A weekend in Budapest
Budapest, Hungary’s capital, is split by the River Danube with the hilly Buda district on one side and the flat Pest district the other. Buda and Pest are connected by a 19th-century Chain Bridge, which leads you towards an old and rather steep funicular up Castle Hill to Buda’s Old Town, the spectacular 13th-century Matthias Church and the turrets of the Fishermen’s Bastion, which offer sweeping views over The Danube and Pest!
Budapest’s extensive World Heritage Site includes the banks of the Danube, the Buda Castle Quarter, Andrássy Avenue, Heroes’ Square and the Millennium Underground Railway, the second oldest metro line in the world! Budapest also has the world’s largest thermal water cave system, the second largest synagogue and the third largest Parliament building!
So, it is simple to see why Budapest attracts around 4.4 million tourists per year, making it the 25th most popular city in the world and the 6th in Europe (according to Euromonitor). It is no wonder we had to visit this city, or in my case, visit this city twice!
We went in May 2014, over a long weekend and coming out of London’s winter, excited to see some warm weather. We were not disappointed! The weather was pretty much perfect for us. We arrived late on the Friday night, jumped into a taxi and headed through the centre of the city, past some rather derelict looking buildings, a few sex shops and strip clubs wondering where we had landed. A few more minutes passed, turning onto the esplanade running along the Danube and everything changed, it was like we were in a different world, the city was beautiful and we couldn’t keep our eyes off the chain bridge and Buda Castle sitting on the left bank! The taxi pulled up to the Sofitel Budapest Chain Bridge hotel, which is where we stayed for the weekend. Being platinum members with Accor Hotels, we were lucky and were upgraded to a Junior Suite (after booking a luxury room) which was a nice added touch. It was around 1am by the time we dropped our bags and immediately walked back outside to gaze at the chain bridge and Buda Castle, now for anyone fortunate enough to have experienced the Sofitel MyBed, you will understand just how good it felt when we put our heads on the pillows, hands down, the best bed we have ever had in a hotel!
We woke up bright and early on the Saturday morning, grabbed our maps and walked towards Váci utca, the main pedestrian thoroughfare and perhaps the most famous street of Budapest. Having opted to skip breakfast at the hotel, it didn’t take long before we stumbled upon Café Gerbeaud which looked very welcoming and decided to have breakfast. We ended up eating there both mornings – it was delicious and about half the price of the hotels breakfast! It is worth mentioning the dessert menu is incredible and it is worth coming back for some ice cream from the take away stall, or if you’re feeling tired you could always grab a seat in the restaurant.
We started our first full day exploring the Buda District. We started by walking to Chain Bridge, and walking across to the Budapest Castle Hill Funicular which in only 3 minutes takes you up to the top of the hill, where you’ll have easy walking around the old town in Buda.
I usually enjoy a bit of walking and you have the option of zig-zagging up the hill towards the castle, but the funicular is absolutely worth it, I’m not sure what exactly it is about these forms of transportation, however in every city with the option, to avoid the risk of having funicular envy, you simply have experience it (and you have the added benefit of escaping the scorching Hungarian sun!).
Having walked around the castle, we walked towards the old town, stopping in at the Labyrinth, best known for its underground “guest” of the 15th century, King Matthias’s captive – Vlad Tepes, the famous ‘Count Dracula’ who was imprisoned here. It was an experience walking around in the underground tunnels, although you have to remember, this is a tourist attraction! You won’t find any locals and it’s filled with artificial fog as well as some themed music as you enter the room of Draculas grave!
From there, we wandered over to Matthias Church. The vivid colours of the hexagonal tiles of the church, the detail in the cloak of the statue and the curves of the pristine fisherman a bastion is simply incredible, I couldn’t imagine the expression an architect would have in the current day, let alone the cost estimate to build anything like this … to imagine the people of the 13th century with their basic tools and only manual labour is unbelievable.
The church is located in front of the Fisherman’s Bastion. It is In my opinion, this is the best spot in Budapest! The views across the Danube and the rest of Pest. We spent an hour or more taking it all in, as well as the obligatory photos.
For those of you who have been to Europe before, the sun sets late so you have quite a bit of time to keep exploring the city. Having enjoyed a good few hours in Buda, we couldn’t wait to explore the Pest district. Walking back down the windy roads you’ll have a fantastic view of the Hungarian Parliament Building, which has an uncanny resemblance to Westminster Abbey!!
Following our quick photo stop, we continued along the Danube’s bank, which, in the blistering sun is quite a walk… Depending on the time of year I would recommend spending those Forints and consider taking the trams! The tickets are cheap and can be purchased in packs of 10, which is great because it means you can simply validate them when you choose, using them throughout your stay.
The parliament building (which has a tram stop close by!) was our first stop in Pest. This is quite a sight, but we mainly walked towards the Parliament building to see the “Shoes on the Danube”. These represent the Jews killed in Budapest during World War II. Jewish people were lined up along the bank, ordered to remove their shoes, and shot so their bodies would fall into the water where the current would drag their bodies away.
Walking through the streets of Pest you’ll find many little cafe’s for snacks or shops for that must buy souvenir. One of the memorable visits would have to be St Stephan’s Cathedral, which is the largest cathedral in Hungary. The inside, as with all European churches is opulent and whilst you might think it’s just another bloody church, it’s worth popping in for a some more panoramic views over pest and towards Buda.
Where to grab a drink
Budapest is known for its Ruin pubs, basically a run down building converted into a beer garden! Having spent the majority of the day on foot, it was time for a well deserved break and cold drink. Now, if you’re looking for somewhere to have a drink, you have to visit Szimpla Kert (Single Garden). It may look a bit run down from the outside, but that’s exactly what you would expect from a ruin pub!
Before you reach the Kert, make sure you enjoy a drink in one, or all, of the oddly themed rooms. I won’t ruin the surprise, but expect something ‘different’.
Either way, when we visited, the place had decent food, great music and an even better atmosphere! It does get quite busy late in the evening, the locals seem to only head out after 10pm, so if you’re keen to find that perfect spot in a bathtub or scrap car, make sure you start early!
Heroes Square, the City Park and Baths
If you are able to spend some time in Budapest over a weekend, in particular a Sunday, it’s worth visiting the city (as we did) on the Saturday and then wander over through the parks on the Sunday where you’ll find the hustle and bustle of the flea markets, these were a mix of goods, both new and old, some great food stalls and some live music.
Walking from our hotel towards the park, we decided to stop in at Heroes Square, a remembrance monument of the chieftains, national leaders and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In reality, this was only a quick photo stop given it was literally along our walk to the City Park. Having wandered through the flea markets and the City Park in general, you’ll be able to find the largest medicinal baths in Europe, the Szechenyi Baths and Pool.
Be ready to pay a bit for the use of the facilities, the cost increases quickly if you hire a cabin, locker or towel. Depending on what you have planned for the day you could always take your own towel. Once inside you’ll find the baths spread throughout the expansive building. Personally, I’m not a fan of baths, whilst considered medicinal, in my opinion they come across rather unhygienic and have an odd smell. These also tend to be full of either Hungarian locals or older Europeans visiting for the day, either way you’ll find anyone under 40 years of age at the outer pool. Since we were there for a long weekend and seen the major sights the day before, we were able to simply take it all in and relax for a few hours. There is something quite enjoyable, taking it all in, people watching and dipping your feet into the cold water to escape the heat.
Where to stay
Loyalty certainly pays off and we do tend to book with the Accor Hotels group when the hotels have good reviews, conveniently located, and reasonably priced. We always receive free welcome drinks and whilst not on every visit, we have received a number of free room upgrades or a bottle of champagne on check-in.
The first trip to Budapest was purely for leisure, as mentioned in the post above, we stayed at the Sofitel Chain Bridge. Sofitel is a 5 star luxury hotel and absolutely worth it, especially if you can book this during one of their frequent promotions with a free breakfast or a discounted rate.
The second trip to Budapest, it was predominantly for business. The MGallery Hotel Nemzeti is a 4 star boutique hotel, conveniently located for the purpose I needed, however the area is much more central and the walk to the touristy sights not necessarily that great. The trams and busses are however right outside and it’s very easy to get around town, the staff were very helpful in explaining which tram and the relevant direction of where I wanted to go. I stayed in the junior suite which was very spacious, double sinks, separate bath and shower as well as a well-appointed lounge area and desk if you wanted to do a bit of work or perhaps a some blogging. Whilst the hotel was great, I would opt for a smaller room in the Sofitel which is in a great location, plenty of restaurants and right next to the Chain Bridge.
Restaurants and night life
Other than the places mentioned in the post above, we enjoyed some Italian at Jerney Italian Bistro. It’s right on the esplanade so you’ll have some glimpses of Buda Castle, the food was delicious and the prices were reasonable. It’s Italian, so expect the food to be similar to what you would on any other Italian menu.
The best traditional dinner I had, was at Búsuló Juhász Étterem, it’s on Gellert Hill and has some great panoramic view over the suburbs and choice of dinning inside or outside. We sat on the covered terrace which had a gentle breeze keeping you cool. The dish that stands out to me was actually the local goulash, I dined there with a few locals and they suggested ordering some hot paprika, and am I glad they did! The paprika is served in a small side dish allowing you to add as much or as little as you would like, but honestly it completely transforms the dish, the flavour was much more intense and I kept adding small amounts of Paprika mixing it through the goulash!
The best non-traditional dinner I enjoyed would have had to be at Borkonyha Wine Kitchen, this was enjoyed on my business trip where my meal was paid for, and when you’re not paying for it, you make sure you order yourself a delicious 3 course meal and wine to match. The staff was very attentive and they will recommend food to you based on the season. I would definitely suggest asking them for their advice! My starter which just doesn’t sound like it should work, was delicious, it was the red tuna with soured strawberry. I’m a sucker for a good steak so I couldn’t resist ordering the Angus beef tenderloin with young squash and tarragon flavoured mustard, it was pretty good but I did have a bit of food envy when a colleague’s duck breast with roasted pepper and chervil flavoured celleriac was served, but I don’t think you can really go wrong here.
A few doors down from Jerney Italian Bistro, I ate lunch at Duna Corso. The prices were a bit higher than the surrounding restaurants, however the menu offered a good range to choose from. I ordered a whole fish, it was okay but nothing special. The service was also quite slow and I ended up trying to get the waiters attention on several occasions. I would be inclined to put this in the where not to eat category.
If you’re after a quick lunch or snack, I didn’t find anything that stood our more than the others, the food was all quite similar and I generally walked into the places that had a few more people than the others, or seemed to have a good atmosphere.
In terms of night life, there are so many options and again the city wakes up around 10pm to head out, I stayed out a couple of times to see what the fuss is all about and Szimpla Kert mentioned in the blog and possibly Instant would be the only two that stood out. Instant is a younger scene and I almost felt a bit old (at 31), however we couldn’t resist as it is the biggest ruin pub in Budapest. The drinks are cheap and the crowd was certainly there, however I did enjoy Szimpla Kert more as it was less of a club and more of a place to lounge around.
Getting to and from the airport
We have taken both taxi’s and public transport between the city and the airport. Simple recommendation is to take the taxi!
The cost of taxi’s aren’t ridiculous, from memory it was around €16 which if you split it between 2 (or more) is €8 each. The public transport on the other hand is a bit cheaper, but not by much and to be honest, it was hot (no airconditioning), uncomfortable and a bit of a pain to get to depending on the location of your hotel.
“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” – Gustave Flaubert