Two and a half days, an entire city. I didn’t think it’d be possible but this weekend in Budapest I successfully found culture, politics, history, food, religion, friends and more. After my backpacking trip in Europe this summer, I became a pro at squeezing a city into a three or four day event. But, it’s been a few months since I’ve done this and I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Budapest (or BudapeSHt as they say it).
I’ve only ever been to one other Eastern European city, which was Prague, so my expectations were very high. Temperatures, on the other hand, were not. Enjoying the 70° and sunny lifestyle, even with my down winter coat, hat, scarf, and gloves I was shivering from the moment I stepped off the plane. I met up with two friends at the airport and we ventured together to the heart of the city, dropped our things off in the Maverick Hostel. We were able to catch an afternoon free walking tour of the city, and I’m pretty sure my toes were five-minutes away from frostbite. It even snowed!! However, as much as I didn’t miss the cold, I definitely missed the Christmas-season and my biological clock needed this trip to realize that it is already DECEMBER!
I can’t for the life of me pronounce any of the food I consumed throughout the weekend but I can say that I found “Traditional Hungarian Jewish Cake” or Flodni. A heavy dessert, there are layers of plum jam, walnut, apple, and poppy seed stacked between layers of sweet cake. It’s so weird traveling from Israel and being an American Jew and coming to Budapest where “Jewish food” is a type of cuisine. Just like I would go out for Chinese or Ethiopian food, in Budapest restaurants are labeled “Jewish” even though they are far from kosher. Friday night my friends and I went to Chabad for dinner and on Saturday we went to the “Jewish-style” Spinoza Café near the old Jewish quarter, which is coincidentally also the “Soho” of Budapest and right around the corner from the most famous Ruin Bar Szimpla. On Sunday before going to the Széchenyi thermal bath house, we took a tour of the Jewish quarter where I learned that Theodor Herzl, one of the first and most famous Zionists, is from Budapest.
And although relatively Jewish-friendly nowadays, Hungary was third after Poland and Ukraine in the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust with 600,000 or 10% of those killed. There are three main synagogues and a strong Jewish quarter thriving today. I think this is the only city out of the 15+ in Europe that I traveled to where the Jewish quarter still has a significant Jewish population living there today. In fact, at the MASA Leadership Summit I attended the in the week leading to my departure, two of the people in my focus group were from Budapest! The world is too small, because at Szimpla (the Ruin Bar- an abandoned home converted into a pub) there were three guys sitting next to me…when I detected an Israeli accent and asked where they were from, they said they were from Petach Tikva!!!!! I lost it and couldn’t believe the chances, but apparently it wasn’t as amusing for them because they said that Israelis are literally everywhere…
Although we were pressed for time, I don't think there was any better way to spend the weekend. We braved the cold and walked everywhere (I'm talking average of 25,000 steps a day on the FitBit), tried new foods, met new friends (we made our own little mini-bar crawl to a second Ruin Pub with a small crew), learned about the city and country's government and Jewish history, and even had time for shopping, plenty of Coffee, and relaxation in the city's Thermal Bathhouse. I don't know if it's the city itself, the time of year, or the people you travel with that make the city, but Budapest was definitely one for the books!