Content Warning – This article contains discussion of Nazi and Soviet Atrocities
Solo Travel for Introverts Ratings
Sensory Calm (3 / 5) – Budapest is a city of chaos, noise and crowds. But it is easy to get lost in it and not stand out, and appreciate it from the sidelines.
Solo-Friendliness (5 / 5) – Many visitors to the city are solo backpackers and tourism is built around adventurers.
Commute Friendly (5 / 5) – Well connect by trains. Excellent public transport.
Predictability (4 / 5) – Fairly predictable. The currency is a Forint, which in terms of numerical value, is weak, and caused a bit of confusion – when a glass of drink was 1000 to 1500 forints. Make sure you get a decent exchange rate from Euros or US Dollars. Spend local currency wherever possible, as there are hidden charges on EUR & USD.
Safety (4 / 5) – High safety, low crime, I saw several women traveling alone at late hours in trains with no one bothering them. Although there is news of growing intolerant towards immigrants and gender & sexual minorities in Hungary, the city of Budapest is very progressive and metropolitan.
Nerdy stuff – (5 / 5) – Many museums catering to a layered history of many eras. There’s pretty architecture everywhere.
What and Where?
Budapest is the capital of Hungary, a prominent Central European country. Being a capital of the former Austro-Hungarian empire, Budapest is a disproportionately large and affluent city, compared to the currently smaller borders of Hungary, and has been a historic junction between the West and the East.
Budapest is divided into two halves – Buda and Pest. Buda is on the hilly western side of the river Danube which has the castle and fortifications. Pest is the eastern flat side of the city, which was historically for the commoners. Pest has the major city-center, markets and a collection of several districts which make up the bulk of the city.
Budapest has a major airport but due to its centralized location, can also be easily reached from several other places by train – Vienna, Austria and Bratislava, Slovakia to the North-West, Zagreb, Croatia in the South-West and Belgrade, Serbia in the South-East.
For folks outside continental Europe, Munich, Germany is the most easily available flight connection.
First Impressions of Pest
I didn’t know what to expect of Hungary and Budapest, when I took the MAV train, leaving Vienna and Bratislava and moving farther South of the Danube river into Budapest. The first thought that hit me, when I boarded off into the train station was – this was neither like Western nor Eastern Europe. This place was … historic, chaotic, sensory and densely populated … and so human, like a real lived city – filled with beauty but also purpose – and not merely a pristine facade for tourists. It took me back to New Orleans in the US and Kolkata in India.
The train station itself – Budapest Keleti, which opens to the eastern Pest side of the city – is one of the prettiest ones I have seen in Europe. Unlike the pastel facades of Vienna or bright candy-colored townhouses of Prague, the buildings in Budapest seemed to have kept their ageing sepia tones from the times they were built, lending a sense of history and old-world charm to this place.
Soon I was greeted with impatient commuters hurrying me on to the bus, some helping me with my large suitcases, a rebuke from a person, not to keep my suitcases on the way, but then, offering to hold them in her place instead, and ticket checkers telling me, not to fumble with my Hungarian Forints, but instead, exchange Euros with other passengers (since Euros and even American Dollars went a long way in Hungary and were even preferred over the local currency in some places). After getting adjusted to the slow-paced style of Austria and Slovakia, I was back in my element, having grown up in a fast-paced and crowded city myself.
Before the War and the Holocaust, Budapest had a thriving Jewish Quarter which took up a large portion of the city and was home to several Jewish intellectuals like Theodor Herzl, one of the founding fathers of modern Israel.
There are many large synagogues in this area, and my favorite one was the Dohany Synagogue, which is the largest in Europe and second largest in the world. The name ‘Dohany’ means Tobacco in Turkish, as the street was a seat of tobacco merchants at the time it was built. The synagogue’s architecture was inspired by a mix of eastern Moorish style, fused with western Gothic, and this became the standard for many synagogues built all over the world.
The Dohany Synagogue is one of the few which have a cemetery and memorial in its grounds, going against the grain of Jewish traditions. This is to remember its dark past. During the Nazi rule, this synagogue was chosen by authorities to be a ghetto to barricade large Jewish populations within its grounds. Due to close contact and horrific living conditions, a huge number of prisoners met their deaths from diseases. By the time the Soviet forces won Budapest from Nazis and liberated the ghetto, most people were already dead.
This made me think of people like prisoners, detained immigrants or homeless folks, who are forced to live in close quarters or unsanitary conditions today and their resulting vulnerability to diseases being brought to front by the covid-19 pandemic. We need to learn from the past and ensure in our times, we don’t inflict similar pain to people.
Most buildings of significance in Judaism, are marked with the symbol of double-arches, representing the two stone tablets of Moses. The memorial, does an inversion of this, where the two tablets are hollowed out, representing the loss of Jewish lives.
There are several other synagogues in the Jewish District, restored by the Hungarian government to revive Jewish culture and possibly attract emigrant Jewish communities back to Hungary. Some of these locations have been filled by immigrants from Israel and the United States, who are gradually on the path to restoring Yiddish and Jewish cultures back in Central Europe. There are large public celebrations of Jewish holidays, and many trendy restaurants, pubs and performance art areas have grown up around this.
My favorite food from this place was a Flodni Cake (More on food in Budapest in upcoming articles).
A unique feature of the Old Jewish Quarter are Ruin Pubs and Bars. These are watering holes built inside old abandoned or demolished buildings, repurposing the old for the new.
There is graffiti on the walls, the furniture is mismatched and at odd angles. And there are several junk from old times, like parts of cathode ray televisions, telegraphs, typewriters, old cars and bicycles, which give them a vintage vibe and make you feel like you have gone back in the 1920s.
I visited the oldest one – Simpla Kertz. There was wide range of local Hungarian drinks available. The building has a central courtyard nestled in the shade of indoor trees. And at night, old black-and-white movies were projected here.
The next day in daytime, they had a small farmer’s market – inside the bar – selling a plethora of local handmade sausages, cheeses, jams, pickles, honey and of course – paprika, the heart and soul of Hungarian cuisine. It was quite an experience having a farmers market and delis pop up inside a pub while the regular clubbing and music was still going on.
More things I did in Budapest in a Part -II
A separate article on Hungarian Food.