You’ll find what you’re looking for in Budapest
While describing one city by simply comparing it to another is rather lazy, sometimes it can be a very useful form of shorthand. For instance, it’s hard to think of a better way to sum up Budapest in a nutshell than to compare it to Berlin. That’s not to say it is a poor relation. Rather, it has its own identity and wonderful idiosyncrasies, but the Hungarian capital undeniably offers a similar mix of heavy history, buzzing nightlife and fascinating architecture.
Just like Berlin, Budapest has a particularly interesting past and one which stirs conflicting emotions. On one hand, there seems to lie a certain level of guilt at how helpless the country was to stop Germany from completely dominating the nation’s policies and decision-making during WWII. While this is explained away unconvincingly in the National Museum, it is spelled out in damning terms in the museum at the Synagogue (pictured, below).
However, feelings of negativity towards such subordination during the conflict contrast hugely with the pride that Budapest feels at the revolution against its Communist dictatorship in 1956. There are monuments all around the city to this landmark uprising, from statues of Pest Kids (think a Hungarian Gavroche from Les Miserables) to the national flag with the Hammer and Sickle crudely cut from the centre, which flies above a grave in memorial to the hundreds who perished in this watershed fight for freedom.
In truth, Hungary wasn’t truly free until the late 1980s. The ’56 uprising resulted in a move towards a ‘soft dictatorship’ but free voting only became reality in 1989. At such time, all Communist statues were finally removed from the city. They have since been relocated to Memento Park (pictured above and below), on the outskirts of Budapest, which stands as a constant and stark lesson about life under a Communist rule.
Visiting these giant reminders of a bygone time is a must for any visitor, and taking a guided tour – while nearly doubling the cost of entry – is highly recommended, as it brings colour and context to the story. It is remarkable just how deep the propaganda ran. Be sure to visit the exhibition centre just outside the entrance for an easily digestible chronology of the ’56 revolution too.
Stepping away from politics, yet sticking with the Berlin comparisons, Budapest offers all manner of amazing bars. Indeed, the drinking dens here are arguably even better. You can barely turn a corner without chancing upon an open door behind which lies unknown adventure.
Following warm lighting and a murmur of noise will lead to, for example, a watering hole the size of a living room, a pool club with insanely cheap beer or an old garage turned into a pub. A good way to discover some the city’s countless drinking spots is to plan to visit a handful of the official ruin bars – dilapidated old buildings that, rather than being ripped down or regenerated, are now supercool boozers – and then walk between them.
In trekking the cobbled streets, you are sure to chance upon places that aren’t in the tour guides. You’ll end up drinking in a beaten up old car in the middle of the beer garden, lounging on a hammock, sipping tequila in a tiny Mexican eatery, playing ping pong or filling your face with hummus.
A good place to start is on Blaha Lujza tér, on the corner of Jozsef and Rakoczi. As with most ruin bars, there is no facade, but when you reach some yellow-shirted security men standing outside an open door, you’ll know you’ve found it.
Aside from the dodgy music (an interminable mix of tiresome mash-up songs) this place is wonderful, and strikes an uncanny resemblance to Sydney’s Hibernian House. Climb the graffiti-ridden stairs and watch the pink sunset from the rooftop before venturing further into the city.
If you return later in the evening, expect the chilled vibe to be replaced by a banging party. By this time though, you’ll have have to queue for a while to gain entry.
Clear your fuzzy head the next day with a hike up Gellert Hill to visit the Liberty Statue – known to locals as the bottle opener (work out why, above). This spot offers stunning panoramic city views (pictured, below). A more touristy area but with equally fine vistas can be found further along the river, peaking at the Fisherman’s Bastion.
Elsewhere, Margaret Island in the middle of the Danube River doesn’t offer much in terms of sights, but is a quiet and green spot to escape the bustling city for a picnic on a sunny day.
Not too far from Margaret Island is the simply stunning Parliament building (pictured, below), which was inspired by the design of Westminster Abbey. Visit at night to see it resplendent in floodlights. It is here that you will find the aforementioned holed flag and grave.
If you have a morning to spare, then venture to some of the districts that sit away from the centre (the reliable, interchangeable and cheap bus, tram and metro system will get you there easily enough). While you may not find any specific tourist attractions, some of the buildings are beautiful, dominating thin streets with paint flaking from their Gothic fronts while impossibly boxy cars sit out front.
If you want a snapshot of the real Eastern Europe, you’ll find it by taking such a trip. Stadium nerds might also like to check out Puskás Ferenc Stadium, named after one of the world’s greatest ever footballers. Walk the perimeter of the ground to find entry to a raised concourse for a fine view of the stadium.
Of course, no visit to Budapest could be complete without heading to the thermal baths, where potbellied Hungarians rub shoulders with foreigners across a labyrinth of baths and saunas of varying temperatures. The most popular of these bathhouses is Szechenyi.
After checking out Hero Square en route (an important site in the story of the revolution), bask in the sun at the baths before dipping into 38 degree water in one of the large outdoor pools. To achieve ultimate relaxation, be sure to let the powerful jets of water massage your shoulders.
For a truly invigorating experience, head to the downstairs saunas which reach up to 100 degrees and then, when you can no longer stand the heat, step out of the sauna straight into the freezing cold bath next door. Your body doesn’t know if it is coming or going, but when you’ve done it you’ll feel strangely amazing.
Actually, that is probably the best way to sum up Budapest. Strangely amazing. At times it is a sensory overload, other times serene, but whether you are there to party, to breathe in its colourful history, or both, you’ll certainly find what you are looking for.
Words and pictures by Bobby Townsend