First published in Marie Claire (December 2017 edition).
The long nights of the European winter, if my delving into its extents is to serve as any indication, are perhaps at their longest in Budapest. I’m not proposing that accolade for the time from dusk till dawn – clearly it’s trumped in this regard by the large continental swathe that enjoys a latitudinal advantage – but instead for the other more compelling (if less scientific) measure of a night’s duration: the time from dress till duvet. On this score other contenders would be hard-pressed to compete such is the allure and volume of its nocturnal charms, evidenced during my visit. I wanted to eat and drink fine things. I wanted an excursion that straddled storybook romance and rampant revelry. I wanted to suck out all the marrow, but without paying the earth…a tall order that the Hungarian capital, as it kept on keeping the day at bay, somehow contrived to deliver.
With the sub-zero temperatures and falling snow adding an exotic edge to our anticipation, we – my wife and I, intersecting trips allowing us to steal a weekend together in the city – set out from our hotel, glove in glove and scarves fluttering, headed for nearby Erzsébetváros (Elizabeth Town), the beating heart of the city’s after-hours action. I’d been vaguely aware that Hungary was a wine producing country, having been (presciently!) introduced to one of their renowned dessert wines at a recent dinner. Accordingly, being both keen to broaden my experience and to get the ball rolling for the evening with a few mellow glasses, we made our way to Doblo, the city’s premier wine bar. Luckily I’d booked because the place was packed to its exposed rafters – with a young, stylish crowd seemingly cast for this backdrop, described to me as “Brooklyn loft style”. Call it whatever, it’s a happy space for some relaxed appreciation, the unplastered walls in particular giving a warm, cellar-like ambience. The two of us wandered our way through Kreinbacher Extra Dry, apparently the country’s best bubbles, the visceral Bull’s Blood, the national blend, the best examples coming from the Eger and Szekszárd regions, a Royal Tokaji, the sweet wine that put the region on the map (and on my radar), and a few others recommended by the venue, until eventually, reluctantly, departing, a little more cultured than when we’d arrived, and thoroughly primed for the night ahead.
Given a charged itinerary that depended on getting from one place to the next efficiently and making the most of things in the short time available I’d been worried that communication difficulties might hamper us. It came as a relief then, the extent of my language preparation having been to add the h-sound to the pronunciation of “Budapesht”, to find that English is spoken widely and well. In fact the waiters we encountered had an almost native proficiency. At our next stop, the intimate Gettó Gulyás for a spot of dinner, this facility played out to delicious advantage, the staff taking us through the menu in detail, understanding our preferences clearly, and making astute recommendations, a pleasing contrast to some of my other travels when choosing dishes had been a roll of the dice. The food managed to strike an unpretentious balance between the unusual, the interesting, and the accessible: a soup of beetroot, cheese, cream, pear and parsley to start, a satisfyingly central European main of wild boar, and the odd-sounding but sumptuous tasting goat’s cheese dumplings with cinnamon dressing for dessert. Encouragingly the pricing was comparable to SA, here and elsewhere in Budapest, which was surprising for Europe, even this far east. We left Gettó, fuel in our tanks to fire the festivity to follow, feeling like we’d found the holy grail of foreign eateries: small and authentic, trendy but comfortable, frequented by locals, and, most importantly, magnificent – in both quality and value.
The two features for which Budapest’s nightlife is most reputed are its Ruin Bars, and the fact that it has the cheapest booze in Europe, the latter sounding a tad dubious to me, initially at least. I had it in mind to enjoy a few digestifs after my dinner, a natural opportunity then to explore this scene, and to check out what all the fuss was about. The problem with cheap liquor of course is that it tends to attract certain types of people. The streets by this time were thronging, the glacial temperatures notwithstanding. I caught glimpses of Irish, American, and English accents, and scatterings of French, German, Italian, and other languages that I couldn’t identify. The odd bachelor and hen party cruised past. Groups of revelers spilled out of bars. Whether it was the price of drinks or the city’s many fine attributes, or a combination of these things, people had come here from all over to party. Unswervingly though, at that point and for the rest of our visit, the atmosphere in the district was festive rather than rowdy – with not a hooligan in sight. By the time we arrived at Szimpla my misgivings had laid to rest.
A Ruin Bar, whilst not a ruin as such, is pretty much true to the name. It’s an old, dilapidated building that’s been transformed into a nightspot. Szimpla Kert was the first of its kind, the mother from which all other Ruin Bars sprang. The site was originally a furnace factory, subsequently converted into a residential block before falling into disuse. It couldn’t be demolished or materially redeveloped, having been assigned heritage protection, so an enterprising entrepreneur decided to make a bar of it, creating a Budapestian tradition in the process. There are now Ruin Bars all over the city, and elsewhere. Szimpla, and the similar Fogas, our next stop, are stalwart examples, exuding the dingy, grotto cool that’s come to characterise these places. We found ourselves in a maze of stained, pitted walls, raw floors, and random fittings and furnishings, amidst a deluge of other patrons. Their popularity – each can and regularly do take in over 1000 guests at any one time – stems I’d venture from their distinctiveness, and also because they offer something for everyone (without diluting each experience), from raging dance floors to quieter lounges, from live music and traditional dancing to silent movies, and so much else that I lost track of it all. We sampled two local favourites, my wife the mulled wine, me a few palinkas (fruit brandy), whilst we explored and soaked up the rising vibe. When I next looked up it was already eleven. Budapest was only just beginning to hit its straps.
One of the attractions that drew me to this city was the Danube, the second largest river in Europe, and once the frontier of the civilised world. It is undeniably one of the world’s great rivers, so the idea of incorporating it into the night’s activities was hugely appealing. Enter the A38, an old stone-carrier ship, moored on the Buda side of the river, now enjoying a second life as the best club in the world (an honour bestowed by Lonely Planet three years ago). Elizabeth Town being in Pest, this required a bit of a mad dash to catch a tram over before the system shut down for the night. It’s a bit of a trek, but well worthwhile for this inimitable experience. We boarded the ship, impressively protruding out of the ice floes covering the river, just in time for a performance by the German electronic mega-band Tangerine Dream. I can’t claim that this is my preferred style of music but we abandoned ourselves to it, the dreamlike communion with hundreds of devotees in the hull of this ship taking us there, making the occasion unforgettable.
Back in the heartland, in Pest, things were starting to reach high gear. We had a little left in us and we decided to make our last stand at Tesla, a pulsing dance club that’s as electric as the name suggests. I merged a bit of deep house with few shots of Oban, and found it to my liking. By this stage I knew I was going to pay the price the next day but I just didn’t care. Tesla’s energy buoyed us along for a few hours, pointing and popping, shuffling, neck bobbing, fist pumping and Saturday night fevering, until we had to concede defeat. An honourable defeat though.
At about five in the morning we were done. Budapest however was not, and neither were our new found friends at Tesla. It’s somewhat counter intuitive for a country on the eastern fringe of a time zone to be on this kind of late night cycle, especially in winter, but there was no disputing it, seen with my own eyes, tried and tested. If you’ve got what it takes, which they clearly have over here, I guess it doesn’t matter. Party like a Russian, end of discussion? I beg to differ Robbie Williams, you’ve obviously never been to Budapest.
We didn’t twiddle our thumbs whilst waiting for our epic night in Budapest to begin.
Swimming in the mist-shrouded outdoors in minus seven degree temperatures is surreal – but good surreal, in fact great surreal. Budapest is built on a chain of hot, mineral springs, giving rise to the preponderance of spas that have earned it the name ‘City of Spas’. Locals make regular visits a habit, touting the health benefits of the waters, although the premise struck me as social more than medicinal. Széchenyi, one of the best-known and the one to which we gravitated, is a massive, sprawling complex of pools, steam rooms, saunas, and other spa facilities. We opted for a massage before trying a variety of the warmer pools, culminating in a dip in the large, cascading expanse outside. If you happen to be around in the warmer months, be sure to attend a unique Budapest “sparty” – which is, as the name suggests, a party in a spa!
Cruising the Danube
Whilst these city cruise setups are admittedly a bit formulaic, they’ve got a lot going for them nonetheless, presenting the opportunity to see some unparalleled vistas of a city, sit down to a traditional meal (chicken paprikash amongst others in our case – Hungarians are particularly proud of their paprika!), and listen to some live music. Our experience with Danube Cruise broke the mould though, made special by the stunning sheets of shifting ice through which we were being propelled. We felt compelled to sneak up to the prow for a Titanic moment.
Kiosk is an all-encompassing, envelope-pushing bistro, set on a square facing the river. The fabulous location is fittingly complemented by spectacular (renovated) eighteenth century accommodations which boast generous space and high ceilings, divulging their origins as a high school gymnasium. Old Hungarian black and white movies are projected onto a wall, and there’s a tree canopied over the central bar, adding quirky flair to the polished ambience. It’s a place for all seasons. The menu offers vegan, vegetarian and lactose free options throughout, the drinks list accounts for 250 varieties of Hungarian wine (stocked in a large walk-in fridge separating it from its adjacent fine-dining sister restaurant) and a range of hyper-creative cocktails, and the desserts, a speciality, are all produced at the in-house patisserie. Try the ampoule cocktail, the forest mushroom soup, and any given pastry – outstanding!
If you’re looking for something a little more casual, a quick bite whilst you’re taking in the sights, you won’t go wrong at Bors. This ridiculously popular little food bar puts out, under the vigilant eye of its Darth Vadar mascot, a range of soups, baguettes and desserts, and the odd pasta and salad as well. I normally wouldn’t recommend going over to the dark side, but I’ll make a delicious exception in this case. May the Bors be with you.
Budapest on blades
Imagine a giraffe on ice and you’ll get an idea of my skating talent. Having heard though that Budapest hosts the largest outdoor rink in Europe (Városligeti Műjégpálya), I was determined to give it a go regardless. And I was glad I did. The long stretches of crisp ice underfoot, the beautiful old castle in the background, the whizzing and whirling crowd all around make for a sensational outing. Furthermore, the place is quick to access – it’s a short walk from the nearest metro station – and skates are easily and cheaply rented on site. Even the spasmodic exertions of my boskak style couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm. What a pleasure!