Our actual anniversary isn’t until October 12, but due to our respective work schedules and, to be quite honest, the possibility that the Nationals look like they may be playing postseason baseball during that time, we opted to take our big anniversary trip just a little bit early. For those of you wondering, I was the one who insisted on no travel in October, and Wendy was the one who was not at all happy that the Nationals and their possible playoff schedule would be impacting the dates of travel. She just doesn’t get it, but she loves me enough to humor me, and for that I love her even more. It’s hard to imagine that we’ve been married for nearly 10 full years. I mean, only old people have been married for that long, and we’re not old, right? Okay, maybe we’re a little old.
Wendy’s actually been scoping our various potential destinations for this trip for a while. In the past, we’ve often gone to San Francisco, Napa Valley, and Carmel to celebrate our anniversary. Other years we’ve stayed local or went on a little Eastern Shore excursion. But this year, Wendy wanted to “do it big,” and go somewhere neither of us have ever been before. We’ve been kicking around various ideas like a South African safari, Hawaii, Ireland/Scotland, Fiji, and many other destinations for some time until Wendy saw a deal website that was touting a getaway to Budapest, Vienna, and Prague. Though we weren’t getting the package from the deal website, the various destinations sounded great to us. Neither of us had ever visited Hungary, Austria, or the Czech Republic, but we felt comfortable enough going to this part of the world, and best of all, we were both excited at the prospect of a new adventure. To reinforce our decision, all of our friends who’ve been to any of these destinations told us that not only did they love it, they thought we’d love it too.
After much planning and anticipation, we kicked off the first leg of our trip with a long flight (two flights, actually) that took about 16 hours total to get us from DC to Budapest. We flew through Amsterdam, and I’ve got to be honest, it was tearing me up a little that we weren’t going to be doing just a bit of sightseeing in Amsterdam, even though we were so close. Wendy’s been there before, so she felt no burning desire, but I’ve wanted to go for a while. Instead, we boarded our flight to Budapest and I was able to look at Amsterdam and its cool canals from afar.
Here’s a little tidbit about me, I can’t sleep on flights, and this is a horrible fact on overnight flights to kick off a vacation. It doesn’t matter how tired I am, how long I’ve been awake, or how much I want to sleep, I just can’t sleep unless I’m laying flat with a little room to periodically adjust my position (ahem, I just a first class kind of guy who happens to be stuck in coach). Since we’re not ridiculously wealthy and we didn’t have some amazing hookup for miles or upgrades to first class for the flight, there was no significant sleep for me. This meant that, upon our arrival, I was already running on fumes, but I was still very excited to be in a new city and experiencing a new adventure.
The hotel we had booked in Budapest was the St. George’s Hotel within the touristy but sleepy and cool Castle Hill on the Buda side of the city. If you’re not familiar with Budapest, it’s actually two very old cities that sit on either side of the Danube River, Buda (on the west with higher elevation) and Pest (on the east).
The views of the Pest side of the city from Castle Hill were rather spectacular, and were our first overall impression of the city as we ventured out before the sun set.
After settling in to enjoy a relaxing dinner at our hotel and to begin our long awaited anniversary vacation, we were well on our way to discovering and having a great time in a new-to-us old city of the world.
Rather than bore you with a play by play of our entire vacation, we’re going to share some of the real highlights, can’t miss moments, and a ton of photos from each leg of our trip. In the event you’re looking to venture to this part of the world and would like any additional information, be sure to leave us a comment and we’ll do our best to answer.
Whenever we go to a city where we’ve never been before we like to get a feel for the city by walking…and walking…and walking. This trip was no different, so we made sure to on a nice little walking tour of top tourist sights. A good friend of ours let us borrow Rick Steves' Budapest book, and it was an absolutely indispensable travel guide for this trip. Here's Wendy showing her love of this resource.
He outlined several city walks that took us past some of the most beautiful and important sights in Budapest.
The architecture in Budapest is an eclectic mix of old world and classic opulence…
…stark communist influenced…
…and architecture from the late 1970s and 1980s that attempted to show the city and country was beginning to emerge from communism and absolute authoritarian rule of the previous 40 years. Today it's typically thought of as "ugly 1980s construction," but it is far more a symbol of Hungary's hard fought freedom. (I'm talking more about the building in the background than the food stand.)
Our walking tour took us on a roughly eight mile adventure from the north end of Pest's city center to the southern extents. Along the way we were stopped at the various interesting sights and tourists stops, but were primarily treated to many wonderful sights.
We concluded our walking tour with a stop at Great Market Hall.
If you remember our love of Burough Market in London, you'll easily see why we loved this place.
The building itself is a massive structure with a lower floor and upper ring with cross crossing catwalks. It felt almost like a train station.
The first floor was dedicated to the various produce, butcher, fishmonger, and other food-related sales.
The prices in the main hall area were reasonable, but the prices on the side hallways were virtual steals.
As good tourists, we bought paprika (both sweet and spicy) and a local liquor called Unicum, the things that Hungary is apparently known for.
Though we saw many things we wanted to buy, like this reindeer shaped wine bottle, we knew there was simply no way it would make it home on the plane.
The second floor of the market consisted of vendors selling their goods. It was far more geared to the tourist than the fresh produce section, but it was interesting nonetheless.
Wendy had read about the hand made chess sets that were popular throughout Budapest, and she found a vendor selling some beautiful ones for almost nothing. She purchased this little wooden chess set for just 3,800 Forints, about $17, and the vendor spoke essentially no English but was probably the nicest person we encountered on the entire vacation.
One of the absolute highlights of our trip was our trip to the Szechenyi baths. We don't have any photos (since we were swimming and lounging), but it was a wonderfully relaxing and new experience). Sitting in the warm water mineral baths with hundred if not thousands of locals and tourists, I wondered why the United States doesn't have this wonderful tradition and culture? Chlorine filled wave pools and water slides are not what I'm talking about. I mean, lounging baths where you go to unwind and rejuvenate. It's a shame it doesn't exist nearby.
I do have to say that I've never seen so many...ahem...robust and hairy men in Speedos. I was your typical American with board short trunks that covered half of my knees, but Speedos are one European trend I'm definitely not a fan of adopting.
Nearby the baths sat Hosök tere or Heroes' Square, another collection of statues responsible for celebrating the great men of Hungary's past.
We had noticed the popularity of Burger King in Hungary, and I think I discovered why. Check out Louis I of Hungary, king of Hungary and Croatia from 1342-1382. If this guy isn't the spitting image of Burger King's "The King," I don't know who it could have been modeled after.
Nearby, Heroes Square sits the Vajdahunyad Castle. Like much of Hungary's embellishments that were constructed for the Millennial Exhibition celebrating 1000 years of Hungary, this whole castle was built in between 1896 and 1908, but was meant to resemble parts and pieces of palaces or castles all around Hungarian land. "New" or old, it is rather impressive.
One of our favorite places to wander and enjoy the sights of the city was from the Castle Hill area where we were staying. The Fisherman's Bastion and surrounding cathedral offered some of the most spectacular views of the city.
This was true during the day, but especially during the evening.
Around lunch time the whole area was bustling with tour groups and artists selling their work. Wendy discovered a pen and ink drawing of Budapest's Parlament building and bought it as one of our favorite souvenirs.
One of the things that struck me about Budapest was the extent of damage is took during WWII. Constant bombing raids from the allied forces during Nazi occupation left the city in absolute ruins.
Though there is still plenty of evidence of the damage, Hungary has gone to great lengths to preserve their history by rebuilding its destroyed landmarks as they originally were, resisting the urge to embellish or allow the items to take one the hard angles of communist minimalism.
One example where this wasn't the case was in the Orthodox Church on the east side of the river. Where twin steeples once stood, one was lost and replaced with a partner that is entirely put of place.
I'm not sure of the story surround this alteration, and through my various attempts at research I can't discern what happened. If you know, I'd love to hear.
The food in Budapest was excellent. From traditional goulash and chicken paprikash, Wendy and I thoroughly enjoyed almost all of our meals. But one stood out from all others.
A small restaurant across from our hotel called Pest-Buda (to the very right in the photo above) had amazing food. We ate dinner outside with a beautiful backdrop.
Wendy had chicken paprikash and I had a sheep's milk brick oven pizza. It was simply an unexpected, reasonably priced, and enjoyable vacation dinner.
While in Budapest we made sure to ride their metro system. The trains were stark and simple...
...and many stations were sterile and without character, but one line was an exception to the rule.
The A line is beautiful and is the second oldest underground train line in the world.
Subway tile and stained oak millwork line the station and are in absolute contrast to most of the other stations.
I tried to imagine the feeling of the people being oppressed under communist and rule with an iron first, going to their jobs each day on this transit line, experiencing just a glimpse of their past life before being pushed back into reality. It was probably a very dark time, but a time that's obviously behind the people of Hungary now, and a time that they are moving beyond without forgetting.
Our final night in the city we took a Danube river sightseeing cruise. The city is so beautifully lit at night, it was an absolute treat to see everything.
The guided tour focused entirely on the romantic history of Budapest, including the Hapsburgs and other royalty, and the amazing accomplishments of the people of Hungary. It failed to mention much of the bad parts of their history. It's an understandable omission, but one I would have liked to have learned more about.
And I can't forgot one of my favorite aspects of the city, the rich collection of doorways on every street and around every corner. Let's play a quick game of "one of these things is not like the other."
In all, Budapest did not disappoint. We had a wonderful time and loved the city, people, and food. We didn't have huge expectations going in, which is why I think we were so pleasantly surprised. If anyone out there is thinking "I wonder if I'd like Budapest?" or if you've been considering a trip, I'd definitely add it to your list of places worth visiting.
It seems like it would be most enjoyable during some of the mild to warm months, as I have to imagine it gets pretty cold and dark in the winter.
Have you been to Budapest? Does this post make you consider it even though it had never been on your radar before? Do you have a favorite destination that you'd recommend we visit? We'd love to hear all about your memorable trips and vacations.