After a 3-hour train ride from Vienna, we finally arrived at the Keleti train station in Budapest, just in time to get ready to celebrate New Year’s Eve with the Hungarians. Getting off the train was a weird feeling, suddenly I felt transported back to the 1940’s. Everything was different from the Europe that I’d gotten used to. The trains, the platforms, the information desks all looked old and seedy. I tried to navigate my way to a ticket vending machine or a shop that sold data sim cards but everything was in Hungarian. I realized that my knowledge of English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese is not going to be handy here in Budapest.
We eventually found the ticket machine, relying on signs, symbols and context clues alone. Thank God their machines accepted cards since we hadn’t exchanged our euros to forints. Once we got our tickets, we hopped on a bus to our Airbnb located in the middle of downtown in the side of Pest, just 4 stops from the station. We couldn’t get luckier, our hosts were 2 chicas from Andalucía. Their place is in an old but well-maintained building and it’s within a short walking distance to a lot of restaurants and pubs.
NEW YEAR’S EVE
Just before midnight, we headed to the Vörösmarty tér to ring in 2017 with the locals. The sights along the way reminded me that we were not in posh Vienna anymore. At this point, I still didn’t know what to expect with Budapest. I was torn between discomfort walking through sketchy-looking streets and a quiet admiration for the “alternative” vibe this city exudes.
A humble Christmas tree, a busy Christmas market, and loads of people in festive mood welcomed us.
I was surprised to see lechon here but who in his right mind will eat it without Mang Tomas at hand.
Before countdown, we grabbed some hot lemon tea and a goulash in a bread bowl to share and looked for a free space in the picnic tables in the eating area. My first taste of Hungarian food didn’t disappoint. The goulash was hot, spicy and tasty… really right up my alley. And the hot lemon tea, oh my god, was just perfection for that -5°C weather.
While we were still enjoying our food, the crowd started counting down in Hungarian. (I regret not having learned to say at least 1-10!). Constant crackling of fireworks everywhere, and of drunk people. It was fun!
Second time celebrating New Year’s Eve with this guy!
SNOWY NEW YEAR’S DAY
What better way to spend the first day of 2017 than exploring Budapest on foot and at your own pace. The mild snowfall (which is my first time to experience btw) was just icing on the cake.
SZÉCHENYI CHAIN BRIDGE
The Széchenyi Chain Bridge was the first permanent connection between Buda and Pest. That’s right, they used to be two separate cities straddling the Danube River. So to the question “is Budapest an old city?”, the answer is yes and no. Yes, because Buda, Pest, together with Óbuda’s history goes way back and no, because these 3 cities were united into one only in the 1800’s.
We didn’t get to enter St. Stephen’s Basilica as time was not with us but I was quite happy approaching this building from different angles.
Here’s what we had for lunch: brassói aprópecsenye (roast a la Brasov) and my favorite Hungarian dish, goulash soup. Goulash is beef stew with potatoes, carrots, and spices like caraway seeds and paprika.
It was oddly refreshing to the senses that unlike Vienna, Budapest isn’t shiny, elegant, and “perfect”. There were graffiti, half-derelict buildings and a whole lot of old world charm. It was gritty as it was beautiful. Any urban landscape lover like me will have a field day.
HALÁSZBÁSTYA + MÁTYÁS-TEMPLOM
I got goosebumps looking at Halászbastya or Fisherman’s Bastion. It’s interesting how a bit of fog can turn something bizarre into something bewitching. It looked straight out of a fairytale. What’s even weirder is that this thing was only built in 1902 as a tribute to the fishermen who defended the city from the Turks. It’s located on the Buda side of the city, sitting next to another architectural delight, Matthias Church.
One thing I should tell you about our trip was we had to take breaks from the freezing outdoors almost every hour. We looked for indoor shortcuts – underground passages, department stores or public transport. Tea breaks were also an alternative. After walking around and doing our own “Winter Wonderland” photo shoot, we popped in a nearby café called Miró Bistro. The decor is in the style of Joan Miró but no, they didn’t serve tapas or cañas. We dared to order one of their specialties – somlói galuska (traditional Hungarian sponge cake). It was a winner for the boyfriend but it was too sweet for my taste buds.
SHOES ON THE DANUBE BANK
We strolled along the river on the Pest side after descending the Castle Hill and crossing the Chain Bridge. We kept walking until we saw this memorial. A shoe sculpture by the River Danube in memorial to the Hungarian Jews who were killed during the Holocaust. They were made to take off their shoes before being shot into the water.
It’s amazing how a simple monument can invoke a poignant sense of reflection.
BUDAPEST NIGHT STROLL
If you want to treat yo’self, there are romantic dinner cruises along the Danube river. It was a pass for us so I just walked arm in arm with my loved one along the banks with this lovely gem of a place as a background. That was romantic too.
Budapest had never been on my travel radar and I was iffy about it at first but I was starting to like it a lot on Day 1. Now, that’s very telling about how this city can surprise you.