Ellie and I sprinted into the airport just in time for our flight to Budapest on Thursday night. We had regained our composure after hours of stressing on a seemingly never-ending bus. Stopping short at the check-in counter, we handed over our passports. The lady on the other side looked confused, consulted her coworker, and... told us we were at the wrong airport.
Hence, we spent our first Hungarian night in beautiful Taksim Square, Istanbul. We got some cheap dinner on Istiklal avenue and then met up with some friends to pass the hours before we had to go to Atatürk Airport (not Sabiha Gökçen) at seven in the morning. When we finally arrived in Budapest, we lazily walked into a cafe near our metro stop and were met with a kind and attentive waitstaff who prepared us two delicious English Breakfasts. This was a telling precursor to the rest of our experience; Hungarian culture was the most welcoming of all that I have experienced in my recent travels.
Our AirBNB host, Atilla, was happy to meet us at the door even though we were late. We settled in, freshened up, and walked a block down the street to the Great Market Hall. Here, we found hundreds of vendors of food and goods who thankfully did not attempt to lure us into their stores as many Turkish vendors do. We walked across Liberty Bridge and began wandering the city. Our first destination was St. Stephen's Basilica. On the way, we found the famous pop-up Christmas markets with mulled wine, chocolate, marzipan, snacks, tchotchkes, and more. In addition to stunning architecture of diverse styles, there was an abundance of public art on almost every street.
After an hour or so, we made it to St. Stephen's Basilica and stepped inside. The extraordinary structure designed by Hungarian architect Miklós Ybl in the Neo-Classical style was home to stunning red marble columns, golden accents, enormous arches, detailed stained glass windows and numerous paintings on the walls and ceiling. It shares the title of tallest building in Budapest with Parliament, symbolizing that spirituality and worldliness are of equal and prime importance (1).
We had reached the late afternoon, and only had time to roam around before our reservation at the newly famous Eat & Meet restaurant. We rambled along the Danube and saw the impressive, gothic Parliament building glow at night before taking a cab just outside the city center.
We arrived at an apartment complex and were told that our restaurant was in 606. As it turns out, one of Budapest's most highly-rated restaurants is the work of a young woman and her family inviting groups of strangers into their home for dinner! On this night, there were French, Belgians, Dutch, Hungarians, and us Americans at the table. When the full group of ten arrived, we were initially served a home-distilled apéritif of Hungary's traditional fruit spirit, Palinka. This one was made from apricot, but it apparently could be made from any fruit. We were then served three courses including a tomato soup, a tender pork and potato dish, and an apple pie like desert as well as a variety of Hungarian wine. As we enjoyed the home-cooked meal we discussed our travels, work, studies, and more. What started as a clumsy conversation between a bunch of strangers turned into a pleasant night with new friends.
After dinner, we went straight to bed as we had been up for over thirty hours following the airport ordeal. The next morning, we walked down the street to Cafe Alibi. We heard a woman next to us speaking with an American accent and I asked where she was from. She said that she had just begun an eight month teaching position at a Montessori school in Budapest. We spoke to the talkative expat for a half-hour about her career and Budapest before getting on our way. The conversation made me realize just how international the city is. While Turkey and Georgia are dominated by ethnic locals, betting that somebody you meet in Budapest is Hungarian is risky.
This day's destination was the famous Széchenyi Baths. However, there were spots to hit on the way. First, we walked along the Danube to a memorial sculpture appropriately called "Shoes on the Danube Bank". The sculpture serves to remember a number of victims who were told to remove their shoes before being shot into the Danube during World War II.
We continued on our way to the baths with a pause for Langos, Budapest's excellent fried dough and cheese street food. We walked through City Park and finally arrived at a grand yellow and white building with steam billowing off the top. Here, we spent about two hours in the eighteen baths and scented saunas. The mix of heated pools and crisp winter air was extremely refreshing.
We walked back to the Christmas markets in front of St. Stephens Basilica for some snacks and heard the volume of the music abruptly jump as we walked into the square. The Christmas market organizers had created an animated show projected onto the basilica and a soundtrack to go with it which included electronic remixes of classic Christmas tunes. At first, I was disappointed in its abandonment of traditional Christmas songs, but the mix and presentation was done so well that I changed my opinion by the end.
Afterwards, we went to Boutiq Bar, an artisan cocktail bar in which we were lucky to grab the last two bar seats that were not reserved. The bartender struck up a conversation with us and mixed two complimentary tasters of a frothy, Christmasy drink. He smoothly said "I'm happy you're here" as he set them down in front of us.
After warming up, we walked towards our dinner spot. On the way, we found a free concert of a fantastic improvisational jazz, hip hop, and funk band named Amoeba. Their sound was very similar to the Canadian band BadBadNotGood with an extra touch of Hungarian vocals. We stayed until the end of their set and then continued walking through even more Christmas markets.
Just before we found our restaurant, we stumbled upon the controversial German Occupation Memorial. The Hungarian Government installed this statue in a large square which depicts an eagle, representing Nazi Germany, preying on Archangel Gabriel, representing Hungary as an innocent bystander during the holocaust. in front of the statue was a visual protest and signage made by Hungarians who contend that Hungary was in fact just as responsible for the atrocities of the Holocaust as Nazi Germany. Although I am not well-versed in WWII History, it was very reassuring to see that the protest was standing and not destroyed by the government.
We made it to dinner at Hungarikum Bistro and received the best service that I personally have had since I left America. The host and waitress were always available and able to help with suggestions, etc. We had Hortobágyi palacsinta, a traditional crepe dish in a Paprika sauce, and a tender piece of pork which the chefs had braided (braided!) before cooking.
Later, we went to one of Budapest's famous "ruin bars". Every Hungarian and traveller told us to go to Szimple, and we understood why when we arrived. We spoke with people from all over the world and finished the night with some Greek gyros. Although we wanted to experience Hungarian food, we had to try some of the cities plentiful international food at least once.
As if we hadn't done enough already, we had to see a ton of sites on the Pest side (the west side of the Danube) on Sunday. We started by crossing Liberty Bridge and hiking up to Citadella, a nineteenth Century fortress that has been militarily active as late as 1956. We were told that the view was incredible, but unfortunately we had chosen the only weekend in the past year that Budapest was covered in a thick fog.
We warmed up with a tea on the road and made our way to Buda Castle. This World Heritage site holds eight centuries of rich history and is now home to an impressive art museum which we quickly perused. Just as the fog began to clear and before the sun went down, we ran up to Fisherman's Bastion, a terrace with an incredible view of the city. We were finally able to take a few minutes to enjoy the view and a bit of sun that cut the biting air.
We had to leave soon to avoid missing another flight, but we had just enough time for one more stop at the Christmas markets to savor our last tastes of Hungarian food. We got sausages and walked under the festive city lights to the metro stop. While we fumbled around the Hungarian ticket machine at the metro stop, a kind, young, homeless man patiently assisted us with our embarrassing attempts at buying transport tickets. We gave him our leftover Forints in a meager attempt to return the Hungarian kindness.
1. "The Parliament of Hungary." Hotel Ambra Blog. N.p., 20 May 2010. Web. 19 Dec. 2015.