23 March 2015

Suitcase. Budapest, Hungary - Travel Guide

To be honest, travelling around Eastern Europe was never high on my list. For some reason, in my mind I had grown up with a negative perspective of those countries, thinking they were unsafe and not a place to visit. How wrong I was because my first experience was great. Hungary’s Budapest is amazing. I have surprised even myself to say that I think this trip was my favourite European short break to date. This intriguing city is full of fascinating contradictions, a very particular culture and so much history.  [Fun fact: it’s actually pronounced Budapescht.]

Honestly, I’m not sure I can encapsulate the sights of this city into words, but I hope combined with pictures you get a sense of this fascinating place. At the heart of Budapest lies the stunning River Danube, dividing the city in to two sides that were once named Buda and Pest. We arrived and headed straight off to the city’s Free Walking Tour, this is the same company as the tour I did in Rome) again I would highly recommend it. It’s such a fantastic way to get the lay of the land and our guide Zoltan was full of interesting titbits and cracked some pretty funny jokes.

There are so many beautiful buildings dotted around both sides of the river that you simply must see like the Royal Palace

St Stephen’s Bascilica

 the Parliament building (this one at night is a definite ‘wow moment’)

Fisherman’s Bastion for incredible views

Chain Bridge

and the Matthias Church.

Also check out the boots monument by the river which acts as a poignant reminder of the Jews who were shot into the icy water during WWII. Chilling stuff.

The Jewish quarter is a real eye opener and quite possibly one of my favourite things I saw in Budapest. The pictures say it all. This area is completely untouched since WWII yet is completely lived in. All the ruin-like buildings are occupied and even more interesting is that you can see bullet holes as if the war happened yesterday.

Around the corner from here you’ll find Szimpla Kertmozi, a ruin bar which Lonely Planet listed as the third best bar in the world. Step inside and you’ll see why. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before; multiple levels with an eclectic mix of household furniture all housed in a run-down building that looks like it might crumble at any moment. Cool.

When you’re just about walked-out, ensure you take yourself to the Szechenyi thermal hot spring baths to soak your tired limbs. Built in 1913, these pools are known to have healing powers thanks to their thermal springs. Great for a soak, and the majestic building provides a great photo op too!

The Vajdahunyad Castle which is just across the park is also a must-see. I felt like I’d stepped into Beauty and the Beast.

We timed it so that we were in Budapest for their National Day holiday which provided an extra cultural boost to our visit. On Sunday 15th March we proudly took to the streets and marched along with the music band and soldiers - it was clear we were the only non-Hungarian people but who cares!? We saw Hungarian dancing and listened to the President’s speech (of which we didn’t understand a word… never mind!) before heading off to the many special markets.

As far as cities go, Budapest isn’t that big so you can use your legs to get around town and see most of the sights. Having said that, there is an underground metro system and the guys at the ticket desk do speak English so they can explain the system and offer you a map. We used this to get to the Szechenyi baths which are up the other end of town. Taxis are pretty cheap so they are also a good option for getting around. You can expect to pay around 8,000 forint (approx. £20) to get from the airport to a central hotel. And finally, make sure you take a cruise down the Danube at night. It’s a spectacular sight.

The food here is an interesting melange with a range of great venues to choose from. From traditional Hungarian street stalls to very upscale restaurants – I was impressed. You’ll also find plenty of authentic Italian restaurants around (who wudda’ thunk’ it!?). And Ramenka does great ramen!

I tried a few traditional foods like langos (flatbread with filling)

 and kurtoskalacs (cinnamon chimneys).

On the whole I wouldn’t say their national diet consists of the healthiest things – it’s largely fried dough and sausages, but good all the same!

I was also really impressed by the décor of all the cafes and restaurants. Everything looks very upmarket – props’ to their shop fitters, you guys are doing great.

On the whole, the food and drink here is definitely cheaper than in London. My friend and I dined at Nobu one evening – we were thrilled that our bill was about half the price of the London venue – mind you it was still exxy but when it’s Nobu you don’t mind. Heaven.

Extra Tips
Be aware that the currency in Hungary is the Hungarian Forint, whilst they do accept Euros in some places you generally won’t get a very good exchange rate so I recommend travelling with the local currency. On the plus side, everything is cheap. You can probably work off a budget of £40/day very comfortably. Hotels are also a steal so why not treat yourself to something 5 stars for around £100/night (thanks Le Meridien!).

Hungarian is a strange and complex language (the only word I managed to learn was “cheers” – “egészségedre“), but most locals speak at least a little bit of English. I found the people in this city to be so friendly, they won’t try and take advantage of you and are always happy to help. It was so refreshing.  I can say with 100% confidence that Budapest is a fabulous place for a city break, forget everything you’ve heard and go with an open mind and a smile. Both will get you far.

Photos by Krissie.