Budapest: The Paris of the East

Parliament from across the Danube...
The so-called Paris of the East, the Hungarian capital made for a wonderful February escape. Though temperatures were no warmer than in Paris, sunshine and cheap prices (1 euro = 305 forints) more than made up for the cold.

We spent three nights wandering, eating, caffeinating, and generally soaking up the vibe of this city that I hardly knew at all. It’s in eastern Europe, so generally themes of destruction during World War 2, communism, and populist uprisings were in there somewhere. I also had the keywords "thermal baths" and "paprika" in mind, but other than a few quick Google searches, I let fate guide us (along with the recommendations of a few reliable friends).

The result? An experience well-beyond my expectations and hardly a dent in my Parisian wallet.

In the Great Market Hall, because you can never have enough paprika...
Day 1 : 

After a bit of wandering, we stumbled upon the Great Market Hall. Food stalls serving up traditional Hungarian specialties hit the spot. Produce, meat, fish, and paprika vendors peddled their wares under a giant 19th century glass and iron canopy. It’s touristy, but tasty and convenient.

We then had a piece of flodni, a walnut and apple cake, at Café Noe, supposedly one of the best in the city. Worth it for sure.

Wandering back towards the opera district, we stopped in the Alexandra Bookstore, akin to Barnes and Noble, but with a gorgeous gilded and Renaissance-style coffee house on the upper floor. The menu is a bit pricier than most coffee houses (around 4 euros for a white chocolate or banana hot chocolate), but you get top-notch service and a piano player. Classy.

Coffee shop inside the Alexandra Bookstore

I wanted to eat at least one good meal, since others had said the food was not good unless you went Michelin star. We did not find this to be the case at all, but I reserved a table at a quirky little place set up by some journalists, called Firkász. For about 30 euros a person, we ate (and drank) like kings. It was definitely an excessive price for Budapest, but considering that would have been the price for some steak, fries, and wine in certain parts of Paris, we didn’t feel scammed. The piano player (they love them!) set a really nice atmosphere.

At night we stopped into one of the city’s ruin pubs. The first one I tried was called Instant. Essentially abandoned apartment blocks, these repurposed bars are the it scene in the city, and with cheap bear, art installations, and a generally amiable crowd, it was the perfect way to cap off a night
"Look out!"
Day 2 :

We wandered more in the morning, through the old Jewish district and down to the famous Buddha Hotel. Next door is an old building with a gorgeous glass gallery, akin to the one in Milan but smaller, that is being renovated by the Buddha to become a new hotel.

A future hotel lobby.

We headed to the City Park for the city’s famous thermal spas. We chose to go to one of the most popular, and Europe’s largest, Scéchenyi Thermal Bath, in the heart of the park. If you’re hungry, grab a langos (a euro or two) at one of the little huts just outside – fried dough topped with garlic, cheese, ham, or something sweet. It’s divine, cheap, and utterly inappropriate. Then head inside, rent a locker, get into your swimsuit, and prepare to relax.

The spa was filled with tourists and locals, but there was always a spot to sit. Two hot pools outside were the perfect way to start, sunning in the middle of February – Paris has a lot to learn. Inside, various steam rooms, saunas, and medicinal pools surrounded by Neo-Baroque architecture – in short, it’s gorgeous.

One of my favorite little streets.

Afterwards, we took continental Europe’s oldest metro lines back to the center of town for coffee at one of the oldest cafés in the world, Gerbeaud. It smacked a little bit of Ladurée, so we didn’t stay too long, but the coffee was good!

Then dinner at a tiny little place that served goulash and chicken paprikash with starters and wine for about 8 euros. I might save this one for myself.

At night we walked the river, taking in the Parliament building while illuminated by crossing the Chain Bridge, the city’s first permanent bridge. We tried to check out the local gay scene, unsuccessfully, before meeting up with some people at Szimpla Kert, my favorite ruin pub of the two.

Teddy came along to see the Chain Bridge.
Day 3

We spent the morning hunting for the famous chimney cakes, kürtőskalács, that are much more prevalent during Christmas time. Basically a yeasty dough roasted and rolled in cinnamon or chocolate, it’s divine, if you can find it. We headed towards the river to Molnar’s, a bakery that specializes in the cakes all year long.

We took it across to Buda (most of the time we stayed in Pest, where the action is) and found an escalator and elevator up the hill to the Buda Castle for some stellar views of the city.

We stopped in for coffee and cake at at the tiny but adorable Ruswurm. We took a peek from Fisherman’s Bastion, the turrets and church overlooking the city, and headed down across the bridge and back to the metro.

Chimney cake anyone?

A quick train and bus ride to the airport, and we were out of there, our tummies (and wallets) very full…

GO : AirFrance, around 130 euros round trip from CDG to BUD. Cheaper flights available on RyanAir, but it's worth the extra few euros to leave from CDG.

STAY : Hotels are cheap, but we stayed centrally in a hotel-apartment situation, Town Hall Apartments, which was very convenient and had a welcome desk with very friendly locals.

EAT : coffee and cakes in at least one historic coffee house, langos (fried dough topped with whatever you want), stuffed cabbage, goulash, anything with paprika, chimney cakes rolled in cinnamon, apple and walnut cake, cheesy pretzels or sticks or basically anything from the bakery.

SEE : The spas (about 15 euros for entry and locker), otherwise the rest of the things we saw we did not pay to go inside, though there are many museums to visit. For three days, visiting the Chain Bridge, Parliament at night, Fisherman’s Bastion, Buda Castle, and the Great Market Hall was enough.

Side note: Don’t go when Russian President Vladimir Putin is in town, the security will be insane…oops!