When we arrived in Hungary, we had no idea our four days there overlapped one of the country’s major national holidays on August 20. So it comes as no surprise then that I also had no clue thatSt. Stephen’s Day also signified the foundation of the Hungarian state.
This turn of events would wind up being a blessing and a curse: A blessing because we got to see some pretty stellar fireworks; a curse because a lot of the businesses were closed for the holiday week.
This year, St. Stephen’s Day fell on a Saturday, so Kari, Josh, SVV and I got up early and headed across Budapest to the thermal baths around 9am, hoping to beat the crowds. We did just that, though being the CPA’s daughters that we are, we were disappointed to find we missed the early bird special, which is a discounted rate from 6am to 8am (fellow penny-pinchers, be forewarned).
Also, we should have booked our tickets online, as while the line wasn’t exactly long, it was quite inefficient; the elderly woman in front of us, for example, took upward of 20 minutes to decide on her spa package.
After the baths, we walked the two miles back to our Airbnb, then had a delicious brunch to help tide us over for the afternoon. Once my parents and Neal and Debbie arrived back to our rental from their hop-on, hop-off bus, we all set out to find a spot to partake in the evening’s celebration.
So where IS the best place to watch the fireworks?
I Googled this very thing ad nauseam prior to our own St. Stephen’s Day and never came to any decisive conclusion. So we left our charming Airbnb on Király around 4pm and moseyed on down to the waterfront, thinking if we headed south of the Széchenyi Chain Bride then we’d have a better chance of nabbing a place we could spend the rest of the day until the 9pm fireworks began.
What we didn’t take into account is that all of the tables along all of the riverfront cafés would be reserved.
Tip 1 to enjoying St. Stephen’s Day: Make your reservation well in advance.
There’s a bench that runs all along the pedestrian walkway beside the river for miles, so we wound up finding a place to sit in the Bálna between the Liberty bridge and Jonas Craft Beer House, where we had a few pre-celebration rounds.
Was it ideal? Well, if the idea was to not be shoulder-to-shoulder with others, then yes, yes it was. But sadly, the fireworks were a bit far away to really see; I broke away from the group and tried my best to do a boxer’s bob-and-weave in and out of the crowd to get a better spot for photos (to no avail, really).
There were simply too many people everywhere, blocking my line of sight; adults holding up their iPhones, kids propped on their parents’ shoulders or dangling like monkeys from the bridge trestles.
Tip 2 to enjoying St. Stephen’s Day: If you’re going to brave the crowds anyway, you might as well just bite the bullet and nab the best seat in the house.
In my opinion, that’s somewhere along the Danube on either side between the two main bridges, Chain and the Margaret, so you can see the fireworks over the river as well as the ones released from the Citadel.
The downside is that you really need to get there early to nab a money spot near the Chain Bridge—as in 5pm or earlier. And while we were out and about that long, sitting in one place for five hours was a stretch. Which leads me to my next bit of advice…
Tip 3 to enjoying St. Stephen’s Day: Bring booze. Unlike many places in the United States, you can walk around Budapest with an open container. Neal and I wizened to this fact and went to a nearby liquor store where it was, I kid you not, one-in, one-out for the holiday, so we bought a few bottles of cheap wine and the Hungarian version of Dixie cups and filled the last hour of our lengthy wait with liquid comfort.
At the end of the day, while it may not perhaps have been ideal for trying all the restaurants I wanted and popping into all the shops, as many were closed for the week, what I loved about experiencing St. Stephen’s Day is that we got to see the true people of Hungary (i.e. not the tourists) in a different pace than a normal weekend: There were families everywhere (mine included), populating the cafes and bars, soaking up every minute of their holiday from work.
There were also plenty of times when we felt like we were the only Americans around, which is the best kind of feeling when you’re an American in a destination beloved by fellow Americans (sorry to my native countrymen, but it’s true).
In other words, it felt very authentic Budapest, and I’d go again on St. Stephen’s Day in a heartbeat.
Want more tips to the Hungarian capital? Read my guide to the Budapest basics here.