Budapest, Hungary’s capital split by the River Danube, is a fabulous city. I lived in Southern Hungary for six months, in a small city called Pécs. I spent many a weekend showing friends and family the secret (and not so secret) delights of Budapest. Hungarians are very proud of their café culture. There are hundreds of coffee-houses and cake shops all worth a visit. I used to stumble across the weirdest places. There is a restaurant just outside Deli train station in an old abandoned railway carriage. A guy in tight leather trousers and a waistcoat serves you traditional Hungarian food in what looks like 1st class apartment. Brilliant!
Dig a little deeper in Budapest and go a little further. You’re bound to find something different.
1/ The Thermal Baths
Budapest is famous for its healing spa’s. It’s a weird sensation lowering yourself into hot water underneath all that sulphured steam. Although you do stink of eggs afterwards, your skin is beautifully soft. And you don’t have to get naked if you don’t want to. I went to the Szechenyi Baths in the City Park in Pest, which cost about £10. Not only can you boil yourself in bubbling water; you can play chess at the same time too!
2/ Rollerblading round Margaret Island
Walk across the Margit Bridge and stop off at this incredible island. You can rent just about any form of transport from flintstone style cars, motorised carriages, bikes, roller blades, tandems bikes; just take your pick! The prices range from a couple of quid to slightly more, depending on how much legwork you want to do! This island even has its own outdoor theatre and is famous for its music festivals in summer. It’s wonderful on a warm sunny afternoon exploring the massive expanse of green grass in the centre of the Danube. The fountain even dances to classical music. Just don’t fall over any loved up couples enjoying a little bit of privacy. They are known to get a bit raunchy.
3/ Buda Castle
The funicular railway (about £15) is the best way to reach the castle, unless of course you want to walk the many steps up the hill but it’s a long way. The hill has beautiful views over the Danube and Pest, towards the Parliament and the many bridges. Lots of museums and sites of interest on top of the hill such as Matthias Church, a neo-gothic tower that tourist’s flock to see. The Museum of Contemporary Arts, Hungarian National Gallery, and Budapest History museum are all housed up here but unless you are living in Hungary for months on end, exploring Budapest by foot is a more exciting way of uncovering the history and art of the city. It is very easy to spend hours eating ice creams or picnicking on the grass around Buda in summer. And in winter, the hills are full of kids and parents clinging on to their ancient sledges, speeding through the snow. Also plenty of restaurants up here, but they can be expensive as this is rather an exclusive place to eat.
4/ The Labyrinth
The most unusual museum of it’s kind. Just cross the (very bored) ticket collectors palm with a few coins (around £5) and step back in time into the core of the earth. Underneath the castle lies a collision of tunnels created by hot springs. Cellars were dug even further into the earth to store the wine that the medieval alcoholics living in the castle needed. The wine still spills out through little taps in the earth. And, no, I’m not joking. You are given a map and should already have a nose for adventure. Beware of the weird sense of humour though; I had no idea cave men drank Coca Cola….
5/ Eat goulash and try traditional food
You must. Why be somewhere different otherwise? There are plenty of places that serve traditional Hungarian food but Pest is usually the best bet. Csarnok, a few streets away from the unmistakable Parliament, is a great little place serving lamb and bone marrow dishes. Goulash is a must to try. More like soup than what people usually tend to imagine, it is also very filling. Hungarians love their meat and really enjoy frying the fat from it, so beware if you don’t like fatty foods. Or you’re a veggie. You may find wild boar on the menu quite often. The carbohydrates are very popular here. They serve very heavy dough, which is a bit like pasta but not quite cooked with most of the traditional meals. I suppose it all keeps you warm in the cold. In the winter months you may have to walk a while to find a cute little place open, but in the summer, they are spilling out on to the pavements. Of course there are expensive places, but there is also an abundance of good quality cheap restaurants. On average meals will be about £6 to £8. Just go looking for them.
I know, I know. You should try different things when you’re away. Well this is different: for starters, this is the biggest Tesco in Europe (rock on). And second, they don’t take club cards. It’s an immense place that can comfort you when feeling slightly homesick (even the décor is the same). Unfortunately though, there is not a decent can of beans to be found anywhere. Although this is the place to buy all your cheap Hungarian wine and beer.
7/ Budapest Opera House
A beautiful building, the State Opera House, is worth a look inside even just to see the elaborate interior. You can have a tour here for about £7, or if you’re lucky and remembered to bring your glad rags, catch a show (from 20 to 200 Euros depending on seats etc.) When you come out of the Opera House, don’t miss the wonderful old bookshop, which sells one hundred-year-old post cards, which is perfect if you’re looking for an unconventional kind of souvenir. There are also concerts of opera in the City Park. Set in the Renaissance courtyard of two Translyvanian castles, it is a most romantic setting in the summer. Even if opera is not your preferred musical taste, the concerts can be wonderfully emotionally.
8/ Heroes Square (Hösök tere) and Statue Park
Heroes Square is a vast semi-circle of the past kings and warriors of Hungary, which now acts as a skate park and a photo opportunity. Majestic and noble, the park signifies just how much the Hungarians are proud of their past. Heroes Square stands guard at the entrance to the City Park, where in winter you can ice skate on the lake and summer row on it. Statue Park lies just out of the city: take a bus from Deák tér, entrance ticket plus direct bus costs £10. Open everyday until sunset, this open-air museum described itself as being the ‘last glimpse behind the iron curtain’, and displays the fabled figures of Lenin, Marx and Engels.
9/ Experiment with the bars
There is a liqueur here called Unicum. It clings to the throat on the way down and sends the Hungarians slightly loony. If it’s safer to stick to the beers, pubs like “The Old Man’s Music Pub” (Pest) is full of Hungarians and backpackers enjoying the live music and cheap prices. “Fat Mos” (Pest as well) is of course, a smoky bluesy, jazzy place, cosy and chilled out. For a more traditional night, you may need to head away from the lights and down the back alleys. This isn’t as dodgy as it sounds. There are hundreds of tiny bars and underground pubs that look like they could double as someone’s living room during the day. Hungary has a range of beers, from Dreher to Arany Ászok, all good lager similar to Budvar. The Hungarian wine is also very, very cheap although it tastes entirely different to any wine I’ve ever drank. The red wine looks like blackcurrant squash watered down. But Ribena, it is not. It’s got that usual Hungarian kick up the backside. And the white, well, in winter you’ve got to try the Forós Bor, heated herbal white wine (like our mulled wine). Nothing will warm you up quite like this Hungarian speciality.
10/ Learn some of the language
This should be the first thing on your ‘to do’ list. Occasionally in Budapest you’ll get stuck with the communication. Some of the Hungarians will not even attempt to make an effort if you haven’t. And it’s fair enough. The train station is the worst place for this. And smiling at them doesn’t work. Make sure you are saying the name of the place you’re going to properly; sounds basic, but it’s important. For beer, ask for “Kérek egy sör” (or phonetically, “kerek edge sure”) but be careful to say “sure” and not “sore” as that would mean ‘can I have one hair please?’ A cheese and ham sandwich, is “sonka es sajt szendvics”, (shonka ees shite sandvich) which still tickles me to this day. And always say thankyou. ‘Köszönöm!’ And goodbye, ‘szia!’ (Although if you are saying goodbye to more than one person it is ‘sziastok’). Ok, so there is a lot to learn but just try it. They’ll love you for it.