Last weekend, Jon and I travelled with our friends, Russell and Johanna, to Budapest. When we booked our tickets a few months ago, I was a little ambivalent because I’d heard several times that Budapest was “just like Prague,” and honestly, I had an eh time when I visited Prague. (In Prague’s defense, I was there in March 2006, and let’s just say that Prague in March was a little too cold and gray to inspire much love. Wandering the streets in that weather was unpleasant and sitting at an outdoor café table impossible).
Well, I really shouldn’t have worried. Budapest is now one of my favorite cities in Europe. Here’s why:
- We lucked out and had three days of 70-degrees-and-sunny weather.
- Budapest’s buildings are beautiful, lots of Baroque and Renaissance gorgeousness.
- The city has a strong bath-and-spa culture, and admission and services at bath complexes are priced so you can go every day if you want. (We visited both the Gellert Bath and Spa and the Szechenyi Baths because the ever-stylish DailyCandy Travel made them sound so appealing).
- The nightlife has something for everyone. For me, highlights included fancy cocktails at the art deco Four Seasons Gresham Palace Hotel; generous pours at the energetic biergarten-in-a-warehouse, Szimpla, in the old Jewish quarter; sampling Hungarian wines at Klassz Etterem Wine Bar; and touristy sunset drinks at Café Panoramia with a stunning view of the Danube river and the Hungarian Parliament building.
- Getting around by metro or taxi is easy and cheap. 1200 Hungarian Forents ($7.60 at 156 HUF to $1) will get you from one end of Pest to the other via taxi; and an unlimited 3-day public transport pass costs 3500 HUF ($22).
A note on the baths. Jon and I thought this 2004 New York Times article about all the major Budapest baths was useful for an overview of the many Budapest bath options. That said, if you can choose only one bath, I’d recommend the Szechenyi Baths (pictured at the top of this post). It’s located in the City Park, and we were there with a lot of locals: old men playing checkers and young men strutting their stuff. I was worried that because it’s so big and relatively cheap (2000 HUF/$13 for two hours) that it’d be unsanitary, but actually, if you bring flip flops and your own towel, you’re all set. [Flip flops because the shower room floors are wet and a tad muddy and a towel because the Szechenyi Bath doesn’t seem to rent any). The outdoor thermal pools are the star attraction at Szechenyi, very pretty (see photo at the top of this post) and fed by hot springs at a toasty 100F.
The Gellert Bath and Spa (photo above) was also nice in its Art Deco glory, but it was much more touristy than Szechenyi, and the highlights at Gellert were the indoor pools, not the outdoor ones. Also, the Gellert has separate male and female facilities, so if you go with someone of the opposite sex, you won’t be hanging out together.
I actually would’ve loved Gellert because of its calm, beautifully-restored indoor pools, but the service there was so unfriendly and the processes so confusing that I had a hard time relaxing. We walked in, paid for admission at the cashier, and then we were told that if you wanted extra services like facials or massages, you booked those just off the main lobby after entering the spa. And the services only took cash, so if you don’t have enough on you, you have to exit the spa, find an ATM and then re-enter.
After booking our services, we walked underground to reach a series of small, metallic cabins (they were dark and dank) to change into our swimsuits and store our valuables. The major hassle is that every time you need to get something from the cabin, you have to convince a very-unfriendly cabin attendant to come unlock your cabin with a master key. Given our confusion about when and where we needed to use cash or show tickets for our towel rentals, etc., we ended up making multiple trips to the cabin. It was slow and unpleasant having to ask the attendant to repeatedly unlock our cabin. I much preferred the lockers and keys at the Szechenyi Baths.
And now, just a few parting images of some of the beauties of Budapest, because my next post will be the usual food roundup.
The Gresham Palace Four Seasons, a recently-restored art deco beauty. I usually avoid hotel bars because they can be so anonymous, but the iron curlicues, soaring ceilings and whimsical chandeliers inside the Gresham are worth a gawk. We enjoyed our $20 cocktails at the Gresham (Four Seasons pricing, all right), though we could’ve used a slightly-less-surly server.
Drinks at sunset from the Cafe Panoramia gave us gorgeous views of the Danube and the Hungarian Parliament Building (photo above). Surprisingly, despite the views, prices weren’t bad and the service was pretty attentive. Definitely not your usual tourist magnet-kind-of-place, and I’d say that generally, Budapest was tourist friendly without being tourist schlocky.
The interior of the Great Synagogue (photo above) was a sleeper hit for me. Both our TimeOut Budapest and DK Eyewitness guidebooks said that the Synagogue is the 2d largest in the world, next to Temple Emanu-el in New York. But they failed to mention that the Synagogue’s elaborate interior is as gorgeous as that of any cathedral. Definitely worth at least a 30-minute stop.
And handily enough, just down the block from the Synagogue is Budapest Bikes, where for 2,000 HUF/$13, you can rent a bike, helmet and lock for six hours and toodle along the Danube and explore leafy Margaret Island. The bikes were in great condition, and the staff there were super friendly and helpful with suggestions on where to bike.
We had such a fun trip that I’m already looking forward to re-visiting Budapest one day.