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Getting Lost Searching for a gem in Budapest

Short city break tourism to Budapest has been steadily building since 2004, when Hungary joined the EU. It started with stag parties, which you still see of course, but grew to include people who were genuinely interested in seeing the sights of Budapest.

Why not ditch the guide book, at least for a while, and just wander around exploring the city at your leisure?

Today, the Hungarian government has what seems like a hugely ambitious aim to increase the contribution of tourism to the country’s GDP from 10% to 16% by 2030.

Much of this growth will, I guess, be built on the steady rise in popularity of short breaks to Budapest. But why have short city breaks become so popular?

Experts suggest that there are three main reasons. Because more of us are living in cities, the argument goes that we feel more comfortable in them than in, say, beach resorts. The rise of Ryanair (founded in 1985) and easyJet (1995) and the rest made air travel to cities more affordable. Technology has made it easier than ever before for us to book a hotel or an apartment and find out everything we ought to know before we travel – we’re hyper-informed.

The problem with being hyper-informed is that we think we know all about a city before we get there. But do we? I’ve only been exploring Budapest for three years and I haven’t even scratched the surface of the surface.

Having a thoroughly worked out itinerary to enable us to “do” a city can also mean that we miss its special magic.

Let’s get Lost!

Curious about the history of tourism in Budapest, I took the number nine bus out to Óbuda in search of the Hungarian Museum of Trade and Tourism. I’m a great fan of quirky museums and this one sounded right up my street. Here’s how it’s described by Lonely Planet: “This excellent little museum traces Budapest’s catering and hospitality trade through the ages, including the dramatic changes post-WWII… A gem.”

The only problem was that, despite good old Google maps, the Hungarian Museum of Trade and Tourism turned out not to be up any street I could find.

Back in Deák Ferenc tér, I decided simply to drift through the city. To the casual observer, I may have looked aimless, but the words of the great 19th century French poet and lover of cities Charles Baudelaire were, in fact, my guide. Baudelaire wrote: “The life of our city is rich in poetic and marvelous subjects. We are enveloped and steeped as though in an atmosphere of the marvelous; but we do not notice it.”

As I wandered through the city, I found the excellent Wave Music record shop on Révay köz, just off Bajcsy-Zsilinsky út, and browsed while I listened to the owner discuss jazz colossus John Coltrane with a distinguished American gent with a silvery beard.

Waiting to cross the street, I was cheerfully accosted by the worst living statue I’ve ever seen in my life. If the point of being a living statue is to stand absolutely still in an especially difficult posture, this guy failed miserably.

He was dressed in a half-hearted approximation of a Roman Centurion’s costume sprayed bronze, grinning and waving his arms around. In one hand he held a bottle of pink Hungarian fizz. I later saw him passed out under a bench up at Deák Ferenc tér.

Strolling up to the square, I watched as a very short lady beggar was collected in a wheelchair by what I guess must have been her daughter. In one sense the normality of the scene would fuel the argument of anyone who believes beggars are con artists. But I found the scene rather charming in its bizarre almost-normality.

Rich and Marvelous City

It seems to me that only by mooching through a city do you open yourself up to the possibility of discovering its “rich and marvelous” subjects, as Baudelaire wrote.

I’d also humbly suggest that, while consulting some sort of a guide to a city is necessary, there’s such a thing as being too cool. At the very least, I find out where the supposedly hippest part is in any city I visit. Even though, at my ripe old age, all hip districts tend to, if not look exactly the same, offer precisely the same things – usually tattoo shops, barbers and retro clothes outlets.

As far as I know, the hippest district in Budapest is still the Eighth. I just found out that the outer part of the area is known as the Harlem of Budapest. I wonder why? Is it a place of pilgrimage for jazz-lovers? Or is it just incredibly dangerous? I shall find out and report back.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking to see sides of Budapest far from the touristic beaten track, I suggest you do as I did, and get lost. Start by taking a bus to a district that, on the face of it, has absolutely nothing to recommend it.

And, I hope you’ll find that once your eyes are opened to the city, they stay open. As my train pulled out of Nyugati train station – designed by Gustav Eiffel, of Parisian tower fame, if you didn’t know – I noticed to my right a large wooden cage peeking above the trees, filled with parrots or parakeets. A little further on, I saw what looked like a fake mountain. What’s that all about?

Find out about the Museum of Trade and Tourism at www.mkvm.hu. Wave Music record shop is at Révay Köz 1. For the rest, explore at will!