Hungary is not a country that I have ever been able to claim much knowledge of, goulash being about the only thing that sprang to mind. Its capital certainly does not feature in the average list of must see European cities, yet when we touched down in Budapest last week we were met by a bustling city filled with beauty, culture and a great atmosphere.
On getting into conversation with a man on the plane about what to do in the city, the first thing he said was walking, and it soon became apparent that this was the best advice. Much of Budapest is best appreciated for free on your own two feet: strolling along the Danube, darting into ornate church doorways, watching musicians work their magic on the edge of lavish squares, and stumbling upon markets, sculptures and art at every turn.
However, this picture of apparent perfection is not untarnished. Aside from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the history of Hungary is little taught in British schools, but there is a lot to learn. The country’s people have been ravaged by two tortuous regimes: suffering greatly under the Hungarian Nazis and later the Soviets, who entered wearing a liberator’s disguise. When on a walking tour, our young guide said that the country was still feeling the effects of past oppression, and that it will not be his generation, but the following, that see the end of Communism, despite the fall of the regime over 20 years ago. A political system can change overnight, but habits of fear learnt over decades fade more slowly, leaving Hungary a country still very much in the throes of post-communism, with a people who do not smile easily.
If one looks carefully, there are reminders everywhere of communist ugliness and Nazi terror, but these are slowly being transformed. We came across a square near the centre of the city which, as you turn 360 degrees, incorporates almost all of Hungary’s architectural styles. Each one is more beautiful than the last, until your eyes come to rest on an ugly grey monstrosity, otherwise known as communist architecture. This blip is hideous, yet it is a blip nonetheless, and does not spoil the beauty of the square, merely making the perfection of the other buildings shine brighter. And so, as Communism is allowed to take its place in the history of Hungary, ugly relics of the period are being beautifully transformed without destroying their origins. Buildings that were left to go to ruin under the Soviets have been taken over by artists and changed into what are known as ruin bars; huge buildings filled with an eclectic mix of treasures that take hours to explore, with drinks flowing in every room.
Budapest is a little behind the likes of Prague in its transformation into a cosmopolitan city, yet that works in its favour and, in my books, leaves a large stamp hovering over it ready to mark it as Europe’s most up and coming city. It still very much has its own individuality, and my mere 5 days there was in no way enough time to see what was on offer. You will find beauty and culture at every turn, and little signs of a not-so-long-ago history in the oddest places, like a communist bus station still standing, but now covered in fairy lights occupied by people drinking coffee, rather than Soviet soldiers.
Recommendations for places to see and stay:
- Sexy Tractor Hostel – central location, friendly staff, social atmosphere
- Zimpla Ruin Bar – I thought I was in heaven!
- Cactus Juice Restaurant – good goulash for cheap to be found here
- Hungarian State Opera House – if you are prepared to take awful seats, it will only cost about £2
- The shoes on the Danube – a beautiful sculpture in memory of Jewish victims
- Free Walking Tours – leaving everyday at 10.30 and 2.30 from Vörösmarty Square
- The House of Terror – interesting but get ready for a big dose of emotion!
- Trams – jump on random trams and see where they take you, its such a good way to see the city
- Lukacs Baths – lovely, and not too expensive, traditional thermal spa