We’re starting to learn that bad travel days are more than just a fluke…they’re slowly becoming a way of life. Upon leaving Zakopane, we returned to Krakow then had just enough time for dinner before getting on our eight-hour night bus to Budapest. We settled in to our ‘extra legroom’ seats, queued up some podcasts, and waited for sleep to hit. Only sleep never hit either of us. It seemed like every time I’d drift off to sleep, I’d be jolted awake by the bus turning sharply or slamming on the brakes. Alex had it even worse - he never managed to doze off even for a few minutes. Occasionally I’d glance over and he’d be staring out the window with his earbuds in, looking exhausted and altogether miserable. It seemed like the entire ride was designed to be as twisty and nausea-inducing as possible.
Once we got off the bus in Budapest, grateful though we were to be standing on solid ground again, we were groggy and delirious and in desperate need of a rest. Worse still, since it wasn't yet 6 a.m. we knew we couldn’t check into our hostel for at least another eight hours. Fortunately, although we hadn't planned for the sleep deprivation (silly us), we had at least planned for our early morning arrival, and so we knew of at least one establishment that would definitely be open: the Szechenyi Thermal Baths. If you’ve ever seen photos of Budapest, you've likely seen pictures of this bath house with its iconic domed roofs, outdoor pools and yellow walls. It’s the biggest and most famous thermal bath in the city, and luckily for us, it opens daily at 6:00 a.m. sharp.
We got there practically as the doors were opening up, paid for a private ‘cabin’ (more like a small damp closet to get changed in), and whipped on our swimsuits with a speed that defied our zombie-like state. Winding through the maze-like interior to the indoor bath area, we found a suitable-looking pool to wade into and sat for what felt like hours before we felt alive enough to move again. It was at that point that we noticed we must have been at least 30 or 40 years younger than the next youngest patron. Turns out early morning is when all the senior citizens visit Szechenyi - the thermal water is said to have some dramatic health benefits, so it’s no surprise it’s become a sort of meeting place for the elderly residents of Budapest. Once in a while one of the old Hungarian men would kind of nod and smile at us as if to say ‘look at the tourists over there!’ but mostly they just ignored us, which was fine with us as neither of us was capable of interacting normally with other humans at that time.
As the hours passed, we moved from bath to sauna to steam room and back, working our way around the entire building. The facility is enormous - there are dozens of different baths and rooms, and all the signage is in Hungarian which is basically unintelligible to the casual observer, so we had a hell of a time getting around. Eventually, though, we found the door leading to the famous outdoor baths, snagged some lawn chairs, and passed out in the sunlight for a couple hours. We emerged from our naps feeling hugely refreshed, and by the time we left the baths to head to our hostel, we almost felt like we had recovered from not only the sleepless night, but our exhausting few days of hiking in Zakopane.
Our arrival in Budapest coincided with the arrival of an intense heat wave which sent temperatures above 100 degrees several days in a row. The upside of this was that as we strolled around taking photos during the day, we were pretty much the only people around - the entire Parliament square was completely empty and there were only a handful of people on our lift to the castle. Of course, the downside was that it was too damn hot to do much of anything for very long, so once we had finished our sightseeing by late morning, the rest of our time in the city was largely spent dodging from air-conditioned bar to air-conditioned bar, sampling Hungarian wine and occasionally taking breaks to eat ice cream (it was too hot for real food).
Luckily, we didn't feel like we missed out on all that much by spending most of our days holed up in the shade being lazy. Budapest is very much a city where the best thing to do is just stroll around and take everything in, so we didn’t feel like we missed out on any must-see sites or tourist activities.
One thing we did, which we’ve actually been trying to do since Amsterdam, is visit an escape room. We randomly stumbled upon one as we were walking down the street, checked its reviews on TripAdvisor (five stars) and popped in to make a reservation for the following night. Turns out the room was Ancient Egypt themed. If you know me, you know I’m obsessed with all things Ancient Egypt and have been since I was a little kid, so I was in heaven, and the soundtrack from The Mummy was the background music which really just made it a million times better. The experience was awesome: I’ve done lame escape rooms before where there are too many rules and keys and pointless backstories but this was 100 percent puzzles with no written instructions and no preface, so you just had to dive right in and start trying stuff. The level of immersion was unreal: it really felt like we were trapped in an Egyptian tomb with hieroglyphics and scarab beetles and everything. We escaped just in the nick of time, and the employee on duty actually rewarded us with a bottle of bubbly for our efforts. Not too shabby. The escape room was called TRAP and they’re actually in many cities worldwide, and we would highly recommend them.
Since all we ever did during the day was laze around, the nights became our time to shine. It would cool off ever so slightly - no more deadly laser glare from the sun, but it was still hot enough to walk around in a tank top and shorts. Those were ideal conditions for enjoying the outdoor dining and bar scene Budapest is known for. We hadn't realized before coming, but there’s one thing in particular that sets Budapest’s nightlife apart: the ruin pubs.
Ruin pubs are these huge bars built in old abandoned buildings - hence the ‘ruin.’ The most famous one is Szimpla Kert, and for good reason: it’s several stories high and consists of countless little rooms including a couple regular bars, a wine bar, a hookah lounge, a salsa dancing room (!), and a couple different stages for DJs and live music. The entire interior is open-air and is decorated with string lights, old tapestries, and lots of vintage knickknacks. It was the kind of place where you could get lost for days, and in fact we went every night we were in Budapest. We’d grab a couple glasses of Hungarian wine, sit in the courtyard area, and people-watch before getting up to explore the vast upstairs. One night we challenged some other tourists to a game of foosball and lost spectacularly, and another time we watched a cover band play some of U2’s greatest hits.
Between the ruin pubs and the heat wave, our visit to Budapest was extremely low-key, but that's kind of what we needed. In Poland - Zakopane especially - we were constantly active, pushing our bodies and minds to their limits, and we really needed to take a few days to just be lazy and recover from the strain. We also desperately needed to catch up on the blog and on our lives back home. We’re starting to learn that we have to make time to relax and take a break from our travel plans to avoid feeling overwhelmed, and Budapest was fortunately the perfect place to chill for a few days. We definitely hope to come back and take in more of what the city has to offer, but for now it was just what we needed at this point in our trip.