Budapest 101

Here are the 10 things I learned about the beautifully unique city of Budapest, Hungary.

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But I don’t speak Hungarian!

I thought Dutch was strange – then I tried to decipher Hungarian metro stops.

I always feel slightly guilty when I’m traveling in a country where I can’t speak the language. However, I did re-download Duolingo and tried to memorize a few key phrases. “Hello” and “thank you” made buying food in the grocery store run a bit smoother. However, that was the extent of my Hungarian fluency.

In the city, it was pretty easy to find people who spoke English. All of the restaurants we went to had both Hungarian and English menus and most of the waitstaff spoke English (at which I was pleasantly surprised). Though I did have to resort to pointing a few times. But hey, I’m the one who doesn’t speak Hungarian in Hungary.

I met many people who had lived in Budapest for months, even years, and still didn’t speak Hungarian. So while there is a language barrier, it didn’t hinder us. Though, trying to decipher Hungarian labels in the supermarkets was pretty interesting and we had revert to distinguishing everything by sight, something I did during my first few months in France.

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Ruin bars are amazing.

Ruin bars are like entering another world.

There are no signs, no lines, no indication that the building is anything other than another apartment complex. But then you walk through a short alley and suddenly you’re there.

Ruin bars are unlike any other bar I have ever been in.

There are rooms everywhere. There are rooms for lounging, rooms for smoking, rooms for dancing .  . . there are rooms with old Victorian style furniture, rooms overflowing with plants, rooms with fish tanks, rooms with nothing but (probably stolen) street signs. I think the biggest ruin bar I went to had 2 stories, 3 courtyards, and around 20 rooms.

One night we went on a pub crawl. I had never been on one before and now, after exploring downtown Budapest, I feel like I have been spoiled. Nothing will compare to the glorious things that are ruin bars. Old happy birthday banners hung from low rafters. Colorful paper lanterns in the shape of jellyfish fluttered in the breeze from open windows. The front doors were covered by strips of heavy plastic, so it was like walking into a deep freezer. A mural of Roman soldiers drinking wine with the god Dionysus adorned a wall in the Italian themed room. World flags dangled from the ceiling. A DJ in a Kylo Ren mask played a dub-step remix of the Mario Party theme song.

On one of my last nights, I turned a corner and stumbled onto a string quartet furiously playing folk music while a video of a young woman shooting arrows while riding bareback on a white horse played behind them.

Am I too drunk? Or am I not drunk enough?

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The Roman style baths are a must.

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There are three main baths in Budapest. We ended up going to the one in City Park, next to a giant castle and the largest outdoor ice-skating rink in Europe.

We bought a ticket at the hostel, which was easier than going directly to the baths and trying to skirt around Hungarian. It was a bit confusing, as we had to use a back entrance for some reason, and no one seemed really keen on helping us. We stumbled around like the confused tourists we were for a bit as people pointed us in extremely vague directions. My friend asked a lady a relevant question and she replied in such a heavy accent that neither of us understood. When we responded with blank faces, she went off in an Hungarian rant that I didn’t need translated to know probably wasn’t very nice.

There were three pools. The first one (the one pictured above) was the hottest and practically a giant hot tub. A fountain spews warm spring water into the pool while jets keep the water at a constant temperature.

We stayed for a little over an hour, blending in with the locals as well as other worldly travelers until our fingers pruned, and shivered all the way back to the locker room with bare feet and wet towels.

Full Disclosure:

*you will probably end up walking in on a lot of naked people. And then be one of those naked people walked in on. Nudity doesn’t seem to bother the Europeans.

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If ruin bars are in another world, party hostels are on another level.

We didn’t know exactly what to expect from a party hostel, but Carpe Noctem Vitae certainly lived up to its reputation.

It didn’t look like a hostel. In fact, it was in a resident building full of expressionless Hungarians who had to suffer with living next to a party hostel full of drunken foreigners. The elevator looked like it hadn’t worked in years and was covered in strange, and probably alcohol induced, graffiti. It was in the same building as a beautician who did everything from hair to nails, so the front hall smelled of ammonia, sickly sweet hairspray, and stale perfume.

We stayed in a 12 bed dorm, which wasn’t as bad as it sounds. Sure, when staying in a room with that many people, sleep tends to become a luxury. Between the tipsy roommates stumbling in and the 4:30 am alarms as other travelers head off, I got around 5 hours a night and it was probably one of the many reasons I ended up getting sick towards the end of our trip. Someone is bound to always snore and sometimes you get an accidental flashlight in your face, but it’s all part of the fun.

However, even though it was a party hostel, Carpe Noctem Vitae had a 10 pm curfew. So, if you wanted a quiet night in, it was possible. The drinking games started around 6 pm in the common room and at 8:30 pm we would head out. The hostel planned events for every night: a ruin bar pub crawl, an open mic night, a Danube river boat party, a train of 200 jaeger bombs, and the infamous Alcohol Olympics, which was as bad as it sounds.

I learned what a ‘strawpedo’ was; it’s when you shotgun a mixed drink, like a hard lemonade, rather than a beer. And then they had ‘winepedos’, which is the same thing, just with a bottle of wine, usually a moscato or a rosé. We would watch the staff race each other. I think 5 or 6 seconds was the record to beat.

I just stood there with a slack jaw thinking ‘why??’

But, in reality, a party hostel was our best choice. We met so many cool people from all over the world and I finally stumbled upon some Americans, and even a few Texans, for the first time in months. The atmosphere will be hard to recreate and I’ll always be comparing every hostel I stay in to Carpe Noctem Vitae.

Did she say boat party? 

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I made the mistake of calling it a boat tour once and never again.

My first night was hands down one of the best nights I had in Budapest. That very morning, while waiting for our flight in Paris, me and my friend had decided to sit out on the boat party. We didn’t know what it would be – if it would be reputable – and who went. But upon check-in, it turned out that the boat party was one of the biggest hits and attendance was all but practically mandatory.

The boat was nice, two stories, and equipped with a bar and a DJ. We were given a bottle of champagne with our ticket and a little plastic cup that no one used. The fog was too thick to see much and the cold was insanely bitter, but cruising down the Danube river at night was still wonderful by itself. I can only imagine what those views would have been like if it had been clear.

Budapest is full of boat tours, day and night. It’s an amazing way to get a different perspective at some of its brilliant architecture. It won’t matter if you have a bottle of champagne or not, you’ll be impressed.

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That currency, though.

This is coming from the girl who struggled with euros for a few weeks. Sure, it takes a while to get a hang of the conversion, but now that I’ve been dealing with euros for over 5 months, it’s no big deal. I pay my bills in euros, buy food in euros, and think in euros. Plus, the structure is relatively similar (just throw in a 1 and 2 dollar coin and it’s practically the same).

Now enter the Hungarian forint.

There’s a 10, 20, and 50 cent coin (which I never used). Then you get up to a 100, then a 200. The first bill is 1.000, then 5.000, then there’s a 10.000. 200 forints ended up being a bit less than a euro.

It was strange, walking into a grocery store and looking at a bottle of wine that was priced at 580. So expensive, right? Nope! That’s less than 2 euros. A bottle of wine that was less than 2 euros. And it was pretty good wine.

My calculator was my best friend during that week. You can always spot the foreigners – they’ve always got their phones out, but they aren’t texting. ATMs were also a bit of a nightmare to get a handle on when you don’t know exactly how much you’re getting off the top of your head. It feels like so much money, and you don’t want to end up withdrawing 100.000 when you wanted 10.000.

In correlation to the euro, the forint is very cheap. Food was inexpensive and amazing, booze was cheap and everywhere, and accommodations were so well priced that we ended up being able to stay for a week. There was a pizza parlor next to our hostel that never gave you a choice – you got what they made at that moment, but it was always hot and always delicious. For 200 HUF, you could get a giant slice. (That’s less than a euro!!!) And it was always open, at 8 am, 7 pm, 3 am. I  don’t think that place ever really closed. But I finally had corn on my pizza and – omg. I’m sorry I ever doubted you, corn.

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The city doesn’t shy away from history. 

While Budapest has a party reputation, it’s also overflowing with culture.

The hostel was in the old Jewish ghetto, which is now in the hip part of town with ruin bars, narrow streets, artful graffiti, and daunting bronze statues of historical men bearing no plaques.

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There are castles, basilicas, churches with dazzling red roofs, 19th century bridges, WWII museums, a stunning opera, and burned abandoned buildings that look like they could be the set of a slasher movie just existing there on busy streets. Not to mention Parliament, the most amazing building I’ve ever seen. Budapest certainly has character.

You can even see the mummified Holy Right Hand of St. Stephen in a back room of St. Stephen’s Basilica.

That was a bit strange. But hey, when in Budapest.

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Travel by foot rather than public transit. 

I swear by this rule in pretty much every city, but sometimes taking the metro is easier (Example: Paris). But everything, even the other side of the river, was around a 25 minute walk. Budapest is a very compact city and it’s very easy to get your bearings. Even though public transit doesn’t cost much, it can add up. We ended up taking a few trams at night (sans ticket, but hidden in the masses of drunk travelers) and to and from the airport, but overall, transportation wasn’t really a factor in our budget. Fine with me. More money for Hungarian food!

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Goulash, Goulash, Goulash.

Sadly, I don’t have any photos of the famous goulash. Every time I would remember to take a photo, I would be soaking up the last bits at the bottom of the bowl with bread. It’s a relatively simple soup of vegetables and meat but, in the bitter Hungarian cold, it was the greatest meal I had ever had. And you can put hot sauce on it.

We ended up going back for it two more times, we couldn’t get enough.

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What happens in Budapest, stays in Budapest.

It’s the Las Vegas of Europe. It’s a strange city full of strange people and every night is going to be different from the last.

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The staff at the hostel were travelers just like us. They were from all over the world. And, unlike most hostels I have stayed in, they were interested in the people who passed through. They ended up not just being empty faces behind the reception desk, but rather friends I’ll always remember, even if I never see them again.

My favorite conversation with one of the staff members gave me the best quote to sum up the adventure that is Budapest:

“I booked two nights and ended up staying for two years.”

Once Budapest has her hold on you, it’s hard to break free.

Until next time,

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