My House in Budapest

I’m not a scientist, but I’m almost positive something chemical happens in my body when I find a place I truly love. The silly, floppy kind of love. While yes, I have a tendency to set one foot down in a city and declare that I’m staying forever, the electric sensation of being in love has happened with only a few of those cities… and now I’m adding Budapest to that list.

Budapest is enchanting. All the romance of Paris, without the grime (sorry, not a Paris fan…). I was floored at how quickly Budapest became my reality, a reality I adjusted to like nothing I’d ever adjusted to before. I fell into a rhythm of knowing I’d learn something on every single street we walked down. Ever a fussy eater, I simply accepted that I’d never know what the heck I was ordering at any given meal because Hungarian is very, very hard. It was that kind of love, all in one day.


Our Contiki itinerary gave me just one day in Budapest, but that was all it took.

In the morning, my friend and I walked over a mile from our hostel to the Széchenyi Baths, in which we floated about blissfully with people from all over the world. Probably a mildly gross concept, which we ignored, as time became nothing but a fleeting concept once we started splashing around. It took everything we had not to just stay there all day.


We lapped the city at least three times. We passed by St. Stephen’s Basilica, hunted down a Costa Coffee (True American northeasterners; we had to have the coffee. Costa is a British chain. We found one in Krakow, too. Get an iced latte if you do ever find one. I’m ashamed by my inner American, but I do love iced coffee.), tried on the iconic embroidered Hungarian shirts in Nagycsarnok, the Great Market Hall, and stopped in one of Budapest’s adorable cafes (full recap on that here). I think that was what I was most bummed about; there were so many cafes to try, and 24ish hours or so was not enough time to try them all. That, and there’s a big emphasis on vintage clothing and thrifting in Budapest. My carry-on sized suitcase hardly allowed for that either (I may have a slight shopping problem, which was very evident once we got to Italy.).


St. Stephen’s Basilica


So no, I don’t actually have a house in Budapest (yet…), but Budapest now has home in my heart. For me, revisiting places internationally tends to happen on a “this opportunity fell into my lap” kind of basis, but I’m breaking that pattern with Budapest.

I could never let all those cafes and vintage stores go untested anyway; I just might need a bigger suitcase next time…



Delicious Traditions

Hello, my name is Ilana, and I search high and low for food trucks wherever I go, even on the other side of the world.

I can’t fully take credit for this one though – this find was a recommendation (Shoutout to Contiki Trip Manager Shanna, this is all her doing!). Should you ever find yourself in Budapest, make sure to stop by Karavan.

Karavan is just steps from Szimpla Kert, the original Budapest ruins bar. It’s a small, permanent lot of about 12 – 15 food trucks serving up everything from vegan burgers to traditional Hungarian cuisine, and is also where you’d find me every single freaking day if I had anything to do with it.


I wanted to try everything. For some odd reason, anything vegan calls my name even though I am not at all vegan, until I ran into another girl from my group who had traditional, hearty Hungarian goulash inside a giant loaf of sourdough bread sitting in front of her, and an elated expression on her face. I was sold. I had to have it.

My nonexistent Hungarian skills ended in me finding the Nyakleves truck and excitedly pointing at the picture of my desired meal, and then bouncing up and down on my toes like I’m eight until I could smell the paprika, meat and veggies. It wasn’t long before I was scraping the saturated bread off the inside of the massive bread bowl, attempting to fit every last morsel (It was one of the best things I ate on the trip!).


While I ate like I’d never seen food before (Partially true – I’d never had goulash before this trip, and I never imagined it’d taste like that!) the remainder of the group scattered around the lot and then returned to the table we’d claimed with burgers, tacos, and chimney cakes, all of which we tested, approved, and then did some serious damage on.


The Chimney Cake never stood a chance, to be honest….

No one needed to eat breakfast the next morning, and not one person was at all mad about it.


Kazinczy utca 18

Budapest 1075, Hungary

TripAdvisor: Street Food Karavan

Weird Cravings

Never in my whole life have I ever craved Israeli food.

When I visited Israel, I struggled to find things that weren’t resting on top of mountains of hummus, and I found myself picking raw tomatoes out of everything. I’m actually incredibly fussy about my food, which is not a trait of mine that I’m particularly proud of (but I did think the hotel in Jerusalem that gave me food poisoning was a good enough reason to fuss…).

Enter Budapest, a city with a cafe culture and an unexplained affinity for shawarma, which sparked an unexplained need for me to relive what I had once bought three years ago in the pouring rain from a too-tiny cart in Tzfat.

Except now I’m obnoxious and have a social media problem, so I found Mazel Tov, an Instagram-worthy cafe to fulfill my shawarma dreams.

How we got there, I literally have zero idea. My friend is some sort of insane mastermind in which she can take one look at a blurry, screenshotted Google map and walk you wherever you need to go. It’s a superpower.


It was a million and ten degrees in the greenhouse-esque restaurant, so while fairy lights and funky wall decor are certainly a selling point, I started sweating immediately. Order water ASAP. Your body does eventually adjust.


My shawarma was top notch. It was packed to the gills with crunchy chicken, which was a nice surprise, and was also probably the first fully edible chicken I’d seen in days (#carbs). There was some cucumber in there as well, and it was so proportionate ingredient-wise, I even tossed with some of the raw tomatoes (I know, right?). Not to mention those crispy fries (or chips) coated in all of the sea salt your heart could ever want, which can also be purchased alone as an appetizer.


Hunger: Satisfied.

Nostalgia: Also satisfied.

Happiness: Off the charts.

Bizarre Hankering for Shawarma: Probably good… for now. It’s not as good anywhere in the US. But if this is a once every three years kind of deal, it’ll be the greatest excuse to make a trip back to Budapest.

Mazel Tov

Akacfa utca 47

Budapest 1073, Hungary

Twitter: @mazel_tov_bp

Venetian Fairytale

In 2012, I went to Italy for the first time with my family, and I hated Venice.

Right after I’d graduated from high school, my sister and I begged and pleaded to go abroad, and my foodie parents selected Italy. We all loved the food and the culture, but not one of us was big on Venice. It was July, and therefore it was hot, dark, crowded, and confusing. We stuck to St. Mark’s Place for almost the whole day.


Kind of blurry in Venice, 2012

On Contiki’s Eastern Trail, we got to spend one whole, incredible day in Venice, which completely changed my perspective.

We were set loose upon Venice with zero plan. My friend and I opted out of the trip’s additional activities for Venice in favor of others at different stops on our trip, but our own personal wanderings gave our fellow travelers a little something to be jealous of.

We picked just any cafe for lunch, mostly because we were ravenous by the time we arrived in Venice, after being squished on our bus all morning (There was a lot of being squished on the bus all morning on our trip, but I kind of love the whole mush-pile tour bus thing? Long bus rides are for deep thought, finding yourself, and unintentionally cuddling with whoever ends up sitting next to you… or for taking intense, mouth-open kind of naps. Whatever floats your boat… because Venice. OK, I’ll stop now.).


Afterwards, we took a lift to the very tippy top of Campanile di San Marco (Eight or nine euros for a breathtaking view. No, I did not cry, but it was definitely one of those “this is actually my life” moments in which I got dangerously close) and very carefully navigated the warped floors of Basilica San Marco to avoid any ankle-breaking. We then spent the afternoon happily lost, souvenir shopping and treating ourselves until we could no longer find any justification for our purchases. We followed the yellow and black signs from Rialto Bridge to Piazza San Marco and back again, before making ourselves at home along the Grand Canal with our loot and two Aperol Spritzes. It was my favorite afternoon of our whole trip, and probably one of my favorite afternoons ever.


I will never get over this view.



Aperol Spritzes

We did dinner in reverse and started with dessert, because when you find what you’re looking for in Venice, you do not walk away because you’ll never find it again. Gelato is acceptable for any meal anyway, right? Our backwards dinner were some of the best things I ate, which can be found here.


I found myself exceptionally sad as we boarded the little charter boat back to our bus, as I watched Venice disappear behind us, and as our bus driver drove endlessly around a roundabout so we could finish singing along to a playlist our group had curated. It was a day I’d only heard other travelers tell stories of. One that never felt like it’d ever be mine, and in such a place I had so disliked years before.


But it was mine, and it was pure magic.

5 Best Things I Ate: Contiki’s Eastern Trail

Starting a new series here on the blog, because just one must-have meal is boring. Here are the five best things I ate in Eastern Europe to kick it off:


Where to find: Somewhere in Krakow, Poland

My friend and I quite literally purchased these from a random window in Krakow for the Polish equivalent of one American dollar. Mine was filled with Avocat cream, which airs on the side of a custard (like the best Boston cream donut you’ve ever had, times a billion). My friend’s was filled with rose marmalade. Rose is a common ingredient in many desserts, and if you can get past that it will taste exactly the way a rose smells, it is worth a try. Beware of filling explosions, and keep your treats away from the pigeons!


Where to find: Nyakleves Soup Truck @ Karavan, Budapest, Hungary


Goulash is a must in Hungary. While almost everywhere will tout some version of the traditional dish, the thick, hearty version at Nyakleves raises the bar and keeps it there. It’s jam packed with meat, veggies, and paprika, all inside a giant loaf of bread. It’s like a hug for your stomach and your happy traveler heart. Whatever you do, do not miss out on it.

Bled Cream Cake

Where to find: Lake Bled, Slovenia

Lake Bled is very proud of their iconic, simple, light vanilla cream cake. It can be purchased at any of the little cafes in town. Enjoy with a coffee, some friends, and a view.

Pasta in a Box

Where to find: Dal Moro’s, Venice, Italy


I can promise it will be very, very worth however long you’ve been lost for trying to find it (Getting lost is part of the fun!). Dal Moro’s is quality, authentic pasta, with any sauce you want and any decorations you want (Give me ALL the parmesan!) boxed up to-go in a little container. Sheer spaghetti perfection.


Where to find: Suso Gelatoteca, Venice, Italy


Another hidden Venetian gem, and that’s not a pun – Suso lives on a street where the next street over has the same name but doesn’t connect. Confusing, I know… the dark chocolate gelato should compensate for any frustration. Pair it with Mint Chocolate Chip or Stracciatella. Four euro for two scoops. Eat after Dal Moro’s and before (happily) rolling yourself to back to the mainland.

I Traveled With #NoRegrets

October, 2016.

Everyone I know is still attempting to adult post-graduation. My friend texts me and asks if I want to go to Europe, to which the answer is always yes.

By November 2016, we’d booked a trip through Contiki, a high-energy tour operator intended for travelers from all over the world between the ages of 18 – 35. We were to embark on Contiki’s Eastern Trail, which made stops in Vienna, Krakow, Budapest, Ljubljana, Venice and Rome. Contiki encourages all participants to seize the day and travel with #NoRegrets. My friend and I then spend the next several months tagging each other in things on Facebook and sending screenshots of our respective countdowns to our trip.

April, 2017.

Our trip comes and goes far too quickly, as trips always do. We loved every second of it. Here are some notes on our adventure if you’re considering Contiki for your travels:

1. Your Group

Your group is a complete toss up. Ours happened to be 3/4 Australian girls between the ages of 19 – 21, with a smattering of other new friends from England, New Zealand, Canada, America, and Japan. This is not at all a negative; just something to keep in mind. Our group was fun and loud and loved to party, and were very accepting of my friend and I, who kind of became a package deal (Entirely my doing without explicit consent from the other party involved. Major points to my friend for always putting up with me.).

We actually joined in the middle of a trip that had been running for about two weeks. Our group, endlessly social and welcoming, wanted to get to know us from the second we joined, tossing names and hometowns at us, which became a lot for two already-kind-of-introverted and nervous people. I can only imagine it could’ve been ten times more overwhelming as a solo traveler. Everyone seemed to have an established group or at least one friend already. We had several pairs in our group, including a set of sisters, two coworkers, and two or three actual couples. However, most of our group really was solo.

Whether or not you wish to travel with a buddy is entirely up to you; Contiki trips work for either. Prior to departure, I was told that Contiki trips are all wild and rowdy. In general, I am a little bit socially anxious, so such news was disconcerting. I was grateful to have a travel buddy on this one. As a collective unit, we were more muted than the rest of the group. Now that I know what to expect, perhaps I’d consider going solo in the future, but my trip wouldn’t have been nearly as amazing as it was without my friend.


2. Your Itinerary

There’s a chance your itinerary does not actually start in the city it lists first. Just be careful on this. While we “started” in Vienna, because of the nature of Contiki’s modular trips we actually arrived on the rest of the group’s last day in Vienna, so we did not make it in time for any of the activities. By the time we arrived, we hadn’t slept in approximately 36 hours, but we were a little disappointed that we wouldn’t get to see any of the city.

Otherwise, the itinerary was exciting, accurate, well-managed by the Contiki team with us, and was always on time. As far as Contiki’s “Me Time” additional events, we enjoyed them but also savored our free time. We opted out of some in favor of having the opportunity to wander. My friend and I loved having time to just do our thing or check things off our own personal bucket lists, and join back up with the group later.

3. Your Experience

You’ll probably drink a lot, swear a lot, and find yourself picking up some new words for the duration of the trip. You will meet cool people from all over the world, ones genuinely interested in getting to know you and sharing their experience. You’ll get up early, you’ll walk kilometers on the daily, you’ll stay out all night and then do it again the next day. You’ll get very lost, stumble upon exciting things, sing on the bus, and learn something new every single day. A Contiki trip is what you make of it.


Thanks for sharing Krakow with me, for making me fall in love with Budapest, for introducing me to Lbjuljana, for giving me the most perfect day in Venice, and for allowing me to see Rome again, Contiki. I truly have #NoRegrets and can’t wait to do it again someday!