After five days in Budapest, I find it hard to decide what I most associate with it. It’s different from almost any other major city I’ve visited. Part of the problem is that the city is big—Buda and Pest are each rather sprawling, so put them together, and you have a lot of city. But it’s a lot of awesome city. The architecture is varied, though in bad repair. The Jewish community is vibrant. The food is delicious and cheap. The nightlife revolves around super-hipster bars in crumbling old buildings. The flea markets are a dream come true. So I guess I’ll just give up any hope of putting this in a logical order, and instead try to talk about everything.
Beautiful buildings and views
Budapest is gorgeous, and the two halves are gorgeous in different ways. Buda is full of hills, with the white Matthias Church (with a very colorful roof) and the surrounding Fisherman’s Bastion sitting atop one of them. Pest is flat, but it has St. Stephen’s Basilica, the extraordinarily intricate Parliament building, and City Park (with a castle). Of course, both sides have lovely views of the Danube, and the famous chain bridge connects them.
Even the less photo-worthy areas are fascinating. Pest features a wide range of architectural styles, with neo-Gothic and neo-Renaissance banks and churches mixed in with Art Nouveau villas. (There are all the ugly Soviet-era buildings, too, but you can try to ignore them.) Many are in desperate need of repair, but I suppose that’s the natural consequence of your government being broke.
Fortunately for me, Vicky was an easygoing travel companion who was up for anything. So, at my request, we gave our time in Budapest a Jewish slant. We started by attending Kabbalat Shabbat services. (Sadly, these weren’t in the famous Dohany Street Synagogue, which costs too much to heat in winter and so is only used after Pesach.) I found them very strange. Hungary had its own Jewish reformation movement, and they ended up with something called Neolog Judaism. The rabbi wore a cassock. A loud organ drowned out the cantor’s voice most of the time. The service was partially in Hungarian and partially in Hebrew, with the latter so heavily accented (vowels migrated and tets pronounced as “s”) that I couldn’t even follow along in the text. Blessings that I’m used to simply singing were dramatically cantilated. Women weren’t allowed kippot, but many wore little lace doilies on their heads instead. It was an interesting look at a very different style of Judaism.
Of course, this being Europe, the history of Judaism in Hungary is not simple or happy. Hungary was one of the last countries to be targeted in the “final solution,” and for many years early in the Holocaust, Jews fled to Hungary as refugees. But the country wasn’t spared entirely—600,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in the final year of WWII. The city includes several memorials to them.
The Jewish District now includes a lot more than just synagogues and kosher delis. Although—or perhaps because—many buildings are in a state of disrepair, it’s the hip part of town. This is reflected by the (commissioned) street art you can see on most outdoor walls.
The Jewish District is also where most of Budapest’s nightlife takes place. This revolves around “ruin bars”—bars created in abandoned, run-down buildings. Local artists paint murals and use found objects to furnish the buildings, and then people come to chat and drink. The atmosphere is very different from, say, a British pub! We tried several ruin bars (in fact, we went on a guided pub crawl), and we ran into some interesting things like a Hungarian folk dance-off. But our favorite place, which we returned to again and again, was Szimpla. It’s the original ruin pub, and no one else does it quite as well. The decoration is strange, the drinks are cheap, and the dedicated wine bar is staffed by a very knowledgable guy. Perfect.
A funny nightlife story: on our first evening in Budapest, we went straight from the opera to the club Instant. I was clearly over-dressed, and we were soon approached by a young man. “Did you just come from the opera?” he asked. We admitted that we had, and I shared my thoughts. He nodded along gamely and absently voiced agreement… so it took us several minutes to determine that he had been at the other opera. I’m still trying to figure out how my comments on a traditionally staged Don Giovanni could have applied at all to a Regietheater Das Rheingold. That notwithstanding, it was funny to find that someone else had gone from the opera to Instant. Clearly, this is how the cool people party in Budapest.
What’s a vacation without some opera? I only dragged Vicky to one performance, and it was the charming Don Giovanni that I’ve already reviewed. She seemed to enjoy it, despite the fact that a “technical malfunction” prevented the promised English supertitles from appearing. But even though I only saw one opera at one theater, I also had to visit the main opera house and the operetta theater!
Underneath the Buda side of the city, there are lots of natural caves. Apparently, we missed some of the major attractions, including a cave church and a cave hospital. (We heard about that last one from the priorietor of a chocolate shop we visited. She had acted in a play set in the cave hospital. Awesome.) But we had a fun tour of some ordinary caves.
I probably ought to have given the “food in Budapest” topic its own blog post. In short: it was amazing. Traditional Hungarian food is fairly heavy and greasy, and we had our share of that from street vendors (fried cheese!) and in the market hall (langos!). But the nicer sit-down retaurants have developed a lighter version of Hungarian classics, fused with western European food. The results are delicious. They are also super-cheap: a nice meal with wine (pro tip: Hungarian wines can also be excellent) at in-demand restaurants never ran us more than (the equivalent of) 15 Euros per person.
In case anyone else is headed to Budapest: our three favorite restaurants were Pesti Diszno (a casual-feeling, cafe-style bistro where we had eggplant creme, pumpkin soup, and the duck—all fabulous), Macesz Huszar (a very fancy Jewish restaurant where we enjoyed salmon with latkes, deviled eggs, and venison with matzoh ball dumplings), and Vak Varju (a popular resturant where we had to make reservations to get a table, but it was worth it for my tasty trout with mussel-and-tomato-sauce special and our very interesting grape cake dessert).
Of course, not all eating in Budapest happens in restaurants. I took plenty of opportunities to eat chimney cakes. We frequented the stand at the corner across from St. Stephen’s Basilica (where they were only a Euro per cake), and we managed to try all the flavors! We also learned that our favorite nightclub (Szimpla) turns into a farmers’ market by day on weekends. We stopped by to admire the fresh food and eat lots of free samples. We also bought a picnic (eggplant-chickpea cream, fruit, and fresh bread), which we ate at City Park when we went to see the castle and the zoo.
Flea market shopping was one of my favorite parts of the trip. (Again, Vicky kindly tagged along and offered her opinions on all of my potential purchases.) At one place we visited, everything in the store cost less than a Euro! There were flea markets and retro shops scattered all around Pest: in the Jewish District, near the zoo, and even along the main boulevards. I ended up with quite the haul: four skirts, a 1940s sailor dress (actually from a retro shop in Bratislava), a poison ring, a fan, an turn-of-the-century diary, a pair of earrings, and a sweater. I didn’t take pictures of the things I bought, but Vicky took a cool photo in one of the antique shops.
I see that I’ve written nearly 2000 words, so I’ll wrap this up here, even though there is lots more I could say! To sum up: Budapest is beautiful, and it has something for everyone. Go. And follow my restaurant and bar advice.