I admit I have a Hungarian temper. Why not? I am from Hungary. We are descendants of Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun.
-Zsa Zsa Gabor, actress and socialite known for her gold-digging ways
Budapest has always been high on my travel list, probably something to do with its swanky architecture, Habsburg opulence, and cozy ruin pubs doling out an endless supply of hearty goulash (gulyás). Paired with a history dating back to 1 AD and Celtic, Bulgarian, Ottoman, Austrian, and Soviet influences, there's little to not like about Hungary's densely sprawling* capital city. But don't take my word for it, as Budapest -- pronounced 'Boo-da-pesht' -- consistently ranks at the top of international lists for beautiful cities and high quality of life.
So why wasn't I feeling the Budapest love?
I could blame my lackluster visit on a number of things: my apartment that reeked of cabbage soup, dreary winter weather and even drearier Soviet buildings, the constant warnings about pickpockets. Maybe it was too many elegant old buildings to count sadly awaiting rehabilitation or gruff locals who only spoke Hungarian (outside of tourist spots, English is not widely spoken), I was just not smitten by Budapest. By the time Christmas rolled around, the entire city shut down for three days, leaving me with few things to do and nothing to eat but dry lentils and whatever chocolate ornaments I hadn't already plucked from my little Christmas tree. But the main reason I didn't enjoy Budapest was because I was worn out from eighteen months of pounding the pavement as a tourist, or at least that's what I told myself as I choked back a flavorless dog biscuit one particularly lonely, boring, hungry night.
Budapest reminded me a lot of Prague, but in a muted, less exciting way. While both cities are divided by a wide river, defined by Art Deco and hillside castles, and easy on the budget, I couldn't help but like Prague that much more once I had experienced Budapest. Maybe Budapest is completely different in the summer months...?
Regardless of how I interpreted Budapest, the city is teeming with history and creativity. I managed to visit some fascinating abandoned sites, although I was bummed to miss the wondrous Kelenföld Power Station. I left Budapest after Christmas satisfied with what I had seen and relieved to be going where I could talk to locals. Sure, it would have been nice to check out the few remaining paternoster lifts in the world, but that's a legit reason to return for a summer visit, right?
*The city became a powerful new metropolis in 1873 when the cities of Buda, Pest, and Óbuda (Old Buda) merged to create what we now know as Budapest.
Széchenyi thermal bath
Not being one to pass up a opportunity for a Turkish bath and massage, I did not miss a visit to Széchenyi spa. Ranked as the largest medicinal bath in Europe, Széchenyi was built in the early 1900s and is still a popular gathering spot. The Turkish rule of Buda ended by the 18th century but the bathing facilities they built remained an integral part of the city's culture, and visiting one today is a relaxing yet invigorating experience.
While in Budapest, I joined a free walking tour and saw the city's highlights, including the UNESCO-listed Banks of the Danube, Buda Castle Quarter, and Andrássy Avenue.
Getting around Budapest
Mango and I arrived in Budapest by train from Rijeka, and I quickly learned that the massive city has an abundance of affordable transit options for getting around. There is 'Europe's most scenic tram ride' along the Danube River for just a few dollars (be sure to purchase your tram number two ticket beforehand at a metro station, because ticket-checkers always catch tourists without tickets and I can attest that they aren't the nicest folks to deal with), and clean, modern street cars criss-cross the city. Buses come in every flavor, with bright red trolleybuses barreling down narrow streets being my favorite. Uber is no longer available in Budapest, so finding an honest taxi company takes a bit of investigation. Budapest also has an underground metro and a few large, gorgeous train stations worth visiting (Keleti, mmm). Tragically, I didn't find Budapest to be the friendliest for cyclists and pedestrians.
How dog-friendly is Budapest?
Mango fared okay in Budapest, arriving with no issue on the train and enjoying the occasional romp at our neighborhood dog park. Cafes, bars, transit, and shops were super dog-friendly, but many restaurants weren't. An interesting dog-centric thing I observed in Budapest was the double trash can, with a bin for regular waste and another bin for dog waste, something that didn't make sense to me until I read this article that dives into why dog poop should not go into landfills. So, kudos to Budapest for being so forward-thinking when it comes to, well, dog shit.