CITY OF BATHS
Did you know that Hungary’s capital used to be three independent cities? In 1873, Buda, Óbuda, and Pest merged into the hub presently known as Budapest. The word ‘Buda’ comes from the Slavic word voda, which has played a key role in the city’s development.
Budapest straddles the great Danube, which has not only been an important resource for agriculture, trade, and transportation, but also shaped the local customs and culture. The region is home to over 100 natural geothermal springs, which feed more than 160 bathhouses across the country and earned Budapest its ‘City of Baths’ title in 1934.
Be sure to pack your bathing suit and explore some of Budapest’s iconic bathhouses, including but not limited to:
This yellow neoclassical bathhouse and its swimcapped bathers conjure something from a Wes Anderson film. Built in 1913 in the heart of City Park, Széchenyi is known for its two large heated outdoor pools—plus a wide array of tubs, pools, saunas, and steam rooms inside. Go early in the morning for a relaxing experience with the locals and chess players, or on Saturday nights for a wild summer pool party.
One of the most photogenic, Gellért features elegant Art-nouveau mosaic tiling, a columned lap pool with skylight, sculptures, and stained glass windows.
Dating back to 1550, this Turkish bathhouse provides a glimpse into Ottoman bath culture. The main pool was built in a traditional octagonal shape and is surrounded by 5 smaller ones, a sauna, steam room, and massage rooms. Less traditional but way cool is the outdoor rooftop hot tub that overlooks the Danube.
This 1565 bathhouse features a majestic domed ceiling with tiny star-like skylights and is one of the oldest operating bathhouses in the city.
MEMOIRS OF A TURBULENT PAST
Budapest has a long and complicated history. It began as a modest Celtic settlement, which developed into a Roman town called Aquincum (see the water motif?). The lands then change hands between the Mongol, Ottoman, Hapsburg, and Austro Hungarian empires before finally becoming its own Republic in 1989.
During WWI, the Austro Hungarian Empire was amongst the defeated Axis powers. Hungary gained independent but lost two thirds of its territory post-war. A WWII era fascist party called the Arrow Cross terrorized the nation until Hungary fell into the Soviet sphere of influence (1945 - 1989). Society was split into two factions and any anti-communist or anti-Soviet rebellions were brutally suppressed. A major shift occurred with the Rendszerváltás (regime change) of 1989—Prime Minister Imre Nagy had been sentenced to death, greater political freedom was granted, the Soviet army withdrew and the state became the Republic of Hungary. Communism lost its hold and Hungary became a member of NATO and the EU.
The communist regime had gained power by inflicting fear. Hungary remains scarred by a long period of communist rule, one characterized by civilian arrests, murders, dictatorship, blackmail, detainment, and forced labour.
This museum stands as a memorial to the victims of the fascist and communist regimes that terrorized Hungary. Outside, the Wall of Heroes stands testament to the brave souls who fought for political freedom. Inside, a well-curated museum offers visitors great insight into the terrors that afflicted Hungary.
The building was originally used by the Arrow Cross Party and AVH. Many people were imprisoned, tortured, and killed in the building, which has since been renovated. It is a powerful experience that puts the country’s history into context.
Shoes on the Danube Bank
If you stroll along the Pest side of the Danube in front of Parliament, you’ll find a touching memorial honouring the Jews that were killed by the fascist Arrow Cross party during World War II. In response to accounts of Jews ordered to remove their shoes before being shot at the river’s edge, film director Can Togay designed the memorial as a row of bronze shoe sculptures.
Hungarian National Museum
A wonderful collection of Hungary’s past, the Hungarian National Museum houses over 3.5 million artifacts from the Austro-Hungarian Empore and Eastern Bloc, including the intricate Monomachus Crown of Byzantine origins.
Hungarian Railway Museum
Catch the train from Budapest Nyugati Station to Esztergrom for an interesting, albeit niche, insight into Hungary’s history.
Red Star Train Graveyard
Or check out this hidden train graveyard and find overgrown relics from the past. We have not been as this site does require a little breaking and entering, but we’ve heard that it’s a great destination for urban decay photography.
Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art
Cheer up with a little Andy Warhol and discover what contemporary Hungarian artists like Konkoly and Lakner are all about! Discovering Eastern Europe’s art scene is sure to be the perfect compliment to all the history you’re soaking in.
There is another way to find cool artifacts of Hungary’s past. Head to one of Budapest’s many Ruin Bars to find an interesting curation of vintage and kitschy items plastered over crumbling brick walls. Like the House of Terror, these Ruin Bars are repurposed spaces—only, these historic buildings have been converted into bars.
Ruin Bars began popping up 15 years ago and what started out as a big tarp and some cheap drinks has evolved into a sub-culture of its own. Today, there are dozens of Ruin Bars in Budapest’s Jewish Quarter. They range from quirky to industrial, and dingy to chic, and chill to clubby. Here are a few of our favorites—
the mother of all ruin bars
One of the very first to spring up, Szimpla started as a makeshift bar inside a dilapidated building. Today, it operates as a “cultural reception space” and tries to provide a home base for Budapest’s alt scene. The place is a coffee shop by day and bumping bar by night. Each room is done up in a unique theme, some with bath tub sofas, others with Windows screen savers playing from rows of decorative PC’s. Szimpla also has a courtyard cinema, hosts a Sunday farmer’s market, and incubates local green initiatives. Best of all, there’s no cover. Avoid prime hours to skip a long line.
Instant & Fogas Ház
the 26-room club with its own pizza joint
Search for a street sign for an old dental office called Fogsor Javitas—what awaits will blow your mind. Though situated in a heritage building dating back to 1861, Instant is less of a laid back Szimpla-style ruin bar and more like a massive mega club. In addition to 7 dance floors and 18 bar counters, there’s an Enchanted Forest and pizzeria for mid-dance snacking.
a few more…
There’s also Kuplung, the one with the jellyfish; Mazel Tov, the upscale one with lots of plants; Racskert, the one with a hot dog stand; and Ellátó Kert, the one with the Virgin Mary shrine.
The Hungarian Parliament Building is not only a significant historic landmark, but the largest building in Hungary—and features stunning Renaissance Revival architecture. Book a tour ahead to ensure you get tickets!
Recharge at the nearby Madal Cafe after your tour.
Buda Castle and surrounding castle district form the epicentre of Budapest’s World Heritage sites. In addition to the castle and palae complex, you’ll also find an adorable funicular, the National Gallery, Budapest History Museum, Matthias Church, plus sweeping views across the Danube of Parliament and the cityscape beyond.
Known as The Great Synagogue, it is the largest and also houses the Hungarian Jewish museum.
This Roman Catholic basilica is supposedly the final resting place of King Stephen’s right hand, and a grandiose church to explore. At 96 metres tall, it is precisely the same height as the Hungarian Parliament Building to symbolize that worldly and spiritual thinking are of equal importance—and it is prohibited to build anything taller.
Budapest has a thriving food scene, offering a combination of local haunts and international cuisine. Be sure to get your hands on a steaming hot goulash (for vegetarians, mushroom options are available at Getto Gulyas and others.
For the latest ideas, head to Offbeat Budapest.
In addition to hostels and hotels, Budapest seems to have an abundance of hip Airbnb options. We recommend finding one within walking distance of the Jewish quarter, which is chock-full of cafes, restaurants, and bars to start and cap your travel days.
Budapest is equipped with a metro system that links the city’s major points of interest. Pay ~$2 per ticket, day pass, or get a 10-pack for approx. $15.
Budapest also has a variety of services including Uber, Lyft, Ola, and standard taxis.
That said, we do recommend seeing Budapest on foot, even during the colder months. It is the best way to take in the city architecture and find local haunts. Be sure to cross Liberty bridge and take admire the city from both sides of the Danube.
We also recommend strolling up to Buda castle rather than taking the funicular—you’ll be rewarded with this nice view of the Danube and St. Stephen’s dome.
The local currency is the Hungarian Forint (HUF). At present, $1 CAD is $210 HUF. Money changers and ATMS are readily available throughout the city.
Hello - Szia! Sziastok! (‘See-ah! See-ah-stock!’)
Goodbye - Viszontlátásra! Viszlát! (‘Vee-sont-lah-tash-ra! Vee-slat!’)
Thank you – you’re welcome - Koszonom – Szívesen (‘Keu-seu-neum – see-ve-shen’)
I don’t speak Hungarian - Nem beszélek magyarul (‘Nem bes-el-ek ma-ja-rule’)
One coffee please - Egy kávét kérek szépen (‘Edge kah-v-it keh-reck say-pan’)
One pálinka / beer / wine please - Kérek egy pálinkát / sört / bort (‘Care-ek edge pah-link-cat / shirt / bore-t’)
Cheers! - Egészségedre!(‘Ag-esh-sheg-ad-reh’)
I’m vegetarian - Vegetáriánus vagyok (‘Ve-ge-tar-i-a-noush va-dj-ok’)