It was hot. That is the single deepest impression Budapest left on my scape of memory. I know heat well – Alabama Julys are hard to forget – but this was a different kind of hot. It was full and inescapable and distinct. The kind of hot you can see shimmering forth from old photographs in scrapbooks at your grandmother's house. It was a good heat, a heat that accentuated that famously bright Bohemian spirit.
Liz and I rolled into the center of Budapest as the sky pinked and hunted down our airy, white, perfectly European flat – a single, top-floor room with two mustard yellow chairs and a clawfoot bathtub. We'd rationed a half-sleeve of melting Hobnobs during the long train ride from Prague, so the hanger was settling in fast and finding food became priority one. Lost in the maze of crumbling, candy-colored buildings, we were drawn in by the siren's call of Anker't, a stupidly hip restaurant built into the ruins of... something. A hospital? Maybe a tenement? Someplace grungy and ironically chic. The lanterns in the crumbling courtyard must've attracted every millennial in Budapest because the wait for a burger was over an hour. So on we tramped to delicious Menza, a polished throwback to midcentury design and dining, where I ordered a top-notch lamb burger with blueberry mayo.
That night Liz and I made the mistake of watching the first few episodes of Broadchurch, which we would later find out was not available on UK Netflix. So if you know who killed Danny Latimer, PLEASE TELL ME.
The next morning began with breakfast at Bluebird Cafe, a sweet little spot in the Jewish Quarter with great food and even better murals. As we wound through the grid of city streets, I felt we were living on a movie set. Each building and street lamp and wrought iron fence was worn and weathered in the most charmingly imperfect way. Every door seemed to be its own kind of interesting – forest green herringbone or bright goldenrod starbursts decorated entryways all over town. A well-placed red vespa never failed to add the perfect accent to each street scene.
Did you know the Danube splits Budapest into two sides – Buda and Pest? We crossed the beautiful Széchenyi Chain Bridge into Buda and the city's personality immediately morphed into something quieter, older, and calmer. An old wooden and brass funicular carried us up to the gorgeous Hungarian National Gallery, an incredibly rich art collection located in the old Royal Palace. We spent hours enjoying the air conditioning – I mean, the art and culture. The French Naturalism exhibit was absolutely perfect and I want to return to those marble corridors.
We stumbled upon the cozy and highly recommended Pest-Buda Bistro & Hotel and tucked into a delicious kemenceben, a kind of Hungarian pizza. Happy and full, we spent the remainder of the afternoon soaking in the spectacular view of Parliament from the Citadel, a glowy white fortress built on Buda's highest point. The Citadel's archways were the perfect place to watch the city buzz and breathe.
Looking for relief from the heat, we trundled down the metro line to the Széchenyi Thermal Baths, a strange and wonderful cluster of public thermal pools. I find few things more off-putting than strangers in Speedos, but the Baths were a refreshingly unique travel experience! The theme of new experiences followed me into the evening, which I spent on my very first food tour. Liz is a veteran food tourist and quickly sold me on the idea of shamelessly eating at six restaurants in a four-hour span.
Our Budapest Urban Walks group convened in the Jewish Quarter at a little grotto of a restaurant where we began our tour with a gorgeous spread of locally sourced charcuterie and cheese, homemade bread dipped in olive oil, and piles of figs. Our fellow foodies hailed from all over the globe and quickly located common ground as we talked travel and food. We then did my favorite activity: eating food while on the way to get more food. We grabbed an amazing apple-based stew en route to Karavan, a colorful food truck park with innovative updates on old Hungarian dishes. Our fourth stop offered some traditional goulash and a part of a chicken that I never want to eat again. (I only ate it because I wanted to impress the man on the tour who looked like a tough Santa Claus!) We swung by a ruin pub, a type of bar unique to the Jewish Quarter that uses only abandoned spaces and scavenged furniture, and finished the night with some Hungarian sweets and coffee at a Baroque cafe. The food tour ranks among my very favorite travel memories.
Our final day began with flower-garnished charcoal pancakes (yeah, I still don't understand what they were) from Szimply Food and a trip to Alexandra Bookcafe. I always find a thrill from looking at familiar books in a foreign language. After stopping into a fun, design-y pop-up shop, we took a long walk to the Great Market Hall. The hall was impressively large and a few vendors had some beautifuk local produce, but most of the stalls seemed to sell the same four or five bits of tourist fodder. As our London-bound flights loomed, we grabbed one last iced-coffee-flavored taste of Budapest at the crazy cool My Little Melbourne cafe.
As we approached the metro station, I finally mustered the courage to take a sip from the public drinking fountain and felt, if only for a moment, bohemian.