So initially, I was planning on going to Budapest a couple weekends back, but (if you read my blog about it), I ended up in Prato and Verona because the trip got cancelled.
Anyway, it worked out in my favor because they ended up giving me a trip to Budapest AND Vienna for the same price, and all of my roommates had booked this one as well.
I was especially excited to go to Budapest and had initially only booked it to meet up with my friend, Alex, who I’ve known since I was 9. We went to Harker together since the 4th grade and were also in the same advisory throughout high school. He’s studying in Budapest, so I jumped on the opportunity to hang out with him for the weekend.
There were 11 of us girls going, and the bus usually stops in Florence to pick up more people. It was a little different this trip, though, because we were literally the only ones leaving from Rome, so we each got our own row in the bus for the first 4 hours. There were 28 of us total, but for the most part, we all still got our own rows (sorry, but not actually sorry, Florence kids. We were on the bus way longer than you).
We left Rome at 5PM Thursday evening and arrived in Budapest at 8AM Friday morning. When we got to our hostel (appropriately called Bazar Hostel), we checked into our room and got freshened up before breakfast. Unfortunately, only one of our group’s rooms was ready, so 11 of us cramped into a room designed for 6 and proceeded to use one mirror and one sink. After that madness, we walked for about 10 minutes to a little restaurant that provided us with free breakfast. The eggs reminded me a little of the ones we ate at Oktoberfest, but I managed to stomach them.
After breakfast, we went back to the hostel (the other group’s room was ready), changed, and headed out into the city for a 3 hour walking tour. Since it was All Saints’ Day, the streets were a little dead for the first half of the tour. Our first stop was the Jewish Synagogue (our hostel was located pretty close to the Jewish Ghetto). There is an exact replica of this synagogue in New York, only much larger. Throughout the weekend, I noticed a constant police presence in front of the synagogue, similar to the one in Rome. All (most) of the buildings in Budapest are whimsically beautiful in their Easter European, fairytale-esqe ways- even if they don’t have any historical significance or purpose.
Next, we stopped at the tram line which parallels the Danube River. From where we were sitting, we could see the Buda side of Budapest which included the Buda Castle, which houses the King of Budapest, and a gorgeous church that we didn’t have a chance to see.
Our tour guide pointed out a couple famous statues, including one of Budapest’s version of the Statue of Liberty, appropriately called “Lady Liberty.” Hungarians joke that she makes a better bottle opener than a symbol of freedom (her arms make the perfect circular shape).
She also pointed out a statue of a child, that is actually the current princess of Budapest. It’s custom to touch statutes for some form of good luck, so we touched her knees to insure that we’ll return to Budapest within the next 3 years (pretty ambitious).
This trip is also the first one where we started to see hints of fall, so that was especially exciting for my east coast roommates (according to them, California doesn’t have seasons).
A little further down the road, we stopped at a statue of a policeman, Charlie, whose significance I am not 100% sure of. He did have a nice belly though.
From this standing point, we could also see St. Stephen’s Basilica. Named after Budapest’s first king, Stephen, it is the 3rd largest church in Hungary. Also- fun fact, Stephen’s hand is stored inside of the church, but we didn’t have enough time to go in and see it. It’s the most important church in Hungary.
When the tour ended in front of the Opera House, we sprinted to get any kind of food (ended up with Chinese food and Starbucks- so American) and went to an ATM. Hungary is on the Forint- 223 Forint is equal to $1.
After we ate lunch, we quickly changed and got ready to go caving in some of Budapest’s famous caves- located on the Buda side. Since the group was fairly large (and included other people not affiliated with Bus2Alps), we waited for about 30 minutes before we were given our suits and helmets. I think the first part was one of the worst- a huge descent into a narrow cave using only a ladder and your own coordination. I almost cried.
Once, in the 7th grade, I went to Yosemite for a school field trip, and we went into the spider caves because my leader thought it’d be fun. We were only in them for about 20 minutes (given, we didn’t have headlights), but I’m pretty sure I had a panic attack and started to actually cry. This was not a good memory to have going into this 3 hour long adventure.
Needless to say, I had a great time- much to the credit of our guide, Frodo (he was a little man, so he nicknamed himself after the Hobbit?). His assistant, however, would pop in and out of places without using a headlight- they’ve been in these caves for so many hours that they practically have them memorized. I don’t know his name, but he would whistle creepily while he pranced around the cave, so I appropriately nicknamed him “Madár” (Hungarian for “bird”). He also didn’t speak any English, and would try to lead me in the wrong direction more times than not. By the end of the trip, Madár found joy in hiding in places to scare me, and it was awesome.
At a point in a cave called the Theater, we had caught up to another group and had to wait to move on. To entertain ourselves, we agreed to turn off all of our headlights and sit in silence. It was a literal pitch black, and we sat there for about 5 minutes waving our hands in front of our faces to try and see them- no luck. This cave was called the theater because there are apparently groups of people who go down with instruments and play music because the acoustics are incredible. Since 5 minutes went by and we were still waiting, Frodo let us climb into the “Winnie the Pooh” hole. In the movie, Pooh gets stuck in the tree trunk because he ate too much honey. Coincidentally, I also got stuck because I couldn’t squeeze my large rear-end through, and I woke up a few days later with bruises on my hip bones from trying to wiggle my way out.
After that fun experience, we made our way into a crevice called the “earthworm,” where you literally have to squeeze into a tiny crack in the rocks and slither through like a worm. I was laying on my side, one arm above my head, trying to pull myself through, while also not being able to move my neck to look to see where I was going. Also the creator of a large bruise, this time on my shin.
Earlier on the tour, we were walking on a trail, and I look back to see Madár scaling a small passage next to us (like on American Gladiator). Naturally, I made a comment to Frodo along the lines of “pardon me, he’s crazy” and he was so amused with my response that he decided we all try it on the way back out. That was fun. I sprinted the rest of the way.
In all seriousness, though, I would definitely recommend caving; in fact, I would most likely do it again. I’m not sure if it was the funny guides, the funnier reactions of my friends, or the actual amazing sights, but caving could easily be one of the best parts of my trip to Budapest.
When we were finally back to the hostel, we all changed and went straight to dinner without showering. My friend, Alex, agreed to meet up with us, and we ate at a restaurant called the Hummus Bar. I’m usually not a fan of hummus or Greek food for that matter, but this was actually amazing. We also had a Hungarian beer called Dreher.
That night (after showers), we decided to go to Szimpla (pronounced Simp-luh), the largest ruin bar in Budapest, and the #3 bar in the world. A ruin bar is basically what the name entitles- a bar that is built into ruins of buildings that were left untouched after Nazi attacks during WWII. I didn’t get any good pictures of it, but there’s always Google image search.
At Szimpla, we had a beer and hung out, but then decided it’d be a good idea to try Absinthe. After we ordered the shots, we were also given a glass with 3 sugar cubes and a spoon in it. We stood around and waited for instructions, until finally a bartender scooped up a cube with a spoon and lit it on fire. We let the sugar come to a sizzle, blew out the fire, dropped it into the glass of Absinthe, and then stirred it up before downing it. Even though Alex had got us a bottle of Coke as chaser, it surprisingly wasn’t bad. It tasted a lot like Jaeger in the sense that it was extremely licorice-y.
Alex’s friends also met up with us at Szimpla, so we stood around and chatted while they hookahed and had a few more beers.
Since it had quickly become 3AM when we decided to move onto another club, there were only 8 of us left, including Alex’s 5 friends. We went to a dance club called Instant, which, similar to Szimpla, was a multiple story building with open areas and multiple rooms. When my girlfriend and I were walking to the bathroom, we ran into some of the guys who were also on the caving tour earlier that day (they were in the group that we ran into in the Theater cave). We ended up sitting and chatting for about an hour before we realized it was 4:30AM and it was probably time to head back to our hostel.
The next morning, we woke up around 10 and planned to meet Alex at the Grand Market Hall. Since our hostel was in the Jewish Ghetto area of Pest, it was a bit of a walk- the market is down by the Danube (and also near Alex’s apartment). It was nice, though, because there were only 2 of us girls as opposed to 11, and we didn’t feel rushed or stressed about having time constraints.
The inside of the Market Hall reminded me a little of one that my parents and I went to in Anaheim, but instead of Mexican food and piñatas, there were fresh meats, fruits, and little Hungarian trinkets. The lower level had groceries and produce, while the upper level had clothes, food stands, and souvenir booths. Since we hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, we decided to try a traditional Hungarian dish called lángos. Lángos are fried dough covered with a variety of strange, but delicious toppings. Since we weren’t feeling very ambitious, my girlfriend and I got lángos topped with garlic and cheese. It was the strangest, most delicious breakfast/lunch I’ve had in Europe so far.
Once we finished eating, we figured it’d be best to walk off the lángos and explore some parts of Budapest that we didn’t get to see on the tour. We walked alongside the Danube and eventually made our way into the city center to get coffee and shop a bit.
Since it was a little overcast, and we hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before, my friend and I went back to our hostel to take a nap before we made the journey to the famous Thermal Baths. When we woke up, it was raining and getting dark, but we figured we’d still better go. We met up with Alex outside the metro station and rode it to the last stop- the Széchenyi Baths.
The Széchenyi baths are the largest medicinal baths in Europe, naturally heated by 2 large springs. The outdoor pools, which are the ones we went in, are heated between 27- 38°C depending on the season. There was a whirlpool in the bath that spun fairly quickly, but also had therapeutic purposes. Also built into the sides and the bottoms of the pool were jets that you could use to massage your back/legs. Since we were sore from caving, it was both painful and relaxing to stand on them.
We were in the water for over an hour and were sufficiently pruney when we finally decided to get out. We changed, hopped back on the train, and made the walk back to our hostel to figure out what we were going to do for dinner. When we got to our room, our other Roman friends were getting ready to walk on the Széchenyi Chain Bridge to the Buda side of Budapest and see the Buda Castle. Alex walked us to the Danube, but had to meet a friend, so we agreed to meet up later for drinks.
After walking around in the cold for what seemed like hours, we started walking back in the direction of our hostel, and found a traditional Hungarian restaurant where 9 of us sat down and had dinner.
Since Hungary is known for it’s production and use of paprika, I went full-Hungarian and ordered a paprika chicken lángos. When we were back in our hostel all full of fried dough and alcohol, I remembered that I was supposed to meet up with Alex. Naturally I made him and his friends pick us up at our hostel so we didn’t have to walk by ourselves.
We ended up at a pretty cool outside bar with rows of tables (kind of reminded me of Oktoberfest), and started with a drink called a “Shrek” – named after its neon green color. Alex said that it’d be strong, but it actually tasted more like juice. Then we had some Hungarian alcohol which was actually extremely strong, but also pretty disgusting. The first was a shot of Unicum, which was similar to Jaeger so it wasn’t too awful, but I definitely wouldn’t try it again. 20 minutes later, we did a shot of Polinka which actually tasted like a combination of rubbing alcohol and death. Since it was around 1:45, and we had an early morning to head out to Vienna, we decided to call it a night.
When we got back to our hostel, we decided to talk to the guy who works the front desk for 30 minutes before we went to bed. It was interesting to hear that it’s common for Europeans, specifically Hungarians, to teach themselves English by watching American TV. He also told us about some of the street art (graffiti) he had done within the past few months, along with other random stories that I can now add to my “Random Hungarian Man” archives.
The next morning, I was pleasantly awoken by a woman screaming bloody murder in the street outside our window. After 45 minutes and many police sirens, it was finally silent, only now it was time to get up.
We got to Vienna around 10AM, checked into our hostel (Wombat Hostel), and had breakfast/lunch at Mariahilferbräu. My friend and I decided to split some unknown fried meatloaf patties since we were trying to eat traditional meals. That may or may not have been a mistake.
After lunch, we headed to the metro station so we could get to our 2 hour walking tour (which was now, conveniently, in the rain). When we got off the train, we were pleasantly greeted by the St. Stephen’s Cathedral- the most gothic church in Vienna.
Similar to the architecture in Budapest, all of the buildings- no matter their purpose, were beautifully detailed.
There was also this statue. Significance: unknown. It was rainy and cold and I was focused in on the Starbucks nearby. Oops.
This next picture is of a street that used to be a coal market many years ago. It’s now currently the most high-end, expensive street in Vienna.
The little teal dome peaking out at the end of the street is the Hofburg Imperial Palace, which used to house some of the most important, powerful, and famous Austrian leaders.
The palace’s entrance is located in St. Michaels Square, which is also the location of one of the oldest churches in Vienna.
After we left the main court, we walked out into an open area between some green space and another branch of the palace. In the middle of the park, there was a statue of Archduke Karl on a horse. This statue is a mystery to sculptors because it weighs 35 tons, but is only supported by the horse’s back 2 legs.
Next stop was Josefsplatz (Joseph’s Square), which is considered one of the finest courtyards in Vienna.
Our last stop was in a small plaza with significance relating back to World War II. The first sculpture is of “the Gate of Violence,” where you can clearly see the faces of suffering skeletons (Jews) engraved into the rock. The second is of a Jew forced to scrub the ground with a small brush while being tortured by Nazis.
When the tour ended, our guide pointed us in the direction of some places to get famous Viennese Sachertorte, which all originated in this hotel: Hotel Sacher. The Sacher is also located directly across from the famous Vienna Opera House, so it’s not uncommon for celebrities such as Madonna and Justin Bieber to be seen in this area.
Since this was the founding of this cake (1832) occurred in this cafe, it was extremely expensive, so we opted for a cheaper alternative. The Sachertorte is a chocolate sponge cake with apricot jam and dark chocolate icing. We also got an apple strudel to split, because apparently Vienna is famous for those as well.
We were all exhausted from the walking tour, the cold, and the cake, so we decided to head to Starbucks to hang out until we were supposed to meet for the opera.
That night, we went to Kursalon Wien, to see an opera called “Sound of Vienna,” which included familiar music from Looney Tunes.
When it was over, we debated going out to see what Viennese night life would be like, but instead decided to stay in our hostel and get a good night’s sleep. This made it a lot easier to get up the next morning to go see the Schönbrunn Palace (Summer Palace), which we had to take more trains to.
Since this palace is famous for its gardens, it was nice to finally see some more fall weather and foliage.
We seriously debated (for about 20 minutes) whether or not we should go into the zoo, which was located on the Palace’s grounds. It’s the oldest zoo in the world, and we got a little teaser (through a small opening, we saw a rhino walk by). Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time, so we decided to head back to the hostel and grab food instead (Starbucks and Subway.. so much for being “traditional”).
Overall, it was a great weekend. Long, but great. The trip went from Thursday night to Monday, and we didn’t get back in Rome until Tuesday morning around 2:45AM- yes, I missed 1 class.
I’m seriously in love with Budapest- it’s a close second to Croatia. I’d go back in a heartbeat. Wish you could have seen it. Miss you all so much.