We did the requisite sightseeing of Budapest’s main attractions and came away with a few surprises.
1. A city still trending. Walking around Budapest which was recently named “Most Welcoming European City”, it is hard to believe that it was occupied by Soviets when Brett and I were in college. With the Danube River at the heart of this sprawling yet walkable city, though it has been modernized since destruction in the two world wars and Soviet occupation it is still a city very much in transition. It only takes seeing your first retro60s bus or tram to realize the renewal is not yet done. (Given the central location of where we stayed, we were able to do everything on foot.) Against the backdrop of some beautiful architecture and a vibrant music and nightlife scene, trendy shops and organic cafes are popping up next to abandoned buildings on streets like Király Street, also known as Budapest's Design Street. (One section of Kiraly Street might also be known as the Sex Street and home to the unfortunate Starbucks/KFC combo franchise … so be warned that it’s a mixed use street.) There is also massive construction going on to pedestrianize the area around the historic Parliament building, all signals that Budapest is rallying to keep their moniker of “Most Welcoming European City.”
2. English, ok. Unlike other large European cities we’ve visited, only 4% of the population in Budapest is foreigners. With that, we had heard that there wasn’t a lot of English but we found there was actually plenty to get by. Most of the places we visited and restaurants we ate in were more than ready to cater, and generally quite friendly, to English speakers. This was a plus since our Hungarian was not good, and the boys French not at all useful. Brett never even needed to work in his German.
3. Seriously, it really is cheap! We expected that Budapest would be cheaper than other places we’ve visited in Europe, but it was even more of a bargain than we expected. We noticed the rock-bottom prices most with food. As a data point, a full breakfast for the five of us with freshly squeezed juices and cappuccinos was 35 euros. Getting there was also ridiculously cheap. Flying Ryan Air, we got round trip airfare for 20 euros (or US$28!) per person. To compare, that is 20 bucks less than the average price you’d pay for a single game NBA ticket. (Always adding a basketball reference where I can to win some street cred in dah house.) There are apparently some very nice hotels in Budapest, but if you are considering the apartment route we found an EXCELLENT modern, super affordable apartment with all the creature comforts you need right in the center of town in between Parliament and the Danube River. The owner is a young, friendly Hungarian woman who used to work in a 5 star hotel in the US, so she knows service (ie she arranged our transport to and from the airport, had breakfast fixings in the frig for us, etc.) Her reviews on Airbnb are perfect and for good reason. Check it out.
4. Budaspaaaahhhhh. This is how little I knew about Budapest before going: I did not know about their thermal spas. You should know about them. Once you do, you’ll be booking a flight. Geologically perched on some thermal springs, Budapest has over 30 spa-water pools and thermal baths. We choose to go to Szechenyi Baths, which is the most impressive of the bunch given that it’s both the largest bathing complex in Europe and the one with the deepest and hottest baths. With three outdoor and fifteen indoor pools all at varying temperatures plus more steam rooms and saunas than you can count, it takes a good couple of hours just to bath hop. You can see the Turkish influence in the old world architecture which has been safeguarded against commercialism. With a robust over 60 crowd, some of whom play chess in the corners of one of the outdoor pools, these baths are more about relaxation than water frolicking. One of the outdoor pools was dubbed the “adventure pool” because it had a whirlpool and several jets. Naturally, this is where our romping boys spent the majority of their time.
5. Deep-roasted coffee culture. Coffee was introduced by the Turks in the 16th century, cultivated during the Habsburg era and evangelized during the 1960s as many cafes converted into eszpresszo bars catering to Western-leaning teens. At its high point, there were more than 600 cafes. You’d think with those numbers our odds of finding them would be easy. We did not. That’s because rather than walking into one of the many we saw, Brett worked hard combing through local blogs to find the *perfect* coffee spots. We hiked to several of these spots eagerly only to be disappointed. By the third letdown, our oldest made this astute observation: “Dad, there’s a difference between good coffee shops and interesting coffee shops.” By the last day, we hit on two good ones (found through research of course) worth nothing.
- Ecocafe (on Andrassy near the Museum of Terror) serves quality 100% bio/organic coffee and pastries. With a dozen or so tables, it’s not only good coffee but also a comfortable spot to hang out.
- Ozsem (right near our apartment) is an excellent pastry/coffee shop with more than twenty different homemade sweet and savory pastries in various caloric sizes. More grab & go than sit & linger, but definitely worth a stop if you are near St. Stephen’s Basilica.
6. Goulash is only the beginning. Hungarian food is good! Unlike German food which can be heavy and narrow, Hungarian food is lighter and has a wider range of options (meat, veal, pork, chicken, duck, trout, pike) and flavor profiles (some French and Turkish influences.) We never had a bad meal, but the following three restaurants are worth going out of your way for. The first was our favorite and one that Brett found through a food blog. The second two were recommendations from people who had lived in Budapest.
- Café Bouchon – off Andrassy, near Octagon in the 6th (1066 Bp. Zichy Jenő u. 33.) Café Bouchon is a small neighborhood restaurant with exceptional food and excellent service. Every dish was carefully explained, they were flexible on portion sizes and they seemed genuinely unfazed by a shrieking baby at the next table. We ordered roasted pork tenderloin stuffed with green spices, grilled pike perch fillet, veal cutlet, roasted salmon, and grilled beef tenderloin goulash with four different kinds of potation preparations. All of us ordered full size plates for which we were glad as we all ended our meals in the “clean plate club.” Make reservations.
- Ket Szerecsen – also off Andrassy in the 6th (Nagymezo u. 14). This restaurant has an old world feel with a modern take on food. Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, we had one dinner there and decided to come back for a breakfast. A sit down eggs-wht-options breakfast is hard to find in Europe, and this one delivered.; The Hungarian Omelet was particularly outstanding. Note: They stop serving breakfast at 11am on weekdays and 11:30 on weekends.
- Menza – also off Andrassy in the 6th (2 Liszt Ferenc ter). A popular, large very busy restaurants that has a late 80s/early 90s feel with “happening” atmosphere. Good food and portions sizes though service was a bit slow. The energetic atmosphere and good value however make up for slower service.
It’s generally recommended to eat on the Pest side rather than the Buda side as there are fewer and more expensive restaurants on the Buda side (Castle District.) Our most expensive meal was a lunch at the above average Var: a Speiz in the Castle District, and we also heard good things about 21.
7. Hungary has hamburgers. I don’t know if it’s a carryover from the first McDonalds behind the Iron Curtain being in Budapest, but Budapest has hamburgers! Hamburgers, more than brats, were available on most dinner menus we saw. They are even served with a delectable brioche bun. Coming from the US, they won’t necessarily impress or disappoint, but coming from Luxembourg – it’s a hamburger that doesn’t taste weird! We especially enjoyed a burger spot in the Gozsdu courtyard off Kiraly uta (a covered passageway hotspot) that’s called Spiler. Though Hungary is not known for their craft beers, Spiler also has a decent selection of bottled beers. (Burger Confession: we went twice.)
8. Hipster Hungarians. Because we were traveling with our kids, we didn’t get the chance to check out the Ruin Pubs that put Budapest on the map as a party city several years ago. These late hour pubs are typically in the basements of ruined buildings where they serve drinks and snacks and play live music. You can spot them all over town. Next time. In terms of shopping, you’ll be happy to know that shopping isn’t limited to Hungarian peasant blouses. Note: the guidebooks and everyone will tell you that Vaci Utca is the big pedestrian shopping street, but only go if you enjoy vultures trying to lure you into their overpriced restaurants or if you need something at Foot Locker. Andrassy Utca, their “Champs Elysses”, is however worth a stroll especially at night when the embassies are lit up and Heroes Square is in the distance. Though we just skimmed the hem of shopping in Budapest, a couple of places we read about turned out to be fun stops.
- Tisza Cipo – Karoly Korut 1. Unisex leather sports shoes made and only available in Hungary. Really interesting, iconic looking shoes that have a passionate following. Unfortunately they didn’t make shoe sizes big enough for Brett (size 13) and Quinn (size 14).
- Printa Budapest - Rumbach Sebestyén u. 10. A graphic design concept gallery that is described liked this: “The gallery is dedicated to presenting contemporary serigraphs, drawings, graphics and urban art from upcoming Hungarian and international artists.” We bought a couple of really cool posters there.
- Orange Optika – Kiraly Utca 38. Glasses shop that makes glass frames from vinyl records. Apparently Elton John ordered some. They also have a Seattle connection that I wasn't totally able to figure out. They graciously let the little boys have fun trying on frames for 40 minutes (I know because our teenager was outside clocking us). Wanting to find something unique from Hungary to bring back, I opted for a vinyl record pair of sunglasses.
9. Decent red wine. The French and Italian get all the attention for their red wines, but Hungary makes a number of red wines. We especially liked some of the dry Pinots as a nice change of pace to the full-bodied stuff we’ve been drinking from our Italy adventures.
10. House of Terror. One of the most highly recommended museum stops we got was to visit the Terror Museum – a tribute to WWII/Soviet Occupation. Given the subject matter and a seven year old with a particularly sensitive soul, Lawton and I hung out at a coffee shop (the nearly Ecocafe mentioned above) while Brett took the older boys. They all said it was incredibly powerful and moving, and a must do for anyone coming to Budapest. Next time…