It is a quiet, cold and foggy morning in Budapest when we set out for our first day sightseeing. Our first stop: The Buda Castle, Budapest’s most famous sight sits at the Buda side of town.
This part of the city is the oldest and there is no doubt about it: While you are strolling through the old town you truly get the feeling that you’re taking a step back in time. Only the modern cars parked in front of the charming, pastel-colored buildings give away that it actually is the 21st century.
We really enjoyed our day of sightseeing in Budapest, but it felt like something was missing.
What sets Budapest apart from other cities in Europe?
Because sure, Budapest is a beautiful city. The Buda Castle is stunning and so is the Parliament building. But at times, while you are walking around the city, it seems easy to forget where you actually are.
It could be Budapest; it could be Prague, Bucharest or any other city in Eastern Europe. I am struggling to see what makes Budapest unique.
As I should have expected, to get a true feeling of what the city is like, I had to enter Budapest’ nightlife. Szimpla Kert is the place to be. You do not have to take my word for it. Pretty much every travel guide ever written mentions this bar.
Struggling to find Budapest’s true identity, I entered one of the city’s famous ruin bars.
Hidden in an abandoned building, I discovered what makes the city unique.
The concept is simple but successful: old abandoned buildings are given a second life by turning them into bars. This brilliant idea shows what Budapest is particularly good at: taking the old and turning it into a new hotspot. The bar’s decoration is a mix that looks thrown together out of a thrift shop but still manages to give the place a modern feel.
A small spiral staircase brings you to the first floor where you will find more bars and even a pop-up tattoo store. Szimpla Kert feels and looks like a couple of different bars put together into one just like Budapest feels like a few different cities all in one.
Szimpla Kert even started a trend and now there’s even a website that directs travelers to ruin bars across the city, which feature cool outdoor spaces and cheap beer. Everything you need, in other words.
Still, we had mixed expectations.
This bar had to be good, right?
But at the same time, we were expecting a bar filled with tourists and overpriced cocktails. The drinks were a bit on the expensive side, but the bar was a whole lot cooler than we expected it to be.
Really: go check this place out!
We later discover that this clash between old and new is part of Budapest’s charm. In just one city trip it feels like you are visiting two cities rather than one. There is the old town Buda, filled with gorgeous churches and beautiful old castles, and Pest, where you will find chain restaurants, international fashion houses and tourist traps on every street corner.
The Donau River breaks the two very different parts of the city apart. Just a short walk over the Chain Bridge takes you from the old town to the modern city center that awaits at the other side of the river.
Both sides of the city feature some great sights. On the Buda side, there is the castle, the colorful Matthias Church and the Gellért Hill from where you can enjoy a great view over the city. While Pest is the newer part of town, it is still an old city with great architecture that dates back more than a century.
If you only have a limited amount of time to see Budapest, make sure to pay a visit to Szimpla Kert.
However, there is more to Budapest than just its vibrant nightlife. Before you hit the ruin bars, check out the ice skating rink in the city park, preferably at night. The Vajdahunyad Castle lights up at night and makes for the most amazing backdrop.
You will get to see both sides of the city while cruising over the river that flows through the heart of Budapest.
About the author: Willeke van Doorn is a journalism student at Fontys University of Applied Sciences in Tilburg.
Her experience includes an internship at National Geographic Traveler in Amsterdam.