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Travel Diary: 36 hours in Budapest, Hungary

Travel Diary: 36 hours in Budapest, Hungary

I made a quick weekend trip to the Hungarian capital to visit a long-time friend, and managed to see a lot in a short amount of time. Of course, I didn’t see everything, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself while learning a lot about the city of Budapest. Here is how I spent the weekend (which was, well, technically a little bit less than 36 hours):

Friday Afternoon

I landed at the Ferenc Liszt International Airport from Paris, around 4pm. The best way to get into the city from the airport is to take the bus, then transfer to the metro. Public transportation is really cheap, about 1 euro/1.20 US dollars per ride. However, Hungary uses the Forint as currency, and the only time they’ll take Euros is when you are begrudgingly paying a parking/transport ticket.

Tip: Don’t exchange currency at the airport, the fees are infamously high. Budapest also has countless money-exchange booths throughout the city, but I found them unnecessary for such a short trip. I used a debit card without a problem during my time here. To make small purchases at the mostly card-free markets, I simply took out a small amount of Forints from a bank atm (bonus if your card reimburses atm fees). Save the Forints for the food halls and flea markets.

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First stop, Fashion Street. This is quite a touristy area, but a great place to start, especially if it is nighttime. Its official name is Váci Utca, and it is the commercial center and shopping destination of the city. Because it was the start of the holiday season, the entire street was covered in lights and decorations. Váci Utca is the main boulevard of the district, and the streets that branch off also feature countless boutiques, coffeeshops, and restaurants. While in the area, make sure to check out Nanushka, an amazing contemporary womenswear boutique and coffeeshop.

Walking for less than ten minutes, I happened upon the Budapest Christmas Fair and Winter Festival. It’s a Christmas lover’s dream. A plaza full of wooden “house” stalls, illuminated by twinkling lights, featuring everything from handmade ornaments to mulled wine. And don’t forget the food. Two things you must try while in Budapest:

Lángos- Hungarian street food specialty. Deep fried dough usually topped with garlic, cheese, and/or sour cream.

Kürtőskalács (chimney cake)- A large, hollow cake made by wrapping dough around a baking cone, which is then spit-roasted over hot coals. Often dipped in cinnamon sugar, vanilla syrup, or chocolate powder.

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There are also lot of great coffeeshops in the city. I checked out Damniczki Budapest, where the coffee was pretty much amazing.

Friday Night

Heading from the Christmas market to my friend’s apartment, we took a night walk. The city is really beautiful at night, especially along Danube river, which happens to be Europe’s second longest river. During the walk, we passed the famous “Shoes on the Danube Bank” memorial. It is dedicated to the Jews who were killed by fascists in Budapest during World War II. It is an extremely moving piece, especially seeing the iron sculptures of children’s shoes. The river is relatively calm at night, with young people often casually drinking with friends or people peacefully contemplating alone.

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Budapest is well known for its ruin bars, so of course, we had to check them out. These bars are essentially old buildings with courtyards that have been converted into bars and clubs. The decor is often eclectic, and they can be found all over Budapest. We spent the night hopping to a few of these ruin bars. One of the most memorable was Szimpla Kert, a multi-level pub where each room had a different interior design, all looking over a courtyard garden. There are neon hanging lights, antiques, and mis-matched items all over the bar, and it made for a really fun place to explore.

Saturday Morning

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One of the things I wanted to do most while in Budapest was visit the Great Market Hall. It’s the largest and oldest indoor market in the city. The exterior of the building is an intricately tiled neo-gothic structure, and the interior architecture almost resembles a 19th century train station. Make sure to go hungry. The lower level is full of produce and meats, and many locals do their grocery shopping here. The abundance of fruits and vegetables in this one hall is mind blowing. The upstairs level features souvenir stands, restaurants and food stations. This is where the culinary fun happens. The food offered here covers all the Hungarian classics: goulash, paprika chicken, even intricately loaded lángos. I went for a cabbage plate which included a tomato rice stuffed cabbage, sauerkraut, and pickled cabbage. A surprisingly vegan meal for a culture that adores meat.

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We continued our walking tour of the city by heading across the Danube to Buda Castle, a massive palace complex in Baroque style, that sits atop a hill looking over the city. It was originally built in the 1200s for Hungarian royalty. You can either walk all the way up the hill to the top of the castle, or you can take an elevator (thanks, modern technology). The complex is extremely well maintained, with even the bushes and vines neatly organized. The complex also holds the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum, which you pass on your walk to the top. Once you arrive to the top of the castle, the view is spectacular. You can see across the river, the major bridges, and you are overlooking almost the entire city.

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Saturday Afternoon

Still on our feet, we crossed to the other side of the Danube to check out Gozsdu Udvar, one of the coolest streets in Budapest. The street is more of a unique alleyway that features restaurants and a flea market. You can buy jewelry, antiques and even leather notebooks, with many things dating back to the USSR. Some of the old objects even feature the Soviet flag or the communist symbol. The market is an eclectic mix of old and new, and a great place to buy souvenirs.

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While on Gozsdu Udvar, we stopped at Blue Bird Cafe for a late lunch, a gastropub with a lot of fresh offerings and an extensive brunch menu. The restaurant decor was like a ruin pub-lite, but with more natural lighting. I got a vegan vegetable wrap, which was excellent, and we treated ourselves to some rosé. The restaurants on Gozsdu Udvar often look out onto the street, so a great place to people watch.

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Saturday Night

After an an entire day of walking, we were exhausted, so we ordered some Italian takeout to my friend’s apartment. Pizza Me isn’t exactly a classy five-star Italian experience, rather a popular and well-loved Italian takeout restaurant with a few locations around the city. The food is pretty good for a reasonable price. I ordered the gnocchi with zucchini, and had some roasted potatoes which were quite good. A perfect choice for some pre-clubbing carbs.

For my final night in Budapest, we headed to Instant, the largest ruin bar in the city. It has club vibes and a really energetic crowd. It should also be noted that it is a cash-only establishment. There was a DJ, and a large dance floor in the front, and bars more typical of a ruin pub in the back. When going out in Budapest, make sure to try pálinka, a Hungarian fruit brandy.

Sunday Morning

Since my flight was relatively early, I didn’t have time for a Sunday morning activity, but I decided to take the bus to the airport instead of the train, so I could get one last visual of the city.

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The airport is quite easy to get to from the city, so if you have an afternoon flight, make sure to take advantage of one last activity before you leave. I’d also recommend buying souvenirs at the markets instead of the airport, where they are more expensive. Here are some things to bring back from Hungary:

Pàlinka- Hungary’s most iconic alcohol

Antiques from Gozsdu Udvar- anything from vintage stamps to unique jewelry

Paprika- the national spice featured in dishes such as goulash

Embroidery- distinct traditional folk art designs

Closing Notes

I didn’t get to see everything, but Budapest is truly a beautiful city. I was pleasantly surprised by my food experiences and the nightlife was fun and unique. It is also relatively inexpensive, so you can really take advantage of all the city has to offer.

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