In Budapest, ruin pubs, a cat cafe, thermal baths and a nightlife scene that hardly quits

October 10, 2013

The soft gray of the morning is beginning to light the streets, but it’s far too early to be awake on a Saturday. Tossing and turning in the bed of our third-floor apartment, I wish I could say that to the boisterous men outside, who clearly have yet to greet their pillows.

Just as I’m wondering what time it is, the sounds grow louder.

“No one’s asleep yet, this is Budapest!” a man with a British accent barks into his phone. “It’s only 5 a.m.!”

Details: Budapest


Just then, a few feet away, another sound erupts, as someone’s stomach chimes in with an uncanny PSA about what happens after consuming liter after liter of Dreher beer. A splash of water from a bucket quickly follows, solidifying what we’ve learned after just one night in town: Budapest knows how to party.

It was just a few hours ago that we, too, were having drinks late into the night and wandering the streets, in awe of the air of fist-pumping celebration surging through the capital of Hungary. We’d arrived in the city that afternoon on a train from Vienna, harried from a not-so-smooth arrival at the dusty Budapest-Keleti Railway Terminal, where we discovered that there were neither street maps for sale nor ATMs in the station.

Armed with only the address of our rental apartment and with no Hungarian forints on us, we were at a loss as to what to do, until we spotted a few banks across a very busy street from the station. We lugged our baggage over, withdrew the much-needed forints and grabbed a cab, knowing full well that we were making a mistake.

Our trusty Rick Steves Budapest guide stated very clearly that visitors should avoid hailing a cab and instead always call ahead for one to avoid getting gouged on the price. But with no working phones and no street map, we’d hit the panic zone. In that moment, this seemed like the only logical way to get to where we needed to go, at whatever price the driver charged. (It turned out to be significantly more than what we’d pay upon our departure, when we called ahead.)

Despite the hurly-burly start, it took exactly one half-liter of Dreher beer at a ruin pub to jump-start a crush on Budapest. Ruin pubs are a characteristically Hungarian breed of bar that began opening a little more than a decade ago in abandoned buildings or homes. Many are in the city’s old Jewish Quarter (now known as the Seventh District), which has faced blight and decay since the 1940s, when Nazi troops killed and deported tens of thousands of Jewish residents.

Today, the ruin pubs are credited with sparking new life in the area and are a draw for both residents and tourists. We’d read quite a bit about the pubs online before traveling here, and we knew from the Web site Ruinpubs.com that there are at least 20 in Budapest.

Szimpla Kert, where we settled in, is one of the oldest, dating to 2002. More important, it’s just a few blocks from our apartment. Having tapped into the WiFi there, we’d downloaded a TripAdvisor app, which not only has maps, a compass and reviews but also works offline and ensured a panic-free trip from here on out. It directed us to Szimpla Kert with ease.

I was a little nervous that I’d be required to know a secret handshake to get into the bar, but my fears were allayed the moment we walked in. What we found was an open-air, bohemian beer garden filled with mismatched chairs and tables and structural works of art, including a bicycle suspended in a net, a totem pole of chairs, benches made from car bodies and an old gymnastics side horse used as a table. After peering around corners, peeking into side rooms and taking photos, we took a seat and relaxed. Aside from the initial surprises, the artistic touches and the neglected architecture, the bar could have been just about any trendy bar anywhere.

The Hungarian beer hit the spot, and clearly we were in good company. All around town, the unending sidewalk cafes and bars were packed, from the ones on the touristy, shop-filled Vaci Utca to the hotel bars along the Danube to the local haunts in the surrounding neighborhoods. Groups of young men and women filled the streets throughout the night, laughing and playfully chasing one another. As the beer tabs grew, so did the enthusiasm, shifting downward, it seemed, at about 5 a.m. with our British friend.

A soak in the culture

By day and by night, we explore the inner and outer areas of Budapest, an intriguing city that’s still filled with the relics of communism, which fell in 1989. We cruise down the Danube on a sightseeing boat and discover more about the history of Buda (the hilly part of the city to the west) and Pest (pronounced “Pesht,” where much of the day-to-day living and working takes place, to the east). At the House of Terror Museum, we learn about the tragedies that took place here under the fascist and communist regimes. We watch sidewalks, buses and trains fill with residents during Night of the Museums, an annual event during which museums across town open their doors to visitors until 2:30 a.m.

But to truly soak in the city’s culture, we go to the baths. One of Budapest’s nicknames is City of Baths, thanks to the thermal springs that run beneath it. The bath tradition dates back to the Romans but was popularized by the Turks in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Today, there are more than a dozen public baths to choose from. We opt for Széchenyi Baths, in part because men and women bathe together there, and in part because they wear bathing suits (small though they may be).

The 100-year-old bathhouse, which is among the largest public baths in Europe, is in the middle of City Park, set inside a sprawling egg-yolk-yellow complex that looks like a baroque palace. To enter is to step into a maze of Hungarians in Speedos and bikinis, all making their way to 18 pools that run the gamut from frigid to warm, brothlike temperatures.

For the most part, people just sit and soak all day. Some play chess at the outdoor tables. Others have a chat. If you’re lucky, as we were, you might get to see a large group of energetic seniors, gray hair growing strong, laughing raucously while running in a circle in the water to transform a pool into a makeshift whirlpool.

If only I had a waterproof video camera.

A bite of Budapest

Any stereotyped visions I may have had of goulash and paprikash-filled meals are immediately banished after a meal at Kispiac Bisztro. At this small restaurant on a quiet side street, we devour a deliciously light pan-fried fish, a succulent roast chicken, a cold strawberry soup that I’d consider selling my soul for, and a salad that tastes so fresh that it could still be growing in the garden. We have to elbow one another to halt any plate-licking action.

At Robinson Restaurant, which is on an island in the middle of a small lake in City Park, we savor cold cherry yogurt soup, a Caprese salad and a salad with goat cheese and a light vinaigrette — all incredibly fresh and, in a word, incredible.

Though we hadn’t planned it this way, we actually make it out of Hungary without eating any heavy meals, and by avoiding the heartiness, we save plenty of room for gelato — which is everywhere. The frozen confection is much lighter than the gelato I’ve had back in the States, and I wasn’t complaining, considering the heat wave that seemed to arrive with us. It was a refreshing afternoon (and after-dinner) treat.

My favorite gelato place is Gelarto Rosa, which we’d read about online. So, it seemed, had the dozen other people who wait in line ahead of us one night. This isn’t your normal scoop-of-gelato kind of place. Instead, each cone is meticulously (but quickly) filled in the shape of a rose, petal by petal, each gelato color creating a floral-like layer. I opt for pistachio, chocolate and olive oil, creating a lovely earth-tone flower to savor.

From every angle

On our last night in town, we decide to skip the ruin pubs and the bar scene and try out something a bit more mellow: a place called the Cat Cafe. That’s right, a cafe with not just a cat theme, but filled with live cats.

I’d read about the feline-filled lair in a pamphlet in our apartment. Catnip to my imagination, it inspired me to go online, where I learned that cat cafes got their start in Taipei, Taiwan, in 1998. The cat cafe fever spread to Japan, which now has dozens of them. The places cater — of course — to cat lovers, particularly those unable or unwilling to keep a cat of their own. They can come to the cafe for a cup of tea and cuddle away. In Europe, there are cat-feterias (couldn’t resist) also in Vienna and Paris, with another slated to open soon in London. Many cater to purebreds, while others, like this one in Budapest, welcome some of their whiskered residents from area shelters.

This cafe has 14 whiskered residents, to be exact, as the server informs us when we walk into the three-level, window-lined storefront. Then he gives us instructions: “You’ll see there’s antibacterial soap throughout the cafe. Please use it before you touch the cats.” Then, without missing a beat, he adds, “To protect them from germs.”

We grab a table and order drinks, perusing the menu, which offers an impressive variety of small cakes, all shaped like cats. Every so often, a cat will wander past us, aloof. More frequently, patrons will walk into the adjoining room, which is filled with cat trees, mouse toys and scratching posts. It turns out, it’s the same in a cat cafe as in real life: The more you want a cat to pay attention to you, the more it will ignore you.

Let’s just say that some of us don’t get to put the antibacterial cleanser to use.

The server is far more sociable than the felines, and we speak with him at length about Budapest. He asks us in turn about what our home town of Chicago is like, adding that he actually lives in an area not far from the cafe that’s known as “Little Chicago” because of its high crime rate.

We tell him that it’s our last night in town and ask for suggestions on what to do. He tells us of his favorite spot, high on the Buda side of the city, where we can see the best views in town. A few hours later, we find ourselves crossing the green iron Liberty Bridge, from Pest into Buda, where we follow a path up the steep, 460-foot high Gellert Hill, to Liberty Statue. As luck would have it, the summer’s “super moon” is in full force, guiding us through the dark to the top. There, the city splays out before us, a beautiful array of sparkling lights.

Although it’s now past midnight, we’re apparently not the only two who have decided that it’s a good night to climb the hill. All around us, groups of people, young and old, are laughing, sharing beverages, drinking in the beautiful view. It’s as lively up here as it is down below.

As we make our way back down the hill, in love with Budapest from every angle, I think back on what has become, quite surprisingly, one of my favorite cities from all my travels. Though I still have a lot to learn about this place, the visit has been a good primer.

For one thing, I’ve learned to call ahead for a cab. In fact, a driver will be showing up in just a few hours to take us to the airport, and even though he’s taking us three times the distance of the first cab, he’s charging significantly less.

And in the future, I’ll know to find an apartment on a quieter street, or at least on a higher floor. I love Budapest’s unending nightlife, but I don’t need to hear the splash of that urban alarm clock in the morning.

Silver is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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