BUDAPEST—I’m deep underground and moving slowly. It’s dark here in Szemlo-hegyi Cave, part of an extensive cave system under Budapest, but well-placed lights illuminate our path.
Budapest is famous for its thermal hot springs, but rich mineral waters have also carved out a large cave system beneath the city. Budapest and the surrounding area are a mecca for caving enthusiasts. Happily, you don’t need to be a caving expert to see this side of the Hungarian capital.
I’m halfway through a three-hour caving tour. Our local guide is part of the Hungarian Caving Association and he knows his stuff. In Szemlo-hegyi, often called the Underground Garden of Budapest, he shows us how mineral deposits have created stones that look like popcorn, cauliflower, and peas. He also shares his humorous take on life in Budapest, and that’s just as fun to hear about.
Szemlo-hegyi Cave has paved narrow paths throughout the cave system, and most of the tour is wheelchair accessible. However, our next stop, Palvolgyi Caves, has steep stairs, a few ladders, and narrow passages.
The 12.4-mile-long Pal-volgyi-Matyas-hegyi cave system is part of Duna-Ipoly National Park. The caves are known for stunning stalagmite and stalactite formations. It’s exciting to squeeze through the tight rock passages and past underwater pools as we explore these underground works of nature.
Later, we visit a different kind of cave—the Hospital in the Rock. These man-made tunnels deep in the Buda Castle Labyrinth were used as an underground hospital in World War II, especially during the Siege of Budapest. They were used again to treat the wounded during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.
As we tour the Hospital in the Rock Museum, I’m sobered by the painful memories of war here, but admire those who bravely helped in time of need.
Hungarian Cuisine With a Local
One of the best parts of traveling is learning about a destination from local experts. And what better way to learn about a place than through its food?
Withlocals is a company that connects travelers with locals through food and experience. Their private food tours in Budapest are an excellent introduction to Hungarian cuisine. The tour starts right where many locals start their own shopping—at the Great Market Hall, the largest and oldest indoor market in Budapest.
After sampling Hungarian sausage, it’s off to try Csalamada, a typical Hungarian preserve of spiced vegetables. Other local favorites, like Goulash, Fröccs, and chimney cake, are also part of the experience.
While sampling local cuisine is fun, I’ve always had a sweet tooth. One of my favorite things to do in Budapest is to visit coffeehouses and confectioneries. Coffeehouses are an institution in Budapest. Artists, intellectuals, and poets would often gather here to meet, discuss, and create.
Though with time, some of these revered coffeehouses and confectioneries have vanished, many have been restored to their former glory. Today, they are still a favorite place to meet for coffee and scrumptious pastries. Top locations include the baroque Ruszwurm Confectionery, which has been in operation since 1827, and Café Gerbeaud, which is one of the oldest and most famous cafés of Europe.
Nightlife in Budapest has a unique twist—ruin bars. Ruin bars are pubs that have been created in old or run-down buildings in ramshackle condition, and they are the rage in Budapest. These unusual locales continue to grow in popularity and are now popular with locals and visitors.
Many ruin pubs are in Budapest’s old District VII neighborhood (the historic Jewish Quarter) in the ruins of old stores, lots, and abandoned buildings.
Budapest suffered damage in World War II, and some parts of the city were never quite restored. These neighborhoods proved the perfect place to develop an underground bar scene, which is not so underground anymore.
Each ruin bar is different, with an eclectic feel. Antique or castaway furniture that look like it’s from your grandmother’s house is often used to create a quirky design.
My friends and I are eager to experience Budapest’s famed ruin pubs. We start the evening at Doboz, a large ruin bar that features local art in an old courtyard and building. Then we stop by Extra, a club bar garden, before dancing the night away at the whimsical Fogashaz, a fusion of nightclub, community arts center, and ruin pub.
During my last evening in Budapest, I check off an experience that’s been on my bucket list—seeing Budapest at night from the Danube. If you’ve ever seen photos of the Hungarian capital, you know that the city is stunning at night. All along the river, lights illuminate Budapest’s historic buildings, including its massive Parliament. Many companies offer night cruises, including romantic dinner cruises.
On our 90-minute cruise, the wind whips through the ship as my friends and I stand at the rails and watch Budapest float past. We wrap up in blankets, and soak in the experience. It’s a fitting way to end a trip to Budapest.
Janna Graber has covered travel in more than 45 countries. She is the editor of three travel anthologies, including “A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women’s Travel,” and is the managing editor of Go World Travel Magazine.