I just came home from home. The experience was slightly unnerving in both directions (as usual). To begin with, there was the inevitable confusion of languages: while at home, I tended to do it all wrong. I spoke Hungarian to Young Friend of the Elephants and English to my father, not to mention when I creatively mixed the two languages to the changing room attendant in the thermal baths. To end with, back home there was the immigration officer at Heathrow who asked cunning questions to find out if I was trafficking my child into the country to be some sort of a domestic slave. (She’s washing up after dinner right now but don’t tell that to the border police.)
Home vs Home
I enjoyed being at home. It’s true I no longer remember all the names of the smaller streets in Budapest but I’m still capable of making creative public transport choices on the run to halve the time needed to get wherever I’m running late for; I know whether it’s best to get on the front or the back of the tram; whether the metro carriage door will open on the left or on the right at the next stop; I know that only an idiot or a foreigner takes the trolleybus down Dohány utca when in a hurry. Back here at home on the other hand I can’t do any of these things without consulting a map or an app on my phone first and I get lost every time I emerge from under ground because the traffic is on the WRONG side of the road and the Thames can’t be trusted to keep straight, making it wholly useless as a point of reference.
By the way: This, to the best of my knowledge, is not a travel blog (yet?) but right now I’m going to treat you to a travel post and you’re going to suffer it. If it inspires you to visit one of the most lovable and liveable cities in Europe, if not the world, good for you.
Why Vienna is Not the Most Liveable City in the World (Or a Short Introduction to the Capitals of Central Europe)
Budapest doesn’t even make it on Mercer’s Quality of Living Ranking but Mercer’s have ranked Vienna top city for liveability for 5 years running, which should tell you two things:
- Central Europe rocks
- Vienna is boring (read safe, law-abiding and prosperous)
Number 1 needs no explanation. Central-Europe has three great capitals, neither more, nor less – don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. I know all three and can explain to you the similarities and differences between them in one short paragraph:
Vienna, Budapest and Prague (which, BTW, also doesn’t make Mercer’s top n) share architecture and the Central-European mindset. Vienna and Prague share being small. Prague and Budapest share being the poor relations to prosperous Vienna. Vienna and Budapest share the River Danube… except Mr Danube shrugs his shoulders at the respectable and well-preserved Aunt Vienna to profess love to the spirited and beautiful Miss Budapest in her ragged jeans instead.
As for number 2: Budapest is no longer living the wild-west era as she did in the 1990s after the fall of communism when Russian maffias were attempting to carve up the city amongst themselves, shooting each other up in McDonald’s and using car bombs with gusto… nevertheless Budapest is anything but boring, law-abiding, or prosperous. On the plus side, it’s definitely safe.
The truth is Central-Europe is not so much a place as a mindset and you can call on well-known clichés like Strauss, coffee houses, Freud, faded grandeur and world-weary decadence to set the scene.
Why Live like a Local When You’re on Holiday?
Well, the answer to this one is pretty simple: wherever you go, if you want to get the best out of the place, you’ve got to live like a local. It’s fundamental. But in a liveable & lovable city like Budapest is the only way to carry on.
How to Live like a Local in Budapest (Winter Edition)
- Rent a flat:
Forget the hotels. Hotels in Budapest suck. They do look fancy on the outside and have impressive entrance halls but once you’re in the room, you could be anywhere in the world. So rent a flat: it’s cheaper and you can live like a local. Please yourself with a flat in a 19th century block of tenements with open air corridors around an inner courtyard in the city centre or a villa up in the leafy hills of Buda overlooking the Danube and the city – but take a flat.
- Use the public transport:
Budapest has one that actually works and is dirt-cheap, even by the wallets of the locals. For less than ten thousand Forints (£27), you can get a monthly pass that will transport you everywhere by nearly everything that moves whether metro, the ‘little underground’, buses, trams, trolleybuses or the cogwheel railway… The only things you can’t use the pass to travel by are rickshaws, taxis, the Castle Hill Funicular, the chair lift or boats.
Incidentally, the so-called ‘little underground’ is only the second underground in the entire world (the first was built in London), and the first on the Continent. Have a look in the Underground Museum in the subway of Deák tér metro station.
- Relax in the baths:
Budapest sits on top of more than a hundred thermal springs and the one good thing Hungarians did get from the Turks is the idea of building baths on them. (If you think visiting a bath house is no big deal, come to London and try to enjoy the dirty and overcrowded municipal swimming pools.) Visit one of the 16th century Turkish bath houses from where under-14s are banned in the interest of peace and quiet or the Art Nouveau palace attached to Hotel Gellért – or anything in between from sport pools to spas.
In winter, go for the outdoor pools of the Neo-Baroque Széchenyi Baths in City Park, where you can relax in pools decorated with statues while the steam off the water swirls over the surface and people play chess in the pool – all this in temperatures below zero (with snow by the poolside if you’re lucky).
- Take pictures:
Budapest is one of the most photogenic cities in the world and offers plenty to challenge photographers, whether professionals or amateurs. Go up to the one of the numerous hills of Buda to enjoy unrivalled views across the River Danube to Pest: the best view is from Gellért Hill, from where you can see Buda Castle, the Parliament across the Danube and the Chain Bridge (city’s signature bridge) but the views from Buda Castle are not far behind. Shoot the scenic ruins in Margit Island or the reflections of Fisherman’s Bastion in the plate glass of Hotel Hilton. Keep an eye for the fine architectural details of the numerous 19th century palaces or the gilded ceilings of sumptuous coffee houses… Capture street life.
- Go ice-skating:
The Ice Rink in City Park in Budapest is the biggest outdoor ice-rink in Europe – in surroundings that make the pop-up rink in the courtyard of Somerset House look like a beggar’s choice: Vajdahunyad Castle on one side and Heroes’ Square on the other. Not to mention that for the equivalent of a paltry £5 you can skate for four hours (if you’ve got the stamina). Go in the evening when the ice sparkles blinding white under the floodlights and the loudspeakers boom out the latest hits or popular classical music.
- Eat a chimney cake:
Chimney cake – kürtős kalács – is a long cylindrical shaped cake sold at street stands. It’s a sweet raised dough cooked on a wooden spit over charcoals and then rolled in sugar, ground walnut or cinnamon. It warms you up and it fills you up.
- Warm up in the cafés:
There are posh cafés and poor man’s cafés and everything in between and they are all over town. Although the famed Central-European coffee house tradition is not what it used to be when writers and journalists used to sit and smoke and drink espresso in the cafés all day long writing witty leading articles, moody novels and decadent poetry, a café is still the place to be whenever you’re tired from traipsing round or need to warm up. For the price of a cup of tea you can sit around all afternoon with a newspaper (some cafés still provide you with a selection) or your book and nobody will bat an eyelid. In some cafés you can have breakfast, lunch and dinner; in others it’s tea/coffee and cakes only. If you want something truly mind-blowing, go the New York Café – all gold, mirrors, live music and hot lemonade… and no locals (they can’t afford it).
- Buy stationery:
In certain countries, like England, schools provide all, including even pencils and exercise books. What the schools provide, perhaps understandably, is cheap and depressing. In Hungary, children are expected to provide their own text books, exercise books and pens – as a consequence, the selection is impressive. When it comes to exercise books, a certain Italian company (they’re welcome to pay me for naming them) rules supreme: choose between books with stunning city-scapes, cute animals or the latest Star War heroes or buy pens and pencils with all kinds of sparkling, dangling, carved or printed decorations to treat your kids (or yourself).
- Learn to speak a couple of words in Hungarian:
Hungarian might be one of the most difficult languages in the world but a couple of words is not beyond you. Any efforts will be much appreciated by the locals who are fully conscious of the obscurity of their language, which stands alone in Central Europe in a sea of Slavic and Germanic languages. (Hungarian is not even an Indo-European language and is only related to Finnish and Estonian.)
- Shop in the plazas:
Budapest is hot in summer and cold in winter – which is why the locals embraced the idea of air-conditioned shopping malls wholeheartedly in the 1990s. The plazas of Budapest are like every other shopping mall in the world except they boast rooftop gardens, waterfalls, exhibitions, aquariums, mammoth statues and god-knows-what-else, all to keep the shoppers indoors.
- Go to the theatre or a concert:
Although your Hungarian might be lacking, Budapest also offers theatre in English or in Hungarian with English surtitles. If all else fails, there’s the opera, a building pretty enough to draw a good secondary income from tours for tourists during the day. Not to mention classical music: this is the city of Liszt and Bartók after all!
You might also like: ⇒ Budapest shrouded in fog: wintry photos on welovebudapest.com ⇒ Ten Must Have Market Foods at Budapest Christmas Fairs ⇒ Budapest, a National Geographic city guide