[Not] Home for the Holidays

Christmas 2018 was unique.

It was my first Christmas away from home.

I wasn’t home to sort of help Mom cook, to clean and set the table, to quietly snap candid photos and preserve memories. I missed out on the annual Friendsmas with my high school crew and our sometimes absurd/sometimes serious White Elephant gift exchange. I didn’t put up one single Christmas decoration or even feel like doing so.

This was also the first Christmas since the unexpected passing of my uncle in July and my paternal grandmother mid-December.

Weird is an understatement.

To take advantage of my three week Winter Break, I planned a multi-country jaunt across Europe. I opted to spend Christmas in Budapest, Hungary to save money.

I first visited Budapest in 2012 and was curious to see how the city had changed in the years since.

Christmas Day in Budapest was a pleasant one. Breakfast in our AirBnb complete with champagne heavy mimosas, a crackling fire on the TV with Netflix, and Christmas music blaring.

The day continued with a two hour soak at the Szechenyi Thermal Bath, a quick sandwich lunch at the AirBnb, brief wandering around downtown before we got too cold, drinks at Mazel Tov, and a delicious home cooked late dinner. I wore my Santa hat all day to celebrate and received more than a few stares because of it.

We had to rush to the grocery store the day before to buy food. The city legit shut down by 3 pm on Christmas Eve and few businesses opened again until the 26th.

Budapest Airport to City Center

Connor and I landed in Budapest on 24 December at 10:10 am. Since we had flown from Italy, another Schengen Agreement country, we did not have to go through customs. We met up with fellow Fulbrighter, Kellie, in the terminal and stopped in the supermarket to grab bottled water and a snack.

Outside the arrivals hall of the airport are ticket kiosks for the various public transportation options in Budapest.

Bus 100E directly connects the airport to the city center. It requires a separate ticket and costs 900HUF (one-way). This bus runs every 30 minutes and takes roughly 35 minutes to make the trek.

We bought the regular bus ticket on accident because we didn’t know any better at the time and ended up hopping on the 200E bus. The single ticket price for a normal bus is only 350HUF. This line takes you to the Kobanya/Kispest metro stop, forcing you to take a metro into the city.

Note that a bus ticket does not let you transfer for free to any other method of transportation. You either need to purchase a separate metro/tram ticket OR buy a special Transfer ticket. Kiosks to purchase tickets are usually outside metro entrances or at busier tram stops.

Remember to validate your ticket.

When riding the metro, the red or yellow validation machines are at the entrance before you descend to the platform. For buses or trams, validate your ticket in the machines immediately upon boarding. Controllers randomly check to ensure you are traveling with a validated ticket. If you’re caught without one, expect a fine.

This happened to me on Christmas Day. We walked into the metro station that morning and saw four controllers standing around a validation machine. None of them looked away from their conversation to ask us if we had a ticket so we breezed by and hopped on the metro. As we tried to exit at our stop, guess what? A Controller was checking tickets. Kellie and I had the misfortune to not have a validated ticket. Connor had sneakily purchased a 24-hour day pass at the airport the day before so he wasn’t hit with a fine. Lucky duck. I had a ticket in my purse and asked the Controller if I could validate it super quick to not be fined. Nope, he said. Zero mercy. The fine to pay right then in cash is 8,000HUF. If you don’t have cash, you have to pay 16,000HUF later. Thankfully Kellie had enough cash and paid for both of us. Bless you, Kellie.

For more information on public transportation options in Budapest, check out this website.

Fun Fact: Budapest’s metro is the oldest electrified metro on the European continent.

Free Walking Tour

 I have used this company both times in Budapest and thoroughly enjoyed it each time! Remember to tip your guide what you feel the tour was worth.

 Sightseeing

Parliament Building

This impressive building is awe inspiring and a symbol of Budapest. Gracefully decorating the side of Danube, at night the building is lit up in the most magical sense.

You can purchase tickets for a guided tour of the House of Parliament. Tours are available in English, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, Russian, French, German, and Hungarian. For non-EU adults, the ticket price is 6,000HUF. The cost is dramatically lower at 3,100HUF for non-EU students between 6-24 years old. Ah to be young again.

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St. Stephen’s Basilica

The largest church in Budapest, St. Stephen’s can hold up to 8.500 people. The dome of the Basilica is 96 meters high, the same height as the Parliament Building. Current building regulations stipulate that no other structure in Budapest can be taller than 96 meters. The two having the same height symbolizes the balance between church and state in the country.

There’s a suggested donation of 200HUF to enter the basilica and if you want to climb 365 steps (or use the elevator) to the dome’s observation deck, that costs 500HUF.

Buda Castle & Fisherman’s Bastion

This is the historical castle and palace complex of the Hungarian kings. First built in 1265, the current buildings in this spot today were built between 1749 and 1769. Located atop Castle Hill on the Buda Side, the castle can be reached by taking the funicular, walking or bus 16 from the Pest Side.

For 10€ you can partake in a two-hour guided tour of Buda Castle. Tours begin daily at 2 pm and you must book in advance.

Gorgeous views overlooking the Pest Side await you from Fisherman’s Bastion. Don’t miss out!

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Dohány Street Synagogue

Budapest has some large things, huh? This synagogue is the largest in Europe and the second largest in the world, holding up to 3,000 people. The complex consists of the Great Synagogue, the Heroes’ Temple, graveyard, the Memorial and Jewish Museum.

During the winter, the synagogue is not heated. Wear layers! The synagogue is closed on Saturdays, Jewish holidays, and Hungarian national holidays.

It’s supposed to be beautiful inside, but I chose to not go in because the entry fee is 4,000HUF and I was being cheap.

Szechenyi Thermal Bath

One of the largest thermal bath complexes in Europe, this is not to be missed. Not only are the buildings gorgeous, painted a lovely yellow with white trim, but who doesn’t love a good soak in mineral-rich water?!

There are 21 different baths of varying temperatures both inside and outside available to enjoy. Expect a crowd and don’t think too hard about whether the person standing next to you is peeing in the pool or not…

A daily ticket is 5,500HUF and includes use of a locker and changing room. Towels can be rented for 2,000HUF, robes for 3,500HUF, one-piece swimsuits for 2,000HUF and slippers for 3,000HUF. Note that slippers are yours to keep. You don’t return those. Rentals can only be paid in cash.

You can purchase massages, pedicures, and manicures as well! Massages have to be purchased in advance by emailing info.szechenyi@spabudapest.hu.

Heroes’ Square

Created at the end of 19th century to commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of the Magyar conquest of Hungary in 895. At the center of the square stands the Millennium Monument. Behind this focal point is a semicircle of statues depicting other famous men who impacted Hungarian history.

Visit Heroes’ Square either before or after a trip to the thermal bath as they are quite close.

Chain Bridge

Opened in 1849, this suspension bridge connects the Buda and Pest sides. Constructed of iron, it was considered one of the world’s modern architectural marvels at the time. Large stone lions decorate each end and inspire a sense of regalness as you walk across. This is a great (free!) spot for cute IG worthy pictures.

Central Market Hall

Picture it: three floors of goodies! Fruits, vegetables, dairy products, meats, fish, wine, souvenirs, clothing are available for purchase in this massive covered warehouse centrally located in Budapest. Locals still shop at markets such as this for their groceries, especially in the early morning. Experience the hustle and bustle and stop for lunch here if you have time. Closed on Sundays and holidays.

Fun Fact: Hungary is known for paprika and you can see and sniff all you want at the Market Hall!

Christmas Markets

Budapest has two decently sized Christmas Markets to wander through. The one in Vorosmarty Square ran from 9 November 2018 to 1 January 2019. The Basilica Christmas Market ran from 23 November 2018 to 1 January 2019. Both had artisan vendors selling handcrafted goods, food, and free concerts. And don’t forget, mulled wine. I gravitate to it everywhere I go.

Noms & Dranks

Mazel Tov

We went here twice because a. it was one of the only restaurants open and b. it was delicious! A Mediterranean restaurant featuring Israeli specialties in the heart of the Jewish District, Mazel Tov is glorious. The space itself is beautiful. Tall ceilings, Edison bulb lights strung in the rafters, a tree growing through the center of the back room, and an eclectic, young vibe. I highly recommend their hummus plate and Falafel pita sandwich. There is a substantial bar as well offering beer, wine, liquor, and cocktails. You honestly can’t go wrong dining here.

Darband

If you enjoy Persian food or want to try it for the first time, eat here. Seriously. I ordered Qorme Sabzi, a spicy beef stew with vegetables and rice. The portion was massive, I was stuffed and it was only 2,500HUF. They serve every type of kebab you can possibly think of, salads, Persian tea, tiramisu, and dough – a Persian yogurt drink similar to Kefir. If you’re a vegetarian, you might have some trouble, but could order apps and side dishes to make a complete meal.

Warm Up Cocktail Bar

A little hipster, a little West Coast old school rap. The bartenders here are pure magic. After getting settled at a table, the bartender appears to take your order. It’s not just any order. You essentially have a mini interview with the bartender. You’re asked what your favorite cocktail is, what liquor you prefer, and what flavor notes you enjoy. Once you’ve answered, the bartender gets to work. It takes a bit longer than normal to concoct, but the wait is worth it for a customized cocktail.

We each ordered two apiece. My favorite was a twisted Old Fashioned. It had a smoky flavor from the Scottish Scotch and a tang from the burnt orange slice and aromatic dried flowers sprinkled on top. Each cocktail is ~$10, on par with US prices.

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Hummusbar

Since we visited Budapest over the Christmas holiday, many restaurants were closed. This chain was one of them. Sad day. The name says it all. Hummus, falafel and a couple types of salad are all that’s on the menu. 

Chimney Cake

Or Kürtőskalács in Hungarian. Wut. A popular street snack, it’s a delicious crispy yet soft dessert coated in cinnamon and sugar. You can find these all over Budapest and should be eaten at least once.

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Ruin Bars

 Budapest is renowned for their Ruin Bars. Forgotten, abandoned buildings or spaces transformed into hip places to eat and drink for cheap. They often feature multiple dance floors, bars, and even art galleries. Below is a list of the more popular ones. Most are found in the old Jewish District of Budapest. I wasn’t able to visit any since everything was closed for the holiday.

Szimpla Kert

Doboz

Instant

Anker’t

Szatyor Bar 

Museums

All of Budapest’s public museums are open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm and are closed on Mondays.

House of Terror

This museum remembers brutalities committed by the Hungarian fascist and Communist regimes. Secret Police used this building for detention, interrogation, and torture until 1956.

Museum of Fine Arts

Hungarian National Museum

Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art

Holocaust Memorial Center

Budapest History Museum

Museum of Hungarian Agriculture

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