The next Prague? Please! The city of spas offers much more to any visitors willing to drop their towels.
Budapest might just occupy Europe’s most interesting slice of real estate. Perched at the crossroads between Germanic, Balkan and Slavic Europe, Hungary stands out as one of the most unique countries on the continent, with a language and culture unlike any that surround it.
Its capital is also cementing a reputation as Europe’s new hub for artists, bohemians and visitors in search of culture, fine cuisine or a good party. If Prague is Central Europe’s Marilyn, the region’s resident pin-up, then Budapest is its Jane Russell, a cheeky diva happy to forgo some of the glamour to show her guests a good time.
In a city with so many influences, what that good time involves is up to you. After a full day roaming through neo-gothic architecture and the eerie attractions of the communist past, Budapest offers a wide range of options to spice up your evening.
Start by shedding every rule you know about gay nightlife and start your evening early at one of the baths. No, not that kind. At least, not yet.
Budapest is a city of spas, sitting on more than 1,000 natural springs. A few hours at any of its thermal baths is the perfect way to unwind from a heavy sightseeing day. The pricy Gellert Baths will always be packed with your fellow tourists, but the opulent interior and excellent facilities allow you to sample many aspects of spa culture in comfort and style. The popular Szechenyi Baths in City Park boast a large outdoor pool area that hosts all-night, techno-soaked spa parties during the summer. Rudas Thermal Baths offer a more traditional Turkish experience that’s all about getting your blood flowing with serious temperature control, while Kiraly Baths remain popular with urban explorers and those wanting a cheaper spa option that trades polish for authenticity.
Note that Budapest’s many pockets of gay hedonism do not include these baths. Kiraly’s days as a popular cruising spot have long passed. Rudas, meanwhile, has gained an unfortunate reputation for homophobia, mostly reported by gay guys who’ve braved male-only days with the wrong idea. In short, Budapest’s thermal baths are all about health and relaxation, not cruising.
However . . .
You’d expect a city that throws all-night raves in some of its most traditional attractions to be serious about good times after dark, and you’d be right. Refreshed from the spas, track down a delicious local restaurant for dinner, then head into the Jewish Quarter. No, you’re not hitting the local homo hangouts yet. Budapest’s nightlife is all about its “ruinpubs,” which lure straight, gay, trans and all in between. Here, all your hipster fantasies explode in the doorways of disused apartment blocks, only to be washed down by a sea of cocktails with ingredients as varied as the décor. Deservedly the most famous is Szimpla Kert, where you can see Budapest’s hottest underground bands or rent CDs from bands-gone-by, sample some fine local wines (skip the beer; Hungary is all about vino), chill out in the sheesha bar, flex your table soccer or hockey skills, or enjoy dinner seated in the comfort of a bisected bathtub.
Perhaps this hipster haven’s greatest attraction is its people-watching. A game of cards between two superheroes, a ninja turtle, a giraffe, a dragon and a monkey in a studded leather collar erupts into singing and clapping as the surrounding tables join in. And if you’re worried about what all that heavy Magyar cuisine is doing to your figure, relax. The cute guy wandering through the bar handing out free carrots will be with you shortly.
Curiosity sated, it’s time to check out the local scene. Budapest’s LGBT night-hoppers spread throughout about a dozen small but active bars, defined more by their activities than their crowd. Cafés such as Madrid and Why Not lure some of the city’s friendliest young groups down for cocktails and karaoke. Flashing a smile at the Funny Carrot may pull you into a long night of philosophical conversation and controversial opinion on . . . well, just about anything.
Budapest isn’t really a gay dance-club town, though on weekends you can certainly follow the pretty young things and fabulous drag queens to AlterEgo. What it does have — unsurprisingly — is a strong sauna culture, with venues like Magnum and Sauna 69 offering a more intimate way to relax with the locals. Two cruise bars also feature prominently on the scene. Action is the older, smaller and more famous of the two, luring rubbernecked onlookers with its live “sex” show on Fridays. While this muscle-bound masturbation tutorial certainly packs in the tourists, you’ll find more Hungarians (and fewer rent boys) at Coxx, back in the Jewish Quarter. Coxx may not have graced as many “gay guides” to Budapest, but it’s a much larger, newer venue than Action, effectively separating its main bar from its cruising spaces. Be aware that both bars issue a “consumption card” requiring a modest minimum spend before they’ll let you leave.
Just three hours from Vienna by train, Budapest is an easy addition to any Europe trip. No city on the continent offers a more authentic taste of Eastern Europe while still supporting a fun-loving, sexy and uninhibited LGBT life. Best of all, its crossroads location between the West, the East and the Balkans leaves plenty of chances for that return trip.