I love Europe. I’ve tried to help it, although I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s that other people don’t, not as much. I’ve been told I’m missing out, having not been to Asia or South America or even really to Mexico. But I don’t care. (Should I care? Of course, I guess.)
But there’s something about Europe that just keeps drawing me back. Budapest, I think, is a city with the reasons why.
A Quick Lap
To me, born in 1987 and growing up and developing my brain in the 20 years post, Budapest and Hungary weren’t what I thought would be a desirable travel spot. Rome, Paris, London… those are the meccas for the high schooler’s mind. They’re the typical places – the cities you hear about, where movies are made and posters are shot.
And Budapest, when I was young, was still young, too. Not really – it’s been around forever. But the Soviet Union was rubble and the smoke takes a long time to clear. You don’t just have to beat back the Devil at your dinner table, you then have to convince your guests it’s okay to return.
Hungary, like Poland or Slovakia or the Czech Republic, certainly like Bosnia or Serbia or Croatia since 1995, had to work its way back into Westerners guidebooks’ graces. Now, it’s almost romantic to go to a city in that Eastern envelope, where you might find buildings riddles with bullet holes or gypsy women and crumbling convenience stores.
You call it authentic. But unless you’ve gone there intentionally, you’re sort of wondering whether it’s safe or not. (Even though, let’s face it, you’re much more likely to get robbed or killed walking too far down the wrong street at the wrong time in New York or L.A. than you are in Budapest or Prague.)
So how shocked and thrilled I was, when I was 21, to stumble upon Budapest.
It was supposed to be the throw-in on a trip to Berlin, Krakow, and Prague. It was just a city in between the others, a new cosmo to check off on our way through. It seemed almost Middle Eastern to me – the architecture, the beads and the soupy, green food, and the way it’s as Asian as it is European, kinda.
(The Baths really seem more Asian than they could ever seem European. They’re Roman in their heritage, then Ottoman. They come before the modern world and its ideas of what continents and their identities were – they come more from the time when things were still traded on silk and gold roads, when it took years to get from your home to your place of business, back when if you adopted the spices and tastes and culture from Asia, it stayed with you on the other side of Russia. Portugal has this, with its proximity to Africa; the United States has this, of course, with Mexico.)
I loved it, all of it in Budapest. I loved the Baths. I loved the view from way up high, on Gellert Hill. I loved the main drag and the goulash-y bowls and the beef. I’ve been back since, with my shoes tied better and more money and worse ideas, and I’ve seen the nightlife everyone raves about: It’s why you write home.
PHOTOS: Budapest and its Baths, from @KolbySolinsky on Instagram
You’ll spend hours winding down into a foggy spiral, hopefully at one of the city’s Ruin Pubs.
These are what set Budapest apart from other cities in Europe, even the city back home, wherever you’re from in Canada or the U.S. Like Lisbon has its street drinking and Prague has those Euro-trashy dance clubs, Budapest has the Ruin Pubs – they’re the reason to go, to stay, and to drink a whole lot. You can go to bars back home – you can spend $5 on a glass of beer, which you’ll be able to do anywhere on Earth. But Ruin Pubs? These are a Budapest thing.
Szimpla Kert’s the famous one. It’s the first name you’ll hear when you ask the hostel desk, ‘Where should I go tonight?’ I think they have to say it first – it would be like going to Anaheim and not mentioning that Disney World’s in the vicinity. Szimpla Kert must have 20 or 30 different bars all in one massive building, and the building’s more like an old factory or rundown former something: the roof’s open and you can see shreds of something like tarps dangling down; the benches and tables are made of old cars; every corner has some new theme, some new bar-top where you can get drunk for very little money.
There are others, too: I haven’t been to them, but I’m sure they’ll hold up: They’re all listed off here at RuinPubs.com, definitely worth you time since each one has a different theme and aim. Some like trance and dance, others are for beer.
The Meat, Bones, and Broth
The city is meant to be walked, I think, although it’s big enough to deserve a taxi or a tram or two.
But really, I don’t think you can get the feel for place – for where it’s been, for what it used to be, for where it’s going – if you don’t do that long stroll either up or down the Andrassy. At the top, away from the Danube on the Pest side, you’ll eventually run into the Szechenyi bath and Heroes’ Square. The other way, you’ll slice through the pulse of the city – past a million off-streets and avenues, all of them leading to other attractions, restaurants, and all that – and you’ll finally navigate through what must be the city’s old town, its enjoyable tourist trap and the Hungarian State Opera. You’ll hit the Danube, where you’ll look up at the Chain Bridge and up at Buda. To your right, if you have the vision and Stretch Armstrong’s body, you’ll see the famous Parliament Houses – easily, Budapest’s most image-worthy image, the one on the cover of every brochure.
And honestly, even though I should have known I’d love the place, I was surprised I did… both times, in fact.
Because I still couldn’t get the image of a grey, poor Soviet state out of my head. It’s what I’d been fed and sold on, all my youth – of all these places in what was, to me, basically Russia: Poland, East Berlin, Hungary, Ukraine, all them. Because of when I was born and how I was raised, I saw the Cold War as something ancient and historical – to me, a naive little Canadian shit raised an ocean away, I didn’t realize that what happened to Hungary in the 20th century wasn’t the norm. It was actually a bastardization, a kidnapping, and an assault of a terrific heritage and deep history.
Budapest was a great city once – with imperial design that inhaled the world. It’s a great city again now, and it was always great even during its worst times, but it’s a rebound great – I don’t think it will ever work its way up to mean what Paris or London or Rome means, and that’s probably okay.
The Soviet Union is a part of its history like acne is a part of your teenage years, but I guess that still has to count. And maybe Budapest is better for it, because it’s adulthood is something you can’t miss.
We stayed at the Big Fish Hostel: One of the cheaper options in Budapest, a city which surprisingly carries a high per-night price tag, as far as hostels go. (This is probably due to the swells of backpackers the city receives, but won’t worry – Budapest itself is still insanely cheap to eat, drink, and enjoy. As of the early 2010’s, at least.)
I’d recommend the Big Fish again. It had everything you need, and don’t be afraid to spring for a Private room – it’s worth it, with a nice, cozy bed in a beautiful old room above a beautiful old city.
The hostel, like every other one in the city, has plenty of tours and activities, and they’ll be able to direct you and your backpack wherever you want to go.
Most young travellers, however, will make their way to any of the city’s officially slogan’d ‘Party Hostels’ – yes, Budapest has its own network of them, like a club of the cool kids…
Carpe Noctem and Carpe Noctem Vitae are two of the biggest. RetoX and Grandio are the others in the party hostel brotherhood. If you want to drink, meet, and fuck, these are your best bets – not that you need to be a pig about it or anything. But honestly, most people staying here probably have those three things in mind, or else they would have booked somewhere else.
PHOTOS: More of Budapest, from my Instagram account (@KolbySolinsky)