My first solo trip – Budapest, Hungary

Budapest, viewed from the Buda side of the Danube.

Budapest was not only a great trip, but also my first solo trip, though it wasn’t planned that way. It worked out to be a great, forced, opportunity for me to try something I hadn’t done – travel alone. Originally, when we booked this trip, my husband was planning on coming. He had a plane ticket and everything. Then, life happened. A week before we were to leave, one of our cats unexpectedly starting having seizures, and they were pretty scary and intense. We immediately brought him to the vet and he started a medication. They told us the medicine could take up to 2 weeks to work. He continued to have seizures that week of the trip. At one point he had 6 in one day! We decided it would be best for my husband to stay home with the cat and monitor him. I ended up going alone, and thankfully our cat has stopped having seizures, but needs medicine twice a day for the rest of his life.

Anyhow, enough about Jinxy cat, yes he has the same name as the cat from Meet The Parents, and back to Budapest. Hungary may not be on your travel radar, but it should be! It is gorgeous and relatively inexpensive for a European Capital. Before I go on, it’s important to let you know that George Ezra is singing it ALL WRONG. (Side note: I sang that song on repeat in my head for two whole days before the trip. Is it in your head now too?). It’s actually pronounced Budapesht, not Budapest. Which relates to my next nerdy fact. Budapest is actually comprised of two separate cities, Buda and Pest (pronounced pesht), divided by a river. Buda is on the Western side of the Danube, and Pest is on the Eastern side. Back in history, they existed as two separate cities, but now they are one. Of course amongst the citizens of Budapest there is division over which is the “best side”, but they were both pretty beautiful to me.

I arrived in Budapest on a Saturday, mid morning. The first thing I did was hit the ATM at the airport take out some local currency, the Hungarian forint. I took out 30,000 forint, which was equivalent to around $99. Hungary is one of the countries in the EU that still have their own currency (just like Czech Republic, Croatia, and Poland among others). Many places in Budapest accept the euro, but you aren’t getting a good exchange rate for it. I find it best to use the local currency, whether I’m paying with cash or using my credit card. The conversion rates are never great when you convert it your own currency, so remember that when you are paying with credit card and given the option. I then used a kiosk in front of the airport to buy a ticket for the airport shuttle to city center. It was pretty cheap, and about a 35 minute drive. A cab would not have been any faster, so why spend the money. My stop, Kalvin, was the first of three stops in the city center. I found this public transportation option to be extremely affordable and easy to use. The shuttle comes every 10 minutes during peak hours. I would use this again if I return to Budapest. The shuttle dropped me off about 5 minutes from my hotel, Inn Side Kalvin. The hotel was not glamorous, but my room was spacious and quiet, and the hotel had a free breakfast. The city is so spread out, so it’s hard to find a hotel in close proximity to everything. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be near, so I just searched based on price and rating. This hotel was close to the Danube, and along tram lines, but it was at least a 35 minute walk to the Parliament Building. One plus is that it’s less than 5 minutes from the large market with a food hall!

Once I checked in and washed my face (am I the only one who feels gross after being on a plane and needs to wash and re-moisturize?) I headed straight to the market for lunch! I love a good market; if you’ve been following my blog or instagram, you’re probably sick of hearing it. BUT, markets are the best! You get to experience the culture and food at affordable prices. The Great Market Hall in Budapest is two stories, and rather large. The building is unique as well. It’s very clean, unlike some markets where you actually feel like your outdoors instead of indoors. The market is all inside, and has food and souvenir stalls. If you head upstairs you can grab lunch from one of the vendors. They have Hungarian food, as well as other specialties. I opted for stuffed cabbage with a side of dumplings and it was delicious. I also grabbed a sweet treat from one of the bakeries in the market, but due to not knowing the Hungarian language, I couldn’t ask about the sweets and ended up with something I didn’t love. There were so many choices and I couldn’t decide, so I just pointed. I bet if I went back I would’ve had something amazing. The market is a great place to experience Hungarian culture and have an inexpensive meal.

Great Market Hall
delicious and cheap market food – stuffed cabbage with sauerkraut and dumplings!

After lunch and shopping at the market, I headed to St. Stephen’s Basilica, to wander the area around the square. I had a tour leaving from there. On the way, I made a detour when I noticed a Christmas Market. This was an unexpected treat as I was in Budapest in early November; some markets opened rather early this year, allowing me to indulge in mulled wine and other market favorites. After browsing the stalls and drinking hot wine (such a tasty treat, and much prefer mulled wine to the traditional German Gluhwein), I headed to St. Stephens. From this spot I was joining a free walking tour of Budapest. If you like to travel, and you’re not familiar with the app freetour, you need to download it! It’s so great – you just type in the city where you are going, and it has several free tours available, with their dates and times. You reserve your spot on the app, and then tip in cash after the tour. The guides have always been informative and I’ve always enjoyed the tours. While the tour is free, you tip afterwards in cash. I highly recommend this tour of Budapest; our guide Regi was fantastic.

St. Stephen’s Basilica

Unfortunately my tour of Budapest was in the rain, which meant photos weren’t amazing. It also meant I re-walked most of the tour two days later when it stopped raining! The tour started with a history of Budapest, where I learned how the name is actually pronounced Budapesht. Our guide also told us about the city really being comprised of the cities of Buda and Pest. We left the square and stopped at statue for more discussion. There was a lot about Hungary’s history and the ways the country changed due to the various occupations. We through a park near the Christmas Markets called Elizabeth Square. There is a large ferris wheel called the Budapest Eye, likely an attempt to recreate the London Eye, though not as high and probably not as expensive either. The square is named for the wife of an Emperor. From here we headed to another main square that also held a Christmas Market. We learned that the Hungarians had the first undergrad tram system in mainland Europe (the first being in London, thus the phrase “mainland Europe”. We headed to the iconic Szechenyi Chain Bridge next, where the guide told us about the universities in the city. After a brief stop by the bridge, we crossed and headed over to the Buda side of the city where we climbed the steps to the Castle District. From the Castle District you get the best views of both Buda and Pest. The views were definitely worth the climb when we reached the top to see Matthias Church, and Fisherman’s Bastion. The neighborhoods in the Castle District are so quaint and charming. I had to go back on Monday morning to snap pictures when it was less crowded (and not raining).

St. Stephen’s Basilica
Chain Bridge on a rainy day
Parliament Building at night

The tour ended in the Castle District on the Buda side. I stayed for a bit to enjoy the views of the Parliament Building and Chain Bridge lit up at night. The views from Fisherman’s Bastion are the best in Budapest! It was an easy walk down the streets to the Chain Bridge to head back over to the Pest side. I decided to walk along the Danube to check out the moving memorial Shoes on the Danube. Shoes on the Danube is a beautiful sculpture featuring several pairs of bronze shoes on the riverbank; a memorial to the Jews in Budapest who were murdered by the Arrow Cross, a fascist Hungarian group in the winter of 1944-45. Jews were taken and lined up along the Danube where they were shot at a close range, so their bodies would fall into the Danube, and be carried away by the river. Prior to being murdered, they were told to take off their shoes. Shoes were a precious item during World War II. As many as 20,000 Jews were shot along the banks of the Danube. The 60 pairs of 1940s era bronze shoes, is a memorial to them and quite moving. There is so much sad history in Budapest. It was hard to take pictures at night, and I truly wish I had come back during the day.

Chain Bridge and Buda Castle at night

That evening I intended to go to a restaurant alone and enjoy dinner at a Hungarian restaurant and try some goulash or chicken paprika. But, I was drawn in by the lights of the Christmas Markets and wandered the stalls with warm mulled wine in my hand. I tried some amazing marzipan bonbons and had a Hungarian sausage similar to bratwurst for dinner as I shopped and enjoyed the festive atmosphere. And of course I had more warm mulled wine. There’s something about it that just gets you into the Christmas spirit! Budapest was my first solo trip and I felt completely safe navigating the streets alone, even at night.

Marzipan bon bons – so amazing!

Sunday was my only full day in Budapest, and I wanted to make the most of it. But it was pouring down rain, literally all day long… so I slept in a little. The first thing I did was head to the Parliament building, which was a good 45 minutes from my hotel. It was easy to buy single tickets on the tram, and I opted for that. I got there around 10 and waited in line to get tickets for a tour. The English tours in the morning were sold out, so I decided to buy a ticket for the 4:00 tour and spent the rest of the day hitting museums. Of course, I snapped a million pics of the Parliament Building in the rain before doing so. I really wish I could’ve captured it in the sunlight, but it is pretty far out of the way from some other places I was going on Monday.

My first stop for the day was the Holocaust Memorial Center. Entry is 1,400 HUF, which is approximately $4.60. I’ve always been a history nerd, and someone who enjoys museums and historical sites. Having traveled all over Europe, and to sites such as Auschwitz, I think it’s important we never stop learning about the past, so that we can prevent it from happening again. There is so much sadness and despair associated with these sites, but there is also hope for a better tomorrow. I also believe it’s important to pay respects to those who have suffered. The Hungarian Jews were no different from others in Europe; they only difference was the deportations started much later. The Holocaust Memorial Center focused on the Hungarian Jews, the laws passed to restrict their rights, and the eventual deportations to concentration and death camps. The building itself encompasses the Pava Street Synagogue, which was once the second largest synagogue in Budapest. It fell to ruin as most of the congregation was killed at Auschwitz. It was been restored, and is gorgeous inside. Outside the building there are names of the Hungarian Jews deported, as well as a list of over 1,000 Jewish towns and villages that cease to exist because of the Holocaust. One in three killed in Auschwitz was either Hungarian, or deported from Hungary. By the time the deportations came to Hungary, the Nazis had perfected their efforts of mass extermination. Around 440,000 Jews were deported from Hungary in 6 weeks. The Memorial Center is a moving tribute to the lives lost, and the visit is informative. It is worth visiting to pay your respects and learn about the horrific fate of the Hungarian Jews.

This synagogue fell to ruin after almost the entire congregation was killed in Auschwitz.
Such a beautiful synagogue

After visiting the Holocaust Memorial Center, I headed towards the Hungarian National Museum. I couldn’t seem to find any direct public transportation, so it was easiest just to walk. Walking turned out to be a good idea because I stopped at a small bakery and had a delicious treat with sweet cheese baked inside it. I have no idea what it was called, but I saw them all over Budapest, so they must be a local specialty. I also stopped for lunch at a place that is not worth visiting so I won’t mention it (though they did have curly fries and it was cheap). The Hungarian National Museum was interesting, and I spent almost two hours there as they have a long and fascinating history. Unfortunately, I had to leave before I finished in order to trek across town to the Parliament tour. While the museum held my interest and had lots of great exhibits that helped me learn about the country’s history, I probably wouldn’t have gone if it weren’t raining all day. I did not want a second day of walking around in the rain, so that’s why Sunday was spent at museums and the Parliament Building. Plus, all the museums in Budapest are closed on Mondays, so it was my only opportunity. If you have extra time, or a rainy day, I’d recommend this museum. It wasn’t too expensive and there is a lot there to hold your attention, particularly if you like history. I could’ve spent more time there, but had to make it to the Parliament Building for my tour. In hindsight, I would’ve bought my Parliament tour online ahead of time for first thing in the morning and started there since it opens an hour before the museums. It would’ve got me moving earlier, and then given me more time at the museums.

Hungarian National Museum

I used public transportation to get to the Parliament building because it was about 30 minutes from the museum. It’s pretty easy to figure out using your google maps, and there is more than one tram/bus option that takes you to the Parliament building. I had purchased a 48 hour pass, which was pretty inexpensive, but unfortunately I lost it while taking gloves out of my jacket pocket. Fortunately a single ticket is pretty cheap and it was worth to save some time and get out of the rain. I used Tram Line 2 and got off at Kossuth Lajos Square Station; it is right in front of the Parliament Building. At the Parliament, you go through metal detectors and security prior to starting the tour. You also have to show proof of citizenship while purchasing tickets, so bring your passport. European Union citizens receive a large discount. The tour I took was in English, but there was also a Spanish tour at the same time, and they also offer tours in French and Italian as well. The guide spoke excellent English, and we wore devices around our necks that helped us hear her throughout the tour. The building is extremely opulent with gold decor and red carpet throughout. It is the third largest Parliament building in the world, and 2nd largest in Europe (after London). The building lies along the Danube on the Pest side of the city, and boasts 691 rooms! Construction began in 1885 and finished in 1902 but sadly the architect never saw his finished product. The building has seen a lot of history, from the independent Hungarian state to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to part of the Soviet Union, and now back to being an independent country. The building is beyond impressive, and I couldn’t stop staring at the ceilings and lavish decorations. It is the epitome of opulence! You can take photos inside during the tour, except for the Dome Room (which was of course the most beautiful room). The Dome Room holds the Crown Jewels of Hungary, which are stunning, but I couldn’t take a photo to show you. Our guide shared an interesting story about Hungary’s Crown Jewels. During World War II, the Allies bombed Hungary which was occupied by the Germans. The Hungarians knew the Soviets were advancing. They worried about the safekeeping of the jewels, so they gave them to American soldiers who agreed to protect the Crown Jewels. They were kept at Fort Knox until President Jimmy Carter returned them years later. Turns out the Hungarians were right to be concerned; the Soviets arrived to “liberate” Hungary in 1945 and stayed until 1991. Which brings me to my last stop of the day, The House of Terror.

Hungarian Parliament Building

The House of Terror, or Terror Haza, is a Museum that portrays life in the communist and fascist regime in Hungary. It closes at 6pm, and it was 5:30 when I arrived. In hindsight, I would’ve skipped this or tried to go earlier. I didn’t get much out of it trying to race through in 30 minutes, when most people spend a few hours there. It is a memorial to those killed and tortured during the regime. The museum itself was almost creepy in the way it was staged, dimly lit and a maze of exhibits. They have information written in Hungarian and English, in each room to help you understand what happened during the Soviet Occupation. They have a strict no pictures policy, so I’m unable to share what the inside looks like. In the basement, they have the prison cells set up. To get there, you take this dark, glass elevator which takes 4 minutes; as it slowly moves they a video. If I return to Budapest, I’d go back to this museum since I didn’t really get to explore it fully. Outside the museum, they have more information as well as a sculpture that represents the “Iron Curtain”.

The proverbial Iron Curtain

After a day full of museums, it was time to indulge! I hit up the Christmas markets for wine and the most delicious (overpriced) marzipans bon-bons, again. I love the magic of Christmas markets with the lights and chalets and everyone enjoying the season. The mulled wine is a huge attraction as well. After wandering the markets, I headed to Drum Cafe, which was recommended by my tour guide from the day before. It was extremely cheap, and delicious. I ate outside and the heat lamps kept me nice and toasty as I enjoyed my Chicken Parprika with dumplings. The food was authentic and the menu had a variety of dishes, with pictures to accompany. I highly recommend this place. After dinner, I headed back to the hotel to relax as I had an early morning planned for Monday.

Christmas Market fun
delicious chicken paprika from Drum Cafe

My last day in Budapest was a half day, as I had to leave for the airport around 3pm. It was also my only “not gray and raining” day in Budapest, so I had to take advantage of the sunshine. Basically,I left the hotel around 7:30 am to hit all the places I’d already been, to get pictures in the sunshine. I headed up to the Castle District and Fisherman’s Bastion first, and was able to get some pictures before the crowds arrived. It was amazing to have the streets almost to myself, and not have to worry about crowds. I’ve started to do this when I travel, and I definitely need to make it a habit. I was really excited to get some pictures in the sunshine!

I headed back to St. Stephen’s Basilica around 10 for a look inside. They have the right hand of the first King of Hungary inside the Cathedral, but you have to pay to light up the case to see it. The Cathedral itself is absolutely stunning on the inside and worth a visit. It is a beautiful example of neoclassical architecture. I’m always amazed at the beauty Cathedrals hold, and this one was no exception. There is no entry fee, but there is a donation box. It’s worth a quick peek inside!

Outside the basilica, I met my group for another free walking tour at 10:30. This tour was a Jewish District tour. The guide was informative, and talked about the history of the Jewish people in Hungary. Hungary was a little later than other countries in Europe to restrict the rights of Jewish citizens, but eventually they did pass laws that severely limited the rights of Jews. The tour took us to a synagogue that is being restored, as well through areas where Jews used to live. During the tour, the guide pointed out some “stumbling stones” which are memorials you will see all over Europe. They are small brass markers that indicate where someone was taken and deported. It lists their name, date of birth, and in most cases, date of death. I’ve seen these before in Prague, Amsterdam, and Brussels as well. We stopped at the Carl Lutz Memorial which depicts an angel descending to help a fallen victim. Carl Lutz was a Swiss Diplomat who saved more than 60,000 Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust by issuing them Swiss documents and setting up 70 safe houses. We also stopped at the Emmanuel Tree. We did not go inside, but for 4,500 HUF you can visit inside the Dohany Street Synagogue and see the sculpture in the back. The weeping willow memorial has the names of 30,000 victims on the leaves. The tour ends at the Dohany Street Synagogue, which is the largest synagogue in Europe. This was once the border of the Jewish Ghetto during WWII but the walls are no longer remaining. I enjoyed this tour, and recommend it if you have time or an interest in history.

Carl Lutz Memorial
Emmanuel Tree

This tour wrapped up my visit in Hungary, as afterwards I ate a quick lunch, did some last minute shopping and headed to the airport. While I loved my first solo trip, there is a lot I didn’t have time to do in Budapest, so I’d like to go back with my husband! If I go again, I’d hit some spas and baths.

You can’t go to Budapest without trying Hungarian goulash

One perk about traveling alone- I can eat when I want without having to consider if someone else is hungry. Also, I didn’t have to share my food. What about you, do you prefer solo traveling, or going with someone?

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