Maybe my expectations were too high, or maybe I was hoping for something that doesn't exist. Growing up, Budapest seemed like an exotic bridge between the east and west. In reality, Budapest is decaying, gray grandeur, an ode to a lost empire overlayed by years of communist oppression and the current right-wing fascist government. There was an air of unease and overwhelming tobacco smoke, anti-government graffiti poking its head around the corner. And in between the mildewed and dirty wedding cake of Austro-Hungarian buildings were tour buses and backpackers choking the alleys.
Budapest had its moments but I genuinely did not want to be there and I don't think I would ever go back.
WHAT I LIKED
Completed in 1913 in the Neo-Baroque style, the Szechenyi Baths were my favorite attraction in Budapest. The bathing complex, located in Budapest's largest green space, City Park, features 18 pools and 10 saunas, as well as massage therapists, facial treatments and more.
When we arrived at the baths, things were a tiny bit confusing. We purchased our day passes to the baths; we did not order any extra spa treatments like a massage or a private cabin. The day pass comes with a locker rental but not a towel rental. To rent a towel, go downstairs to the locker room floor and go towards the men's locker room. There will be a desk where you can rent towels, and a safe if you need it. You will need to put a deposit on the towels in addition to the rental fee, but you get that back when you return them.
Getting a locker in this place made me feel like I was in a Fellini film; it was that level of ridiculousness and confusion (even the locals were confused). Find an empty locker, put your stuff in the locker, and then find an attendant to lock it for you. When you return to your locker, you need to find an attendant to open the locker for you. None of this clear when you arrive at the baths, but don't worry, you won't be the only person who is completely befuddled by this.
Outside there are multiple swimming pools. I liked the one with the whirlpool in the middle the best. To get to the indoor heated pools and saunas, follow the signs for the "SAUNA." There are several pools indoors with different temperature levels. None of them are overly hot and were safe for my pregnant friend. We did not experience the saunas because my friend was pregnant, and I do not like the feeling of being suffocated and getting heatstroke.
Dohany Street Great Synagogue
Dohany Street Great Synagogue is the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world (the largest center for Jewish worship is in New York City). The temple can seat up to 3,000 people and is also home to the Hungarian Jewish Museum.
Consecrated on September 6, 1859, the inside of the temple is absolutely stunning. The building which houses the Hungarian Jewish Museum is also historically important because it was originally the birthplace of the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl. Outside the building is a memorial to the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
Visiting the Great Synagogue and Hungarian Jewish Museum felt important and moving, especially because of current and serious antisemitism in Hungary. According to the 2015 Anti-Defamation League report on Hungary and antisemitism, 40% of adults answered “probably true” to a number of questions on antisemitic stereotypes. Antisemitism is on the rise in Europe and the United States and to combat that it's important to me to visit places of Jewish history and importance. It's a strong reminder of what hate and ignorance can do. It's an absolute must-visit for any stay in Budapest.
When visiting make sure to wear appropriate clothing, no tank tops, shorts or skirts above the knee, or sandals. Docents will provide men with a cardboard head covering when entering the inside of the temple. You will need to have your bag checked and go through a metal detector. The entry fee is 4000 Hungarian forint (approximately $15).
I loved my stay at Avantgarde Apartments in the Jewish quarter of Budapest. While it was a little pricey for one person ($50 a night), it would be an excellent price for a group or a couple. The apartment I stayed in could sleep up to six people, so eight dollars a person per night for a beautiful apartment with a kitchen and laundry is a steal.
The apartment is centrally located and across the street from the original ruin pub, Szimpla Kert, and the outdoor food cart Karavan. It was easy walking distance to several metro lines, a number of restaurants, and the chain bridge into Buda. It's a popular area for backpackers but quiet at night and secure all day.
WHAT WAS OKAY
Great Market Hall
Located in the city center is the super touristy (you have to walk through the tourist gauntlet of street hawkers and big red bus people to get to it) Great Market Hall. Built in 1897, it is a five-minute walk from the city center and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Budapest. It is three floors of butchers, prepared foods, cheeses, and tourist trinkets.
Completely packed with people, it can be overwhelming for people who don’t like crowds, and the knickknacks were nothing special, most likely coming from the same factory. I was able to find a booth selling artistic prints of Budapest that were created by the booth owner’s mother.
Fisherman's Bastion and Matthias Church
The Fisherman's Bastion is a fairy tale like viewing terrace which serves as an extension of Buda castle providing excellent views of Pest and is one of the most visited spots in Budapest.
Built between 1895 and 1902 to celebrate 1000th anniversary of the Hungarian state, the seven towers represent the 7 Hungarian chieftains who led their tribes to found present-day Hungary in 895. It was designed by architect Frigyes Schulek who was inspired by early Medieval architecture.
My favorite part of the whole complex: the Empress Sisi exhibit in the Matthias Church. Empress Sisi was an intriguing woman and unlike other royals; it was nice to see an exhibit dedicated to this special woman. Empress Sisi liked to visit Hungary for its more relaxed atmosphere, as she found the formal Hapsburg court of Vienna to be stifling.
The crowds made it hard to have a good experience. There were so many tour buses and groups of people that it took away from the artistry of the architecture. Every time I turned around to get a shot of a cornice or statue, someone was there with a selfie stick or their cell phone pouting their lips, so they could look like a fish in front of a historic monument. Not that I was any less of a tourist.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE
There's a whole other post about this, but just to reiterate: the food in Hungary was a huge letdown after Croatia. The one thing I will say in defense of Hungarian food is there's more variety available than Croatia, and they have numerous types of delicious lemonade available. I got food poisoning twice in Budapest which is not something I expect in a developed European nation.
It Was Dirty
I'm not opposed to a bit of grunge. I lived in Oakland and San Jose, spent many a day in San Francisco, and watched people shit in the middle of the street in Vietnam. What struck me about the grunge in Budapest was the level of decay. There are all these previously grand buildings that are covered in the most boring graffiti, mildew, and grime. Not that everything has to be shiny and new to meet my picky tourist eyes, but it felt like a lack of pride or maybe a fuck you to the tourists who come here to see the architecture.
There were also homeless people everywhere. There's nothing wrong with homeless people. I lived in Santa Cruz for ten years where all the neighboring cities send their homeless, as if they were some sort of disease or rodent population. It was a jarring contrast after Croatia where we saw almost no homeless people and no people sleeping on the street. I felt like I was back in a San Francisco BART station. It lent to the feeling of people not caring about each other, which on top of the dirty buildings made the city come off as unwelcoming.
Hungarian is cool. It is practically a language isolate, only distantly related to Finnish and Estonian. There are very few cognates and recognizable words. The consonant clusters are unfamiliar, confusing, and challenging. On an academic level, Hungarian is fascinating, and I want to know more about it.
On a traveler's everyday level, Hungarian is frustrating. I've never felt more linguistically isolated than I did in Hungary. When I was in Vietnam, the words were short enough to begin piecing phrases together even if I couldn't pronounce them correctly. Croatian was difficult but had enough relation to Slavic and Romance languages that it felt familiar. Hungarian was alien. I wanted to try to speak a few words, but I couldn't get them to come out of my mouth, and I fell back on the classic American asshole tourist behavior of speaking English everywhere. Thankfully, many people in Hungary speak some English.
The escalators in metro stations are steep, fast, and long. Entering and exiting each one filled me with a moment of terror: would I fall to my death only to be crushed by a group of thoughtless Hungarian commuters? This was especially difficult with an enormous rolling suitcase.
The Customer Service
Normally, I have no problems with off-hand customer service. I don't expect the fawning behavior of American servers when I'm traveling abroad, but outright rudeness is not something I expect. At one establishment, I got up to the counter and the service worker said, "No, I'm not serving you," and then when I got out of line, he took the order from the people behind me. Wow, I've never experienced that before.
I had another strange customer service experience when I was in Eger, a small city in eastern Hungary. I had checked into my hotel room and thought they were done servicing the rooms, so I did not put my "do not disturb" sign on the door like I probably should have. After showering, I decided to relax on my bed, without any clothes on, and watch some YouTube videos. All of a sudden, I hear someone opening the door and say something in Hungarian. I turn to see a middle-aged woman in a housekeeping uniform. I repeat "No, nem, nem," but she continues into the room. Apparently, she just had to replace the Fanta in the mini-fridge. She was completely unfazed by the naked woman and we both ended up laughing. Still, not really okay with me.
I know that I will be back in Budapest at some point. I will probably enjoy myself more with another person in tow with me. Maybe it was the crowds, maybe I was burnt out from travel, or maybe I just didn't think Budapest was that great.