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Trip Report Two Capitals of Central Europe and an Interlude in Frankfurt

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I'm currently in the middle of a solo and work trip in Central Europe, with four full days in Budapest and three full days in Prague sandwiching a brief work stop in Frankfurt. I won't be doing this as a day by day, but rather give my impressions of, activities, advice for both capitals, and a nod to Frankfurt at some point. I will (maybe) update my website in my profile link, but not til I return home, but do post photos from my travels on Instagram under inspirexplorer if you'd like some visuals to go along with the words.

I had started to plan this trip in August: at the time, I thought I would bookend my trip with time in St Petersburg and Berlin, but I ended up not wanting to apply for and pay for the Russian visa for such a short stay, and even though I was more interested in Berlin than I ever had been, I really needed to choose places that had plenty of sights and sites to visit, but if I spent a day wandering the streets or river, I wouldn't feel regretful that I hadn't squeezed in just one more museum. My main interests when visiting cities is photography, a mix of history and art, a decent food scene, and to experience something quintessential to that particular place. So after running some combinations in Kayak for my dates for open jaw itineraries, the price and interest winner was into Budapest, out of Prague. This trip came on the heels of a "milestone" birthday, so I was all up for some new exploration to commemorate my arrival into a new decade (although 30 doesn't really feel any different from how I've been feeling and thinking and traveling over the past few years). And with the preamble out of the way:

BUDAPEST

OVERALL IMPRESSIONS: Budapest was a perfect city for my needs and wants right now. After a long, stressful summer, I welcomed a city by turns familiar and exotic, and a place whose sights were numerous but whose charms were also so wholly in just being present, so I didn't feel pressure to run around and see everything in one go. I loved the contrast and combination of bustling, buzzy Pest, with its beautiful, eclectic architecture and hilly Buda, filled with trees and turning leaves, more quaint and quiet. Buda has some smaller, more intimate charm, which is a great counterpoint to the glamour and grandeur and full city feel of Pest.

Budapest is wonderfully walkable: you can take the subways or trams, but I really had no need for public transportation since I was on a loose time schedule. (One of the fantastic benefits of solo travel, you can go as fast or as slow as you want at any given moment.) It's also incredibly easy to navigate: within my first night, I had figured out where most things were situated versus the Danube, and so even though I'd wander random streets of Pest, it was hard to get truly lost, you could always find your way back to a main road and figure out where the river was. And because it's a pretty safe big city, nighttime strolls I also found reasonable and fun.

That's the other thing about Budapest. In mid October, you can get a mix of weather conditions. I had a cold day, a wet day, and two sunny/cloudy mixed days. But while Budapest is lovely by day, it takes on a whole other persona by night. By day, grand and eclectic, by night glamorous and striking and thrilling. I could shoot the Hungarian Parliament Building at blue hour for the rest of my life and not get tired of how the lights gradually turn on just so, illuminating the facade in golden-amber light, shining brightly as the sky moves from blue to inky black. Walking around the river area at night, I'd occasionally feel an urge to laugh out loud, or at least giggle: I was absurdly giddy that I was strolling the Danube at night, an indulgence and a luxury and a lucky thing I couldn't really comprehend the beauty of. I didn't laugh out loud so as not to be that crazy person walking around, but I'd float at night, getting a second wind just marveling in the glory of the lights and the night and the river. If you are a person for whom those things do it for you, get thee to Budapest!

A note on the grit factor: on this website and others, some travelers, whether liking or not liking Budapest, would reference the grit as a factor in why they did or did not like the city. Perhaps it is my own background or current residence, but I didn't feel Pest was especially gritty in comparison to other European cities (or my current home NYC). Sure, it's a true big city, and as such has some warts: homeless people intermittently dot subway staircases and tunnels and there's occasional graffiti marking walls, but I'm a New Yorker living in Harlem: the blend of beauty and real city living is a given. And it didn't feel any more gritty than some less touristed areas of say Paris or London.

So I was predisposed to at least enjoy Budapest, and it overcame my expectations and I fully enjoyed my time there. There are places I would go back to visit/do, but I feel very satisfied by the things I did see/do, my ability to have some time to relax (which I desperately needed), and just enjoy the atmosphere by day and by night, that I feel fulfilled and have no regrets about how I planned my trip. I would absolutely go back, though I would probably visit a new European city I have particular interest in or revisit a most favorite place before I would visit Budapest again if that makes sense.

HELPFUL PLANNING TOOLS

Before I even get into what I did and where I stayed, which I shall, I wanted to also link to other traveler questions and trip reports I used to help me decide to visit Budapest, and then what I wanted to prioritize while there. And because many topics talk about Budapest in relation to other places (often Budapest versus Vienna, sometimes Budapest versus Prague or a German city), there's some helpful info that can lead to holistic decision making on whether Budapest is for you.

I'm only linking Fodors related queries since there were a ton, but I did use TripAdvisor postings as well. The only guidebook I bought and used was the Moon Guide to Prague and Budapest, since, well, it covered only the two places I was going and I didn't need a larger volume at this time: it had decent information and ideas, I found it most helpful for Sunday and Monday activities when there are some museum and restaurant and major site closures.

Links I found helpful from other Fodors posters:

http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/czech-republic-krakow-budapest-trip-report.cfm
http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/budapest-on-a-budget.cfm
http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/arriving-in-budapest-911.cfm
http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/sept-help-needed-hotels-timing-budapest-prague-berlin-amsterdam.cfm
http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/five-nights-in-budapest-a-quick-winter-getaway.cfm
http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/budapest-district.cfm
http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/budapest-day-trip-recommendation.cfm
http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/late-fall-2015-visit-to-poland-budapest-and-amsterdam.cfm
http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/free-walking-tours-in-budapest-and-prague.cfm
http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/budapest-.cfm
http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/travel-tips-for-budapest-july-2016

This was one of the most helpful links, which gave great summaries of why one would be interested in Budapest (and Vienna)

http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/vienna-or-budapest-181694-2.cfm

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    BUDAPEST CONTINUED

    WHERE I STAYED

    I chose to do an apartment for my 5 night stay in Budapest, since it was a long enough period and I thought I might like to keep costs down in terms of making some breakfasts and overall nightly fees. My Airbnb place was a pretty sizable 1 bedroom apartment with very large living spaces and a smaller bedroom. It was great for 1 and would have been good for 2. Very clean and simple decor, but a nice shower and set up, lots of electrical outlets and towels, and two very nice hosts who met me at 7 PM to show me in after my flight had been delayed assisted with my taxi return trip to the airport.

    The apartment was located just across the street from the Hungarian National Museum, so very easy walking distance to the Centeal Market (6 min), Dohany Synagogue (8 min), and Gellert Hill (15 min). The Danube itself and Liberty Bridge were also about 6 min walk, and from there my strolls down the Danube to Chain Bridge (20 minutes) and Parliament (30 minutes) commenced.

    I liked the area around the National Museum: good walkable location, close to the Danube, range of restaurants at a range of price points nearby (in the Palace district and also around the Synagogue). Because I was right on Museum kert, a major road, there was a decent amount of street noise at night. As a city dweller, this didn't bother me at all, but suburbanites or people who live in quieter areas should look for side streets more insulated from sirens and car traffic.

    WHAT I DID

    Again, I treated Budapest as a relaxing but stimulating city break. I did not visit everything I had some interest in, but picked a few key sights and activities for my first trip, and left plenty of time open for strolling, photography, long lunches or dinners, and the possibility of serendipity.

    Tour of Hungarian National Parliament - this was a must do for me, so I booked two weeks in advance for a 10 AM tour of the interiors of the Parliament building. Tours run multiple times per day in a variety of languages, and some slots/languages sell out quicker than others. The only variable is occasionally Parliament will later announce that tours are cancelled on a given day due to official business, but if it's not enough notice, you may be unable to rebook during your stay. So I would advise, if it is important to you to visit Parliament, book the visit for a morning slot on one of your first days in Budapest, and if it gets cancelled, you have other days to try and reschedule for. The tour itself takes about 45 minutes, and was very informative in terms of the history of Parliament, with nods of course to various eras of Hungarian history and culture. Our tour guide was smart and clear, even if not always the most engaging. Major photo stops included the Main Hall and the House of the Magnates. Arguably the most beautiful hall with a fantastic ceiling in the Duomo, the Central Hall, houses the Holy Crown of Hungary and is off limits to photography.

    Gellert Baths - the other must do for me was a thermal bath experience since Budapest is one of the only European capitals with natural thermal baths right in the city limits. I chose to visit the Gellert Baths, mainly because they were extremely close by walking from my apartment, and I could slot them as I liked during my stay since they were open until 8 PM. I found the Baths easy to navigate, staff helpful but not friendly, and the whole complex to exude mostly faded grandeur but remain a great experience that attracts all sorts of tourists but some locals as well (other Baths have higher proportions of locals depending on time/day). If the baths are of interest, I recommend bringing your own swimsuit, a towel from your apartment or hotel, pack flip flops. That way, you only have to pay the entrance fee and locker or cabin fee, and rent a (brand new) swim cap if you feel like taking some time in the lap pool. I ended up going on a misty, foggy colder afternoon, and just as I enjoyed previously in Iceland, the highlight was soaking in the large outdoor thermal pool and watching blue hour descend on the city, heat rising from the water surface and smoking into fog as it hit cold air. I spent 2 hours in the complex enjoying the various pools and found it sufficient and myself very relaxed, but I could see people spending longer, especially if they're looking to get a massage or other spa service as well.

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    Taste Hungary walk
    BUDAPEST CONTINUED

    TASTE HUNGARY CULINARY WALK

    As a solo traveler, I do occasionally like to mix in a dedicated tour with in depth focus, to get more historical and cultural information than I might soak up on my own. While Budapest has plenty of different format tours based on a myriad of interests - notably Communist tours and Jewish heritage tours among others - I opted for a food tour since I was really enjoying the cuisine so far, and wanted more info on current and historic Hungarian culinary traditions. A quick Google search brought up the culinary food walk of Taste Hungary:

    http://tastehungary.com/tour/culinary-walk/

    For me, this tour was worth every penny, mainly because our guide Hannah was amazing. She had a degree in history (specializing in late antiquity), so the culinary traditions we learned about and sampled and tried were all situated within a larger historical context, and she truly used and helped us see Hungarian cuisine as a prism with which to view larger cultural and historical forces and events. The tours are typically groups on the smaller side, and I was a solo person with a group of four, so it was a nice, intimate 5 to 1 ratio of group to guide.

    We kicked off the tour at Budapest's Central Market Hall, built in the late 19th century and rebuilt in its original gothic style in the 1990s after sustaining significant damage in WWII. The interiors being to mind a railway station, all iron and steel and dramatic. The architecture was based on a French design, but utilized Austrian and Hungarian steel and iron, and has lovely Zsolnay tiles similar to those found on the St Matthias Church, very bright and colorful caps to the black wrought iron skeleton.

    The first thing we did was a Unicum shot to start, Unicum being an herbal liquor invented by a doctor of a Habsburg emperor (which one I sadly cannot recall), and viewed as a national symbol of Hungary. The rural tradition is to begin the day with a shot of Unicum, get to work in the fields and with the animals, and then have lunch later in the day, so we mirrored said tradition at the outset of the tour. It's also used as a sort of panacea to minor ailments like common colds or cranky schoolchildren hoping to stay home sick. The Zwack family is the original and current owner of the brand and its factory, though the family's fortunes rose and fall with Hungary's. As WWII began, most of the family left because they were Jewish. The war ended and the Zwacks returned, only to flee into exile with their family recipe left as the socialists came to power and nationalized factory. Unicum was made during the socialist era, but without the Zwack family formula, the recipe was spticinsyed and Unicum tasted quite different, apparently a point of
    contention between some Hungarians today in terms of what the best recipe is. At the fall of communism in Hungary the family returned again, bought back their factory, and began to produce their original recipe Unicum once again.

    The main level is the primary grocery level - meats, poultry, cheese and Kurds and lard, fruits, vegetables, and other staples are found here. The top level has some little flea market stands. There were once flower shops on the top level as well, pre war, but as Hannah told it, Hungarians are not a romantic people so it was abolished in the rebuild and renovation of the hall to add more useful or modern shops.

    We walk round the top level, stopping for some langos, a deep fried flatbread that was once eaten as a regular street food in the socialist era and is still a popular lunch food especially with picknickers at Lake Balaton in summer. Our langos was topped with cheese, sour cream and garlic and is entirely delicious. Only later do I learn that this particular langos stand is rated the best in the hall by (the much loved and loathed) Rick Steves. It was probably my second or third favorite stand overall, but the langos is a worthwhile stop.

    We wandered down to the lower levels and strolled through the various butcher stalls, getting some interesting anecdotes and context from Hannah as we went. For example I had no idea that Hungary is the second biggest producer of foie gras in the world, and most of it is exported to France (which is way less surprising). Also, Hungarians export horse meat, but rarely eat it themselves, ingrained from an earlier age where horse was often the only meat available during wartime, and as it reminds many Hungarians of poverty and desperation and war, they do not eat it. And we blind taste an assortment of salami, one of which is horse salami (which I do not prefer), and another is salami of the Mangalica, the Hungarian domestic pig that looks like a cross between a boar and a sheep on account of its thick wooly coat (and are subsequently not the cutest mammals on the planet). I like the Szeged winter salami, so named for the ring of white "noble mold" that forms on the casing, but I love even more the paprika winter salami, which has spice and heat and such dimension and flavor. We accompanied the salami with little corn bites, somewhat akin to cornbread but more in the shape of mini muffins, buttery, flaky, and rich.

    I also pass by the first mushroom expert office I've ever seen, with a small mushroom exhibition out in the hallway showing common mushrooms found in the forests nearby. All foragers can bring their mushrooms for free evaluation at the mushroom office, and the expert will let them know about which mushrooms are poisonous versus protected versus edible. In the case of protected mushrooms, a small number will likely be simply confiscated; a large amount will be confiscated and the forager fined.

    On the bottom floor are the few fish stands and the pickle stands: historically more smelly things were sold in the lower levels and there were also tunnels to the Danube to bring goods to and from the river. Hungarians rarely eat fish for similar reasons as not eating horse according to Hannah, though there is a famous fish soup that is beloved and hotly contested by rival camps of with noodles versus without noodles. She said that fish is still seen as peasants food, though in the current day it is somewhat more common and less stigma is attached to it in restaurants serving foreign cuisine. At any rate, the few fish stands were sparsely patronized compared to the buzzing crowds flitting about at the butchers on the main floor.

    The pickles come from Vecsesi (pronounced va - chaysh) and Hannah deems these pickles the best. Vecsesi is a village 50 km from Budapest, with fantastic soil for pickle growing. We try a wide variety, and though though I care little for pickles in general I enjoy the pickled garlic and pickled hot pepper.

    We were fairly full at this point and hadn't walked as much as I might have thought we would, but then we strolled from the market. After stopping in a most beautiful little chocolate shop and tasting two truffles each (lemon oil and chestnut honey for me, both EXCELLENT), we finally make our way to our lunch destination.

    Belvarosi Disznotoros is something of an institution in Budapest. It's a full fledged butcher shop, but also a sort of restaurant with standing counters outside to lean on and consume the sausages and cuts of meat the butchers have prepared. I was unprepared for the veritable feast before us. We had huge links of paprika sausage, Lieber, and a blood sausage, a choice of pumpkin soup or goulash, roasted duck leg, some succulent cut of pork I barely identified before it was collectively devoured, sides of sweet cabbage and crispy potatoes, and condiments of mustard and horseradish. I was a bit full prior, but was now positively fit to burst in the best possible way. As we feasted on the spread, we learned that the importance of goose and duck in Hungarian cuisine was primarily influenced by Jewish families, who ate these fowl instead of pork in a time when beef and other cuts and types of meat were more expensive and reserved only for aristocracy, just one culinary piece of the cultural legacy of a historically vibrant and numerous Jewish Hungarian population that was so devastated by the horror of the Holocaust.

    We slowly roll along to our next stop, another classic institution, the coffee house. Hannah emphasized the importance of coffee houses in Hungarian society as centers for the exchange of ideas. They were also public meeting places, for example lawyers could host their clients at a table in a given coffee house if they couldn't afford an office. Each coffee house tended to have a specific creative class clientele - at one writers, another actors, another artists, usually influenced by the personality and patronage of the owners of each establishment. The coffee house was a very democratic and fashionable institution, but under the socialists they were closed initially so as not to permit or encourage an open exchange of ideas and any sedition or revolution or collective expression of dissent or discontent. When they reopened, people didn't want to go there because of socialist spies who would record and inform on fellow patrons. In the modern era, the coffee houses retain their iconic buildings and gorgeous interiors, but they are no longer the meeting place for creative types or a central point for people to come together and exchange ideas. The new coffee house: the ruin bar. And as ruin bars proliferate and become increasingly popular with tourists, some locals wish to propose limiting tourist access. But according to Hannah many owners of ruin bars feel they've inherited the mantle from the coffee house, and keep to the democratic ideals of access for all to perpetuate the free exchange of ideas without limits. So our visit to Central Kavehaz takes us back to 1887 when it was founded and the early 20th century, and we sip coffee (and in my case, decadent and rich hot chocolate) and taste an array of traditional cakes like Dobos, and have some nice conversation as a group.

    We finish by walking to Tasting Table, the tours headquarters, for a tasting of three wines with accompanying Hungarian cheeses. On the walk over, Hannah talked about the nostalgia for the socialist times for many in Hungary, and how pre World War I, there was intense social stratification between aristocracy and peasants. A new reality was barely able to assert itself before World War II came around, and though being part of the Axis at first protected the Hungarians, as the tide turned Hungary engaged in secret armistice talks with the Allies, so the Nazis removed the government and set up a fascist government that set in motion the murder of most of Hungary's Jewish population (and the early police state network that the socialists would inherit and utilize) and their presence made Hungary a target for bombs and devastation as the war came to its final phase. So socialism presented the first time the masses felt secure in their lives: not free certainly, but safe, not starving as they had been during the wars and during age of Austria-Hungary. So even today, from our guide's perspective, there is a difference in mentality and viewpoint between Hungarians who grew up under socialism and benefited, and long for or appreciate and occasionally miss those more secure times, versus the viewpoint of those who were exiled or left or born to those in exile or had family members killed or imprisoned/spied upon during the socialist regime, who feel less fondly of the socialist era, and though admit openly the jolt into capitalism was difficult and Hungary was unprepared, it was superior to life under the socialists. We stayed in history most of the time, recent anti-immigrant rhetoric and more overt nationalistic sentiment from the governing political party and current Prime Minister were only lightly touched on, perhaps too raw of a nerve to discuss with foreign tourists on a culinary walk than the recent past?

    It was a fantastic wine tasting with bread dipped in pumpkin seed oil, mountain cheese and blue cheese and three wine varietals. We had a lovely Furmint white wine from the Tokaj region that went perfectly with the mountain cheese. There was also a Bulls Blood red, once a special wine for Hungarians that was exchanged in the socialist era for gas with the Soviet Union, but under the socialists the quality of the wine was very poor. Modern vitners are attempting to restore the reputation, but still face challenging perceptions abroad.

    Finally, the most inportant: a 2009 Tokaj. The famous dessert wine comes from super shriveled berries with noble rot (a same form of fungus that helps make winter salami), picked one by one to choose only the best berries then soaked in base wine for a few days, then pressed. Tokaj was invented by accident over 500 years ago when fields were left by villagers who had to fight their enemies (I assumed the Ottoman Turks based on timing but it wasn't explicitly specified). Tokaj is so important in the Hungarian culture and consciousness, it gets mentioned in the second verse of the Hungarian national anthem, among the miracles of Hungary. The Tokaj we tasted was liquid gold, liquid honey for me, I loved it but could only have so much of it. And with the nut bread and blue cheese and pumpkin seed oil, I was an exceedingly happy eater.

    Overall, it was a marvelously in depth tour of Hungarian cuisine and because of Hannah's knowledge and enthusiasm, of Hungarian culture and history as well. I'd heartily recommend it if you're fond of extensive eating and a good amount of walking.

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