First, acknowledgment to the English singer-song writer George Ezra, whose song, Budapest, inspired the title of the trip report.
The Travelers: Myself, DH, DS (18), DD (13), and DDog. This was a short city break between Christmas and New Years.
Lodging and Dining. We rented a rather disappointing apartment from Karma Boutique Apartments, via Expedia. Though well reviewed, our experience was different. Our dining experiences met and exceeded expectations.
We have visited the city previously as a family and on day-trips with visiting friends, so our focus was less “Top Ten” and more, “however we were inspired.” And it was a good thing we packed inspiration (and warm clothes), because the temperatures were in the teens and we needed motivation to leave the apartment on those cold, cold evenings to find dinner (because our “equipped” kitchen was not so)!
Budapest is one of our favorite cities to visit. Close to Vienna (2+ hours by personal vehicle), its friendly people make it an enjoyable “escape” from the reserved nature of the Viennese. Budapest, on the whole, is considerably less expensive than Vienna when it comes to dining (always a plus!); and, its resemblance to Paris in so many ways allows me a mini-Paris fix with little travel effort. We like Hungarian cuisine, too, though its similarity to many Austrian dishes means that we branch out a little more when we’re visiting.
The check-in time for the apartment was 14:00. And they meant it. There was no person available when we arrived around 13:30, which was our first disappointment as it would have been nice to at least drop our bags and allow DDog to settle in. So, we found a parking space and with DDog in tow went in search of lunch. At least we weren’t dragging luggage with us. The silver lining to the check-in disappointment was that the restaurant we found was DDog friendly, had a comfortable table in a corner (so DDog would not be underfoot of the servers), and had tasty and warming Hungarian fare. A family across from us, also on a city break from Vienna with visiting family, had children who loved giving DDog attention, and before we knew it more than two hours had passed.
Back at the apartment the check-in got off to a rough start. One must check-in at the restaurant in the building, and though we have done it before, standing about in a restaurant waiting for the contact person just feels awkward. “Esther” soon arrived and provided us keys. To the wrong apartment (only 1 bed). Back down to the restaurant I went for keys to another apartment, after assuring Esther that the four of us had indeed reserved an apartment with more than one bed. This apartment was not the “Two Bedrooms for Six People” apartment we had reserved, either, as it only accommodated four people, but we decided to cut our losses. The car was unpacked and we were regrouping to plan the balance of our afternoon, only to discover that the “excellent” Wifi promised was non-existent. With it being late afternoon we decided not to fret, and to ride the #2 tram along the Pest side of the river for the twinkling views of Buda. Everything was aglow, from Parliament to Fisherman’s Bastion to the National Palace. We alit near the Chain Bridge and walked along, enjoying the views and snapping many photos, when who should we meet but the family from the restaurant!
By now it was dark and we were cold. Not terribly hungry after our hearty lunch, the children returned to the apartment to take DDog on his evening constitutional while DH and I sought a grocery for provisions for a simple pasta supper and breakfast. The grocery nearest the apartment, though a major chain (Spar), was very small and lacking variety and quantity that we jokingly dubbed it a “Soviet Spar.”
We returned to the apartment to discover that the children were in the mood for pizza from the Italian restaurant in the building. This turned out to be a good decision, for the apartment lacked a wine screw for the wine we purchased and the Soviet Spar had already closed. The restaurant came through with hot and crispy pizza and an excellent (and uncorked) bottle of Pinot Grigio. All’s well that ends well, mostly.
Back to the Internet. Esther at first tried to blame the use of our MacBooks for the problem (really?). After we pointed out that the off-the-shelf router that they likely had placed in the top floor apartment meant a poor connection for the apartment on the first floor (ours), she backtracked and contacted The Manager, who gave us the restaurant network information. This was marginally strong enough for only one of us to use our device at a time.
The time was 21:00 and we all would have enjoyed streaming a favorite movie onto the television in the apartment, except that it was too old to accept a connection from the Airport Express we brought with. The children disappeared to play cards while DH and I sat in the dark, sipped our wine, and watched the neighbors across the courtyard a la Rear Window. Not a preferred way to wind down an evening, though it would become the norm on this holiday.
If there was one positive about the apartment it was that the heating system worked very well, but even that had a qualifier. The ceramic chimney in the living room heated the bedroom so much that the children awoke feeling like Hansel and Gretel! The space heater in the bathroom also worked well, though one had to leave the light switch on in order to power the device. Of course, the light from the bathroom streamed directly onto the bed in the living room (the “second bedroom”). Neither DH nor I slept well on this holiday.
The following morning DH set out to prepare eggs for breakfast, except, there was not a sauté pan to be found. The “equipped” kitchen had three pots, a strainer, and a boxed cheese grater, but no sauté pans. Breakfast was reduced to toasted bread and sliced ham, from among the finer offerings at the Soviet Spar the night before. Needless to write, we did not cook at all in the apartment. In addition to the poorly equipped kitchen and streaming bathroom light at night, the apartment was a little dirty, particularly the bathroom (mildew and old soap scum along the grout and shower door tracks). The bathroom light fixture was broken, and the light fixture in the living room did not have all five working light bulbs. In other words, the Karma was bad, and the apartment was far from Boutique.
We arrived at Dohany Synagogue one morning before the opening and walked around to the courtyard to view the Weeping Willow memorial and the small cemetery. By the time we came around to the front a tour bus had disgorged a long, long line of visitors. With the temperature hovering at -3°C, and with windchills even colder, we decided that visiting the synagogue could wait for another time, and walked over to Budapest’s original Ruin Pub, Szimpla Kert, where a farmer’s market is underway every Sunday morning. We sampled our way through the market, tasting homemade syrups, sausages, cheeses, and some interesting sweet potato and garlic pate. In one of the little cafes we ordered a couple of plates of sliced mangalica sausage and bread, and a couple of cappuccinos and teas, and settled in to take in the scene.
The sun was out and though it was cold, the vote after the market was to see Obuda, the oldest part of Budapest. From Dohany Synagogue we took an-off-the-beaten-path route counterclockwise around Pest and across the Donau on Metro and streetcar to the northern edge of Buda. Amidst the canyon of Communist-era concrete monoliths lies Obuda, with its pretty Baroque buildings and small-town square that was hosting a skating rink for the season. We spent a little time admiring the buildings and reading the plaque about Pal Harrer, mayor of Obuda who was instrumental in bringing Buda and Pest together.
From Obuda it was an easy regional train ride to the castle hill area, with plans to visit Hospital in the Rock, the former emergency hospital and nuclear bunker. We missed a required tour by minutes and instead settled our cold and weary toes in a restaurant we have visited before for a later lunch. With the afternoon sun fading, I wanted to snap more photos of both sides of Budapest from the Danube, so we scrapped the hospital tour for the time being, then wandered back to the apartment stopping here, there, and wherever we spotted something interesting to look at, or a place to shop in, or something to photograph. This is our favorite part of traveling—not feeling tied to a Top Ten list of Must-Dos.
That evening we were treated to good Wifi at the apartment, and for 20 glorious minutes we retreated to our corners and caught up on social media. Then, of course, the WiFi was gone. Too warm and comfortable to venture out (the teenagers had put their pajamas on!), we gave in to the convenience of carryout dinner from the Italian restaurant again, two very good pizzas, lasagna, salad, and of course, a bottle of wine.
First up on our last full day was The Great Market Hall, and breakfast from the stalls on the second level. Steaming Langos topped with cheese, and a couple of plates of sausage and fried potatoes were just what we needed to start the day. We wandered both levels, not after anything in particular (though we left with a full tote of goodies to bring home. Isn’t that always how it goes?). We watched the many tour groups snap photos when directed to do so, and watched the locals move around the tour groups to go about their daily shopping.
Next was a return to Hospital in the Rock, a tour which all of us thoroughly enjoyed. Not only did we learn more about Budapest during WWII and the 1956 Revolution, but overall we felt the museum was curated well, with period mannequins throughout to supplement the narrative on Budapest’s story. We attempted to sit for a coffee and pastry afterward at Ruszwurm, one of Europe’s oldest pastry shops and near to the hospital, but many others had the same idea, so alas it was not to be on this trip.
Random shopping, stopping and snapping occupied us until hunger set in, when we were lured to a new restaurant near the “Budapest Eye.” The lunch was ordinary and unremarkable, the service terrible, and I do not recall the restaurant name, so all I can suggest is to perhaps not dine in the square near the big Ferris wheel! From there we walked to Svent Istevan, solemn and beautiful on the inside with a few Christmas trees and lights. In the square in front was one the city’s Christmas markets and we queued for fresh made, hot and vanilla-sugar coated Tredlnik (is there anything better?), then shopped at nearby Memories of Budapest, a surprising tourist-themed store where we found some of the nicest sketches and watercolors of Budapest we have seen.
A little downtime back at the apartment followed, including DDog’s afternoon constitutional, and then we resolved not to eat carry-out from the Italian restaurant in our building. But where to go? With our apartment being steps from Andrassy Utca, there were almost too many choices at our frozen fingertips. A peek into the restaurant where we had first enjoyed lunch revealed no empty tables, but the seafood restaurant adjacent welcomed us. One could either choose a pre-designed menu or select their own from the fresh display in front of our eyes. We wrapped up our last day with a starter of oysters and grilled octopus, followed by grilled lobster, whole trout, crisp fish-and-chips, and a toast to the other former capital of the Empire. As a nod to what is perhaps one of our favorite treats of traveling throughout the former Eastern Europe, our dinner, including a bottle of wine, came to less than an ordinary lunch at home in Vienna. Wunderbar.
In summary, our “boutique” apartment was anything but; and the weather was too cold for DDog to do much more than snooze in the apartment; but above all Budapest is a beautiful city filled with warm and friendly people, despite the "I hate Austria" written in the snow on our car. Of course we will return.
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First, acknowledgment to the English singer-song writer George Ezra, whose song, Budapest, inspired the title of the trip report.