Two Days in Budapest
In past years, weekends have been for day trips. Some have been relaxing, some mind blowing. But they've all been, you know, a day trip.
One of the main reason we picked Vienna originally (before falling hard core in love with the city in and of itself about 20 minutes after getting here) was how central it is to so many iconic spots. Budapest. Prague. Venice. All in a day's drive, but not a day trip.
So we opted to turn two of our weekends into long weekends away. We leave midday on Friday, come home on Monday. We bookended the trips on the week Loie is in art camp and chose to hit Budapest first since it was a shorter drive home.
So, yes, we doubled paid for AirBnBs for the weekend, and will again when we're in Prague. Part of the ok-ness of that has to do with the larger discount you can get when you rent for longer chunks of time (our Vienna apartment was 40% off) and part was the lower costs in the cities we visited. Were we going to crazy expensive places, this wouldn't have worked.
We stayed here. It won out on a ton of options due to a super price plus it having AC (it's been brutally hot in Europe this summer), a parking space (just makes life easier with a rental car and parking restrictions in a foreign language) and two bedrooms. If it were just a night I'd go for a one bedroom with two beds or with a sleeper sofa. Once we hit three nights, we all want a bit of space and like having a living room to relax in after a long day.
Other bonuses we couldn't expect were comfy beds (hooray!), good water pressure, decent kitchen tool (I got to learn how to use a moka pot and now Brett wants one.) and a great host team. The TV also had all the cables and we were graced with blisteringly fast wifi so Netflix was enjoyed by all after a long day driving and settling in.
Anyway. Enough on sleep spots. Here's a low down on all we packed in! You won't get tons of shopping and restau recs. We tend to wander more than shop and try to be economical with food and eat one meal out a day vs all three. Snacks? Different story.
We opted to do a day in Pest and a day (mainly) in Buda. For Pest, we started in the south and worked our way north. For us, it helped orient the day and made for a eat this / see that approach to things, which I really liked.
We ate a quick breakfast at home (grabbed some eggs and a loaf of bread at a grocery store across the street, also why we picked this place!) and hopped the subway.
We were really, really impressed with the Metró. Brett declared it the best he's ever used. It was user friendly, intuitive and an affordable way to bop around. Several of the stations we saw were fantastic examples of just how beautiful concrete can be.
Line 1 runs between City Park (close to where we were staying) to the heart of Pest. It was the first constructed in the 1890s, the first of its kind on continental Europe, with the intention of keeping transportation needs along Andrássy Avenue underground so as not to spoil all the pretty. We took it to a stop right by the Liberty Bridge.
Beyond an awesome spot to pop up and first feel deeply in Budapest, it's right by the Central Market Hall / Great Market.
The Central Market is super fun. It was built after Buda, Obuda and Pest unified and was the big idea of the first mayor the new Budapest. After being damaged during WWII it's all new and spiffed up and ready for you.
Three stories away, and each month has a weekend dedicated to a different international cuisine. We just missed Indian Days.
Beyond the largest watermelons in history you can find pastries and meats and all kinds of yum foods on the ground floor.
And, yes, I managed to find something Esterházy-esque in these piskóta, which I think are macarons. I think. Lo got a chocolate croissant, Brett scored a berry danish of some kind.
The top has more food (including Langos, the Hungarian fried bread) and tons and tons and tons of wares and both floors have paprika out the wazoo. From leather goods to every souvenir imaginable, there are endless options that your kid can ask you for endless times...many of which seemed more Russian than Hungarian but who am I to know?
First floor? It's for fish mongers and pickles and a grocery store, which we skipped.
With bellies full, even without pickles, we peeked into the For Sale pub and then continued along the Promenade, stopping to peek at things as we went like the Princess statue and the hills of Buda across the Danube.
We continued on aiming for Váci utca, a main pedestrian street.
We spent more time looking up than looking in stores. The buildings are spectacular. In many places a bit grittier or patinaed than you'd find in Vienna but ornate in their own gorgeous way, some with some serious flair. There's something so special about the 4 or 5 story connected buildings in European cities. I want to read more about the hows and whys. Like, why that height? And why not in the US?
Lunch was at Vakvarjú. It's a family-friendly restaurant with several locations around Budapest, silly decor and colored pencils and foie gras and duck on the menu. I know, right? Lo got the schnitzel. Brett got duck. I got watermelon gazpacho and a cherry drink. We should pause here and discuss the fact that fizzy drinks -- selzter and club soda with either fruit syrup or wine. Spritzers are now my favorite thing ever. This one had eight pounds of cherries in it. Loie kept asking to "try it." Brett's had elderflower, a flavor found everywhere in Vienna and Budapest and soon my kitchen. I've loved the wine spritzers I've had with elderflower.
So, lunch was had and it was good and fortifying and felt both accessible and vaguely not-McDonald's.
After lunch we assumed we'd missed the chance to go to St. Stephen's as it closed, according to our sources, at 1. As we walked past to head to Parliament I spotted people up in the observation deck and we went in to find it was, in fact, open hours later than we'd expected.
It was, also, crazy awesomer than we expected. While the late 19th / early 20th century tends to be my most favorite thing ever, I doubted a church built then. If it wasn't from, like, the 11th century? Whatever. This was from the early 1900s and I stand corrected in assuming the grandeur of the Gilded Age wouldn't translate to god-stuff.
For a few more Forint you can climb the 300+ windy stairs to the top.
Right before you pop out you enter this liminal space, in the church still but above the dome but not outside but not totally inside either.
And then you are up and above the city and it's magnificent and windy and a little scary and you make faces at people holding their phones out too far or, oh my god!, picking their kids up for shots by the railing. Clearly I do great in these kinds of environments.
I do always like the universal interactions of offering to take people's photos and asking them to take yours.
From there we wound our way further north towards Parliament. We crossed through a cool fountain that formed a square and portions would go down/up to let you into the square as well as Liberty Square, which has a decent playground if you need to run the pony at all.
Also in between? Gelato. Amazing delicious gelato that had something for everyone. We are the three bears of food. Brett wants the weirdest thing on the menu. I like half weird / have belvoed. Loie wants one scoop of chocolate and one scoop of vanilla, always.
Damnickzi Budapest. I'd fly here just to eat their gelato.
Brett got raspberry red wine and the poppy seed, which felt oddly savory? I got sour cherry (so sue me, it's my thing now) and stracciatella. Lo. Yes, chocolate and vanilla. I loved that they weighed each scoop, taring it with the cone and napkin at the start, and gave half scoops (don't tell Loie she had half scoops, ok?)
Then it was on to the Parliament. Confession: I was all-in for the outside. It's majestic and just waiting for me to take too many pictures of the same angle.
And I'm a sucker for democratic lawmaking, even with a side dish of royal stuff.
But. This place? This place was everything you could want in a legislature-meets-palace. And the inside? Holy moly. It was both deliciously ornate in the hallways and reception rooms, with natural light and gilding cooperating and competing for your attention.
And wildly practical (and wild) in the legislative space. I also need to read about orange and green in Hungary. They are everywhere together.
That kind of sums up the whole place. It was an engineering marvel, using forced heat through the chandeliers to keep the space at 25°C , thought to be the optimal temperature for big thinking, and a marvel of the power of the empire, who spared no expense having it built.
Can we also talk about their commitment to cigars?
Ok, here's the next confession. We actually went back and forth between the church and Parliament, twice. We did the interior of the church then hustled to Parliament to get in before it closed. But it required timed tickets, which would get us out after the observation deck closed and was more than an hour and a half after we bought them so we hightailed it BACK to the church, stopping for ice cream, climbed the tower and then hiked back to Parliament for our tour. But that would've seemed insane to present as a plan.
After the tour, we walked along the Danube again and looked for the Shoes on the Danube. Here, 60 pairs of 1940s shoes...kids and adult, men and women, fancy and functional, line the water where tens of thousands of Jews were shot by the Arrow Cross Party, the local Nazi-empowered terror group. Over 20,000 people are thought to have been killed this way, their bodies washed away, with another 80,000 forced on a death march to Austria. Why shoes? Because the victims were forced to remove their shoes before being shot so they could be seized and used by their executioners.
This was our first time really talking about the Holocaust with Loie. We've talked about persecution and prejudice, how people treat other's badly because of religion, color, gender, sexuality, ability, nationality and more. It's hard not to with our current leadership and the ugly resurgence to hate (it never went away, y'all, some of us are just seeing it for real for the first time). We didn't talk specifically about people being shot on the river banks but we did talk about it.
But to name it, to tell her about the Nazis, to give a number to the dead she can't possibly fathom nor can I, to talk about a gruelingly long history of anti-Semitism, to both honor her concern about her Jewish friends and calm her fears? I was honored to be her mom, overwhelmed by the task and reminded about a fantastic blog post I read in which a dad who came out to his kids talked about learning how few conversations there are that we need to stick the landing on. This was the first of many.
At that point, we were all physically and emotionally tired. We headed home, at a simple supper and fell asleep instantaneously.
The baths in Budapest are a mix of thermal pools and lap pools, indoor and outdoor options. There are also many options in terms of where you go. Our apartment was close to City Park and the Szechenyi Baths, which opened early, seemed family friendly and were amongst the top choices listed in various guides. Gellert sounds gorgeous and fancy but would've been more of a big to-do. This felt like going to our local pool!
This is when being a family can be advantageous. The advantage of being with a kid who would be up and ready to roll is that while others may be sleeping off a wicked hangover (lots of day drinking here if you want it) or arguing about brunch spots...well...we were on our way by 8:30 with suits on, bags with towels and shower stuff and a change of clothes a-ready.
We debated on Saturday whether to do the baths that evening as they are open later. I'm so, so glad we waited. It was less crowded, we were less tired and it gave Loie a chance to expend insane amounts of energy in the lazy river which moved crazy fast.
It worked out. By the time we left around 12, the lazy-not-lazy river was bumping, the deck full of chairs and we were ready for our next adventure.
The walk there / home also provided some sites and scenes.
The Vajdahunyad Castle was originally built out of cardboard and wood for the 1000 year birthday of Hungary. I really like temporary buildings (think the Chicago World's Fair) that are made permanent.
It now hosts music festivals and a museum and is a charming spot in the middle of City Park.
We both assumed it would be small and a walk-by. It is worth a longer stop.
On the way home, we took in Hero's Square. It's impressive and vast with a great view down Andrássy Avenue.
A quick stop home for lunch and to drop off the dead weight of wet towels and we were back on the subway. Destination: Buda. Only, we couldn't pop out in front of the Chain Bridge and walk across per our plan was foiled by the insane Red Bull Air Race. Yes, plans screaming down the Danube, under bridges, loop-di-looping and generally freaking me out. Fencing for this event is also why we couldn't get closer to the shoe monument).
We debated hoofing it down to the Liberty Bridge and across but it would've killed us time, and energy wise. A quick cab ride (Uber is not available in Budapest, FYI) and we were ready to go.
From the South, we worked our way slowly (and with a dash of escalator help) up Castle Hill.
It's a fun area to just wander. Cobblestone and hidden vistas.
Here's where I admit we did not go in the castle. I am sure it's awesome. But we were had such limited time that a deep dive into a museum wasn't in the cards for us. In part because I was primarily obsessed with seeing Matthias Church and the Fisherman's Bastion.
We stopped first Ruszwurm's, the oldest bakery ever. It's tiny and busy but has a great view of the church and treats, which are a good thing.
And then it was Church O'Clock. Matthias Church did not disappoint. It was like a pattern party in there.
An extra bonus was the museum on top. Thrones and jewels and outfits and tiles and more patterns. We skipped the climbing/riding to the top part, I imagine it is super awesome with the roof tiles a-dancing in the sun.
From there, the clear next step is the bright wide façades of the Fisherman's Bastion.
Another post-war reconstruction (thank heavens) it has seven towards that represent the settling Magyar tribes. The towers themselves either are a nod to the fisherman who protected this piece of the city walls during the Middle Ages or a nod to the neighborhood directly below. Either way, it's super neat with both incredible views and architecture.
And, what goes up came down. And then back up. While we didn't hit playgrounds in Budapest, it's always a good reminder that kids can have fun anywhere and deserve the chance to move their little bods. We accidentally wandered down a street that took us out of the hill faster than we thought.
And the idea of climbing back up to ride the funicular seemed exhausting...to everyone but Loie who opted for extra up on the way down.
So we opted to walk down, take it up and then back down. As I mentioned, our initial plan was to cross the Chain Bridge, funicular up/back and then head home. Our new plan had involved another cab to work around the race.
Lo was disappointed that we would only ride down, ok, so was I. But then as luck (or getting lost) would have it we wound up riding up, waiting for a front row seat and riding down...right as the bridge reopened.
I love me a funicular. They seem so practical and impractical. I will go out of my way to ride in one and delight in finding out someplace we're going has one (here's looking at you, Pittsburgh.) I have unabashedly pushed this love onto Loie.
The views did not disappoint.
Why back to Pest? Isn't it Buda Day?
Because it was Sunday and no longer the Jewish Sabbath. We wandered across with the goal of making it to the Dohány Street Great Synagogue before dinner and a night boat cruise.
Sadly, we did not make it into the synagogue, which I get into below, but we walked around the outside. I was really hoping to, it's huge and historic and gorgeous and Moorish and felt important to balance the march of the churches we are often on.
Despite my disappointment, I tried to model working through something and being disappointed without being devastated. We're using aspects of this trip (getting lost, having something be closed, etc) to showcase how you can keep cool and be peeved at the same time.
So, onward we went. Dinner was at Il Terzo Cerchio, a Tuscan inspired Italian spot. It was so, so good. Pizzas were great and the wine list fantastic.
In a way, though, it worked out that we went to dinner when we went as we made it to the boat cruise as the doors were opening. We got a seat near the TV so Lo could watch and listen to the audioguide as well as looking at the buildings and views.
I knew the city was transformed at night. I still gasped and poked Brett's arm and pointed and took a thousand blurry pictures.
Brett leaned over at one point and whispered "These people know how to uplight."
By the time it was over, it was after 10, the kid was exhausted and mumbled "Thanks mom..." as she fell asleep before we finished her song. It was a spectacular end to a great weekend.
I found the escalators to be, I dunno, scary? More than one seemed to operate at a faster speed and a few were steep enough to make us all a bit wobbly. I'm not generally afraid of dying on an escalator, but I was more so here than usual.
Hours vary and, we found, usually to our favor. Many guidebooks or sites said things would close earlier than they did. We thought we had missed our window to see ST Basical. But as we neared I saw people still on the observation deck and, yup, it was open three hours later than we expected. Could be the summer season or Budapest's growing popularity.
Parliament tours. Book 'em early. We wound up on a delightful, if not totally understandable, tour...in French. I speak subpar middling French and understand slightly above that level. I caught some stuff but not much stuff. I thought it wouldn't be fun for Loie but that she'd be cool. She LOVED it.
Boat cruises. I'd also book one early and I'd hazard to say a nighttime one is the way to go. At the height of summer that can be a LONG day but A) things are randomly open later so you fit more in before 9 pm and B) it so, so crazy pretty.
Using a currency with seriously high bills is incredibly confusing. We are both good at various parts of travel and generally keep good walking accounting. Our relationship with the Hungarian forint was borderline comical. Not only did we have challenges knowing how much things cost vastly underestimating and then in the next transaction overestimating, there were also moments where we took out 10X what we thought we had. I won't say who did that. But it wasn't me.
Bring something to cover your shoulders. Several churches require it. For a small kid, consider a bandana which folds teeny and can serve other purposes. I opted to spend 4 euro and get a scarf vs carry a heavy coat.
If you want to visit the synagogue, no shorts or short skirts or shoulders for girls. I *believe* no shorts/tanks for men either, but it wasn't as clear. This was the only disappointment in the trip...I was wearing knee length shorts and had covers for Lo & me but didn't want to be disrespectful and go in if shorts were frowned upon. As a feminist, I have a very, very hard time with dress rules more strictly applied to women but in general if I'm entering a place of worship as a tourist, I opt to defer to a most conservative interpretation of dress. It's my privilege to go in, not my right, as a non-practitioner. This led to a good conversation with Loie about religion and women and clothing that I'm glad we had...I'd have liked to have gone in though!
Driving in Hungary is a trip. Two quick notes: You will need to stop when entering the country to get a receipt for 10 days worth of tolls. I have no idea what happens if you don't have it and are pulled over. On the highways there are tons of reminders and zones designed to have you test that you are giving the car in front of you enough space. Initially, Brett thought this was incredibly civilized. We realized quickly it's because people drive fast with little space between cars and are prone to switching lanes in ways that made me gasp.