My inner germaphobe recoiled in horror as I dipped my toes into the steamy, chlorine-free waters of Szechenyi Baths. Nobody else seemed to mind that this place was the perfect breeding ground for a multitude of horrifying drug-resistant bacteria. White and caramel-colored bodies sat placidly in the armpit grease-filled pools, enveloped by rising steam, but a few were busy sucking in their tummies and sticking out their chests for the ‘gram.
“Weeeeeeeeee!” my 5-year-old screamed as he dive-bombed into a pool outdoors, splashing murky water onto several flawlessly made-up faces. The aspiring models waded away, scowling.
The city’s claim to fame – its thermal springs – have long attracted scores of admirers. First came the Romans, who established their regional capital here over 2,000 years ago after Marcus Aurelius discovered that his soldier’s wounds healed faster when they bathed in these hot springs, and then the Turks who, during their occupation in the 16th and 17th century, constructed a handful of public baths which are still being used today.
Among the dozens of baths around Budapest, Szenchenyi is one of the largest and most popular spa complexes in Europe, hosting everyone from Madonna to Richard Nixon. In this handsome building more than a hundred years old, you can find indoor pools with temperatures that range form hot to only-Satan-bathes-here…
…and three open-air pools – only the latter is open to kids under 14.
So there I was, on a chilly May morning, shivering in my bikini. I couldn’t decide which was more appealing – hypothermia or staph infection – but my kids chose for me, having jumped into the pool immediately after disrobing.
As soon as I found myself relaxing in the water, my kids pulled me to the centre of the pool (correction: whirlpool) where we spun around like a a pair of socks in a tumble dryer and I almost fractured my hip bone trying to escape.
After toweling off, we went to Heroes’ Square to cower before the fierce countenance of the Magyars, the ancestors of present day Hungarians. The Magyars – skilled horsemen who are said to have originated from Central Asia – were the most fearsome warriors after the Vikings. I felt a little thrill knowing that my Asian brothers managed to ride all the way here over a thousand years ago, pillaging and conquering towns along the way…
…but the statues bear more resemblance to Harrison Ford than any Asian I’ve known.
Anyway, I totally get why the Magyars wanted to settle here.
Hungary is flat like the Steppes, and a river winds placidly through the capital, carrying with it wealth and news from other parts of Europe. The Danube, however, was not blue as Johann Strauss has promised, but rather the colour of a day-old baby’s poop (which explains why nobody swims there). That did not stop us from sailing with Lagenda Sightseeing Cruise, marveling at some of the city’s flamboyant landmarks, many of which were built in 1896 to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of the Magyars’ arrival and to thumb their nose at their rivals, Vienna.
One of the most grandiose of these is the Fisherman’s Bastion, which is a misnomer since it has no fishermen, but rather, hundreds of tourists all jostling for the perfect picture. This Disney-like monument reclines atop a hill and is purely ornamental, rather than functional.
Its centerpiece, Matthias Church, is way older, dating back to the Middle Ages. It is the site of many royal marriages and coronations…and this is starting to sound like a very dry history lesson so we’ll stop here.
The kings lived nearby, in Buda Castle, presumably for convenience (I mean, if he has killed a blood relative for the throne or impregnated a female servant, salvation is only a short walk away). While I’d love to pay a visit to the king and swig palinka with him, monarchy ended in 1918 and the royal residence has now been converted into a library and several museums.
The Hungarian Parliament, which was also built as part of the millennial celebrations, makes the Houses of Parliament in London look modest. We booked a guided tour, and were herded like cows around the opulent interior, bristling with hand-carved statues, ceiling frescoes and convenient workplace facilities like a post office, a clinic and – perhaps the most important of all – a hair salon (because God forbid one has a bad hair day during a parliament sitting).
But perhaps the most intimidating room of all was the dome hall, where two guards holding drawn sabres stood watch over the crown jewels. Because it must be incredibly tiresome to stand still and have tourists buzz around you like flies day in and day out, they were ready to flay anyone who gets too close – a poor lady got the fright of her life when a guards sprang into action, snarling and waving his weapon (which he no doubt sharpens every day) in her face.
Like, we get it dude, your life sucks. Stop taking it out on others.
We had our first taste of Hungarian food and liquor at the Great Market Hall, where mountains of fiery red and yellow paprika – used liberally in Hungarian cuisine, from soups to cakes – graced shopfronts, while salami and sausages made from mangalica, a traditional Hungarian delicacy made from a local woolly pig, dangle from the ceilings. There were also shops selling jars upon jars of pickled everything – including melons – and a bakery selling freshly made, piping hot strudels. I bought one stuffed with cottage cheese and it was beautiful.
After a satisfying round of made-in-China souvenir shopping upstairs, we sat down for lunch in Fakanal Etterem, one of the more expensive restaurants in the market hall. The place is as touristy as it gets, with Hungarian tasting platters and roving folk musicians, but the food – which came accompanied with some salty, spicy paprika paste – was enjoyable.
Heck, I was starting to develop a certain fondness for Hungarian grub when I boldly gulped down some Unicum.
Everything about the Unicum is offensive, from its name to its taste. But just as I was about to buy a one-way ticket out of Hungary to get as far away as possible from this liquor, I had some toltott kapozsta, or traditional meat-stuffed cabbages drenched in tomato sauce, and the world was right again.
We also dropped by the Belvarosi Piac, a smaller, more authentic farmer’s market. Locals come here to shop for local produce and eat in one of the handful of casual food stalls owned by renowned Budapest chefs upstairs.
Despite its unpronounceable name, MoszkvatéЯ is a solid Russian eatery specializing in street food versions of traditional Russian cuisine. You’d think the Russians were only good for two things – mobsters and matryoshka dolls – but, no, their pelmenyi topped with caviar and sour cream is every bit as deserving of our attention too.
It is said that you can’t leave Budapest without trying langos, a favorite snack among the locals. We came upon this deep-fried dough at a summer fair, and – after apologizing to our arteries – decided to have ours doused in sour cream and grated cheese. It tasted remarkably similar to ham chim peng, the Asian doughnut that was such a regular fixture in my not-so-great childhood.
We took a cue from the food tours that regularly drop by Callas Cafe and had tea and desserts there. Situated on Andressy Ut, Budapest’s very own Champs Elysees, this gorgeous restaurant serves Hungarian pastries in art deco surroundings. I helped myself to the opera cake, an elegant chocolate confection layered with mousse and wafer, and it was as beautiful as Maria Callas, the world famous soprano who inspired it.
It took me awhile to realize that my mother’s apartment – yes, she lives there – was located in the Jewish Quarter, where 70,000 Jews were forced to live during the Nazi occupation in 1944. Whole communities were wiped out, but the place is experiencing a revival of Jewish culture, judging from the number of new kosher restaurants in the vicinity. We loved walking around this disheveled, graffiti-sprayed neighborhood, exploring its hidden courtyards and ruin pubs – without the children, of course. Hungary may be part of Europe, but it feels different, grittier and more exotic.
We also stopped by the Dohany Utca Synagogue, Europe’s largest synagogue. Its elegant Moorish facade, however, hides a grim history. Beside it, the Garden of Remembrance stood, a mass grave for murdered Jews. Some of the victims’ names were inscribed into the weeping willow memorial nearby.
And then there is the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial, named for the Swedish consul who saved tens upon thousands of Jews during World War II by smuggling them out of trucks bound for the detention camps and into safe houses. He was eventually arrested by the Soviets for espionage and died in a gulag. But what disturbs me is that real-life heroes like him aren’t as well-known or celebrated as Iron Man or Wolverine. Their faces have disappeared, swept away by the tide of history. It’s like they never existed.
After the excitement of the baths, we preferred to indulge in some low-key fun and relaxation with the children. So we took a tram to Margaret Island, a peaceful, car-free recreational reserve wedged in middle of the Danube. Locals come here to bike, swim and generally get away from the bustling city.
I mean, what could possibly go wrong, right? Right?!
Well, the problem began when we rented an electric buggy to check out some ruins of a church. Instead of following us, our 3-year-old clambered onto the driver’s seat in front and stepped on the pedal – accidentally it seemed, because he began screaming for help when the car propelled forward for quite a distance….before crashing into a tree.
The boy, while inconsolable, survived with minor scrapes and bruises.
But yes, Budapest is beautiful. Just don’t expect relaxation to be part of the vocabulary when you’re holidaying with kids.
New York Palace, Autograph Collection This resplendent baroque-style hotel sits within walking distance of Budapest’s top sights. Amenities include a gym, spa and pool. The in-house New York cafe has long been an institution, thanks to visiting poets and writers. Rooms are tastefully furnished, with large bathrooms, but do not that it can be quite noisy as the hotel sits at a busy intersection. Be sure to ask for a quieter room on a higher floor if you’re a light sleeper. $$$
- You can stay in Budapest for a week and not be bored. There are plenty of fascinating historic sites that could easily fill in your time but the not-to-be-missed ones are highlighted above. If you’re traveling with kids, do note that there are many playgrounds scattered around the city that you can drop by in-between sightseeing.
- Budapest is actually a sum of two cities – Buda and Pest – located on opposite sides of the Danube. While Buda has some incredible sights, it is also concentrated by the river. Most hotels are located on the Pest side of the city where all the action happens, but if you prefer a quieter, more residential feel, then book yourself an apartment in Buda instead.
- Budapest has a thriving nightlife, from ruin bars to sparties – or wild night parties in the baths – which takes place regularly during the summer. Be sure to choose your hotel wisely if you cherish some peace and quiet, especially on weekends.
- Not all baths are open to children. Szenchenyi, for instance, prohibits children under 14 from taking a dip in its indoor pools due to safety and health issues. There are plenty of options to choose from if you’re an adult looking for some R&R, but if you’re traveling with kids, your best bet is the Palatinus Strand Baths on Margaret Island.
- It is advisable to book in advance for the 45-minute tour of the Hungarian Parliament in summer but be sure to arrive on time. We were turned away for being 5 minutes late and had to buy brand new tickets at the counter because Google Maps directed us elsewhere.
- There are several sightseeing cruises by the riverbank and they offer similar itineraries. Bookings are not necessary unless you want to do go on a dinner cruise.
- If you’re short on time and would like to sample all the good food and wine the city has to offer, join a food tour like Taste Hungary (www.tastehungary.com) or check out their blog for a lowdown on must tries.
- Margaret Island, one of the most kid-friendly places in town, is connected to the mainland by a bridge. You can take a boat, tram or walk – but be sure to don a good pair of walking shoes because the place is bigger than you think. Bikes and buggies can be rented at the entrance otherwise, and try to stick around for the night fountain show.