9 Things: Budapest

The capital of Hungary, oriented around the river Danube, is replete with architectural and cultural gems.

In the 19th century, Budapest vied with Vienna as two of the most important cities in Austria-Hungary; a powerful empire that stretched across much of Central Europe. World War 1 ended with the dissolution of the empire, and the newly formed Hungary entered a turbulent period of its history, from the devastating World War 2 to a long period of communist repression.

A vibrant city of two million, Budapest has become as one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe. I had the chance of visiting the city three months ago, and here are 9 things that I found to best encapsulate the city:

 

  1. Budapest IS small

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On the paper, Budapest, with its 2 million inhabitants, doesn’t sound like a small city. In reality, most of the city’s inhabitants live in neighbourhoods outside the beautiful city centre. While Budapest’s centre is very beautiful, with its many ornate structures and Neo-Renaissance homes, its predominantly residential suburbs are filled with dark, grey concrete communist era apartment blocks. However, while many of these neighbourhoods are safe to explore, there are not many sights that casual tourists would appreciate there anyway.

So, if you’re a tourist, Budapest is small, as a fairly compact city, with most of the attractions located within a walking distance.

 

  1. Budapest Metro is one of the oldest in the world
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Line 1, Budapest Metro

While we in KL await our first ever MRT line to commence operation end of this year (yes, I get it, we already had out first LRT line 20 years ago), Budapest received its first metro line in 1896. Built for the purpose of transporting commuters from Vörösmarty Square to the City Park, the first line of Budapest Metro, a UNESCO heritage site, is an attraction in itself. The line was constructed using the “cut-and-cover” method, so unlike other metro systems in Europe, the Line 1 track isn’t placed very deep underground. The metro stations still retain their original designs, complete with the modernist wall cladding popular during the first half of the 20th century, and the rolling stock isn’t new either, complete with its wooden benches.

 

  1. Hungarian food is very hearty, but…

…it’s also pretty bland. Yes, Hungary is very well known for its goulash and its meat stew, and while I appreciate the heartiness, the cuisines aren’t seasoned to fit Asian palates. While westerners might find Hungarian food spicy, Malaysians who are used to our sambal and cili potong may find the spiciness of Hungarian cuisine a child’s play. However, this doesn’t mean that visitors should avoid local food altogether.

I managed to find some good Hungarian restaurants, many of them at least a block or two away from main tourist areas, and they served decent food. Try out their veal stew and fish soup. Prices are also reasonable in Budapest; you may find a two-course sit-down meal in a good restaurant for RM40-50.

img_0856Levantine food in Budapest!

 

  1. Budapest café scene is not to be missed

Budapest, being one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the Habsburg Empire after Vienna, has a well-established café scene. The city’s many cafes were the birthplace of many ideas that shaped the history of Hungary since the 19th century. Poets, writers and intellectuals converged in its cafes, turning them into places where ideas were exchanged and developed.

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Book Cafe

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To experience the life of the 19th century Habsburgian aristocrats, visit Book Café, just off the famous Andrassy Boulevard. The ornate café occupies the top floor of Paris Department Store, which was, during its heyday, one of the fanciest stores in the city. Prices are surpisingly affordable here, with an ice coffee costing around RM10 and a slice of cake RM15; not too far off from your Secret Recipe next door!

 

  1. Budapest has thermal baths and hot springs all over the city!

Budapest is traditionally known as the spa capital of Europe, and it’s not hard to see why. The city is dotted with many thermal springs, supplying thermal water to its many baths including the Szechenyi Bath, one of the most ornate bathhouses in all of Europe. The bathhouse, constructed in Neo-Renaissance style, is still a popular hang-out spot among the locals, especially during summer.

If you’re not willing to pay upwards of RM30 for the experience, head to one of the many free communal wading pools in the city.

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Szechenyi Bath
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Folks enjoying their summer evening in Budapest

 

  1. Budapest is cheaper than other parts of Europe

Hungary isn’t as economically advanced as its neighbours Austria, Germany, even Czech Republic, so expect prices here to be lower than in these countries. A 3-course-meal in a sit-down restaurant here costs around RM50-70, around 30% lower than in other major European cities like London and Paris. A trip on Budapest metro costs around RM5, and a ride from the airport to the city centre, around RM70 – not dirt-cheap, but still pretty affordable. Uber is quite popular here, and not very expensive either.

Accommodation is relatively cheap. A private room with an ensuite bathroom in the middle of Budapest historical precinct would cost you around RM150.

Hungary still uses Forint, RM 1 = HUF 60

Alcohol is unbelievably cheap in Budapest, which explains the constant flock of stag-party visitors from all over Europe to the city.

  1. Hungary’s 20th century history is worth peeking into

The twentieth century was a turbulent period in Hungary. The country was led by the fascist Arrow Cross regime just before it was invaded by Nazi Germany. World War Two was particularly deadly for Hungary, with its once vibrant Jewish community decimated to the tune of 90 percent. There is still an ongoing debate on the extent of Hungarian nationalists’ involvement in abetting the genocide.

After World War 2, Hungary was incorporated into the Eastern bloc, and another period of terror ensued. The Museum of Terror on the Andrassy Boulevard, housed in a building that was once used for the detention and torture of Hungarian political dissidents, is one of the major attractions in Budapest today. It provides visitors with an overview of what life was like in Hungary during the communist times.

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The ornate interior of Budapest Synagogue
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Budapest Synagogue – the largest in Europe.
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House of Terror
  1. Budapest is immensely beautiful

Indeed, it is. To best get a feel of how beautiful the city is, do a stroll along its Danube river promenade at dusk. It’s spectacular. I’ll let these photos do the talking.

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The Parliament building

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  1. Budapest vs Prague, which city wins?

This is a very common question among travellers keen to explore this part of Europe. Having already been to both cities, I’d say that Budapest is different from Prague in many regards. The buildings in Budapest are grander, the old quarter beautiful, but less polished, and traces of communism can still be felt, to a larger extent here, than in Prague. Budapest also feels larger than Prague.

So, Prague is more beautiful than Budapest, but if you’re looking for a less polished, less Disney-esque urban experience in Central Europe, you may prefer Budapest.

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Goodbye, Budapest. Notice their spartan departure gate?

 

Speak soon,

FH

9 Things: Berlin

Berlin is one of the most exciting European cities that I’ve been to. Being one of the cheapest cities in Germany (prices here are much lower than London), Berlin attracts young artists and start-up entrepreneurs from all over Europe, contributing to its youthful vibes. The city has a long history of being a hub of counterculture movements and alternative lifestyles, even as far back as the 1920s when Magnus Herschfeld conducted his research on human sexuality, giving birth to modern day gay rights movement.

I adore Berlin. These are 9 essential facts that I found out about the city:

Berlin is a new city

Yes, it is new, especially when compared to other European capitals. While the history of Berlin dates back to a few hundred years ago, much of the city was reduced to rubble at the end of World War 2. After the war, the city was divided into East Berlin and West Berlin. Berlin was reconstructed, and while some prominent structures were rebuilt to its pre-war design, other parts of the city were rebuilt in accordance with the mid-20th century design sensibilities. Urban landscapes in what was then East Berlin are still dominated by huge concrete apartment blocks befitting the socialist ideology of DDR.

Fernsehturm
Fernsehturm

While you don’t see any semblance of WW2 ruins anymore in Berlin, the Germans thoughtfully preserved the ruins of Gedächtniskirche to remind future generations of the extent of destruction and devastation a war could bring to a nation.

Gedächtniskirche
Gedächtniskirche

Berlin is cheaper than other major European capitals

If you’re looking for a relatively affordable experience in a world-class European city, Berlin is the place for you. Prices here are lower, to the tune of 30-40%, than London. Post-reunification construction boom in 1990s also culminated into real estate oversupply, the effects of which are still felt today. This means that the rent here is much cheaper than the rest of Germany. You may find street food for EUR2.5 here, or a sit-down meal for EUR7. A nice AirBnB accommodation in a good area of town may cost you EUR70, a fraction of what it would cost in London or Paris.

Berlin has an amazing public transportation system

Berlin’s public transportation system is impressive, and surprisingly cheap. One-day pass costs you EUR7. Tourists, however, may get confused as Berlin’s many metro lines make for a convoluted system- so it really pays to know what S-bahn and U-bahn trains are for.

U-bahn trains are akin to Metro trains, they have higher frequencies, and stations are located closer to each other. The S-bahn trains work like suburban trains, or in Malaysia, KTM Komuter trains. The frequency isn’t as high as U-bahn trains (but still much higher than our KTM Komuter), and the gap between stations isn’t as small as the U-bahn, but they make for excellent option if you wish to commute longer distance across town.

A trains station in Berlin
A trains station in Berlin

As with many other facilities in Berlin, the city’s metro system has ample capacity to serve the city of 3 million inhabitants, so chances are you won’t find yourself in a very packed train, even during rush hours.

If you don’t feel like taking the trains, Berlin taxis and uber cars are much cheaper than in London. A trip from the city to the Tegel Airport shouldn’t cost you much more than EUR20.

Berlin has an amazing ethnic food scene

Germany’s openness after World War 2 has made the country an attractive destination for migrants from all over the world. This makes it an amazing destination for culinary adventure. Thai and Vietnamese restaurants are very popular, and they are pretty cheap, with a meal costing you around EUR7. I even had one of the best pad thai I had in a restaurant in Schoneberg.

Best Pad Thai ever!
Best Pad Thai ever!

For a more local experience, head to a German gastropub. Portions are huge here, and prices are upward of EUR10. If you’re a drinker, beer is extremely cheap here, often cheaper than mineral water.

One of the must-haves when in Berlin is their traditional breakfast set. I had a hearty breakfast of gravax, poached fish, eggs with caviar on top, local cheese, and fresh fruits for EUR9.

Delicious breakfast, Berlin style
Delicious breakfast, Berlin style

If you miss spicy food and sambal, head to Mabuhay, an Indonesian restaurant next to the Mendehllson-Batholdy metro station. Their ayam balado memang cukup pedas, and they make great soto too.

Berlin museums are impressive

Berlin has some of the best museums and galleries in Europe. Pergamon Museum even features the Ishtar Gate, reconstructed using actual material excavated in Iraq. Apart from the gate, the museum also boasts a wealth of other artefacts from the Middle East, from the ancient days to the Islamic era. There’s even an exhibition that features ancient Quranic manuscripts, some of them among the oldest in the world.

The Ishtar Gate
The Ishtar Gate
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An old Islamic Manuscript, Pergamon

If you’re a fan of visual arts, head to the Altes Museum for its impressive collection of paintings, with a floor dedicated to artworks by German painters.

What I love about Berlin museums is that these museums are much less crowded with tourists, even during summer months, compared to those in Rome or London. You get to take your time and enjoy the exhibitions in relative peace and quiet.

If you’re a museum buff, it’s worth spending EUR24 on a museum pass, valid for three days.

Commie Berlin is worth a peek into

Prior to reunification, East Berlin was the capital of DDR, or more commonly known as East Germany. The communist East Germany was relatively isolated from the non-communist world, so life there was pretty different back then.

The DDR Museum is worth checking out. Walking into it is akin to delving into the everyday life of a DDR citizen.

The Trabant
The Trabant
The Katalog magazine, a popular fashion spread in DDR
The Katalog magazine, a popular fashion spread in DDR

It’s a fun exhibition, you may even sit inside the Trabant, a popular car model produced in the DDR, and “drive” the car. The Trabant is so flimsy that East Germans used to call it a “plastic car”. To get the most out of the experience at the museum, I suggest that you watch ‘Goodbye, Lenin!’ beforehand.

Germans are very frank about their dark past

Germany has really come to terms with their dark past. Yes, they were instrumental in starting two world wars and were responsible for the destruction that these wars brought to Europe, but today’s Germany has learnt its lessons and is a very different nation.

There’s a big monument, recently constructed in Berlin, to remember Jews who were murdered in Europe during Shoah. The Nazis, in its plan to annihilate the Jewish civilisation, murdered six million Jews. Hitler didn’t stop there; he also sought to eliminate the Gypsies, who were deemed to be racially inferior, and systematically murdered homosexuals.

The Monument of Murdered Jews of Europe
The Monument of Murdered Jews of Europe

I’ve been to Auschwitz, which was a sobering experience, and this monument in Berlin is a manifestation of Germany’s regret for the sins of her past. It’s an excellent place to reflect on not only Holocaust, but also issues facing our world today too, from the rise of fascism in the West to the problem of racism still prevalent in many places, including Malaysia. Hate empowers humans to do inhumane things, which is why hate in any form, be it racial prejudice or homophobia, is dangerous.

Germany coming to terms with its past
Germany coming to terms with its past

Berlin has a large Muslim community

Yes, and they live pretty well here, with many of them taking up productive jobs in the economy. I was in Berlin a week before Eid, and the main shopping district of Wittenbergplatz was full of shoppers, many in their hijab, doing their Eid shopping. There are also plenty of refugees in the city, and many of them take up productive jobs in the economy. I went to a falafel shop in Schoneberg, and talked to the owner, a middle-aged Arab guy, who came to Berlin to flee war and violence in Iraq. The falafel was delicious, an upon finding out that I came from Malaysia, he warmed up to me instantly. At least, amidst the multitude of issues our country is facing currently, Malaysia is still looked up in the Muslim world as a success story.

The Muslim community here is also integrated, there are even female police officers donning the hijab here; which is definitely not a common scene anywhere else in Europe.

The iftar queue at a Kebab shop, Schoneberg.
The iftar queue at a Kebab shop, Schoneberg.

Summer in Berlin is just lovely

Berliners love summer days, and the city looks its best when the sun shines bright. Put your sunnies on, bring your picnic basket and sit on the lawn facing the river Spree, and trust me, you’ll instantly fall in love in Berlin (if you haven’t).

Summer by River Spree
Summer by River Spree
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Yours truly, Berlin.

Speak soon,

FH