The first stop on our trip was Budapest, Hungary! I had heard amazing things about this city which is why it was at the top of my list for places I wanted to visit this year. And what I heard was true! This was easily one of my favorite cities on our trip. It was a very unique city that seemed a little more untouched by tourists than the other cities, which made it especially enjoyable.
We left Madrid on Friday, December 20th, and after a quick layover in Prague, we arrived to Budapest that evening. Our first destination when we arrived was to the ATM to take out the Hungarian currency called the Forint, AKA a pain in my ass. Thank God I had Lindsey (who was a math major) with me to do the conversions because I proved to be incompetent in this department. We spent a long time trying to figure out why none of our cards were working in taking out 150 Euros worth of money at the ATM. It turned out I misread the currency app on my phone and told Lindsey to take out 450,000 Forint– that’s 1,500 Euros, not 150. No wonder!
So once we figured out that debacle, we found ourselves being nagged by a very chatty but friendly older Hungarian cab driver that we decided to name Yohan. Well, things started to take a turn when Yohan told us his taxi was parked in a different lot and he started to lead us to a dark, creepy, unpopulated parking lot away from the airport. The only thing crossing our minds was that being “taken” wouldn’t exactly be the ideal start to the trip. Our nerves calmed down a little once we arrived to a parking lot with a bunch of other cabs, so we got into the vehicle. The car ride itself also made me fear for my life a little bit. Yohan was one of the chattiest people I have ever encountered and we had to pretend like we understood his broken English. All the while he was hardly looking at the road! All I can say is thank God we made it to our hostel in one piece! We stayed at Central Backpack King Hostel which we were really impressed by. It was in the heart of the city and only cost 10 Euros a night!
So after getting settled into our room, we explored our first European Christmas market! I won’t lie, one of the things I was the most excited for about traveling Europe during the Christmas season was being able to go to these famous markets, and they were definitely worth all the hype! They were one of my favorite parts of the trip and we were lucky enough to encounter them in every city we went to. Budapest had my favorite markets, though, because they seemed to be the most authentic. The Christmas markets consisted of stand after stand of different food, crafts, and mulled wine (hot red wine made with different spices and ingredients. SO good!). While in Budapest, we went to the markets in front of St. Stephen’s Basilica, Vorosmarty Square, and Deak Square. Our normal Christmas market order was sausages, mulled wine, and my favorite dessert: chimney cakes! These are basically hot dough rolled in cinnamon and sugar, but you can order other flavors if you would like.
After checking out the Christmas markets, we had our first dinner of the trip. Yohan had recommended a certain restaurant near Vorosmarty Square, but when we found the address, it was a totally different restaurant than what he said. We decided to eat there anyways because it was late, we were hungry, and places were starting to close down. We found we had this problem for the majority of the trip. Our body’s are so used to being on Spain’s eating schedule (lunch at 2 or 3, dinner at 9 or 10), that we often couldn’t find restaurants open that late!
The next morning we had the most delicious breakfast at the upscale Gerbaud Café. Then we met up with the free walking tour which I thought was excellent. Our tour guide, Angie, was adorable and very informative. I really enjoyed this tour because we covered a ton of the main tourist sites but we also learned a lot about Hungary’s difficult history. Since Lindsey and I are apparently very slow at taking pictures, we ended up completely losing our tour group. So we wandered around the Castle area trying to find them. We were about to lose all hope until we stumbled upon a touristy area and then we heard a voice that sounded like angels singing. It was Angie’s voice and the rest of our tour group! So we joined them for the final part of our tour and pretended like we never left them.
After the tour, we wandered back over to the Pest side for lunch (Budapest is divided into two sides by the Danube River: The Buda side and the Pest side). It appeared a little difficult to find a restaurant to eat at at around 3 pm. Again, our Spanish eating schedules were failing us. But we finally found a cute little place in the Jewish quarter owned by a sweet Jewish family. We had a delicious but VERY filling meal. On our way back to the hostel to rest a little bit, we stopped at the Christmas market in Deak Square where we had one of my favorite mulled wines of the trip: STRAWBERRY mulled wine! Yes, it was even better than it sounds.
That night we planned to join the pub crawl that most hostels and walking tours advertise for young tourists. However, yet again our Spanish lifestyles failed us. We were about to leave the hostel around 9 p.m. thinking that we had plenty of time to go grab dinner and then join the pub crawl– because who goes out before 11?! Well, apparently all of Central Europe. The guy at our hostel’s desk told us the pub crawl was leaving at 9! We tried to run to catch it but it was too late 😦 So instead, we grabbed some sausages and mulled wine at a Christmas market and had our own fun! After dinner we went to a couple bars and were daring enough to try Budapest’s traditional liquor: Palinka. This liquor seems to be served at all the bars and even stands at the Christmas markets and comes in a huge variety of flavors. Our tourguide highly recommended the plum flavor so we got a shot of that and a Hoegarden to sip on. The Palinka was DISGUSTING. Suddenly Lindsey and I turned into amateurs and nursed that shot for all it was worth (as in at least an hour!). The bartender was laughing at us the entire time because I’m sure she’s never seen anyone sip on Palinka before and I’m sure our faces after every taste were priceless. Eventually we finished though! But I can’t say we’ll ever order it again.
The next day was our Sunday Funday! AKA one of my favorite days of the trip! And after our tiring night the night before, we relaxed in the most perfect way possible: at one of Budapest’s Turkish baths! This was one of the top things to do in Budapest and our tourguide said we HAD to do it, and unlike the Palinka, she was right about this.
We took a metro to Heroes Square (a Square dedicated to all of Budapest’s heroes, hence the name). We had another delicious lunch close to the baths (I was seriously never disappointed with the food on this trip). After that, we headed over to the Szechenyi Turkish Baths. These baths were beautiful, huge, and rated one of the best in the city. We spent most of our time in the outdoor pools which was an incredible experience. The outdoor weather was foggy and freezing, but we spent our whole afternoon in steamy, hot, giant jacuzzis. Once we were done with the outdoor pools, we went inside and tried a sauna and the majority of the indoor pools. Each pool was a different temperature which was pretty cool. I’m sure there’s a strategy for how to go about doing the pools, but we just sort of did our own thing which included avoiding the cold pools because those weren’t very enjoyable after spending all of our time in the hot ones.
Unfortunately the time came to shower and leave the baths. The curtain-less showers and full-blown naked bodies were a quick reminder that we were no longer in America. That night we grabbed dinner at a restaurant right by our hostel. It was also right next to the university so it definitely had a young, college vibe. I finally ordered authentic Goulash and it was wonderful! Goulash is Hungary’s traditional soup and probably it’s most traditional dish. My Grandmother’s parents were from Hungary and I always loved when she would make me Goulash. It was my favorite meal! It was so cool eating it in the country that it was created! That night we walked over the Chain Bridge. It was so foggy that all the lit-up buildings had a halo-like glow around them.
The next morning, after an English-style breakfast, we hiked up the MANY steps to the top of St. Stephen’s Basilica where we got a beautiful 360-view of the whole city. The rest of the day was very relaxing and included walking to get a closer view of the stunning Parliament building, exploring more of the Buda side of the city, and seeing the Grand Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter. We had lunch in an interesting restaurant with little toys and trinkets everywhere. I of course had to order some more Goulash!
Later that evening, I met up with my friend Sarah! Sarah and I used to work together at Bertucci’s and she just so happened to be traveling through Budapest at the same time. Since she used to live in Budapest, she and her friend showed us around a little bit and we got a couple drinks. Once we split ways, Lindsey and I realized we needed to find a souvenir shop ASAP because we both collect shot glasses from everywhere we go but it seemed like the entire city was beginning to shut down! So we headed over to Vorosmarty Square and we luckily found an open shop! After making our purchases, we realized we basically had no Hungarian currency left. So what do two Americans do on their last night in Budapest with no more money? Eat their last meal in Burger King, of course! Haha it wasn’t exactly how we wanted to spend our last Hungarian meal, but there was nothing we could do.
DAY 5: Christmas Eve
Normally this day wouldn’t even be included in my Budapest post because we booked a 7 am bus so that we would have the whole day in Vienna. But things didn’t go exactly as we had planned…
Our bus was scheduled to leave at 7 a.m. for Vienna. I asked the guy at the front desk of our hostel how to get to the bus station. He said it was about a 15-minute metro ride and that we wouldn’t have to leave the hostel any earlier than 6:30. Yes, we should have realized that 30 minutes would be cutting it a little close, but that’s why hindsight is 20/20. Also, we ended up leaving our hostel at 6:36 so that was definitely our fault. Also, luck was not on our side because when we got to the metro, (I don’t remember how long to be exact) it said it was about an 8 minute wait for the next train! That’s when we knew we were screwed. Our hearts were racing once we were finally on the metro. Things weren’t looking good. When we got to our stop, we dashed out of the train in search of the bus station. We must have gotten to the bus station around 7:05 and our bus was nowhere to be found.
After freaking out for a while, we decided to sit down and plan out what we were going to do. At the moment, the bus station looked pretty much dead. There were no workers at any of the ticket or help desks. There were hardly any people waiting for buses either. Also, our phones didn’t work (only in wifi zones) and we were out of the Hungarian currency. Not to mention it was 7 a.m. on Christmas Eve so the whole city was pretty much shut down. Our options seemed limited. We discovered another area of the bus station that was underground and seemed to be much more populated. There were women at the ticket offices so we tried to get information from them but none of them spoke English. A younger girl spoke very little English, but it was enough to tell us that that area was for domestic travel only and that the international trips were upstairs where we came from.
We were about to head back to our hostel to use their wifi/phones and figure everything out until we saw a woman appear behind our bus company’s desk! She broke our hearts when she said the buses for that day were all sold out and that the next one wouldn’t leave until the next day. We needed to sit down to figure out our plan. We were convinced we were going to have to spend another night in Budapest and leave for Vienna the next day. Since we apparently had the whole day to spare, we made the decision to try to flag down a cab and go to the train station in hopes that they would have last-minute tickets. The only problem was that we had no money- so we needed a cab driver that would take Euros. We also didn’t speak Hungarian- so we needed a driver that would speak English. Not to mention it was 7:45 a.m. on Christmas Eve and there were absolutely no cabs in sight.
After waiting for a bit of time, a cab FINALLY pulled up! First we asked if he accepted Euros. He did! He didn’t speak much English, but he understood we wanted to go the train station that would take us to Vienna. All I can say is THANK GOD for English being the universal language! The cab ride cost 25 Euros total which sort of sucked but it was worth it because the train station gave us hope! There were actually PEOPLE around! And lots of them! The train station was a bustling place with constant trains leaving for their destinations. It wasn’t over yet, though, since we still needed to buy tickets. We went to the ticket office and low and behold, the next train to Vienna was leaving at 9:30 a.m. and there were tickets available! I can’t even describe the amount of weight that was lifted from my shoulders at that moment. We had a way to Vienna! Sadly it cost us our missed bus, a taxi ride, and a new train ticket (about 40 Euros) but it’s ok, because after getting coffee and breakfast with a new American friend that we met in the ticket office who had been working in Italy, we were finally on a comfortable train headed for Vienna!
Overall, I LOVED Budapest. It was such a unique city filled with history, kind people, and delicious food. It was one of my favorite cities on our trip. Although our time there didn’t end in the best way possible, our stay there as a whole was definitely a great start to our journey!