6 things you’ll miss as a first-time traveler to Budapest
Guided by only the ‘must-see’ agenda listed in their guidebooks, tourists and backpackers miss out on a lot — especially since most visitors only give the Hungarian capital a weekend or a few days at best. Here’s what you’re probably not going to see.
1. Hidden courtyards and passages
The buildings in downtown Pest mostly date back to the end of the 19th and the early 20th century. Once you step through the front door you enter a spacious courtyard that belongs to another world, where old ladies sweep the yard and glare at you with suspicion, the smell of home cooking wafts down, and the sound of Hungarian television blasts from above. You’ll get a taste for these courtyards in most of Budapest’s “ruin pubs,” where apartment complexes have been recycled into hip watering holes, or perhaps even your hotel has one, but they’re only a shadow of the real thing, and it’s not the same as sneaking through an open door you pass by in the street.
Some of the larger buildings connect between two streets. One of the most interesting of these to sneak into is the “Könyvudvar” (Book Courtyard), officially named the Unger House, which connects the Small Boulevard (Múzeum körút) with Magyar Street. You’ll find a secondhand bookshop here. Other connecting passageways I’ve discovered on my walks lie in the courtyard between Petőfi Sándor Street and Városház Street in the V District, and between Somogyi Béla Street and the Grand Boulevard. Once you start exploring, you’ll want to go inside every open doorway you see on your daytime walks.
2. The Palace District
Not to be confused with the Castle District up in Buda, the Palace District is a part of the VIII District lying between the Grand and Small Boulevards. The VIII District has a reputation for being rundown and unsavoury, but the Palace District has seen a fair bit of gentrification, not to mention it houses grand apartments and palaces in the 19th Square near the National Museum, past the neo-baroque façade of the Szabó Ervin Library on Baross Street, past outdoor cafés up to Mikszáth Kálmán Square, where you’ll see students sitting on the benches with piles of books, studying outdoors.
The Palace District is rich with literary history, like local Pál Street, which plays the title role in the Hungarian children’s classic Pál Utcai Fiúk (“Pál Street Boys”) by Ferenc Molnár. At the beginning of the 20th century, the area was also known as the Hungarian Latin Quarter, home to Budapest’s bohemian collective of artists and writers rich in talent and poor in coin. Take a walk around Bródy Sándor Street over to Baross Street behind the museum to sample some of Hungary’s literary history.
3. The cinemas
Budapest has some of the most interesting and beautiful cinemas you’re likely to come across. You’ll still find large multiplexes in modern glass-coated malls, but some of the arthouses are little palaces of beauty worth visiting in their own right. The Uránia Cinema is perhaps the most famous of the bunch, with its neo-oriental and Indian design. Velvet upholstery coats the seats, and chandeliers shine onto gilded walls — it feels like a sacrilege to munch on popcorn here.
With its eclectic mosaics and mish-mashed artwork, the Művész Cinema feels like the child of Antoní Gaudí on first glance. However, each screen-room here is designed in tribute to an esteemed arthouse director, so you’ll find cinematic rooms with a Tarkovsky theme or a Bruñel one.
A local curiosity, the Cirkó Gejzír claims the title of being the smallest cinema in Europe. This arthouse shows a selection of films ranging from arty flicks to documentaries to movie-festival screenings.
4. “Room escape games”
Chances are you’ll pass one of these in a ruin bar or even on a walk around the VII District and not know what it is, but room escape games have spread all over Budapest’s abandoned basements and dilapidated bars, and they’re an amazing experience. You and a group of friends get locked inside a room, or a network of rooms, and you have to solve a series of logic puzzles to get out. Think of a cross between the Crystal Maze and Saw — only without anyone getting hurt.
Claustrophilia is the most famous game, but there are other places worth checking out, such as the Escape House, TRAP, and Exit Point. Most places will offer games in English if booked in advance.
5. Nightlife beyond Szimpla
Tourists make a beeline for Szimpla Kert or similar ruin pubs like Instant or Fogas Ház, but the truth is there’s just so much more to Budapest than the big three. The ruin pub phenomenon is interesting, in that you’ll find whole abandoned and decaying apartment complexes that’ve been converted into a surreal wonderland of bars. It’s easy to see why Szimpla draws in the crowds, but, especially on the weekend, it’s overcrowded, over-priced, and you won’t meet any locals there — except during the Sunday morning farmers market, which is worth the visit.
Other ruin pubs, like Élesztő in the IX District, a ruin pub and a microbrewery rolled into one, or Super 8, with its Alice in Wonderland aesthetic, apparently a favourite of David Lynch, often get overlooked in favour of the bachelor party hangouts.
There are also more interesting places to drink that aren’t classically ruin pubs. Kis Üzem in Klauzál Square is a hive of alternative activity, housing a gallery space, a grungy clientele, and good prices, whereas nearby Vittula has become an institution in Budapest’s nightlife, with its squat-like basement, loyal alternative crowd, low prices, and punk-rock familial atmosphere.
After most bars close, Piaf, a small after-hours club across the road from Instant, is just getting started. On weekends, people flock in drunk to watch a faded operetta star dressed in sequins singing Edith Piaf covers, while cheap booze flows freely in what looks like a dodgy bordello with candles set out on low tables and velvet drapes hanging from the ceiling, but Piaf is an icon in Budapest’s nightlife. You have to ring the doorbell, and the staff will decide whether to let you in or not. Famous people have made it over here in the late night, from the King of Spain to Bon Jovi to Omar Sharif.
6. The Wekerle Estate
Towards the airport, in what looks like an industrial wasteland, lies a secret community. The Wekerle Estate was founded at the end of the 19th century as part of the Garden Cities project. The estate converges at Kós Károly Square, named after the leading architect of the project. The houses here look like something out of Transylvania, with pointed, angled roofs, wooden gables, large arches, and gothic-looking houses. The neighbourhood is sleepy but comes to life with families filling up the playgrounds in the park at the geographic centre and locals out walking their dogs or taking a coffee in the local café overlooking the square.
The community history of the area is particularly interesting, since it began as a self-contained urban commune and green space that eventually became a bubble inside the expansion of the Hungarian capital.