Tag Archives: tourist attractions

The story of Szimpla Kert

Budapest is an odd little city, and part of what makes it odd also makes it cool. Budapest is home to ruin bars, and a visit to the capital of Hungary isn’t complete without a drink (or two) at one of these bars which are unique to the city and unlike nearly anything else I’ve ever seen [and for the non-drinkers among us, most of these places have offerings such as  fresh lemonade,coffee, or devine hot chocolate].  I visited my first ruin bar during my first visit to the city in January 2013. Back then, I did Budapest’s version of a ‘pub tour’ and got to visit quite a few of these establishments. My favourite by far is Szimpla Kert, a garden/pub/cafe/souvenir shop/farmer’s market/local hangout/shisha bar.  Whatever you can think of, it’s happening here.

Budapest Ruin Pubs

Known by locals as ‘romkocsma’ (ruin pub in Hungarian), these pubs have been a part of the drinking culture for over a dozen years. Every one is unique but, more often than not, a ruin pub in Budapest will have a rundown and slightly sketchy exterior that completely contradicts the vibrant colours and unique ambience you’ll find inside. Filled with second hand furniture and nearly anything funky picked off the curb, these formerly abandoned buildings are now pretty integral to Budapest. And it all seems to have started in the city’s 7th district.

 

The neighbourhood was largely damaged and neglected after World War II and it’s said that ruin pubs are what changed the district’s future for the better. Where many saw abandoned factories and deteriorating apartment complexes, the people behind Szimpla saw potential. Over the years, the transformation of these buildings (and now others across the city) led to an entirely new concept in Budapest that is pretty darn cool.


 

The Story of Szimpla Kert

Szimpla originally opened in 2002 as an indoor cafe in a location a few blocks away from its current location, but the ruin pub trend didn’t actually begin until 2004 when they relocated to their current address at 14 Kazinczy Street.  Before Szimpla moved in, the area was a relatively quiet spot in the VII District or Jewish Quarter, and the future ‘pub’ was a dilapidated building was a former stove factory. Through the magic of vision, it was transformed into one of the coolest, most eclectic bars I have ever seen.

It was first opened as Szimpla Kertmozi [kertmozi means garden cinema in Hungarian] and their large courtyard was the place to hangout and watch underground/indie films. While they’re still known to play the occasional outdoor movie, Szimpla Kert has come a long way in the last 13+ years.

Budapest Ruin Pubs - Szimpla Spiral Staircase

One of the criticisms of Szimpla Kert is that approximately 80% of the guests are non-Hungarian.  In fact, while the menu and signs were in Hungarian, the languages I heard most often were English [Australian version], German, and maybe Czech [I’m a little fuzzy on that one]. Nonetheless the place represents the rebirth of Budapest.  It represents entrepreneurship and making use of the architectural opportunities of the city – even if that means the city’s ruins. Szimpla Kert changed Budapest’s international image and unintentionally created the “ruin pub” genre, for which Budapest is now famous around the world.

It’s hard to put the atmosphere into words but I’ll try… Narrow hallways and spiral staircases take you through the indoor/outdoor are where you’ll encounter dozens of rooms varying in size and usually with their own theme. When it comes to the decor,  anything goes; don’t be surprised to see a bicycle hanging from the ceiling, a clawfoot tub being used as a loveseat, a robot dancing in a phone booth or a Trabant car smack in the middle of the garden. You’ll find graffiti, funky art and pretty much everything that doesn’t ‘belong’ in a pub. And yet, it all makes perfect sense. Everything fits. Even the row of seats taken straight out of a theatre. And the neon kangaroo that was probably once part of an amusement park.

Countless other ruin pubs have followed in the footsteps of Szimpla. So much so that there are now even specifically designed venues aiming to be romkocsma-esque. The idea of converting buildings that lay in ruin into lively venues seems so simple in its resourcefulness that the idea has taken off in other cities in Europe too.

 

 

 

 

The Sunday Farmer’s Market

I’m a sucker for a good market and the city of Budapest has many. But most are closed on Sunday and only one is inside a ruin pub. Each Sunday, from 9am till 2pm, Szimpla Kert transforms into a garden of charming farmers’ market stands. There are several local vendors selling everything from fresh bread to veggies, organic spreads and even truffles. There’s also a new all-you-can-eat brunch Sunday morning in their salon upstairs with local ingredients served buffet-style.

Szimpla farmers’ market breakfast meat spread

 

Szimpla for Coffee

They have great coffee. They have free wifi. Need I say more? Most wouldn’t think to take an afternoon coffee break at a ruin pub but I actually think Szimpla is a really great place to visit during the day. You get a chance to see how bizarre some of the decor is and you’ll be sure to discover a corner or an entire room you might have missed while visiting at night. You can even bring your pet in with you (except during the farmer’s market). Another reason Szimpla Kert is great for that coffee date is it’s nice and quiet. Because silence is something you can bet you won’t find here on a Friday night. Or any night actually…

 

 

 

 

 

I hope by now you’ve come to realize that Szimpla Kert is more than just a bar. It’s an iconic place in Budapest with an obvious presence in the community and you can be sure if I ever find myself in Budapest again, I’ll be looking forward to seeing what cool and amazing things they have added there.

Szimpla Kert is cash only and for more information, opening hours and all current events, you can visit their website.

Unexpected Love: Seattle

Opposite attract, they say. Whoever ‘THEY’ are, they are right, at least in this case.

Me:  Small-town Southern girl, likes quiet nights by the bonfire, wide-open spaces, tree-frogs and cicadas, roads with no traffic, sunny, summer days, and hot, sultry, summer nights.

top of Seattle
Seattle: One of the top 20 largest cities in the USA, compact, traffic everywhere [but certainly not unmanageable], modern, progressive, cool, drizzly in fall and winter, crisp in Spring/Summer, insanely pretty… pretty much opposite in every way what I am used to.

I’m not sure why I’ve never visited Seattle before because there are so many things about the city that is awesome. My first visit in May 2012 I did all the touristy things like visit the Space Needle, hang out at Pike Place Market, go see the Seattle Sounders match, and visit some of the city’s best museums. I was also staying in a neighborhood [Green Lake] with friends so I got a different perspective than staying a city hotel.  I went back to the city in October 2014, stayed in a different area [Queen Anne] and explored a slightly different side of Seattle [and then again in October 2016 for a quick visit before exploring more of Washington].  I did a city hike, explored gas works park, took a ferry across Elliott Bay, ate some amazing food [It happened to be restaurant week], and said hello to Lenin and the troll in Fremont.

Home of Starbucks and the Space Needle, Jimi Hendrix and the grunge movement [hello Everclear, my favorite 90s band… yes, I know they are from Portland], Pike Place Market and the Seahawks, Sounders, and SuperSoncis, Seattle is definitely a place worth visiting. Despite its stereotype of being gray and wet [it rained like 5% of the time i was there], Seattle is a place that I could conceivably call home… you know, if I ever leave the South and want to live in close proximity to a big city.

First tip: I’ve used CityPasses before is some of the other larger cities I’ve visited and found it to be a good value in terms of sites and cost. So I sought out a Seattle City Pass, which let me visit 6 of Seattle’s top destinations and activities, and though not part of the City Pass, my friend Cameron had a season pass to the Sounders, and couldn’t make it, so score! I got to go to my first Major League Soccer match.

The pass covers the Space Needle [2X–once during the day and once at night], the Seattle Aquarium, a harbor cruise, EMP, Woodland Park Zoo and Pacific Science Center or Chihuly gardens.

Here’s what I got to squeeze in:

    • Space Needle–The best-known feature in Seattle’s skyline, the Space Needle was built in 1961 in time for Seattle to host the 1962 World’s Fair. The 605-foot structure was a bit of an engineering feat [nerd factor:  the “bottom” of the Needle is actually 30 feet underground to bring its center of gravity lower], and it has come to represent Seattle in everything from postcards to television shows. You can dine at the revolving SkyCity Restaurant, 500 feet off the ground, or check out the Observation Deck at 520 feet, which gives views out over downtown Seattle and Puget Sound. With your City Pass, take the elevators up once during the day, and then return at dusk to witness darkness falling over Seattle and the city lighting up.

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check out those blue skies and high cirrus clouds

top of Seattle

    • Starbucks [the original one]–While at Pike Place, head across the street from the market and visit the world’s very first Starbucks. It was from this unassuming location that the coffee giant began its world domination in 1971. After hours, is about the only time you can get a photo without a ton of people standing in line.

The Original Starbucks

    • pretending to be Jimi Hendrix at Experience Music Project

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    • the glass garden–Glass artist Dale Chihuly is originally from Washington, and the Gardens and Glass at Seattle Center is a permanent exhibit of some of his work. Indoors, you’ll find large glass exhibits lit up in darkened rooms, and outdoors are glass sculptures that blend in to the gardens. It opened the week I was there so I can say I was among the first to visit the museum.

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    • Seattle Aquarium–With the pass in hand, pop on in to the Seattle Aquarium. You’ll see all sorts of fish and sea creatures, but the real must-sees here are the room of Puget Sound natives (fish and plant life), and the otters and fur seals. Learn about the kinds of life found in the waters around Seattle, and then head into the building next door to watch some adorable sea and river otters frolicking, and some massive fur seals swimming around in zoo-like enclosures.

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    • Harbor Cruise in Eliot Bay

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    • Museum of Flight at Boeing Field–I am such an #av8geek, that this was a must for me. The Museum of Flight covers all aspects of flight history – from the very first airplanes to space travel. There’s one gigantic warehouse space filled with all manner of aircraft, a mock control tower, a space exhibit, rooms dedicated to WWI and WWII, and even commercial jets and an old Air Force One plane outside that you can walk through. It not only includes planes of all shapes and sizes, but also interactive features and tons of history to read about. You can book bi-plane rides outside the museum, or (if you’ve really got the money), sign up to ride in a B-17 or B-24 bomber.

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And beautiful mountain ranges surrounding the city.

Oh and nearby vampires in Forks.

Let’s get naked

Let me preface this was that I never intended to get naked. It was a frigid January day in Budapest, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from exploring.  Bundled up in all the clothing I had with me, I set out from my hostel in the historic part of Buda. The steam rising out of the drain cover caught my attention first. I paced along the walkway, limbs mechanical yet numb, face frozen, eyes rimmed with weather-induced tears. All the while thinking ” was not made for this kind of weather.”

budapest snow
Everyone was cold. I saw it in the hunched shoulders and stooped spines of the commuters who huddled past, bundled beneath thick fur coats, scarves and fur hats.  Which was why the drain surprised me.

Whimsical fingers of mist curled through the gaps, growing thinner as they spiraled up towards the sky. The sky which experience told me still loomed overhead, but which I avoided looking at in case I inadvertently exposed another sliver of my neck to Budapest’s biting air.

budapest-thermal-baths

Clouds of steam teased me from the outside–“Was it because the water was really that warm or because it was really that cold” I wondered.  I knew with absolute certainty that the concrete surface surrounding the thermal baths was freezing cold.  I had no idea whether the ‘thermal’ pool I had just paid money to use would be steaming hot or just slightly warmer than the below freezing winter air temperatures. Hoping that the steam was not a false promise, my toes tested the water below.  A split second passed before I internally began singing the Hallelujah chorus.

Warmth tickled my toes. And it was a small piece of  heaven. I stumbled down the remaining steps sliding deeper and deeper into the warm water.  I am sure people stared at me when I let out an audible sigh of relief. Luckily, it wasn’t too crowded at this bathing suit optional bath I had chosen to immerse myself in. Not knowing exactly what to do, I just sat there, naked, in my pool of hot water…watching snowflakes get eaten up by the steamy waters.

Budapest is well know for its thermal baths and Szechenyi didn’t disappoint.  It has held the title “City of Spas” since the year 1934, as it has more thermal and medicinal water springs than any other capital city in the world. There are 118 springs in Budapest, providing over 70 million liters of thermal water a day. The temperature of the waters is between 21 and 78 Celsius.  Budapest’s thermal waters were enjoyed by the Romans as early as the 2nd century, but it was only during the Turkish occupation of Hungary in the 16th century that the bath culture really started flourishing.  Today, there are 15 public thermal baths in Budapest, not counting the private thermal spas established in some luxury hotels, such as the Ramada Plaza, Thermal Hotel Margitsziget and the Corinthia Royal, which have their own spas that you can enjoy.

In some of them you can even keep your clothes on.

Twice as fast as a tortoise sprinting

When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.  For there is in London all that life can afford.

The world is a big place and the more I see of it, the more I realize there is so much to see…which is why I like to return to place later on.  Every time I return to a previously visited place, I feel like I can dig in a little deeper, get to know it a little bit better.  I can visit familiar places and discover new ones.  It’s as if I’m turning a casual acquaintance into a life long friend.

Places change; they aren’t stagnant.  People can change, grow and evolve over time and so can cities.  Take London for example.  It’s a much different place in 2000 than in was in 1000.  It’s even different than it was during my first visit in 1997.  Every time you visit a place, you get fresh eyes and new perspectives. There hasn’t been a single time that have I gone back to a place I’ve been to before and said, wow, nothing’s changed…  It’s just as I remember it.  Not once. Not ever.

A modern marvel of London is The London Eye, first named the Millennium Wheel.  Standing on Whitehall Bridge facing Lambeth Bridge – look over your right shoulder and you see “Big Ben” and the houses of Parliament; look over your left shoulder and you see The London Eye.  Ancient and modern melding together.  This is one of the beauties of London architecture, and you find it on nearly every street corner.

On my first trip to London, the eye hadn’t even begun construction yet. [Construction began in 1998 to be finished by 2000 and to be taken down in 2005].  Now, it dominates the skyline [from certain angles].  It is a massive 443 feet tall [it is not a Ferris wheel. It’s the world’s tallest cantilevered observation wheel] and makes one revolution in a whopping 30 minutes. [Capsules travel at a leisurely pace of 26 cm per second, which is twice as fast as a tortoise sprinting] You can see up to 40 kilometres in all directions on a clear day.  The 32 capsules on the London Eye are representative of the 32 London boroughs, but despite there only being 32 capsules, for superstitious reasons they are numbered 1 – 33. For good luck number 13 is left out [Bummer for me…13 is my favorite number].