What can you actually see and do in just 2 (and a half) days in a mid-sized European city? Quite a lot actually! I didn’t do very much research before this little trip as I was pretty busy in the weeks prior, so I let the friend I was travelling with do most of that, but aside from one horrendously bad plate of “nachos”, everything panned out pretty well! Read on for some of my favourite sights and attractions plus travel tips.
Having been in London for close to 6 weeks already, landing in Budapest felt like some kind of extreme blessing from the gods of money. This is a city that is very gentle on the wallet. Food, drink, transport and entertainment were ludicrously cheap in comparison to the British capital; on average I was spending the same on a meal or a night out than what I would on the equivalent in Cape Town, sometimes even less. Hungary doesn’t use the Euro, their currency is called the Firont (abv. HUF) and it converts nicely into South African Rand (you just divide by 20) which was a relief from all the mental gymnastics I find myself doing with the Pound…
Getting around is relatively easy. There are plenty of buses, trams, Danube river ferries and a simple underground metro system with three lines. The metro is a tad, uh, vintage in a rather grim, post-Soviet way. My imagination ran wild pretending we were in some kind of horror video game while riding the underground but it really is perfectly adequate. There’s also mobile reception while underground which is one more point I’d award Budapest over London. I’d bought a 72 hour travel card which was decently priced and also gave me access to the ferries at no extra charge *cough, London, cough*. The hours started from the time I’d bought it rather than an automatic 5am cutoff which seems like a fairer way of doing things. That said, they don’t seem all too concerned about actually making money from their transport system. There were no working entry barricades to the metro, nor anyone checking tickets and I can count on one hand the number of times a bus driver actually asked to see my pass.
There are two distinct halves to the city, flanking each side of the Danube; formally the separate cities of Buda and Pest they were united in 1873 a few decades after the construction of the first permanent bridge across the river. Buda and Pest have their own distinct personalities. Where to stay is a personal choice. The flat Pest side is the cultural, economic and administrative hub, home to most of the nightlife and attractions. This is the more popular side to stay and also where I’d booked our Airbnb, sans research. The accommodation was well-priced, decent and fairly central, being a short walk to a colourful ship-shaped metro station and 3 metro stops to the main square, but it was a bleak, industrial and unpretty part of town. If I were to visit again I’d definitely stay on the hilly Buda side. It’s so quaint in a Hans Christian Andersen sort of way with little cobbled streets, churches, castles, souvenir shops and spectacular views across the Danube and the Pest landscape. It’s a very short trip across the river into the heart of Pest and the buses are frequent.
The Danube is Europe’s second largest river and is an essential component of Budapest’s vibe. Take a stroll alongside the river bank, or a guided tour to learn more about their history, walk across the famous Chain Bridge and Liberty Brige (selfie stick essential!) or take a trip on a ferry as the sun sets. Magical!
While wandering the bank from the Pest side, you will come across a collection of iron shoes. This poignant sculpture is a tribute to the many Hungarian Jews who were killed by Hungary’s own fascist party while the city was under German occupation during WWII. It’s a gut-wrenching reminder that evil came in many forms during that dark period of history; it wasn’t only the Nazis who were committing atrocities across Europe, they were aided and abetted by many other groups. The symbolism is very literal; Jews were lined up along the bank and made to strip naked and remove their shoes before being shot from behind into the freezing waters. Currently under a far right government, Anti-Semitism is a social problem that still exists today in modern Hungary. Many have placed candles in the shoes, others have stolen pieces or used the shoes as an ashtray/rubbish bin.
One of the main attractions of the city are its many castles. We visited two of these; the Vajdahunyad Castle on the Pest side and the Fisherman’s Bastion on the slopes of the Buda side. Vajdahunyad Castle (above) truly looks like something out of Shrek. Once through the gate you’ll find yourself in a large courtyard area. There’s a park inside, a museum, souvenir shops and a variety of vendors selling ice-creams, pretzels and hotdogs from carts.
The Fisherman’s Bastion, which is easily accessible by bus, or more excitingly accessible via a funicular, is in an aesthetic league of its own. Equally fairytale-esque but with an added element of fantasy, it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s actually formed of various separate structures connected via passageways and stairs. Open to the elements and filled with natural light it’s the perfect spot to explore and capture some incredible photos- imagine shooting wedding photos here! The streets around the area also cater to tourists with plenty to eat, drink and buy and mostly free from piss-taking prices. I bought a scoop of creamy pistachio gelato in a cone from a cart for 280HUF which is literally R14! For comparison, a single scoop of frozen yoghurt in a tub from a popular London chain, sans topping, cost me around R70. Eish…
Another must-do when visiting Budapest are the thermal baths. There are two main ones to choose from on either side of the city. We headed to the largest one in Pest, the Széchenyi Baths. The yellow structure, contrasted with the steaming pastel turquoise waters looks as though it were plucked straight from Wes Anderson’s imagination. There are two large outdoor baths as well as a network of internal pools at varying temperatures which are displayed. You can go straight from a 38 degree pool to plunge into an 18 degree one. I’m sure it does wonders for the circulation but I’m afraid I wasn’t that brave… They have a large locker hire system which is super useful. You can also hire towels of varying sizes and even swimsuits (ew, no). The massive outdoor section has ample loungers which can be used at no extra charge and indoor and outdoor bars keep bathers in good spirits. There are even spa treatment rooms if you’re feeling extra fancy.
We were lucky to be in Budapest over a weekend, but with the amount of young tourists and backpackers that pour into the city during summer I’m sure the jol is not restricted to Friday and Saturday! The most famous and epic places to unwind, day or night, are the Ruins bars. Literally built into the ruins of bombed out stone buildings, this is an extensive networks of bars and dance clubs. We headed here on Saturday night and that’s where things got a little hazy as to exactly where we were. We entered through an unassuming archway, headed down some castle-y stairs and had some local beers in a small, sparsely-populated room off a slightly larger, laser-filled room where a crappy, shouty band were playing. We soon went exploring only to discover layers upon layers of different rooms from a French-styled lounge to a thoroughfare decorated with an illuminated solar system, games rooms and a variety of dance rooms with different styles of music. Eventually we ended up in a massive courtyard under fairylit trees and giant Cirque Du Soleil-style suspended sculptures. It was trippy AF but in the best way! It was only through some signposting that we realised this was all one venue and when we eventually left/found our way out it was through a 50’s arcade-themed pizza restaurant! Apparently we were at Fogasház which isn’t even the most famous of the bars, that would be Szimpla Kert. We weren’t charged an entrance fee, although there may have been one later, and the drinks were an Absolut steal considering they were serving upper-range brands at one of the most popular tourist spots; good on you Budapest! There was also an epic street food market in a converted alley off the main bars road that was open until the wee hours of the morning where we grabbed pizzas, goulash and beers and chatted with other tourists. The goulash was for my friend as I’m pescatarian now but I tasted a bit of the veggies and can confirm it tastes exactly like a bunnychow, this one was even served the same way in hollowed out bread, so Durbanites would feel right at home in Hungary!
If I were to return for a second visit I would add the Gellert Baths, the Great Market Hall and the super extra New York Cafe (self-proclaimed most beautiful cafe in the world) to my itinerary.