Why I Didn’t Love Budapest (And Why I’m Willing to Give It Another Chance)

Why I Didn't Love Budapest

Budapest teems with vampires. At least that’s the only explanation my pálinka-addled brain could provide for why a city of over 1.7 million emptied at escape velocity as soon as the sun snuck below the spires of Buda Castle.

Until that point, I’d truthfully enjoyed Budapest— I spent my day stuffing my face with delicious Hungarian food and wandering through the labyrinthine terraces around Castle Hill, surrendering to its magnificent city views.

But as the air became awash with a darkness barely punctured by the dim street lamps, a side of the Hungarian capital, invisible by day, emerged: No longer was Budapest the city of incredible architecture and elegance I’d come to know, but one with an oddly-sinister streak.
Budapest, il ponte delle catene

Where It Went Wrong

Nightfall often brings new life to a city, cloaking its scars in blackness and highlighting its best features in a warm glow. In Budapest it felt the opposite: night brought a haunting stillness and assent for the city’s most unsavoury elements to surge forward from hiding.

Piss-soaked mattresses seemed to fall like Murphy beds from the terrace walls and bridges of Buda, surrounded by heaps of threadbare clothing and blankets. It was inescapable—every turn into the shadows greeted me with an outstretched hand, or failing the energy needed to move a limb, a paper coffee cup lined with barely enough forint for a bottle of water let alone a hearty meal. Budapest quickly became a cruel reminder that even the most beautiful of cities can’t hide all of their social problems.
Budapest  - April 2003 - Danube Waterfront

Homelessness in Budapest is nothing new; it’s a problem the government has failed to solve for years. Elsewhere in the world this scene is commonplace, but after travelling in picture-perfect Europe, especially coming over from the squeaky clean streets of—for example—nearby Vienna or Munich (where I’d been living for about a month), the differences can be shocking. Nowhere else on the continent did I find a city with flaws so wide in the open—especially in an area so blessed with beauty.

And if you’re not prepared to suck in the bad with the good, it can really sour your Budapest experience.

Why I Want to Give Budapest Another Chance

For years when I thought about Budapest, my mind returned to the disquieting feeling of walking around the dark and almost entirely deserted streets of Buda, neck whiplashed from obsessively minding my surroundings.

Lately though, I’ve been looking back at the city with a growing fondness, reminiscing about hiking around the Citadella, enjoying Hungarian beer in dark cellar bars in Pest, and relaxing in City Park among a multitude of other things.
Budapest

In hindsight, I think I’ve been unfair to Budapest for too long—I’ve let a couple (easily avoidable) unsavoury details invade my memories and push out all the good. Now that I’ve begun to remember all those moments that painted a smile on my face, rather than those that disturbed me,  I feel compelled to return and give the city that for so long left me underwhelmed another chance.

What I Would Do Different

When I visited Budapest I chose to stay in Buda to put me front and centre with the city’s most famous historical sites.

That was a mistake.

Beyond the tourist-friendly appeal nothing much happens in Buda: by day, it’s a sleepy residential area overrun by tourists; by night, a dark and desolate district where little stirs beyond the occasional passer-by (or vagrant) and whose air is filled only by faint sounds from across the Danube in Pest, where Budapest’s more lively side resides.

Contemplative Statue

To experience Budapest fully involves more than sticking to the usual guidebook recommendations. One of my biggest mistakes, besides not staying in Pest, was not spending enough time trying to catch the city off guard. I stuck to scrawling checkboxes, leaving me with no time to see how Budapest thrives and what makes it tick.

I always preach the virtues of digging deeper, and yet in Budapest, I completely failed to follow my own advice—I barely scratched the surface, and now, after all these years, I finally realize: it’s not that I didn’t love Budapest, but rather that I didn’t even give it a fair chance in the first place.

Budapest: you deserved better. Let’s try again sometime…

Comments

  1. says

    Many times during my travels I’ve done exactly the same thing, sticking to touristy destinations instead of getting my hands a bit dirty and venturing deeper into the fabric of the country.

    Beautifully written article my friend!

    • says

      Thanks, JP! I wandered quite a bit around Budapest actually, but it’s such a huge city that I feel that even with 4 nights I barely did it justice. Plus I’ve really felt a hankering lately to see Hungary beyond Budapest, which I’m sure will, ironically enough, take me back to Budapest. I’m ready to give it a go again any time now!

  2. says

    Very nice and introspective post, Ryan! It’s crazy how greatly certain details, such as where you lay your head for the night, affect your view of the city. Especially since most travelers spent the vast majority of their time on the street or visiting attractions. I have been to Budapest twice, the last time in 2006. The second time was certainly a better experience as I felt more comfortable and explored more. Look forward to reading about your return!

    • says

      Thanks, Dave! It’s wild how simply basing yourself in the wrong part of town can affect the experience. When I was searching for pictures for the article because mine were total crap (oh, DLSR how you’ve enriched my life!), I really realized how much of the city I didn’t see—and definitely didn’t capture. I feel that returning with the eye of a photographer and writer, rather than just as the aimless traveller I was back then, would really help improve the experience. Plus, I’ve recently heard many people say the same as you have: Budapest is better the second time around. I think it helps having realistic expectations too. Mine were sky-high because everyone around me raved about it. It’s like going into a movie with your mind pre-blown—it usually ends in disappointment!

  3. says

    Interesting. I made Budapest my base of operations from April until August 1st and loved it. I did have a flat on the Pest side. Staying Buda side as a tourist was definitely a mistake. One thing I surely didn’t enjoy was the “bar” culture. Lots of drinking and not much else for me. Still my favorite city in Central/Eastern Europe.

    • says

      Will definitely stay in Pest next time! I didn’t experience much of the bar culture in Budapest: Only had a few pálinkas along with dinners and drank a couple beers one night at a really loud, dark bar somewhere in Pest. I’ve always heard the nightlife was lively in Budapest, but also not really my scene, so it wouldn’t make or break the city for me. Really just gotta give the whole place another try. Maybe I’ll love it next time around! Thanks for commenting, Erick :)

  4. says

    Good stuff to know for the future, too bad you had to learn the hard way! It’s great that you have an open attitude about revisiting and giving the city a second chance. Really nice blog, I look forward to following along!

  5. says

    It’s interesting, my first introduction to Budapest was also less than ideal. I stayed on the Buda side for the same reason as you, and regretted it for the same reason as well. (Without the homeless problem though – I never saw anything like that.) But we did have absolutely awful weather which didn’t help matters.

    For my second visit a few years later, I stayed in a lovely guesthouse on the Pest side and loved every single second of my stay! Definitely give the city another chance!

    • says

      Awesome to hear that Budapest made a better second impression on you, Heather! It seems to be a running theme that people enjoy it more the second time around. I truly liked many things about it, but just didn’t encounter that “a-ha” moment as I did in other cities around the region. I vow to get back someday and dig a little deeper! Thanks for commenting, Heather :)

  6. says

    This is a great reminder to really give a city a chance. I agree that sometimes you have to avoid touristy areas because you can’t really “get into” a city that way. My boyfriend and I spent 6 weeks in Buenos Aires and if we had left after 2 weeks, I would have left feeling that I hated the place. We learned that we have to get over that initial hump to get the rythm of a place to really enjoy it. Hope you get a second chance in Hungary. We are on the fence about whether to include it in our trip.

    • says

      It’s so true: some places just click with you right away, others need time. I know lots of people that loved Budapest instantly and many others (since writing this) that felt the same way as I did about it. I’d definitely give it a shot if you have time on your trip. And even if you really don’t like it much, you can always retreat to Bratislava or Vienna :) Thanks for commenting, Maya!

  7. says

    Interesting. I expected this sort of thing from Budapest, but personally didn’t see any more than I would in my own country (England). There was just one incident outside the food market where a woman would not leave me alone asking for money, so I pretended to be Spanish (because she could speak English!) until the Police saw us and shooed her away. I was surprised at how safe I felt at night. Not sure if I would bother to return. Nice, cheap place but the July humidity was unbearable!

    • says

      Must have been good timing then! Apparently there’s a huge problem there these days with it. In the post, I linked to an article that talks all about it and what they’ve been trying to do to keep tourists from seeing it (and how there’s quite a controversy raging over it). It’s an interesting read if you get a chance. I didn’t necessarily feel unsafe at night in Buda, per se, just found it dark, eerie, and unwelcoming. I visited during April so missed out on that horrid humidity, thankfully! Thanks for the warning, Amy :)

  8. says

    I love Budapest. I felt safe, I had a good time. I would go back tomorrow. However, I stayed in Pest, soo…..

    Also, I have to say what you’re saying about things changing in the dark. The place I experienced this more than anywhere else last summer was Seville, Spain. Honestly, I don’t think anyone was out to harm anyone else, but we walked through a square, in a touristy area, and the whole place was full of people sleeping on benches with coin pots in front of them. It was heartbreaking. And through the night there were beggars outside bars, which made me be extra careful with my bag. It was the one place I genuinely felt a bit uncomfortable.

    • says

      Thanks for commenting, Sammi :) Interesting story—I would have never expected that in Seville! It’s really hard to feel comfortable in situations like that, even if there’s no real danger. You’re lucky that you got to avoid that scene in Budapest by staying in Pest; I sure you would have felt the same way as you did in Seville! Would your experience at night in Seville deter you from returning there?

  9. says

    I really liked Budapest, but now that I think about it, I didn’t do a lot there at night besides long leisurely dinners, which was quite a lovely and yummy way to spend an evening there. :)

    • says

      Absolutely—I’d have to agree that the food was fantastic in Budapest! Not a typical “foodie” destination, but everything I ate there was hearty and delicious. Yum!

  10. says

    Your story sounds similar to my trip to Porto that ended up as a disaster due to a bad timing and problems with transport. I haven’t been to Budapest yet, but I wonder how it’s gonna be for me when I finally go ;)

    • says

      Shame about your trip to Porto, Anna :( I think if you stay in Pest rather than Buda you’ll have a much better chance of enjoying the city. Since posting the article I’ve heard many similar stories about Budapest and the consensus seems to be that second impressions (or staying longer) helps. Hope you’ll enjoy it :)

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