BUDAPEST, HUNGARY — At first take, Budapest could be any number of European capitals. Sitting right on a wide, slow river. Low, stone tenements spreading out on either bank. A proper medieval castle staring down from the cliffs above. Pretty standard stuff in this corner of the globe.
It’s only when you start to dig deeper that Budapest’s true character rises to the top — and it doesn’t stop.
Seven hours from Munich, after a long roll through the green Austrian countryside and a whistlestop tour of Vienna, we pulled into Pest’s international station and took our bearings. It was a short four-day out-of-towner for some much needed R&R–and Budapest was recommended as a cheap date. A cheap date that knows how to have a good time.
We arrived into town just along with the rain showers. After a soggy walk along the Danube we opted for indoor activities instead and sought out the huge indoor market that looked more like a train terminus. So used to the pork-sausage-pretzel offering of the Bavarian markets, the color and smells of this epicenter of Hungarian cuisine knocked us back a step. Home of every kind of smoked meat, ground zero for much of the continent’s Foie gras reserves and enough paprika — in every level of smoke and heat — to burn a hole to China.
And then we ran into the langos. Think of a salty fried funnel cake topped with no less than a dozen accoutrements — from pepperoni to olives to pickled peppers and of course cheese and sour cream. What was recommended as a “snack” turned into a battle to the last bite. Awesome.
The next day and the skies began to clear, so we took the chance to jump across the river and up the hill to the castle proper. Us and about 10,000 other tourists. After spectacular views of the valley below, we made our way out of the fanny packs and Nikons to seek out the (semi) secret Labyrinths that undercut the medieval village around the castle.
The 3km of caves, catacombs and tunnels at one point served as cellars, cisterns, torture chambers and Cold War command centers. Nearly alone, we explored these creepily amazing depths — even the prison cell of the infamous Count Dracula, who spent 12 years imprisoned here. Truly spooky.
If there was one thing that didn’t disappoint in Budapest, it was the food. From the little tavern on the corner (where dinner for two cost roughly 7 euro) to the so-called gourmet bistros (where three courses and two bottles of wine still costs less than most lunches in Munich), you could tell that this is where you can enjoy life and not need to spend a mint.
Even more interesting was the nightlife. From cold Pilsners for less than a euro at nearly any tavern to the hidden away “ruin bars” that are carved out of decrepit Jewish ghetto tenement blocks, there was a constant vibe of people loving life — as constant as the flow of the Danube, the sure-to-come afternoon showers or the ever-present feeling that you’re smack on the border where east meets west.
In the end, it’s not so much that Budapest looks like any other European city, but it’s the overwhelming feeling that you’ve been here before, that it’s home, or at least someone’s home. And you’re invited to step in.