From DNA #197.
When two towns became one city, the Hungarian capital of Budapest was born. With the beauty of The Danube, its neo-Renaissance architecture, and hot spring spas, the old European city has plenty to offer the gay traveller. The local eye-candy and racy sex-show bars are just the cherry on the kremes.
Settled by the Celts at the beginning of the previous millennium, the capital of Hungary has a rich and tumultuous history. A home to citizens of the Roman Empire, the Otterman Empire and the Russian Empire, it has also been ruled by the Habsburgs, invaded by the Mongols, the Nazis and the Soviets. Its name originates from 1873 when the cities of Óbuda and Buda, on the west bank of the Danube river unified with the city of Pest directly opposite on the east bank. It has become one of the largest cities in the European Union and a major tourist destination with something to do morning, afternoon and night.
Start with breakfast or brunch at the most beautiful café in the world. The New York Café has held this title since 2011 and it is easy to understand why. With sumptuous décor, attentive and very handsome staff dressed in black and white with long aprons, the café has an old world charm with a delicious modern menu. Any establishment that has 10 different varieties of hot chocolate on their menu can’t be bad! It also has a long wait if you haven’t made a booking. Visit their website newyorkcafe.hu for details.
Visit the Great Market Hall (also known as Central Markets). Opened in 1897 this expansive structure has a vibrant atmosphere and three floors to explore. You can not only find traditional Hungarian foods and spices (paprika and goose liver being the most popular), but also Hungarian wines as well as an extensive selection of Hungarian embroidery, white peasant shirts and other art and craft products. There are also places to grab breakfast, tasty and cheap Hungarian food, or even take a Hungarian cooking class.
Afternoons are the best time to explore the pedestrian friendly, cobblestone streets. From fascinating buildings with elaborately carved facades, restaurants and designer shops to antique stores whose contents will astound and amaze. Or you can simply admire the city’s magnificent architecture strolling the banks of the Danube on either the Buda or Pest side.
Opposite the Central Market is Váci Street, an interesting stroll to Vörösmarty Square. From there you need to visit the Neo-Gothic Parliament Building, inaugurated in 1886 to mark the country’s 1,000th anniversary. It boasts 691 rooms as well as an impressive 19 kilometers of corridors and stairs. Guided tours are only available when the government is not sitting, with the highlight being the Hungarian Crown Jewels.
Opposite the Parliament on the Buda side, towering over the Danube, is Castle Hill. This area contains many of Budapest’s most important medieval monuments and museums. The most spectacular of these impressive structures is the 18th-Century Buda Castle, a massive 200-roomed palace that, like much of the city, is illuminated at night. Also on Castle Hill is the late 19th-century Fisherman’s Bastion with its Neo-Romanesque towers, colonnades and embrasures that have been completely restored.
Along the Danube Promenade near the Parliament are sixty pairs of sculpted shoes. This chilling and moving art installation remembers the Jewish people who, in the winter of 1944, were stripped naked, lined up facing the river and shot at point blank range, their bodies then carried away downstream.
One reason the Romans chose this area to settle was because of the availability of thermal water springs to supply their baths. The Roman spas no longer function, however, there are modern bathing areas that are operational today that gives Budapest the title of the City Of Spas.
There are many hot spa establishments, and over the years they have transitioned from being gender segregated to accommodating a mixed clientele. The Rudas Thermal Bath, however, is the only facility that has separate days for men (currently Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday). There are two areas, a therapeutic wellness area with rooftop pool, therapeutic swimming facility and sauna, and the Vapor bath. The Vapor bath is where you want to be. Here you’ll find a 16th Century octagonal pool under a characteristic Turkish dome 10 metres in diameter. There are four small corner pools, each with water of a different temperature. Adjoining these pools are a couple of open rooms where your booked massage takes place. There are also dry saunas and steam rooms of varying temperatures.
While this is a beautiful space, reminiscent of a scene from Spartacus or perhaps Bel Ami porn, this is definitely not a gay sauna. However, the clientele is probably about 40 percent gay. With a certain amount of discretion, you may experience more than the thermal waters. The number of spa visitors at any time is limited by the number of lockers available in which to store clothes, but you can share if you go with someone else. You will also be provided with a small loincloth for modesty but this is generally used to sit on in the saunas and steam rooms. This is a wonderful experience and a very social way to meet the locals.
If you’ve never been to the opera then Budapest is the place to see one – if only to experience the Hungarian State Opera House in all its 19th Century neo-Renaissance marble, red velvet and gold leafed grandeur. Last minute tickets can be purchased; and a tip to visitors, dress down – the tourists are the ones in tuxedos and evening gowns.
While the gay community is more open now than under previous regimes and the Parliament legally recognizes gay and lesbian relationships, there are still only around a dozen venues that are gay or gay-friendly. The bars tend to be small to average sized and tucked away in side streets, not getting busy till late in the evening. Funny Carrot is a small friendly bar, Madrid Café a gay-friendly bar and café with friendly, cute staff. Karaoke is popular. CoXx Bar and Action Bar are both men-only cruise bars. Action features live shows on Friday and Saturday nights that leave nothing to the imagination including a popular audience participation show – if you’d like to try your hand, so to speak. For clubbing try Alterego on Friday and Saturday otherwise, there are a couple of other mixed clubs that also have drag shows. Visit Budapest.com for more gay Budapest information.
A couple of words of caution; firstly some bars run an unusual method of payment so don’t be reticent in asking questions and secondly, there are a number of very handsome and friendly Romanian men who frequent some of these establishments who are generally gay-for-pay. Nothing wrong with that; just be aware that if you buy a guy a drink he may think you want to buy something more.
Budapest is a must-do for those who appreciate European history. It is strikingly beautiful and cosmopolitan, and teaming with very handsome east European men.