Newest Review: ... the summer is really hot (up to 40 degrees!) and the winter is very cold, normally below zero with regular snow. Budapest is beautiful... more
Hungary for more
Member Name: fizzywizzy
Date: 21/11/05, updated on 15/08/09 (814 review reads)
Advantages: Beuatiful architecture, loads to see and do
Disadvantages: Accommodation not particualrly cheap, rising costs generally
In September 2003 I was lucky enough to travel round central and eastern Europe by train taking in 5 countries, all of which were formerly under the Soviet sphere of influence, behind the Iron Curtain.
I have to say that of all the places I saw, Budapest was most like the cities of western Europe and seemed to have that cosmopolitan air that the grand European cities possess. I have since returned and once again found that same city is perhaps even a little more westernized.
This is for the most part due to it's history - it was the second city of the Habsburg empire and, up to the turn of the twentieth century, Budapest was close behind Paris with a reputation for hedonism and style. This is evident in the architecture of the Pest part of the city with wide, tree-lined boulevards, tenement blocks with those Art Deco wrought iron balconies and the covered arcades inside the tenements.
It is also apparent from the number of cafes in the Parisienne/Viennese style. I would certainly recommend a visit to the "Gerbeaud Patisserie" at Vorosmarty ter - the largest and most famous of Budapest's confectioners. Not a cheap option but certainly the place to see and be seen. The pastries are pretty good too.
Budapest is, of course, made up of two quite distinct towns - Buda and Pest. Buda lies to the south of the Danube and is historically the town of royalty, whereas Pest is more closley associated with business and finance. Buda is quiet and tranquil, Pest is busy and lively and home to most of the sights that tourists make a beeline for.
The most popular sight in Buda is the Varhegy (Castle Hill). Standing atop a huge craggy hill is the Royal Palace which contains numerous visitor attractions. There are several ways to get to the top - walk (such hard work), take a bus (not very exciting) or take the funicular - by the far the best way and affords super views. It is an old restored 19th century funicular and comprises two tiny carriages, one behind the other.
When you get to the top, you get a tremendous view across to Pest and if you look down to your left you will see the impressive Gothic style Parliament building with it's famous dome.
There is a lot to see up on the hill and most of it is contained in the Royal Palace building - The Ludwig Collection (Museum Of Contemporary Art), the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum are just a couple. We only did the Ludwig Collection but I can thoroughly recommend it - there are some interesting Pop Art pieces including work by Warhol and Lichtenstein and a wonderful Picasso. There is a small entrance fee but admission is free with a Budapest Card (more on that later).
There are usually loads of people milling around here and there are often musicians playing in the gardens of the palace. The flowers are beautiful and it is worth coming up here even if you do not visit any of the museums.
Also up on the hill but in the old streets of the town, there are several pretty churches which are worth looking at and you should take a stroll through the scenic streets - there has been a fortress here since the 12th century and therefore settlements nearby so there is an enormous breadth of architectural history in these streets.
Pest, as I have said, is busier and more vital than Buda. If you are staying in a hotel it is more likely to be in Pest and it is probably where you will spend most of your time.
Much of the architecture here dates from the late 19th century so it has more of a homogenous look to it than Buda. The Belvaros (inner city) is where it's all going on for visitors to Budapest and this is where you'll find mostof the bars and cafes. A good example is Vorosmarty ter - an attractive square where you'll see buskers, portraitists, craft stalls and lovely fountains. If you go at Christmas, this is the place to sample some warming Hungarian street-fare.
I love Lipotvaros (Leopold Town) which is the area around St. Stephens Basilica and leads down to the waterfront and the Chain Bridge where you can cross to Buda. One of the most famous buildings here is the Gresham Palace - a huge Art Nouveau building, originally built for an insurance company. It has beautiful wrought iron gates bearing a peacock design and stained-glass windows depicting Hungarian heroes.
St. Stephens Basilica is one you HAVE to see but it's often only open at weekends, although they try to keep the giant door open so you can at least get a glimpse inside. The square in which it's situated is beautiful and is reminiscent of the great piazzas of Rome.
One of the great attractions of Budapest are the baths - some are very old and ornate and they are popular with tourists and locals alike. The best known are probably the Gellert Baths close to the Danube in Buda. They are decorated with fantastic majolica tiles and the spa water gushes out of lion-headed spouts. These baths have a mixed sex thermal pool and there is an outdoor pool for use in summer too.There are baths all over the city but you should do your homework if you plan to visit any of them because some of them have separate bathing times for men and women. If you are hoping for relief from a particular medical complaint you should also read up on the subject because certain baths are recommended for particular conditions.
My favourite place was about 10 kilometres southwest of the city, outside Buda and it is the Szorbopark - the Statue Park. After the fall of the Communists, the great iconic statues of Stalin and Lenin and those commemorating great achievements or dedicated to the workers of Hungary were all removed from the streets and squares of Budapest. In the mid late 1990s some enterprising soul found them all in storage and thought that it would be interesting (and no doubt lucrative) to display them all in one place - so the Statue Park was born.
As you walk round Communist marches are played over a loud-speaker and in the very centre of the park is a flower-bed with it's flowers trained to the shape of a red star - it's the most wonderful outdoor museum I have ever visited. Pick up a leaflet in a tourist information office or at a station for details on how to get there.
That reminds me...public transport. I am glad to report that Budapest has an excellent public transport system. A combination of clean and frequent trams, undreground trains and buses makes Budapest an easy city to get round. The metro covers most places tourists will want to get to and there are 3 lines, colour-coded which intersect at Deak ter in Pest. Between stations, the driver will announce the next stop and the direction of the train is indicated by the name of the station at the end of the line.
Tickets are available for all transport from kiosks, tobacconists/newsagents and stations. Travel is cheap but you can make it even more so by buying a one day or three day card.
The Budapest Card costs around £7.50 for 48 hours, but can be bought for 24 or 72 hours too. With it you get free entry into many museums and galleries, discounted entry into others and free travel on public transport. These are available from main stations and tourist information offices. When you buy it you are given a thick brochure with full details of where you can use it and it also includes a useful map.
There is no shortage of places to eat in Budapest. There are plenty of restaurants serving local food which I always like to see because I think that these places are sometimes difficult to find in cosmopolitan cities. Therefore if you want to sample the goulash you have plenty of options. Vegetarians - do not fear, you can order goulash in all kinds of ways including meat-free so you will not be left out. Freshwater fish is also common here - my partner sampled the carp and he reports that it was very good. For a special meal, I would recommend a great little restaurant at Hajos u. 43 (district VI) called "The Marquis de Salade" which served Azerbaijani, Hungarian and Russian cuisine. While it was fairly expensive by Hungarian standards, we had a good bottle of Hungarian wine and starters and mains for just over thirty pounds. I have to mention my starter in particular - it was a big domed mound of pickled herrings, covered with beetroot, then this was covered with an outer layer of chopped boiled eggs - scrumptious!!
Otherwise, as you would expect, there are the restaurants which you now find in every capital city - Mexican, sushi bars, pizza joints, etc.
Pastry/bread type snacks are popular as street food and, especially in the stations, you will find stall selling vast arrays of these - the most popular ones in seem to be a sweet pastry swirl which is covered with a sticky looking glaze and sprinkled with cinnamon. Please beware if you buy a sandwich from one of these stalls - with only minutes to spare, I bought one to eat on a long train journey. It was a small baguette and seemed to have slices of salami and salad sticking out of it. When, on the train, I removed the three layers of clingfilm, the bread wasn't buttered and they were only half slices of tomato and salami, cleverly presented to make it look like the sandwich was crammed with filling!
We only really stuck to restaurants and bars for nightlife but there are some discos/nightclubs in the city and you can find details of what is on through listings magazines. Another useful point - most of the city has been fly-postered but it's always up to date so check them out if you fancy going to any gigs.
Shopping in Budapest is not particularly exciting and souvenirs are pretty dull too - mass produced Russian dolls (you know, the kind that fit inside each other), fur hats with Communist insignia on the peak and dried chillis and paprika.
Hotel accommodation in Budapest is not that cheap. Pensions are a bit cheaper but are starting to approach hotel prices. You will find most accommodation in Pest rather than Buda. If you are on a tight budget you should consider staying in private rooms. There are always loads of people offering private rooms when you arrive in any of the mainline train stations, or try at the tourist information offices. Always make sure you know how far out the place is before you agree.
I have barely scratched the surface of Budapest in my two visits but I can safely say that, at some point in the future, I will be back once more. It is a city which hits you with new surprises each time you turn a corner. it is loud, it is grimy (grimy, not littered), and it can be very crowded but at the same time it is elegant, lively and exciting.
However, do not go to Budapest expecting all of these things at knock-down prices. Budapest has been receiving visitors longer than Prague and it's prices are now edging up to those of other western European capitals. You can eat fairly cheaply and travel is reasonable but you will spend more than you expect.
It IS one of the great European capitals and I suggest you get yourself there as soon as possible but remember to take a bit of cash with you!.
Summary: "Buda"ful but ex"pest"ive!