By Fergus Efe O’Donoghue
Budapest is a city that captures the imagination of many. From student partygoers to adult couples, the city has a reputation for just being a great place to be. As you read this, it’s likely that you stopped for a moment and thought: ‘oh yeah, Budapest, I should really go sometime’, maybe thinking back to that time you and a few friends said you should definitely go next year. Or, maybe you’ve never given the city a second thought. Either way, Budapest has got a lot to offer.
First thing’s first, there’s Sziget Festival. I started my journey to Budapest three months before I arrived, when I booked a prefab tent on Obuda Island.
Sziget Festival, meaning Island Festival, started in 1993 after the Communists in Hungary fell. Budapest had been host to a lively summer festival until then, but when the government and its Soviet supports collapsed, funding was cut and the tradition went under. A group of students eventually emerged and started this new festival on the entirety of 266-acre Obuda Island, located in the Danube river which runs straight through Budapest. They made a massive loss, only making the money back in 1997, by which time they were sponsored by Pepsi, but continued with an annual festival until then. Today the festival is 7 days long and hugely popular- last year it drew in 565,000 people over its course! The festival tends to be a mashup of everything from rap, to rock, to soul, to techno – but with a bit of a focus on rock.
It was a wild seven days. At the start, I was proudly strutting about in my bucket hat, floral shirt, boots and shorts; by the end of it, I looked like a Mad Max drifter, shuffling around in the kicked-up dust storm, with welding goggles and a bandana over my mouth. There were flags of every country (and some that don’t exist), fun and games of every kind, and people in all states of self-destruction. I would highly, highly recommend Sziget Festival.
The nightlife back in the city isn’t half bad either. By our standards, alcohol is cheap and of generally good quality – if you want to be brave, try Unicum, an old Hungarian Jaegermeister-type drink, or help yourself to the distinct Hungarian Tokaj wines (I liked the Yellow Muscat). The bars you’ll probably hear mention of the most are the Ruin Bars, of which Szimpla is the most popular. They’re quite different, quirky-looking bars in the centre of the city, which simultaneously manage to feel hipster and ghetto. Some places I didn’t notice many tourists at, though, were the riverside bars near the parliament building. A local friend took me there, and, sure enough, the citizens of Budapest were laughing, shouting, drinking, and doubling over in underpasses – great craic altogether. What I will say, is that if you want to enjoy the nightlife in the city, it seems like you need to be with a group of people or friends to begin with.
Another reason to consider going in time for Sziget is the City Pass, which you can get at the airport once you’ve landed for a separate fee. It gives you free access to the buses in the city, as well as discounts for all kinds of museums and venues, and a day pass in a spa (which became an invaluable mid-Sziget break). Go see some Hungarian traditional dancing near the Jewish Quarter, and definitely go to Buda Castle. A complex on a hilltop, overlooking the entire city, there are fantastic views to be had here and some very, very thorough museums too (with great gift shops). There, I heard a commotion in the distance behind me, and walked over to catch the changing of the guard for the President’s office. Tall soldiers in chic 20th–century military apparel marched and put on a quick show with their rifles, as the crowd watched on. Their uniforms had a stunning resemblance to those worn by the Brownshirts.
And finally, the food is incredible… It helps that paprika makes everything taste better. Even chain–store pizzas tasted so much better! I would guarantee you that there are great places to dine anywhere you happen to be, and for affordable prices at that. In my four days in the city after Sziget, I stayed in a hotel right across the street from a place called Matula Bistro, which my friend and I haunted every evening. It’s a small bistro that serves traditional food, from the basics of goulash (stew) and fried cheese, to exotic and delicious foods like mushroom soup with chopped almonds and a hardboiled quail egg. In the mornings after our bistro meal, still sedated, we would sometimes go to the nearby ‘bubo’ for a similarly nirvanic brunch.