I’ve never been to a city that has an ambiance quite like Budapest’s. Hungary is a country that has suffered a long history of war and occupation, and even in its democratic nascency, it retains a deep sense of loss. You can feel that melancholy as you wander the streets of Budapest – but it also comes with a sense of humor. (Our tour guide, while describing the end of World War II, asked us if we knew who had liberated Hungary. “Russia did, of course,” she said, “They liberated us for 42 years!”)
Budapest does not have the romance of Paris, or the buzz of London. But it does have a kind of hopefulness that drew me in immediately, and made me want to stay awhile.
1. Matthias Church
Budapest is a two-for-one city, with Buda sitting on one side of the Danube, and Pest on the other. Hint: sound like a local and pronounce it “Pescht.”
Perched high above the city in the Buda Castle District, Matthias Church is one of the most beautiful and unique Catholic churches I’ve ever seen. The bright mosaic that tiles the roof is worth the trek up the hill in itself, but you’ll also be afforded some awesome views of the Pest side of the city.
Unicum is a Hungarian digestive liqueur that supposedly contains 22 medicinal herbs. Everyone drinks Unicum in Hungary, and apparently does so for all occasions. I came down with a cold while I was in Budapest, and went to a grocery store to buy some cough medicine. There was an older woman working there who didn’t speak English, so I acted out coughing and blowing my nose, hoping she would understand what I needed. Looking like she had had a lightbulb moment of understanding, she led me to the pharmacy aisle…oh wait. No, she actually led me to the alcohol aisle, and handed me a bottle of Unicum. At first I thought she hadn’t understood what I meant, but upon further research, it appears that she understood me perfectly.
It’s strong and admittedly pretty vile (have I sold you on it yet?), but taking a shot of Unicum is a Hungarian rite of passage. Don’t miss it!
3. Ruin Bars
While we’re on the subject of drinking, be sure to check out Budapest’s famous ruin bars. After the war, there were tons of abandoned factories and warehouses that no longer had a use in post-Communist Hungary. So, rather than let them go to waste, they were converted into watering holes. These funky bars are now a staple in Budapest, and can be found across the city.
Pictured above is one of the most famous ruin bars, Szimpla Kert, and it’s definitely worth a visit.
4. Apple strudel
Do not, under any circumstances, leave Budapest without trying a piping hot pastry of apple strudel. I snagged this one at the Central Market Hall, which boasts all kinds of foodie delights, but you can find apple strudel in most cafes around Budapest. Looking back on this photo, I’m a little disappointed in myself for only having one.
5. Dohány Street Synagogue
This impressive synagogue is worth a visit for a number of reasons. For starters, it’s the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world. During WWII, this synagogue served as the border for the Budapest Ghetto. Although it was severely damaged during the war, it was restored following the fall of the Soviet Union. The renovations, which were completed in 1998, were primarily funded by Estée Lauder.