During our first visit to Budapest, we arrived late at night. It was dark and moody, and we were tired. We hailed a taxi at the airport, the driver greeting us with breathless Hungarian and a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He unapologetically sped through the darkened streets, whizzing around corners and gambling with shortcuts through narrow alleyways. Old lamps were strung above, subtly illuminating the city’s charm in a shy introduction.
We arrived at our accommodation in one piece and immediately fell into our bed, victims to jet lag.
The next morning, bright and early, we set off in search of breakfast. Walking through Budapest, drenched in morning light, it was easy to fall in love. Grandiose buildings dominated every corner, their baroque architecture and romantic details exposing snippets of stories that left me wanting more. It was spring, one of the best times to visit the city, so each cafe was perfecting its terrace, awake for the first time since winter and hopeful for the promise of warmer afternoons.
Statues, parks, monuments, and historic sites litter the city. You can barely walk a block without stopping to admire, to daydream, to contemplate, to glee. There are the big hitters, the places that dominate a Budapest to-do list: Parliament, St. Stephen’s Basilica, Castle Hill, Synagogue, Great Market Hall, ruin bars, thermal baths, viewpoints, City Park…
But for me, Budapest triggers emotion everywhere you look, big and small.
It goes beyond a guidebook.
The quirky, the unique, the random, and the subtle details are what captivated me.
Of course, the main sights are a must; honestly, you cannot visit without a soak in a thermal bath. But the hidden charms are what made me return, and what made me fall in love with this city.
The Unique Reasons to Visit Budapest
Have you ever landed in a place and something so random and unexplained draws your attention immediately? For me and Budapest, that was the street lamp. I know a lot of European cities share this design, but I simply adore the lamps that are strung above, dangling in the middle of the street, swaying slightly in the breeze. Many hurry by but few gaze up. I, however, am transfixed. In fact, the street lamps are the first thing I noticed on that darkened night in the taxi, barreling through the city. And still today, I will always look up, my heart swelling with each glance.
One thing I always encourage visitors to do in Budapest is to use the public transportation. The center of the city is fairly concentrated, but there are some sights that require a distance. Public transportation is all a part of the experience. Everyone steals a photo of the yellow trams rattling and rolling along the riverfront, after all.
It will always be music to my ears hearing the screech of the tracks as a tram rounds the corner. I will always love hanging on to the leather straps that dangle from the old metro as it twists and turns, stops and shudders along Andrássy. I actually miss the days climbing the high steps into the old Communist-era steel buses, blue and gray and built like ships. Riding the intimidatingly fast escalators deep into the depths of the underground is some of the best people watching around. And even the river taxi, its Hungarian flag dirty from spewing fumes, has its charms as you cruise under the sparkling bridges at night.
We had a few friends visit us in Budapest, usually combining the city with a stopover in Vienna. The comments about Vienna were repetitive, complimenting the cleanliness, the grandiosity, the all-around beauty of the city. I agree, Vienna is gorgeous and grand. But it’s a whole different world.
The essence of Budapest is its raw, vulnerable, and authentic character. Building facades are not only elaborate and highly detailed, but many are crumbling, are worn and weary from history that has yet to turn the page. I find so much innocent beauty in just that.
Step inside almost any building, and you find yourself in a bygone era. The interiors of Budapest are filled with secrets. You transport yourself to the middle of a successful and grand empire, to a decade fueled by art and culture, to the harsh and bleak rule of Communism, or surrounded by art deco magic. There are few places that can do this so well, so quickly, and so diversely. Even Budapest’s train stations remain locked in time, sun streams finding their way through each and every crack along the high, iron ceilings.
Budapest has this way of romancing you like no other city. The seasons are a production, long and distinct, but the sunlight is the star of the show. When weather permits, catching a sunrise or sunset is like seeing a new side of the city. Budapest knows how to illuminate itself, knows how to flirt, knows how to show off its spectacular beauty. Just watch the sun dance across the horizon and you’ll know what I mean.
Last winter was one of the coldest in recent times. The Danube River had ice floes crashing into its banks. The mercury rarely went above freezing and every passerby was dramatically drenched in winter gear. However, this did not stop the average Hungarian from drinking a light and refreshing wine sprtizer outside. Nor did it stop the Hungarian entrepreneur from selling these summer hits from a hollowed out van while chain smoking in the winter chill. This attitude is priceless because it is how you find these random occurrences. And, when in Budapest, do as the locals do and order that ice-cold fröccs in the middle of January.
As I meandered through the city’s core, I decided my afternoon walk wouldn’t be complete without dipping into a courtyard or two. Listen to your instincts, follow your gut. These were the words of advice I gave myself. Does that side street look intriguing? I should probably investigate because you never know what enchantments await. Art shops and cafes, unique architecture, personal gardens, and new friends. Budapest is a city meant to be discovered, by each individual visitor, in one’s own unique way.
Doors and windows
As mentioned before, Budapest buildings dominate nearly every corner of the city. Each is different, a unique story to tell. Keep looking, and stay longer than the rest. There is too much detail; you’re bound to miss something the first time around. Trace the lines with your eyes, study the intricacies, note the colors, and truly feel the city by lingering under its art pieces.
Budapest already has a long list of must-sees. Each year, it creeps higher and higher on travelers’ bucket lists. But there is so much to see beyond the usual. I truly encourage you to step away from the crowds, at least for a little while, and discover this treasure trove on your own terms. Walk the streets with unashamed curiosity and allow your feet to act as the pulse of this vibrant city.