Sunday, November 30, 2014

Budapest: The Paris of the East

You know that scene in Eurotrip, when the group ends up in Eastern Europe and gets a five-course meal and luxury spa treatment for $1.83? I was constantly reminded of it last weekend in Budapest. My friends and I got hour-long Thai massages for $20, had a two-course meal for $8, and paid $10 each per night to rent out a two-story apartment in the heart of the city. After weeks of fast-paced and hectic European vacations, my mind (and my wallet) were ready for a low-key, relaxing three days in the capital of Hungary.

When planning my time abroad, I always imagined myself traveling to European hotspots like London, Paris, Rome, Madrid. Aside from London, none of these locations have been on my itinerary. I guess I started to see Europe differently after being here for an extended period of time. I learned that big cities like Madrid are expensive, Paris is supposedly underwhelming, and I'd rather spend a week traveling Italy in the future than try to cram Rome into one weekend. Of course I want to venture to all of the European hotspots in the future, but my time and budget just wouldn't allow it while studying abroad.  Instead of hitting these major travel spots then, I've been visiting smaller yet still popular European cities like Strasbourg and Copenhagen that I will probably never visit in my life outside of study abroad. And that's why my friends and I chose Budapest – after our program ends, when would we ever get the chance to go back?
Budapest has been a popular tourist destination for people in my study abroad program, which really took me by surprise because the city isn't the most well-known in America. Well, I'd like to officially declare this blog post a rave about Budapest. Not only was the city insanely cheap (gotta love that exchange rate!), it was also beautiful and charming enough to change my entire view of Eastern Europe. Before visiting Budapest, the picture in my head was of old buildings and dark streets, kind of like how Eastern Europe is portrayed in Eurotrip. Prague didn't fit the stereotype, but I viewed Prague as an exception to the stereotype. Well, if Prague is an exception, then so is Budapest.

The city center was actually pretty modern, with neon signs, Starbucks and Costa coffee shops, pretty old buildings, and street cars. Tourists were everywhere, but Budapest was spread out enough that the crowds were never overwhelming. A good chunk of the tourists were actually American students visiting Budapest while studying abroad like us. I felt safe the entire time, except for one night on the subway when a drunken old man wearing a top hat adorned with a British flag kept slamming a walking stick on the ground and yelling out gibberish.
Parts of Budapest outside of the city center were a whole different story. Walking down the street, I honestly felt like I'd taken a time machine back to Budapest after World War I. Buildings were crumbling and creepy. Bullet holes were etched into the bricks as a reminder of the violence of the world wars. Dogs ran loose, vacated fields lay overgrown. Now this was how I'd always imagined Eastern Europe, thanks to Hollywood portrayals. The older part of the city was still beautiful in an old-fashioned way, like modern ruins.
Now onto the details of my trip, if you're interested! I went to Budapest from Thursday to Sunday with six friends: three guys and two other girls. We rented out a well-kept, two-story apartment near the city center, and each of us only paid $10 per night! We had fun relaxing and playing games at night while exploring the city during the day.

Here are some pictures of our daytime adventures:

Fisherman's Bastion

A buda-ful (see what I did there?) view of Budapest from the Fisherman's Bastion

Overlooking the "Pest" side of Budapest

St. Stephen's Basilica — I've seen countless cathedrals in Europe, but this one is probably my favorite on the inside

The famously beautiful Hungarian Parliament Building

The Chain Bridge over the Danube River connecting the "Buda" and "Pest" sides of the city

Heroes' Square with a monument dedicated to influential Hungarians

Nights in Budapest might've been the highlight of the entire trip. On Friday, we were told we should go to a "ruin bar," or a cheap bar located in an old abandoned or neglected building. Very hipster, if you ask me.  We went to Szimpla based on a recommendation. The place was absolutely huge but so crowded that we had trouble finding a seat. I can definitely see the appeal, though. The atmosphere was comfy, and at less than $2 per half-liter glass of beer, the prices were unbeatable.

You can't visit Budapest without going to one of the world-famous thermal baths. Instead of going during the day, though, my friends and I went to a "Sparty Magic Bath" party at Lukacs Bath. The Sparty (spa party... get it?!) was basically a huge pool party with a DJ and drinks held in an outdoor thermal bath. My friends and I bought a few drinks, swam around, and met some other American kids studying abroad in Europe. I'd say a good half of the people in the bath were American. Four guys were at the bath for every one girl, which meant that my girl friends and I got a lot of unwanted attention. I was a little worried about people getting rowdy in the pool, but I actually had a lot of fun watching all of the drunk people! I don't even want to think about how gross and dirty that water must have been...  I don't know if I'd ever go back to a thermal back party, but I had a pretty memorable experience! If you're interested, check out the website here.

I can't write a blog post about another country without mentioning the food. Hungarian food involves a lot of meat in the form of stews and soups. I ordered beef stew one night and beef goulash soup the next, which are both traditional Hungarian meals. I was not disappointed! The dishes were less than $8 but tasted incredible. Hungarians also use a lot of spices and paprika in their dishes, and one restaurant gave us an amazing appetizer of different pepper sauces to spread on bread. Perhaps my favorite item, though, was a crispy piece of bread topped with melted goat cheese and garlic. The bread in Hungary is denser and more filling than any other bread I've eaten. Another interesting tidbit is that every restaurant had live music; my favorite was an old man in suit playing the xylophone. All in all, I wasn't disappointed with a  single Hungarian meal!

Some of my friends and I were determined to get a massage before we left Budapest, given the cheap prices. Budapest has massage shops on every street. We researched popular places and found a well-reviewed shop that offered hour-long Thai massages for 6000 Hungarian Forint, or about $25. You can't beat that deal! I've never gotten a professional massage before and I didn't know what to expect from the Thai massage. I have two words for tit: weird and relaxing! The four of us who got massages changed into clothes provided for us and lay next to each other on mats on the floor. The masseuses walked on our legs and backs while holding overhead ropes, and they used their whole body to give the massage. Although the massage focused on my back and neck, the lady also massaged my head, legs, hands, and arms. When we left the massage parlor, my friends and I walked sluggishly and slowly. We were all about to fall asleep on the spot!

Thank you for reading my blog post! I know this was a long one, but I love writing and tend to write for ages if nobody stops me. If you're looking for a city to visit in Eastern Europe, I would 100% recommend Budapest!