We got into Budapest mid-afternoon which offered some of my new friends and I the chance to walk around the city before our big night out. Although I had some misgivings coming into the city (I had heard such good things about Budapest but the route we took to our hostel show off some of the less attractive parts!) once we got onto the main road, and into the fashionable shopping streets, I began to understand why this city, situated on the Danube river with its stunning palace, parliament building and churches is world renowned.
The rain had caught up with us as well so after a damp self-guided tour, we went back to the hostel to change before the wonderful evening our guide had planned for us. As a group we walked to a local restaurant where a set menu of local specialties appeared like magic before us. Hungarian goulash (a far step above the Czech goulash I’d had days before) with its thick broth, spices and sausages started us off, followed by a cheesy and paprika-laden pasta and finally a crepe-like dessert loaded with rich dark chocolate and a hint of orange.
After our dinner, we all headed down to the Danube river where we would be taking a river cruise through Budapest. At night and in the rain the buildings sparkled, especially the main palace and parliament buildings which are particularly famous city sites. There was plenty of wine, beer and more vodka on board so after the cruise everyone was in a great mood despite the weather and looking forward to seeing more of the city the next day on a city bike tour. First, however, our guide took us to a local bar quite near our hostel which proved to be the perfect fun end to the evening.
The next morning we met up with a local bike tour company to see more of Budapest. Although it was still drizzling, I felt I could make it through any type of weather – that night we’d be going to the famous Budapest baths which use the boiling water from the thermal springs below the city. The water is so hot that it has to be significantly cooled before being added to any of the public baths. But first, I had the bike tour which took us through the main historic parts of the city.
Hungary, and Budapest in particular, seemed to have made the most effort of any country we visited to purge the memory of Soviet control. In Budapest, we were told, all of the Soviet statues and monuments had been moved to a statue park outside the city. However the older historical monuments and buildings were absolutely breathtaking, including the city palace, located in a park about a mile inland from the river, the old houses of the nobility that line the main road, and of course the palace and parliament buildings.
The palace itself was closed due to the annual Budapest Wine Festival (I didn’t have a chance to stop by, sadly!) but our bike tour took us to an outlook at the top of a big hill which offered an amazing view of the river, the Parliament, the Palace and the rest of the city. Looking on a map afterwards, I feel we didn’t really see a lot of the city of Budapest just based on the actual roads we biked, but some key stopping points gave us a great vantage to see the whole city from afar and allowed us time to focus on the most important and beautiful monuments in the city.
After a quick lunch, we again went our separate ways for an afternoon of shopping. Budapest’s main shopping streets featured a mix of touristy souvenir shops, high street and designer brands and local antiques – the last of which I found the most interesting. Mostly, however, I was just enjoying the chance to walk around and counting down the minutes before heading to the baths.
For the first time, the rain seemed to heighten the experience as we walked into the steaming, open-air Budapest bath complex. Three main pools of varying temperatures sat under the open sky, surrounded by baroque architecture while the surrounding buildings housed smaller baths, steam rooms, whirlpools, saunas and more. Although we tried to explore as much as possible, the cold air, the rain and the absolute bliss of the main hot bath made it hard to want to do much of anything except float in the hot water.
After what didn’t feel like nearly enough time, it was time to head back to the hostel where we had pizza waiting for our group. It was a bit of an impromptu pizza party and goodbye to Budapest and Hungary as the next morning we would be heading south into Croatia, the final country on our itinerary.