Our resident hedonist Ben Rhodes reports back from the Budapest Essentials festival, a city-wide fiesta… that mercifully doesn’t involve tents, mosquitoes or wellies.

If you have already travelled to the Hungarian capital, you will likely agree with my fellow Urban Travel Blogger Stuart Wadsworth that “Budapest is a city which demands your attention“, thanks to its delicious mix of old world elegance and rough-edged contemporary culture. Combine these year-round staple attractions with a heavy dose of eclectic DJs and bands, and shake vigorously with deals at the best pubs, cafés and restaurants in town, and you’ll be close to imagining the cocktail of experiences that make up the Budapest Essentials festival.

A winning cocktail of culture, sightseeing, music and nightlife

Budapest Essentials is an epic four day fiesta that takes place across the city (mainly on the “Pest” rather than “Buda” side of the river) in early June each year. You buy a wristband that gives you access to gigs, day tours, entry to the famous baths, and discounts at local bars and restaurants. Unlike many city festivals there is no ring-fenced areas where events are held, rather it happens throughout the city itself, encouraging you to take advantage of the vast array of day and night-time activities at your own pace. One local bar manager taking part in the event described the festival as “co-opetition”; cooperation and competition by small Budapest businesses that allows them to be greater than the sum of their parts for one weekend: for the benefit of themselves, the city and the festival goers.

Below are some of the personal highlights I experienced during the Essentials festival 2014, many of which in fact are on offer any time of the year. (For even more info, the festival’s official website has a mega montage video of what went down in twenty fourteen, and is of course also the best place to check out what will be happening in 2015 and subsequent years).

Exploring the City

An ever-increasing phenomenon in Budapest is worn-out architectural gems being reclaimed by the youthful city population, rather than being left to rot away unloved. The most obvious example is the trend for ruin pubs, which has been going on for well over a decade now, but there are also even more creative uses. For example Paloma has transformed the courtyard and first floor of Wagner house into a centre of contemporary arts and craft, where you can buy everything from handmade leather belts to vintage wedding planning or pop-art cushions, and was one of my favourite spots for a leisurely browse.

Paloma creative scene

A more run-down, anarchic, creative commune centre is Muszi – you will have to find the decrepit door on Blaha Lujza, and make your way upstairs to the rag-doll combination of café, theatre, fusbol and even barbers! Budapest has also pioneered a new trend for “Escape Games” with the city’s ramshackle buildings an ideal location for spending the most thrilling hour of your life (full article coming soon on Urban Travel Blog… subscribe if you don’t want to miss it!).

Gastronomic Gratification

I found that the Jewish Quarter’s ramshackle streets, brimming with cafes and restaurants, was a great place to start a culinary expedition. Macesz Huszar offers a trip back in time to a 1950s Jewish grandma’s front room, serving up a plethora of traditional bean and stew dishes (although I’m not sure grandma would have served the gherkin and eggs pictured below in such a phallic manner!).

Grandma Huszar was thinking of other things when plating the main course

The Hungarian wines on offer at Innio are well worth trying, where the tasting menu expertly matches local Rieslings, Chardonnays and Sauternes with the savoury dishes. If you are down near the Danube try Kiosk for modern European food served in a vast bare-bricked warehouse with seating overlooking the river, or munch on some world-renowned gateaux at Gerbeaud patisserie.

Budapest is renowned for its ruin “garden” pubs (kerts), many of which have entertained more than one Urban Travel Blogger in the past. Since the editor penned this feature article on the ruin bars there have been a couple of developments to the scene. Just opened in 2014 is Farm, where the owner Jack has created a more refined, less “ruined”, kert that operates a sustainable ethos – all of the tasty tapas are sourced from local, organic ingredients and there is even a farmers’ market in the courtyard on Sunday mornings. The kerts have also branched out from being just pubs to nightclubs too, with Otkert pumping out crowdpleasers in its courtyard until the wee hours. Szimpla, the original and largest ruin pubs, is still a must-see for pub aficionados, as it has not lost any of its decrepit nook-and-cranny charm, even if it has now been discovered by stag parties as well as locals.

Music & Nightlife

Budapest Essentials really comes to life at night, with a smorgasbord of gigs and DJ sets dotted around the city. You are given a map as well as the website to help you plan your nights and squeeze in as much as possible. Below is a selection from UTB’s Saturday night, and it’s also worth checking out our post on the Top Five Rooftop Bars in Budapest (coming soon!).

Our Saturday evening started in the outdoor ampthitheatre at Aquarium nightclub, where our vivacious guide Dora tipped us off about a secret gig by the teenage troubadour George Ezra. Gorgeous George is most famous for his number 1 hit “Budapest” which he performed to a rapturous reception to his adoring fans, many of whom had joined him on an epic bus tour from the UK to Budapest (a city he admitted he had not been to despite the name of his chart topping song!). Not quite Frank Sinatra performing New York New York in Times Square, but a special moment all the same.

Budapest essentials festival in Hungary
Gorgeous George

After George’s gentle crooning it was time to head somewhere a bit more upbeat, so we hopped onto the tram to the imposing Grand Central Market Hall. By day it is the largest indoor market in Budapest, but this night was transformed into the stage of an earth-shaking dubstep DJ set from the Gorillaz. Some canny market stalls were still open, selling over-sized vegetables as makeshift glo-sticks to the pumped up crowd.

Massive luminous peppers, a raver’s best friend

Having moshed until our bones could take no more we met our guides at Hello Baby, where the club has a great outdoor yard that transforms into a latin-infused dancefloor after a few rounds of Hungary’s palinka (fruit brandy). And finally back to Aquarium, where the night was rounded off by a pumping set by 2ManyDJ’s. By this time there was only myself and a 50-year-old German doctor in philosophy left standing from our party, proof that age is no barrier to letting your hair down (even if you are both more follically challenged than your younger days…)

The next morning reminded me that being young isn’t all in the mind, as the body has to deal with the consequences of a youthful spirit. Fortunately two things brought me back to life: firstly the incomparable buffet breakfast served at the Nemzeti Hotel; and secondly the life-giving waters of Szechenyi Baths, which easily warrant the 10/10 rating awarded in our special feature on Budapest’s most famous baths.

All-in-all, if you are looking to discover one of the most dynamic cities in the world, combined with the excitement of a festival, minus the camping, then put Budapest Essentials in your diary for 2015.

Urban Travel Blog’s trip was kindly organised by the Hungarian Tourist Board in partnership with Budapest Underguide.

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