Budapest is without a shadow of a doubt one of my favourite cities. Split in two halves by the mighty Danube, you have the Buda side characterised by it’s rolling hills, incredible views and the stunning Fisherman’s Bastion. Then there’s the Pest half of the city: a beautiful mixture of classic architecture, city parks and cool neighbourhoods filled with retro boutiques, ruin pubs and cosmopolitan cafes. However, what truly makes Budapest Special are it’s idiosyncrasies; the little off beat spots and hidden gems that a lot of first time visitors miss. Dig a little deeper and you will find that Budapest is weird.
Whenever I travel to a new city I like to visit some of the stranger attractions in order to see something that I can’t find anywhere else in the world. Budapest was no exception. Here’s some of the more off beat experiences that the city has to offer.
Pay Your Respects at The Michael Jackson Memorial Tree
The death of the ‘King of Pop’ inspired outpourings of love and grief the world over but none quite so strange as Budapest’s Michael Jackson Memorial Tree. I spotted this makeshift memorial while talking part in a communism themed walking tour of the city and my guide was happy to explain this quirky shrine. Apparently whenever Jacko came to the city, he would stay in Budapest’s Kempinski Hotel. Fans would gather in the square opposite in the hope of catching a glimpse of the singer emerging from the hotel’s reception. After his death in 2009 the same fans devoted a random tree on the corner of the square to his memory, stapling photographs, flowers and news clippings to it’s bark. Not just a passing tribute, the photographs are regularly replaced with new ones and fans still gather around the DIY shrine on the singer’s birthday each year to pay their respects.
Sauna on the banks of the Danube
Budapest may be famous for it’s bath house and the saunas within but if you want to get sweaty in a more urban environment, then Valyo’s mobile sauna is the place for you. It may look compact but this little bus has everything you could need; a changing room, a cold shower, an authentic wood stove sauna and now that the bus is currently located on the banks of the Danube, unparalleled views of parliament, the river and the iconic chain bridge. Just make sure you bring your own towel. A 90 minute sauna session costs 10,000 HUF for up to 6 people and is unfortunately fully booked for 2017. Get in quick if you want to book your space for next year!
Throughout Hungary’s Communist period (1949–1989) 42 statues of Lenin, Marx, and Engels, as well as several Hungarian Communist leaders such as Béla Kun, Endre Ságvári, and Árpád Szakasits were scattered throughout the city. When communism collapsed in 1989 Budapest was left with these public works and a choice of destroying them or preserving them for posterity. Memento Park was born.
Memento park displays the statues across it’s site in a way that is designed not to honour them or vilify them, they are just presented as they are so that visitors to the park can take them in. Ákos Eleőd, the Hungarian architect and designer of the park stated “This park is about dictatorship. And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described, built, this park is about democracy. After all, only democracy is able to give the opportunity to let us think freely about dictatorship.”
Soak away your troubles in a thermal beer spa
The Széchenyi Baths are one of Budapest’s most recognisable attractions but head underneath this Neo-baroque landmark and you will find something a little more off beat – A thermal beer spa. Now, this may not actually be what you’re thinking: You won’t be soaking away your troubles in a vat of warm Carlsberg, instead a wooden tub is filled with 36°C water and infused with the natural extracts used to brew beer (malts, hops, brewer’s yeast, and barley). Apparently this concoction is perfect for increasing metabolism, eases fatigue, reduces stress, and is even said to cure hangovers – Although the unlimited Czech beer on tap within reach of your tub may have something to do with this.
Ronald Regan StatueIf you look around Liberty Square in the in the Lipótváros neighborhood, two things may catch your eye. The first being the overly fortified US embassy, said to be the most heavily guarded building in the city surrounded by high fences and armed guards. The second is the monument for Soviet liberation of Hungary which is strangely located on the opposite side of the square, in direct view of the US embassy.
Look a little closer and you will spot a bronze figure of former U.S. president Ronald Reagan appearing to stride confidently in to the square. Paid for by the US, the official line is that Hungary wanted to show appreciation for Reagan’s efforts to end the cold war and so commemorated him eternally in sculpture. However, although the statue appears to be walking towards the embassy, he is also glancing towards the monument for soviet liberation, fuelling rumours that the US placed the statue there as revenge for having a Russian monolith beside their building.
Shop for Groceries at a Ruin Pub
Ah, the ruin pub. These dilapidated drinking establishments are as synonymous with Budapest as the Danube and The Széchenyi Chain Bridge. They’re what make the city one of the coolest and best nightlife destinations in central Europe. Ruin pubs began to pop up in the Jewish quarter of Budapest over a decade ago, all starting with the granddaddy of them all – Szimpla Kert. Since then, new pubs have sprung up all over the city centre and become somewhat of a Budapest institution.
They’re not just about drinking and debauchery though. Head to the famous Szimpla Kert on a Sunday morning and you will be met with traders selling their vegetables, homemade jams and cheeses at the weekly farmer’s market. They even have live music most Sundays. It’s a perfect for overcoming that hangover that you possibly got in the very same location the night before.
Possibly the largest hourglass in the world, this timepiece is a literally wheel of time built in 2004 to commemorate Hungary’s inclusion in the European Union. The hour glass contains tiny pieces of glass which trickle through the clock with the help of a computerized system, taking a whole year to complete the journet from the top reservoir to the bottom meaning that it only has to be reset once a year on New Year’s Eve. Every December 31st it takes a team of four people 45 minutes to rotate the colossal wheel.
Scratch Your Head At The Colombo Statue
If a gigantic hourglass isn’t a strange enough public artwork for you, behold the life-size bronze reproduction of Peter Falk taking pride of place on the corner of Falk Miksa Street. The statue, installed in 2014 at a cost of $63,000, depicts the actor in his most famous role as Colombo, scratching his head as if to ask “Why is there a statue of me in the middle of Budapest?”. Only the organisers truly know and claim actor Peter Falk may have been tenuously related to the 19th-century Hungarian political figure, Miksa Falk, after whom the street is named.
See Saint Stephen’s Holy Hand
St. Stephen’s Basilica, the building dedicated to Hungary’s founder, is one of the most beautiful and impressive buildings in Budapest. However, inside it hosts something a little strange. When Saint Stephen was canonised in 1083 his corpse was ceremonially exhumed only to find that although his body had decayed, his right arm looked as fresh as the day he died. The arm was promptly chopped off, mummified, and made it’s way around Europe, passing between various monks and branches of the church in Croatia and Austria. Finally in 1945, the hand was returned to it’s rightful Hungarian owners and now has pride of place in a golden reliquary in Saint Stephen’s Basilica. To make this even more odd, if you put a 100 Forint coin in the slot beside the artefact, a light will then illuminate the Holy Right for about 30 seconds like an old seaside penny machine.
Get Retro at The Flipper Muzeum
Beneath a nondescript residential building in central Budapest is a heaven for retro gamers and pinball enthusiasts. The Flipper Muzeum was started by a pair of pinball lovers and is now filled to the brim with rows of classic pinball tables for you to enjoy, all in working order. The general public may not be as taken with pinball as they once were but this place is great for enthusiasts and novices alike. Buying a ticket allows you to spend the whole day in the museum, honing your skills so that maybe you too can become a pinball wizard.
Drink With Stalin at The Red Ruin Bar
Not all of Budapest is quite so neutral when it comes to it’s Communist history – At Red Ruin they are more than happy to poke fun at the past. This kitsch and colourful drinking spot is the city’s only ‘communist themed bar’ and is decorated with images subverting communist propaganda such as paintings of Lenin, Marx and Stalin drinking and having a Communist party, a standee of Marx and Lenin that you can put your face through and themed nights such as Communist Saturday.
Promote Yourself at The For Sale Pub
Tread carefully when you walk in to this bar as the floor is covered in a bizarre mixture straw and peanut shells. This is due to the huge quantity of nuts distributed free to patrons which they are encouraged to shell and eat before tossing the unwanted husks to the floor. However, this is not the strangest thing about this pub. Every single centimetre of the establishments walls, ceiling and stairways are covered in pieces of paper lovingly pinned by travellers and locals alike that are passing through.
Ride a Railway Run Entirely by Children
I have to admit, I completely missed this place while I was in Budapest, only finding out about it later when it was featured on Channel 4’s Travel Man. At first glance the Gyermekvasút rail line may look like any other rail line, until you notice that it is entirely staffed by children.
This is not child labour though, instead it was a scheme thought up in 1947 as a way of training young men and women in important skills. The line was refurbished in 1990 after the fall of communism and as attention turned to promoting Hungary as a tourist destination. The focus now less on transporting locals around the city but on attracting tourists from all around the world who flock to see a railway run by pre-teens.
What do you think? Have you seen any weird attractions in Budapest that aren’t on this list? Let me know in the comments below.
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