Budapest is an incredible city. We arrived by bus from Bratislava to Népliget Bus station (most international buses stop here). We purchased a 72 hour BKK public transport ticket. It worked out at about €4-5 per day per person, but totally worth it as you can use it for all public transport. The local transport is an adventure in itself! We were able to tour the river using the ferries instead of an expensive river cruise (and so much more flexible). The M1 (Blue) metro line from the bus station dates back to 1896! It’s never ceased operation and is a UNESCO world heritage site. I wouldn’t want to get stuck between the doors though, they slam together like a gunshot!
Buda & The Buda Castle District
Budapest was originally comprised of three cities – Buda, Pest and Óbuda. Our first day was spent trying to get our bearings and navigate the major attractions in the extreme heat. We started on the Buda side in the Buda Castle district. You could easily spend all day here. There are numerous sights in and around including the Royal Palace (Királyi Palota), Fishermen’s Bastion (Halászbástya), Matthias Church (Mátyás Templom), Mary Magdalene Tower (Mária Magdolna Torony), Military History Museum and the Labyrinth in Buda Castle (Budavári Labirintus).
With the noonday sun searing down and crowds of tours congregating we decided to break up the day and escape to the Buda Hills. We returned to Buda on a cooler day to explore further and to try hungarian pancakes at Nagyi Palacsintazoja (a great pancake house). Hungarian food is very rich and heavy, the pancakes were flavourful but there was way too much cream, cheese and ham for my liking.
The Buda Hills
Getting to the Buda hills is easy. It involves a tram, and a cogwheel train to the top. From there you can hike the forest trails, have a picnic or find a restaurant with a shady beer garden. We sat in a park and ate our homemade sandwiches before taking a ride on the the Children’s Railway (Gyermekvasút) around the hills. The entire railway is staffed by children under 16 (except the train driver of course!). You can also take a Libegő (chairlift) back down the mountain. (note: the 72 hr BKK ticket covers the cogwheel to Buda Hills but not the Gyermekvasút or Libegő).
In the late afternoon we made our way to the Jewish quarter on the Pest side, stopping by the Grand Dohány Street Synagogue and Hungarian State Opera House. We had to pick and choose which sights to enter because Budapest is an expensive city! St Stephens Basilica was thankfully free and very impressive. Food is also very pricey. Accommodation was surprisingly cheap though. We paid less than €10 each ( €6 out of season) for a dorm in a really nice, central hostel in Pest near the river. The West Budapest Hostel is located in a grand old apartment building, so it feels very homey. There’s also a tasty Gyros restaurant right downstairs. The turkish food in Budapest is a cheap, delicious and good quality (probably healthier) option. Self-catering at ALDI was our other main source of sustenance!
Budapest city park
On our second day we awoke to a thunderstorm and the cool rain was a welcome relief. A perfect day to relax at the Széchenyi Thermal Bath. We got there early, before 9am, when there is nearly no one but locals around. By around 11am it started becoming crowded with tourists (I think the rain also helped keep it less crowded). Széchenyi is located within the Budapest city park a a short walk from Vajdahunyad Castle. There is also a city zoo and a botanical garden.
Budapest at night
Nights in Budapest are magical, there are lots of live music venues, especially for Jazz music, and you can’t miss the ruin pubs. These are bars with eclectic and colourful interiors decorated with your-trash-is-my-treasure items, located in the basements and unused spaces of ‘ruined’ buildings. They frequently host bands and cultural events. We checked out one called Pótkulcs. Simply walking the streets and along the river at night with all the historic buildings and bridges lit up is so stunning! It has a totally different atmosphere to the daytime. At Margitzigit (a small island accessed by the bridge Margit hid or by ferry) there is a colourful fountain with a lights display timed to music, I’m not if this is a permanent feature or a seasonal exhibition. Liberty Bridge is a pedestrian only bridge where people gather all times of the day and night, drinking, picnicking, busking, climbing up the suspension links in traditional dress, anything goes! Obviously there are lot of activities going on to attract money from tourists, but you also get a feel for the local life, especially at night.
After few hectic days in Budapest we took a return journey to Papa to spend a weekend with friends living there. About 2.5 hours by train from the capital, Papa has a small historic old town. Its main square is fronted by a church. Pastel coloured buildings, some housing cafes, line the quaint cobblestone streets. While there are few tourists, there is a large international community living there.
Papa is situated one hours drive from Lake Balaton, a popular summer holiday spot and the closest you’ll get to an ocean in Hungary. Our friends brought us here for the day. Its’ an enjoyable way to spend a hot day swimming and sipping cold Hungarian beer on the grass. I haven’t researched how to get directly to and from Lake Balaton from Budapest but it’s much too far for a day trip and worthy of a couple of days. All of the official swimming spots at Balaton require an entry fee and it’s pretty crowded in the summer.