Buen Retiro in Madrid, except on an island. I didn't take many photos though, because I only took jeans to Budapest and it's very hard to get a phone out of your jeans pocket when you're riding a bike.
- Caught a bus out to Memento Park, on outskirts of Budapest. When communism fell, the Hungarian government (unlike most other communist bloc countries) saved the majority of the Soviet statues and memorials and relocated them all to a single park north of the city which has become quite a tourist attraction these days.
Stalin left big shoes to fill
Basically I just wandered around (by tram, metro and bus, by bike and on the trusty ol' foot falcons) Budapest, enjoying being there and either seeing or revisiting some of my favourite parts.
I'm just going to say it; there are two types of people - those who think Budapest is the best city in Europe and those who haven't been there yet.