Snaking through the Buda Hills to the west and the Great Plain to the east, the Danube River bisects Hungary’s capital, Budapest, into two once-separate regions—the placated peaks of Buda and the pulsating Pest. Budapest, today, is one fin-de-siècle city with two idiosyncratic personalities linked by eight bridges; art nouveau, baroque and neoclassical architecture; an affinity for goulash; a wealth of thermal baths and a national identity estranged by centuries of conflict and reform.
It was on that river in the black of night—floodlit by the capital’s largest structure and the country’s tallest, the glowing gothic revival Hungarian Parliament—that I spent my Thanksgiving. It’s neither where I’d expected to be, nor where I’d presumed I now prefer to be. But when I opted to spend the holiday weekend out of town, searching for flights at random, I’d chosen Budapest because I’d read that it’s where I’d feel the freest I’ll ever be. And on a river, with only the most rudimentary sense of the city still foreign to me and a bottle of champagne, solo but not alone, I felt free. Intensely, unapologetically free.
My Lufthansa flight to Munich, where I’d planned to spend a day-long layover, had been canceled due to an airline strike. I’m a strong believer in the notion that it’s better to travel well than to arrive. Lao Tzu once said, “A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving.” I live by that.
That, and that all things happen for a reason. So, rather than panicking, I’d readily boarded a new connection to Helsinki that’d land me in Budapest almost a day in advance. It wasn’t long before I’d learned why my transportation complications were a blessing in disguise.
On a river, with only the most rudimentary sense of the city still foreign to me and a bottle of champagne, solo but not alone, I felt free. Intensely, unapologetically free.
Upon arriving at Carpe Noctem Vitae—which stands for “seize the nightlife”—a tri-level hostel built into a residential building amid the city’s crawling center, I found family.
I’ve stayed in hostels in 30 countries around the world—some more comfortable, more social or more cultural than others. Carpe Noctem Vitae is perhaps the best blend I’ve experienced yet, and by far the most intimate.
I dropped my backpack on my quite comfortable mattress in a 12-bed dorm, occupied by backpackers with primarily British and American passports, and spent the day getting lost on my own—something I oft-opt to do on my first day in a new city—with a pen-annotated map from the helpful hostel staff. Conveniently, there’s an ATM, currency exchange, tram and bus stop, grocery store and inexpensive eateries right outside the hostel’s doors. I left told that, so long as I made it back to “The Octagon,” I could make it home. And the whole city knows “The Octagon,” the busiest cross-section.
Those few afternoon hours were the only hours I’d spent alone in Budapest.
I made sure to make it back in time for dinner, which was, of course, a Thanksgiving feast generously prepared by the staff. There was no better way to spend Thanksgiving dinner than by sharing stories with strangers from all corners of the globe, in all legs of their own journeys, over turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and the whole traditional gamut. For some, it was their first Thanksgiving meal, and, for me, it was something special.
Naturally, it put me in a food coma and I fell into an ensuing, much-needed nap before we set out for the night, together. A week at Carpe Noctem Vitae could mean live music with open mic nights, karaoke nights, epic ruin bar crawls, spa parties and, of course, the highly anticipated boat party, which is how I spent my first night. If I’d made my flight to Munich, I’d have missed it and, surely, I’d have missed out.
Carpe Noctem Vitae staff rounds up the troops around 7 PM to start drinking games in one of the hostel’s many common areas. Over 60 percent of the hostel’s floor space is dedicated common areas for travelers to meet and mingle, and it’s well-used. The staff, themselves, engage with guests since most of them are well-seasoned travelers who, too, were once guests of the hostel. There’s some je ne sais quoi hype to the city that, like a vortex, drew most of them back to Carpe Noctem Vitae long enough to call it “home.” They’re just as amped to be there as those visiting for the first time, and it’s contagious.
There are also three modern kitchens, where you can cook your own breakfast bought by the hostel, or other meals if you opt out of family dinners that are usually prepared.
Games are an energizing way to get newcomers and solo travelers comfortable with the crew before going out for the night. The hostel is part of a chain of five “Budapest party hostels” and is considered a bit less intense than two others (Retox and Grandio, which both boast in-house bars), given that it’s part of residential property. But it still participates in parties without fail each night—it’s just that, at Vitae, we had a more sleep-conducive environment for when we were ready to call it a night.
We were out by 8 PM, enjoyed pre-party drinks at a local bar and boarded the boat for what was easily the most enjoyable part of my trip. For 7,000 HUF ($24 USD), which is insanely inexpensive for a boat cruise (at least to a New Yorker), we got a personal bottle of champagne, a DJ-ed dance floor that was never abandoned and epic, unparalleled views of both the Buda and Pest sides of the historical city. There were no strangers on that boat, only (mostly) solo travelers keen to band together in pursuit of an unforgettable night. And we did.
The hostel staff then guided us to Fogasház, a popular ruin bar, for the remainder of the night… into morning.
Getting out of bed wasn’t an easy feat the next day, but friends in the dorm woke me up, as promised, to check out Budapest’s central market (where we consumed far too much food with absolutely no regrets), the famed Turkish-era, art nouveau and modern thermal baths and, later, Citadel, a Buda fortress with breathtaking views of Pest. The hostel offered a number of other daily activities we could get ourselves into, as well, which you can check out here.
The staff helped us out with purchasing tickets for the baths before we got there, so we wouldn’t have to worry about any miscommunications, and lent us some towels. We chose the dramatic Gellért, which is less touristic than the 1913 neo-baroque Széchenyi—the largest medicinal bath in Europe—because we were looking to cure what Hungarians call a macskajaj (cat’s wail) hangover. We spent hours relaxing in the spa’s four indoor thermal baths, outdoor thermal bath and swimming pool, exfoliating and detoxing.
The plan for the evening was a ruin bar crawl, again attended by most—if not all—of the hostel’s guests. They guided us on a venture to Kuplung (a former repair shop), Anker’t (an old Soviet prison) Ellátóház, Fogasház again and then Instant (a club maze with endless rooms).
It’s easy to lose one another on a bar crawl, especially in venues with rooms around every corner and through every door, but, for the most part, we stuck together and walked each other home at night. Traveling truly makes friends of strangers and Carpe Noctem Vitae truly makes family of strangers.
Traveling truly makes friends of strangers and Carpe Noctem Vitae truly makes family of strangers.
The staff had smartly booked me a taxi to my early morning flight out the following day, and those who survived the entire duration of the bar crawl insisted on staying up all night and morning with me to ensure I didn’t oversleep and miss my flight.
Of course, traveling to the airport, checking in, navigating security and boarding my flight kept my mind pre-occupied—the great affair, after all, is to move. But the minute I touched down in Zurich, Switzerland, a beautiful city in and of itself, I missed Budapest deeply.
The thing is: Zurich, like a lot of cities around the world, has a charm to it—a charm not unlike that of Budapest: bustling restaurants with good food, friendly faces despite a foreign tongue, astounding architecture that hugs winding cobblestone streets ideal for getting lost. I loved the city of Zurich for a lot of the same reasons I loved the city of Budapest and for a lot of the same reasons I love New York City—despite our geographic borders, we’re not all that different.
But I finally understood the hype of Budapest that kept Carpe Noctem Vitae’s staff returning time and time again. I missed the people I’d met in two days in Hungary.
It’s true that it’s not the destination we seek but the journey. Carpe Noctem Vitae takes you on a journey, if only for a weekend.
It’s true that a journey is not measured in miles but in memories. Carpe Noctem Vitae facilitates the making of those memories.
And it’s true that a destination isn’t actually a place but, rather, a new way of looking at things. Carpe Noctem Vitae’s zealous staff and the free-spirits it attracts are those who—with their individual stories and backgrounds and plans or lack thereof—open your eyes to new ways of looking at things.
Like the Chain Bridge fuses Buda and Pest, Carpe Noctem Vitae is a fusion of the quintessential cultural experience and all the right (most epic) ways to start lifelong friendships. When I, too, inevitably succumb to the vortex that is Budapest, I won’t stay any place else.