Budapest is the kind of city that has something for everyone, whether you are a hardcore tourist, a vegan or regular foodie, a history lover, a shopper, a chiller, an explorer or a Camden fan.
The reason I ended up in Budapest was because a friend was celebrating her birthday there and having the opportunity to tag along, I did. I was the only one coming from London so we had decided to meet at the airport and take a taxi together. There being four of us it was the perfect taxi number. But if you want to save some coin you can catch the bus 100E that goes to the city center.
Our hotel was in the area Pest – the other area obviously being Buda. Not too long ago they were actually two cities called Buda and Pest divided by the river Danube, but about 150 years ago they decided to become an item. After a failed attempt at Pestbuda they got it all right with Budapest and many bridges are connecting the two, the most famous being the beautiful Széchenyi Chain Bridge.
For our first day of exploring we had decided to take the bus, but not being sure where to get the tickets we asked in the reception whether it was better to take a bus or a taxi. He replied “Metro”, so off we went. It was super easy. After a short walk we got to the station Keleti Mályaudvar and bought ten tickets in the machine (since we figured we would need more of them later). Just to be sure we double checked at the information desk and the tickets we had bought could be used on bus, metro or tram. Perfect. We stamped a ticket each before getting on the train and arrived at the station Széll Kálmán tér. After a brief encounter with google maps (up the outdoor escalators and then left) we found our way up the hill towards the castle gates. Outside the gate we were met with a lovely round woman, made out of stone, that was hugging a child.
Inside the castle grounds we headed towards our first goal – The Fisherman’s Bastion. The castle grounds are also home to some locals so we passed a residential street and popped into an embroidery shop. These needlework items were all over Budapest, so I guess it might be a popular Hungarian thing (or maybe just with tourists).
When we reached the Fisherman’s Bastion the view was spectacular – we could see probably all of Pest beyond the river. We decided to pay the €1 in cost to go up the tower with the café on top to enjoy the view with a hot drink in this cold November afternoon. There were a few towers in the opposite end as well, and when I revisited the place a few days later I found out that you can head up those for free in the evening. The building apparently got its name because the rooftops of the towers look like traditional Hungarian fishermen hats.
Just next door you can find the church Mátyás-templom, or Matthias church, with a rather interesting rooftop design where you can find a raven perched on one of the tower tops. I also found out later that this particular raven, that carries a ring in its beak, was the heraldic animal of King Matthias after one stole a ring he had taken off his finger. He killed the bird and got his ring back, and apparently thought it a fitting symbol for his house.
Inside it looked like most churches – great architecture and lots of crosses – but they also had a little shop and a small museum in a couple of the side rooms.
After a lunch break with Hungarian potato soup and some goulash we headed in the direction where we thought we would find Buda Castle. But by now it was already dark (even though it was only late afternoon) and people seemed to be heading in the other direction. Where we going the wrong way? Eventually we reached a gate with a raven looming over us as we passed underneath in the gloom of the after-dusk. We knew we had to be in the right place and soon we stood at the castle courtyard with the facade of the building lit up in the dark.
The courtyard held the entrance to the National Széchényi Library and the backdoor to what I think was the Budapest History Museum.
We decided it was time to head back home and after a quick look at the Funicular and deciding it was not worth the money we took the bus back to the metro station. We were really getting on well with the public transport.
The next day was shopping, market hall and langos day. Langos is a Hungarian dish that consists of a piece of fried dough with toppings like crème fresh and grated cheese. We did not have to take the metro as it was quicker to take the bus this time around. The bus stopped straight onto Váci Utca (Váci Street). We turned right and walked up the street that was lined with lots of familiar looking places like H&M and McDonald’s mixed in with tourist shops and touristy looking restaurants.
At the end of the street we were met by the pleasant surprise of a Christmas Market. Besides the good holiday atmosphere there were also lots of fun items sold at the stands, like a dragon breathing essence through its nostrils and porcelain flowers. I came back a few days later when they had live music playing as well and I had a Hungarian spit cake called Kürtőskalács. It is made from a sweet dough that is spun around a baking spit and roasted over charcoal. The cinnamon one was great. The market also had a lot of food and of course a langos stand.
Not-so-great Market Hall
But we were saving our langos for the Great Market Hall (Nagyvásárcsarnok in Hungarian) and decided to head to the other end of Váci Utca to get our lunch treat. It was not hard to find and we headed inside.
To be honest we were all disappointed. On the bottom floor you could buy meat, veg and honey and there was not a lot of difference between the stalls. We had to ask about the langos stand and were told it was upstairs. Upstairs it was crowded with people in the narrow path and when we reached the langos place we decided we were not up for eating while standing all squashed up. We found a restaurant with tables instead that also turned out a disappointment with overpriced tasteless food. We had fallen into the tourist trap, but at least we were not hungry anymore.
After the big lunch failure we decided to treat ourselves to some cake and coffee so we went in search of a place that would sell the Budapest cake. Eventually we had to give up and “settled” for the place Szamos Gourmet Ház that had lots of lovely looking cakes on display. The only thing I would complain about is the tiny size of their coffees, which actually had been a thing in every place we ordered a coffee so far. Maybe that was a Budapest thing as well. The Budapest cake though apparently is not a Budapest thing. After some googling we found out that it is Swedish, hence the failed attempt at finding it.
The next day it was time for the one thing you really have to do when you are in Budapest. Visit one of the Thermal Baths. We had chosen the Széchenyi Baths since it was the one that was closest to our hotel. It is located in the Budapest City Park (Varosliget) just next to Széchenyi fürdő Metro station. It was about £17 to get inside so not overly pricey.
Once changed into our bath clothes and having our stuff locked away in a locker we went in search of the pools. I have no idea if it was just us, but it took us a while to find them, and I think it was by accident. At least we did make it there and jumped into one of the naturally heated pools. The place smelled a bit funky, but it is just the smell of sulphate, which supposedly is good for your skin. The outdoor bath was the highlight. The air was freezing, but the water was just perfect at 38 °C.
Afterwards we were all hungry and we finally got those langos we had missed out on the day before. Not the best one I have had, but it did the trick. The café next door where we went for a coffee after was a lot nicer and a great place to warm up before heading back to the hotel.
Hungarian folk dance on Danube
In the evening we had decided to take a Dinner River Cruise with a folk dance show to celebrate my friend’s birthday. It was quite pricey at €55, but it included a four course dinner and a drink, plus the food was actually really good.
I did not know Hungarian folk dance before but it was an entertaining show, plus I even recognised some of it from the knee-slap-dance SpongeBob SquarePants and Patrick Star does in the SpongeBob movie to distract the monsters from eating them. A good trick for the future.
The evening view from the river was amazing, especially the lit up Buda Castle, the Chain Bridge and the Parliament building.
City Park revisited
It was now Sunday and I was left by myself, since the other three where heading back to everyday life. I was staying longer and had decided to swop my hotel for a cheaper hostel. Since I could not check in there until the afternoon I had decided to leave my luggage in the reception of the hotel while paying a second visit to the City Park.
There are a lot of things you can do in or around the park. Besides the thermal bath and the castle, there is the Zoo and Botanical Garden, the Museum of Fine Arts (Szépművészeti Múzeum), the Hall of Art (Kunsthalle) and for some reason a statue of George Washington. There is also a circus in the park, but finding out they use animals in the show it was quickly off the list. My first stop was Heroes Square.
Heroes square (Hősök tere) is a square of famous statues including the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars and the Archangel Gabriel. They were all made by the award winning Hungarian sculptor Zala György in the end of the 19th century.
After snapping some photos I crossed the bridge back into the park and had a stroll around before returning to the castle. I wanted to have a look inside this time around.
I passed the Christmas market once more and passing under the castle gate I noticed you could visit the top of the gate for only €1. I was sold and paying my coin I climbed up a lot of stairs to reach a small room that led outside. Up there I had a great view of the castle grounds and the crowds below.
There was also a church on the ground that you could pay a visit to. But as it seemed I could see all of it from just looking in through the open door so I was not too bothered with entering, especially since the garden seemed to be off limits. I enjoyed the coulorful leaves through the fence and pillars instead.
What I really wanted was to go in and have a look in the main castle building. But where was the entrance? There was a massive queue for the orchid show that was on building of the Hungarian Museum of Agriculture, but I just wanted to see the castle. After a failed attempt and overhearing a couple with the same dilemma being told it was just the building with the flower show that you could enter, I took a moment to deliberate. Queue for half an hour for a show I did not really want to see or go to a café somewhere? I still had over an hour to kill. I placed myself in the end of the line.
Hungarian Museum of Agriculture
I eventually made it inside and paid the entrance fee that was double what I had planned because of the orchid show. It was upstairs and I decided to have a look, sine I had paid for it. There were lots of people and the flowers where beautifully arranged, but I liked the museum parts better and there was one exhibition of horses and there was a bit about dogs – those lovely hairy Hungarians. I have never met a Hungarian dog breed, but I am definitely a fan of the Mudi.
Later when I was all checked into my hostel I headed back out again. I wanted to go see Szimpla Kert. I could not really figure out what it was from reading about it. Was it a bar or a community center or something completely different? It is in the Jewish district and on my way there I passed the Dohány Street Synagogue, apparently the largest synagogue in Europe. It was about to close, so there was no point going inside.
I also passed a place called the Shoah Cellar that seemed to be some kind of Jewish museum. It looked a bit dodgy from the outside so I gave it a pass, but after a google it seemed like it could have been interesting. It is the first holocaust museum located in an old Nazi bunker. Once a week they hold a movie café showing relevant movies like Schindler’s List, Anne Frank and The Imitation Game.
Street Food Karaván
Next I passed the entrance to Street Food Karaván. It was just next to Szimpla Kert and I decided to have a walk inside and have a look what was on offer. There was coffee, beer and lots of food available, including a place that sold only vegan burgers. I am definitely coming back to this place next time I am in Budapest.
So what was this place called Szimpla Kert? It turns out it actually is a pub, but not in the traditional sense. The place looks like it is in ruin with graffiti all over and a lot of unusual attachments like a bike hanging off the ceiling. There are lots of different rooms to explore over two floors with different places to buy a drink.
There was nothing particular going on while I was there, but they sometimes host community events like film screenings, live music and a farmer’s market. I would not mind coming back to this place either. Definitely a must if you are a Camden fan.
Haunting castle grounds
In the evening I had pre-booked a mystery tour of the castle grounds. I walked over the Chain Bridge to reach the meeting point, but unfortunately it was raining and I had gotten there an hour early. I decided to see if I could find an indoor café since the one next to the meeting point had its entrance wide open and hence the same temperature as outside, which was rather cold by now.
I could not find any café, but walked upon the garden of the Castle Garden Bazaar which I decided to have a look at. Following the steps upwards I saw an escalator and I decided to head up that one as well. By now I had a sudden urge to explore more, as I was on the castle grounds all by myself in the dark wet weather. It was exhilaratingly haunting. I followed the narrow walled streets upwards and checked out every little staircase I could find. Eventually I reached a green area on top where I went to see the view from the other side of the castle.
By now I figured it was time to head back the same way I had come to avoid getting lost. I only had 25 minutes left until I had to be back at the meeting point. Once back on the bigger path I decided it was probably quicker to take a different route back and I passed the Virgin Mary Statue and aimed for any paths or stairs heading down. I also met a few other people taking a stroll in the rain, so my lonesome and rather exciting adventure had come to an end.
Dracula history tour
Back at the meeting point at the Zero Kilometer Stone my tour was about to start. It was called “The Legendary Vampires at the Castle Court (War at the Gates)” and it was held by a Hungarian girl dressed in black that was holding a lantern. While we walked over the castle grounds she told the history of Hungary and Buda Castle.
A long time ago Transylvania was part of Hungary and one of the stories she told was about Vlad the Impaler, a.k.a Dracula. He was held captive by King Matthias I (the ring-baring-raven king) in the labyrinths under the Buda Castle between 1463 and 1475. As you can imagine it is a really bloody story, but if you are interested in history I really recommend this tour. Our guide Fanni had a lot of knowledge and it was even worth the €20 in the rain.
The next day I left the hostel with my backpack and after a relaxing café breakfast I started the climb up to the top of Gellért Hill. My first stop was the Cave Church (Sziklatemplom) but as my luck had it, it was not open for visitors at the moment with there being a holy mass in progress. I snapped a few pictures of the statue outside with the awesome horse and climbed up to the cross on top of the church to check out the view. From there I decided to continue with the scenic route along the river edge which meant getting off the paved path quite a bit – much more fun, though rather exhausting climbing fences with a heavy backpack.
For the last bit I had to follow the path to reach the Citadella and the Liberty Statue on top. The statue was erected in 1947 in remembrance of the liberation of Hungary during World War II. The view from there was pretty much all of Budapest, but if you have limited time in the city I would just recommend going to Fisherman’s Bastion while you explore the castle grounds.
I took the other route down and this time the quickest way was to actually follow the path. I passed the Szent Gellért Monument and crossed the bridge back to the Pest Side. By now I was freezing cold and was pretty much out of money so needing somewhere warm to heat up again I opted for budget friendly McCafé on Vaci Street. I am not really a McDonald’s fan, but the café is perfectly acceptable, and for once I got a coffee a lot bigger than the regular Budapest size.
St. Stephen’s Basilica
I had a few more hours to kill before getting on the bus to the airport and I headed back out in the rain. I wanted to walk over to have a look at the Parliament Building up close, but with the weather still being freezing I changed my plans. Instead I walked to St. Stephen’s Basilica and had a look outside. Together with the Parliament Building it is the tallest building in Budapest at 96 meters high. It is named in hounour of Hungary’s first king named, you guessed it – Stephen.
Bus to airport
I did not go inside as I had spent my last cash in the café and was not sure I could bring the backpack in either way. I made the decision to head to the airport early and walked over to the bus stop at Deak Ferenc Tér. I had double checked where it would stop the day before so I found the bus stop with ease and only had to wait a few minutes before I was on my way to the warmth of the airport. I had bought the ticket in one of the machines in the morning to make sure I would have enough money for it.
I had had a great time in Budapest, but it was time to head back home, and I knew I would be back in this fascinating town again soon. I was not done with Budapest just yet.
- November 2017
Good to know
To get a taxi from the airport you have to go up to a little kiosk outside where they book a car for you. It will drive up just next to the kiosk with a sign in the window matching the number on your ticket. You pay for it afterwards like with a regular taxi.
The Museum of Fine Arts is closed for renovations until autumn 2018 so the collection can be found in the Hungarian National Gallery in Buda Castle in the meantime.