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I’ll come out and say it: I don’t like bus tours.
I understand their appeal, though. In a town you’ve never been in, it might seem transgressive to skip the efficient, general overview.
But when I was provided with an alternative option that promised walking, fried-cheese pastries and multilayered chocolate cake, I knew I met my match.
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection offers a “Do as the Locals Do” morning excursion on many of its river cruise itineraries, usually an alternative to an overarching bus tour, which it also offers. Concierge recommend the bus tour to first-time visitors to the city, but I found that the local walking tours that I tried — in Budapest, Hungary, and Vienna — also offered great introductions to the cities.
Where the focus of a bus tour is to learn about history and see marquee attractions such as palaces and churches, the emphasis of the smaller Do as the Locals Do tours is on experiencing the destination’s daily life and culture. Highlights are pointed out, and history is still mentioned — but they’re supplementary, rather than primary, references.
In Budapest, for example, we started our trip at the famous Liberty Bridge and walked over to the Great Market Hall. Our guide admitted that the market is touristy — especially after CNN named it one of “five great city markets in Europe.” Not all locals shop there, but our local guide, Erika Fejes, knew it was too beautiful to ignore. Plus, she said it was one of the better places to stock up on paprika powder and sample “sajtos pogacsa” (which translates to “scones with cheese” or “little pieces of savory heaven,” depending on who you ask).
As she pointed out pastries and “palinka” (Hungarian fruit brandy), Fejes also shared some blunt insider tips: The center of the market is called “rich row” because one can find the best deals on the outskirts of the market, and buying commercial dough is heavily frowned upon.
“The test to get married is to make a perfect strudel dough,” Fejes told us.
We also learned some folk remedies for illness, including mixing brandy with propolis honey.
“I have some brandy at home — I take two shots with honey, and then I don’t have any symptoms,” Fejes said. “I trust the wisdom of the people who lived in the country and the little secrets of nature. Medicine is a huge business. Brandy is better.”
Besides sharing the kind of wisdom I’d sew onto a pillow, Fejes also taught us the practical ins and outs of the subway. Our first lesson was on how to interact with locals.
“Hungarians don't smile that much,” Fejes said. “When we are in public areas, we don't show emotions. If you smile too much, they’ll think something is wrong with you.”
“Do as the Locals Do” walking tours are small-group tours offered by Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection as an alternative to a bus tour. // © 2016 Mindy Poder
On the Budapest local tour, guests visited two markets to get a sense of local products. // © 2016 Mindy Poder
In order to get from point A to point B, groups take local transportation. // © 2016 Mindy Poder
During the tour, guests will learn about holidays and traditions, such as giving flowers to celebrate name days. // © 2016 Mindy Poder
Travelers will have the chance to sample local specialties, from stuffed peppers to cheesy scones. // © 2016 Mindy Poder
Order a dobos torte, a Hungarian sponge cake layered with chocolate buttercream and topped with caramel. // © 2016 Mindy Poder
There is plenty of time to interact — and relax — like a local. // © 2016 Mindy Poder
For a true only-in-Budapest experience, enjoy a drink at a ruin pub. // © 2016 Mindy Poder
Focusing on suppressing my face into a stoic expression, I quietly enjoyed the subway station as we waited for the train to our next stop. Budapest’s Metro 4 (or Green Line) opened in March 2014 and relies on concrete and geometric lines for a decidedly modern feel. According to Fejes, my fondness for the futuristic look put me at odds with most Hungarians.
“Hungarians are conservative,” Fejes said. “They don't like modern architecture.”
We then arrived at what she called a “rougher” neighborhood in southern Buda to visit a market Fejes frequents for her own produce: Fehervari uti Vasarcsarnok market.
It lacked the wrought-iron grandeur of the Great Market Hall, but it was filled with real-life shoppers and vendors who viewed us as though we were as exotic as the stevia and ginkgo biloba they were letting us sample.
“Hungarians give you everything they have,” Fejes told us.
We also sampled seasonal produce, pickles and prepared foods including peppers (also called “paprika”) filled with sauerkraut. After passing a row of flower stalls, we learned that Hungarians love to give flowers, especially for birthdays and name days.
After our time in the market, we headed back on the subway to Pest, where Fejes pointed out one of the city’s most expensive pieces of real estate: not a hilltop home in Buda, but a modern building in the middle of busy Pest, a sign of the changing times.
We didn’t have much time to linger on the implications, because we had arrived at our much-awaited next stop.
“Every Hungarian bakes at home, but for stylish cakes, we go to cake shops,” Fejes said, opening the doors to Szamos, a chocolatier, confectionary and bake shop.
There, I ordered a “dobos” torte, a Hungarian sponge cake layered with chocolate buttercream and topped with caramel, with a “fekete” (which literally translates to “black” but is slang for “coffee”).
Here again, our guide came to the rescue with more sage advice worth tattooing onto my inner arm.
“Chocolate is a vegetable, so that’s salad,” she said, pointing at the cake case.
After indulging in the name of local immersion, we took a much-needed walk and continued to be surprised by Budapest culture. Fejes pointed out “Babaklinika,” a “clinic” for dolls that need repairs. I imagined that the two grown women inside were conversing about the sorry state of the unattached doll heads on the table between them.
We continued to bookstore Kozponti Antikvarium, where we paged through books dating back hundreds of years. Our final stop was more contemporary: a ruin pub called Etlap Itallap. Stuffed animals, stickers and figurines emerge from the walls in a dizzying collage. Apparently when pigs fly — as they do in their plastic iterations here — beer is served at cheap prices.
After a quick stroll in a local park, I had the option to either follow our guide back to the ship or take off on my own. Emboldened to feel like a local, several other shipmates and I took off unattended, blending into the crowd.