Off-Season Week in Bohemia, Part 2 — Budapest, Hungary

Dolls and dolls

Dolls and dolls in Budapest, Hungary

This is the second installment in a five-part series following JohnnyJet.com writer Cynthia Cunniff through her experience of touring Bohemia with Insight Vacations. Check out Part 1 and Part 3, and then stay tuned for Part 4 on Monday, June 30.

As I stepped off the luxurious Insight Vacations bus and onto the streets of Budapest I could feel the palpitations of energy that you find in some of the best cities of the world. There is a nostalgic old world feel to Budapest, but with overtones of bootsnpantsnbootsnpants vibration of cosmopolitan youthfulness as well as a sprinkling of Eastern Bloc mentality.

Our first night in Budapest was a candlelight dinner cruise on the Danube. Flanked by the golden shine of beautifully lit bridges, buildings and sculptures, it is a river like no other. As we cruised we feasted on goulash, stuffed cabbage rolls, local cheeses, and to-die-for desserts laden with chocolate and fresh fruit.

Magical night on the Danube

Magical night on the Danube

Post-dinner, a group of us decided to check out the local nightlife. There are plenty of clubs to choose from in Budapest and our concierge was very helpful in getting us to the right place. We arrived very early by European standards, which may have been a good thing—as after midnight the place was packed with sweaty, gyrating and very handsy Hungarian men. I have to say the club staff were all model-esque and seem to have attended the Naomi Campbell school of snooty attitude. When I asked them if it was okay to take pictures, one of the male bar staff cautiously insisted on knowing for what publications. We had a good laugh over that one, chocking it up to local color and a deeply ingrained “trust no one,” leftover Eastern Bloc mentality.

Fun finds in Budapest

Fun finds in Budapest

Our hotel, the Sofitel Budapest Chain Bridge, is well located near the edge of the Danube and a city tram stop. The area around the Sofitel is pedestrian-friendly and close to a small open-air market area that is a bit on the touristy side, but filled with authentic Hungarian street food choices. I did see a good mix of locals grabbing a bite there, which is always a good sign.

Open-air market chef

Open-air market chef

The city is large, but walkable to an extent. If you plan on staying for a few days and hitting as much of it as you can, you may want to opt to rent a bike, or get to know the city transit system. On the Insight tour we had the luxury of being able to take our private bus to the sites that were outside of walking distance.

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Insight arranged for us to get a taste of the local market fare at the popular indoor Central Market Hall. It was packed with colorful produce, delectable treats, spices, and Tokaji wine, as well as handmade clothing, toys and a variety of local crafts. You’ll see every type of paprika imaginable, as it’s one of the premier Hungarian products. At the center of the market the crowd was entertained by folk dancers and traditional Hungarian singing groups dressed in colorful Old World costumes. The scene is nothing short of lively, but steel yourself for the jostle of crowds and people with very little sense of personal space.

Folk singers at Central Market Hall

Folk singers at Central Market Hall

Tip: Buy your paprika at the Central Market Hall rather than one of the tourist shops on the main shopping area. Paprika only has about an 18-month shelf life, and I would bet money that the dusty paprika samples I saw in the touristy stores had been there well over that mark.

Thrift store treasure in Budapest, Hungary

Thrift store treasure in Budapest, Hungary

One of the things I find essential on tours is creating time to break away from the pack. Budapest was the perfect city to get lost and explore, so while my fellow travelers were having fun learning how to make strudel (which they reported was delicious), I broke off and saw a political rally, spoke to some locals about their history, checked out a skateboard park in the middle of colorfully gardened park, and enjoyed a phenomenal mix of humans. My favorite find in Budapest was a thrift store located not too far off the main shopping walk streets near the hotel. There was an entire wall of old dolls and puppets, a room full of wedding dresses that looked like they came off the top of a meringue pie, and beautifully crafted handmade textiles of all types — everything from table cloths to intricately embroidered shawls ranging from 1-3 Euros.

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Hungarian second hand wedding dresses

I’ve learned over the course of traveling with Insight Vacations (here’s my last experience with them) that just when you think they’ve outdone themselves with unique flourishes, they pull out another surprise. Our second night in Budapest was the last night of the tour and we dolled up and were taken to the world-renowned Gundel restaurant, which has been frequented by royalty and stars since 1894 and endured through the Communist nationalization. It was a traditional and grand evening, but the staff and management created a fun atmosphere. A highlight was a gypsy band that serenaded us during dinner and kept reminding us, “We are the best gypsy band in Europe!” An evening of laughter at Gundel was a fitting end to a Bohemian tour full of intriguing history, surprising finds, delectable flavors, and travel companions that have become friends.

Fabulous Gundel restaurant

Fabulous Gundel restaurant

This is the second installment in a five-part series following JohnnyJet.com writer Cynthia Cunniff through her experience of touring Bohemia with Insight Vacations. Check out Part 1 and Part 3, and then stay tuned for Part 4 on Monday, June 30.

 

About Cynthia Cunniff

Cynthia Cunniff’s writing background spans magazine editorial, travel blogging, marketing and PR. She’s a graduate of the creative writing program at CSU Long Beach and went on to UCLA to further her writing skills. Growing up as a military dependent, she lived in several foreign countries and areas of the US. Post college she returned to international living and resided in London for close to a decade, where she took advantage of proximity to the rest of Europe and traveled extensively. She currently lives in the beautiful South Bay of Los Angeles, and can be found on Twitter and Instagram @localpathworld.

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