When I was studying abroad everything was alive with possibility, and the break we were given at the halfway point of our program was no exception—our whole group was abuzz; we could go anywhere, do anything! But time slipped away quickly (as it does in Europe) so before we knew it the break was upon us, and most of us had been too busy memorizing the Italian for “another pastry, please” to make any concrete plans.
Well, I don’t know if it was the magic of Europe, the lure of cheap flights, or just a crazy vagabond recklessness bubbling within us, but a friend and I decided, spur of the moment, to catch a ridiculously underpriced Ryanair flight to Budapest.
When people ask about the places I’ve visited and I mention Budapest, I usually get one of two responses: “oh, I love Budapest, it’s magical” or, “Why Budapest? I don’t know a single thing about Budapest!” This is because Budapest must be seen to be believed and experienced to be understood. I know this now, but when we took off for Hungary, I fell firmly into the second category: Why Budapest? Was it the cheap flight? The vague recollection of a pretty-looking parliament building? I didn’t know, but boy, was I about to find out.
Discovery #1: The money makes everything seem hilariously more awesome (at least to first-time visitors used to Canadian/American/Euro bill denominations). Hungary hasn’t yet converted to the Euro, and the HUF (Hungarian Unified Forint) is one of those crazy-inflated currencies, so the bills we got from the ATM upon arrival at the airport were like 20,000 dollar denominations. It was glorious—and terrible for budgeting. I discovered that I am definitely the type of person who, when giddily carrying $60,000 dollars in her pocket, becomes pretty freewheeling with the cash—“who cares, just buy it, it’s only ten thousand dollars” is a pretty expensive running joke, as it happens.
Discovery #2: When it comes to food, Budapest delivered, and it delivered hard. Goulash—a semi-sweet dish of stewed beef in a paprika gravy with onions, peppers and tomatoes—was abundant, as was schnitzel, a breaded and fried pork cutlet. These dishes were served with giant pickles or pickled Hungarian wax peppers (shown above, which, if you haven’t tried, are SO GOOD. Pleasantly crisp, not too spicy, not too sweet). Finally, you almost always got a hunk of bread to mop up the remains, saving you from publicly licking your plate.
On day two we went to the famous Central Market Hall, a can’t-miss stop. We each got this sourdough bread bowl the size of our heads filled with goulash, covered with chili, and topped with purple cabbage, corn, and sour cream. Oh man—I legitimately still have dreams about that bread bowl.
Discovery #3: Budapest is famous for its hot springs, magical healing waters that have played host to the city’s residents since Roman settlers first discovered them in the 1st century AD. As a result, the city is rife with lavish bath-houses—the perfect place to unwind after a long day of sightseeing. Seriously, I highly recommend a long, indulgent soak in one of these paradisaical places (we adored the Gellert Baths, pictured above, but this website has information on all of Budapest’s baths). To me, a visit to Budapest (and an appreciation of the city) would be extremely limited without a visit to the baths.
Discovery #4: Budapest really is fairytale-beautiful, and it’s hard to convey exactly how beautiful to those who haven’t seen it. Large, leisurely boulevards edged with Baroque architecture and embellished with sumptuous green spaces give way to the majestic Danube River, the dividing line between Buda and Pest (did you know that Budapest is actually two cities, united in 1873? You do now!).
Most visitors point to the myriad of sculptures dotting the city’s public spaces to illustrate Budapest’s unique beauty, as well as the riverside tableaus from the stunning Chain Bridge and of course, the striking Gothic parliament buildings. To me though, the Fisherman’s Bastion, a dreamy, turreted overlook on a ridge adjacent to Buda castle represents the sum total of Budapest’s allure—a sweeping panorama of all that’s enchanting in Budapest, heightened by the sublime pleasure of taking all these delights in at once. It’s one of those aforementioned places that evokes a sense of just why this city is so special, and one that has to be seen for that sense to be understood.
In such a short time I found myself completely swept away by this captivating city, eagerly awaiting the chance to return—I know countless others who have visited have felt the same. Until then, I am only left with my memories and an understanding that the answer to “why Budapest?” may simply have to be, “just because”.
Have you been to Budapest? Is it a place you want to go? Let me know in the comments! Until next time,