After living in one of Europe’s great cities, then penning a novel about its darker tensions, an expat revisits a place she’s come to know and love.
Story by Ailsa Kay
I’ve never been one to visit the sites of a city. I joke that I make a lousy tourist—I can’t visit, I can only stay. But with one Hungarian friend who loved his country’s history, I did visit a great many of Budapest’s sites. I went with Gabor to Szent István’s Basilica and I duly marvelled at its high dome, its statues that represent the story of Szent István, or St. Stephen, Hungary’s first Christian king.
I don’t mean to say I wasn’t impressed; I was. The space of the basilica is designed for awe, after all. But maybe I wasn’t awed enough. At my friend’s suggestion, we went into the small chapel off to the side of the sanctuary, known as the Chapel of the Holy Right Hand. Beside the entry, a grey-haired woman wearing multiple cardigans over her dress sat in a short chair against the wall. At the end of the room, on a table behind a red-velvet rope stood a glass case that looked to me like a terrarium. Beside the case was a red-handled lever and a coin slot.
“What is it?” I whispered to my friend.
“You will have to deposit the money to find out,” Gabor shot back.
I scrambled in my purse for the required 10 forint coin, and dropped it in. In the terrarium, a bare bulb flared.
And there it was. It rested all by itself on a red and gold tasselled cushion, completely black, balled in a tiny child-sized fist: St. István’s thousand-year-old hand, the mummified remains of Hungary’s first king. My usually solemn friend grinned widely at my laughter of surprise. I tipped the lady on the way out, who did not smile at all. I love this memory—because of the poker-faced woman and the circus-like reveal. And because it feels so perfectly Hungarian—serious and ridiculous, reverential and irreverent, a bit worn at the edges, giving nothing away for free.
I was in Budapest because my then-partner was doing research there. We lived there on two separate sabbaticals, and then, years and one trip later, I wrote a novel situated in Budapest. Somehow, I couldn’t get the city out of my system.
The novel, Under Budapest, is preoccupied with the underside of Budapest, its current climate of dangerously far-right nationalism, the claustrophobia of its Soviet history. That side of Budapest does exist, and it doesn’t take long to feel it, but what the novel doesn’t describe is the city that I love.
Budapest is a city of contrasts: scarred by history, gritty, harsh, but also achingly beautiful. Artistic and literary cultures are vibrant. Holidays are playful, waterparks exuberant. Cafés are as elegant as a 1920s beaded dress. When the sun comes out, parks fill with people strolling arm in arm.
A Tale of Two Ancient Cities
Budapest is actually two cities, Buda and Pest, separated by the famed river Danube—Duna in Hungarian. We’d rented an apartment in Pest because of its proximity to the Central European University. As it turns out, it was the perfect location; close to the 4-6 tram line—an important transit artery which rings the inner city—and to the Nyugati subway and train station (also known as the Western train station), so every part of the city was easily reachable.
Pest is flat, dense, structured by an efficient 19th-century Austro-Hungarian grid. It is all stuccoed and square, with few trees or green, except what is found in the small and well-used parks that offer sudden, surprising relief. Buda, by contrast, is hilly. Steep roads, some lined with plane trees, climb into ancient districts such as Castle Hill, or the later 19th-century and 20th-century suburbs of Rózsadomb, or Rose Hill.
My historical friend Gabor asked me once to guess how old Budapest was. I went immediately to the legendary Magyar horsemen who swept across the plains, and then…“Aha!” He immediately cut me off. “This is a common error. In fact, this city became Budapest when Buda joined with Pest and Óbuda only in 1872.”
“Sure, but it has a history before that,” I replied.
“But it was not Budapest,” he replied emphatically.
Gabor was precisely accurate. But Budapest is a city with an ancient past, with a history of habitation that precedes by centuries even the arrival of the pagan Magyars (which actually means “Hungarians” in Hungarian). Before the fierce tribes of the Magyar galloped in from the East, the land was occupied and settled by the Huns, and before that the Romans, and before that, the Celts.
The first settlement in present-day Pest was Óbuda, a safe location perfectly bounded by the wide Danube on the one side, and on the other sheltered by a rippling range of hills. In the ninth century, led by the Great Prince Árpád, the Magyar warriors raged in and then, as if stymied by the hills, settled in the fertile Carpathian basin, and made the plains and the Danube and the hills their home.
After the Magyar invasion—that originary moment so integral to Magyar or Hungarian pride and identity—the history of Hungary, and thus of Budapest, is one of occupation and resistance. Or, as one friend more darkly described it, a history of resistance and defeat.
Occupiers include: the Mongols, who destroyed the place once in; the Turks, who invaded in the 16th century along with the Austrian Habsburgs, the latter of whom maintained power there (in one form or another) until 1918, even after the Turks were ousted; the Nazis, who occupied it in 1944; and finally, Soviet Russia, who “liberated” Hungary from the Germans in 1945, then proceeded to brutally occupy it for the next 40-odd years.
Perhaps because of this tumultuous history, many histories have been erased in Budapest. For instance, there’s no medieval town centre in Budapest, as one might expect.
The castle on the hill looks old, but most of the building dates from the post-war reconstruction of the 1950s. The only remnant of Ottoman Turkish culture are three beautifully constructed public baths in Buda—the Rudas, the Király, and the Rácz—and the Tomb of Gul Baba on Rose Hill, also in Buda. The history with the strongest presence is the Habsburgs’ period—a time both brilliant and bitter for Hungarians. As one half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hungary enjoyed prosperity and Budapest became a modern, sparkling Paris of the East. This period indelibly shaped the urban plan and the architecture of present-day Budapest—Pest’s orderly street grid and grand, tree-lined boulevards, the neo-Renaissance opera house, the white-spired Parliament with its red dome.
But it was still an occupation. Hungarians fought their first and short-lived revolution against the Habsburg Empire in 1848. March 15th, the start of that revolution, is still marked as a national holiday. The fervent cry for freedom written by poet Sándor Petőfi for those 19th-century freedom fighters later formed the anthem of the 1956 revolution (also cruelly short-lived) against the Soviet occupation. Hungary’s independence is terribly recent.
Divided into compact geographic districts, Budapest is a navigable, walkable city with great transit provided by trams—the 4-6 will get you nearly everywhere—and three intersecting subway lines. Pest is really the downtown. The nightlife is here, as are the businesses, most museums and galleries, the shops and cafés, all packed tight between river and the outer-ring road, the Nagykörút (big ring road).
Beginning with the Great Market Hall in District IX, remarkable for its colourful and ornate Zsolnay-tiled roof, you can wander along the very pedestrian Váci Utca boulevard, toward District V, which includes landmarks like Szent István’s Basilica and the Parliament.
Stroll away from the river up the famed Andrassy Avenue into District VI, and you will find yourself on one of the grandest old boulevards of the city. Step off to your right, and you might wander into the old Jewish Quarter in District VII, home to no less than four synagogues, the most remarkable of which surely is the Dohány (which also houses the Hungarian Jewish Museum) with its unmistakable paired onion domes.
Andrassy ends at Heroes’ Square. The wide square, with the memorial of heroes at its centre, is flanked by the Museum of Fine Arts and the Palace of Arts, and provides an appropriately grand entrance to the 19th-century Városliget, or Budapest’s famed City Park.
The other Pest districts worth exploring are VIII and IX. Parts of District VIII are seedy, but with trendy bars and art-houses such as the Trafó, it’s changing. In District IX, as soon as the weather warms up, you’ll discover all of Budapest sitting at the open-air cafés and restaurants of the pedestrian-only Raday Street.
It was on Raday (of course!) where I first learned to order a beer in Hungarian. Important to know: it comes in two sizes—pohár (glass) or korsó (pint). There’s a bookstore too, on the corner of Raday, which sells art books and English books, and, most importantly, Hungarian books translated into English.
Budapest by Foot, Tram or Train
Buda is also marvellous by foot, with its steep and narrow streets, and precarious tall houses. It is older than most of Pest, with many houses—footings now below street level—dating from the 18th century. You don’t have to wander far up any street in Buda to feel that you are no longer in a bustling city, but in a quiet, old suburb where giant plane trees line sidewalks, and stone walls protect the gardens of mansions once grand, and some now grand again.
Both Buda and Pest still feel as if they are in the process of reconstruction. Many building facades have been restored and painted in the blues, oranges, and yellows reminiscent of Austro-Hungarian prosperity. Others are grey with decades of pollution and chunks of plaster missing.
Some still bear the damage from the Second World War, and of the revolution that followed it a short decade later. Walking along even the touristy pedestrian street of Váci Utca you only have to look up, past the freshly plastered first or second floor, to see the decay of the floors above—rotted wooden shutters, crumbling plaster.
The spired Parliament on the other hand—recently cleaned and now impossibly white—watches over the wide, sparkling Danube. This spectacular, late 19th-century building was built to inspire, and with its gothic-revival exterior, and baroque, gold interior, it is one of the most famous landmarks of Budapest. It is also still one of the two tallest buildings in the city—the second is the Basilica, just a few streets away, which is more or less the same height.
Yet the building behind the Parliament is studded with small brass knobs which mark bullet holes of the 1956 revolution, when Hungarians briefly rose up against Soviet rule, and during which approximately 2,500 were killed in the failed attempt. Everywhere you look, optimistic and beautiful architecture bears the signs and memorials of darker times.
Those first days, I spent a lot of time wandering the side streets of Pest. Despite the McDonald’s, which occupies a prominent location, if you walk out from the main körút or boulevard, part of which tracks the 4-6 tram line, that, as I said earlier, rings the inner city, Budapest still feels like a place that rampant commercialism hasn’t entirely penetrated.
Walking down side streets in Pest, it feels like time stopped somewhere around 1966, years before slick advertising and merchandising took over.
Shop windows don’t display so much as exhibit. Crammed full of products, some still in their packages, windows inform rather than entice. Bras and underwear dangle from hangers tacked onto a bulletin board. Stacks of hats tower behind dusty glass and security grill.
Two dresses hang side by side, one red and elegant and the other the kind of cotton overdress that women wear to clean the house. One store sells paper products—from toilet paper to legal paper to wrapping paper—and nothing else. Multiple shops seem to be called mino˝ségi. I wonder, is it a franchise? When I check my dictionary, I find it means “quality.”
Transit is its own adventure in Budapest. When I was here years ago, Romani women, their skirts layered over pants, hovered at the entrance to the Nyugati subway shouting, “Ciggy, ciggy.” Men hawked phone cards and, in the early spring, miniature bouquets of white lilies-of-the-valley.
By the west exit, I remember vividly that a young couple sat hunched against the wall selling puppies out of a cardboard box. They were there every day, and I couldn’t imagine who bought the dogs, or how there always seemed to be more of them. Along every wall were mattresses and piles of blankets and bedrooms made of cardboard boxes. But just a few years later, when I came back, the Roma were no longer there and the underpass floors were clean.
Part of Budapest’s subway contains the second oldest system in the world. Constructed at the turn of the 20th century, the yellow line, M1, runs underneath the historic Andrassy (sort of like Paris’s Champs-Élysées), straight from downtown Pest to the City Park. It feels more like a tram than a subway. The small cars rattle loudly. The platforms are barely underground. The rest of the system was constructed in the later 20th century, much of it during the Soviet period, and this is significant.
Visitors to Budapest may be surprised at the depth of some subway stations. Vertiginously steep escalators descend at dizzying speed. First, I assumed tunnels had to be constructed deep enough to go under the Danube—and at some stations, such as Batthyány tér, this is likely a factor—but I later learned that the design was ideological more than rational.
In the late 1940s, the Soviet government decided that the Budapest subway would be the deepest in the world, a showcase of Soviet engineering prowess. Propaganda proudly asserted that commuting via subway would save Budapest workers nine million working hours annually. One newspaper declared that this meant millions of Hungarian people could watch more than four and a half million movies. A science journal claimed that tunnelling would expose the buried secrets of Budapest’s prehistoric past, bringing them to the surface for the enlightenment of all workers.
For a city as densely populated as Budapest, the city doesn’t feel crowded. The sidewalks don’t throng with hurry. At peak times, cars honk, transit is busier, and the 4-6 tram is standing-room only; but the rush seems less pressured somehow, less urgent. People walk more slowly, and they seem always to have time for a coffee and cake. I don’t know whether these observations are accurate, or simply the effect of my foreigner’s perspective, but it is true that no matter the time of day in Budapest, the cafés always feel busy.
My Pick for Great Cafés, Restaurants & Food
The Gerbeaud café is no doubt the most famous. Located on Vörösmarty tér, it has been restored to its full deco splendour, and the cakes are apparently as decadent as they were back when Budapest was known as the Paris of the East.
But my first experience of an elegant, pre-war Budapest café was Central Kávéház, directly opposite the Ferenciek tere subway exit, and maybe because of my happy memories there, it’s still my favourite. Sitting at one of its polished tables by a tall window, I can read a book and half-listen to the café sounds: steaming cappuccino machines, rustling newspapers, muted Hungarian conversation, clinking glasses, chairs scraping on tiled floor. Under the high ceiling, all noise dissipates. The glass case is filled with pastries and rich, multi-layered cakes. You can also order lunch.
For some reason though, when I’m here I only ever order the turostaskat, a pastry filled with the distinctly Hungarian “turos,” similar to a sweet ricotta. When I want a piece of impossibly rich, chocolaty wafer cake, I go to a cukrászda—which loosely translates as “sugar house” and is really a pastry shop. Every neighbourhood has at least one. My usual was the Vanilin Café on Hollan Erno Street. Here it is only takeout, and the lineups are always out the door, as people pick up desserts on their way home or during a break from the office. The glass cases of cakes and marzipan are taller than me. Most cukrászdas also serve the popular Hungarian dessert of pureed chestnut over whipped cream. Choose your version of heaven!
Palacsinta—the Hungarian version of the French crêpes—is another common snack or meal. You can find palacsinta houses, such as Nagyi Palacsintázója (with a few branches, one of which is conveniently close to the Király public bath!), or order one at a market stall. At a palacsinta house, there are two menus: salty and sweet. The crêpes are filled with traditional fillings such as the meaty Hortobágyi húsos, or a fruity, creamy Mazsolás túrós. The savoury crêpes are very salty—the perfect snack after a night out or an afternoon of soaking in mineral baths.
For seriously good, simple Hungarian fare, find a local csárda—a sort of Hungarian version of an English pub, with good, plain food and plenty of beer, and Hungarian Bull’s Blood red wine. The servers are not usually young and may not smile (and will likely not speak English), but the goulash is very red, rich with oil, and delicious. You can typically also get a great wiener schnitzel that’s the size of your face, and deep-fried camembert with sweet berry sauce. The csárda are generally small, cramped spaces, sometimes with an upstairs that is often just an extra floor added between floor and ceiling—possible thanks to the 19th-century penchant for high ceilings.
Budapest’s Parks and City Spaces
When I need a break from Pest’s built-up grid, I don’t have to go far. The parks of Budapest feel like rural escapes that were sewn right into the city itself.
Margit (or Margaret) Island was apparently the inspiration for the creation of New York City’s Central Park. Approximately two-and-a-half kilometres long and about one wide, it sits in the Danube but can be easily accessed by the 4-6 tram and the Margaret Bridge. Like many parts of Budapest, it has a medieval history that is now barely visible. Before the Ottoman invasion of the 16th century, Margit Island housed a convent and churches. Now it’s an island of many parks. Gravel paths define formal gardens, then veer off into woods that are relatively unkempt. At one end, ancient plane trees tower over wide, lush lawn.
On the Pest side of the island, you’ll find a petting zoo, with ducks and goats, and other small animals. In fact, you’ll probably hear it before you see it—the squawking and the bleating sound completely out of place. The jogging path that goes around the circumference of the island is well used by both runners and fitness walkers, but if you want to feel Hungarian, you will come to the island not to walk or jog but to stroll.
The verb in Hungarian is “sétál” (pronounced shay-tal) and sétál is slow—slower than I’ve ever strolled. Young couples, old couples, friends and families all sétál through the island’s various parks. They stroll and they talk in the low-volume murmur of Hungarians. They find a park bench in the sun, and turn faces toward it.
If you want to hike, rather than stroll, you head to the Buda Hills. Gellert Hill is closest. A wooded and rocky hill laced with tracks and trails that veer perilously close to the edge, Gellert juts out into the curve of the Duna. It’s famously the site of a historic murder. In 1046, rebelling pagans put Bishop Gellert in a barrel and rolled him down the hill. He is now St. Gellert, and his statue marks the site of the event.
Gellert is one of my favourite places to walk, with great views of Pest. Steep stairs take you part way up the hill, past the statue of the saint. Soon after, there’s a choice to make: to continue on the wider path into the woods, or take the one on the left, which edges up the side of the hill to hover over the Duna. On the other side of the hill is the Cave Church, where Gellert is believed to have healed the sick with thermal waters.
To get a little further out of downtown, you can take a 30-minute bus ride from Moszkva tér up to Normafa, which is both a neighbourhood and an extensive, woodland park area. In the park, you can hike to the Erzsébet (Elizabeth) lookout, part of the Janos Hill area. It’s a popular destination, and even in winter, when the limbs of trees are weighted with snow, its miles of paths are well used.
Still, it’s a forest, and it feels like a forest you could get lost in—cathedrals of trees, paths knotted with roots, and sudden wide, high vistas, utterly removed from the city. The long climb to the lookout and citadel is worth it; from here the view is panoramic—all of Budapest, spread out below. And at the end of your hike, as reward, you can buy a pretzel or fruit strudel from a vendor’s stall near the bus stop.
Partaking of the Baths
I was astonished by the baths and waterparks of Budapest, so different from the seriousness I was beginning to expect of anything Hungarian.
People visit the mineral baths to relax and to socialize and to heal. Doctors can prescribe mineral baths, so you’ll regularly see people, often pensioners, presenting a prescription at the entrance. Each bath has its own character. The Király on Fo˝ Street in Buda, not far from Margaret Bridge, offers a meditative womb-like darkness. Built by Turks in the 16th century, it’s one of the oldest baths in Budapest, and, it seems to me, the most beautiful.
The entry to many baths, and this one in particular, can be daunting. The sign is in Hungarian, the cashier is pragmatic, not friendly, dressed in a plain uniform somewhere between nurse and lab-technician. There are too many options to choose from, including a massage. I heard too many stories about strong-handed, matter-of-fact, Hungarian massages on hard tables, so I opt for the simple “bath” option.
Up a flight of stairs, a massive change room. There is a woman there who minds the rooms within the room. She will give you a sheet—no towels, only sheets. And she will double-double-lock your change room; you have one key and she has another. You will always tip her on exit!
Down another flight of stairs, you enter another world. Humid, smelling strongly of minerals, water dripping from the ceiling, puddles on the stone floor. Light streams through small holes in the domed stone ceiling. Women’s bodies move through the fog. Water laps, sluices over stone, pours from wide-mouthed taps, gurgling. Like the Rudas at the foot of Gellert, the Király is a unisex bath—open to men and women on opposite days.
No one wears bathing suits. Don’t even think of going in to simply “look” without getting naked. I was there when one of the Király’s stern matrons chased out an American woman and her daughter who’d presumed to enter with their clothes still on. (And this seemed fair.) The feeling under that dome is one of sanctuary. Not silent—there’s plenty of talk and laughter—but sacred nonetheless.
The Széchenyi Baths complex in the City Park is as different from the Turkish bath concept as you can imagine. It’s a sprawling health spa and waterpark, and is notable for its historic yellow building. There are spouting statues, about 12 thermal baths and outdoor heated pools. On cold wintery days or in the middle of summer, large bellied men stand waist-deep in the warm pool playing chess; women of all ages lounge in bikinis, holding their chins above water. There’s even a whirlpool.
People stand inside a spiral and wait for the water to roar, strong enough to whirl you through the spiral and spit you out the other side, all the while laughing like maniacs. Bubbles jet from the pool floor, and adult men and women giggle to be tickled. Inside are endless high-ceilinged rooms, each with baths of varying mineral content. You can walk from one to another and still be surprised to find one more. Potted palms add to the sense of old-fashioned formality.
Some nights, baths are transformed, turned into nightclubs with strobe lights and dance music, and people party in the water. I regret that I didn’t ever make it to one of these parties; they’re pretty common now, so you might be lucky enough to find one.
Classic Old Europe Arts and Culture
The art scene in Budapest is fantastic—vibrant and relevant. Literature is important, as is dance.
At the Trafó House of Contemporary Arts in District IX, we saw the Montreal modern-dance ensemble Compagnie Marie Chouinard, and other international avant-garde dance and music acts for about a quarter of what we’d have paid in Canada. The performance space wasn’t glitzy; it was a somewhat dingy but brightly painted bar and a big box of space, with folding chairs for the audience. And though the venue itself seemed the kind of place where only artists and students would gather, that performance, and others, were attended by all generations, and some very elegantly dressed for the night out.
Hungary’s value for the arts is evident in its gorgeous new Palace of Arts centre. Modern and light-filled, the entry is a breathtaking climb of wide, curving timber.
The performance hall likewise is all drafted of wood, and the feeling is what it I imagine it might be like to be inside a cello. The romkocsmak (or ruin bars) offer another uniquely Hungarian take on art and clubbing. Romkocsmak are party/art-houses, condemned apartment buildings that the state or city hasn’t yet got around to tearing down. You can drink tea all night if you want, or beer or wine. You can sit outside in what would have been the building’s courtyard, under a tent canopy. You can wander upstairs through what used to be apartments and are now transformed into wrecked, and very cool, art installations or bars. There are now several romkocsmak in downtown Pest. The city might shut them down, or maybe not. But to me they make Budapest one of the coolest cities in Europe.
There were times, when I was in Budapest, that I did want to leave, because it was hard being a stranger there, sometimes. But when I’m gone, I miss everything. I miss the energy—that entrepreneurial, improvisational attitude. I miss strolling and hiking and the taste of real paprika, the lazy café afternoons, the subdued, metrical rhythm of the language.
I miss even the discomforts: the stern ladies who provide toilet paper at the public toilets, the chaotic competitive jostle for fruit at the market, the money (the forint) that is impossible to reckon in dollars—the look I get when I’m too slow counting change. The reality is that as much as I cherished my time there, I will never feel quite at home in Budapest. And why should it be any different? It’s not an easy city, but its difficulty, its complexity, are exactly what I love. *
Ailsa Kay is a writer and researcher who happily left big city life for Fergus, Ontario. Her first novel, Under Budapest, was published in 2014. Find out more it here.