You know how when you travel, a place can be nice, but only in a superficial and touristy way? Like, you enjoy it of course, but you don’t feel like there’s enough substance left to visit again anytime soon? I feel that way frequently when I travel — but not for Budapest.
As my sister and I flew from the Netherlands to Hungary, I realized how little I knew about the country. I didn’t know anything about Hungary aside from brief mentions during history class. I hazily imagined a quaint, sleepy city, but really had no idea what to expect.
We arrived at our Airbnb in the late evening. It was across from a square called Deák Ferenc tér. From the window, I could see a gleaming ferris wheel, and rainbow string lights stretched across an opening in the ground. Dozens of small heads gathered around these lights, and the muffled buzzing of music reached the glass I peered out of. We wouldn’t properly visit the square until a few days later, but that glimpse held my first hint of Budapest’s liveliness.
Later that night we went to Szimpla Kert, the first “ruin pub” — revived from an abandoned building into a world so cluttered with eclectic items that it felt surreal.
I drank my first-ever shot of Fireball in the seats of a vintage car, placed in the middle of the bar’s courtyard. There was music, but we mostly wandered around two floors of rooms to marvel at outdated trinkets and tattered furniture. To me, each ensemble seemed like the colorful hallucination of someone’s acid trip. As we walked to and from Szimpla, I was shocked at how many young people were out in the streets, dressed and ready for a good time, chatting and roaming as if we were all nocturnal creatures and owned the night.
The next day, I continued to understand how Budapest is not just a place for sights and a good time: it truly is a real place, rich in culture and history. I learned this as we went on a free walking tour of the city and learned about the history of the Buda and the Pest sides, the Austrian rule. I felt it in the chill of Buda’s underground tunnels, holding a wartime hospital and Cold War bunker. I heard it when a woman in an emerald dress sampled an aria at the opera house. I tasted it in delicious Hungarian food: goulash, langos, beef, duck. I saw its dark side when I visited the House of Terror museum about fascism and communism in Hungary.
I think the most beautiful story of Budapest is in the Liberty Statue: a blue-green woman holding a palm leaf above her head. I could see her figure on the Buda side and learned from a tour guide that the Soviet Union actually gave to the city to commemorate its “liberation” from the Nazis. Of course, it was an ironic image: it was not a liberation but another occupation. Yet, after Hungary finally established independence, they turned the twisted symbol on its head again: now she honors those who died for Hungary’s freedom.
She was on a tall hill, sort of out of the way, and my sister wanted to go shopping — but I felt inspired by the Liberty Statue’s message. I marveled at how a group of oppressed people could reclaim a deceitful symbol into a positive emblem. So my sister and I temporarily parted ways so I could climb to her — I felt like I owed it to her, somehow.
My legs died over the many stone steps of Gellert Hill, but the views and the feeling were worth it.
I loved learning more history and culture during the rest of the trip: like when we took a dip in the famous baths, visited Heroes’ Square and churches, explored the old remnants of Castle Hill, and toured the Parliament building. My sister and I also went on a pretty river cruise to see the city lit-up golden from both sides. This trip was also special to me because I got to bond with her, when I usually don’t see her often.
It’s not often that I wish to visit a vacation place soon after I leave — but with Budapest, I am so eager to return: not only because I felt my time was too short and there is much I didn’t experience, but because I genuinely love the spirit there. It is now one of my favorite cities.