My Own Private Budapest

By Nomadic Matt | Published July 25th, 2010

hunting statue in budapestBudapest. The beautiful city on the Danube. It’s a city I’ve never heard anything bad said about. “If you love Prague, you’ll love Budapest,” people would tell me. And they were right – I did like Budapest, though not nearly as much as I like Prague but that’s another story. This story is about Hungarian folk dancing.

Before I went to Budapest, I called a friend of mine. “Do you still have a friend in the Tourism Budapest office? Do you think I could give me a city visitor pass?” Well, his friend did better than that. A few emails later and I was meeting Marta who not only gave me a city pass and was to be my tour guide for the week. Marta was the office intern and when she offered to show me around a city, it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

We always dream of having a local guide and here was mine, ready to show me “real Budapest.” As travelers, we go from tourist site to tourist site, longing for an in depth look at local life. What exactly is the local life in Budapest? Well, it involves a lot of food and dancing.

Marta and I did all the major tourist sites. We saw the castle, the church, the famous bridges, the famous baths, and did the tour of the Hungarian Parliament. I was most excited to see the underground tunnels below the castle. I love “underground tourism” whether it’s the sewers or catacombs of Paris, the ghost tours of Edinburgh, the ruins under Naples, or tunnels under a castle in Budapest. While cool, the tunnels had little fake statues of people and an art exhibit on consumerism that made them feel a little cheesy.

Marta asked me what I really wanted to see in Budapest, to which I replied “I want to see how the locals like you live day to day. Show me your life here.”
the streets of budapest
Marta is an avid folk dancer and one night she took me to a local dance session on the Buda side of the city. While Pest is busy, modern and the center of life, Buda is where you find the castle, the cobblestone streets, and the old Eastern Europe you imagine in your mind. Walking down cobblestone streets lined with brick buildings, we stopped at one, entered into a large square, and was treated to a local Hungarian beer hall.

Marta did all the ordering. Beer and food were placed in front of me and I was simply told to eat. Sadly, I didn’t write down the name but the crusty bread with a sausage spread was really good. The meat was a little spicy and smoked and the bread same day fresh. I had two.

As the night progressed, the tables were cleared away, the band set up, and the dancing began. Hungarian folk dancing reminds me of Irish folk dancing mixed with a bit of Russian and Jewish folk dancing. Everyone dances in a circle or twirls around partners. There’s a lot feet stomping and singing. Here’s a small sample:

Editor’s Note: I took this at night with a point and click camera. The video quality isn’t great. Apologies.

The dancing continued long into the night. Beers were served and drank. More food was placed in front of me. Spending time with Marta gave me a view on Hungarian life I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. I learned a lot about the food (Hungarian food, while heavy, is also quite delicious), the culture, and the history of a place I wouldn’t have been able to glean just from seeing sites listed in a guidebook. She introduced me to traditional food, took me to local markets, gave me an impressive history of the city and country, taught me some Hungarian, and of course, took me dancing. Wandering around with a guidebook would never have even given me a drop of that experience.

Simply seeing the top sites or activities listed in a book doesn’t tell you about how life in a destination is lived. For me, I travel to know that. Big Ben is great but how Londoners live is more important to me. It makes me appreciate an organization like Couchsurfing even more. Couchsurfing connects you to locals who will let you stay in their home or simply meet for drinks. In Munich, I met locals who took me to a local rock festiva l – an experience I never would have done or known about if not for them. In Broome, I learned about Australian politics. In Denmark, I was taken to a family’s Sunday dinner.

Traveling to a destination doesn’t mean you need to visit place X, Y, or Z in order to have seen it. Sometimes it means closing the guidebook, skipping all the must see’s and do’s you read or were told about, and simply spending time folk dancing in a beer hall with a group of strangers.

If you are going to Budapest, consider staying at my favorite hostel, Aboriginal. You can 20% off your stay when you get my guide to world travel.

comments 25 Comments

Great post.. I wish more people were travelers instead of tourists. The entire experience of a vacation is so much better when you experience other cultures rather than just their main tourist draws. Of course I’d never tell anyone to skip something like Big Ben but instead to devote some additional time to the culture and the people that made such an attraction possible.

Nathan

great article Matt – sounds like you really had a great time there – meeting locals and seeing how THEy really live is for me one of the biggest drives when traveling – so thanks for sharing your experience! :)

Hey Matt,
I’m also a huge fan of couchsurfing mostly for the same reason you mentioned, getting plugged into local life. I first try to contact local couchsurfers instead of foreigners so I can really get a feeling for the real life and culture. I’m a huge lover of food and I always ask local friends to show me a few of the craziest spots to eat that are never in the books and most likely have never been blogged about. The dancing and the food in Budapest looks pretty fun!

NomadicMatt

I was really surprised that Hungarian food was so good. It’s very meat and potato heavy but yeah…I really liked it…

Eugenia

Hi!

Great post, thanks! I am thinking of going to Budapest, among other cities, next year. I should contact Marta! :)

Couldn’t agree with you more! Before I read the part about CS, I was thinking wow this sounds just like my experiences with CS. Love it!!!

NomadicMatt

I’ve met some interesting people over CS. It’s a great site!

Great post. I’ve always had great experiences when I’ve had an introduction to a local. These days usually someone will know someone in the place you’re going and easy to reach out by email in advance even if its just having a drink or coffee with someone once in town.

Looks like fun! I’ll be arriving in Budapest in a few days to live there for the next months (to learn Hungarian). I’ll be mostly hanging out with locals as always. Can’t wait to see what life there is like!

NomadicMatt

I enjoyed Budapest. I’ll be interested to see how much Hungarian you learn!

NomadicMatt

It’s hit or miss. I’ve not gotten along with some of my hosts before.

That is certainly the way to do it. Unfortunately a lot of people on time restraints fail to do this. See the major attractions and move onto the next one. Which can be done virtually by a Google search to be honest. Being there and part of the culture is only something we can experience for real though (and is much more rewarding).

Marta

Hi Matt,
thanks for posting, it was great to read your thoughts and opinion about Budapest and folk dance :)
The name of that spicy food is kobuci :)

NomadicMatt

Everyone, this is my guide Marta! say hello!

Thanks for the private tour of your city!

Good post Matt. I particularly like your closing comments. The best memories come not from seeing the A list sights, but from the chance encounters with strangers. I spent a surreal night once at a party in a gypsy home in Bucharest. It was a wild night, I drank too much, but the hospitality, the humour, the great food and the smiles I received gave me a whole new appreciation of this people’s culture, and it is without doubt the first thing I think of when I recall my time in Romania.

MArk

Hi Matt,
next time you are free to stay at my place if Marta is not around. My place is small but many good people could fit in already… And its just 10 minutes away from the Szechenyi Baths… :-)

I will be in Budapest next Jan but for people like me who know absolutely nothing about this city I must say a guidebook will still be the first reference. I haven’t tried CS yet but I am certainly keen to meet new people and experience more cultures.

Noomi

Holi & la Tomatina look like a lotta fun, def on top of my list! I loooove ridiculous festivals, la tomatina is calling my name… lol

I’ll be in Budapest for a day or two in August with the family before heading to Laka Balaton – still trying to decide how to spend the time

Yes, definitely loved Budapest as well. If you are interesting in getting to know another perspective of the city, along with other pics so you can have even more reasons to visit the city please visit: http://www.tastingtravels.com/buda-pest-a-day-with-the-boss/. Matt I hope you don’t misunderstand this as an ad, but I really liked this city and would do anything to promote it. If you have a problem with this jut delete the comment. Thank you cheers and happy traveling!

I’m making a solo trip to Budapest in October. It will actually be my first time overseas. I can’t wait.

Amazing! I love Couchsurfing and actively try to relax and hang out with locals anytime I go somewhere. What an awesome experience to have!

coffeecream

is there any other hostel to recommend aside from aboriginal?

Lucy

I love Budapest!! The Hungarians are wonderfully nice people, and there’s nothing a shot of pálinka can’t fix! :) The ruin pubs in Budapest are definitely one of the highlights of European nightlife for me!

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