Hungarian Rhapsodies: My “Liszt” of Things I Love about Budapest

We spent 55 wonderful nights in Budapest during the first leg of our journey – nine in early June and 46 in July/August. It was more than enough time to fall head over heels in love with the city and experience it as a second home. Here is my “Liszt” (composer pun!) of things I love and miss about Budapest.

1. Music Everywhere

Bernstein and Gershwin Concert

Of course, naming this post after Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, I have to start with the music. Music of every kind pervades the city of Budapest in the summer high season. From street performers outside the metro to full symphonies and everything in between, it is easy to find great music. Early in our trip, we stumbled across a free chamber ensemble concert in Margaret Island. It felt like we were constantly finding these little cultural gems that encouraged us to linger and enjoy. There was also a concert series at Vajdahunyad Castle in the city park that we could catch snippets of by walking around it. One of the highlights of our stay was attending a concert of Leonard Berstein and George Gershwin music at Margaret Island’s Water Tower open-air stage. It was fantastic.

2. Parks – Margaret Island and the City Park (with castle and zoo and thermal baths)

You might have noticed much of the music we found was at two parks. The wonderful green space in the midst of Budapest’s urban core makes Budapest a truly great city in our opinion (the same way NYC needs Central Park). I’ve written before about our love for Margaret Island and we maintained our tradition of going there or to another park every Sunday. The city park, which was a 10-minute walk from our house, was also excellent. Chad jogged there most days and it features the largest public baths in the city, the zoo (which is excellent), Vajdahunyad Castle, a sweet little pond to sit by, and much more. We found these green spaces essential to maintaining our feeling of relaxed enjoyment throughout our stay in the big city.

3. Night Walks

It was summer, it was hot, and so we loved going out after dinner to get in a solid walk after dark. Sometimes this involved going out for a beverage, but most often we just picked a neighborhood that was accessible on foot or by transit and then enjoyed walking around and soaking in the city atmosphere and beautiful lights. Our favorite spots were along the Danube, at Buda Castle and of course our own neighborhood in District 6.

4. Hungarian Wine (and other nice drinks)

wine and palinka in Szentendre

We easily found wonderful inexpensive wine, both by the bottle to have at home and when we went out to dinner. Hungary is especially known for its Tokaji wine, which is a sweet white and not really our favorite. But we loved Egri Bikavér (translation: Bull’s Blood) for our red wine, as well as Kékfrankos. For whites, we enjoyed Olaszrizling and especially Irsai Oliver. They also had great rosés, which I often ordered when we went out. It was really, really nice to live in a place with inexpensive delicious wine. A necessity of life!

5. Area Outside Budapest (Balaton, countryside, Szentendre)

We only had a couple of opportunities to get outside the city of Budapest. Although it would have been pretty simple to take the train anywhere we wanted, we just didn’t make the time. But we had one film screening out in the country, which gave us the opportunity to see Lake Balaton and some of the rural parts of Hungary. Lake Balaton is certainly a place I’d like to come back to in the future – it is lovely and beachy and has a great relaxed vibe.

Near the end of our stay, we took the train to just outside of Budapest to the artist community of Szentendre. We enjoyed a really great day there walking around the town, enjoying the Danube, trying langos (the famous Hungarian street food that is fried dough topped with cheese – easy to find in Budapest too, we just never really bothered). The highlights, though, were the museums: the Margit Kovacs Museum (she was a famous Hungarian sculptor and her museum there is excellent), the Marzipan Museum (quirky, fun and truly impressive) and the “wine museum” created by the Labirintus Etterem in their cellar. Rather than a tasting, after viewing their small but really informative exhibits we just tried some really nice wines and a couple of Palinkas (a Hungarian liquor).

I highly recommend a day trip to Szentendre if you’re spending more than a few days in Budapest. It is very easy to get to via the HEV train (you can catch it at Bathyni Ter among other places). If you’re on a Budapest transit pass like we were, you’ll have to pay an additional fare onboard once you leave Budapest – it was just 300 HUF per person each way (about $1) when we were there summer of 2018.

6. The Danube (and screening)

We love river cities, and the Danube is a truly great river. Budapest treats it right with all its best architecture lining the river, awesome bridges, places to walk and benches to sit, and plenty of bars and restaurants that overlook it. Even better, part of their public transit system includes the river, and on weekdays you can use your transit pass to ride the public boats for free.

MXC screening by the Danube

We even had a screening of Chad’s film along the Danube. One of the connections we made was to the group Valyo (which is an acronym; the words translate to City and River Association). Their mission is to connect the community and the river in creative ways, from weekend pedestrian takeovers of the Liberty Bridge (with musicians, yoga and a spin class) to a community space that they’d created called Valyo Kikötő, where we had the screening. It is nice to see continuing appreciation from the residents of Budapest for their river.

7. Football!!!

It was so nice to be living in a place where people love football (soccer) as much as we do. We found awesome places to watch the World Cup matches, especially as it got down to the finals. Great experiences included the Croatia semi-final win on the roof of the West End Center mall with a lot of Croatian fans (there was a great beer garden and huge screen set up there) and the final on Margaret Island, of course. There was also a screen outside the Nyugati train station, which was in our neighborhood.

MTK Budapest match

The Hungarian professional soccer season started right before we left, so we managed to catch one great match at MTK Budapest. They were playing Ferencvaros, Budapest’s most notorious soccer team, whose fans made their presence felt. It was a really great experience. Note if you’re going to go to a soccer match in Hungary, they require you to show your passport when buying tickets as a security measure. In the past, I think there have been some quite rambunctious fans, so locals have to have a special ID to buy tickets.

Chad’s Thoughts

I asked Chad if he had anything to add, and he said the things he liked best about Budapest were: 8) easy to get around via transit (which is so true; their busses and subways are amazing and I talked about passes in a past Budapest post); 9) good mix of upscale and rundown, meaning there are some really nice places you can go to, but also quirky, cool, ugly-cute places like ruin bars and block housing; and 10) it was a real city, with plenty of entertainment, food and transit options. We’d never lived in a real city before, so it was quite an experience for us, one we really enjoyed.

Summary

I truly believe Budapest was the best choice we could have made for our first extended stay in a foreign location. It was affordable, had good internet, had plenty to do, people were kind and often spoke English (and certainly didn’t seem to mind that we didn’t know much Hungarian beyond jó napot (good day), kerem (please), köszönöm szépen (thank you much) and viszlát (goodbye)). We will always think of Budapest fondly and will certainly be back!

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