A guide to Budapest.
Straddling both sides of the Danube with impressive buildings and bridges, Budapest is a jewel on the Hungarian landscape. Hungary is a rural country, extremely hot in summer, frightfully cold in winter, and poor all year round. The countryside is broken up by picturesque villages, smatterings of colourful cottages and some very run-down homes and towns too. Graffiti adorns even historical sites and in local hospitals, patients are expected to bring their own toilet paper because the hospitals no longer stock it due to recurring thefts. Like most Eastern European countries, it is still trying to recover from its past. A fact which makes Budapest, standing proudly on the glistening banks of the Danube, even more of an impressive sight to behold.
Budapest is a quietly beautiful city, it’s not showy and grand like London, nor does it have the air of a fading prima donna like Paris. It has some stunning sights such as Fisherman’s Bastion and St. Stephen’s Basilica, while the Parliament building, dominates the Pest side of the bank. The sheer expanse of the Danube also adds to its impressiveness, crossing the Thames in London seems like hopping over a stream in comparison. It’s also got plenty of towering buildings that were the height of elegance back in their heyday but have now aged gracefully adding a hint of the romantic and whimsical to the city. The pace of life here is also very relaxed for a capital city, allowing you to embrace properly the holiday mode.
On the more practical side of things, it is a very walkable city so unless you simply cannot stand the heat any longer, public transport won’t take up a lot of your holiday budget. And even then, the exchange rate between British pounds and Hungarian forints is very favourable and not much British money will go a long way in Hungary.
So, if you are looking for a city break for a long weekend, I cannot recommend enough hopping over to the gorgeous diamond in the rough, that is Budapest. Beautiful, fun and relaxed – what more could you want?
Things to do in Budapest
Wander around Castle Hill and visit St. Matthias’ Church and Fisherman’s Bastion
On the Buda side of the river lies the very attractive, historic Castle district, incorporating Castle Hill. It really is quite a breath-taking sight to witness from across the waters of the Danube if you are strolling on the opposite bank in the Pest side of town. This is the wealthier end of the city as well as historic, with very nice housing.
One of the main sights to see, is St. Matthias’ Church. A wonderful, neo-Gothic spectacle made of white brick topped with fantastically coloured roof tiles (a phenomenon I have noticed in other Hungarian churches). It is also home to the Museum of Ecclesiastical Art and has a replica of the Hungarian crown in it.
Right next to it is Fisherman’s Bastion, a beautiful terrace in the neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque style that circles part of the way around Castle Hill. It is reminiscent of a Disney castle in design, made of white brick, with cloisters and turrets topped by cone-like roofs. (You have to pay to walk along the top). The melding of the neo-Gothic touches such as statues of Hungarian warriors of old and the neo-Romanesque columned cloisters work well together to create the impression of a fairytale fortress.
St Stephen’s Basilica
Neo-classical in design, from the back St Stephen’s appears to be a smaller version of London’s St. Paul’s cathedral and from the front it is vaguely reminiscent of a mosque (although possible only to my eyes). The great door has the heads of the twelve Apostles engraved into it. The real wow factor occurs though when you step inside where you are overpowered by the myriad of colours: the gleams of gold, the rich jewel tones of the marble and the detailed paintings on the dome. It is named after the first king of Hungary, whose right hand is housed in a reliquary at the basilica. Technically free to go into, a donation pot sits slap bang in the entrance to the basilica accompanied by bullish looking guards, so I say ‘technically’ in the loosest sense of the word! For extra money you can climb one of the towers for an excellent view over the city.
North of the centre of Budapest, lies the remains of the Roman town of Aquincum. Waist-high ruins of various buildings, including a bath complex and amphitheatre, can be walked around (if you pay extra you can go inside a re-imagined Roman house – I thought this was a bit of a scam so didn’t). A couple of buildings, including a bath house, still have a roof intact/have been sneakily restored. If you want to experience life as a Roman soldier, you can also pay to dress up and be marched around (as it was 39 degrees, I declined). Plenty of grave stele and sarcophagi are on show next to the closed old museum. A new modern museum shows off some lovely mosaics, ceiling tiles, statues, a wall fresco and a helmet covered in jewels. Oh and the only water organ to survive from the Roman empire.
If you grab a bus to get back from Aquincum to the centre of the city you will pass the remains of the military amphitheatre which is bigger in scale.
Margaret Island is a large mass sitting in the middle of the Danube and a popular retreat in the hot months for residents and tourists. As a large park shaded by many trees and housing a bath complex, Palatinus Strand, (bath complexes in Hungary are essentially awesome swimming pool complexes, composed of hot, cold and normal pools and slides if you are lucky) it is easy to see why. You can picnic under the trees, drive bingocarts around, cool down in the baths (fun but the slides were inferior to Buk Baths – another Hungarian bath complex which I shall write about in another post) and even splash around in the musical fountain which constantly puts on a water show to very dramatic music. It was certainly moving the dog that was running rampant, whining, in the fountain when I was there.
This is not an exhaustive list of things to do in Budapest, but I have only included sights I got to see that impressed me. If I had more time I would also have loved to have seen the Parliament Building, housing the crown jewels and the Gellert Baths. I guess I will have to go back for a second visit to report back on whether they are worth the hype?
If you are looking for a elegant, friendly and slightly decadent hotel, do try this one.