This post is the third and final leg of the three city trip. April 2016.
Budapest felt like the leg of the trip that we were all waiting for. None of us had been before and we had heard nothing but great things. I was most excited to visit the bath houses and to find some ruin pubs.
Upon arriving, the first thing we noticed was how much of the architecture was still in disrepair from WWII. 1944’s Siege of Budapest destroyed 80 percent of the city’s buildings and was one of the bloodiest campaigns of the entire war.
Another reminder of the violence were golden plaques in the sidewalks identifying sites of former Jewish ghettos. We spotted one in the pavement leading to our airbnb.
But from the destruction, something unique has risen. Makeshift bars, called ruin pubs, have appeared in bombed out and abandoned buildings throughout the city. Some are well established, like Szimpla Kert, while others pop up and disappear again. They usually have an unassuming exterior but then open up into courtyards filled with people, art, and lots of nooks to explore.
After visiting Szimpla, we walked around in search of food and found a food truck serving Jewish street food. I couldn’t even tell you what we ordered, but it was huge and delicious.
It was a relief to come to Budapest and find it so inexpensive. Meals, accommodations, and going out at night were all really cheap. And look at this money!
We walked to the Danube river which splits the city into Buda on one side and Pest on the other. Seven bridges span the river and the city’s oldest is the Chain Bridge. Pedestrians as well as cars can cross and you can even sit on the steel ledges and watch boats pass.
For dinner that night, we found a ruin pub that also served tacos! Located in the nightlife-centric District VII, Ellátó Kert had a very cheap menu, a huge patio, and several connecting rooms.
In contrast to the DIY vibe of the ruin pubs, we came across Bar Pharma , an upscale cocktail bar also in District VII. A nice touch was the liquors listed periodic table-style on the wall. Here, Dan and Vikas were treated to a real-deal absinthe shot. First, the bartender filled two glasses with ice. Then, an absinthe spoon was placed atop the glass and a sugar cube on top of that. Absinthe was slowly poured over the sugar cube so that it dissolved through the slotted spoon and onto the melting ice. Dan shared a sip with me and I about fell off the stool.
In the morning, we prepared for our first bath house, The Széchenyi. This yellow behemoth (est. 1913) is the largest medicinal bath in Europe, boasting three outdoor pools and lots of indoor saunas and soak tubs. The water comes from underground thermal springs and is known to help with some things like joint pain. All I know for sure is that I came out feeling like a new person.
There are cabin rooms you can rent for the day, which I highly recommend because you can change into your suit, leave your bags, and store your drinks/snacks to return to.
Hours went by, but you’re so relaxed you don’t even notice. When we left, we all agreed how light and care free we felt.
We were fully on board with bath house culture at this point and were anticipating trying the other popular one, Gellert, located across the river on the Buda side. Before soaking, though, we made sure to get nice and sweaty climbing up the hills for a view of the city.
Gellert bath house is the more beautiful of the two. It was built around the same time as The Széchenyi, but in art nouveau style. Every pool, ceiling, and room was covered in intricate tile work. We rented a cabin here too. As in the other bath house, you can enjoy increasingly hotter thermal pools, eventually working your way up to the super hot steam rooms. Then, you dive into an ice bath and repeat till your heart’s content. Another plus for this bath house was being allowed to sip beverages in their outdoor pool.
Again, we left feeling so refreshed. The bath houses of Budapest were really a lifesaver on the trip, curing us of sore, traveling legs and accumulated hangovers.
By this time, Daniel’s cousin who lives in Copenhagen had joined us. Sabrina found the place we went to for dinner that night, Kiskakukk. For over a century, the restaurant has served traditional Hungarian dishes. Goulash was ever present on this trip and I said no to none of it.
After dinner, we went out for drinks and dancing at Corvin Club. Non-descript and located in an ugly strip mall, it was easy to miss. I think we walked past it twice. We finally found the door and were greeted with the usual signs – big bouncers and a bored looking cashier. We paid and climbed the several flights of stairs towards the flashing lights and pulsating music. Corvin Club has several dance floors and a rooftop that looks equipped for movie screenings too.
The next day, and our last, was spent walking all over Budapest and seeing a ton of sights. We visited the Parliament building, crossed a different bridge, and hiked up to Buda Castle and the Hungarian National Gallery. The view from so high up was beautiful. It was hard to imagine the city was ever overrun with soldiers and warfare.
That evening, we sat at one of the many sidewalk cafes lining the Danube and watched the twinkling lights across the river on the Buda side. It had been a mad dash through eastern Europe, but we tried to let it soak in one last time.