A City Break in the Eastern Europe
Budapest is an ideal city break destination. Just over 2 hours away on the plane and you find yourself in a beautiful city surrounded by history, great food, amazing architecture and lots of walking so…make sure you pack a pair of comfortable shoes.
And if you are travelling in October like we did, you can be lucky to experience a warm Indian Summer making the visit even more enjoyable in the autumnal sunshine. If it is your first visit to an Eastern European capital whether it is Budapest or Prague, be prepared to be astounded by the magnificence of the buildings surrounding you which reflect the city’s victorious and also tumultuous past.
Buda or Pest
Budapest is a city of two sides, Buda and Pest, connected by eight bridges each in a different style. The most popular ones with the tourists are Chain Bridge which is the oldest one and Margaret Bridge which links the two sides and provides a link way to Margaret Island, the city’s popular park and activity spot.
The choice between the sides is quite easy…
If you want to be where all the hustle and bustle of the city happens, Pest is your ideal location. On this side of the Danube you are surrounded by most of the historical attractions, you can enjoy fine shopping and dining and here, especially in the Jewish District is also where the city comes alive after dark. In contrast, Buda is much more quieter and peaceful both during the day and night. This side of the river is the hilly one so once you have crossed the Chain Bridge be prepared to climb up.
Cruising Down the Danube
Budapest is not only a city of contrast between the two sides but also of amazing splendour and the best way to see it is by enjoying one of the many boat trips available hourly down the Danube. The prices are very reasonable and it is definitely worth booking. My tip, check the time of the sunset on the chosen day and then book the tour to coincide with it. You will get the best of both worlds, the “golden hour” version and a beautifully lit night version. Bear in mind the October sunsets are on the chilly side and we used Legenda boats.
The Castle Hill district is on the Buda side and it is hard not to miss in the city’s landscape as it is literally towering above the the city. I found it quite an interesting place. Unlike Wawel Hill in Kraków or the Castle Hill in Prague, Budapest Castle Hill is a lived-in district. On one side of the hill there is a palatial castle which used to be a former residence of the kings and rulers and it definitely wows you with its grandeur architecture and monuments. The building has now been turned into a National Gallery. This side of the hill can be accessed through many leafy paths and trails but if walking up the hill is not your thing then you can always hop on the funicular which will take you straight to the top.
The middle bit of the hill is the lived-in district. It has rows of houses dating back to medieval times, cafes, a small supermarket and even a Jamie Oliver restaurant. This brings us to the other side of the hill which is dominated by Matthias Church and its amazing snake scale-like roof tiles gleaming in the sun. The church’s neo-gothic architecture style provides a contrast to the the moorish influences of the Fishermen’s Bastion surrounding it and even more of a contrast to a modern but in my opinion completely unnecessary addition of the the Hilton hotel adjacent to the church.
A walk along the Bastion provides spectacular views over the city and its many turrets and arched windows give a fantastic drop to Instagram worthy photos.
There is an abundance of sights to see in the Pest part of Budapest and I am sure anybody would find something of interest to them. There are churches big and small, museums, the Jewish district with its bar and cafe culture, the architectural reminders of the Fascist and the Soviet era, the thermal baths, etc – the list goes on.
Start your sightseeing with a walk towards St Stephen’s Basilica which is the biggest church in the city with its imposing dome.
Make sure you go inside as the interior is stunning and very ornate. The admission is free but a small donation is welcome. I would also recommend paying £2.50 to go up to the top of the dome for some amazing 360 views of the city. You can either climb up around 300 steps or take a lift but give it a go as it is worth it.
The other unmissable building both from the city landscape and from visiting, is the Houses of Parliament. This impressive white stone building overlooking the Danube lays claim to be the largest building in Hungary. If you are interested in looking inside and ticking it off the “done” list, you can book an organised 45 min tour in English or other languages are available.
The Jewish District
In my opinion the best way to see the city is to just wander round the streets, explore and get the feel of the place. However, if you would like to find out more about the city or if you are interested in a particular aspect of the city’s past then I can highly recommend booking one one of the free tours organised by Generation Tours (it is free but don’t forget to tip!) Other European cities have these free tours too, please check my Street Art tour of Kraków here.
We joined a tour around the Jewish district which was led by a licensed guide and a history graduate. It lasts around 2.5hrs and shows the tourist the most significant attractions like the synagogue triangle (including Dohany Synagoue, the second largest in the world), the ruin bars (dilapidated buildings turned into bars), the monuments commemorating heroic acts during the Nazi occupation and most of all lots of tangible history about the formation of the district, the ghetto and the life here nowadays.
And if you are passing a cafe here, try a piece of flodni, a traditional Jewish cake made of layers of apples, poppy seed and walnut paste or have a look round the many flea and food markets especially at the weekend (Gozsdu-Udvar or Szimpla Kert).
The Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial is not included in this tour as it is a distance away from the Jewish district (right outside the Houses of Parliament). It is a very emotive monument commemorating the Jews ordered to take their shoes off before being shot.
Depending on your time in Budapest there are a couple more places that I would like to recommend.
One is walking around Margaret Island which is an island in the middle of Danube accessible from Margaret Bridge. It is a sort of Budapest answer to Central Park. The place gets really busy during the day and especially over the weekend. The locals use the green fields for picnics and outdoor sports. There are tree lined paths ideal for strolling which in October are covered in golden leaves rustling under the feet. At the entrance to the island there is a musical fountain showing water displays choreographed to different piece of music every hour and after dark this becomes water and light performance.
The Island has its own free zoo showcasing the animals found in Hungary and a small Japanese garden. Here you can also visit the ruins of monastery, a 1920s pressure tower which is now a summer theatre and art exhibition centre and my favourite bit, a purpose built 5km running track around the island which is always busy with runners.
Margaret Island is also a location of one of the 30 thermal water spas in Budapest with the biggest being the Szechenyi Baths in Pest and Gellert Hotel in Buda being the poshest one. The hot water springs rich in minerals bubble under the rocks of Buda side and attract locals and visitors from all over the world to try its healing properties. We stayed at the amazing Ensana Thermal Baths Hotel on Margaret Island where we were able to experience the relaxing hot mineral water pools. The hotel also had a water well where you could enjoy a drink of sulphur rich mineral water with a very distinctive smell which was not everybody’s cup of tea. I loved it!
Gellert Hill Hike
If after a few days of exploring the city on foot, you still have some energy left, you can hike up to the top of Gellert Hill. It is the hill visible from almost every part of the city. It features an enormous statue of a female on its top which commemorates Hungary’s liberation from the Nazi rule. There are a number of stairs and even paths leading to the top but don’t be discouraged as there are plenty of benches where you can sit down and take in the amazing views of the city and the Castle Hill district.
When you reach the top you will have found yourself 140 meters above the ground. There is a place to sit down and grab a drink and you can walk round the citadel and the monument. There are also several other ways and paths to get down.
A Fab City Break
I honestly cannot believe how much there is to see in Budapest. There is something for everybody. History and art, beautiful buildings, romantic candlelit river cruises, amazing and cheap food and drink. Enjoy a walk in one of the many green parks or chill in the healing mineral water pools. So next time you are looking for a city break, come to Budapest.