Falling in Love with Budapest

Words by Ben Walker
Photos by Ben Walker

It’s a 9-hr train ride from Krakow, Poland to Budapest, Hungary, which means the day is basically gone when our train finally rolls into the Nyugati Railway Terminal. It’s still light out and actually quite warm as we gain our bearings outside the station. Golden hour is just starting upon our 7:30 PM arrival in the city dubbed the “Queen of the Danube.”

We didn’t look forward to arriving so late, but with limited direct trains between Krakow and Budapest, beggars can’t be choosers. However, in hindsight, arriving right at the start of golden hour is actually pretty dreamy. In general, European cities are already quite dreamy to me because everything is so old, which invokes a sense of romanticism. In Europe you have the opportunity to walk the streets of cities that are literally the subject of the historical events we’ve all studied in school growing up. It’s a surreal experience. Add some beautiful, golden light into the mix and, yeah, you’ve got yourself a Queen of the Danube.

 

What to Expect

Budapest was the sixth major European city we visited on this trip. All six of those cities, including Budapest, are situated right on top of a river, which, apparently, was a real popular settlement strategy back in the day. Here, though, the areas on each side of the river were once two very distinct cities called Buda and Pest and, basically, you can guess what happened next.

Just this small bit of history was a pull for me to visit this city because it’s actually quite interesting. You have two different cities that are right next to each other, but kind of far apart because there’s a big river separating them. Once bridges started being built I assume things just mixed a lot more between the two until it was decided they become one.

Today, Budapest is the capital of Hungary and one of the most popular cities in Europe. With almost two million inhabitants, it’s also quite large. When thinking of Budapest, I immediately imagine popular attractions such as thermal baths, the Parliament Building, the Chain Bridge, and Fisherman’s Bastion.

Prague vs Budapest

Prague was one of the earlier cities we visited and I felt that the two cities would be very similar. They both have a river running through them and there are a bunch of bridges connecting the different sides of the city. That was basically my thinking on the two cities because most of my research was conducted via looking at photographs. I was very interested in finding great spots to go shooting when we visited each place.

I was obviously wrong about the two of them being the same. Of course there are similarities, but the cities are still very different.

We liked our experience in Prague, but I really fell in love with Budapest during our time there.

 

Ingredients for a Perfect Visit

To preface this section, I’m not saying your visit won’t be amazing if you don’t have the same exact experience we did. More, I’d like to just describe how our visit went and what I thought really made it a great experience for me. I mean, some of these things you can’t really control anyway, which is part of the fun of it.

 

The Weather

Like I mentioned above, the weather was amazing upon our evening arrival to Budapest. It was spring and we had just come from Poland, where it was still chilly. Our couple of weeks so far in Europe had also been filled with rain so stepping out of that train station and being greeted with the warm, golden glow of the sun was a real treat.

And then the next day it was pouring rain.

This didn’t really get us down too much because it was to be expected. Also, it was our first full day in Budapest so we had to go out and explore, rain or not. I find that when it’s actually raining, like properly (not a sprinkle) raining, it can make things a little more hectic and even exciting.

our visit wasn’t exactly perfect, but looking back now, it sure seemed like it was.

Instead of slowly walking around the city and exploring at a leisurely pace we were literally running around and very quickly catching some of the sights. Also, I hate trying to take a lot of photos if it’s really wet out, so on rainy days I tend to be a bit more aware of my surroundings instead of focusing on getting some good shots.

That might sound terrible, but we do enjoy a mix of sunny and overcast/rainy days. It was pretty fun to run around Budapest in the rain that day. Fortunately, the day I actually wanted less rain was a beautiful day with just some scattered clouds.

 

The Food

There’s always some research done beforehand of any city or area we’ll be visiting. We don’t try to fill our entire schedule with things to do, but we like to have an idea of what’s what before our arrival. This definitely includes finding out some things about the food scene.

Having done our due diligence with the research, we knew there were a few dishes in particular we needed to try. These included langos, paprika chicken, and rakott krumpli. There are so, so many other dishes, including the famous Hungarian gulyás (goulash), but these were three I was particularly interested in because they sounded perfect for me. I would recommend trying some goulash, but we didn’t in Budapest because we had already eaten some in Prague and it was delicious.

First, the langos. We had this heavenly treat at a train station in the city. We were trying to figure out times for the next leg of our journey and I noticed a small stand selling some langos. Langos is basically fried dough with sour cream, cheese, and salt on top. I loved it. To me it looks and sounds like the savory equivalent of the fried dough you’ll find all around the United States at carnivals and fairs. Just substitute the powdered sugar with cheese and cream and you’re good to go! It’s what I’ve been waiting for my entire life and I swear it’s one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

Next, paprika chicken. I think I expected some sort of rotisserie chicken doused in paprika, but this dish is more like a stew in some ways. It’s tender chicken drenched in a reddish-orange, creamy paprika sauce. I found it to be very appetizing.

Lastly, the rakott krumpli. This is basically potatoes au gratin, but in Hungary. If you love scalloped potatoes, like I do, then you’ll love these. I assume there is a difference between au gratin and scalloped (I use them interchangeably), but it’s all just potatoes, cheese, and cream to me!

The History

Having just arrived from Poland we had history on our minds, specifically involving World War II. We had just visited Auschwitz and Birkenau and had really enlightening experiences there. While exploring Budapest we stumbled upon multiple monuments/memorials that were also related to WWII and the Holocaust.

Without getting into too much detail, there is a controversial monument in Budapest dedicated to victims of the Nazi occupation of Hungary. This may seem like something worthy to memorialize, but the point of controversy is that the monument ignores the fact that the Hungarian government had ties to Nazi Germany well before the country was occupied.

Another memorial can be located along the riverbank and it is called, “Shoes on the Danube Bank.” It is a simple memorial, yet the message is quite clear and effective. Here, empty, iron shoes can be found facing the river. It is memorializing the thousands of people that were ordered to take off their shoes and were then shot and killed, their bodies being carried away by the river. This was done by members of the fascist Arrow Cross Party, which had taken control of Hungary during the years 1944-1945.

History can be a dark thing, but to be able to see and learn from it is a blessing. We were glad to have been able to see and learn about places like this while visiting Budapest.

The Attractions

Everyone raves about the thermal baths in Budapest. And for good reason, I’m sure. I say that because it seems like they’re pretty cool, but I wouldn’t really know because we decided to forego visiting any of the baths. Yes, we didn’t even visit the baths that we could go to for free with our city cards. Shameful, I know.

However, it honestly just wasn’t a huge priority for us, especially since we wanted to visit places for photographic purposes. Meaning, I’m not exactly sure what I would do or how I would feel bringing thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment to one of these baths. I mean, I think I would kind of want to enjoy the pools and not worry about the possible theft of my belongings. Also, I think I would feel weird taking photographs with a bunch of bathers/swimmers around. I know plenty of people have done it (otherwise how are there so many photos?), but we just decided to do other things.

Specifically, we got up very early one day to catch the sunrise at Fisherman’s Bastion. Let me tell you, it was well worth it! We were slightly nervous about the weather not cooperating, but the sunrise ended up being absolutely magnificent. Also, when you get up early enough you can avoid the majority of the crowds and you don’t have to pay to ascend the steps to some of the ramparts. I don’t think I could have imagined a more perfect morning shoot. The views of the river and the Pest area of the city are simply stunning.

Apart from Fisherman’s Bastion, we also enjoyed seeing Buda Castle, the Chain Bridge, St. Stephen’s Basilica, and the lucky statues around the city.

In particular, looking down at the Chain Bridge from a garden area on the Buda side was especially beautiful. We had already explored around the city all day, but I wanted to see about getting some long exposure shots of the bridge at night. After looking around for a bit we found the perfect spot to watch the sun go down and chat with each other. In the hour or two we sat there, people came and went, but mostly it was just us and a few others enjoying the sunset, which was really great.

 

Perfect Is What You Make of It

Our perfect visit to Budapest consisted of some good weather, some great weather, amazing food, firsthand history, and beautiful views. Each ingredient added its own flavor to make for a wonderfully, tasty experience, both literally and metaphorically. If you haven’t been, I’d highly recommend considering it!

Of course, our visit wasn’t exactly perfect, but looking back now, it sure seemed like it was.

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