A few months ago I had the great opportunity to sail with Avalon Waterways for the first time, going from Budapest to Linz, Austria on the beautiful Danube. I’d only been to Budapest once before, several years ago before the start of another river cruise. That’s one reason why I excited to return, to see even more of the city but I had no idea just how much I would love my second adventure in Budapest.
All cities are most definitely not made the same. Some are all about hustle and bustle and the business of daily life, but others exist in a type of ethereal state where the past and present blend almost seamlessly. Budapest, like Rome and Paris, most certainly falls in the latter category and is especially well seen in its most notable neighborhoods. Paris has the Champs-Élysées and Budapest has Andrássy Avenue. Built and designed in the grand urban planning traditions of the late 19th century, the avenue is long, wide and impressive. Reminding me more of a street in Paris, Andrássy is still lined today with distinguished townhouses, shops and restaurants. Just as it was when it was built, the avenue today is still the city’s major thoroughfare and is easy to reach by public transportation. In fact, that’s one of the best ways to see it, just take the tram down the length of the building and marvel at the buildings that line it on either side. Also be sure to stop off at one of the many traditional coffee houses along Andrássy, an important tradition in Budapest.
I think more than anything else, the coffee shop is a good emblem for Buda. It’s not flashy, there isn’t that much to do there honestly and it does indeed pale in comparison to Pest. But what it lacks in pizzazz it more than makes up for in ambience, a quality that is too often ignored but oh so important in any city. Being able to soak up the feel of a community quickly isn’t always easy, but in Buda it happened right away, from the Trabants parked in front of colorful row houses to that all so robust cup of coffee I enjoyed, I walked away feeling like I GOT Buda, I understood what it’s all about.
Advantages with Avalon
Arriving into Budapest a couple of days before the cruise was not only the perfect way to get over my let lag, but also to start the process of appreciating all of the advantages that sailing with Avalon brings. One of those was an optional excursion that not only introduced me to new parts of the city, but also taught me a lot about Hungary’s somewhat complicated past. The idea of exploring Budapest’s Communist past all while driving around in a vintage Trabant sounded like the perfect mix of active and historical immersion. Picked up in a 80s-era Trabant, our guide spent the afternoon taking us to a variety of different spots around Budapest, all the while sharing not just the history of the Communist era, but his own personal experiences as well. Whether it was touring a ruin bar, enjoying a spritz at the Trabant bar or walking through a grove of Communist-era statues, the afternoon was as educational as it was fun.
Hungarian food doesn’t get nearly enough attention or respect. I think most people just consider it to be goulash and paprika, but it’s a lot more nuanced than that including these personal favorites.
Lángos – One of Hungary’s most popular street food delicacies, I actually enjoyed this for the first time while onboard the Avalon Impression. That’s one aspect I loved about sailing with Avalon, every day they brought in the local flavors through our meal options, including a robust dinner of these deep fried treats. Like most comfort food, lángos is pretty simple: it’s just deep fried flatbread that puffs when fried. It’s a blank canvas for just about any ingredient, including both savory as well as sweet. The classic though is one topped with shredded cheese and a gooey sour cream that’s different from what I’m used to in the US, but no less delicious.
Nokedli – One of my favorite German side dishes is a great spätzle, so when I found the Hungarian version I couldn’t resist. Also found on the dinner menu onboard the Avalon Impression, it was the perfect accompaniment to my lángos main course. Nokedli are Hungarian egg noodle dumplings that are commonly used when making one of the country’s favorite dishes, Chicken Paprikash.
Ruin bars – These have become really popular in recent years and not just amongst the backpacker set, but just about every visitor to the city. Ruin bars are bars and cafes that started when people wanted cheap places to drink. Taking over decrepit buildings that had fallen into disuse, entrepreneurs set up shop creating eclectic spaces where nothing matches and everything is unplanned. They’re fun places to meet friends, hang out, relax, drink, get a bite and just enjoy the evening. Of course they have now been taken over by hipsters and tourists, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still fun, they are, and if you really explore them you’ll see old apartments and stores from the Communist era that offer a surprising glimpse into the city’s darker past.
Total Travel Package
Budapest I think is a rarity, at least it is for me. It’s a large city with all of the normal modern conveniences, but it has maintained a strong link to its past. Fin de siècle buildings sit next to more modern cousins, and it seems that every street has its own bookstore and coffee shop. Budapest just feels right, and that’s not something I can explain really, it just is. So when you visit, plan on spending a few days and keep your schedule open allowing yourself plenty of time to fall in love with what is truly one of the world’s great cities.