Budapest Pinball Museum: Budapest's underrated tourist attraction is the best in the world

When I was a little kid, my Dad would pick up my brother and me from preschool, supply us with peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and drive us to an old Italian restaurant in the city, Bill and Toni's, to play pinball. Dad would hold us up so we could reach the flippers, scream encouragement at us, and pass on his lifelong enthusiasm and expertise. We'd play the Adams Family machine with hands greasy from chicken parmy, and fall asleep blissfully on the drive home. Those were the days when a couple of gold coins could buy you a whole evening's fun.

Fast forward 20 years, and we find ourselves two weeks into a family holiday in Europe. We're in Budapest – tracing our father's roots.

Already sick of the traditional galleries, fine art museums and other tourist traps, my brother and I take a chance on a tiny side note on the city map: the Budapest Pinball Museum.

Expectations were low – no one had mentioned it to us and even our Budapest relatives hadn't heard of it.

It turned out to be my single best experience of the trip.

In a leafy, sophisticated area on the Pest side of the city, the Flippermuzeum is less museum and more nostalgic paradise. In fact, the title "museum" is misleading. This is really just the world's best pinball parlour, the ultimate hands-on experience. As you step down from street level, a windowless dungeon has never been filled with more bright light.

For just $12, or half that for students, visitors can have unlimited fun playing the 115 pinball machines and 30 other old-school arcade games. The collection is enormous, and spans centuries and cultural eras. There are bagatelles (pinball predecessors) from the 19th century, and fully functioning, beautifully restored machines from the 1930s onwards.

Game names like Hayburners, Jalopy, Buckaroo, Flying Chariots, Roto Pool and Hi-Diver, depicting cowboy, horse-racing and billiards themes, evoke a different time and place. These are much simpler games than the modern machines, but with an enchanting beauty about them. As we come to the games of the '70s and '80s, the influence of rock and roll is evident, as well as TV and film, with classic games like Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Spiderman and Batman, and some of the most popular modern machines now being the The Simpsons and Family Guy. A history of pinball can be viewed as a history of pop culture – you know you've made it when you get your own machine.

We text Dad four words "Get down here now!" He's in heaven. He loves the two-player pinball soccer, where flippers on both ends allow players to shoot and score in their opponent's goal. But he can't go past his childhood favourite, the Kiss machine, which he promptly takes a photo next to with his tongue out Gene Simmons-style.

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The museum's owner, Balazs Palfi, 44, shares the same nostalgia. He fell in love with pinball during the communist era, and his favourite machines are those from the '80s – what he refers to as the "golden age" for pinball. In particular, he has a soft spot for the Fathom machine. The museum opened in 2014, and is the product of seven years of collecting.

Sure, kids, geeks, gamers and pinball enthusiasts alike will be entranced, but anyone with an interest in aesthetic, cultural and even political history would love the place, too. Palfi has acquired the machines from all over: the US, France, Luxembourg, Germany, Portugal, many still bearing price lists in their original currencies.

This is the kind of culture sadly neglected in the mainstream museums. Even the most disinterested of the family, my Mum, marvels at the beauty of the machines. It's hard not to be awe-struck by the Hercules game, the biggest machine in the world, acquired in 2015 from the US and requiring 70 kilograms worth of packaging alone.

On top of what's involved in procuring the machines, there is a huge amount of work behind the scenes that goes into maintaining them. Palfi describes his technicians as "artists", responsible for fixing all manner of mechanical, electrical and aesthetic wear and tear. This attention to detail is part of what makes the Flippermuzeum such a fabulous attraction.

While Palfi says there is a strong pinball following in Budapest, most museum visitors come from abroad. In fact, he claims the museum is more than a drawcard for some overseas tourists – it's the number one reason for putting Budapest on their travel itinerary.

Rachel Visontay, 24, works in psychology research at UNSW.

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