We said goodbye to Romania and crossed over into Hungary, country #33, late in the afternoon. Hungary is the last of the new countries that we’re going to visit on this trip, and after our time here in Budapest, it will all be more-or-less travelling back home towards London. We’d also just hit the 31,000km mark for the journey, though still had at least another 3-4,000km to go.
I was pretty confused if I needed a road toll sticker, but erring on the side of caution, I bought one anyway. I wasn’t sure if it was all roads, or just toll roads. Actually, I attempted to buy one, but it was slightly harder than I had expected. Third time was a charm, and I was a little sad to not receive another sticker for Gunter’s windscreen.
Not only had we crossed over into a new country, but we’d also crossed back into the Central European Time zone. This meant that sunset was now at the ridiculous 4:15PM!! I had tried to find things to see and do between the Romanian border and Budapest, but I truly struggled. So, with that in mind, we continued with the long drive through the flat and featureless agricultural plains. We were driving westward, which seemed to make the dusk stretch out for an eternity.
It was only 7:30 when we finally arrived in Budapest, but with the combination of the time zone change and the early sunset, it felt much, much later. We had the sensation of jetlag, which was kind of odd.
It was quite an experience driving through Budapest, and thankfully it wasn’t too busy. By some amazing feat of fortune, there was a free place to park our van overnight, right by the Danube river and Gellert Public Baths. It was incredible to drive along the shores of the Danube, taking in the amazing views along the way. I had to stop at one point when we were passing the Parliament House, as it became dangerous how much it was distracting me. It’s one of those buildings that is both stunningly grand and graceful, as well as being epically large. I’m still annoyed about my tripod being stolen from that beach in Latvia…
Dinner was in Vigado, a small Hungarian restaurant, across the river from the Parliament Building. I was worried that anything in this area was going to be expensive, but it turned out to be surprisingly relaxed – and affordable. And, as an added bonus, the food was actually really good – I even got a nice chilli kick from my dish!
It was Halloween, and we really should have gone out, but we were exhausted, had no costume, and had several other excuses we could have come up with.
I was amazed how quiet the town was, but we hadn’t realised that today, the 1st of November, was actually a bank holiday here. We walked over into town, with a quick walk through the crowded Central Market Hall. There were two stories, the top of which seemed devoted to tourists, and the lower seemed to have fresh produce that locals were buying.
We joined a ‘free’ walking tour from the end of the pedestrian boulevard, Vaci u. I was rather amazed at how many people were here for the tour, with the giant crowd being split into three large groups. I’d honestly forgotten just how pretty the city was, with a huge density of beautiful building everywhere we went. I was quite impressed with Paris, but I think this is definitely a prettier city – at least so far.
The tour took us to many of the usual landmarks, including a quick walk by the beautiful St. Stephen’s Basilica, and then across the Chain Bridge into Buda – the other half of Budapest. The Chain Bridge was actually really cool, with the suspension being made of chain links, much like a bicycle.
The group was stretching thin, and it stretched even further once the guide took us up Castle Hill. The small exertion was rewarded with great views back over to Pest.
Now that we were beside the large castle on top of the hill, it was possible to see that the castle was ‘good from afar, but far from good’. It wasn’t quite as grand as it had appeared.
The tour ended, we gave our donation/tip, and got a great lunch restaurant tip – Lumen.
The area may be named after the castle, but it’s St Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion that are the real highlight. It was out of season, so it was possible to walk along Fisherman’s Bastion without needing a ticket. It’s both beautiful to look at – and to look from.
St Matthias Church
This church is just beautiful, with amazing gothic details, and a fantastic patterned tile roof. There were loads of small details, too, like a crow with a ring perched on one of the turrets – which was said to have stolen it from the king, only to be slain and made the king’s emblem.
We purchased tickets and stepped inside. I have to admit, it was nothing like I’d expected. I thought that it would be a fairly plain cathedral, with bare stone walls. What we found was so very different to what we’d expected. It was covered in gold, and painted detailing.
The style of the decoration was unlike any we’d seen before – or at least, unlike any I could recall seeing before. It wasn’t lavish and overwhelming like Italian renaissance, but rather light, airy and quite elegant.
It was quite odd walking around the streets up here in Buda. It was really pretty, but worryingly empty/quiet. I can only assume it was due to the bank holiday today, and not that it was a ghost town!
We walked around for what felt like hours, trying to visit a food market just north of Castle Hill, however, being a bank holiday, it was shut. We’d been walking around town all day (I really wish I had an activity tracker, to know just how far we were walking every day). We were both starting to get a little hangry, so made getting some food a priority. Rather than continue to walk around, we caught the metro back towards the Jewish quarter where we’d been recommended a restaurant during the walking tour. I wasn’t feeling that positive about it being open, as restaurant after restaurant that we walked past was closed. But, we must have done something positive in a past life, because it was open today.
I don’t know if I can comment subjectively on this or not, as I was so hungry, but it was absolutely amazing food. And cheap. The rare Venn intersection. Risa had some super tender and delicious lamb, while I went for a veal goulash-style meal, complete with dumplings much like the spatzl from Austria that I so love. It was a really cool restaurant, and we told ourselves that we’d be back to try more from the menu – though, this didn’t transpire.
By the time we’d finished our lunch (which had just become our dinner), the sun had set. It wasn’t surprising, given how early it sets here. We walked around the Jewish Quarter for a while, but it wasn’t quite so pretty at night time, and the area felt exceptionally quiet tonight.
We had considered visiting one of the amazing dessert cafes in town to complete the evening. The New York Café was almost borderline ridiculous. It was like a palace inside, with stunning ceilings, chandeliers and probably the largest windows I’ve ever seen. However, it was going to be quite a bit over €20 for a simple dessert… which after considering that my amazing dinner cost €5, was a little hard to stomach.
Instead, we ended up at Central Café, which was said to be a popular haunt of local (and international) poets back in the late 19th century. It was certainly cheaper than New York Café, but still far from cheap. There was a decent selection of cakes on offer, though none that truly appealed to me. I couldn’t decide, so ended up with two – one of which had some plastic film inside, so I returned it without paying. It was alright, nice and cosy, but nothing exceptional.
We passed by a nearby Michael Jackson monument which looked far more eerie now that the sun had set. Supposedly this was started prior to his death, as the artist stayed in the hotel opposite. However, now it looks like a vigil for someone that has died in a tragic accident. There were dozens and dozens of laminated photographs, flowers, candles, and people there with portable speakers playing his music. It was all a bit too creepy for me.
Having a very late lunch (or very early dinner) had meant that we’d ended our day quite early for once. When we finally got back to the van, we finally started watching the second season of Stranger Things – which is only going to demotivate us further from going out and doing things of an evening.
It’s incredible to think that today marks the start of our eighth month of travel. I know that we’ve been on the road for an exceptionally long time, but it’s hard for my mind to comprehend just how long it had been.
The serenity of the bank holiday was over, and the city was back and full of life. It was another cool and clear morning, and we did our best to lift our weary bodies out of the van and back onto the road for some more walking.
We briefly passed through yesterday, and had really enjoyed what we’d seen, so decided to dedicate the morning to the area. But first, coffee. We ended up at Kontakt, not too far from the main synagogue in town. The Dohany Street Synagogue was surprisingly beautiful from the outside, but the entrance fee was a little prohibitive for us, so we gave it a miss.
This area, like Krakow, and likely many other European cities, was the hipster centre. It was filled with enormous painted murals, as well as all the kinds of shops that cool people would visit and buy things to make their life cooler. Probably. Anyway, it was a nice place to wander, free of overt tourism, and even moderately quiet and free from traffic. For reference, Mr. Rubik, the creator of Rubik’s Cube, was Hungarian – and Hungary besting England 7-1 back in the 1950s is still something of national pride/celebration.
We walked past a small outdoor ‘street food’ market, and since it’d been a few hours since we last ate, we were ready for some more food. It’s no surprise that I enjoy a hamburger or two. I’ve also come to enjoy the langos (lan-gosh), which are from this area. So, it seemed only logical when I saw a burger created from two langos I would throw my money at them to have a try. I started getting buyers remorse as I patiently waited for my burger to be freshly created. I thought that I had made a mistake by pairing these strange bedfellows, much like that time I tried a cheeseburger made with donuts for buns in San Francisco. Eventually my burger was ready for me, and I was genuinely keen to give it a try. I eschewed the usual cheeseburger and bacon for sheep cheese, roasted peppers and rocket. It was a solid 4/5.
After lunch, we visited Szimpla Kert, one of the most famous ruin pubs in town. These watering holes popped up in abandoned buildings – or the spaces between them – over the past decade or more. I don’t remember them being here back in 2003, but it’s quite likely that I was out of the loop of what was cool – or more likely, forgotten from a drunken haze.
It was an experience to enjoy, even before stepping inside. Once inside it was a crazy collection of mismatching items, knickknacks, and truly strange decorations. Of course, walking around an empty bar during in daylight isn’t really the way to experience a bar, so I’m aware that we didn’t get the proper experience. Even so, we both loved the eclectic style, and could imagine it being popular back in London (or Australia/Japan).
It was fun to explore the upper levels, with their semi-private rooms and whacky furniture. Whacky, what an awesome word. I even spotted an oil painting of Pauly Shore hanging from one of the walls! Is he dead?
All around the area were beautiful art nouveau buildings, with their fabulous adornment and decoration styles. It was honestly becoming one of the most enjoyable cities that we’d visited, and certainly one of the most enjoyable to walk aimlessly through.
St Stephen’s Basilica
But, it wasn’t all aimless wandering. We were aware of the time, and wanted to visit before they closed access to climb the dome. It was a surprisingly long climb, even though the building was less than 100m high. The first staircase was beautiful to look at, though after a dozen or more rotations, my head started to feel slightly woozy.
There were multiple stages to the climbing, with the final popping out in the cavity between the domed ceiling, and the outer domed roof. It really took me by surprise, as it seemed very out of place. It almost resembled a rocket sitting in a hangar, or some other giant silo.
But, once we stepped outside onto the walkway, those 302 twisting steps and the weird cavity inside the dome were the last thing on my mind. The views of town were spectacular. The walkway went the entire way around the main dome, giving a full 360˚ perspective. Admittedly there were a few pockets of less than beautiful things to see, but for the most part, it was bliss.
Now we got to reverse the process, and spin our brains back the other way on the descent. Somehow this way felt even worse.
The interior was a lot grander than I had anticipated, too. It was much more like the opulent catholic cathedrals in Italy, with enormous slabs of marble, and more gold than I could imagine. It was rather dark, so it was quite hard to completely appreciate. Even with the darkness, there was an air of majesty and grace that was hard to put into words. It came across as a feeling of sanctuary, and I could see how those who were religiously inclined would find a connection to the divine.
Sun set was rapidly approaching, and I’d realised that we hadn’t properly seen the Parliament House yet. We made a rough path in that direction, stopping for some more langos – because they’re cheap, delicious, and not common after we leave Hungary. It might look bland/dry/boring, but it is anything but. It has a soft doughy texture like a doughnut, but also with the crispy shell and a chewy inner texture. The garlic sour cream is intense, and the cheese has just the right level of vintage bite.
Before we got closer to visit the parliament, we passed a monument that I’d nearly forgotten. There was a bloody uprising during the 1950s, with members of parliament dragged out and shot (but don’t quote me on these facts). The building has been renovated, however, the bullet holes were preserved with small brass balls as a memorial. It’s an interesting way of preserving the history, unlike Bosnia or Croatia, where the bullet holes are still fresh and open.
The sun was only moments away from fading behind the hills of Buda by the time we’d finally made it to the Parliament House. I’ve been before, and we even saw it from a distance when we first arrived. Still, being up close to it is quite an experience. The level of unnecessary detail is incredible – though, I do love gothic architecture, so your mileage may vary.
By the time we’d walked the perimeter, the sun had set, and the guards were bringing the flag down for the evening. We heard the bugler playing his tune, and rushed to see the ceremony. It might not have the most dramatic of events, with only minor pomp and fanfare, but still, it was exciting to have been at the right place at the right time to see this take place. It was also good not to be chased out of the square, like Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Rather than pound the pavement all the way back to where we were camping, we caught the famous #2 tram back. I couldn’t help but jump out a few times to admire the view of Castle Hill at night. It was around 5PM, and the trams were exceptionally busy. This meant that I couldn’t sit down, and by standing up, I was too high to see anything out of the windows. As a tourist exercise, it was a failure.
We went to a nearby cinema complex to watch the new Thor: Ragnarok movie, stopping for a cheap/average kebab on the way. Just like when we saw Blade Runner 2049 in Tirana, the tickets were dirt cheap, and the crowds were quiet and respectful. Plus, the movie was fantastic – certainly didn’t expect to hear Taika’s kiwi accent!
The movie didn’t finish until nearly midnight, and we still had to walk back to the van afterwards. It was cold, and quite easy to sleep in – even if the sun was rising here earlier than we were accustomed to.
Gellert Public Baths
I’m repeating myself, but our free park was only a very short walk from one of the most beautiful public baths in Budapest. Sure, it might basically be a traffic island, inside a moderately busy road, but the convenience was hard to defeat.
The complex was beautiful, and really quite imposing from the outside. Not being hotel guests, we had to use the side entrance. Stepping inside it was just as incredible, with fine decoration from a time when such detailing was more common. We paid our 5300ft each (€17) and made our way inside. It was a maze of corridors that circled around and around. The signage was vague, and seemed to almost be contradictory. I was eventually able to find what seemed like a changing area for men (it was an open area, with nothing technically stopping women from walking past – especially if they were lost, like we were). I also managed to successfully find a shower, and then even more surprisingly, managed to find the baths.
The main pool was gorgeous. There was no other word for it. However, when I attempted to enter, I had a whistle blown at me. I was confused, thinking that it might have been reserved for the elderly groups that were swimming and exercising, but found out that bathing caps were mandatory. I was able to dip a toe in, and after feeling how cool the waters were, I wasn’t actually that interested in hoping in anyway.
Navigating my way back through the passageways, past the private booths, the massage areas, and all manner of other rooms, I finally made it to the heated baths. There were two in this small, but beautiful room. One was at a comfortable 40˚, while the other was a shade cooler at 36˚. It was moderately busy, with a surprising number of children, but I didn’t care, it was amazing to sit by the fountains that were bubbling hot mineral water, soaking up the heat with intense gluttony. Even though I generally tend to prefer warmer waters (~44˚C is my sweet spot), the cooler temps allowed me to spend longer inside before starting to feel dehydrated and tired. Though, even at 40˚C, I eventually needed to escape for a cold shower.
It felt more special than any bath I’d ever visited, almost like combining a palace visit with a hot spring. Thinking of it this way helped make the price feel more reasonable.
There were saunas, but we didn’t partake. I’m not sure if there was an extra fee involved or not. Either way, I’m not really that big a fan of saunas – though, the one I had in Kyrgyzstan was an exception, even if it was more like torture.
We quickly checked out the outdoor pools, which was actually one singular, as the main pool was closed/empty. It was 36˚, and in the sunshine, quite comfortable. But, when clouds passed by, or when the icy wind gusted, I felt like a turtle retracting my body back into the comfort of the waters. It had nice views of the hotel, but the pool itself was just a pool – unlike the palatial baths inside.
I’d had enough bathing, and made my way to the showers and change rooms, and waited patiently for Risa to finish.
We left the baths feeling both exhausted, thirsty and hungry – like withered husks of humans. We attempted to give the Central Market Hall another chance, but once again, the crowds were just too overbearing. There was nowhere to sit and enjoy a meal, and the prices seemed a little high. The building is beautiful, but spending any time inside is unenjoyable.
Instead, I went for another hamburger. Having that langos burger yesterday opened the floodgates of memories, and it was all I could think of eating now that I had a choice.
We were now pretty content with the time we’d spent here in Budapest and decided to make our departure. We both agreed that it was one of our favourite cities that we’d visited on this trip – or any trip.
Our exit out of town fortuitously once again took us past the Parliament House. It was lit with the last rays of the day, making the white stone glow orange. We were now off to the Danube Bend before making our way back into Austria.