On a drizzly mid-January evening, I stood at the arches of the wall of Buda Castle, overlooking the Danube and the 19th-century Chain Bridge that links Buda with Pest. Beyond the bridge, the mist turned the Hungarian parliament into a glowworm.
My friend Eliza Muto, who studies and lives on the Pest side and had joined me for the walk, told me that the spot where we were standing becomes a crowded cafe in the warm weather. In other words, if it weren’t winter, I’d have been waiting — and paying — for the same view. Worse, I’d be alone. In the summer, Eliza refuses to come to Buda at all: too many tourists.
I’m with her. I like European cities best in the cold weather, when the exuberance of flowering gardens and buzzing outdoor cafes cedes to a melancholy of skeletal trees and gloomy skies. It’s a bit like peeking backstage after a Broadway show, when the crowds are gone and the actors can revert to their make-up-free selves.
But not all European cities are bargains, even in winter. The cost of a hostel bed in London could get me a lovely high-season hotel room in Guatemala.
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Still, with a budget goal of about $100 a day — flophouse and fish-and-chips territory in London — I spent what were, at least for me, a luxurious three days in Budapest, ordering appetizers and dessert without guilt, getting doses of local culture both high and low, and staying in a hotel that bills itself as “luxury boutique.” I practically didn’t recognize myself.
The hotel, recommended by another friend, Neil Barnett, who had lived a decade in Budapest, was the Mamaison Hotel Andrassy
on tony Andrassy Avenue; my huge, well-appointed room was just 14,000 forints (about $65 at 216 forints to the dollar) a day. A weekly transit pass set me back 4,950 forints, leaving me about 6,100 forints a day, about $28, for everything else. And yet, with the exception of one moment of largesse, I made my budgetary goal.
Luxury, of course, does not require unnecessary extravagance. When choosing which of Budapest’s thermal baths I would relax in, I eschewed more famous options for the relatively unknown Veli Bej Baths (irgalmas.hu/veli-bej-furdo), set under Ottoman-era cupolas and a bargain at 2,800 forints. When purchasing tickets at the Hungarian State Opera House (opera.hu/en), I turned down the 11,500-forint orchestra seats for “The Bat,” Johann Strauss’ farcical operetta; my 4,500-forint seat provided fine views of both the show, presented in Hungarian, and the gilded grandeur of the space.
Hungarian cuisine isn’t the biggest draw the city has to offer, though at the higher end it has come a long way in recent years, so I decided to aim for an all-Hungarian diet during my visit, testing whether that improvement is evident on a more budget-friendly level. Another friend, Nicolas Braun, a French teacher who is half-Hungarian, gathered a group to go to Frici Papa Kifozdeje
, a no-frills comfort food restaurant, with a vast menu of classics sold at extraordinarily low prices.
We ordered mountains of soups and goulashes and fried appetizers and poppy-seed desserts. When the bill came to just 33,000 forints, I did something very out of character: I picked up the tab.
Still, I had to admit that the food was bland (my dish, sonkaval, a croquette the size of a smushed tennis ball, filled with turkey breast, ham and cheese, was an exception) and I was down on Hungarian fare — until the next day at lunch.
Before our walk Eliza and I went to Kadar Etterem, a Hungarian-Jewish spot with self-serve seltzer bottles on the table, red-and-white checkered tablecloths and a packed crowd. Food was prepared with a far defter hand; I had matzo ball soup and boiled beef with horseradish, which sounds terrible but was excellent; Eliza ordered cholent, a thick bean stew, topped with a slice of meatloaf.
At the door a man with a calculator asked how many pieces of bread and glasses of seltzer we had had and charged us a few forints for each, a literal nickel-and-diming. Still my half of the meal was just 2,500 forints.
When I travel solo, I hate staying in at night, but European night life typically forces me to nurse beers. Not in Budapest.
On Saturday, Nicolas led the way to Morrison’s Liget
, a 2-year-old sprawling nightclub south of the city, where nearly every man but us appeared to have just arrived from a weightlifting session at the gym. It was exactly the kind of place I would never go to in my home city and yet wouldn’t want to miss in a place I was visiting. Surprisingly, I felt perfectly comfortable.
We mostly stuck to the largest of three dance spaces, where the DJ Szecsei (Sexy spelled out in Hungarian) provided the pulsing electronic music, assisted by lasers and smoke. But we ended the evening in another room, where American dance classics like “It’s Raining Men” alternated with modern Hungarian pop; people sang along across languages and across the decades. It was great fun — and not available in London at any price.