Trying to Put My Finger on Why I Didn’t Gel With Budapest

Trying to Put My Finger on Why I Didn’t Gel With Budapest

Budapest or Prague. After three nights in Berlin, we knew we wanted to get a taste of Eastern Europe, so we narrowed our choices down to either Budapest or Prague. Jave was pro-Prague, I believe for no reason in particular. He simply liked the idea of visiting the Czech Republic. I, on the other hand, was rooting for visiting Budapest because every article and blog post that I’d read about the city had nothing but positive things to say. Based on everything I read about the two cities, I got the impression that Budapest would be more authentic, the locals would be less jaded by tourists and therefore nicer, and that the cuisine would be more impressive.  After sharing several pictures and reviews of Budapest with Jave, my power of persuasion won him over, and we booked our airfare to Hungary’s capital.

The city greeted us with rain and gloom as we were driven to our hotel. Two businessmen sharing our shuttle were dropped off at their hotel not too far from the airport in an area that looked like it was still in the midst of Communism. Colors were muted, windows were boarded, faces looked solemn. There was something oppressive about the atmosphere. I chalked it up to the weather and prayed that our hotel would hold true to reviews and be better situated. Thankfully, it was.

But the mood during our stay in Budapest didn’t change. Don’t get me wrong – the locals were lovely. Quick to point us in the right direction, warm, and very friendly. Also, Budapest truly is as marvelous as it looks in pictures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still, I couldn’t seem to shake the feeling that there was a drab cloud looming over our heads in Budapest. It’s hard to explain, but even when the weather brightened and warmed, Budapest seemed to have a poignant undercurrent of sadness, perhaps stemming from its turbulent history which was especially marred by WWII and its Communist regime.

 

 

This Communist era building is right next door to the contemporary style Four Seasons pictured below
This Communist era building is right next door to the contemporary style Four Seasons pictured below

 

The Four Seasons
The Four Seasons

Budapest also has an eeriness factor which I think is due in large part to its Neo-Gothic architecture and its lack of light. Walking around the busy main streets and the residential streets at night, I had an uncanny sense of being on the set of a vampire flick. We frequently passed buildings whose windows were completely darkened without even a glimmer of light, and as I looked up into the windows, I couldn’t help but wonder who lives in those impenetrable buildings.

Vörösmarty tér
Vörösmarty tér

 

One night following dinner at a restaurant in a residential area, as we made our way back to the busy main street to catch the metro, the blackened windows really stood out. With the exception of lit street lamps, as far as we could tell from our vantage point, there weren’t any lights on in any of the apartment buildings – no visible living room lights on or faint lighting streaming from televisions, no entrance lights on to welcome guests or residents home, not a glint of a bedside lamp. There were absolutely no lights on in any of the buildings! It was rather odd.

Underground in the Budapest Metro, the oldest electric railway in Europe and the second oldest in the world
Underground in the Budapest Metro, the oldest electric railway in Europe and the second oldest in the world

As we took the stairs down into a nearby metro station, before we could make it all the way down, we heard a man speaking in a very harsh tone followed by the sound of a woman sobbing and saying, “No, no.” My ears perked up and my heart skipped a beat. Something wasn’t right. I didn’t know what was going on down in that metro station, but I knew that we weren’t going to walk down there and find out. A local man who’d been walking down the stairs next to us continued down as we turned back, but a few seconds later, he quickly reemerged. I trusted my instincts, and they hadn’t mislead us as evidenced by the shocked look on the man’s face as he ran back up the stairs.

“Another metro this way, this way,” he told us in broken English as he headed in the same direction he was pointing towards. Feeling disoriented, we instead chose to hire a taxi parked nearby. When our fare jumped from 800 to 4,000 Forint in a matter of blocks with still several blocks to go before reaching our hotel, we were livid. We demanded the driver to stop, paid him, and walked the rest of the way; fortunately, we didn’t have far to walk.

While I wouldn’t dare draw conclusions about Budapest based on these incidents alone, they certainly added to the shadowy spirit of the city.

Chicken paprikash
Chicken paprikash

Knowing that a good meal can bring solace and add flavor to any somber scene, Jave and I were hoping that Hungarian cuisine would be the climax of our impressions of Budapest. While Hungarians know how to make a mean dessert – from sweet lángos to Esterházy cake – Jave and I were underwhelmed by our meals in Budapest.

We genuinely looked forward to indulging in some good food, so prior to our trip, I carefully read reviews in hopes of eating some of the best dishes at some of the best restaurants the city has to offer. We were eager to try authentic dishes like chicken paprikash accented with creamy tejföl, soft dumplings, and of course the ever-popular goulash. But in spite of Hungarian foods’ hodgepodge of flavors from Austria, Germany, Italy, and France with Ottoman and Slavic influences, we found the flavors to be lackluster. Despite its great promise, we found little comfort in Hungarian cuisine.

Goulash
Goulash

As travelers, I suppose that our ability to click with certain destinations isn’t much different from our ability to click with certain personalities: you either instantly know that you’ll become fast friends or you sense that you’re going to clash. The interactions between the destination and the traveler – our interactions with Budapest – were “cordial” at best.

 

It was a forced synergy that lacked genuineness and left us unable to penetrate beneath the city’s beautiful, albeit dismal, surface. Our time in Budapest felt like: okay, we’re here on the dance floor and though we can’t seem to catch the rhythm, let’s make the best of it and dance anyway. But we never really got into a groove there. Our sentiments for Budapest definitely don’t compare to our affection for Copenhagen, Istanbul, Vancouver, or Avignon – cities where our connections were forged instantly and indelibly.

While I don’t at all regret going to Budapest, maybe Jave was right after all. Maybe we should’ve gone to Prague.

I want to hear from you – have you ever been unable to gel with a destination? Please share your experience. 

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  • HB

    Im a little late reading this post, but I can totally relate! I just got back from visiting Budapest as well as Prague and Krakow. I just had to google search if others also felt how I felt because I was also told how great Budapest is and my hopes were high as well but my opinion after visiting is so different than most visitors. I wish I wasnt so let down I wanted to love it. But yah, it feels sad and I even visited in September not winter. People dont smile much and arent as open and welcoming. It was much more cosmopolitan and modern and not as charming and quaint as I had imagined. There were many dirty areas with many homeless people. Almost reminded me a little of New York. There tons of great places to eat and drink. But I was expecting a more european vibe which I didnt feel. Prague is so fairytale-ish with an old world charm, its clean and beautiful every where you look. Even though the people In Prague also arent super welcoming or friendly to tourists I still had an amazing time there and better experience than Budapest.

  • Lynn Yocum

    Currently on my second trip to Budapest. While I love it here, I totally get what you are saying.

  • Legendary Budapest

    Hi Dana, I’m really sorry that you had a bad experience. Budapest, like any other tourist destination has tourist traps, unfortunately it seems like you fell into the classic ones (transportation, taxi, restaurants). Your experience proves that a city just cannot be understood and known through guidebooks and travelogues.
    I hope you’ll give another chance to this otherwise enchanting city, and when you do, please contact me, so I can give you a local insight, for you guys of course free of charge! 😉
    Cheers, Peter

    • Hi Peter! The great and unexpected thing about this blog post is that it’s prompted a few locals like you to offer to show us around your beautiful city the next time we’re in town. I believe in second chances and Budapest is no exception, so I’ll definitely take you up on your offer whenever my travels lead us back to Hungary. Thanks for reading!

  • I love this post as I feel this now and again about cities other people really like. I connected really well with Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Berlin but I didn’t really gel with Paris or Prague (although I think bad weather definitely didn’t help)!

    • Dana Carmel

      I definitely think weather can be a huge factor in how you experience a destination. I hope to give Prague a shot someday soon!

  • Hi Dana, sorry that you didn’t gel with Budapest. Maybe the winter energy just kind of drag? I went in summertime and I found it very lively. I did like it but didn’t fall in love with it like I did with Prague. Which place didn’t gel with me? I say India – and it came as a big surprise to me. I was deep into yoga and meditation and I expected that a visit in India would touch me to the core. But nada. I didn’t feel any sprinkle of spiritual or any kind of connection. I guess it was because didn’t get over the initial shock and being overwhelmed by its intensity througout the trip. With all the crazy travelinga that I’ve done nothing prepared me to the intensity of india. But I’m willing to give it a second chance.

    • Dana Carmel

      I’m hoping that Prague will be one of those cities I fall in love with. It’s funny how we sometimes set our expectations about a destination only to find that our actual experience there is off base. As someone who loves yoga/meditation, it’s interesting that you didn’t gel with India. I haven’t been to India yet, but I’ve heard and seen stories about all of the chaos there – I guess it just goes with the territory. Glad to know that you’re willing to give it a second shot though!

  • I haven’t been to Budapest, but from your pictures it sure looks creepy! I had goulash in Austria more than once, and while sometimes it was delicious, other times it was so so. I guess it depends from where you have it! I still prefer a nice past though, ahahahah!

    • Dana Carmel

      Definitely give Budapest a shot. As I mentioned, most people seem to love it. I guess I’m just the oddball who didn’t fall for the city. 😉

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  • Yikes! I’m sorry to hear that you didn’t gel with Budapest. My husband and l noticed the same thing about the residential areas, with the no lights. We finally discovered that most were office buildings with the lights shut off at night. It’s kind of weird to have all these office buildings next to apartment buildings. We are actually headed back there end of June for 10 days this time to explore some more. The subway story sounds terrifying. Knowing my husband, l would practically have had to sit on him to stop him from going down those stairs!!! But l would have done it. I’ve never been to Prague, but it’s definitely on our list as well. I just wrote a post about Amsterdam. I just felt it was okay…maybe l had too much of a high expectation. Great photos! Really captured the mood you described.

    • Dana Carmel

      Ooohhh…office buildings in residential areas would certainly explain the lack of lighting. That’s so odd though! I hope you enjoy your time back in Budapest. And it’s interesting that you were lukewarm on Amsterdam. I’m going to check out your post…

  • I’m really sorry to hear that you didn’t like Budapest as much as you were planning, but I guess it you could get back here in summer you would fall in love with it! Your photos are amazing. They really make me wanna go there right now! So much like Prague! 🙂

    • Dana Carmel

      Although it was cold during our visit, for the most part, the sun was out and the weather was nice. Still, I’d definitely be curious to return in the summer or early fall and compare. Glad you like my photos! 😉

  • I’ve been to both Prague http://farfromkansas.blogspot.com/2012/01/prague.html and Budapest (during a heat wave!) http://farfromkansas.blogspot.com/2012/08/hot-in-budapest.html and definitely liked Prague better. It was smaller and more quaint and prettier. Although I didn’t dislike Budapest it was big (sprawling) and more modern and just had a very different feel compared to Prague. Hopefully you’ll get the chance to check out Prague some day. I highly recommend it!

    • Dana Carmel

      From the looks of your pictures, it seems like you had a more well-rounded experience in Prague. I’m definitely going to Prague one of these days, and I’m also willing to give Budapest another chance.

  • Too bad you did not get the best experience in Budapest, but iv enjoyed reading the post (dark windows, impenetrable buildings, vampires and all). Nice photos, the city looks beautiful too.

    • Dana Carmel

      Thanks, Rachel. The city is absolutely gorgeous – there’s no denying that!

  • Oh my the metro bit sounded like a real horror story and a horrible situation and thankfully you guys were safe! But the photos are really beautiful and the views amazing! You never know, the underground metro in Prague could be a dangerous place too… Eastern Europe does have its charm but I don’t think it’s very safe at night…

    • Dana Carmel

      So true, Rosemarie – there’s no guarantee that Prague would’ve been any better. Budapest is a gorgeous city and it does have a lot of positive attributes. Still, it’s funny how we sometimes just don’t click with certain places.

  • Oh no. I’m dying to plan my trip to Budapest. But I really feel that you can have a good or bad experience anywhere, it just depends on the events of the day and how your feeling.

    • Dana Carmel

      It wasn’t so much the experiences we had in Budapest, but it was the mood of the city that kind of affected me in a negative way. But I’m hoping that you’ll fall in love with the city as most people seem to do. I’m definitely open to giving Budapest a second shot if that’s any consolation.

  • That’s how I feel about Washington D.C. I just don’t jive with it, at all. Sometimes there doesn’t even have to be a reason (although the incidents you encountered would make me feel the same way about Budapest!). But you should definitely check out Prague next time! In spite of their Communist past, personally I didn’t feel like it hung over the city. We spent all our time in the old town, though, which doesn’t have much Communist-style architecture.

    • Dana Carmel

      I definitely want to go to Prague. Like Budapest, I’ve heard such great things about the city. Funny how you don’t like D.C. – I actually really enjoy D.C. except for the traffic and extreme cold. But that’s how certain destinations are I suppose.

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