How to Live like a Local in Budapest

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

View from Gellért Hill. Photo by Moyan Brenn via Wikipedia [CC-BY-2.0]
View from Gellért Hill at dusk. Photo by Moyan Brenn via Wikipedia [CC-BY-2.0]
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.

The Széchenyi Chain Bridge in Budapest in winter fog. Photo by Noval Goya via Flickr.
The Széchenyi Chain Bridge in Budapest in winter fog. Photo by Noval Goya via Flickr [public domain]

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:

  1. Central Europe rocks
  2. 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)

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Relax in the baths:
    Széchenyi Baths at night. Photo by Neef-2 via Wikipedia [CC 3.0]
    Széchenyi Baths at night. Photo by Neef-2 via Wikipedia [CC 3.0]
    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).
  4. 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.
  5. Go ice-skating:
    The Ice Rink in City Park, photo by Xosema via Wikipedia [CC 4.0]
    The Ice Rink in City Park, photo by Xosema via Wikipedia [CC 4.0]

    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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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).
    The New York Café. Photo by Yelkrokolade via Wikipedia [CC 3.0]
    The New York Café. Photo by Yelkrokolade via Wikipedia [CC 3.0]
  8. 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).
  9. 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.)
  10. 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.
  11. 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
⇒ Ten Must Have Market Foods at Budapest Christmas FairsBudapest, a National Geographic city guide

Oranges Like Blazing Fire

The oranges of the island are like blazing fire among the emerald boughs,
And the lemons are like the pale faces of lovers who have spent the night crying.

Chinotto oranges. Photo by Nadiatalent via Wikipedia.

Two widely quoted lines from an obscure poet. If you can name the island this quote refers to, I’m impressed. If you can also name the poet, you know far too much about literature and history – would you be interested in writing a guest post for me?

As for the rest of you, the hoi polloi, the mere mortals 🙂 reading this:

Continue reading “Oranges Like Blazing Fire”

Spanish Ballads from Southport

Lord Street, in the small Victorian seaside town of Southport in Lancashire, has the airs and graces of Paris. Except that, if you’re to believe the locals, it’s the tree-lined avenues of Paris which have the airs and graces of Lord Street: the exiled Napoleon III lived here before he became king of France and afterwards he had Paris rebuilt in the same style. In any case, Lord Street is the main shopping street of Southport which you can’t avoid en route from the railway station to the pier (there’s a lovely stretch of sandy beach too although you’d have to question the sanity of anyone who wanted to go for a swim in the Irish Sea) and in between two bright and modern shops with their sparkling clean plate-glass windows, belonging to well-known chains, there is a narrow and uninspiring passageway.

Continue reading “Spanish Ballads from Southport”

Sailing Into History

There are authors who captivate you. With their choice of words, their temperament, their ideas, their life story, their way of looking at the world, their… spirit. It’s been a long time since I last had been so captivated as I’ve been this winter; and it’s a good thing that my husband doesn’t read this blog for I’m positively in love. (With a man who’s been dead for some thirty years. Ouch!)

Continue reading “Sailing Into History”

Of the Mani, Manhattan and Alexander the Great

What kind of a book would a chain-smoking former Special Operations Executive officer write? A man who at 18 had thought he had nothing better to do but to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople with a volume of English verse and Horace’s Odes in his pocket? A man who felt equally at home in shepherds’ huts and in aristocratic palaces?…What kind of book?!

And English readers, who know exactly whom I’m talking about, here answer in unison: a travel book, of course.

A travel book, yes. Er… sort of.

Continue reading “Of the Mani, Manhattan and Alexander the Great”

Following Ulysses with Ernle Bradford

Recently I wrote about how a young Royal Navy sailor in 1941 sauntered into a Greek bar in Alexandria and came out with his head full of the Odyssey. Well, those of you who haven’t read that piece, go and read it now, but I’m willing to remind the rest who have merely forgotten who this sailor was: Ernle Bradford.

Continue reading “Following Ulysses with Ernle Bradford”

How To Be Plied with Free Raki

If you’ve ever been to Greece, you know that the Greeks are both hospitable and friendly. (They’re also not averse to take the clueless foreign tourist for a ride, but that’s another matter.) And one of the surest way to win their hospitality is to make the effort and speak a smattering of Greek. This generally holds true in any country, by the way, and the more obscure the language, the more your effort will be appreciated by the natives. Take this as travel tip of the week. 🙂

Continue reading “How To Be Plied with Free Raki”

The Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion

Place me on Sunium’s marbled steep,
Where nothing, save the waves and I,
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep;
There, swan-like, let me sing and die.

Lord Byron: The Isles of Greece

Byron wrote these lines about the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion which he visited during his Grand Tour (carving his name into one of the columns).

The Temple of Poseidon was built in 440 BC, when Athens was led by Pericles. The first temple on the site, dating from the Archaic period, was destroyed by the army of Xerxes during the Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BC. If you need help to imagine what the temple might have looked like, the Temple of Hephaestus on the agora of Athens was built at about the same time, possibly by the same architect, and is in a much better shape.

Cape Sounion is a promontory on the southern tip of the Attica Peninsula, not far from Athens. You can reach it by coach from Athens taking either the coastal route or an inland route passing by the ancient mines of Laurium (whose silver enabled Athens to build its famous fleet). According to legend, Cape Sounion is the spot where King Aegeus threw himself off the rocks, giving his name to the sea in which he died. Cape Sounion is also famous as the location from which to watch the sun set over the Aegean Sea. There is a path leading down from the temple to the bay below and you can finish your visit with a swim in the crystal clear water. (Shame about the ugly hotel.)

Stick And Rudder (No Fear of Flying)

Are you afraid of flying? Would you rather take a train any time? Seated over the wing, are you one of those who watch with horrified fascination as the wing trembles, wondering if it’s going to snap off? Do you swallow nervously every time you hear one of those weird noises planes make? And when the plane passes through turbulence, do you grab the armrest in panic? Well, this post is for you then.

Continue reading “Stick And Rudder (No Fear of Flying)”

Cáceres, town of conquistadors and bell-towers

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Cáceres is a town in the Extremadura region of Spain – the region where many of the conquistadors, those adventurers eager for fame and power but most of all gold, came from. It can be reached from Madrid in about four hours by train. Like so many parts of Spain not on the Mediterranean coast, you will find the town quite tranquil, not at all overrun by tourists.

Continue reading “Cáceres, town of conquistadors and bell-towers”

The Aegean

View of the Aegean from Cape Sounion

The Ship with Black Sails: How the Aegean Got Its Name

After King Aegeus of Athens lost a war to King Minos of Crete, Athens had to send seven young men and seven maidens to Crete every nine years to feed the Minotaur – the half man-half bull monster kept in the labyrinth at Knossos. Eventually, Aegius’ son, Theseus, volunteered to go to Crete and slay the monster. With the help of King Minos’ daughter Ariadne, who fell in love with him, Theseus succeeded in killing the Minotaur and escaping from the labyrinth.

Continue reading “The Aegean”

Street Art in St Ursula Street Valletta

Saw this on the wall of one of the buildings in St Ursula Street, Valletta, Malta.

St Ursula Street – Triq Sant’ Orsla for those of you who speak Maltese 🙂 – is a narrow street with blocks of flats, running lenghtwise on the peninsula towards Fort St Elmo, and terminating in a row of steps at the opposite end leading up towards to the Upper Barrakka Gardens and the Auberge de Castille.

Continue reading “Street Art in St Ursula Street Valletta”

Sephardi Orange Salad (Ensalada sefardi)

Our last trip to Spain took us to the Extremadura region in the west by the Portugal border where we based ourselves in its capital Mérida, in a flat opposite one of the aqueducts. If you ever want to take a photo of your offspring on a swing with a Roman aqueduct for backdrop – head for Mérida. The town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it boasts one of  the most impressive collection of Roman ruins that you can see outside Italy – not to mention other sights.

Continue reading “Sephardi Orange Salad (Ensalada sefardi)”

Mediterranean Miscellany

I love the Mediterranean. Why is anybody’s guess, although sun, sea and history have all got to do with it. And languages.

And so here I’m introducing a short & lightweight Sunday feature that mostly will have very little to do with books: a collection of odds and ends, a miscellany of the Mediterranean. From travel photos to anecdotes to recipes  – I’ll be sharing anything and everything that evokes the Mediterranean landscape, people and their history. In no more than 300 words (a welcome relief to everyone).

So here's to those unforgettable sunny days in the Med.
So here’s to those unforgettable sunny days in the Med.


Ulysses Found

Travelling leads to strange encounters. Especially if you’re committed to speak the language of your destination.

In World War II a young Royal Navy sailor by the name of Ernle Bradford sauntered into a Greek bar in Alexandria and came out brainwashed because he had been imprudent enough to say “Kalimera” to the man behind the counter. A few years ago I went to Delphi and was imprudent enough not only to say “Kalimera” but to follow it up with saying that I hoped to read Herodotus in the original someday.

All avalanches begin with a snowflake.

Chance encounters. And Ulysses found…

Continue reading “Ulysses Found”

The Mighty Dead or Does Homer Matter?

Why Homer Doesn’t Matter

Now that’s a heading that nobody should have been expecting from me, given how I go on and on about Homer whenever I have nothing better to do. But I have finished reading The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson, and put it down with the feeling that sadly, it failed in what it set out to do: namely to convince skeptics that Homer mattered, that Homer should still be read, perhaps even studied, because he’s relevant to our lives.

Continue reading “The Mighty Dead or Does Homer Matter?”