Budapest Rebounds

By Cameron Hewitt

New Yorkers — I mean the dyed-in-the-wool, old-school, real New Yawkers — are fiercely loyal to their city, in good times and bad. Sure, today it’s all family-friendly Times Square and trendy Tribeca eateries and artsy-hipster Brooklyn. But I remember a time when Times Square was one big seedy sex shop, muggers outnumbered tourists on the subway, and the city was hard to love. And yet, New Yorkers cling to a strange nostalgia for that old, unlovable metropolis.

I have a similar nostalgia for Budapest. It’s easy to be head-over heels for Budapest these days:

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But on my first visit, in 1999, the story was very different. Budapest was grimy and intimidating. Hulking, soot-covered buildings loomed over exhaust-choked highways. Everything was dirty. And the people — with their bushy mustaches and impenetrable language — seemed gruff and shell-shocked.

Only after returning home did I realize that, of all the places I visited on that trip, Budapest had really gotten under my skin. It wasn’t just that Budapest had “potential.” It was a great city all along. It was just going through a rough patch — and you had to work a little harder to appreciate its greatness.

That trip began my love affair with Budapest, which continued as I began to guide Rick Steves tours there, and researched and wrote the Rick Steves Eastern Europe and Rick Steves Budapest guidebooks. I found Budapest unique in how, no matter how often or how long I visited, I always left wanting more. With each visit, my Budapest “to do” list got longer, not shorter. It still does.

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After a few visits, I began to relish the little slices of Budapest life. I got giddy walking through the grimy underpasses that sprawl beneath major intersections. Each one was a thriving delta of infrastructure where the subway system flowed up broken escalators into snarls of trams, buses, and cars. Standing still in a mosh pit of commuters, I was surrounded by ramshackle food stalls, panhandlers, and confusing signage…a happy ant in a busy anthill. Inhaling a pungent mix of sweet pastries, diesel-tinged subway exhaust, and stale urine, I felt alive in a way that only travel makes you feel.

I’ve long used Budapest as my barometer of someone’s travel chops. If a person is turned off by Budapest…well, I’m not saying they’re a “bad traveler.” I’m just saying I probably won’t plan a trip with them. But if someone comes back from Budapest raving, I know we’re in sync. I remember once, co-leading a tour with a Czech guide who was born and raised in Prague, I finally confessed: “You know, I like Prague, but I have to admit…I like Budapest even more.” “Of course!” he said, without hesitation. “Of course you do. I do, too.”

But the Budapest litmus test is less useful than it once was. Budapest has fully transformed itself. Once a diamond in the rough, today the city is a sparkling gem. Grandiose, late-19th-century architecture has been scrubbed of grime and returned to greatness. Check out these images — taken just a few years apart — of the glorious Széchenyi Baths complex in City Park:

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Back on my early visits, even the city’s “showcase” walking and shopping street, Váci utca, was pretty glum:

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But today — while it’s so thronged with tourists that I can barely stand to go there — at least it’s gorgeous:

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At the same time, the transit system has been overhauled, revamping the old metro stations and building several new, futuristic ones.

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Those seedy underpasses? They’ve been fully renovated. International chains have elbowed out the mom-and-pop vendors, and the signage is now crystal clear. (But deep down, I miss the old chaos.)

Meanwhile, the city has undertaken an ambitious master plan (funded largely by the EU…are you paying attention, Brexiters?) to re-surface and pedestrianize many formerly car-clogged streets and squares in the city center. It has been a smashing success.

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And Budapest’s stately Parliament building — once surrounded by a ramshackle square of broken concrete, overgrown parks, and ragtag monuments — has been polished and completely relandscaped, leaving it gleaming. Before:

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After:

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It’s clear: Budapest — so hard to love for so long — is finally coming into its own. And, while I may miss some of its old rough edges, there’s no doubt that today’s Budapest is a city that anyone can (and should) enjoy. My next few posts will introduce you to various facets — beyond the obvious tourist traps — of my favorite European capital. It has some of Europe’s best nightlife, bars, cafés, and creative ways to simply hang out. It’s the undisputed best foodie city in Eastern Europe (and, for me, is one of the best in all of Europe). Its thermal bath culture is a prefect mix of relaxing and culturally enlightening. And its current political reality is fascinating and instructive.

Stay tuned…and prepare to be surprised by one of travel’s best-kept secrets.

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