Budapest – a mini guide

Ah beautiful Budapest. There’s nowhere quite like it.

The pearl of the Danube, Budapest is split by said river into two distinct sides – Buda on the hilly, west side and Pest on the east bank. Each boasts their own unique character and sights. According to the Visiting Hungary website: “Suburban Buda and its historic castle district offer medieval streets and houses, museums, caves and Roman ruins. The dynamic Pest side boasts the largest parliament building in Europe, riverside promenades, flea markets, bookstores, antique stores and café houses.” Sounds pretty good.

For us, however, what makes Budapest special is simply exploring this amazing city. Whether it’s browsing stalls at one of the many farmers, street or flea markets (a personal fave is the large Fény Street Market, which retains a real “local” feel) or strolling along the medieval streets, watching the world go by. It’s hard to beat that Budapest buzz.

The essentials – top five

  • Party at a ruin pub – When the sun goes down, the best place to party is the Jewish Quarter of District Seven and in particular the “ruin pubs” in the back streets behind the Great Synagogue. So what is a ruin pub? Well, Lonely Planet summed them up perfectly: The main ingredient is usually an abandoned building, preferably with a vacant lot nearby to hold some picnic tables and a few beer taps. Add to that a bit of thrift-shop decor and a healthy dose of hipster vibe and the result is what you might get if you crossed a chill Berlin squat with a smallish Munich beer hall.” Throw in some music, a buzzing crowd and a few beverages, and it’s time to get the party started! **NB. Our new travel blogger, Tara O’Connell, particularly recommends sampling a cocktail at the ruin bar, Szimpla Kert in Kazinczy Street.
  • Castle Hill – The World Heritage-listed Buda Castle and Royal Palace, sitting atop Castle Hill, really has to be seen to be believed. It is simply resplendent. Take the Budapest Castle Hill Funicular (Budavári Sikló) or enjoy the 20-minute walk to the top, whatever suits you. And once you’re there, there is so much to enjoy – the views from the castle walls and Fishermen’s Bastion, a tipple at the Faust Wine Cellar or Royal Wine House as well as the Hungarian National Gallery and Budapest History Museum. Best of all though is the underground Buda Castle Labyrinth (Budavári Labirintus), with guided tours on offer.
  • Hungarian State Opera House – The Opera House is home to both the State Opera and the State Ballet and is considered the third best opera house in all of Europe, when it comes to acoustics. Drop by and catch an evening show if you fancy it, but if not then simply book a tour and enjoy the gorgeous, new-Renaissance style architecture (it was completed in 1884 and modelled after the Vienna Opera House) and the sumptuously ornate interior.
  • Hero’s Square  The largest square in the city, here you will find the impressive Millennium Memorial, which commemorates the 1000-year-old history of the Magyars (the seven chieftains who led the Magyar tribes to Hungary can be seen on the stand below). More recently, Imre Nagy, a former Prime Minister and national hero of Hungary who was executed for treason against the communist party in 1958, was buried here.  Two important buildings, the Museum of Fine Arts on the left and the Hall of Art (Kunsthalle) are also located here.
  • Széchenyi Baths – Did you know Budapest, aka the City of Spas, has more thermal and medicinal water springs than any other capital city in the world? The biggest is the Széchenyi Thermal Bath but other, equally excellent baths on offer including the Gellert Bath, Rudas Bath and open air pools like Palatinus. Where else can you relax in a lovely, warm pool in the sunshine (even in winter), sipping a beer or wine while locals play chess. And if that all sounds a little too sedate for you, then why not check out the renowned Széchenyi Baths Saturday night pool parties.

The Budget or Broke Recommendation (i.e. free)

Kerepsi Cemetery – Fair enough, you might not fancy traipsing around a graveyard just because you spent all your money on women and wine (or, you know, whatever) but then you may well be missing out. ‘Cos Kerepesi isn’t just any old cemetery. A stepping stone from the hustle of the city, this huge, park-like necropolis (56 hectares) offers a tranquil and reflective spot for a walk. One of the oldest cemeteries in Europe, it holds some 3000 gravestones, mausoleums and tombs – including that of some of Hungary’s most famous heroes, statesmen, scientists and artists (maps noting the location of noteworthy graves are available free at the entrance). If the nature and sculptures isn’t enough, there is also a free, on-site museum.

Local cuisine

Hungary is famous for its goulash (gulyás), a hearty soup or stew of meat and vegetables, flavoured with paprika and other spices. With Budapest getting ever more cosmopolitan you can try it take-away, traditional style or the more upmarket, gourmet style offered by the fancier restaurants.

Gift ideas

Paprika. Yip, a jar or packet of this red spice and it’s like you’re bringing home a taste of Hungary itself. Aside from this goulash staple, Hungarian lace or embroidery is also a traditional gift offered in many shops and markets.

Getting around

Budapest has an extensive public transport network, which includes buses, trolleybuses, trams, underground trains (Metro) and above-ground suburban trains (HÉV). Buses, trams and trolleybuses run daily from 4.30 am until 11pm. The three Metro lines interconnect at Deák tér Station, and service frequencies range from 15 minutes late in the evening to every two minutes at peak times.

Tickets or passes must be bought before boarding (except on the excellent night bus network, which can be bought from the driver) and are available at Metro stations, tobacconists and newsagents, and from vending machines at many bus and tram stops in the city centre.

Photographer credit: Flickr user Dimitris Kamaras  and used under the Creative Commons licence.

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