A Tourist-Free Eastern European Getaway

Tourist-free days and concert nights in Budapest and Kraków charm Carolina Ulloa on an impromptu trip.

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Budapest’s iconic Chain Bridge, usually buzzing with tourists, remains eerily empty as visitor counts dwindle in Hungary. Photo by: NavinTar/shutterstock

Of all the things forbidden during France’s lockdown between March and May, it was travelling I missed the most.

After restrictions were lifted, I regularly shuttled between Marseille and Paris until July to meet my partner. Our older plan of visiting Mexico was indefinitely postponed, but we took the plunge with a trip to Hungary and Poland to coincide with my birthday. Was it risky? Yes. But it was a risk we were willing to take.

It was raining when we reached Budapest, but that didn’t deter us. With no tourists in sight, we took a long afternoon walk from our hotel to the banks of the Danube, all the way up to the Parliament and Chain Bridge. Passing a memorial called Shoes on the Danube Bank (dedicated to the Jews who lost their lives during WWII) we reached the Pálinka Museum, which was more of a bar themed on the famous fruit-based spirit. The friendly bartender got us to try five varieties, and as the only guests in the museum, we enjoyed his undivided attention while learning about the drink’s history and origins.

Even as COVID-19 guidelines were the norm, we avoided public transport and mostly walked or took cabs. While on our walking tour of Pest, an eastern district of Budapest, the guides regularly urged us to socially distance. We strolled past the main squares and the basilica, and had a hearty meal of goulash and pork at a traditional food joint. On our last night in Budapest, walking back from Buda Castle and Fisherman’s Bastion, we chanced upon a jazz bar and attended a (fully-masked) concert for an hour!

Hungary Poland 4

From walking through Heroes Square in Budapest (top left) to Kraków’s medieval centre and Old Town (bottom left and right), the writer made the most of her time in the cities. Photos by: ZGPhotography/shutterstock (statue), Jolanta Wojcicka/shutterstock (man), Sopotnicki/shutterstock (cyclist)

Later that night, we hardly had any company on our six-hour bus journey to Kraków, but we wore our masks even through our sleep. In Kraków we explored our base in the trendy Jewish Quarter with a walking tour, had lovely dumplings for lunch with some fellow German travellers, and later visited the Wawel Royal Castle. On our last day, a pick-up van carrying three other couples took us to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp. We remained masked throughout the day, both indoors and outdoors, even though there weren’t that many people around.

We had a great time but this trip was markedly different from our previous ones in many ways: there were breakfast buffets in hotels, but no room service. Parts of the airports were cordoned off and filling out contact tracing forms on flights was a must. A lot of the restaurants we had looked up online weren’t open, or had permanently shut down. And there was the persistent fear of being quarantined in a different country.

Would I do it again? Definitely. But not to Mexico just yet.


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  • Lubna Amir is Assistant Digital Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She travels in the search for happy places (which invariably involve a beach) and good food. When she’s not planning her next escape, you can find her curled up with a book or researching recipes.


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