The two cities of Buda and Pest once stared each other down with nothing but the Danube separating them. But in 1873, they merged to form Budapest after the Chain Bridge opened as the first permanent bridge across the river.
For the typical American traveler, Budapest might seem like a far-off land jammed somewhere between Western Europe and Eastern Europe. It’s a bit in no-man’s land…a bit too far east for some. It doesn’t have the same glamorous appeal as Vienna, Prague or Paris, but unless you’ve has strolled down the pleasant cobblestone lined streets of the Hungarian capital, you can’t imagine the beauty and vibrancy of this incredibly diverse city.
Downtown Budapest (the Pest side).
This summer, Budapest found itself at the center of conversation on Middle Eastern refugees making their way west toward Germany, but I'd like to address some other surprises that popped up throughout my six-night stay in the capital. Grab a guidebook and you can read all about the bathhouses, basilicas, museums and architecture, but read this and you will learn more about the thriving craft beer revolution happening in the city, and some of the most down-to-earth people I’ve encountered in my many travels throughout Europe.
For starters, it’s important and worth noting that although Hungary is part of the European Union, they still use their own currency: the Hungarian Forint. What does this mean for us visitors? Inexpensive food, drinks, events and places to stay right in the city center. For roughly $50, you can easily rent a nice, cozy apartment just a skip and a hop from some of the highlights of the city.
A stroll around St. Stephen's Basilica
We rented a flat just across the street from the Arany Janos metro station, and just a couple of short blocks to St. Stephen’s Basilica. Though the metro was so close and easily accessible, it was only necessary a handful of times; especially since we discovered one of our favorite nighttime hangouts called Csupor just around the corner.
Csupor: Hungarian beer bar
Csupor may not be the most attractive watering hole in town, but it’s made up of everything that you seek in a great neighborhood watering hole. There are no fancy gimmicks or stiff drinks, but there are two areas where this two-story establishment shines: the beer and the people.
Csupor is a find in a city traditionally not known for its beer.
Let’s start with the people. Csupor got its name from founder and head brewer Marton Csupor, who welcomed us so generously on our first night in the city. Alongside Marton are his two friends and fellow owners of this small gypsy brewery, Adam Zahoran and Rick Goosens. We spent the majority of our time chatting with Rick, a Dutchman who can fill conversation with everything from American politics to the NFL to local customs to the role of Hungary in the fight against GMOs and companies like Monsanto.
Then there’s the beer. The two main brews on tap during our stay were the Tantorgo IPA and one of my favorite brews during our journey to Budapest, a moderately hopped APA called Bunny Hop. Both are expertly crafted brews in a city and country not historically known for beer. For the most part, Hungary has been a wine producing and consuming nation, but more recently the craft beer revolution has found its way into Budapest and quickly made it a force to be reckoned with in Europe.
What (else) to do
Perhaps the most surprising part about Budapest was the laid back vibe of the city, and, correspondingly, the carefree environment of the locals who make up this place. Our second night in town, the simple question of where we could get the best goulash in the city – c’mon, who doesn’t want as much goulash as possible in Hungary – we were kindly invited over for some homemade goulash by our new Hungarian friend named George. We were treated to a delicious homemade meal of goulash, cheesy pasta and wine, along with some amazing conversation.
As we made our way throughout the city, we passed by outdoor food markets, food truck–like establishments, funky decorated ruin bars, and architecture that rivals anything that can be found throughout Europe.
Despite the endless cafes, restaurants, historical sites and nightlife, the city was very quiet and lacked any major noise pollution. Locals sat in cafes without the bombardment of multiple televisions and chatted in Hungarian (a language that’s closer in origin to Finnish than Czech, German, or anything else surrounding the country). There was a feel of excitement and joy that seemed to float weightless throughout the pedestrian paths and city center.
Now that I’m back home in San Diego, I can’t help but yearn for just a little more time with Buda and Pest. I want to soak up more time in the Széchenyi Thermal Baths, and I want to indulge in more paprika-soaked livers, cappuccinos and Hungarian crafted beers. I want to explore more of the castles and churches, caves, and coffee shops. I want to learn more about what makes the Hungarians tick. I want to learn how to properly pronounce "egeszsegere" when drinking a beer with the locals. I left my heart in Budapest, and look forward to the day in which I can return.