The Fernweh-farer: Nobody Puts Budapest in the Corner
In the weeks leading up to my arrival in Budapest, I did some of my chosen research that precedes setting foot in an unfamiliar place. This generally involves searching for things to do slightly off the familiar radar, scouting a proper tour to familiarize myself with the layout and a never-ending crusade to uncover the best local dining haunts.
With Budapest, I kept running across the same characterization of the city: “The Paris of the East.” The City of Lights (so many monickers one paragraph in) holds a lofty spot in my top destinations so I have some degree of familiarity to base a correlation. This frequent designation put me on a mission out of some unfounded loyalty to Budapest, which I had never visited, to discredit it.
Part of me takes issue with assigning comparisons to cities that stand up handsomely in their own right to those of greater population and cultural consciousness. It just feels lazy. When I resided in Charleston, it irritated me on behalf of Savannah (a city I cherished for its own style and uniqueness) that it was often identified as a “smaller version of Charleston.”
So, I showed up to Budapest ready to fight valiantly for the honor of the city.
Stepping out of the airport to transit into the city immediately established some separation between the two historical capitals. I am firmly of the mind that a requisite for any “world-class” city status demands a relatively frustration-free transit options be in place from the primary international airport to the city center.
With Budapest joining the chorus of other European cities tightening regulations, or outright banning, ride sharing services - your remaining choices are expensive taxis or a bus line into the city. Most people, including myself, take the latter. It is economical and occasionally on schedule but standing room only and packed solid with travelers and oversized pieces of luggage. It is usable and gets you to the city but that is about all that can be said for it.
Luckily, the city would redeem itself many times over going forward.
Budapest was originally divided between the cities of Buda and Pest. The two sides were unified in 1873. Staying anywhere in the city center on the “Pest” side will visually treat you instantly to the blend of Art Nouveau, Gothic Revival and Neo-Classical structures that climb like steep and narrow canyon walls above the quaint cobblestone streets. My home was an Airbnb right off the Egyetem tér (University Square) in District V of the city. The vibe in this part of town is relaxed and centrally situated, well within strolling distance to the main offerings.
You heard that correct - they break up the city into district numbers. Sound familiar? Any traveler acquainted with Paris knows of its twenty arrondissements, or neighborhoods. Budapest has ten similar sectors that span the river on both sides of the city. I have always admired the clean neighborhood numbering system as it disentangles some complexity for a foreigner when contemplating directions and roaming from spot to spot.
One big initial blow in my pursuit to separate these two.
The mighty flowing Danube River cuts a sharp line through what were formerly separate but now unified sides of the city. Walking its banks packs all the appeal of the Seine, and matches the communal atmosphere. Similar to Paris, the waterfront is mainly bare of commercial structures and vendors in an age where municipalities are keen to auction every square inch of waterside realty to the highest bidder.
However, strolls along the Danube feel even more approachable. There is no pretense here that a leisurely afternoon sipping a beer or wine while watching the currents carry upstream requires a degree of hipness - otherwise, I would have felt out of place. The residents of Budapest seem much more concerned in the moment's activity - be that an energetic conversation on the politics of the day or setting up an easel and channeling their inner István Csók.
My second day in the city, I made my way to the Jonas Craft Beer House just south of the Central Market, nestled along the Danube. Joining a host of other locals who were savoring the sun and warm temperatures, I sipped through a selection of their sours and IPA’s on draft. Outside speakers put forth an eclectic blend of just perceptible enough American tunes, including The Knack’s "My Sharona."
Immediately I’m transported from a craft beer garden half a world away back to the South and my older sister’s Honda Accord circa 1995. The beige Honda with the flip-up headlights, aftermarket pull-out CD player and sibling at the wheel was my gateway to all things cool. One of my favorite parts about travel is the capability it allows to conjure random, yet cherished, memories from the recesses so suddenly. Budapest magic in full effect.
With the city divided into the “Buda” and the “Pest” portions, it instantly reminds visitors of the Left and Right Bank of the Seine. There is even Margaret Island in the heart of the Danube that cannot help but draw to mind Paris’ Île de la Cité. With Margaret Island, however, the space serves as one of Budapest’s most sought after green areas by locals. I spent a deeply relaxing afternoon there under wispy clouds enjoying a takeaway can of sour stout bought from the brewery the day before along with paprika spiced peanuts.
Working my way from each side of the city, I constantly marveled at the elegant and monumental bridges that are a sight unto themselves. The showstopper is the Széchenyi Chain Bridge. Completed in 1849, it is one of seven successive bridges that join the “Buda” and “Pest” sides. Although the Chain Bridge provides the most sweeping views of the dramatic Parliament Building. The stone and wrought iron building material of the span will call to mind the perfection of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City.
Once on the “Buda” side, you have no choice but to ascend. The flat landscape of the “Pest” portion of the city spoiled my calfs, but I learned that everything that proves rewarding requires a little effort. Winding through inclining soft-lit cobblestone streets to chase morning light over the city, I again am carried away to Paris. This time it is Montmartre and an analogous mission I embarked on six years ago for sunrise at Sacre Coeur.
The ascent here was just as fruitful as it was formerly. Atop the Castle hill sits the Fisherman’s Bastion. Not only complementary in elevation to the chapel in Paris, but a similar in its strikingly clean white stone construction and closeness to the multi-colored roofed Matthias Church. The viewpoint stuns, and I was grateful that my early morning hike helped me escape the need to elbow for prime photo angles.
All the climbing and walking around the city required fueling up regularly. This was one area where Budapest and its assigned sister city diverged paths. In terms of culinary delights, Budapest offers many but to match with Paris on menu items is a tall order. Hungarian cuisine is flavorful but heavy - relying on a steady staple of fried dough, dumplings, and cured meats. Only the realm of pastry was on a par with Parisian delicacies, with the delicate cream cake I devoured at the historic Ruszwurm cafe a definite highlight of the trip.
However, one area where Budapest outshined was with a thriving cafe and bar scene. I realize that Paris continues to progress but everybody who has been will tell you (if they are sincere)…the coffee there is distinctly boring. Budapest takes coffee seriously, and both the extensive collection of third-wave shops and traditional cafes turn out well-crafted options. Over the course of the week I sampled enough flat whites, V60’s single origins, and cappuccinos to make a barista twitch. Each presented a great experience and distinct tasting notes.
I discovered my favorite shop my first morning. Down a little pathway in the Palace District on the “Pest” side of the city, sits a small enough to be missed walk-up window that houses Coffee Stand Gutenberg. It is no fuss in-your-face coffee and espresso, and the baristas are approachable pleasures. It surely helped that one reply to the tale of my journey was “Wow, that’s like a movie storyline.”
I reassured them it was not, but if any screenwriters are reading this. Call me.
The final afternoon in any city is commonly a time I like to slow down even more than normal and do some reflecting. Knowing there is a pending travel day on the horizon and a fresh destination awaiting, I prefer to go someplace and be with my thoughts and jot down some final observations on impressions I absolutely do not want to slip away.
This day in Budapest, I chose St. Stephen’s Basilica and recognized right away that another complement to the City of Light was looking back at me. The Neo-Classical structure named for the first king of Hungary harkens back to one of my favorite aspects of great European cities, the soaring and breathtaking basilicas.
While listening to the muffled whispers of afternoon parishioners and creaking wooden benches, I am once again in the L’église Saint-Eustache on one of my final days in Paris those years ago. Now, like then, I am overwhelmed with the sense of peace and calmness. Along with reflections of my present destination come other significant matters of existence to join me at the moment - thoughts of family, friends and a particular pup back home. The ideal way to finish out any destination before setting foot in a new one.
So, this leads me back around to the initial question and self-appointed mission. Is Budapest “The Paris of the East?” The unsexy answer is…it does not matter. If you look deep enough for likeness, you can draw parallels between virtually any two destinations based on various benchmarks. Sure, there are some noticeable similarities geographically and even semantically with these two major cities, but there likewise remains too many wondrous distinctions to count.
Maybe comparisons are not such a cheapening business when that comparison ties to a location with a formidable reputation for delighting visitors and residents alike. The most essential element is the degree of simple enjoyment this city provided for during my time. Every day afforded a fresh experience, taste and interaction that left an enduring mark - with numerous residents inviting me back. That ultimately achieves the mark of a world-class city.