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Glory by the Danube: five days solo travel in Budapest.

10 Aug
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The Chain Bridge and River Danube from Buda Castle.

Budapest took me by surprise, I have to admit. Hungary’s capital is a known destination, but often eclipsed by the other city attractions of Paris, Berlin, Prague or Vienna, Budapest often features lower down lists of desirable European destinations. If this is your mind set, then you could be missing an absolute revelation of a trip.

For those not in the know, Budapest is historically a relatively recent amalgamation of two cities who sat on opposite sides of the River Danube, with Buda having the rockier, higher prominence, and Pest being the low lands of the other bank. Incidentally, a word about the native language; Hungarian is notoriously difficult for English speakers to master, but it’s easy to remember that you pronounce the latter part of ‘Budapest’ as “Pesht” instead of “Pest”.

Once you arrive at the airport, you’ll need to find your way to the city centre. There are several options including bus number 200E. This bus will take you to the nearest metro station from the airport, called Kobanya-Kispest (blue Metro line 3 / M3). However, there is an even better option on pace now, and that is the 100E bus, which is a direct airport shuttle service, which will cost you just 900 Florints (less than 3 Euros). You can find more information on the 100E service here.

Other than that, there is a mini-bus service you can book in advance or jump in a taxi from the airport. Both easily done, but the taxi especially will cost you quite a bit extra.

If travelling by bus, don’t forget, you need to validate the bus ticket as soon as you board the bus, using the slot machine. This is the same procedure with the Metro service make sure you validate your ticket using the machine, before going down to the platform.

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My hostel choice was based on good reviews online, and a fellow blogger’s testimony. What was pleasing was to learn that the Lavender Circus Hostel had recently featured in an episode of Richard Ayoade’s Travel Man television series, and excerpt of which is below.

Inviting, bohemian and friendly, I’d recommend the Lavender Circus Hostel to most visitors to Budapest, wanting accommodation that is affordable and full of character. Within minutes of checking in, the staff were falling over themselves to be gracious and helpful. As I checked out to go to my second hostel, one of the girls Anna told me to come back if I get bored. It’s this sort of casual, but considerate attitude that lifts Lavender Circus above the rest. They only had rooms for two nights, so I had to de-camp to another place, which was the Full Moon Design Hostel, which was the other side of the city, near Margit Bridge. It looked promising, and was certainly a great stay with regards to the building and décor. However, the staff were not quite as friendly, and after a couple of days wondering where well known bar Morrison’s 2 was, it ironically turned out to be in the same building! Not just in the same building actually, but was right below as part of a huge atrium, with the second floor hostel balcony corridors looking down on it! The bonus was that there was somewhere handy to get a drink; on the down side, the music was blasting out until 5am, so getting some sleep was problematic!

I met two great Australian chaps, who were doing a tour of Europe, and Lou, who is from Germany. You get to meet some fascinating people in a hostel like this, and for all its many points falling short of Lavender Circus’ high standards, it was probably a more likely place to meet new people.

I did go out for a cold beer on my first evening, unknowingly skirting the area of the so-called ‘Ruin bars’ (more of which later), but it was really the first full day that I got to truly appreciate Budapest. I recommend spending a first full day walking along the banks of the Danube, although in the weather I experienced, walking from Petofi Bridge, right up to Margit Bridge, further north, which is well over 4 miles (about 9 km). It’s a really nice walk, but with temperatures hitting the mid to late thirties, I was definitely in the ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’ category, to quote an old phrase. All I can say is wear a hat and lots of sunscreen in summer. The sun will no doubt enhance an already beautiful sight as you witness the distinct character of each bridge, culminating in the iconic Chain Bridge, and the sights of the Palace and Castle on the Buda side, with the wooded and rocky cliffs offering a dramatic vista. This was the point I was sold on Budapest, and realised quite firmly that I’d completely underestimated this city.

A change of hostel on the second day did come as a minor disappointment, as I mentioned before, but once settle in and meeting some of the residents, I set back out on my travels. Making my way to the impressive Catholic St., Stephen’s Basilica, I met for a free city tour. The tour meets at 10:30 and 2:30pm every day on Vorosmaty Square. It’s an impressive space, to be sure, and the historical basilica is well worth a visit on its own (and is to date, still free to enter). The free tours in Budapest are some of the better city tours I’ve experienced, and our guide Riggi took us on an hugely informative and entertaining walk from the Basilica, through to the Chain Bridge and up to the marvellous Buda Castle (which is more of a governmental palace built on the remains of the medieval castle in the 18th century). Up here you can also visit St, Matthias church, one of Budapest’s most beautiful buildings and walk along the verandas of Fishermans’ Bastion, a medieval style lookout point, which offers some of the best views of the city. It’s a tourist photographers dream up there and tends to get very busy during the day time.

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Fisherman’s Bastion.

While up there I had a nice meal at Aranyhordo Eteerem restaurant including traditional Hungarian strudel for dessert. I also went in the labyrinth under the castle, which was quite an atmospheric expedition. At this point, I realised I needed some extra money and went to the nearest ATM. This is a cautionary tale, because if you’ve forgotten the conversion between Hungarian Florints and Pound Sterling (or Euros for that matter), it could pose minor problems. For example, I entered 60, 000 HUF before realising that was nearly £200, and far more than I needed, so be careful. I’d say the equivalent of £50 a day for spending money, if you’re planning on eating in decent places and visiting a few attractions, but you could psend a lot less. Budapest isn’t hugely expensive, but as with all cheaper places it’s easy to lose discipline and start over spending. Anyhow, lumbered with a crazy amount of a crazy currency (but no more crazy than any other, if we’re being objective), I paid my way into the labyrinth, and then spend the next half an hour getting lost in a place where (allegedly) the historical Dracula had once been imprisoned. It was actually a lot of fun, but the mannequins in some of the caged displays looked like something out of a Hammer horror film, and the couple who were some way in front of me practically soiled themselves when the demonic sound effects boomed out of a speaker. At this point, there’s no way you’ll be able to see shit, because they pump loads of dry ice into the cavern and the only light you have is some vaguely authentic gas lamp they give you before you go inside. Also, for anyone who says Germans don’t have a sense of humour, I have to give credit to the German guy who waited round a corner for his mates and pounced out on them. It was hilarious, although by the expression on his friend’s faces, I don’t think the same sense of humour was shared amongst the group. One of them had an expression that suggested he needed a sit down and a brandy.

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“Budapest by night” as the postcards would say.

The next day took me out in some of the hottest weather Budapest has had in some years (Europe is still having a heat wave as I write), so caution was expressed with the donning of a straw hat and copious sunscreen. I headed east across the city to the impressive Heroes Square and the leafy shelter of the City Park, where I went to one of the city’s many Thermal Baths. Since Budapest was once invaded and occupied by the Turks, it makes sense there would be similar baths somewhere, and as Budapest is built over many thermal springs, they were in luck. Sczechinyi Baths are one of the most famous in Budapest, so I made that one my priority and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s relatively expensive (around 4000 HUF), but well worth it to unwind in the warm water, either indoors or outside (I did both). The sumptuous architecture surrounds a scene which is like a combination of a bust beach and the local swimming baths. Trust me, you won’t want to leave and when you do you’ll feel reenergised. Basically, you’d be a fool to visit Budapest and not try at least one spa.

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Sczechinyi Baths

As I feeling quite cheerful at that point, I must have felt some buried Catholic guilt at this state of affairs and headed straight for the so-called Terror Museum, to rediscover Hungary’s Communist past, and the particulars of the police state involved. I didn’t find this as engaging as some similar attractions in Prague, and as interested and fascinated by the Eastern Bloc history of Budapest and Hungary, this museum was big on presentation but a little scant on content. Plus, although much of the audio visual material was subtitled, all displays were in Hungarian only, which could be a problem for some. As a monument of lives lost under a cruel regime, it is, of course, essential, and for that reason alone I do recommend it.

Next time I visit Budapest (and there will be a next time), I’ll probably make more use of the bus services and Metro (Budapest has the oldest underground railway outside of London), but if you’re fit and healthy then walking round the city with a good map is perfectly doable. This is what I did, and enjoyed it for the most part, but in the very hot weather I experienced I would advise caution!

Other attractions I experienced included the gloriously bohemian Ruin Bars, in the Jewish District. The Ruin Bars have been developed since 2001 and are basically abandoned Communist offices and residential blocks re-appropriated as bars and cafes. Most of the Ruin Bars are partly open aired, with a central courtyard arrangement, but with lots of internal nooks and crannies, adorned with a plethora of retro furniture and decor. Well worth a visit. One of the best known, and oldest, is Szimpla.

Overall, Budapest was a marvellous destination for a five day visit and there are still a few things I kept in reserve for another visit (surprisingly for myself, I didn’t visit the National Gallery or Museum, which are situated up in the castle complex on Buda hill). Next time, I’ll also make sure I investigate more of the Hungarian cuisine, with me pleasantly surprised at the amount of vegetarian food on offer. If you’re an avid meat eater, do not be worried though, as the Hungarian diet is usually very meat heavy. One thing I did manage to do, however, is a boat trip down the Danube. I can’t advise this enough, it’s a wonderfully unwinding way to take in the sights for an hour. The boat trip I took was 9 Euros but other more expensive options are available, including ‘free’ drinks. One free attraction I did personally love was the satur of American actor Peter Falk, in character as the titular character from TV series Columbo, appropriately at one end of Falk Mikaa. The statue was put up due to Falk’s tenuous Hungarian ancestry but as Columbo is my favourite detective series, I couldn’t resist paying Lieutenant Columbo and his dog a visit.

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So, Budapest is a city I recommend without hesitation, and is not a hugely expensive destination. Just avoid drinking too much palinka (the local moonshine, essentially) and don’t lose track of time in the thermal baths! Once you’ve seen the River Danube illuminated by the night lights, you’ll definitely be sold on this stylish and handsome city.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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