Birthday in Budapest

Thank you for all the wonderful birthday well wishes!! I had a fantastic time visiting old friends, and exploring Budapest, Southern Sweden and Copenhagen. Because I’ve been gone for a while, and really managed to do a lot with my time, I want to split this update into two parts. The first will discuss what I saw, did, and ate (!) in Budapest. 

The program that I am volunteering with allows for two weeks of vacation time. Because my host organization is pretty flexible with my schedule, I thought it made the most sense (and would be the most fun!) to use this break to a) visit my friends who were studying in other European countries, and b) celebrate my 21st birthday.

My roommate from my freshman year of college is currently studying in Budapest, so that was my first stop. I managed to pack a ton of sightseeing into five days, and the following are some of the highlights of my trip.

Jewish Quarter

The free walking tour we took when visiting Edinburgh last was one of the most interesting (and cheap!) ways I had ever explored a new city. So the first thing I did before coming to Budapest was check if there were any similar tours. There were three different tours available (a general city tour, a communist tour, and a tour of the Jewish quarter), and they all came highly recommended. While Hungary has the largest Jewish population in Eastern/Central Europe (as well as the second largest synagogue in the world), I didn’t know much about history of the Jewish people in Budapest. Therefore, I decided to take the Jewish quarter walking tour.

Fun fact: I ended up meeting two people there who knew some of my oxy classmates! It’s a small world.

The Jewish quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is full of interesting historical elements. Specifically, we visited a number of synagogues, as well as the cemetery and memorial garden for those killed in World War Two. This tour was very informative, and some of the things we learned about were the history, religious traditions, culture and current sociopolitical position of the Jewish people in Budapest.

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Our guide also shared some of his family’s personal stories. For example, he said that the reason his Jewish grandmother survived Hungary’s implementation of the Final Solution was because a far-right politician fell madly in love with her (and this thus provided her with protection).

Something that our tour guide recommended for further exploration was the memorial “Shoes on the Danube Bank.”  This honors the Jews who had to take off their shoes before being shot at the edge of the water during World War Two. People bring flowers, candles and rocks to this memorial to pay honor to the victims.

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This memorial is very moving. It is also poignant to realize that there is still much anti-Semitic sentiment in this region (Moldova included), especially with the growing popularity of the far-right political party.

The City

Budapest is by far one of the most striking cities I have ever been to. It has an extensive number of World Heritage Sites, and is made up of an interesting blend of architecture (in particular I noticed Roman, Gothic and Modern influences). One of my favorite buildings was St. Stephen’s Basilica. St. Stephen’s is one of the tallest buildings in Hungary, and one of its most visited tourist sites. This is because of its tremendous size, its striking architecture, and the fact that you can climb to the top of its dome and get a spectacular view of both Buda and Pest. However, despite it being so popular with tourists, it still is a functional church. When we were there we saw a wedding being officiated, as well as signs for a choral concert the next day.

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For a city of its size, Budapest offers travellers ample opportunity to explore nature. The Danube (another World Heritage Site) is particularly prominent. On the river you can find boats of all shapes and sizes, and on the banks there are a range of restaurants, parks, historical monuments, and people just walking (rain or shine).

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During my stay I walked along both sides of the Danube. I was also lucky to have sun on my last full day in Budapest, and so I climbed Gellert Hill. The climb up was fairly easy, and there were lots of parks and viewpoints to stop at on the way. Apart from the nature and “green” appeal of Gellert Hill, I would recommend the Cave Church at its base, and the Citadel at its top.

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One of the most picturesque places I visited was Margaret Island.  This island has a number of landscape parks, as well as recreation centers. For instance, there are tennis courts, playgrounds, and even a water park. It is also the site of a few medieval ruins of religious centers from the middle ages. It was a great place to walk around, even on a rainy day.

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Széchenyi Baths

Budapest offers a rich supply of natural thermal baths, the most famous being the Széchenyi Baths, which offers a range of indoor and outdoor baths (and even a swimming pool). Before leaving I had heard from a number of people that these baths were definitely worth a visit. And since a) the weather wasn’t great the first few days, and b) I am such a fan of Onsen, I went. The building itself was incredible, and even though I thought that the water could have been a little warmer (I guess I’m used to steaming hot Japanese baths), the experience was very relaxing.

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Hungarian food is delicious! Two particularly Hungarian dishes I had were Langos (similar in popularity/function to Placinta in Moldova), and Gulash. So good! In addition there were many places to buy gelato all over the city, and I definitely took advantage of this.

IMG_3626 I also went to a very picturesque café in Budapest called Lotz Terem. It is a café remodeled from an old library, and is a very charming place to visit. The ceilings were embellished with gold, and it made for a great place for a special birthday brunch. I ate a fig and rucola quiche and for dessert Emily and I shared a traditional Hungarian cake.

 Night Life

As this trip was partly an extended celebration of my 21st birthday, it seemed fitting to check out some nightlife. And, as we were in Budapest, the obvious choice for me was a ruin pub. Therefore, the first place we visited was what is arguably the most famous ruin pub in the world: Szimpla. This was the most different/unique venue I have ever been to, with a number of bars under the same roof and different items such as old bicycles just hanging from the ceilings and walls.

Because Emily and I are such chocolate lovers, after an extensive internet search we also found a chocolate bar called “VinoWonka.” I love fun names and chocolate, and so together with Emily’s roommate we visited this bar. It was a chocolate experience! We each chose three different types of chocolate pralines, and then shared them all. My favorites were a jasmine truffle, as well as a praline with a slight infusion of cinnamon and nutmeg, making it taste like Christmas. This bar was also great because they gave you suggestions of which wines to try with the different types of chocolate.

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On my way back from Copenhagen I had a 20-hour layover in Budapest. I decided to go to the Nagy Circus largely because of its proximity to Emily’s apartment (but also because it had great reviews on tripadvisor). I wasn’t sure what to expect when going in, but overall it turned out to be a very pleasant experience. I’m still not sure how I feel about the animal acts (elephant, tigers and horses), but I really enjoyed the trapeze performers and the acrobatics. Also, this show included a hair hanging performance, which was particularly terrifying after what happened in Rhode Island. However, despite some of my misgivings, sitting ring side at the circus turned out to be a pretty great lazy day activity.

Overall I had an amazing time in Budapest. I loved the city, and it was great to see Emily again and hear about everything she has been up to. I will definitely return if I ever have the chance!

 Next Up: My time in Sweden and Denmark.


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