SHOESTRING BUDGET SERIES #1 – BUDAPEST

A random Google search about Budapest would throw you a hundred results on why the city is one of the best places to visit in Central Europe. I won’t digress – for someone who isn’t willing to shell a lot of $$, Budapest provides an ideal place to eat, drink, check out castles and steeple bells and in general, have a whale of a time.

What most of the travelers wouldn’t know before getting to the place is that it essentially is a tale of two cities split across by the Danube river. When you tread across the landscape of the Hungarian capital, you would realize soon enough that there are stark differences between the Buda and the Pest side (funny interjections aside, the “Pest” region is pronounced as ‘Pesht’ and is not the Hungarian equivalent of ‘nuisance’).

I had reached Budapest, all weary and tired from my train journey from across the Romanian city of Timisoara, in the middle of March when the city still bore wisps of snow and a receding winter. The first thing you do when you get down in Budapest is to make sure you convert enough money to the local currency.

There are some places in Budapest where they do accept Euros like in souvenir shops and eateries, but the conversion rates they give are usually daylight robbery. I’d also advise against converting it in airports or hotels, since they serve an elite populace and would definitely charge a lot more than the proper exchange centers. The best places are usually somewhere near the city center, with zero commissions on the transaction. The trick is to search for exchange centers on Google Maps with ratings over 4.5 on 5.

You should know that Budapest is famous for its patisseries, and you could find them everywhere – railway stations, parks and across the street corners. More on the food later.

So when you have stacked your wallet with forints and had a snack or two, get ready to explore the town. Buda comes with a flavor of its own, with cobblestone boulevards and its medieval, baroque styled houses. One of the major tourist attractions in Buda is its Castle District, replete with churches, palaces and home to eagle-eye views to the Pest region.

I started with getting a 72-hour city transit pass, which is inexpensive and can take you around the city in every medium of transport available – bus, tram or metro. Getting a pass saves a lot of hassle since a lot of tram stations do not allow you to buy tickets on the stop. Just my two cents.

Buda’s terrain is rugged, with most of the structures constructed on a slope. I hopped on a bus which took me to the Matthias Church, which overlooks the Fisherman’s Bastion. The 14th-century church is designed in the late-Gothic style, has intricate designs on its interior and has witnessed various coronations including the ones during the Hapsburg Rule. Entry to the church comes at a cost, but if you plan to go up the steeple as well, it could come at a discount. Unfortunately, I had encountered a heavy bout of fog, and there was no point in going up the steeple, and I was content with just the church interiors.

But honestly, you could save some money by just moving over to the Fisherman’s Bastion, where you could get some pretty fantastic views opening to the Danube and the magnificent Hungarian Parliament. There are seven ivory towers to the structure, with bells hung in them. The towers signify the seven Magyar tribes which settled in the place during the 9th century, which later laid the foundation for the city of Budapest.

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A few hundred steps from the church lead you to the iconic Buda Castle, which is built in the Neo-Baroque style. Before its construction, there stood another castle, which incidentally was one of the largest Gothic structures during the late Middle Ages. It was completely torn down during the liberation of Buda from the Ottomans and later rebuilt to the structure that stands today.

The castle is expansively built and breathtaking in its splendor and is home to the National Gallery, Budapest History Museum, and the National Library. You could ask for a map inside, which would point you to places which you’d want to see. I’d advise checking the art in the National Gallery and also the Renaissance sculptures that adorn the aisles of the castle. The museum also features a few rooms that have been restored ever since the World War II.

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There is a funicular ride just at the footsteps of the Castle, which leads you straight down to the Danube, where you see trams snaking past, parallel to the river. If you are feeling particularly adventurous, try taking it downhill from the Buda Castle, instead of taking a bus. Then again, the funiculars aren’t covered by the 72-hour city transit pass.

As you alight from the funicular, you would face the gigantic Szechenyi Chain Bridge. True to its name, its a suspension bridge built with chains for its cables, making it glisten in the sun. You always find this place to be very crowded and there are a lot of eateries where you could try some local Hungarian cuisines.

While walking over the Chain Bridge, you could see street artists and musicians on the side lanes. On one corner, I found a guy drawing cartoon caricatures of people for 3000 forints a piece. I really liked his work and got a picture of myself as a souvenir. And while he was tracing my face, he told me a fascinating story of the Chain Bridge, which was quite intriguing, particularly as it sounded more like an urban legend.

At the time of the construction of the bridge, the world had not seen a structure of such enormity. The architect of the bridge was a man of immense skill which was only trumped by his ego. It is said that he had boasted of the seeming flawlessness of the design and apparently challenged the local populace that if they could find a mistake somewhere, he would pay them a considerable bounty.

Buoyed by this, the people had scoured the bridge, high and low, to identify a mistake – but in vain. Everything about the bridge seemed perfect until finally, someone noticed the lions that guarded the entry. All of them missed their tongues. The legend goes on to say that the architect overcome with shame, jumped to his death from the very spot on the bridge.

Of course, I was pretty certain that this was probably a story he told every one of his customers, but I found it to be pretty good all the same. And if you are curious about the lions – yes, their tongues are missing.

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After the guy had finished his story and the caricature, I asked him for the best experiences in town, which didn’t involve castles and museums. It was already dusk, and thus he told me it would be a nice idea to try the tram line adjacent to the Danube, because of the views it gave towards the Hungarian Parliament.

He wasn’t wrong – taking the Tram Number 2 was one of the highlights of my Budapest travel. It was already dark with temperatures plunging below zero by the time I boarded the tram. I had got myself tucked in a window seat to the view, as the tram chugged along, just on the precipice. The view opened up to the dark waters of the Danube, highlighted by the stunning lights from the Parliament and the buildings from across the river. If you are lucky, you could also find hundreds of swans floating around, oblivious to the cold and the hundreds of people on the brink.

Incidentally, this particular tram ride is listed on TripAdvisor to be one of the top 10 tram experiences in the world. That’s some bonafide reasoning for you to get on that tram when you’re in Budapest.

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Next in line on my list was the Jewish District. Budapest had a huge settlement of Jews dating way back to the 10th century AD. Over the centuries, they had flourished in trade and amassed a lot of wealth which they spent on building up their part of the town, the signs of which still exist. (A lot of it was lost during their struggles in the World War II when their region was ghettoed)

Apart from the Dohany Street Synagogue which is an obvious tourist destination on being the largest synagogue in the whole of Europe, there lies in the depths of the Jewish district, a number of bars which go by the name of Ruin Pubs. People throng these pubs not just for the variety of drinks that are available, but also for the experience that comes with being inside one.

The most famous and probably the oldest of the lot goes by the name of Szimpla Kert. True to its name, the ruin pubs are rundown shacks, with trippy art across aisles, quirky broken down automobiles and glass figurines lying around. The idea is to create an atmosphere where people can lay back, enjoy the luster and have a great clubbing experience. There also is a tradition of leaving something behind as a mark of you being in that place. People usually sign their names on the walls, tables and the objects lying around. After all these years and thousands of signatures later, the walls resemble weird modern art made of illegible scribbles.

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The Pest side is flattened out, and there is a lot of affordable housing, leading to a more dense population on this side of town. One of the significant structures in hereis the Hungarian Parliament. The size of the structure cannot be realized unless you happen to peer upon it from close quarters. Just to give you an estimate – it would take you about five minutes to walk around it. Entry into the building comes at a price, and it can only be done through guided tours. I would recommend trying it since the tour takes you through the marvelous interiors of the building.

The Parliament is the second largest legislature building in the world and is jointly the tallest building in Hungary, sharing it with the St Stephen Basilica, which incidentally is located on the Pest side as well. I’ve been to a lot of cathedrals across Europe, but the St Stephen Basilica is probably the biggest of them all. People flock to check out the stupendously huge in-house organ pipe, the elaborate decors and sculptures spread across the basilica. There also is the possibility to go up the basilica, and it offers one of the best views towards the hilly Buda side.

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Having mentioned all this and not mentioning food would be sacrilegious. Budapest offers a variety of dishes, starting from the road-side savories to the generous portions served in higher-end restaurants.

One of the oldest pastry shops in business is the Daubner Cukrászda, which has been in existence since 1901. The desserts, cookies, parfaits and traditional Hungarian pastries are some of the best in town. I would suggest trying their Bejgli, a pastry made with poppy seeds or a walnut filling. Daubner’s ice cream varieties have stood the test of time, and the crowds that line up outside the store stand in testimony to their success over the century.

Another must-try dish would be the Langos (pronounced ‘Laangosh’), typical Hungarian fast food made by deep frying dough. The Langos comes in different sizes and shapes, with countless choices for the filling. Situated in the heart of Budapest is the Retro Langos Bufe – home to some of the tastiest langos dishes in town. When you are there, try chatting with the head cook (he is very friendly) and ask him to recommend you some fillings. Their langos would make your day.

If you head to the Jewish Quarter, you get to try authentic Jewish recipes like the Flodni or the Matzo cake as well. If you want to try the kosher versions, head to Carmel Pince where the Matzo cake is a local favorite. If you want to try the Flodni, you should look no further than Fröhlich Cukrászda, a confectionary stall located in the Quarter as well.

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I bid adieu to the city of Budapest after walking through the Old Jewish Quarter, which presents a varied collection of street art splashed across facade walls. There is a lot of abstract art in there, graffiti to signify a football victory and even 3D art (which apparently works well with a 3D glass). I had finished up all my forints over the exploits in the region and went inside the Central Railway Station one last time, heading back home, laden with memories for a lifetime.