George Ezra was on the money when he used the words ‘hidden treasure chest’ in his song Budapest. Granted George was singing about something completely different, he didn’t actually visit Budapest during his European trip (I think he mean’t too but like many travellers his plans changed). That said, I would 100% describe Budapest as a treasure chest, a paradise for explorers and a place that enables young and old to discover something incredible at every turn.
“I want to come back here mum” and “what do you think it would be like to live here?”…just some of the things my son said to me after our travels to Budapest. We planned to go for the Christmas market, toying between Budapest and Berlin. In the end we chose to go somewhere we thought would be a smaller, more intimate Christmas market…and cheap (I think I will mention how cheap it is a few times in here!). That said, with honesty being the best policy we spent about 1hr 30mins at the Christmas market and 30 minutes of that we were in the queue for a Kurtoskalacs Chimney Cake (very delicious by the way…see in the picture below).
Having never visited Budapest before we had no idea what we would learn and that we would learn it walking a total of 77,185 steps (56.1 km, this is without any guided tours in less than 48 hours!). It also led to a lesson learned moment which I will talk about later in this post.
Truthfully I always thought Budapest was one city and Callum thought it was a country in it’s own right! It’s actually known as the Buda part of the city and the Pest part of the city…who knew?! (I was told by a guy in our accommodation that years before it was split into three places Obuda, Buda and Pest). It is now one big city (Budapest, so I wasn’t entirely wrong) and it has many bridges that join Buda with Pest (with the Szechenyi Chain Bridge being the original bridge that initially joined the two places together over the River Danube ) just a little history and geography lesson for us all there! haha.
Luckily, through our travels on the night train (which is a separate post entirely) Callum understood that we were going to the country of Hungary to visit the capital city of Budapest… (so that’s our initial kinks ironed out and if you don’t get anything else from this blog, there are some potentially new facts for you! haha)
Apart from housing a treasure trove of beautiful buildings, colours/street art, ruin bars, cafes, landscapes, monuments and bridges, Budapest has an extremely romantic, playful, vibrant feel to it. From the moment we arrived we realised that we wouldn’t want to leave. I felt safe here, safe as a solo traveller, as a traveller with a child and as a woman. That peace of mind enabled me to ease into the city, which was definitely needed as the night train had me feeling the complete opposite!
The city is a warren of streets, each offering its own kodak moment opportunity, they’re easy to navigate though and you have the choice of bus, trolley buses, trams, trains, taxi’s, sightseeing vehicles, bicycles and walking. We chose to walk around the city, I prefer to do this as I find more than what the map/tourist book has to offer. For example I hadn’t heard of ruin bars before heading to Budapest, but I stumbled across this great bar and whilst taking a picture a lady told me to head to a ruin bar. The next day I met another lady from Liverpool (we were casually chatting in the toilets…some habits never change no mater where in the world you are haha). She told me that she visited Budapest last year for the Christmas markets/sightseeing but didn’t see everything so came back this year to finish it…only she discovered ruin bars on her first day and hadn’t completed any sightseeing since! haha (and don’t think you’re too old to visit them either, she was in her late 40’s).
You can’t blame her though, Ruin bars are said to offer the best nightlife in Europe! Mainly located in the Old Jewish Quarter they are found in the ruins of old buildings (so don’t expect glamor as the furniture is old and doesn’t match, pipes are on show and holes in the wall are frequent). Not all of them look like bars, some look like normal houses until you walk in! You don’t always know where they will be either as due to their location they often close and reopen somewhere else if an investor buys the building for development. As I was with my son (although children are welcome in some during the day) we decided to take a quick look but that’s all. I will definitely have a ruin bar holiday in the future that’s for sure so if you have the chance and you’re visiting I would definitely pencil this in to your schedule!
My favourite thing about Budapest is how inclusive it is. It really doesn’t matter if you’re visiting with a baby, young children, teenagers or your grandparents there really is something for everyone! An example of this would be the Citadel (Citadella). On our second day of sightseeing we decided to walk up the Citadel, which is said to offer some of the best views across Budapest (it didn’t disappoint). The climb was as short or as long as we wanted to make it as there are multiple ways to walk to the top with steps, slopes, hill climbs, gentle slopes, benches every few meters and even a park! So if you go with someone who can’t walk very far you can take the gentler route and have breaks sitting on the benches (which offer great views). If you go with a child they can play in the parks (the second picture below shows you where they are and the ages). Everyone can take a picnic and make a morning/afternoon of it (although there is a food/drinks van at the top if you forget!)
As far as being a tourist goes, they are so many things to do in Budapest you need a week just for the centre! We also discovered that the views during the day were often accompanied by the most incredible views at night. For example the Parliament building is of gothic design and incredibly beautiful, definitely worth seeing the architecture during the day, however during the night it’s completely lit up and an incredible sight to see from Fisherman’s Bastion on the other side of the river (so if you can retrace your footsteps seeing the sights during the day and again at night I would highly recommend it…although maybe not all in one day!).
We tried to fit in as much as we could during our travels and I would say our top picks (although not in any order) are:
- Fisherman’s Bastion (especially at night as it provides the best views of Pest) – FREE (there is a paid section, although it’s not necessary). There’s also a restaurant at Fisherman’s Bastion so if you’re feeling romantic then this is the place to go (we didn’t eat in there though so I can’t advise on the food).
- Matthias Church (known for its tiled roof which you can just see in the picture above – behind the wall of Fisherman’s Bastion). At times there is a singer in the main part of the church which can be heard throughout your tour of the church – small entrance fee
- Buda Castle – A world heritage site with lovely gardens children can run(ish) around – FREE (there are museums here that charge a small fee)
- Citadel (Citadella) – a photographers dream! (amazing views day and night although tricky for some to navigate at night) – FREE (There are benches at every level, a park part way, archery and a food/drinks van at the top!)
- Chain Bridge & Szabadsag Bridge (otherwise known as Liberty or Freedom bridge) – linking Buda and Pest together over the river (although there are more bridges now). Great views of the bridges at night as they light up (best views from Fisherman’s Bastion) (picture below is of Freedom Bridge) – FREE
- Parliament – For me, the most beautiful building in Pest! An absolute must see even if you don’t have time to venture inside. If you’re lucky you will see the changing of the guard too. Beautiful during the day and night so try and see it in both lights if you can – Small fee
- Danube Bank – Sculpted shoes as a memorial to those affected during WW2. Can be seen on route to Parliament. Whilst no information is offered at the site about the sculpture, I would recommend jumping online or going to one of the history museums if you have time as Budapest has it’s own story to tell during WW2 – FREE
- St Stephens Basilica – donations requested for the chapel. Don’t miss the hand….that’s right, it houses the mummified right hand of St.Stephen the King of Hungary! Small fee for different parts of the Basilica.
- Central Park/Heroes Square – FREE (at Christmas they use the lake for ice skating (first picture below) which incurs a small fee)).
Heroes Square is the largest square in Budapest, it’s known for it’s iconic statues of important figures and the tomb of the unknown soldier (in the second picture below). It’s situated next to Central park which is a great place to unwind/big outdoors space (it has a water fountain, you can feed the ducks, go to the park or walk/run through the grounds). It’s home to Vajdahunyad Castle (a castle that heavily reflects Hunyad Castle (linked to Dracula). The Hungarian people loved Hunyad Castle however it’s now in Romania (since 1920 due to the treaty of Trianon) so Vajdahunyad is almost a tribute to that castle (a little more history for you there!) I would say that the castle is beautiful and we did take a few pictures (third picture below), however I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit it again. You can only see part of the castle from the outside and in the inside houses an agricultural museum. However if you’re in the area anyway then you should check it out. The park is also home to the largest (and very impressive) Szechwanyi Thermal Bath.
- Christmas Markets (there are quite a few around the city but I think the two main ones that we enjoyed are located at St Stephens Basilica and Vorosmarty Square (this one is the biggest of the two). I would definitely recommend visiting Vorosmarty Square in the evening as the high street that leads off from the market is so Christmassy and filled with lights!
- New York Cafe (in Boscolo Hotel) – It doesn’t look like much from the outside but once you step into the building you will see why it’s very popular! It is so beautifully decorated with a live band and pianist taking turns to entertain you. It’s like a very glamorous tea room (reminds me of Betty’s but in a grander building). It is said to offer the best ice cream in Budapest (great if you have little ones!) We did try the ice cream (very good) however we didn’t try it everywhere in Budapest so I can’t vouch for that claim! We did think it was quite pricey (around 9Euros for one hot chocolate) and we didn’t have the best experience with staff (it could have just been an off day to be fair). I would go back again for the setting alone, the talented musicians and the ice cream…but if I was in a hurry I would just pop into the building, take in the view and move on.
For those where mobility could be an issue you can use the Buda Hill Funicular to reach the top of Buda Hill. There is a small fee but you do get to see the views of Pest as you ascend the hill. Personally we avoided this on our first day, opting to walk everywhere however on the second day we decided to experience it (our feet were a little tired then too!). I would say it’s pleasant enough and the fee isn’t high, however it was over in less than 20seconds and you’re hurried out for the next set of passengers so you don’t get long to enjoy it or even take a photo.
There are places we wanted to visit but we simply didn’t have the time. If you’re able then I would check out:
- Thermal Baths – Hungary is the land of thermal springs so if you get the opportunity to visit one I would jump at it (although they’re not expensive so visit as many as you can!). This was 100% on our list but we just ran out of time. Through my research you have the main baths (I will call them touristy (as 90% are tourists that use them)): Szechenyi Baths (in the picture below), Gellert Baths and Rudas Baths. If you’re looking for a more authentic, Hungarian experience then I would look to visit either Veli Bej or Lukacs Baths where only 10% of the visitors are tourists. Of note, we were advised to check what goes into the water (don’t worry, it’s nothing bad I promise). Due to the volume of people that visit the baths some are said to be treated with Chlorine, which makes sense but it can also defeat the purpose of going to a mineral rich bath?!
- Margaret Island. Ok, we intentionally avoided this area as it’s winter and we were told everything here basically shuts down. We did say if we had time we would still explore it as there are ruins, parks to jog around and an athletic centre (for all those wanting to keep fit whilst they visit!) but it wasn’t at the top of our list. However, if we had visited in Summer then it would be completely different as it’s said to be a tranquil getaway within the city (that’s right, in the city as it’s nestled between Buda and Pest. The area has two musical fountains (only working during the warmer months), is home to a small zoo, a water park, playgrounds and attracts pop up bars, restaurants, and live music in Summer. An absolute must for anyone visiting!
- The Opera House – currently being renovated but still offering short tours and a small 30 minute show at the end of your tour. The building itself it definitely photographic (we did go to see it) however the shows started at 12pm and finished at 4pm and we couldn’t get there in time. (They also set up small displays outside of the Opera House over Christmas as seen in the picture below).
- Gyermekvasut – As it’s located outside of the main city, we knew after the first day that visiting this place wasn’t going to be possible in our time frame (which is a shame because I think it would have been a big learning point for Callum). If you have children then you may want to visit here as it’s a railway where interestingly the tasks of the railway are conducted by children (they have to get permission from their school to perform this voluntary duty). It’s not the only one of it’s kind but it’s one of the biggest. Bringing the meaning of work experience to a whole new level, children aged 10-14 operate here and you can actually catch a train to visit some tourist destinations.
- Ruszwurm Cafe – One of the oldest coffee houses in Budapest (located on Castle Hill (Buda side)) and said to be worth blowing your diet for as it’s run by a famous confectionary family. It’s only small (does have outside tables) so if you’re on a strict time schedule waiting to be seated could be a problem. If we had more time then we would have visited…probably more than once! haha
- Talking of food we were recommended to go to Gozsdu Courtyard otherwise known as the entertainment district. The food here is supposed to be really good. Obviously we had to eat when visiting the city however after the day was done we opted for a takeaway (which was near to our accommodation) and sleep. If we had more time (and less to try and see) then we would have been awake to try some of these places for sure!
Whilst we’re on this subject of food pork seems to be the food of choice in Budapest because it’s in almost everything! If you’re a non meat eater then you may want to take note of this. My lesson learned was that I didn’t go to the shops and buy snacks/water throughout the day, rather I assumed that I could just pick something up (you can afford to take the risk here as food/drinks/entrance fees etc (GBP to the HUF) is at a great rate so everything is cheap))…I was so wrong. I struggled to find fruit/vegetables, the Christmas Markets didn’t offer a non-meat option and even McDonalds don’t have anything vegetarian. I became so distracted by the views, the history, getting from one place to another (getting lost and then unlost!) that time crept away from me and before I knew it the end of the day had arrived and I hadn’t really eaten or drank anything! (Callum was fine as he eats meat so I could buy his as we went, although admittedly I don’t think he drank as much as he should have done).
I suppose my point to this is that after those two days I was extremely run down (tired, developed a cold, had a headache etc) which resulted in me taking three days to recover (and I slept for two of them!). So note to self, I will definitely go to a supermarket upon arrival of any place I visit and ensure that I have snacks to take with me. A top tip though for anyone planning a whistle stop tour where timing/food choices could be an issue!
Overall, we didn’t want to leave this city and if we hadn’t already booked our train ticket home we probably would have stayed for longer! I can’t help but think that there were so many hidden gems to discover, so many more places to see and more cakes that should have been eaten!
If you have any experiences of Budapest, places I haven’t mentioned worth seeing or have further information to add on what I’ve said above please share so that this travelling community can continue to thrive, learn and develop! I love the idea of us all travelling together and helping to keep things simple (things should always be as simple as they can because life is complicated enough!).
Note: all of the pictures in this post have been taken during our trip to Budapest. The majority of them have been taken by my 11year old son using the camera on his phone (and it’s not a new phone either!). I was so impressed when he sent them to me #hiddentalents #passionflowingthrough #education