Over the last year or so I’ve made it my mission to visit more European cities. Whilst I’ve still got a list longer than my arm of places I want to visit, I have made it to six new cities within the last year or so. Included within that is some of the world’s most must-see destinations; Paris, Lisbon, Dublin, Barcelona but my absolute favourite was Budapest, Hungary.
Booked on a bit of a whim because the flights were cheap, I knew I’d have a good time. What I did not expect was to fall so whole-heartedly in love with the city. In the four nights that I spent there I felt truly at home; I remember cycling down Andrassy Boulevard thinking “I could live here.”
In just a short space of time I saw as much as the city as was physically possible and not once did I even step foot on public transport, instead choosing (much to the delight of my Fitbit) to walk or cycle everywhere. It’s difficult to narrow down what the ‘best bits’ were because I really did revel in the whole atmosphere of the place, but if you’re visiting then here is some must-see’s or must-do’s:
The Szchenyi Thermal Baths
These world famous thermal baths sit proudly on the front cover of most of the guide books, and for good reason. They are the epitome of Hungarian culture and are a fabulous place to kick back, rest your sore feet and soak your muscles in the healing waters. Although I really would encourage everyone to don a swimsuit and hop in, I appreciate the idea isn’t for everyone. Szchenyi is worth a visit for the architecture in the lobby alone and the big yellow courtyard that houses the outdoor pools is truly iconic.
Outdoors there is a large swimming pool (for lanes, not for splashing, swimming hat mandatory!) as well as the dreamy thermal baths complete with underwater seating, massage jets and even a gentle rapid. Like most eastern European countries, Budapest boasts sunshine galore in the Spring-Summer months and often snows in the Winter. The baths are open and popular all year round and one day I vow to go back and enjoy a snowy bathe.
During my trip in April where the temperatures averaged 25-28ºC every day I made good use of the surrounding courtyard for a spot of sunbathing, though do be warned that attempting to get hold of a lounger is so competitive that I hear they’re considering turning it into an Olympic sport. The baths are said to become horrendously crowded with tourists and locals alike in the summer months, so if visiting during peak season then I would recommend getting up early to carpe diem.
The locker system can be pretty confusing, so to simplify a long time spent trying to interpret Hungarian, here’s a few tips:
1. Buy your ticket from the entrance booth and ask for a locker, not a cabin. They’ll try and sell you the latter but it seems really unnecessary; the only difference is in one you’re given a standard locker in a group changing room (like any pool, gym or health club) and for the other you’re given a wooden cabin to get changed and leave your stuff in. They might try and tell you there are no lockers left, this is probably not true so stand your ground and don’t feel pressured into spending more money…
2. You’re given an electronic wrist tag; this is your entry into the pools and also locks your locker for you. Finding the changing rooms can be quite the maze, the staff mostly speak Hungarian and there is limited signage. Good luck!
3. Make a note of your locker number! They all look the same…If you do opt for a cabin then you have to ask a member of staff to lock and unlock it for you (another reason I think they’re a bit annoying).
There are other beautiful and very famous baths in Budapest, however it was the outdoor appeal of Szchenyi that convinced me. Also, be aware that some have strict rules regarding segregating males and females, and also rules on when women are actually allowed to bathe, which put me off a bit. Gellert is highly regarded and is the most traditionally Turkish of the baths, however women are only allowed in the oldest and grandest section (the bit in all the photographs!) on Tuesdays, when men are banned.
Cycling around the City
I got on a bike, feet barely scraping the ground and wondered what the hell I was doing as I navigated my way through foreign streets without a helmet on. I don’t cycle in London because, let’s be honest, it’s really scary, and yet there I was on the other side of the road peddling along and silently thanking my parents for forcing me to take Cycling Proficiency lessons in primary school.
After making it from A to B without being turned into goulash soup I became increasingly more confident in my abilities, in the considerate attitudes of the car drivers and in the glorious cycle lanes of this city. It truly is incredibly bicycle friendly with wide cycle lanes on all the main roads including traffic lights.
I really would urge everyone to hop on and have a go; it’s such a fantastic way to soak up the city and you do kind of feel like you’re in a movie as you cycle along Andrassy Boulevard, wind in your hair… There is a Boris Bike-esque system as well as independent higher shops and it means that you’ll have no need for public transport either, though a word of warning: suspension seems to be a non-existant concept, so if you don’t fancy getting a little too friendly with your bike then stand up over the bumps!
The Ruin Bars and Szimpla Kert
Despite the damage caused to the city during the war, the beauty of the architecture and the quirky restoration decisions are a really pleasant surprise. The balance achieved been recreating the old and blending it with the new, as well as making the most of the destruction is incredibly impressive and done with a lot of flair; the cities ‘Ruin Bars’ are one of the best examples of this.
Szimpla Kert is by the far the best watering hole in the city. The appearance and atmosphere is pretty indescribable; you really do have to experience it to understand what I mean. It’s weird, it’s wonderful; chairs are glued to walls, bath tubs become sofas and toy line the bar. The ceiling is half missing and as you make your way from room to room you’ll feel as though you’ve stepped inside a big, rustic adult fun house. Take a permanent marker and add your name to the wall – it’s encouraged.
Before you order your drinks just take a walk around the place, not only is it absolutely huge but also completely surreal. The cocktail bars are well stocked and incredibly cheap on accounts of the hyper Forint currency, you’re currently looking at around 355HUF per £1, and when cocktails are around 600HUF and a pint 390-450HUF, you know you’re in for a good night. There is also a fantastic Shisha lounge on the ground floor where pipes are cheap and the atmosphere dreamy.
The House of Terror
I almost missed out on this gem because, based purely on its name, I thought it probably wasn’t for me. I am so grateful that I took the plunge because the House of Terror on Andrassy Boulevard is without a doubt the best museum I have ever visited. In fact, calling it a museum seems a bit of an injustice. Rather, it is an immersive experienced designed by an incredibly talented creative director who has done sophisticated justice to the chilling history of the building.
Used as the HQ for both both Nazi and Communist regimes in Hungary, the walls have witness some of the most horrific forms of torture and corruption that European history has seen. Across several floors, there is a clear path and order to experience the building and each room contains a handout which is articulately written and so much more engaging than any museum prose I have read before; if you’re the kind of person who usually just likes to look rather than read, then hold your reservations and pick up the piece of paper in each room. You’ll learn so much; I was completely enthralled rather than just skimming for key facts like I often find myself doing.
I don’t want to give much more away, just please take my word for it and visit. It’s artistic, enlightening and at times even tear-jerking. It also only costs a fiver to get in and if you have a student card then you’ll also receive a discount. Except to spend a few hours here, it’s not something to rush.
You can’t miss the giant river running through the city, dividing it into Buda and Pest. Pest is where the action is at, whilst hilly Buda offers some of the most spectacular vantage points. The sparkling blue river you see on the post cards is a bit of a lie, but at night time it really does come alive and the famous Chain bridge lights up, glistening above the water.
There are quite a few companies offering night cruises, I would recommend the Danube Legend which, following a lot of research, came out top as the most reputable. Tickets are the equivalent to about £10 and include a drink and a headset audio tour, though I chose to ditch the latter and just marvel at the sites. Boats depart from pier 7 – which is where you can buy tickets from during the day – at 19:30, though I would recommend checking the times as they may vary throughout the seasons. The view of the Parliament building is in particular a real spectacle!
The Shoes on the Danube:
Following the ravage of the Arrow Cross Party during the Nazi rein, the Shoes on the Danube is one of the most touching and provocative memorials I have come across. Lined up along the banks of the river facing across to Buda, Jews were forced to remove their shoes before being shot into the water below. A harrowing image in itself, their legacy has been immortalised in iron by film director, Can Togay, and artist Gyula Pauer. The installation, which was erected in 2005, comprises of the casts of sixty pairs of period appropriate footwear cemented to the river bank.
Each day locals light tea lights, leave flowers and fill the shoes with little gifts in memory of those who died. A pair of tiny toddler boots, which had been filled with sweets, left me short for breath.
One of the first things I look for when visiting a new city is a good vantage point to embrace it from. Here are some of the top views in Budapest:
With a dome to rival St Paul’s and costing literally pennies to head up to the panoramic roof balcony, the Basilica offers views far and wide. There are lifts, but if you’re feeling brave then head for the stairs where you’ll not only get a true sense of the height, but also work on that booty. Win-win.
Tip: that rooftop with the orange sofas that you spy? The Sky Bar, just round the corner, is the place to go for a view and cocktail! There is a doorman and you’ll feel out of place in trainers.
At the top of Gellert Hill is the Citadela, and at the bottom is a beautiful church built into the rocks. The walk from the bottom to the top looks hard work, but the footpath reaches the peak surprisingly quickly and offers plenty of rest points with stunning views.
The monument at the top and the giant fortress is a great photo opportunity, as well as being full of history; the fort was viewed as an eyesore and a mark of oppression by the citizens of Budapest when it was first erected. Designed as a series of forts, it never saw any action, though Hitler did make use of it during WW2, and it later became an unofficial shelter for the homeless in the city. Pack lots of water and don’t be fooled into buying souvenirs from the stalls at the summit of the hill, unless you want to pay twice what you would at the bottom.
Probably the most famous of Budapest’s vantage points, most visitors immediately make a beeline for Castle Hill, and with good reason. Not only does it contain stunning views across the city from the ruins of an old castle, but it also houses the Matthias church, which is very large, intricate and gothic in style. Famous photo spots such as the Fisherman’s Bastion and and the Vienna Gate are within walking distance.