Budapest is a city I can’t properly describe. It is a place that somehow simultaneously has something that almost everyone will find enjoyable, and destroys all of your expectations.
You’ve probably heard from your friend who traveled through Europe on a dime (and who made it that far East) Budapest is renowned for its nightlife. This is absolutely true, but the particular character of Budapest’s after-dark activities makes it unique.
The most prominent example of this is the preponderance of “ruin pubs” in Budapest. A “ruin pub” (according to a helpful tour guide and this website) is typically found in dilapidated buildings in the Jewish Quarter, which after 2000 were turned into functional commercial spaces, decorated with whatever was to hand, and opened for business.
One of the most popular and famous is called Szimpla kert, and from personal experience I can tell you that walking around inside on any given night is almost like stepping into a weird adult version of Wonderland. You run into staircases and spare rooms when you were expecting to find a bathroom, and on the hunt for a drink from a bar you thought was just a few steps away you can suddenly turn a corner into a live music show. You’ll find people sitting in bathtubs, on reclaimed merry-go-round steeds, or smoking shisha on mismatching chairs. There are multiple bars inside, catering to different tastes in different rooms – there’s a cocktail bar, a wine bar (Hungarian wines are delicious), a beer counter, an area specializing in Palinka (the local fruit brandy), and a little stand selling food. Most of these are centered on an open-air courtyard strung with mismatching Christmas lights that you honestly weren’t expecting to be there until you tumble into it. It’s magical.
Though it’s amazing today, it is worth noting that the reason these “ruin pubs” came to exist in the first place is not a cheerful one. The condemned buildings that house many bars and nightclubs are in what is called Jewish Quarter . Despite being a horrifying reminder about how whole sections of a city’s culture can be altered and erased so quickly, it also serves to remind that nothing in the urban landscape comes about solely of its own accord—larger historical, political, and market forces are what drives urban shapes.
Another item worth mentioning is the city’s glut of “escape rooms.” For those of you who don’t know, this type of game is an interactive mystery puzzle game, usually set on the premise that you need to figure out how to unlock the exit door using a series of clues placed inside the room. I’d heard of these before, and because of the hype resolved to try one. So I convinced three absolute strangers who happened to be staying at my hostel to come with me and split the cost four ways (you’d be surprised at how far you get just by asking strangers if they’d pay money to be locked in a room with you). Half of us had already started drinking before we went, and even despite that we were able to finish within the time limit with some hints from the proprietors and promptly rewarded ourselves with drinks. I highly recommend the Locked Escape Games!
For those of you who are more into pampering yourself, Budaest is also home to several amazing bathhouses. I visited the largest and most well known of these, the Szechenyi Baths situated in the City Park. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and even in the baths you were spoilt for choice: there was the beautiful warm outdoor pool with elegant fountains, where you could just take in the beautiful building surrounding you. Indoors, there are at many pools with different mineral mixtures and temperatures, and below them is a fully equipped sauna facility with a variety of aromas, temperatures, and even an ice bath. Bring a towel, bring flip-flops (though you can rent or buy these here), bring your swimsuit, this is well worth a day of your time. If you enjoy walking and earning your soak, the neighborhood between the city park and the House of Terror Museum is a nice place to walk through on the way to Szechenyi. (PSA: As much as I wanted them, I do not have pictures of the bathhouse because I didn’t want to get my camera or phone wet)
A nice slow-paced day activity is a trip to the wildlife refuge on Margaret Island in the middle of the Danube; a very enjoyable afternoon walking in trees (if you’re starving for nature), petting horses, and looking at a bunch of chickens and ducks picking fights with exotic birds.
For those of you who enjoy a good shop, is the Pesca Market that happens on Saturdays in the City Park until 2pm. It takes a little while to find (it’s held in a performance venue behind the mock castles in the City Park), but it’s well worth the trip. You can buy almost anything under the sun—hand-embroidered tote bags, antiques from as far back as WWII, as well as cheap chocolate, perfumes, clothing, and electronics. It was never not packed absolutely full of people—I was there for a few hours and it was consistently full.
Budapest is a city that is figuratively bursting at the seams with things to do, and see. The historic castle, the Parliament building, the Grand Market, the escape rooms, ruin bars, markets, and thermal baths. It’s a crime that you don’t hear about this gem of a city as much as you hear about visiting Paris, London, Rome, and Berlin. Budapest is funky, but has its own style and charm that sets it apart and makes a trip well worth it.