Budapest: Thermal Baths, Rich History & Friendly Faces
As a destination, it's well worth considering if you're looking for an "off the beaten path" European experience. It's rich in a culture and history that's relatively new for many American travelers; it's a great jump off point to other European cities (only about a three-hour train to Vienna); and with the strength of the U.S. Dollar against the Hungarian Forint, it's a heck of a lot more affordable than the real Paris. And of course, my favorite part: the people. Because they just don't get inundated with American travelers, locals seemed so eager and willing to befriend and help navigate around.
So if you're considering a visit to the Hungarian capital, here's a list of must-sees and tips:
Budapest Parliament: With its gorgeous Gothic architecture, it's one of Europe's oldest legislative buildings and you can get inside with public tours that include an up close look at the Hungarian Crown Jewels. The cheapest way to nab a ticket is to book in advance online at Jegymester.hu.
House of Terror Museum: Ok, yeah the name is intimidating, but it's a pretty awesome museum about the country's fascist and communist history and if you're a history buff you'll love it. It can get intense at times, but it's mind-blowing as an American that this happened in many of our lifetimes, not all that long ago. It's artfully done without being gratuitous and a great introduction to understanding the city and its people.
City Park Flea Market (Zichy Mihály út 14 Flea Market): A giant flea market held on the weekends in the city’s version of Central Park. The park’s worth a walk around, but I loved the flea market for some gems we found. Granted, some of it was junk but it's a really interesting peak into the people, culture and history of Hungary, from vintage clothing to Hungarian Communist Party medals. It's a history lesson in and of itself, and a great place to find less touristy souvenirs. There's an entry fee, but in USD it's less than $1 per person, so it's worth it.
Széchenyi Thermal Baths: Leftover from the Ottoman Empire, Turkish baths are a part of the fabric of Hungarian culture and a must on a trip to the city. This particular one is the largest of its kind in Europe, housed in an impressive baroque-style complex -- just take a look up at the mosaics in the front entrance. It feels more "community pool" than luxe hotel spa experience, but what could be more local than sitting in a tub with 20 of your closest new Hungarian friends? You'll hear and see little English (I may have accidentally ended up in the woman's restroom on one occasion) but it's a great laugh and a highlight of the trip. If you need some liquid courage before heading in (like I did), there's a cafe called Varosligeti Sorsator in the park across the street that serves Palinka, a traditional fruit brandy.
Széchenyi Chain Bridge: You can't miss the city's iconic chain suspension bridge connecting Buda and Pest, and it's well worth a stroll across for a scenic photo op, but the real tip here is afterwards heading to the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace at the foot of the bridge. The grand hotel's common areas are truly impressive and thanks to the value of the dollar, pre-dinner cocktails by the piano are both delightful and very affordable.
Fisherman’s Bastion: A true must see while in town, the terrace offers stunning panoramic views of the city. It's also alongside Matthias Church with its colorful-tiled roofs. A World Heritage Site and one of the oldest buildings in the city, dating back to the 11th century, its part functioning church/part museum. Plus you can pick up a really cool souvenir in the church's store -- every few years the colored roof tiles are taken down and replaced. The old ones are stamped, dated and available for purchase. And while you're in the area, stop at Ruszwurm Cafe, founded in 1827 and home to some amazing pastries, cakes and desserts.