Except for one 10 minute wait to get into a palace in Vienna, we waltzed freely into every tourist trap or treasure with little to no wasted time!
The epic pre-walking tour bundle.
There’s nothing that makes you feel more like a medieval knight than spending half-an-hour layering pants, sweaters, scarves and mittens (yes, I even layer my mittens) before heading to the nearest castle.
No strangers in my pictures.
In the winter you can actually snap shots of iconic castles, famous graffitied walls, and beautiful bridges without Wanda World Traveler or Sandy Snap-Happy messing up your perfect shot.
Who visits northern Hungary in January? Only the bravest souls. So Airbnb hosts and hostels have to pay their guests to stay. We found a beautiful quiet room in the centre of Budapest (surrounded by more restaurants and bars than we could count) for €15 a night–that’s a quarter of the summer price! What a steal.
If you are traveling Europe in the winter, you will not get to choose when to take sightseeing breaks. No, you will be forced to seek refuge at your body’s discretion. The good news is there are more hot alcoholic drink options than you can count. My favourite, so far, is rum and Early Grey tea. I kid you not, the cup was so hot I had to set it on the floor for a bit while carrying it to my table.
Ever wondered what it feels like to be a medieval peasant? Take a three hour walking tour in minus fifteen degrees and helplessly watch as sleet begins to fall from the sky.
Window seat views.
Nothing is so beautiful as a snow capped Slovakian mountain or an ice crusted German forest, especially when they can be experienced from the warmth and comfort of a bus or train. Summer tourists may find public transport or travel days inconvenient, but winter travellers know how to count their blessings.
In Poland, Christmas cheer stretches on into January. So if you haven’t had enough of Christmas carols and evergreen boughs you will find plenty of both in most town squares and some restaurants.
Ice skating and sledding.
Choose an iconic building and then instead of paying the entrance fee, go skating or sledding in front of it!Here are just a few of the winter fun locations we noticed or experienced:
Warsaw, Poland – Palace of Art and Science and old town square both have picture perfect rinks.
Krakow – Galeria Krakowska near the old town.
Prague – Any one of these eight great options.
Kassel, Germany – Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel (Here I speak from experience)
Slovakia – A short walk off of almost any roadway in the beautiful High Tatras mountains
Pat yourself on the back, you could be laying on a beach in Thailand, trying to surf in Australia, or tasting exotic food in India, but instead you are carrying a feather light backpack (since you are wearing every piece of your clothing) and wondering if these castle grounds would be prettier in the summer. You have chosen the road less travelled (at least this time of year) and for that you should be proud! Locals will smile and thank-you for gracing them with your off-season presence. Every restaurant server will forgive your inability to speak their language (due to your incessant shivering). Congratulations, you have earned yourself a travel badge…now get yourself to Istanbul.
With bath time out of the way, there was one more Budapest experience we knew we couldn’t leave without—the ruin bar. Now, if you know me, you know that I’m not exactly the bar hopping type. A few beers with friends, nice background music, maybe a bit of dancing, and in bed by 11pm is my idea of a wild night out. So I was apprehensive to say the least. Fortunately, our path to a ruin bar was set into motion before we had any idea and much before sun down.
It was 10:10am and I was hurriedly stuffing my face with yogurt and granola (cheap + filling = breakfast everyday). Jakob was pulling on a pair of socks that, 3 weeks into the trip, were already full of holes. Then we were dashing out the door and racing down one of Budapest’s busiest streets, full of bars, restaurants, and hostels. We were just in time for our free Budapest walking tour. Jakob had to stop to tie his shoe laces or something, but I was too eager to learn so I hurried on towards the gathering crowd. Suddenly, something didn’t seem quite right. Why can’t I understand a word anyone is saying? Finally, a clear sentence: “Is anyone here for the English language walking tour.” I eagerly raised my hand and glanced around. No? No Americans? No Brits? Not even any Aussies? I thought the Aussies were everywhere! Suddenly, feeling very alone and beginning to worry that they would shrug their shoulders and force me to join the Spanish tour, I glanced around urgently. “Um, my husband is here too somewhere!” Great now they think I have an imaginary husband.
Before long, Jakob showed up and one of the guides hustled us off to a secondary meeting point where we were relieved to find a crowd of English speakers. By the second stop on the tour, we were happily chatting with our guide, when there was a voice from behind us, “Did I hear you say, you’re Canadian?” The voice came from somewhere inside a 5 foot high parka wrapped in a fashionable mustard coloured scarf.
“Yes!” We whipped around simultaneously, “are you Canadian? Where are you from?” We could barely contain our excitement.
“Toronto,” she responded.
I grinned to hide the disappointment from my voice, “o Toronto, awe-some!”
She either didn’t notice or chose to ignore our snobby west coast attitudes. We told her we were from Victoria in British Columbia and she responded with, “o great, Vancouver is a beautiful city.” Classic Toronto.
We chatted a bit more as we walked, but mainly let our prejudices speak for themselves. About two hours later, the walking tour came to an end at the top of a scenic lookout (if it weren’t for the suffocating layer of smog). While Jakob and I were wandering the lookout area, the parka and scarf appeared again, “hey, do you guys have plans?”
A few minutes later, the three of us were sitting at a café just off the square, sipping hot drinks, and actually getting to know each other. Her name was Elyse and she had been teaching English in Istanbul for the past seven years, but was taking a short vacation in Budapest. As she continued to tell us a bit about her life and travels I interrupted, “wait, you live in Istanbul?”
“Yup, I love the city!”
“This is amazing,” I could barely believe the timing, “Jakob and I were just discussing last night whether or not we will be able to fit a trip to Istanbul into our travel plans. I really want to go, but Jakob is a bit more apprehensive, I think he is more comfortable in western Europe.” Jakob looked like he was about to protest, but instead gave a slight nod and had another sip of beer.
Elyse spent the next half an hour convincing us that Istanbul is a must see—Hagia Sophia, falafel, Topkapi Palace, shawarma, Blue mosque, kebab, so much history, so much food—we were sold.
As we left the café and began the 20 minute hike back to where we first started the walking tour, Elyse noticed my hands firmly jammed into my coat pockets. Instantaneously, she produced a pair of knit gloves from her sizeable handbag.
“Here, let me mother you for a second,” she explained. I laughed and gratefully accepted. The conversation shifted to evening plans.
“We’ve been thinking of checking out a ruin bar,” Jakob confessed.
“Me too!” Elyse responded with enthusiasm, “let’s go together!”
We exchanged contact info and agreed to meet up at 8pm… at a visible and safe-looking bank (as one does when partying with strangers in a foreign city). I tried to return the gloves, but Elyse refused. “Keep them, they cost like one lira.” Ok maybe she just thinks my hands are gross, or that my massive fingers must have deformed the fine knit, but I never say ‘no’ to free stuff.
The ruin bar did not disappoint. It was a massive “establishment.” And I use the term “establishment” loosely because it was not very established. The walls were crumbling beneath an array of second hand oddities. There was a toboggan covered in Christmas lights hanging from the roof, a “wall” made completely of old doors, and vintage street signs holding windows in place. Not a single chair or table matched anything, and not a single table could touch the floor with all four feet. Noticing some spillage on our chosen table, Jakob offered to get a cloth to clean it up.
“Darling, this isn’t that sort of place,” Elyse laughed. Just a little graffiti that reminded me of my UVic friends
We started the night off with a round of what our tour guide called Hungarian Vodka (also known by the locals as Palinka). My loving husband had made sure to get me the 40% alcohol option instead of the 50% that he and Elyse braved. Not long after, the coolest Canadians in that bar were deep in discussion of the Holocaust. Yup, not your typical party topic. We found out that Elyse is Jewish and we loved hearing her tell her grandpa’s stories and imitate her grandma’s voice. We laughed and enjoyed a round of delicious Hungarian beers. Before we knew it, 5 hours had passed, we had sat at 4 different tables in the sprawling ruin bar, and met exactly 3 Spanish guys. It was almost 2 am and Elyse decided she didn’t like the guys.
“Something about them is off,” she whispered hurriedly. We nodded, if momma Elyse says so, then it’s time to go. So we bundled up again and set off in search of some late night eats. Sure enough, half way between her hotel and our Airbnb, we found corndogs. None of us could remember the last time we had eaten corndogs, but that didn’t stop us from declaring them the unequivocal best corndogs ever! After a round of hugs, we wished our new favourite Torontonian a good night and headed home.
Six hours later, I woke up to a text from Elyse. “Want to go to the market today?” Yes Elyse, the answer is always yes, we will eat bizarre food and drink delicious drinks with you in a foreign country any day. Can’t wait to see you again in Istanbul!
Growing-up, I had one mental image of Hungary—a steamy close-up of four old men playing chess in a pool. The photo was the feature image for the Hungary page in my family’s massive world travel book. I can’t count the number of times my brothers and I flipped through that book’s tattered pages, dreaming of climbing Machu Pichu, marveling at pictures of Polynesian beaches, and wondering why in the world the authors decided to feature sweaty, hairy, leathery elbows on the Hungary page. Surely couldn’t they have found a photograph of something more quintessentially Hungarian? As it turns out, “The Travel Book” editors weren’t short on stock images. In fact, it took us only about twenty hours in Budapest before we found those very same guys still sitting chest deep in thermal water expertly manipulating chess pieces with pruney fingers.
Hairy dudes aside, our Hungarian bath experience was mesmerizing. Upon arriving at the ostentatious custard yellow bath palace we knew very little about the Hungarian bath experience. I had done a little research (read as: I obsessively read travel blogs) to ensure that this was NOT a nuddie bath. What a relief to see the little sign on the door showing appropriate swimwear. Of all of the sights that I wanted to see in Budapest, saggy boobies was not one of them. Stepping into the crowded lobby we immediately caught the eye of a young woman dressed in an all white spa uniform. While the other bewildered tourists stared blankly at signboards and prices, she briefly discussed massage and bath ticket options with us, raced us to the front of the line, and then whisked us off to the changing area…how did we manage to get such special attention? Maybe she is payed to stand in the lobby, spot haggard backpackers, and then get them out of sight before people start thinking about our dusty toes and sweaty shoulders sharing their bathwater.
The next step in the bath-entry process was a long corridor of wooden doors. Upon closer inspection, they were tiny change stalls, with a door on one side for entering fully clothed, and a door on the opposite side for exiting fully bathing-suited. Basically, it worked something like that part of the fairgrounds where the bulls are corralled into little gated boxes and then when they are all riled up the gate on the other side is jerked open and they are sent out kicking into the rodeo ring. The only thing that made it very different than a rodeo was the fact that the stall doors would not stay shut. So all along the corridor there was a steady succession of bangs as people tried to pull on bathing suits with one hand while also holding the wooden doors on either side shut with whatever body parts were still available. Finally, we emerged from that exhausting experience, to find the white clad spa assistants waiting with smiles pasted on their faces. Were they just standing there that whole time listening to me bang away in that changing stall? We received a rapid fire set of instructions: where to pay for massages, how to open the lockers, where to find the pools. I was more focused on (unsuccessfully) keeping my 10 layers of winter clothing from falling off the hanger and onto the grimy floor. One glance at that floor and I could feel the planter warts beginning to form on the soft white bottoms of my feet. I watched an American couple just a few lockers away grow red faced as they tried to ask another spa attendant for a towel.
“Yes can we get a towel?”
Seeing their pain I held up my towel (which I had brought along, my parents taught me to always be prepared!).
“Yes,” they exclaimed, “See, a towel!”
The spa attendant just shrugged her shoulders and shook her head. The couple stared around in exasperation. I could swear I had just heard that attendant speaking English a few moments ago…selective hearing perhaps?
With a sympathetic glance to the Americans, Jakob and I followed our spa attendant into the maze of pools. Each corridor led to larger and more elaborate chambers, each filled with an assortment of pools at various temperatures.
“You see,” she said turning to us, “we are just walking straight through.”
I nodded and smiled. Although I did not “see” and I certainly did not think we were going “straight” and I definitely would be lost the second she left us. But I wanted to appear agreeable so as to avoid a linguistic freeze out (like that American couple).
About ten minutes later, I stopped caring about planter warts, language, and getting lost, because we were too busy wading through chest deep thermal water, in a breathtaking Renaissance style courtyard. The steam coming off the 37° water was so thick in places that I could see nothing beyond my finger tips. My pulse raced. Where did Jakob go? What if I lost my husband in Budapest? As my mind jumped to the worst possible conclusions, I spotted a familiar sight. Four old men holding themselves out of the water with their elbows and between them—a chess board. I found them!!! My excitement may have been a bit disproportional. I turned around and swam back into the steam (with renewed courage) and almost ran right into Jakob. “Come look, I found the chess guys!” It’s safe to say he wasn’t quite as excited.