Working out how long to spend in a place you’ve never been is tough.
You try to be all scientific about it, reading guide books, blog posts, travel articles. You talk to people who have been there, and you do some sort of complicated math that divides the number of things you want to do by the amount of time you think you have available.
At the end of the day, though, it’s pretty much a crapshoot. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you get it wrong.
In Budapest, it was definitely the latter.
We’d extended our time in Bratislava by a day, not because there was much more to see, but just because we liked our apartment and didn’t want to leave. With only a short train ride to Budapest the following morning, we gambled on shortening our stay and being able to see the highlights of the city in two days.
Almost as soon as we arrived, I realised that was probably a mistake.
Budapest is a big city, and even though many of the biggest attractions are clustered either side of the river there’s still a hell of a lot to see. The gorgeous Parliament buildings sprawl along one side of the Danube, overlooked by both Buda Castle and the dominating Matthias Church across the famous waterway.
I spent one entire, precious afternoon just exploring that area, peering over those thick stone walls down into the delightfully sprawling neighbourhood of baroque and medieval buildings below. It is hard to describe the grandeur of old Buda and Pest to those who haven’t been there. Words don’t seem to do it justice.
It’s almost as if somebody took a huge handful of magnificent buildings and statues from throughout Europe’s most distinctive periods, picked it all up, and threw it at the Danube. The result is an eclectic, incomprehensible, historic, beautiful mess. I could have spend days just wandering there, with no agenda and less concern.
Walking ten minutes in the other direction from our apartment, along a main road broken up by tree-lined pavement, we came across Heroes’ Square. The central cenotaph and surrounding statues are a famous Budapest landmark, but one look at the tour buses spewing their contents into the square had us heading for a nearby cafe.
Breakfast and several leisurely coffees later, the crowds were gone and only a few visitors were left in quiet contemplation. Quieter still was City Park, a large green space directly behind the monuments. Couples clumsily paddled around in canoes below us as we crossed the bridge, baking in the hot sun while pretending to have fun. It was the perfect place to do nothing for a while, and that was exactly what we did. In the shade.
Later that evening we met up with Scott and Julia, another travel blogging couple who also happened to be in town – albeit for a far more sensible length of time. They had recently been out to Budapest’s increasingly-famous ruin bars, an eclectic mix of drinking establishments set up in the abandoned buildings of the city’s Jewish Quarter, and were looking for a repeat performance.
Even with an early train the next morning, how could we say no?
Szimpla kert is the original (and many say, still the best) ruin bar in the city, slouching in the same spot for around a decade. I knew I’d love it as soon as I walked in the door, with its grungy vibe, dozens of nooks and crannies and huge outdoor courtyard. Throw in a partying crowd of central Europeans, free-flowing cheap beer and a collection of incomprehensible decades-old cartoons being played on an old movie projector, and I was sold.
Our tour of Budapest’s ruin bars started and ended right there. We didn’t move for the rest of the night.
Heading to the train station the following morning, the bright sun an unwelcome guest, my dejected plodding was due to more than the hangover. Lauren – who had been so underwhelmed by the city a year earlier that she didn’t even bother to write about it – mumbled something under her breath that I didn’t catch.
“Sorry, what was that?”, I asked.
“I really like it here”, came the slightly embarrassed reply. “I don’t want to leave.”
She wasn’t the only one.
Two days in Budapest was far from enough.
Image via daniel.edwins.