The first time I went to Budapest was around Christmas, when the ground was frozen solid and the majority of the city was shrouded in icy mist. It was in fact so freezing cold, and I was so terrified of slipping on the sheets of ice covering the pavements, that I barely saw the city at all; even when I forced myself to stay out in the bone-piercing chill for longer than I normally find bearable, the mist blocked my view of just about EVERYTHING that you’d ever want to see. It was a crying shame, I tell ya. Skip forward to July this year and Budapest was a changed place! A truly changed place!
The capital of Hungary is technically made up of two separate cities which have merged together over time; Buda sitting on the hilly side of the River Danube, and Pest laying low on the flat side. Me and my pal Rachel came to spend several days in the city, doing as many super-touristy things as possible and also visiting some of our ship-friends who live there. I’m not gonna lie to you pals, we hit the city like true hardcore and highly professional tourists; here is how we managed to do it.
Stay in a castle
One thing you must know about my pal Rachel is: she has a keen eye for castles. Especially when it comes to the kind that you can stay in. So when she spotted an AirBnB apartment not only located in Buda, but more specifically in Buda Actual Castle, it was pretty much a given that we’d be booking it. The castle, originally built in the 1200s, is more of a complex of cobblestone streets, pastel coloured royal buildings, and the odd baroque-style palace thrown in for good measure, with random towers and walls and staircases that have been added or vanished over time, which all just added to the magic of the place. The moment we realised the entrance to our surprisingly palatial-sized apartment was behind a gigantic heavy wooden door and down a large stone archway was the cherry on top. I mean, guys; what more could you want from an AirBnB for goodness’ sake!?
Marvel at Matthias Church
A bigtime perk of the fact that we were staying in Buda was the fact that we were a mere stone’s throw away from some of the city’s most well-known and downright beautiful landmarks. Matthias church is without a doubt one of the coolest-looking buildings I’ve ever had a chance to take a glance at. The roof is covered with thousands of tiny shiny tiles all laid out in an intricate and highly glistening pattern with the mild air of a 1970s wallpaper about it, and parts of the interior are painted in such vivid colours and crazy patterns that half the time I was overwhelmed with where to look.
The history of Hungary is quite the many-layered one, and so is the history of this church, which was actually a mosque for 150 years back in the days when the Ottomans ruled the roost. The church was a grand wedding venue for royals and non-royals alike (and still is, apparently), as well as being the location of a fair few coronations in its time, the jammy old dodger.
Spy on the rest of the city from Fisherman’s Bastion
The odd thing about Fisherman’s Bastion is that considering it takes up a fair amount of space, and is one of the most well-known and most-visited places in Budapest, it wasn’t really built for any other reason than ‘to look cool.’ And it does look very cool. The fairytale-esque turrets and walls run along a cliff side next to Matthias Church and overlooking the river and the rest of the city laid out like a beaut little twinkling map below it.
Eat Hungarian Food
Oh my goodness gracious me. Obviously one of the highlights of travelling anywhere in the world is going to be eating as many local dishes that you possibly can. Goulash is probs the most well-known of foodstuffs that we sampled- which is basically a good old fashioned hearty stew- but we also tried töltött káposzta, aka stuffed cabbage (they’re particularly big on cabbage-based meals round these parts), and paprikás, which is another stew featuring a whole load of sweet paprika and served with nokedli- egg noodle dumplings. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, Hungarian cakes are da bomb, and the most renowned of all is possibly Dobos Torte, a layered cake involving copious amounts of buttercream. AMAZING.
However, pals. Let me offer you a word of warning. These are some heavy dishes. After a couple of days of eating hearty meals normally reserved for winter, we were both strolling around looking for dinner and feeling hungry but simultaneously a little laden-down with fifty different variations of stew inside our stomachs. When we passed a Jamie’s Italian and both declared that we needed a salad at the almost exact same instant, it was clear we needed a short break from the Hungarian delicacies for at least one evening. And it was also clearly destiny as we met the sweetest old couple from somewhere in Berkshire that I’ve ever met, who were still having the time of their lives together after all those years of marriage, and were astonished to hear that we’re both singers when we’re not gallivanting around Europe. What a pair of cuties.
Get Political on a Parliament Tour
The only way you can see inside the Hungarian Parliament House is by booking a guided tour, but as it’s such an extreme beaut building on the outside, we thought why not give it a go and see what the interior is like too? The awkward and slightly annoying thing about this whole guided tour thing is the fact that although you’re with a guide, the group is absolutely ginormous, and you therefore each have to wear an individual headset so you can tune into the fully live guide talking into her crackly microphone. Also that a burly security guard will for certain follow you the entire way through to make sure you’re not doing anything suspicious; if you’re a dawdler like me this can make you feel like a bit of a nuisance whilst bringing up the rear and attempting to photograph seemingly obscure things like cigar holders or creases in the curtains.
Having had a good old fashioned moan about it, as it’s the only way to see inside this exquisite masterpiece of a building, what else can ya do!? The interior of the grandest building on the Danube is just as resplendent, if not more, than the outside, filled with velvet drapes, golden ceilings and the crowning glory of it all, the actual Holy Crown of Hungary which is guarded round the clock by two completely still guards equipped with one long spindly sword each.
Cruise down the Danube River
When I say we were true tourists for our Hungarian adventure, I mean true tourists. We did not slack on the tourism front in the slightest. And so. Let me introduce you to the concept of: The River Cruise.
Everyone told us that an amazing way to see the city would be for us to cruise on down the Danube on a big old river boat, maybe with a dinner involved as well. (Just for a laugh.) The idea of a cruise that included not only dinner, but also real live Hungarian musicians, really appealed to us in an extreme way, so we promptly booked the trip and made our way to the river on our second night in the city to begin our adventure-by-water.
Now, pals. I’ve got mixed emotions on Ye Olde River Cruise. On the one hand- was it an authentic Hungarian Experience? No way Jose. However…it was still pretty darn tootin’ hilarious. The food was a buffet which in classic buffet style disappeared within ten minutes as everyone was so petrified of not getting their money’s-worth. The authentic Hungarian music was actually a trio of guys playing the sort of classic tunes that can be heard on tube trains across the world; I’d estimate that we heard ‘Oh When the Saints Go Marching In’ a minimum of 5 times during the two hours we spent on the river, but I’ll forgive them for that because they were pretty funny guys after all. So pals, it was an intriguing experience for sure, and eventually a thunderstorm struck up complete with fork lightening which was so dramatic that it made the whole thing 100% worth it.
Attempt to use public transport
I say ‘attempt’ because, for me and Rachel, using the public transport in Budapest was a definite trial and error situation. Despite the fact that in hindsight the buses and subway trains in the city are very much on the simple side, we did that thing where we just blindly stepped on and off of vehicles with no real idea of where we were or where they were heading. We got on one bus, confident that it would take us across the river, only for it to travel 45 seconds down the road, come completely to a halt and for the driver to announce that it was the end of the line. What an awkward moment that was. When we found a bus that did take us across the river, we stepped off as soon as the doors hissed open on the opposite side of the bridge, only for the remaining passengers packed on like sardines to yell at us that we were for sure in the wrong place and that we should get back on on the double. Thank god for nice helpful strangers, that’s all I’m saying.
The subway trains in Budapest were genuinely one of my favourite things about the whole city, basically because they look as if they’re straight out of a Wes Anderson movie. And I am all about that weird retro aesthetic, pals. We never got on one of the city’s trams, but we did ride down a hill on the funicular which had an equally Wes Anderson vibe about it, and had a collection of horsemen in felt uniforms at the bottom, so it was a win-win situation really.
Visit some controversial memorials
Now pals, it turns out that Hungary has something of a controversial history. Call me stupid, but I didn’t realise that back in World War 2 the country was not only occupied by Nazi Germany, but that the government was rather a fascist one itself. I’m sure you’ll agree that all-round spelled big time TROUBLE for most ordinary people within the country, resulting in the deaths of thousands and thousands of Jews, Romanies and other Hungarian citizens.
There is many a monument across the city to remember this horrific time, but the most famous memorial is probably the Shoes on the Danube Bank, featuring sixty pairs of iron shoes in a row at the river bank, not far from the Hungarian Parliament. It’s a pretty striking and downright heart-wrenching way to represent the 3,500 people who were ordered by Arrow Cross militia (the Arrow Cross Party was the fascist party in charge at the time), to take off their shoes before they were shot into the river and carried away by the flow of water.
More controversially, a newer monument to commemorate Germany’s occupation of Hungary in 1944 and the Hungarian Holocaust has been standing for the last few years in the city centre, featuring an angel representing Hungary, being attacked by an eagle which represents the Third Reich. And the reason it’s so controversial is that the Hungarian government were creating anti-Semitic laws and willingly deporting Jews well before 1944- in fact up until that year the two countries were allied. Understandably a fair few people have kicked off about the design and purpose of the monument, saying that it’s whitewashing history by placing the blame solely on the German Nazis. Dangerous games, people.
These days the monument is surrounded by laminated sheets of paper explaining in every language that the monument is a lie, coupled with pictures of the victims of the holocaust and flowers and pebbles left in memory.
Get swanky at the New York Cafe
The New York Cafe is a place that I heard about by the medium of Instagram, and the tagline of ‘The Most Beautiful Cafe in the World’ really sold it to me, though in hindsight it’s possible that that title is completely a self-proclaimed one. The cafe is part of the New York Palace, a grandiose 5-star hotel located in the Jewish Quarter, and without a doubt this place is beautiful. Ornately decorated with mirrors and drapes thrown all around the place, back in the day this was where writers and general intellectuals met to write splendiferous things, discuss splendiferous ideas, and drink splendiferous coffee…however these days to be honest it seems to be 100% a place for splendiferous tourists to take splendiferous selfies.
A rope barrier separates the queue from the rest of the rather more elegant marble-and-mirrors room, and Rachel and me were seated at a spot a few feet from this rope, where the entire queue watched us tuck into our coffee and cake combos, taking pictures every now and again of the whole set-up. Personally I found this whole situation pretty full on hilarious, and we both decided it would be a great idea to not only smile and wave for the cameras, but also to take a couple of photos of the queue. A weird experience, but even weirder is possibly the fact that I still really appreciated it!?
Go off the beaten path with a Communism Tour
Now pals, this is one thing we did which is perhaps not a classic tourist activity in this marvellous city. But for both of us it was definitely one of the most rewarding. Rachel is the Queen of Research and suggested that we join a free walking tour of the city which centred mainly on the topic of: COMMUNISM.
Turns out, there were a whole load of people that day who really wanted to learn a lot about Communism, and our amazing and hilarious Hungarian Guide was all too happy to share amazing and hilarious (don’t get me wrong, not all of it was hilarious), stories about the days when Hungary was very much a communist country, whilst taking us through streets we might never have walked down or known anything about, had we not been with him. We learnt so much about the city (far more than at the Hungarian Parliament, that’s for sure), and yet it’s one of the only activities we took part in that was technically free…although don’t get me wrong, everyone’s invited at the end to donate-what-they-can to tip our guide.
Take a trip to the City Park and see what it has to offer
In all honesty, we only ventured towards the City Park as we had planned to go to Széchenyi Thermal Baths. After all, everyone says that to be a true tourist in Budapest you have to visit a thermal spa and float around in the water for a bit. The city is plonked on top of nearly 125 natural thermal springs, so there’s no shortage of places to hang out in your beachwear and chill out, whether you want somewhere cool and modern, or somewhere that dates back to the times of Turkish rule. However, when we reached the baths and discovered that half the population of Europe had had the same idea as we had that morning, we decided to give it a miss and see more of the surrounding instead.
Nearby is Heroes Square and a giant monument to the fellows who basically brought Hungary into its very existence- the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars- and next to the lake (complete with some comedy pedalos), is the strangely epic Vajdahunyad Castle. This bizarre place was built in 1896 and is basically one giant castle made up of replicas of an assortment of Hungarian castles in various architectural styles and from various different time periods. These days it houses a museum, but it’s also a cool location to just have a wander round or sit and eat more food for a bit. Who doesn’t love food, for goodness’ sake?
Ruin bars and the Jewish Quarter
I’m capsuling these two together because the Jewish Quarter- potentially the coolest and most hipster-y part of the city- is home to many a ruin bar. However it’s also a great place for a stroll in the day, filled with intriguing corners and secret hideaways to stumble upon, because one thing that the young and cool people of Budapest are clearly extremely talented at, is turning old crumbling buildings into amazing places to hang out. This is the art of recycling at its finest, pals.
On our final night in the city we met a bunch of our Hungarian pals from shiplife to celebrate the amazing Marian’s birthday, which culminated in a trip to what felt like a makeshift mall filled with eclectic bars and eateries…we were led to the basement of a karaoke bar which turned out to be a great location for a strange but wonderful evening particularly with Rachel’s rousing rendition of Sir-Mix-Alot’s classic, Baby Got Back. I mean, you just can’t go wrong, can you!?
- To be honest, one of the best things about Hungary is the currency. Not only do the pictures on each note feature some great-looking people with amazing moustaches (as does every statue in the city, these guys really know how to get creative with facial hair), 1000 forint, or HUF, is the equivalent to approximately 3 euros. This can lead to severe confusion when working out how much you’ve spent and whether that’s a little or a lot. A case in point: ‘Hey Alex, how many HUFs did you spend on dinner today??’ ‘Errr…7,500 HUFs!!!’ And I have literally no idea whether that is expensive or not because my brain is nowhere near clever enough to calculate. But here’s my favourite note, in case you’re interested-
- We considered getting a Budapest Card to include the cost of our transport and give us discounts on certain things, but it really wouldn’t have been worth it. We used public transport so infrequently as it was amazing to just walk around the city and see what was going on properly; it would have been a waste of money.
- English is widely spoken so although it’s nice to learn a few words of Hungarian, the language is notoriously difficult to master and you can get by fine without it.
- Although it’s possible to get from the city from the airport via public bus (a direct line was only recently introduced), because of time constraints we opted for a taxi both ways, which cost approximately €25 or 50,000 HUFS. Jokes, it always felt like 50,000 HUFS no matter what the actual cost of anything was, simply because the number was so high. Good old HUFS 😂