I like to believe that, as one person is indeed able to have “a million different people from one day to the next” (to quote The Verve), so is a city – not only to have a soul, but many – or all of them; the inhabitants, the passers, the tourists, the street performers, the vagabonds…they are all one soul, the soul of a city. And that city has a personality, an almost tangible one; which is why you can feel whether or not you will like the city, love it, hate it or all of the above the second you get off the train, plane, bike or Nimbus 2000.
The Buda, The Pest and The Chocolate
My first step outside of the country as a proud owner of a passport was at 16 and to Budapest, Hungary. You may have (or may have not) heard of Hungary’s enchanting capital city that resides at the banks of the Danube. Consisted of mainly two parts – Buda and Pest – the city is fairly obvious in its differences on each side of the river, and while you’re strolling down the banks you might get enough glimpses of its rich history. Budapest survived Celts, Romans, Turks, Habsburgs and so many more that, after a long introduction to its history, you will start to feel as if you’ve been handed a list of all the exes your love interest has had before sitting down for a tiramisu at Café Gerbeaud with you and charming your socks off. And since Gerbeaud has been proudly waving its chocolate delicatessens since 1858, there won’t be much else to do but to nod your head through the list and work hard at not feeling a ping of jealousy for all the people who had the chance to experience this city before you.
First date with Budapest
And, just like a teenager who’s had an opportunity to grow with its charm, the city will have plenty of experiences to offer. If you have a chance, don’t miss out on a boat ride at night – the lighten-up architectural charmers – such as the Parliament building, are completely worth it and that’s without counting the bridges. There are nine bridges in Budapest and the legend says that if you make a wish while passing under them, your wish will come true. I’ve been 3 times in Budapest since then, each time with an included boat ride, and each time I’ve made a wish. All of them came true (with that in mind, I should probably add that no 16-year-old should be bestowed upon with such great power of suggestion). Among the must-see architectural delights, I would add Szent Istvan Bazilika, Buda Castle, Hero’s Square and Gellert Hill and Statue. Other than offering you an amazing overview of the city and shocking you with the grandiosity of the statues, it’s perfect for all of you #selfielovers.
Bread and Circus in Budapest
As most European cities, Budapest has its own share of bars, clubs, and various entertainments. Probably the first leaflet you will get as you take your first steps in the city center will be for the Icebar. I haven’t visited the bar, since I like my drinks cold and my surroundings hot, but if you need inspiration for a night out, you might want to start out there. For lovers of less conventional entertainment, I suggest checking out Room Escape games around the city. Budapest was one of the first European cities to adapt these “puzzle rooms” for tourists and, although I haven’t checked them myself yet, I got some pretty solid recommendations.
If you love architecture and you love to shop, Central Market Hall is unavoidable. This amazing structure that towers for a couple of levels is a place to make you feel like a child again. Colorful candy, meat products, handmade wonders – anything for anyone, especially if it’s around the winter holidays and the Christmas frenzy is in the air. Be sure to check out the homemade sweets. Although many would suggest the Vaci Street for the shopaholics – since its offer goes from a two-level Second Hand to several well-known brands, the street is your quite typical European shop street, overpriced souvenir shops included.
For the foodies, I’d also recommend taking the time to get acquainted with Goulash and Paprikash, for a lunch or heavy dinner with plans of wine tasting. Lángos is great for a fatty breakfast or stronger snack during the day, and a bit of Dobos cake and Kürtőskalács to sweeten the goodbye when you realize it’s time to go back home. If you are on a budget, you can always try experimenting with cooking the local meals – people at hostels are friendly enough to offer you their help, but be careful with those spices. If you’re not a fan of Mexican or Indian food, it might prove to be a bit too spicy for you.
Beds and Tracks in Budapest
Of the accommodation I’ve tasted in Budapest, which includes a hotel, hostels, and a rental; the hostel was the best choice by far. A cute friendly place at Octagon is currently my favorite; with a working exchange office, Subway, KFC and fairly long hours of a supermarket nearby. It was perfect for wandering around the city, easy access to home after a dance-off at Sziget festival and a wonderfully kind group of employees who’d make sure you have to make a minimal effort in the morning when even boiling an egg feels like a sequel of the Hunger Games.
As far as the transportation goes, it’s simple enough even if you do have troubles picking up the language. The Hungarian language belongs to the Uralic language family and, if you’re not lucky enough to have some background in it, go with “Igen” and “Köszönöm” – it will get you far enough. If it doesn’t, I suggest taking the city-pass which will make your travel around the city easier. A fair warning – the schedule at the Keleti train station is as confusing as anything and don’t be shocked if the clerks don’t speak English. Try your luck at the tourist info point, or follow my lead and start swearing in your mother tongue. There’s a fair chance that some of the passer-bys will grinningly understand your frustration and offer help. So to say, whoever said that smiling is a universal language, obviously never tried swearing in Serbian.
My favorite poison when it comes to traveling to and from Budapest is certainly the train, probably a permanent influence of the movie Before Sunrise, which would give anyone with a love for a good conversation with strangers a rather high expectation of a simple train ride. The airport is a good choice if you need to get connecting or cheap flights basically anywhere in the Europe; it’s pretty clean and easy to get around.
Budapest is a city with the scent of vanilla in every street, a hopelessly romantic overview of the city from the boat and a nonchalant air of someone aware of its beauty. It will enchant you with sugary delights, multiculturalism in every corner and a mischievous smile which will make you want to come back again and again and again.