This Eastern European capital city has been on my list for a long, long time, and despite it being only a 3-hour train ride from Vienna (where I visit family often), I had still somehow never made it there.
Budapest-- which was formerly two cities, Buda and Pest -- reminded me a lot of Vienna visually, with beautiful architecture and open public spaces. Throw in some 80 geothermal springs, tasty food, cheap and delicious wine, fun nightlife, and you have a recipe for success.
Cities need quirks, in my opinion, to set themselves apart from every other city with nice buildings and good food. Within two hours of walking around Budapest, we found a sign for the "Cat Cafe" and immediately turned to follow the arrow. We were not disappointed to find a rather large cafe full of friendly kitties, cat wheels, platforms, toys, and of course, wine.
Besides befriending Hungarian cats, our days were spent admiring the architecture, learning about the history, partaking in the coffee and pastry culture, and cooling off in one of the city's many public baths (swimming pools of various sizes and temperatures, including some with wave pools and lazy rivers!). We even stumbled upon the inspiration for Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel. At night, after sampling the peppery cuisine, we caught the World Cup games, and checked out the "ruin bars" (drinking establishments set up in abandoned buildings, often taking over the courtyard and several rooms and decorated with all manner of yard sale goods).
Food-wise, we're talking a lot of paprika, a generous amount of meat, dumplings, pickled vegetables, and all sorts of peppers. Meals begin with a shot of the potent palinka (plum brandy), then a bowl of soup (often goulash) and meaty mains with vegetables. The food can be heavy, but it never lacked flavor, and it was always accompanied by a variety of local, and very drinkable, wines. And the pastries were absolutely scrumptious, tasting like an Austrian and Jewish grandmother (the kinds I know best) spent hours in the kitchen together and made some magic happen.
Things were not always so rosy in Hungary. When communism took over shortly after World War II, peasants were forced into collective farms, and a network of spies (the secret police, ÁVH) began to expose 'enemies' of the communist party, resulting in interrogation, torture, exile, forced labor, and execution of an estimated 25% of the adult population of Budapest during this time. The epicenter of this horror, where much of the torture and killing took place, is now a museum called the House of Terror, and we visited to understand more of the frightening and fascinating history. Hungary continued to struggle through various forms of communism and socialism until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989.
Our final evening was spent with our feet in the city's biggest fountain, drinking a bottle of wine, surrounded by dozens of locals of all ages-- the perfect end to a lovely three days of exploring what just became one of my favorite European cities.
Eat: Hungarian Jewish food and the friendliest service at Rosenstein; meat dishes and wine at the more brusque Bock; lighter fare with lots of veggie options and a large garden at Kőleves; pastries at Fröhlich Cukrászda
Drink: chill and play with the toys at the awesome ruin bar Szimpla Kert; find the elevator up the roof at an old department store turned bar, Corvinteto; check out what's happening at Godor; sit with your feet in the fountain and a beer in your hand at Deak Ferenc ter