On a Friday evening in the middle of February, we took off from Basel airport and landed just over an hour later in Budapest, Hungary. There was no ceremony to it – no passport stamping, just cocktails in one airport lounge followed by a battle with an ATM in the Budapest Arrivals terminal. It was mild out as we tried to order taxis for 9 adults with 9 backpacks packed for three days but small enough to fit under an EasyJet seat.

As we’d descended, I leaned across the aisle to ask what currency was used in Hungary, to which Johno replied, “Foreigns.”

I laughed. “No, really.”

“Foreigns,” repeated Tom. I thought they were both joking until we landed and I understood Forints to be the currency and that roughly 350 of them equalled one Swiss Franc.

We left the airport with 30,000k each in cash – except for Dan, who had pressed the wrong button and ended up with more than double – and piled into two cabs that, once we were packed in, sped off down sleek streets as if all of Budapest was one giant F1 course.

Our AirBnB was located down a small street in Pest (the city is divided across the Danube, with Buda boasting the hill side complete with a steep funicular, castles, a fortress, and underground labyrinths that once apparently served as a prison for Vlad the Impaler (but are now definitely filled with creepy mannequins – more on that later).

Pest gave off more of a Brooklyn vibe, with neon shop fronts and quirky bars. Our own street was home to several of these bars, like the down-home sounding “BarHole” where we went for drinks after dumping our bags.

BarHole lived up to its name: accessible by descending a flight of stairs, you could turn left for live music or right for old 90s metal and rock, cheap Hungarian draft beer (Sorproni, anyone?), and low, arched painted brick ceilings. If you go, do not order the wine.

We rounded off the evening at a nearby kebab shop. With five orders of gyros, the one man behind the counter had his hands full, so half of us sat and ate baklava while the others grabbed drinks from a convenience store whose line apparently trickled out the door and onto the streets. I don’t know, though. I didn’t see it because I was waiting to stuff a medium sized falafel gyro into my mouth.

After, we returned to our AirBnB, a 4-bedroom flat with 4 bathrooms, three with broken door handles that fell off in our hands when closing the doors.

Other than the door handles, the place was very cool. Once you tapped a key fob to a large, cavernous metal door facing the street, you entered into a vast courtyard. On any side were stairways leading up to different floors or apartments. Ours was straight back, then up three sets of winding stairs. An elevator also stood ready as an option, but whether or not it could fit 9 people was not something we were interested in finding out. You’d walk along a landing that looked out into an interior courtyard, then come to a door behind a locked gate. Open the gate with one key, the door with another, and you are in!

With towering ceilings and windows adorned with sculpted swirls on the facade, the place felt important, decadent.

In the morning, we piled coats on over layers of clothing and followed Johno around the corner to the Astoria Hotel for breakfast. We had the option of the buffet (5,000) or a la carte (3200). Buffet it was!

Fancy breakfast spot

The interior was ornate, with plush red velvet and gold chairs and dripped chandeliers.

After several coffee refills, we were off to explore the city. We walked along the Danube against a fierce wind, passing imposing buildings along the bank until we came to the memorial we were looking for. Like so many European cities, Budapest has its World War II history, and one event in particular is commemorated along the banks of the Danube. In the 1940s, thousands of Jewish citizens were lined up along the river and shot by members of the Arrow Cross Party. They were forced to remove their shoes first, and the monument – which consists of ’40s-style shoes of all styles and sizes, made of iron – is created with this in mind. I’ve seen lots of monuments before, from statues to the large rectangular boxes in Berlin, but there was something especially upsetting about the range of shoes that made it feel more personal, especially as you looked down at the Danube rushing along below.

We continued walking along, pondering and asking Johno and Tom history questions, when Esti mentioned that we were around the corner from the Hard Rock Cafe. (I know, it isn’t the smoothest transition from the previous paragraph, but it’s true.) A collector of Hard Rock Cafe pins, Esti has something like 80+ from different cities she’s visited. We turned away from the river and headed in.

“I think I know someone who works here,” Dan said. “I am pretty sure she does. From her Instagram stories.”

“What? How do you know her?”

“From camp.”

Intrigued, we followed Esti into the gift shop, where one young woman staffed the register.

“I think that might actually be her.”

When it was Esti’s turn to pay for her pin, I went up to the register with her and looked at the cashier’s name on the receipt. Somehow, it was her.

Dan waited until the other customers in line were out the door before approaching her and saying hi. Esti, me, Lauren, and Daniel watched the emotional reunion from a distance, and I wondered again about how small the world really is and how connected people are.

Our travels took us back along the river to Parliament and some statues, a new memorial to old Hungary, and finally to lunch – a shop called Lángosom which sold delicious Hungarian lángos. This is a culinary delight: a fried donut crust – like a carnival funnel cake but flat like a pizza – topped with your choice of deliciousness. I opted for sour cream and cheese with garlic (straight off the menu) and Dan got the Budapest with meats and peppers. The nine of us overwhelmed the tiny shop, and lunch wound up being an hour long as we each waited on our order.

A tram cruises by
Amazing architecture
Ordering deliciousness
She singlehandedly cranked out 9 orders.
Ohhhh yes. Mouthwatering.

It didn’t help that halfway through, the single woman running the shop turned and said, “I need to chop more onions. I asked my assistant for onions but look – she gave me sausages.”

It didn’t matter to me how long we waited – it was delicious. Messy, doughy, savory, and delicious.

From there, it was a 25-minute walk to a ruin bar, which I’d heard a bit about but was not sure what to expect. We ended up at Szimpka, an open air market in an old run-down building with lots of bars and shops and an upstairs greenhouse with painted furniture where you could sit and drink. We stayed for two drinks, and suddenly it was nearly 5pm.

This was an issue because we had important plans: visit Dracula’s labyrinth cave. Johno explained that the caves closed at 7, but that the last entries were at 6, so we’d need to hustle. It was a 45-minute walk from the bar, but of course, the best laid plans.

The bridge we hoped to cross was closed, so we had to walk up the river bank in Pest, cross a different bridge, and then walk back the way we’d come but on the Buda side. To top it off, the map situation and signage for Dracula’s secret cave system were basically nil. If you decide to visit this place, make a game plan beforehand.

We followed Google Maps up and down, climbing castle walls only to descend some stairs on the other side. At one point, Johno, Lauren, and Dan went downhill but the rest of us chose a different path that seemed more promising. It wasn’t.

Using three different phones to navigate, we got lost several times and contemplated giving up. It was well after six by the time we followed Dan’s live location to a quiet side street where we reunited at a bar over 9 shots of unicum, a Hungarian liquor that tastes a bit like Jager. Exhausted and missing one iPhone timer remote – Esti realized it had gone missing somewhere along our castle-scaling escapades – we hurried into the caves.

The man at the reception told me we had 3 minutes to get into the caves before he closed, so we each forked over 3000 forints and pushed through the turnstile.

Once upon a time, you could wander the maze with lanterns in hand, but now it was not so.

“Yeah, a boy stayed down here too long with his lantern and died, so you can’t use lanterns anymore,” Johno told us.

“Really?” I said.


It seems instead that ownership of the underground tunnel system has changed hands, and new management are less fans of lanterns and more into creepy mannequin displays. As we navigated our way through the dimly lit caves – which occasionally veered into tunnels of pitch black – we’d turn a corner to find a cavern roped off and displaying fancily-clad mannequins who looked like they were attending a ball or masquerade of some sort. Down one tunnel we found two child mannequins that looked like the children from The Shining. In two others were cement sarcophagi and then finally a cage that supposedly once contained Vlad the Impaler. A plaque on the wall explained that he was imprisoned here, and also that he tormented his subjects by cutting the skin off their feet and bringing in goats and sheep to lick their footsoles.

Afterwards, we went for dinner.

In the morning, Esti pulled off a miracle and got the 9 of us into a beautiful little cafe called Aranypinty for breakfast. We followed that up with a trip to the House of Terror, a grim but important relic of Hungarian history.

It’s always strange on trips like these to go from drinking with your friends in ruin bars or eating poached eggs for breakfast to visiting museums and learning about the history of the place you’ve been gallivanting around. It’s heavy.

We learned more about the Arrow Cross Party, about the way that communism replaced the Nazis after World War II, and toured the actual cells were prisoners were kept before being executed. It was horrible. The entire time, I kept thinking about how it really is sheer luck of the draw what your life turns out to be. Where you’re born dictates so much. We are all the same in that we’re all human, occupying this same planet, but based on your geography, your twenties could look like career-building and parties or leaving everything you own behind, including your family and your home, to cross a border and escape violence.

I know it’s become something of a joke the way Americans talk about freedom so much, but walking through the damp corridors between the tiny jail cells where people who protested or spoke out or resisted oppression were tortured, away from their families, in secret, and killed, it hit me – again – how much we sometimes take our freedoms for granted.

It was strange to emerge from the heavy darkness of the museum out into the bright streets of Budapest on a Sunday, to find our friends drinking beers at the cafe down the corner (they’d visited the museum on previous trips to Budapest), to then make our way to the public baths to enjoy the luxury of relaxing in thermal pools.

I think the ones we visited were called Széchenyi, and they were relaxing. We sat in the hot water under a cool blue sky, enjoying the calm of it all until it was time to leave for our 7pm dinner reservation at nearby Paprika, where I ate the chicken paprika (recommended by a colleague and also the first meal Jonathan Harker eats in Dracula, in Budapest).

We made it back to the airport, and about two hours later, landed in Basel and hopped in various vehicles to get home by 11pm. It was one of the first weekend international trips I’ve done since moving here, and it made me feel like maybe COVID is finally lifting and weekend getaways might be a thing again.

Beautiful coffee place
Paprikas – yum.

Categories: Hungary

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