After I graduated from college, I circumnavigated the globe with my a cappella group. It sounds insane, and for good reason. It absolutely was.
About midway around the world, we stopped for almost a week in Budapest, Hungary. Before arriving there, we had visited Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and India; so, as you might imagine, Budapest actually felt a little familiar to me. However, as time continues to put distance between me and that unbelievably fun week in Hungary, I realize more and more how foreign Budapest actually is. It’s more than a little crazy, its troubled but vitally important history nearly cleaves it into three clean eras (possibly more), and its people are out-of-this-world fun. Read on to find out my favorite three things about Budapest.
1. The architecture is like a map of Hungarian history: each building tells a story about the past.
Budapest, pronounced “Buda-pesht” by the locals, is a city cleaved in two by the Danube and stacked with history that will blow your mind. Indeed, even the name of the country of which it’s the capital, Hungary, is a misnomer that speaks volumes to this nation’s hectic past: the country was originally inhabited by Magyars, pronounced “Mawd-yars,” and the nation’s official name is Magyarország. How we got to “Hungary” from there, I’m not so sure!
Hungary was on the losing side of both World Wars, which resulted in periods of political, social, and even architectural turmoil. There are some streets that have beautiful European-style houses on one side and stark, Communist-bloc style housing on the other. The House of Terror (Terror Haza) is a headquarters beneath the busy streets of Budapest that was first used by Nazis during WWII and then by Soviets during the Cold War. I was lucky enough to visit, and it is absolutely chilling. Nooses still hang in the torture chambers there – and all the while, locals live and chat on the streets above. History is woven into the fabric of this society, no matter how painful that history is to recall, and I really respected that during my visit.
If you’re more interested in a more traditional style of architecture, look no further than what lies along the Danube itself. Fisherman’s Bastion is a wonderful sight to see and it’s right on the water; from those bright-white walls you can actually see Parliament on the opposite bank of the river. Fisherman’s Bastion is neo-Gothic in style, with white cones rising above the treetops lining the banks of the Danube, all of which are open to the public and free to walk around and enjoy. On a good-weather day, you could easily spend an entire afternoon here. If you’re lucky, like I was, you’ll even witness a local playing traditional Hungarian music in one of the parks set back from the Bastion!
2. Traditional Hungarian food is like a confused pile of nutrients that crash-landed on your plate. But dang, it’s good.
One of the traditional dishes in Hungary, called gulyas (pronounced and often spelled “goulash”), is a beefy, tomato-y, stew-like concoction that features quite a bit of paprika (a common component of Hungarian dishes). We were told by a tour guide to avoid any and all establishments offering “Goulash” because those were tourist traps: true gulyas would be spelled with a ‘y,’ with no regard for whether or not their menus were tourist-friendly! We obeyed him, treating the ‘y’ as pure gold, and we were not disappointed. The gulyas we ate in a canteen near Fisherman’s Bastion was absolutely spectacular.
But that’s not all there is to enjoy in Hungary: there’s something called lángos (pronounced “lang-gosh”) that will bemuse you and then astound you if you ever get a chance to try it. It’s essentially fried dough, which was an A+ in my book at the time, but there are elements piled on top that threw me for a loop. One of the more traditional toppings is… sour cream, cheese, and garlic. Yes, you read that correctly. In the States, I get my fried dough topped with powdered sugar and I call it a good day. In Budapest, I was sitting there crushing a sweet lump of fried dough topped with foods so savory they made my eyes water. Dare I say it was delicious?
Finally, I would be crazy not to mention the honey and the wine. Every local that graciously hosted me and my friends boasted that their wine was the best we’d ever taste; in fact, one of them told us that, in Hungary, it’s an insult to give wine as a housewarming gift because Hungarian wine is already so, so good. The wine was indeed wonderful, but what actually blew me away was the honey. Hungarian honey is to-die-for, and I don’t say that lightly. I brought home a tiny jar of lavender honey and I savored every last drop. I would honestly go back to Hungary in a heartbeat if it meant bringing back another teeny tiny jar of the best honey I’ve ever had.
3. If you want to live in Budapest, head to Buda. If you want to party, head to Pest.
Budapest, as I mentioned before, is split down the middle by the River Danube. As a result, it seems, there are two totally different neighborhoods on each side of the river. Buda is more residential and has a suburban feel, and Pest… well, suffice it to say that Pest is where it’s at. There are hip bars, boutique hostels and hotels, and plenty of restaurants that are open late and crammed full with friendly people who are looking for a good time. We found ourselves in quite a number of fun locales on a night we went out in Pest; at one restaurant, where we were the hired entertainment for the evening, a kindly gentleman asked us to sing for him and his friends. For the fun of it, we obliged – a significant departure from our pre-planned repertoire that night. Soon enough, the whole restaurant had joined in to dance, clap, and laugh with us. It was one of the most fun nights of my life, and I have the people and attitude of Pest to thank for it!
My visit to Hungary was marvelous; my only complaint is that it wasn’t quite long enough. I sincerely hope that I’ll be back again one day.