Budapest may well be one of my very favourite cities. An introvert’s dream, the city streets are safe to wander at any hour of the day or night. Unlike Prague (which was only bombed once, and then purportedly by mistake), Budapest was severely damaged during World War 2. The Siege of Budapest (December 26th 1944 – February 13th 1945) left 80% of the City’s buildings reduced to varying degrees of rubble and all seven bridges over the Danube destroyed. Nevertheless, Budapest was rebuilt sympathetically – a Dresden rather than a Coventry or Plymouth, and it is still a city of diverse architecture: a beautiful mish-mash of Art-Nouveau, Gothic, Romantic, Classical, Renaissance and Ottoman buildings, not to mention a fair few post-war, brutalist concrete masterpieces.
Budapest is an incredibly atmospheric city. Walking the streets alone at night, it is very easy to imagine yourself at the heart of a cold-war thriller. Particularly as this, my second visit to the city, was in winter. Hence, rain. In the fifteen years since I quit smoking, Budapest at night is the only time I have really missed it. Not for the nicotine, but for the effect. To make matters worse, I was travelling, as is my wont, hand luggage only. Which meant no space for either a trench-coat or a trilby. Also, try as I might, I couldn’t seem to become black and white. Needless to say, many of my photographs were.
Of particular interest to the dark tourist is Budapest’s House of Terror. Far from being a sensationalist name added to a museum to try and drum up drama, the House of Terror was the name given to the building by the Communist government in order to strike fear into the populace. A seemingly normal townhouse, the building housed the headquarters first of the Nazi (and homegrown Arrow Cross fascists) and then the Communist secret police. Situated on the high class shopping street of Andrássy Street, one of Budapest’s major thoroughfares, one can only imagine the fear instilled in passers by knowing of the cells situated mere feet away, or the anguish of the prisoners, most destined for the gallows (kept in the building’s courtyard) as they saw the shadowy forms of the free pass by on the street outside.
The first time I visited Budapest, during the 2014 World Cup, I borrowed an apartment from a very generous friend. This is, of course, probably the best way to see a city – we had a few days crossover so she showed me the more interesting bits of the city (of which there are many) and then I had two weeks where there was no reason whatsoever to speak to another human being. That, plus the fact that the apartment in question, was in the very heart of the city, one street off Váci utca, Budapest’s main shopping street. Another reason that Budapest is so seductive – one can live in relative luxury on a teacher’s salary. (The only downside was that the apartment building had a bar on the ground floor – in the heat of the summer I had to keep the living room window open and (being an introvert) I preferred to watch the World Cup alone on a live feed on my laptop. During Germany’s 7-1 demolition of Brazil, the match on the outside TV of the bar downstairs was ahead of my live feed by about 30 seconds, meaning I could hear the patrons cheer every time Germany scored. In the end I had to close the window, put in headphones, and sweat like a bastard. Ah, the perils of being an introvert!) This time, however, my Travel Buddy and I were staying in the Sofitel by the Chain Bridge. Hey, just because I’m an old goth, doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a little luxury from time to time…
The Sofitel Chain Bridge is in a modern building right on the banks of the river. Our very late arrival and the fact that Budapest in February is cold precluded a look around the area until the following morning. I rose bright and early, ready for some Golden Hour photography only to be stymied by the fact that clear morning skies are something of a rarity in the Hungarian winter. Instead, I walked down to the river. The first thing most people think on looking at the Danube is “Strauss was full of shit”. Usually followed shortly by “the Danube is full of shit”. A broad, turgid avenue the colour of milky coffee, the river separates the city into its two, constituent sub-cities. On the left bank is craggy Buda, with Gellért Hill (up whose flanks the intrepid wanderer may clamber to visit the citadel and the Liberty Statue) and Buda Castle (accessible by funicular) and the Fisherman’s Bastion, all of which afford wonderful views across the city and allow for spectacular sunrise photography. Y’know, on those days you can see the sunrise. On the right bank is Pest, the ‘main’ populous part of the city, with the Hungarian Parliament building, all the main shopping streets, Heroes’ Square, the Opera House, the Jewish Quarter and so on.
First order of the day: the Parliament Building tour. The Parliament building is the largest building in Hungary, and the tallest in Budapest. It stands on the banks of the Danube, just north of the city centre – on the #2 tram line, or easily walkable. The first time I was in Budapest, Parliament tours were free, but available only one a first-come first-served basis, with a limited number per day being distributed at some ungodly hour of the morning. I didn’t go. Nowadays, you have to pay, but you can book online or pay at the ticket office for whatever tour is next available, all through the day. In this instance, I really do not mind paying. It costs 2000 HUF (£5; €6.50; $7.20) for EU citizens, 5200 HUF (£13; €17; $18.50) for non-EU citizens. The tour is concise, informative and done via wireless headsets, thus minimising human contact. Double thumbs up! And well worth the time and money.
Public transport in Budapest is fantastic – a network of trains, trams, metro, buses and trolley buses that covers pretty much everywhere you could want to go. A 24 hour pass costs 1650 HUF (£4.20; €5.40; $5.90) and is well worth the outlay. Tram #2 is perhaps the most famous, running along the right bank (Pest) of the Danube from well south of the market hall to just north of the Parliament building (from where you can get to Margaret island, if swimming in open air hot springs is your thing and you want a little more space than the Gellért or Széchenyi baths). But it is a great delight just to set out and take whatever bus, tram or metro train first arrives. How much travel has changed since the advent of Google Maps – it’s a hell of a lot harder to get lost these days.
Notable places to visit include the aforementioned thermal baths (the former on the ground floor (though with a separate entrance) of the imposing Gellért Hotel, the latter in the Heroes’ Square region). Also accessible by tram (#2) or metro (Fövám tér station) is the Great Market Hall. Located where Váci utca meets the Liberty Bridge, it is an imposing, turn of the century (19th to 20th centuries, that is) Art Nouveau masterpiece of a building which houses, as you may have guessed, the main Budapest market. The basement and ground floors are given over mostly to food and drink, with the first floor being a gangwayed tangle of souvenir shops and small cafe/restaurant booths selling a wide variety of sausages, Hungarian pizza, beer and, of course, the omnipresent goulash. A wee but touristy, but, hey, I’m a tourist. And I liked it.
The metro itself is worth a look as well. The Blue Line (line 3) is the line you are likely to use most and has the feel of an old spy movie with its Soviet rolling stock and 1970s signage and fittings. The yellow line (line 1) is the oldest line in Budapest, having been in continuous operation since 1896. It is narrower that the other lines, and the subsurface infrastructure is minimal, meaning you need to use different entrances (usually on opposite sides of Andrássy Street, which the line follows) depending on the direction you wish to travel. This is the line to take for Andrássy Street, the House of Terror, the Opera House and Heroes’ Square. The Green Line (line 4) is my favourite – being a connoisseur of modern building styles. It is the newest of the lines, completed only in 2014, and its stations are a testament to what can be done with modern building materials – each one its own concrete cathedral.
Budapest is a haven for the hungry or thirsty introvert. Many of my favourite (actually, perhaps this is why they are my favourites) bars and cafes are very introvert friendly. First on the list has to be the famous ruin pubs. These started out round the turn of the millennium, pubs and bars built into abandoned buildings and courtyards, often furnished from skips and flea markets. There are currently 22 ruin pubs, of which I have visited maybe 20. Three particularly stand out.
First, and most obviously, is Szimpla Kert, the grandaddy of them all. Rated by Time Out as the third best bar in the whole world, it is easy to see why. Szimpla is a warren of rooms and corridors with numerous different bars and food serveries. There is a cinema, a weekly farmers’ market and frequent exhibitions. Although a major tourist attraction, it is a great place to spend an evening alone with a book and a series of drinks (very good local draught beer is £1.50; €2; $2.50 a half-litre). There are numerous tables, many nooks and more than a few crannies too. You may find yourself sitting on a bar stool, a snowboard, the back seat of a Trabant or a Mini, who the hell knows. One tip for the solo drinker – as with everywhere else, take something to mark your territory when you have to go to the bar or toilet – I find a scarf/headscarf works well (see my travel kit recommendations).
As well as Szimpla, I am very fond of Corvin tetö, though this is definitely one for the summer months. Set on the top level and rooftop of an old, Soviet era department store (the titular Corvin), it is a retro-lovers paradise. I would also recommend KisCsendes near the museum: a surreal interior decorated with artistically arranged skip-finds, the atmosphere here is always convivial. Plus they have table service – always welcome for the solo drinker making it easier to keep one’s place. It should be pointed out that Hungary has a nationwide smoking ban, so unlike Prague, you can enjoy these wonderful places without either suffocating or stinking. If you are a smoker, then the easiest thing to do would probably be to QUIT YOU MORON. Failing that, Szimpla has an open air smoking section, you’re fine on the roof terrace of Corvin and at KisCsendes, you’ll just have to go outside.
In addition to the boozy side of things, I can also recommend Molnar’s Kurtoskalacs on Váci utca. As this is on the main shopping street and is the number 3 rated Budapest cafe on Trip Advisor, it’s not exactly a secret find. The kurtoskalacs (a pastry horn, freshly cooked and dipped in either chocolate, almonds, cinnamon or a variety of other toppings) are utterly delicious and the seating arrangements are stools facing a narrow shelf: perfect for the sweet-toothed introvert about town. I also enjoyed the Central Kavehaz – a glorious art deco grand cafe. I ate there more than once alone and never felt uncomfortable. A coffee, a cake and a glass of Tokaji (world renowned Hungarian dessert wine) is the perfect end to a day’s sightseeing.
For the cultured introvert, Budapest is a haven. On this trip, we managed to get tickets for the opera. Bearing in mind that opera tickets in London, Paris, Vienna or Verona can easily set you back a hundred Euro or more, we bought the most expensive seats in the house for a modern-day interpretation of La Boheme. And it’s not like this is some amateur production – this is the Hungarian State Opera. The cost? 3600 HUF (£9; €11.50; $13). The cheapest seats in the house go for the princely sum of 300 HUF (75p; €1; $1). As in Prague, opera is not seen as the preserve of the elite but culture and entertainment for everybody. As it should be.
In conclusion, Budapest is just fantastic. So much to see, so much to do, so many atmospheric black and white spy movies to pretend to be starring in. And another big plus for the globetrotting introvert – the people in Budapest are not at all friendly. They are not rude, they just don’t smile, rarely attempt small talk and always, ALWAYS dump your change onto the counter, even if you are standing there with your hand outstretched. Just perfect. My kind of place, my kind of people.