Exactly two weeks before the start of winter break, with the heavy anticipation of upcoming finals and papers, I sent a spontaneous text to a fellow Stern friend, Rosie, half joking when I asked if she want to go to Europe with me. To my utter surprise, she enthusiastically said yes and we agreed to book tickets ASAP. About an hour after my very last final, we were on our way from New York City to JFK airport.
Aside from a short stopover in Brussels airport, we had a smooth journey and arrived in a shockingly freezing and snow filled Budapest. As an avid lover of maps and tracking my route around cities, I elaborately planned our supposed trek to our hostel, but was surprised when a local pointed to Kiraly Street, right next to the metro entrance.
We joined an excellent afternoon tour led by our tour guide, Kat, who enthusiastically described the main attractions while our toes literally froze due to the accumulated slush all around us. Our flimsy fabric shoes were definitely not made for this. We viewed the stunning Danube river which was covered in floating ice patches, and we discovered that across the river was “Buda” and we were standing on “Pesht.” The group was full of tourists, one from Britain, another from Chicago, and yet another who had just come from Poland on a quest for her long lost family. The diversity was real.
Due to the freezing conditions, we used a day at the mall to find ourselves sturdy, resilient, waterproof shoes. Unanticipated conditions called for immediate action. Unfortunately, we lost a day of exploration, but the mall was an experience of its own. Rosie came out victorious while I tragically didn’t manage to find shoes, although I did the next day.
Tourism seemed to be a main focus of the city, which gave us a sense that we weren’t really seeing much of the local life. We visited cafes and bars in our immediate area and joined in on our hostel’s evening activities, which introduced us to people from all over the world. But there still seemed to be something missing. On Saturday afternoon, I found that missing piece. I decided to go on a walk on my own and I found the peaceful exploration of the inner alleyways and side streets that I was looking for. I came across a small selection of stores consisting of local artists with their work, from paintings to bag makers to jewelry producers and more. I was fascinated by the creativity and felt it a shame that I couldn’t buy anything that day because of Shabbat.
The bars were another main attraction. Many abandoned buildings and warehouses were left unoccupied, so the government decided to transformed them into bars—an excellent idea. We visited one in particular called Szimpla which had three floors with many rooms on each floor, and we even managed to try their locally made fruit based alcohol named Palinka. We also indulged in the Turkish bathhouse, which wasn’t as fancy and luxurious on the inside as we anticipated, but the steaming outdoor pool in the freezing weather was definitely an experience and the architecture was magnificent.
While the river added to the beauty of city, the coffee was not an A+. A British guy from our first day tour mentioned that he liked to stand by the Danube sipping coffee while watching the ice smash into the bridge. I made this our mission but was disappointed by the lack of flavor I found in the coffee, and not just from one location. We also didn’t find the people too friendly, as we walked into a restaurant with Hebrew writing on it thinking it was kosher but when we asked the man, he answered us rather coldly that it was not.
These small flaws paled in light of the Jewish presence of the city. Particularly moving was the shoe display which consisted of metal made shoes placed all along the river edge in commemoration of the Jews that were taken to the riverside during the war and shot on the spot. Coffee or not, the tourist attraction, nightlife, general beauty of the surrounding architecture and particularly the Danube River, left me feeling enriched and invigorated by a truly historical European city.