I spent my long weekend in this buzzing metropolitan city soaking in thermal baths, getting tipsy in beer spas and ruin bars, drowning in goulash, reveling in operatic performances, and absorbing all the culture and life Budapest had to offer.
Budapest, filled with graffiti street art and endless supplies of goulash, is also the home to the most sites for thermal water in the world. Thermal bathing is a cultural heritage for Hungarians dating back thousands of years to the Roman era. The largest medicinal bath in Europe, situated in the middle of City Park on the Pest side of Budapest, is Szechenyi Baths, a striking yellow 1913 neo-Baroque structure. What makes this thermal bath stand out from the dozens of other baths in the city is not because of its 3 grand outdoor pools or its 15 indoor baths with a sauna and steam chambers, but rather because it houses a thermal beer spa. That’s right, you heard me, a beer spa! For 45 glorious minutes, you can relax in 36°C (96.8°F) water infused with natural extracts from beer such as malt, hops, and yeast. And to top it off, the tubs, which are made in the design of enormous beer barrels, are situated adjacent to a beer tap where you are allowed to imbibe as much beer as your heart desires.
Keeping in line with the dilapidated atmosphere of the city, spread throughout the Jewish quarter, are strings of Ruin Bars. Following WWII, the Jewish quarter or district VII was left to decay and from amongst that rubble arose an underground bar scene. Abandoned buildings were no longer forgotten but became a hub for an artistic and eccentric nightlife. My first night in Budapest, I found my way into Szimpla Kert, the oldest among all the Ruin Bars. From the outside Szimpla Kert blends into the neighborhood, maintaining its ruined condition, and even hosting a farmer’s market on Sundays. However, come nighttime, this unique place springs alive and becomes a sprawling and lively social venue with exposed piping, graffitied walls, and an array of mismatched furniture grabbing your attention the minute you walk through the doors. Large open air gardens give another dimension to the pubs where small groups of people come together centered on a shisha, or hookah, while others spend time contributing to the ever increasing and peculiar art plastering any exposed surface. These Ruin Bars convert a typical experience of a night out on the town to a truly unusual and quirky evening.
I am a firm believer eating your way through a city is the best way to discover the authenticity and heart of a place. So eat I did…mainly goulash. I can never get enough of this beef and vegetable stew seasoned with Hungarian Paprika. Over the few days I visited Budapest, I found myself staying on the Pest side of the city, mostly concentrated in the Jewish quarter where the bohemian nightlife is centered and thus, so are the best restaurants. One of the most attractive features of Budapest is the insanely low price of everything, for example, a beer costs ~€1.50, a subway or bus ticket is just ~€1.00, and the spa is €15.00 for all day plus renting a personal walk-in changing locker. The food is no exception with an average dinner for two costing ~€30.00 including drinks!! I almost couldn’t believe it.
As I was on the hunt for the best goulash in Budapest, on my first night there, I entered Gettó Gulyás, primarily based on its name. Outside, Ivy plants dangled around the windows and surrounded the handwritten and dimly lit menu. Upon entering, I was greeted by a rush of coalescing smells of Hungarian stews, meats, and red wine which wafted throughout the cozy room. Candles illuminated the wooden tables and warmed the corrugated metal siding covering the walls, emanating a chic, rustic industrial charm. As I hoped, the goulash was beyond my expectations. From the very first bite, I was struck by the tiny essence of dill, which after living abroad for so many years, was so prominent, resembling the distinct flavor of my Mother’s cooking. As many households are in Eastern European culture, the kitchen was the center of my home, where we would gather and talk about our day as my mother cooked dinner. Never, in my time living abroad, have I tasted something which brought forth such memories, causing a wave of homesickness. In fact, I was so impressed by this restaurant, I went back the following night and was so exuberantly greeted by our waiter that I felt like I was in fact home.
The following day, I was craving goulash again for lunch which led me to For Sale Pub as my next test. Yes, I did indeed have goulash for both meals that day! The pub was a tiny restaurant seemingly placed inside a living room with a line of people waiting to be seated. Although the size was striking, what truly astonished me was the interior design as, dangling from the ceiling or plastered on the walls, every inch was covered by layers of paper and long, thin golden stalks of straw were scattered over the ground like a barn floor. Even the support column was entirely coated by postcards, doodles on placemats, and even old receipts, as if they hired a hoarder to decorate. However, as I was getting absorbed by the quirky and unique design, I was immediately zapped out of my trance as waitresses yelled and pushed customers out of the way. I was backed up against the bar, trapped between a stack of menus behind me, the register to my left, and, to my right, a line of people so long it was out the door. Some people made the mistake to ask how long the wait will be, just to be sharply snapped at in response. Luckily I only waited 15 or so minutes compared to people following me in who then waited for over an hour. Before I even had a chance to look at the menu, one waitress came over and yelled that I needed to go upstairs because the table I was seated at was for the bar only. I traipsed up the stairs just to be yelled at by the waiter to go back down because we didn’t have a reservation! At first I was shocked by their behavior as I avoid confrontation like the plague and I have never seen in all the years I bartended through college a waitress scream at a customer before, but by then, I had gone back downstairs and was once again seated at the same table as before and was thrown a menu. Although the service was astonishingly abominable, the goulash, which was served in an enormous bowl, was great. Unlike the goulash at Gettó Gulyás, For Sale Pub’s goulash did not remind me of home and was more stew-like than soup which I ladled into my personal bowl. After asking for the check following a rather pressured, quick meal, I was once again screamed at. It confused me how they were mad that I wanted to give them money and even more so, mad that I even wanted to eat there. The bottom line is although the goulash is great, it’s not as good as others, and certainly not worth the horrible experience.
As luck would have it, an Italian opera I have been dying to see, Il Trittico (1918), was playing one of the nights I was in Budapest. Il Trittico, by Giacomo Puccini, is a compilation of three one-act operas, Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi although they are rarely performed together totaling over 3 hours in length. Although the Hungarian State Opera House, or Magyar Állami Operaház, is closed until 2019 for renovations, performances are held at the Erkel Theater, a more modern secondary theater. The progression of the operatic triptych begins with Il Tabarro, a very bleak and grim performance associated with typical verismo (“true”) opera of the late 19th and early 20th century. Verismo strives to portray the world through a more realistic lens, which Puccini was well known for in works such as La Bohème in 1896 or Tosca in 1900. The second of the trilogy is Suor Angelica, a somber opera crossed with divine mysticism. The final of the trio, Gianni Schicchi, which was the main reason I wanted to see this opera, is my personal favorite. The libretto, by Giovacchino Forzano, is based partly on Dante’s Divine Comedy. This devilish comedy of impersonation, deceit, and betrayal is a perfect way to conclude Il Trittico, ending on a much lighter note.
Following the performance, I concluded my evening at Rosenstein, a family-owned restaurant near the theater. Despite the goulash being good but not mind-blowing and the decor of the restaurant was neat but not spectacular, I had a particular reason to visit Rosenstein, that is their foie gras. Believe it or not, Hungary is the world’s second largest producer of foie gras and also the largest exporter, mainly to France in its raw form. Foie gras is the liver of geese or ducks which are specifically saturated in fat. Rosenstein served its goose foie gras pan-fried in Tokay sauce, Hungary’s famous sweet wine. Forget the side of onions rings which overpowers the delicate dish and turns an elegant meal into pub food. Rosenstein’s foie gras is buttery, rich, and it melts on your tongue, everything you expect from a top-notch preparation.
Whichever type of travel you prefer whether it’s a cultural immersion, a culinary investigation, or even a relaxing exploration, Budapest, from its quirky nightlife to its stellar, insanely affordable cuisine, can accommodate anyone easily.
- Szechenyi Baths- Don’t forget the beer spa!
- Szimpla Kert- The original Ruin Bar that started it all.
- Central Market Hall- Tease your senses as you shop through an array of meats, spices, and even souvenirs.
- Gettó Gulyás- order the goulash, obviously!
- Rosenstein- order the foie gras.lmon tartare accompanied by brown rice and an artichoke and red beet puree.
- Dohány Street Synagogue- The largest synagogue in Europe and second largest in the world.
- St. Stephen’s Basilica- Climb up 364 stairs to the cupola for stunning, panoramic views of the city.
- Magyar Állami Operaház- Although closed, tours are still operated with a short 2 aria concert at the end.
- Hungarian Parliament Building- After visiting take a walk by the Danube and see the ‘Shoes on the Danube Bank’ memorial installation.
- Liberty Bridge- Walk over a chain bridge connecting the Pest and Buda sides adorned with large bronze statues of a Turul, a mythological bird of prey.
- Buda Castle and Castle Hill- stroll through medieval streets, underground passageways, and nuclear bunkers all accessible by cable car.