Budapest, a tale of two cities that merged together to form a majestic capital: on the western bank of the mighty Danube is the hilly Buda with its narrow streets, grand historical buildings, and beautiful woodlands; on the flat eastern bank is the dynamic Pest, the buzzing urban centre for both culture and nightlife. As the banks of the Danube as well as the Buda Castle Quarter and Andrássy Avenue are all part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, you won’t miss out on stunning views or fascinating discoveries regardless which side you are exploring.
Hubby and I had a short break in Budapest in late May. Once again we travelled light with only our rucksacks so using public transport to get to our hotel in central Pest from the airport was no problem. It was also by far the cheapest option. The transfer ticket we bought covered both a trip on the 200E bus to the Kobanya/Kispest metro station and a ride on the Metro 3 (Blue Line) to town. We made sure not to forget to validate the second part of the ticket too as apparently ticket inspectors in Budapest are not to be messed with. All public transport tickets are available from the purple vending machines scattered around the city, one of them conveniently located at the 200E bus stop at the airport. I can thoroughly recommend a 24h travel card (a 72h option is also available): it only costs 1650 HUH (ca £4) and is valid on buses, trams, trolley buses, metro, some boat services, and the cog-wheel railway. It also gives you a peace of mind as you don’t have to worry about validating your ticket or think how many stops you are going to travel.
Public transport can be used as a sightseeing tour on the budget if you are not bothered about missing the commentary. The tram line 2 runs along the scenic Danube Promenade and gives you a great view of the hills of Buda, the Parliament, and the banks of the Danube. To see the same sights at a slightly lower level and maybe pop over across the river, take one of the boat services instead. However, the best way to explore the central area is on foot as you notice the details better and experience the funky vibe of the city, especially in the evening. Just strolling along, we came across a range of vibrant murals, stand-by-me/sit-by-me statues, and poignant memorials such as Shoes on the Danube Bank. After the morning rain the puddles in the quiet side streets gave a perfect opportunity to capture some reflection images, and wherever we headed, there was always a café or a bar with a number of outside tables luring us in to rest our feet and enjoy a coffee and cake. As a self-confessed coffeeholic I absolutely loved it!
You may remember from my earlier posts that I tend to go up whenever I travel: stairs, towers, and hills are there to be conquered! On our first day hubby and I strolled from the Jewish district to the river and across the Széchenyi Chain Bridge towards Castle Hill but for a change we didn’t climb it. Instead, we took the funicular railway, a 19th century nostalgia cable car, up the hill. (By the way, this is one of the very few modes of transport the travel card doesn’t cover, and it’s a very short ride, too.) The view from the top in the beautiful afternoon and early evening light was stunning and we couldn’t resist a couple of cheeky cocktails in the bar with a view. The whole area is full of old-time charm and it’s worth having a look at the nearby Buda Castle, Fisherman’s Bastion, and Matthias Church (as well as its 3D model with braille descriptions) once you are up there.
Later we did do some climbing though: the enormous Liberty Statue on top of Gellért Hill seemed like a great destination even in +28 °C heat. Sometimes I wonder what possesses me to make these decisions: although I can easily walk for hours and hours, climbing seems to kill both my legs and lungs. Yet I keep doing it, especially on holiday! Well, the hike didn’t kill me and the view over the city made up for the pain.
As the travel card covered the trip and it meant going up the hill (again), we just had to take the cog-wheel railway, officially tram line 60, from Városmajor Park up to Széchenyi Hill. On arrival we had no idea where to go so we simply followed the other passengers, all heading towards a little railway station a few hundred meters away. It was the beginning of the Children’s Railway, run by children (with the exception of the driver) under the supervision of adult railway workers. Its origins go back to the Pioneer era when children’s railways were a popular feature in communist countries and thought to help them learn team work and leadership skills. The communist era may be over but the sharp salutes, serious attitude and uniforms are still very much in place. However, we spotted occasional wide grins and enthusiastic waving when one of the young staff members saw their friends onboard an oncoming train. On a sunny day a 45-minute ride through the forest sounded like a relaxing thing to do. You can buy a return ticket but we went one way and hopped on a tram to get back to the city centre.
When a good breakfast is included in the hotel price, finding somewhere to eat is not a priority. We only ate out in one of the branches of the Hummus Bar, which we found by accident whilst trying to find shelter from a heavy thundery shower. There are worse ways to spend an evening than eating hummus and falafel with trimmings and listening to the rain beating the canopy. The following evening we found ourselves in the same place and couldn’t help being amused by our waiter’s (different from the night before) attitude: if a place advertises itself as ‘the perfect choice for vegans and meat lovers’, you don’t expect the staff to say: “But this is all vegetarian. Don’t you want some meat with it?”
I was pleasantly surprised to see numerous fountains and pumps for drinking water everywhere in the city, including on the route up Gellért Hill. Back in April I wrote about taking part in the plastic-free challenge and although my life has not been free from all single-use plastics, I have kept my reusable water bottle, coffee cup and lunch box on me at all times, including holidays. Thanks to the water fountains, we didn’t need to buy any bottled water, and the bakery around the corner from our hotel was happy to use my thermos mug every time we went in for an evening coffee and pastries. The Rákoczi Square market hall even offered wine refills: maybe I’ll take advantage of that next time!
What the mini break showed me was that three days in Budapest is barely enough to scratch the surface. The list of what we didn’t see or do is probably longer than what we did. I didn’t, for example, have a chance to visit the The Great Synagogue or one of the famous ruin bars. On the other hand, when you are up before 6 am and walk all day, 16 hours later the idea of a night out is less appealing than sleep! Maybe next time we do the opposite and sleep in to have the energy to properly enjoy the nightlife. Because there will be a next time. This is one of the places I simply have to return to.