Don’t let it’s location in the heart of bread and meat country fool you— Hungary may be the land of goulash, but at its heart, goulash is a mixture— and so is the food in Budapest. With a handful of great vegan (and one gluten-free) restaurants, not to mention plenty of takeout Thai, Vietnamese and even Mexican, Budapest was refreshingly veggie-friendly. Also, the city is extremely beautiful, and has a rich, fascinating history— one I had illuminated by two great tour guides. I lucked out, and had two walking tours with two young women whose passions are close to my own heart: telling a city’s sometimes troubled history, with a sense of humor and a deep affection for that place. I’ll also never look at a banana quite the same way again.
My first day, I just wandered around the city (and trying to wake up, after having spent the night on an overnight train.) I found both the Museum of Fine Arts, which in addition to a great collection of Egyptian and 19th century art, had a collection of French poster designer and painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s work on display. After, I grabbed dinner at Atma Cener, which is part yoga studio, part vegan cafe— and had simple but tasty food: a spicy mixture of tofu, beans and veggies in a tomato-based sauce, served with rice. (The curry vegetables I got as take-out were also yummy.)
Back at the hostel, I was talked into a night boat ride along the Danube— and it was so worth it: lovely by day, the city is simply stunning at night. From the city’s massive, and lovely, Parliament Building, to Matthias Church and the many bridges over the river, the view at night is quite breathtaking.
The next day, I had a banana for breakfast, and I made the trek out to Memento Park. After the fall of communism, instead of just smashing all the communist-era statues, the city leaders hauled them out of Budapest to the suburbs (insert joke here) and made an outdoor museum out of them. Glad they didn’t just demolish those statues. I’d read about the absurd size of Soviet-era propaganda statues, but until you’re standing under one, feeling dwarfed by the size, can you truly understand the scale of them— as well as the size of communism’s propaganda.
I lucked out, and there was an English-speaking guide there—and like the park itself, she had a wonderful, sly sense of humor, and the stories from her own life made the history come alive. I think my favorite inside joke was the Lenin statue, which once pointed to the new socialist future, now pointed at the park’s gift shop. (I also knew I was a Detroiter, when after seeing the sky blue Trabant parked out in the sun, and thought if they brought it inside, it would help preserve the paint better.)
Also, it was interesting to get outside of the city, and see more of the suburban side of Budapest: rows of communism-era concrete apartments giving way to the rolling hills of Buda, lovely houses in an eclectic mixture of styles.
For lunch, I found the city’s only all gluten-free restaurant, Köles. It’s buffet-style, and does have both meat and vegetarian dishes, and has a light and airy atmosphere. The food was great— thick lentil soup, potatoes, and salad with slightly spicy dressing.
Bonus: they had gluten-free chocolate banana cake, which was rich and delicious, and the slices of bananas were an interesting compliment to the chocolate.
Seeing as I was on a communist-history kick, I went to the Terror House in the afternoon. Housed in the former headquarters of the secret police, it’s part museum, part memorial, to the victims of WWII and communism. However, I made the mistake of getting the hand-held audio guide. Between that, and the loud Hungarian speeches being played, and the slightly esoteric yet theatrical layout of many of the rooms, I felt really distracted.
When I ditched the audio guide and walked through the museum’s basement, though, I was overwhelmed, but in a different way: they had left many of the concrete cells and chambers the same way they had been during the time of the secret police, but now they had photos and names of the police’s victims. Another room was just a list of names, of those who had fled Hungary during communism, illuminated by only the dim light of Soviet-made hand-held flashlights, a few with stars of David across the light.
It made me understand, really understand, what it meant to be born at this place and time in history— and how lucky that chance was. (After the Terror House, I went straight to the nearest bad, and ordered a drink.)
In the evening, I decided to visit the Széchenyi baths, one of the only traces left of the Turkish rule of the city. Filled from water in thermal springs, there’s two large pools, of different temperatures, and Grecian-looking statues, and water fountains. They feel wonderfully decadent— my favorite was the one light up with lights. (I went at night, since I sunburn easily.)
While walking back, I found a Mexican joint— and also, the best tacos I’ve had in Europe so far. Fresh guacamole, spicy salsa, well seasoned rice and beans— and best of all, corn tortillas. Those tacos so made up for the Mexican food I’ve been missing for months!
On Saturday, I made my way to Matthias Church, which is so interesting architecturally, on other side of the Danube from where I was staying. Crossing the bridge helped me to understand that Budapest was actually once several cities (Buda, Pest, and Obuda). The view from the top of the hill is wonderful— a sweeping look out over the Danube, and the other side of the city.
For lunch, I tried Vegan Eden. It was pretty good- but what I got was too hot for the day: slightly overcooked broccoli tofu quiche, and I had been hoping the potatoes and cauliflower were spicier (the yellow is turmeric, not curry.) However, being the only vegetarian place near the Buda side, near the church and several museums, it was also my best option. Next time, I’d get a salad and sit inside.
Despite the heat, I joined a walking tour in the afternoon, one for the communist history of the city. It was really fascinating. As most of the communist statues were carted off to Memento Park, the tour relied on the tour guides narration, which was excellent and intriguing mix of history, coupled with her own stories, from her families’ history and her own life. There is one communist-era statue left in Budapest (near the American embassy, interestingly) and we also went past the site where a controversial WWII memorial is being built. Her stories about bribing dentists and doctors, and how the country is still struggling after the fall of communism, gave me a better picture of life in Budapest, past the tourist places.
The tour ended at one of the ruin pubs, complete with memorabilia from communism days: a map of the world which was missing the USA; a book for kids about Lenin’s ‘childhood’; and old Hungarian money. The money in Budapest had left me a little baffled— the smallest bill was a 500 forint note— but 500 wasn’t much. A tram ride cost 450 forints, for example. This money was pre-inflation, before the fall of communism sent their economy into a tailspin it has not entirely recovered from yet.
She mentioned a childhood friend who had traveled to the west, to Vienna— and remembered the difference in stores, in what was sold. All the supermarkets had bananas, for example, something that was an impossible to find luxury. After having eaten several bananas in the past several days, I was reminded again of the things I take for granted— like a variety of fresh fruit, and endless vegetarian options. If you go to Budapest, check out the free walking tours.
For dinner, I found an all-vegan place, Napfenyes Étterem. While a lot of the dishes had spelt (sigh) the waiter did offer to have a dish prepared with tofu instead of seitan. It was wonderful: perfectly roasted veggies, served with creamy vegan cheese and chives. (Got some dessert as takeout: coconut millet balls with yogurt sauce, which I ate on the bus ride out of town. Perfect thing after the spicy Thai takeout I had.)
At night, I returned to the baths for a final soak, before getting a drink in one of the ruin pubs. Did I explain the ruin pubs? Under communism, some of the older apartments just weren’t well-maintained, and some were left to fall into extreme disrepair. While not suitable for apartments, or courtyards to kids to play in, they do make interesting bars.
Coming from Detroit, where we have plenty of ruins but haven’t agreed on how to deal with them yet, I found the ruin pubs delightful. You can’t run from your own history. While Detroiters can’t agree on what to do with abandoned houses, and often get very indignant when people show up to photograph our ruins, I found the ruin pubs an fun way to own your city’s past.
On my way out of town, I noticed the walls along highway were painted similar colors to St. Matias’s church.
Hungary held their elections the same day I left Budapest. here’s the future, heading to new places unknown.