It’s been a few years, but we’re finally back in Europe. We arrived in Budapest on December 30th. This is the first time we’ve been to Europe as retirees, and our first trip to Budapest as well. The last time we were on “the Continent” was April 2018, when we spent 10 nights in Paris. Back then, 10 nights seemed like a ridiculously long time to stay in one place. Our perspective has certainly changed in that regard, as we now plan for at least a month at every stop. But some things haven’t changed much. We still like to walk around our city everyday, taking in all of the old Europe vibe.
We picked Budapest for a few reasons. First and foremost, it’s a world class city that we’ve never been to. The winter weather isn’t too harsh, with most days getting above freezing at some point. The air quality is also quite good, even in the winter when many other places suffer. And lastly, it puts us in a good spot to easily get to the Balkans or other European areas that are outside of the Schengen Zone. (As tourists, we can stay 90 days within the Schengen Zone before having to leave for 90 days.)
Traveling During COVID
In order to get to Hungary, we had to have a recent negative PCR test and proof of vaccination. While our negative test was only inquired about during airline check in, I bet we got asked for our vaccination cards four different times, including between getting off the plane and collecting our luggage in Budapest.
The actual travel day we had was a real bear. We were masked up and traveling for about 27 straight hours. We didn’t even have any delays! The worst part was the 7 hour layover in Zurich, but that was the best flight available using our airline miles. The bright spot is that the flights to get us from the US to Budapest cost us a total of $45. We paid almost that much to take the two trains needed to get to the airport in Chicago. Gotta love those airline miles!
Official regulations state that N95 or KN95 masks (or the European equivalent FFP2) are required on all public transit and other indoor public spaces. Compliance is pretty universal from what I’ve noticed. We haven’t had to show our vaccine cards for entry into any museum yet. And it doesn’t appear to be a requirement for restaurants or bars at the moment either, but we haven’t been inside any of them so I can’t speak to that directly. Eating out isn’t a big part of our lifestyle anyways, so we’re holding out for warmer weather and outdoor seating.
Extending Our Stay
I’m not sure whether it was that long travel day, we’re getting old, or maybe just plain old bad luck, but both of us got hit by jet lag super hard. It seemed really weird to me too. I’d be wide awake at 4am after sleeping for 4 hours. But 4am here is 10pm US eastern time, so I should’ve been tired. Whatever the reason, instead of the few days that I expected, it took us a full week to get on a regular schedule.
After about 10 days, we decided that we were enjoying the city enough that we wanted to stay longer. And after that grueling travel day to get here, we weren’t keen to spend hours traveling somewhere else just quite yet. So we booked another month here in Budapest. What follows is just the first part of our Budapest adventure and there will be more to come.
There are dozens of museums scattered throughout the city. This has been amazing, as we both love art museums. It’s also been a long time since we’ve had any available to us, let alone so many. Here are some of the highlights of what we’ve seen so far.
We went to the Ludwig Musuem, which is the modern art museum right on the Danube. I don’t think either of us were that impressed with their permanent collection, but their temporary exhibit called The Time Machine had a number of interesting pieces. The theme was art that looked at time, or the passage of time, in a different context.
The main art museum in the city, the Fine Arts Museum, also had a similar impact on us. Their permanent collection was dwarfed by their temporary exhibit. In this case, they were showcasing Paul Cezanne and the influence he had on several other famous painters like Picasso, Renoir, Monet, and Pissaro. Usually I just admire the paintings, but this exhibit was pretty educational as well.
In the Castle District on the Buda side of Budapest is the Matthias Church. It’s basically a religious art museum. There’s an entry fee and most people are there to look at the artwork inside the church. It’s quite detailed and ornately done, with every section of the walls having some painted pattern.
Lastly, we really enjoyed the Roth Museum, which is a tiny showcase of the works of local artist Miksa Roth. He did work mostly with stained glass and mosaics. The venue is the two story house where he lived and worked. It consists of two rooms of stained glass, two rooms of old furniture, and a single room of mosaics. Because it’s so small, entry only costs about $2.50. The stained glass was quite interesting, but the mosaics were simply outstanding and I was impressed by each of ten on display.
Even though we’re visiting in the middle of winter, it’s so nice to be surrounded by so much green(-ish) space. Whether it’s for the bird watching, dog watching, or just strolling, we never turn down a good park. There are multiple large parks throughout the city and countless smaller ones. It’s such a drastic difference from our time in Southeast Asia where parkland is comparatively quite scarce. Since we’re enjoying them in January, I can just imagine how glorious they would be in the summer months.
We have also been to the Kerepesi Cemetery (also called the Fiume Road Graveyard) a couple of times. This is where many of the famous people from throughout Hungary’s history are buried. We didn’t really know any of them, but their burial sites are impressive nonetheless. It’s an interesting place to walk through, as there are multiple different types of cemeteries within the one space. There are giant mausoleums, exquisitely manicured stones, regimented military plots, and even parts where it seems like they’ve been left for the earth to reclaim them. The free guide map compares it to the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, and while that may be a bit of a stretch, it’s at least in the same league.
There are so many cool old buildings around. It makes walking around the city very enjoyable. I realize this isn’t unique to Budapest, but it doesn’t make it any less fun. They do like to decorate their rooftop shingles or tiles in a way that’s new to me. It turns a regular neat building into something to really marvel at. I have a bunch more of these pictures, but I’m saving them up to use in a separate post so you’ll just have to read that one once it’s done. Here’s a quick taste though.
The Baked Goods
I can barely get enough of the delicious baked goods around here. Whether that’s a great loaf of fresh bread or a mouth-watering pastry, we are constantly buying something. Luckily, they are super cheap, usually costing about $1. Sometimes we’ll deliberately eat a light breakfast so that we have a good excuse to stop for a pastry while out and about.
The Budapest signature pastry is the kakaós csiga and it’s available everywhere. That translates to Cocoa Snail or Chocolate Swirl and it’s for sale in every grocery store, bakery, or coffee shop in the entire city. It’s made with cocoa powder only, not actual chocolate, so it’s not overly sweet or chocolatey. But there are so many different varieties of delicious pastries available, it’s hard to not mix it up.
Hungary has a local type of schnapps called Pálinka. Although when I think of schnapps, I tend to think of the cloyingly sweet De Kuyper Peachtree Schnapps. Pálinka is not like that at all. It’s a fruit brandy, usually made with pears, plums, cherries, or apples. It’s not sweet and has a nice touch of the fruit flavor, but it’s subtle. The guides say to serve it chilled, but not cold, and in a snifter glass. I tried the recommended way, but found my preference is to just fill a shot glass right out of the fridge. It’s a good sipper that way and a nice way to warm up a bit in the winter.
We’re pretty skilled at getting things we need in foreign lands, but it’s not always seamless. We decided we were going to have pasta one night, so to assist in making it delicious, we bought a jar of capers. Only our capers turned out to be cooked peas. Oops! Not wanting them to go to waste, Katie turned them into mushy peas by adding some lemon juice and salt and we spread them on toast. That’s not something we’re likely to repeat. And the next time we went to the store, we paid much closer attention and bought actual capers.
The local butternut squashes are the biggest ones I’ve ever seen in my life. At first I thought it was a fluke, so I kept holding out for smaller ones, but every single store we went in had only the giant ones available. When I finally gave in and decided to just buy a huge one, all of a sudden every store was sold out. It went from bins of giant butternuts to none anywhere in like a week. After a thorough search of about 7 different grocery stores, we finally found them for sale again. So naturally, I bought two. They ended up weighing in at 6.8 kilograms, or 15 pounds. Wow!
Where We Stayed
With COVID still being a major travel impediment and travel restrictions popping up at short notice, we didn’t want to book too far ahead. In this case, the lack of advance booking may have limited our selection. Our scheduled arrival was on December 30th, and we were planning to stay for 30 days. It seemed like most of the places we’d normally stay at were booked over New Year’s. So even though they were unrented for almost all of January, they weren’t available to us. There were a number of lofts we could have chosen, but I don’t really like the idea of climbing steep stairs (or worse a ladder) when nature calls in the middle of the night.
As such, we stuck to the places that fit our needs, even if it meant a higher price tag than we would normally pay. The apartment we ended up booking was in a quiet neighborhood on the Pest side, about a 30-40 minute walk to downtown. Are you sitting down? We paid $1537 for this month-long stay, which is by far the most we’ve ever paid for an apartment. It was a nice place to stay, but it wasn’t a good deal. Don’t worry, we got better value for our second month.
Two days before we were scheduled to move out of our first apartment, we decided to try ice skating. There are a number of small ice rinks set up around town, but the main one is right next to the famous Heroes Square. It’s a glamorous and romantic setting.
Neither of us have been ice skating in decades, but I figured it was like riding a bike. Everyone else was doing it all over the city and it looked like fun. And it was, for a bit. That was until Katie fell and tried to break that fall with her wrist. It swelled up very fast, so I knew it was bad.
We scheduled an appointment with a well-rated private clinic for the next day. There she met with the doctor, got two X-rays, and yes, a cast. Katie has a fractured bone in her wrist and is supposed to be in a cast for the next 6 weeks. Ugh! All totaled the doctor’s fee, X-rays, and cast cost a total of $293. She was very happy with the service she received, and of course it came at a much cheaper price than the US.
So I guess the moral of the story is that if you’re going to go ice skating, make sure you’re in Europe and not leaving town anytime soon.