Inside Budapest's Stagpocalypse

Stag party tourism is Budapest’s biggest headache—but that shouldn’t deter you from visiting.

This is not what I expected from Budapest, I thought in the dark after something flew through the window. It was 4 a.m., and I was gaping at a shoe that landed next to my head. The phantom loafer had invaded our apartment, sailing through the open second-story window like a pungent grenade.

I had witnessed a lot of drunken revelry my first few weeks in Budapest. But, projectile footwear was a new one. I processed in the dim light of dawn that, even though I had been in bed and of no threat to anyone, I was now under attack.

It wasn’t the shoe that woke me, despite arriving with a smack. It was the drunken horde from whence it came. Right before the shoe’s arrival, I heard laughter right outside. At first, I thought nothing of it. I was, after all, in the bustling District 7, also known as the old Jewish Quarter, where bars and nightclubs dominate. Most evenings, a rock club across the way pulsates a steady soundtrack. The side street this window faced is a popular thoroughfare. It funnels drunk tourists like a current between watering holes and many affordable hostels nearby.

Upon arriving in Budapest, I had a vague idea that this city was a prime drinking destination. (Even my heart skipped a beat when my cousin said that we could get two liters of decent red wine for something like US$10). If you are reading this, you, too, have likely heard the siren songs of Budapest’s cheap drinking options. For many foreign tourists, there’s a salient bang-for-your-buck quality that makes it not only a picturesque place to drink, but a place to drink a lot.

This is why Budapest is also a major spot for stag and hen parties (for Americans, that’s bachelor/bachelorette parties; in Australia, bucks nights). One website breaking down such bang-for-your-buckness of popular European stag party cities points out the staggeringly low cost of beer in Budapest. They suggest that 10 British pounds yields about nine pints. For a party weekend, that’s a golden prospect. Cheap flights also fuel this phenomenon. One 2016 study examining the popularity of stag destinations in Europe points to the expansion of the European Union to new Central and East European countries in the early aughts. “Low prices of flights and affordability of services (among others accommodation, prices of alcohol and food), combined with the “exotic” character of former Soviet countries for an average tourist from West Europe, contributed to the great popularity of certain centres in the region among stag tourists,” researchers wrote.

There’s a stereotype that Brits in particular fuel this phenomenon, and the numbers appear to back that up. According to the Hungarian Tourism Agency, in 2017, 435,000 people visited Budapest from the United Kingdom. Naturally, not all tourists come for a debauched weekend of heavy drinking—the legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire offers plenty of eye candy to architecture and museum buffs, and the local fine dining scene is starting to find its stride—but many of them do. And the city’s popularity among the Brits shows no signs of abating: the number of nights spent by British tourists in Budapest has doubled between 2010 and 2017, and 2018 is on track to be another record year.

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Riding around on a beer bike is a popular daytime stag activity. Photo: www.budapeststag.com

Cheap flights not only seem to beckon the younger masses to Budapest, but encourage them that the party begins even before arrival. I was once on a Ryanair flight, smack dab in the eye of one stag party storm. As they cracked open beer cans and started ordering shots with a roaring gusto, I sat there, helpless, hoping to get raptured.

As an American, I thought I knew what partiers looked like. But in Budapest, these low prices seem to drive people to extremes. As with shoppers on Black Friday, or audience members when Oprah gives them all cars, discounts and freebies turn people into maniacs. It can take over. On certain nights, spotting packs of inebriated youths stumbling en masse is as commonplace as advertisements for authentic gulyás.

Once I encountered a herd of twenty stags deep, all bedecked in leopard-print togas and stunna shades. Painstakingly coordinated outfits are usually the hallmark of a classic stag party. (Because what doesn’t cement a bromance like channeling Destiny’s Child circa 1998?) “Everyone hates the hen parties, and bachelor parties especially, because they make noise,” one friend and resident told me. The topic is almost an inside joke—something for everyone else to commiserate over.

One Budapest native clarified that it’s not even like the headache of stag and hen parties are doing much good: “They’re loud and annoying, and they don’t go around spending money. It’s all about cheap Airbnb and bottom-shelf booze. They don’t seem interested in what Budapest is like beyond its watering holes.”

For residents, there is indeed a sense of apocalypse underpinning Budapest party tourism in general. Most I spoke to had a harrowing anecdote — an encounter with a careless inebriate, or the remnants of their debauchery. Even some articles report that longtime locals regularly wipe vomit off their cars. Or, they move because they can’t escape the racket thumping from nearby nightclubs. Mornings would definitely bring fresh, Rorschach-like puke splotches to the sidewalk outside my apartment. (For every pattern, all I saw was “apocalypse.”) Some establishments now ban stag and hen parties entirely. In a darker example: As my cousin tried to enter her apartment building, she was grabbed and carried by a laughing, belligerent Brit. He proceeded to drop her like a sack of flour and tried to get into her building before giving up. He walked away laughing.

It’s a double edged sword; many companies cater to and depend on stag-hen tourism, especially when it’s largely fueled by British pounds. They take care of everything; they plan a stag party down to the minute, from renting a beer bike to hiring local Hungarian girls to lead their crawl of the city’s ruin pubs. They even push Hungary’s famous thermal baths as phenomenal hangover cures. (Because who doesn’t want last night’s tequila shots oozing forth into the mineral marinade?) It seems this handholding is welcome, especially considering there are real worries stag and hen parties can attract in any big city: scams to robbery to worse, a la The Hangover trilogy. The result, however, is that it normalizes the mayhem. It’s built on the what-happens-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas mentality, and partiers embrace it. By lobbing shoes through windows, apparently.

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You’re probably wondering: Why am I telling you this on a website encouraging Budapest tourism? While many may be wary to head into the eye of Budapest’s stag-pocalypse storm, it’s not inescapable — even though it can initially feel that way. Remember that Budapest is a large city; its central area is bigger and more populous than Prague. With some planning, it’s easier than you’d think to navigate around them and embrace Budapest’s vitalizing culture scene.

First of all, know that party tourism is mostly contained within the Jewish Quarter, particularly around the Gozsdu Courtyard. The stags’ deep love, after all, seems to be for the lowest-priced dive bars situated along the Grand Boulevard and a handful of the ruin bars. Even within District 7, what I described as the stag-hen nucleus, there are plenty of bars that many locals frequent. Know that people are unlikely to run into party tourists in places like museums, cafes, and sit-down restaurants. You can also embrace Buda as your home base. Most drunk tourists never even make it across the Danube, where interesting cultural sites abound like the Castle Hill, and charming, under-the-radar neighborhoods.

But, wherever you are, maybe keep your windows closed, just in case.

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