Pest-Buda Bistro & Hotel | Szechenyi Thermal Baths | Vörösmarty Square Christmas Market | The Danube (bridges and riverbank views) | Parliament
Having had a rubbish few weeks, I had really been looking forward to this trip and it honestly could not have come at a more perfect time. In my recent ‘Why I Travel Solo’ Blog I spoke candidly about how solo travelling acts as a form of therapy for me in order to escape from the grind of daily life, re-energise my mind and body and refocus on what is important. And this has never been needed more than now. Work has been particularly demoralising lately with an unsustainable rota change and some difficult jobs and honestly, it has left me wandering if my heart is still in it. I have been drowning in university work and along with other personal issues I have also had to move house. But as if that wasn’t enough to deal with then this happened…..
…..and it ALMOST prevented me from being able to complete this trip which I was so excited about. After taking a clumsy tumble down the stairs, I found myself sitting in the local Accident & Emergency department two days prior to departure but for once I was on the receiving end of what our wonderful National Health Service offers instead of being the one to deliver it.
Heavily swollen and very painful, my foot was X-rayed and I was given the boot shown above in order to try and make moving around more comfortable and to enable me to put my weight down through it. It didn’t really help initially and fighting back my tears (of pain and disappointment) I thought I would have to cancel my trip!
BUT heavily dosed up on pain killers and having rested my foot for a couple of days I decided that although I probably could not do everything I initially wanted to do and that I would have to keep walking to a minimum, I would not waste the holiday that I was in so desperate need of.
So…..after hobbling on to the National Express coach with my bags, I excitedly arrived at Heathrow Airport T3. Waiting to board my British Airways flight to Budapest I had just my super stylish boot, a pre departure glass of Prosecco and my trusted Lonely Planet guide for my only company…..
Being back at Terminal 3 after leaving Virgin Atlantic five years ago felt oddly familiar and somewhat comforting. However so much has changed since then, both for me personally and the building itself and I could not help but reflect back on the eight fun filled years I had working as Cabin Crew where my love for travel was born.
A quick two hour flight later I arrived at Ferenc Liszt International Airport in Hungary’s capital. I immediately felt the cold air slap me around the face as I stepped off the plane but was very impressed by the fact that a mere 8 mins after landing I had disembarked, made my way through immigration and was standing in the arrivals hall looking for the exit. European Union passport holders can visit Hungary for a period of up to 90 days without having to obtain a visa.
Normally, I would fully advocate the use of public transport when exploring new places as it helps you get your bearings and experience how the locals get around, but my hindered mobility combined with the fact that it would take two buses and a metro change to reach my hotel meant that jumping in to a waiting taxi was a much more appealing option. Getting a taxi was equally as efficient as my transition through passport control. You inform the man at the desk of your destination, he issues you with a ticket and then summons your driver. The bright yellow Fö taxis have the airport monopoly costing between 6000-8000 Forints to reach the city depending which side of the Danube you are staying. These taxis are heavily regulated and always use a meter to avoid any unnecessary scams.
As previously mentioned public transport would have been one of the alternative options to get in to the city. Once you get your head around the rules and regulations of ticket purchasing (being caught without a ticket or not getting your ticket validated by the driver/entry machine can incur heavy penalty fines if caught) and if you can navigate your way around the network map with its alien sounding station names, then it really is quite straightforward. The third option to reach the city centre would have been the airport shuttle mini bus (https://www.minibud.hu/en) which is much less costly for a solo traveller than taking a private taxi. Tickets can be purchased from the counter inside the arrivals terminal and the bus will drop you directly to your hotel. Of course the down side of this is that it has to stop at everyone else’s hotel and depending on where you are staying you could be last on the list. However, for 3000 – 5000 Forints, it is certainly more cost effective.
It took 35 minutes to reach my hotel, The Pest-Buda Bistro & Hotel (http://www.pest-buda.com/main-page.html), where I was warmly greeted by Berni, who was working at the front of house. She promptly sat me down with a cup of tea while she completed my check in paperwork. She advised me that I had been given a complimentary upgrade and led me to my room. Ascending the iron clad circular stair case to the second floor, I was in awe of the beautiful design of this warm and welcoming hotel and felt pleased that this was to be my home for the next three nights. Also, any hotel that has a welcoming barrel of Gluhwein at the front door gets my vote!
Situated in the heart of the 1km long Castle District, this hotel is the oldest in Budapest dating back to 1696. Describing itself as a family run boutique hotel, it has a real focus on interior design, hospitality and gastronomy. The hotel also houses Grandma’s home style Hungarian Kitchen which prides itself on serving traditional Hungarian food from Goulash to Paprika Chicken to their famous Flamed Pies (Hungarian Pizza).
Once unpacked, I returned to reception where Berni provided me with a wealth of local knowledge from using the public transport system to gaining entry to local attractions to weather updates. Originating from Hungary herself but having worked in the hospitality trade in London for 12 years, she really is a credit to this hotel and I honestly could have chatted to her for hours about her experiences and our shared love of travel.
After not really sleeping the night before due to the fact that my coach to Heathrow was at 2am, all I actually wanted to do at this point was get in to bed and relax but reluctantly I decided to take a taxi to Heroes’ Square before heading to the Széchenyi Thermal Baths. I had pre purchased my ticket from the hotel for 5400 Forints. This included a private changing cabin and safe storage of my belongings. I took my own towel (and a pair of flip flops) as had read reviews that said the queues could be long to rent these amenities.
Budapest sits on a maze of almost 125 thermal springs due to its geological location on a fault line and ‘taking the waters’ is a ritual not to be missed. I opted to visit the Széchenyi Thermal Baths first as they are the most iconic to photograph with it’s recognisable sunshine yellow exterior. I was not disappointed and I could not take my eyes off the surroundings walls as I immersed myself into one of three outdoor pools. The building was stunning! As stated on the walls, the water temperature reaches a delightfully hot 38 degrees and this is Europe’s largest bath house.
After soaking my weary body in the calcium rich waters the daylight began to fade and I decided to head back to the hotel to sample Grandma’s Hungarian Kitchen. The crispy paprika pork was delicious and after two glasses of Hungarian Rose wine my head was ready to hit the pillow.
Having had a much needed 12 hour sleep (and resting of my foot) I woke up feeling ready to tackle the day. I grabbed a croissant and a cup of tea from a nearby bakery and headed out for the self guided walking tour I had devised the night before. I already had a plan of the route I wanted to take and knew exactly which buildings I wanted to see.
I was advised by Berni to purchase the Budapest Card which gives you access to over 21 museums and attractions and let’s you ride the vast public transport network of buses, trams, boats and the metro for free. You can purchase them at most hotels and tourist information points for periods of 24, 48 or 72 hours (http://budapestcards.com/) and it will certainly save you money if you intend visiting even just a few of the attractions listed. However, I decided against this. I am not one for history or museums as my main passion is photography. I knew that a lot of the pictures I wanted to obtain were building exteriors focusing on the architecture of city and despite my foot injury, I was adamant I was going to try and walk the majority of the route I had planned therefore avoiding the use of public transport (Berni did also advise me on exactly which bus I needed to get on to get back to the hotel should my foot completely give up!)
The Castle District, with its many important monuments and museums, proudly towers over the Danube overlooking Pest with the Royal Palace acting as the main focal point in this area. This streets are cobbled and I definitely recommend wearing a sturdy pair of shoes. I struggled at times to manoeuvre over this temperamental, uneven ground with the pain to my foot increasing every time I got my step wrong. I was grateful for the trainers and double socks I had on.
My first stop was St Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion, a short 5 minute walk from my hotel. Fisherman’s Bastion was built as a viewing platform in 1905 and offers the best vantage point of the city due to its foreboding location high above the Danube. Dotted along the fortress walls were violinists ready to serenade any willing tourist that would listen adding to the medieval feel of the area.
I continued my journey to The Royal Palace opting not to go inside but instead ride the Funicular (which was a God send as I could not have negotiated the steep descent) down to the Széchenyi Chain Bridge. Although it is cheaper to walk or take the bus down the hill, the novelty of the Funicular was well worth the 1800 Forints I paid for a return trip. I deemed this a wise investment as I preempted that fact I would not be able to make the walk back up the hill even without a foot injury.
As the sun was now shining and the clouds beginning to clear, I decided to walk along the east and west banks of the Danube which neatly divides Buda and Pest, for differing views of the Parliament building. Being obtain to photograph this iconic building for myself was pretty much the main reason I booked this trip to Budapest. With The Royal Palace being the main attraction on the Buda side, Parliament is most certainly the centrepiece of Pest. It is Hungary’s largest building and its presence at the waters edge can not help but command attention.
Whilst traversing the promenade I came across a particularly poignant section of the river displaying the composition ‘Shoes on the Danube.’ Conceived by film director Can Togay, he created it on the east bank of the Danube River with sculptor Gyula Pauer to honour the Jewish people who were killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest during WWII. They were ordered to take off their shoes and were shot in the back at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried away. The sculpture represents their shoes left behind on the bank. History like this does not normally interest to me but reading about the fate of the owners of these ‘shoes’ made me pause and take a moment to think about what they must have gone through and how grateful I was for everything I had.
Regaining my thoughts, I found my way to the Hungarian State Opera House, another building I was excited to photograph. The exterior alone was breath taking enough but as I entered the foyer I was humbled by what an impressive building it was. I did not intend to do the tour but I had to see more! The tour cost 2990 Forints, lasted 30 minutes and gave an insight in to the history of the building as well as allowing you in to the the auditorium. Sadly this is currently under construction (I seem to always pick the worst timing for this as I fondly remembered back to visiting Hagia Sophia in July which was also under construction) but you can still appreciate the sheer opulence of the building with the endless gold leaf shimmering under the gigantic dimly lit chandelier.
From here I found myself walking along Andrássy Street to St Stephen’s Basilica and it easy to see why this famous road has recently been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The leafy 2.5km boulevard is lined with museums, cafes and designer shops housed within exquisitely beautiful Hungarian architecture. It links Deàk Ferenc to the south (the main metro station for the city) and City Park to the north, which is where Heroes’ Square can be found.
Arriving at St Stephens Basilica, the largest and most important Christian house of worship in Hungary and another architectural gem, I opted to pay the 600 Forints to ascend to the Panorama Tower. The sun was high, the sky was clear and I knew it would be ideal conditions for some amazing photographs above the Budapest rooftops. I was informed that it was 302 stairs to the top. Knowing that my foot would never make that I was delighted to discover there was also a lift! I was not disappointed as I stepped on to the open air viewing platform. You could see for miles and every famous building from the hills of Buda, where I began my day, to Parliament to the Széchenyi Chain Bridge were identifiable from this height.
Descending back down I then entered the Basilica itself. I was greeted with a stunning interior that almost rivalled St Peters Basilica in The Vatican…..almost. In contrast to outside, the atmosphere inside was dark and moody due to the thousands of candles lighting up the building and providing an extra haunting dimension was the presence of the men’s choir who were expertly practising their hymns in perfect unison. The acoustics were incredible and I decided to sit and listen to their beautiful voices echo around me whilst taking in the spectacular dome above.
After this brief respite stop, I headed for my final stop for the day and the second reason I had booked this trip. The Budapest Christmas Fair is located in Vörösmarty Square and is quite possibly the best Christmas Market I have ever visited. The sights, the smells, the sounds were intoxicating. Hundreds of people filled the square which is centred around a large Christmas Tree. I walked around the many vendors selling wares from chocolate to ornaments to food and drink before settling on some mulled wine and beef goulash.
Three ‘medicinal’ mulled wines later and proudly clutching my Budapest Christmas Fair mug I began the walk (and Funicular ride) back to the hotel. The night had set in and the temperature had dropped. As I pulled my hat and gloves on whilst walking back along the river my attention was drawn to the the night lights of the city. Budapest is beautiful by day but it is nothing compared to the night. Every iconic building is lit up with a yellow hue giving a warm glow to the city even on the most bitterly cold of nights.
As I peeked out of the window I was disappointed to find that the weather had taken a turn for the worst. It was raining and cold, making me glad I forced myself to walk yesterday and get all the photographs I wanted. My foot was feeling very painful, probably from overdoing it the day before and I didn’t think it was possible but even more bruises seemed to have appeared.
So I started the day with another leisurely breakfast in the same small bakery located in the shadows of St Matthias while trying to plan my agenda for the day. I knew I wouldn’t be able to walk as far today and as tempting as it was to sit at the Christmas Market all day drinking mulled wine there were still some places I needed to tick off my list.
Having only walked past The Royal Palace yesterday I headed there first to explore the grounds in more detail. The Palace houses several historically important museums such as the Hungarian National Gallery, the Castle Museum and the National Library but is was the building itself I was more interested in. Huge gothic inspired statutes guard the entrance points and one particularly menacing looking hawk repeatedly caught my eye and camera lens.
I occupied myself here for a couple of hours before heading back over the Széchenyi Chain Bridge to the Christmas market for some lunch, this time opting for a giant Hungarian hot dog. Totally engulfing the plate it was served on, I spent a few minutes contemplating exactly how I should tackle eating such a thing before deciding the best thing to do was just get stuck in. Who cares if I ended up with ketchup smothered around my face? I wasn’t going to see any of these people again.
Spending all day outside I was beginning to feel the cold despite the best efforts of the mulled wine. So I retreated back to the hotel, grabbed my swimwear and headed to the Gellert Thermal Baths in a taxi. Similarly priced to the Széchenyi Thermal Baths I again opted for a private changing cabin. Whilst not as beautiful on the outside as the Széchenyi Thermal Baths, the inside of these Cathedral-esque Baths wins hands down.
After a couple of hours bobbing about in the thermal waters I had finally warmed up and felt significantly more relaxed so I headed back to the hotel for an early night, deciding to skip dinner as I was still full from my earlier feast.
With just a couple of hours to pass before my flight home I decided to take one last walk to the end of the street to St Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion for a final chance to peer down on to Parliament, the building I had become so obsessed with photographing. The fog had began to roll in over the Danube, making the rooftops barely visible, a stark contrast to the blue sunny skies which I had seen two days before as I stood at the top of St Stephen’s Basilica. As the church bells began to chime I found myself imaging Dracula’s Transylvania and could not help but think this is what it must have been like (if it had been real or course!)
I finished my itinerary with a visit to the Hospital in the Rock which was used extensively during WWII and contains original medical equipment and war bunkers.
Before heading back to the airport, lunch was a quick stop at Jamie’s Italian which has a newly opened branch in the Castle District of the city. Visiting here is a definite guilty pleasure of mine. After all the Hungarian food, I was craving some pasta and cheese. I was not disappointed by the extra cheesy lasagne I was presented with.
I throughly enjoyed my time in Budapest and despite my foot injury I made the most of my trip, ticking off the majority of what I had set out to do from my Bucketlist.
The city itself is compact with all the major tourist attractions within easy walking distance. The main obstacle however is the steep hill climb from the Danube up to the Castle District. There are several options to overcome this which include the number 16 bus which runs frequently from the Széchenyi Chain Bridge to the top of the hill, the Castle Hill Funicular (my favourite way to negotiate the hill) and as I found out on the last day, the strategically placed lifts that have been built into the hillside at all the main tourist entrance and exit points. This is such a quirky and ingenious idea and I can not believe I did not discover them sooner!
Being a solo traveller I felt completely at ease in this bustling city. I found most Hungarians to be polite and friendly and almost all customer service workers spoke perfect English. I tried to learn a few common phrases but found this language exceptionally hard to master with some likening it’s difficulty to that of Arabic or Japanese.
No trip to Budapest would be complete without sampling the traditional Hungarian cuisine. It has its own sophisticated style incorporating rich, mouthwatering flavours. I sampled a wide variety of local dishes during my time here and it was some of the most delicious and comforting food I have eaten.
Budapest really is a fairytale city that would not look out of place in a Brothers Grimm story. Architecturally, it is a treasure trove of Baroque, Neo-classical and Art Nouveau designs that give an almost medieval feel. The main reason I wanted to visit this city was to photograph some of the iconic buildings found along the banks of the Danube and it is safe to say that they are even more impressive in real life than any pictures I had seen prior to coming on this trip. The city is so full of exquisite beauty that even on the dullest of winter days there is hidden colour to be found around every corner.
Budapest you have been an absolute dream…..