Like many of its post-Communist counterparts in Europe, Budapest has shaken off its impoverished appearance. Hipster bars, quirky coffee shops and trendy thrift stores have replaced the image of its impecunious East. The Hungarian capital’s make-over has given rise to swanky urban eateries, impressive luxury hotels and imposing bridges spanning the Danube. This is Budapest… in a snapshot.
Bridges are especially symbolic in Budapest. By crossing the Danube, they connect Buda and Pest: two halves of the city with very different personas. Buda is hilly and Pest is as flat as a pancake. In fact, the name ‘Budapest’ is a relatively new construct—further reflecting the city’s burgeoning sense of identity.
We’re lucky, as 21st century Europeans, to be able to visit our continent’s diverse destinations with competitively priced flights. Perhaps the only snag is that they often involve unsociable departure times, meaning that a fleeting sojourn usually constitutes the most affordable way to travel.
This was certainly the case when my girlfriend and I decided to take a trip to Budapest. As students, we naturally opted to go with the cheapest combination of flights, which meant we spent a grand total of 32 hours in the city.
We’d gone to visit my sister, who is currently living out there on an Erasmus placement. As it happens, this brilliant scheme — along with those inexpensive flights—may soon be at risk for us Brits.
Nonetheless, leaving those woes aside, this photo essay gives you a flavour of the sort of things you can experience in Budapest on a shoestring.
Use public transport to get a feel for the place’s personality.
Experience bohemian Budapest and chug cheap pints
On arrival, immediately get stuck into the city’s nightlife. First stop: Telep-Art Galéria, Madách Imre út 8, 1075.
This urban hang-out is where Budapest’s bohemian minds coalesce.
Art gallery and second-hand vintage store by day, bar/club by night, it’s a freethinking, house music-pumping environment.
Here, much like the Danube through the city’s bustling heart, the drinks and conversation flow.
What better place to sample the local tipple?
In Hungary, Fröccs, a kind of Spritzer, is very popular. But if that doesn’t take your fancy, Hungarian beer isn’t too shabby either.
Telep’s clientele can expect anything from art exhibitions, workshops, film clubs and outdoor performances. According to their Facebook page, it is a place for ‘igniting the imagination and unleashing creative energies’.
The venue’s very own vintage shop, ‘Judas’, reflects a growing trend in the city: fashion-conscious Hungarians are all about that retro, hipster look.
Oh, and the prices are great!
Next up, it simply has to be: Szimpla Kert, Kazinczy u. 14, 1075
Szimpla is the essential hotspot for any young person or backpacker visiting Budapest.
A pub-come-club, in this unique setting you can dance, relax or get lost exploring its many levels.
Complete with secret passageways, mismatched items, graffiti-covered walls and funky stairways, this is no ordinary venue.
Its website explains how ‘the opening of Szimpla Kert in 2002 has been literally and symbolically a milestone in the alternative life of Budapest’.
It is, therefore, the kind of place where the city’s new identity has been forged in recent years. In fact, ‘by searching for the cultural treasures of Hungary and the world’, Szimpla Kert has been a cultural trailblazer in Budapest’s alternative scene.
The ‘Szimpla lifestyle’ is defined by a combination of music, cinema, theatre shows, concerts and other associated events. Their main mission is to ‘shape our environment, making it more liveable and human friendly, by introducing and managing creative talents that help sustainable development in many walks of life’.
One such example of this philosophy is the Farmers’ Market in Szimpla Kert.
As well as promoting sustainable eating, the market provides an important public space for members of Budapest’s society to make conversation and discuss ideas about their city’s future.
It’s the home of Budapest’s new, avant-garde.
Whichever way you look at it, Szimpla Kert is a must see, if for nothing else but its colour, vibrancy and iconoclastic spirit.
Scale hills for goulash
You’ve had enough time to nurse the hangover. Now it’s time to get out and see the sites. What better way to clear your head than a brisk walk in the fresh air?
If you want to make the most of the city’s impressive views, get ready for some serious legwork. After all, scaling Buda’s steep hills is well worth it.
The first challenge: climb up to Buda Castle. However, if you’re feeling especially lazy, there is the option to ride the funicular.
Once you made it up – and back down again! – you’ve definitely earnt some lunch.
It’s time to sample the local cuisine.
When it comes to their food, Hungarians are all about hearty fare.
Goulash is the obvious choice, but pork, in all its forms — with lashings of paprika — comprises the real ‘meat’ of Hungary’s gastronomy.
A dish I’d recommend is Parikás krumpli. A sausage lover’s dream, this main course contains frankfurters, garlic salami and potato. Like goulash, it is served with bread and is nicely washed down with a local lager.
Swim in stunning thermal baths and admire striking views
A visit to Budapest wouldn’t be complete without a dip in their world-famous thermal baths. Not to mention they’ll work wonders to cure last night’s hangover!
Interestingly, the culture of ‘taking the waters’ in Budapest dates back to Roman times. Whilst none of these original baths remain, some are a legacy of the Turkish occupation.
Now, although the vast majority of tourists flock to Széchenyi, those in the know will seek out more sophisticated retreats such as Rudas.
The Rudas thermal baths are stylish and classy. Plus, there’s an array of things to do.
From steam rooms and saunas, to rooftop steam pools and massage parlours, you’ll find yourself happily spending hours there.
In order to avoid the crowds, it is advisable to go during the afternoon. That way you’ll get plenty of time and space to yourself.
After you’ve finally managed to tear yourself away, there’s just enough light to go and see the citadel.
Yes, there’s another hill to climb, but there’s also another fantastic view to be enjoyed.
At the top of the hill by the Citadella, the expanse of the city is revealed.
Then, as dusk encroaches, Budapest begins to light up.
Observing the Elisabeth bridge at sunset really brings to light the scale of Budapest’s renewal.
It is a city changed by the ideals of the continent that surrounds it. In the 21st century, it has kept pace and has transformed into a spectacular urban centre. What’s more, this modernisation is paralleled by the cultural rejuvenation of venues like Szimpla Kert and Telep.
Whereas Budapest’s thermal baths will always be an inevitable tourist pull, this European capital has so much more to offer.
Next time I’ll spend longer than 32 hours!
Cover and feature photos: Courtesy of Sam Stevenson