Bridget Gleeson writer + illustrator

36 Utterly Selfish Hours in Budapest

I skipped the museums. But I had breakfast in the subway, pretended to shop for apples and saw lots of beautiful Hungarian women.

In the travel magazine world, it’s de rigueur to run pieces like ’36 Hours in Paris’ or ’48 Hours in Helsinki.’ The suggested itineraries always pack in the must-see museums, restaurants and entertainment – you use them, I use them, they’re great, they’re practical. But when faced with the opportunity to visit Budapest for just 36 hours this week, I knew I wouldn’t be following the New York Times’ itinerary. I mean, I write this kind of article for a living! Almost every trip I take is for work. When I have a chance to take a short personal getaway, I’m quick to throw out the playbook and just do exactly what pleases me – to live out my wildest European dreams of cheese and chocolate and streetcars and markets.

(And my wildest dreams, if I have 36 hours, do not involve museums. Unless you count eating a croissant on the steps of the Hungarian National Museum as ‘visiting museums.’)

Which isn’t to say that there weren’t a few traditional items on my list of things to do. My dreams do happen to include old cafés, castles, and thermal baths, so I did all of those….

Breakfast at Centrál Kávéház (Café Central), established in 1887.

               Walking around Buda Castle (left) and dipping into the waters of Szechenyi Bath & Spa (right), one of the largest public baths in Europe (more here)

What else made the cut?

Walking after midnight (ok, not that late, I’m a solo female traveler. But I loved the illuminated bridges, the cyclists, the outdoor bars in the park, on a warm autumn evening.)

Imaginary food shopping for an imaginary dinner at Nagycsarnok (Great Market Hall)

Breakfast in the subway station. One thing I miss about living in Europe is the aroma of baking pastries in the metro. I picked up a pair of chocolate croissants and enjoyed the second one on the steps of the Hungarian National Museum while staring, perplexed, at a local language guide.

Hanging out in the lobby of a glamorous old hotel and eating Csángó Gulyás (Hungarian goulash) in a very touristy restaurant that would never make it into a travel magazine.

(What can I say, I was hungry. And it was delicious, served in a tiny bucket!)

Observing the beautiful women of Budapest in their natural habitat.

And, of course, loitering in the train station. I have a thing for old-fashioned train stations and their cafés.

What a delicious day and a half it was. I’m over-caffeinated, my feet hurt, my camera battery is dead.

I missed the tour of the Parliament building and I still can’t say three words in Hungarian.

But I did exactly what I wanted – and it was everything I thought it could be.