Over the river and through the woods to Budapest we went! We had the great adventure of exploring this beautiful riverside city with our good friends from San Francisco, Alison and Erik.
Budapest is a place of contrasts – at once flat Pest and hilly Buda, sort of Eastern Europe and sort of Western Europe, with elegantly ornate Opera Houses and ruin bars blocks away from each other. I didn’t know what to expect when traveling to Budapest, and I can’t say I really figured the city out after five days, either. Every place we visited or person we talked to added a facet to my impression of the city.
Sadly, Budapest was the epicenter of many conflicts in the 20th century – from World War I to World War II to post-WWII strife and communism (which is a contentious topic today). It is hard to grasp the full understanding of a nation with practically totally opposite viewpoints on everything from America in the 20th century. A Hungarian we met, though, did point out that growing up in the 1980’s in Hungary was not so different than anywhere else – he watched Tom and Jerry cartoons and lived a pretty good childhood. There are many different viewpoints on communism and its effect on people. I will say that it is amazing how the city has kept going and developing and progressing, especially in the past 20 years.
Rather unfortunately, I caught what Grant got in Munich and was sick for several days in Budapest. Even more unfortunately, Grant and I passed on our sickness to our friends – sorry, guys! You are troopers!
We stayed in the Jewish Quarter of the city. We walked around the neighborhood our first day – popping into shops, figuring out the currency (this necklace is 1,500 HUF!?!?! Oh wait. That’s only $6 USD), and visiting some important Jewish landmarks. There is a wall commemorating the victims of WWII from Budapest and more widely Hungary, as this area of the city was the Jewish Ghetto during WWII. More than 400,000 Jews were deported from Hungary to Auschwitz in total.
We visited the Dohany Street Synagogue, which is the largest synagogue in Europe.
Inside, it reminded me of a Catholic cathedral. Being in this sacred space made me realize how little I know about the Jewish faith and how services are held.
The most remarkable thing about the synagogue, though, was the outside garden around it. It serves to memorialize all the Hungarian victims of WWII. Over 2,000 Jews who died in Budapest during WWII are buried in the courtyard of the synagogue, and there is a metal tree with leaves of victim’s names to commemorate their lives. It is a beautifully simple garden area that makes you want to sit and contemplate the people who lived here. What did their faith look like as they faced persecution? I can’t even imagine what that would be like.
Amidst the sadness, there are some hopeful stories, including a Swedish ambassador and a Swiss ambassador who gave legal passports and safe shelter to save many Jewish families.
The next day we explored St. Stephen’s Basilica and the Opera House before heading to the famous Szechenyi thermal baths.
St. Stephen’s Basilica was decked in marble and gold, with ornate sculptures. The highlight, of course, was seeing what was supposedly St. Stephen’s right hand from around 1000AD (yikes!).
We were shown on a tour of the elegant Opera House, surrounded by soft red velvet and shiny gold accents. At the time it was built, the requirement was that it not be quite as large as the Vienna Opera House.
After getting some sustenance, we headed to our first thermal bath experience. There are several natural thermal baths around the city, but the only authentic ones are on the Buda side (Szechenyi is actually on the Pest side). They have large thermal pools of various temperatures. You pay basically a day use fee to use any pool you want. In Budapest, they are not only used for relaxation, but also for medicinal purposes. You can additionally get massages and use saunas there. It’s like a whole day spa, except for a lot cheaper!
We decided the outdoor pools were the most relaxing and hung out there for a few hours. Surprisingly, the hot temperature of the pools take a lot out of you! Every time we went to the pools, we felt quite drained afterwards.
I started to feel much better on Day 3, so I ended up having a fuller day of activities. We started by walking down to the Danube and crossing the Chain Bridge to Buda.
Very ornate facades greeted us as we walked down to the river. Here is a great example:
Once we crossed the river, we explored Castle Hill, which has several buildings of interest. Matthias Church was one of the most unique churches I have ever seen. The bright tile roof on the exterior only hints to the kinds of patterns, colors, and themes that the interior contains!
Photos don’t capture the sheer quantity of unique patterns that cover every inch of the inside of the church. Yet the patterns didn’t overwhelm the eye!
Then we headed to a tour of the Hospital in the Rock, which is a large network of tunnels and rooms underground, which were first used as a hospital and later a top-secret nuclear bunker underground. During the siege of Budapest during WWII, the doctors and nurses had to treat patients in this hospital for three weeks without running water. My crowning achievement of the tour was stepping up to try out the air raid sound maker – cranking to signal that an air raid was coming. I got a full applause from the tour group.
Hospital in the Rock sold the strangest souvenirs I have ever seen – original gas masks that were stored there in case of nuclear attack – for only $6 USD. Grant considered buying a few for a future prank, but we thought that transporting them might get difficult. Well, yes, Mr. flight attendant, I am carrying a gas mask. For what reason? Well, none, really, just thought it made a cool souvenir.
In true Budapest form, we capped off the day with a soak in the thermal Gellert baths. The shiny, tiled walls of the inside thermal baths relaxed and calmed as we let the hot water relax our tired feet.
Then we headed to a ruin bar for drinks. Ruin bars are basically old, abandoned buildings that have been transformed into trendy nightspots. The walls are crumbling, and you have to dodge random flea market finds from old computer monitors to rusty cars to find a place to stand. They are the trend in Budapest.
Grant’s keenly observed that it was like being in a Chili’s – except with authentic knick knacks everywhere.
Caving! As it turns out, around Budapest there is an extensive network of caves. Grant’s adventurous spirit must have sensed this, so of course we had to try out caving through them. We signed up for a tour with a company, and we had a lot of fun! It was a lot more intense than any of use expected! To be fair, though, the name of the tour was “Adventurous climbing-crawling tour”, so ….
We descended a total of 1000m underground, and at times we had to army crawl through 2-ft tall tunnels for about 10m or so. My heart jumped up in my throat a few times, especially maneuvering through the small spaces, but the instructor was patient, kind, and relaxed. Plus, how are you going to bail early on a caving tour? It’s not like there’s an easy way out! Mainly, I could just feel my muscles tire out towards the end of the tour. It turns out caving requires a different strength set than I usually am using!
Grant filmed me getting out of some of the tightest spaces on the tour, which you can see below to give you an idea.
In this first video, we had to go head first down:
In this second video, there was a certain way we had to wedge ourselves through the triangle-shaped hole in order to fit:
Needless to say, the climbing and sliding tuckered me out! I was pretty sore the next day. The tour was just Grant’s pace, and I’m pretty sure he could have stayed down in the caves and explored all day! We all agreed we had a great time, and it inspired us to do more adventurous things like this!
That evening, all of us went out to celebrate our last night together for a while. 🙁 A highlight of our evening out was me insisting that all of us try Polenka, which is a fruity brandy drink that you shoot. It was disgusting! To our credit, we all finished our shots, though.
My heart felt pangs of sadness saying goodbye to Erik and Alison as they headed on. Their friendship is such a gift to us, and we were so glad we got to see them and experience a new place with them. It can be hard to make friendships as an adult, and I treasure my relationship with them. They are the kind of friends who will fly cross-country to see you and visit, the kind of friends who are the only ones who are allowed to make fun of you about certain things, and the kind of friends totally worth keeping in touch with.
Grant and I’s last day in Budapest was spent in the way so many of our last days in places are spent: our own little food tour + impromptu walking around. It’s nice to relax into a place and not worry about rushing to various sites.
The romantic backdrop of one of the oldest cafes in Budapest lulled us into a hypnotic spell of sipping coffee, nibbling cake, and discussing our hopes and dreams.
We strolled hand-in-hand against the blistery wind along the Danube to a memorial to the Jewish victims who were murdered and shot into the Danube between 1944 and 1945. The sculpture lines a section of the Danube with models of all different kinds of shoes – from women’s heels to men’s work boots to dainty flats. It is a solemn reminder of all the anguish and torment that happened here. Never again.
Having seen Dachau and now the memorials to victims of the Holocaust in Budapest, my mind can find a weight to attach to what happened in WWII. I don’t have to imagine – I have seen the exact places where these horrific things happened, and I have a new understanding of who these people were. Seeing the specifics has given me a deeper empathy, a deeper understanding, and I can’t imagine having lived through that time in history and still having faith in society.
Stomachs growling for lunch, Grant hit TripAdvisor for nearby suggestions. Wouldn’t you know that there was a Tex Mex place within walking distance? It was like an oasis in the food desert of Europe’s Tex Mex scene. It is owned by a man from Colorado, and it was the real deal. We chowed down on so much chips & salsa and fajitas and washed it down with a fresh, frozen margarita.
The last food stop was a gelato place that makes the gelato looks like roses. I was so excited to see how they formed the gelato that way!
^Maybe a little too excited based on the crazy that you can see in my eyes in the above photo…
We combined chocolate, vanilla, and caramel to create the savory and sweet chocovanamel rose! It lived up to every expectation I had.
The way people had rescued rundown walls by turning them into colorful, bright street art really caught my attention as we walked through the city. Here are a few of my favorite street art works we saw:
Thank you, Budapest, for showing us so many sides of your elusive personality!