Where: Budapest, (capital of) Hungary
When: November 2009 and February 2011
Why: In 2009 Graham, Bethen, Marita and I visisted Budapest for a Christmas shopping trip.
In February 2011 Jeff and I went on a mini eastern-European adventure. We went to Krakow and Zakopane in Poland, the High Tatras and Bratislava in Slovakia and then we ended our trip in Budapest. It was my 32nd birthday whilst we were in Budapest.
Budapest is a magnificent central European city, located on the banks of the River Danube, downstream from Vienna and Bratislava. Budapest is actually made up of two cities: Buda and Pest. Buda is the quieter, older side of town, where the castle and the bastions are; Pest is more modern and developed and feels like the main side of town. This is where the Parliament building, the opera and most of the shops, bars and restaurants are.
Budapest was previously the second capital city of the Austro-Hungarian empire and so it is a very regal city, full of ornate treasures.
In the summer of 2009 my brother and I went to Bucharest, the capital of Romania, for a festival. Because we really enjoyed our trip to Bucharest we decided we’d like to visit more eastern European capital cities. Budapest is somewhere that I’d always wanted to visit, so later that year Bethen, Marita, Graham and I went to Budapest for a Christmas shopping weekend. Budapest was perfect for a quick, winter weekend get-away. There was great shopping, Christmas markets, castles, culture and cake, brilliant bars and possibly the best spa in the world. We had a wonderful time. We ate too much, drank too much, shopped till we dropped and walked our little feet off, recovered in the spa, then did it all over again.
I loved Budapest. We found it to be such a friendly, interesting city full of hidden delights. It’s ornate and beautiful and full of interesting things to see and do. Budapest is sumptuous and rich and beautiful. It was also incredibly good value.
I have a bit of a travel rule, which is to never go back to somewhere I love. I believe that you can never recapture the magic of that first trip to a place and so any subsequent visit is not going to be so wonderful; but I loved Budapest so much I couldn’t wait to return and as Jeff had not been we decided to finish our 2011 mini-Eastern European tour here. (On this trip we traveled from Krakow in Poland to Zakopane in Poland, then we went over the High Tatras Mountains to Bratislava in Slovakia, we went on a pub crawl to Austria, then we finished the trip in Budapest).
Budapest was just as fun on this second visit and we had a wonderful time revisiting the castle, the funicular, the marzipan museum and the Fisherman’s Bastard (see below for more info). We celebrated my 32nd birthday here with cheap Russian champagne and a bunch of crazy Italians, and we had a thoroughly fun, giggly, romantic time.
We missed visiting the Gellert Spa though on this visit, so I think I’m going to have to go back again… and again…
We flew from Luton to Budapest Ferihegy airport (T1) with Wizz Air. It cost us £120 each for the return flights. If we’d have gotten ourselves organised quicker it would have only cost us £60 per person, but we faffed and the prices went up. Graham flew out with Easyjet and back with British Airways (crazy boy).
From the airport, we caught the bus to Kobanya-Kispest metro station and then the underground (line M3 towards Újpest Központ) into the city centre. We bought our bus tickets from the information desk in the airport and the train tickets from the kiosk at the station. Everyone spoke English and were very helpful. It took about an hour for us to get to our hotel in the city centre.
Today (2016) you have to get bus 200 to Kobanya-Kispest metro station and then a metro train into town and apparently you can buy tickets from ticket machines by the bus stops or the information desk. The airport website transportation pages have up to date, clear information on how to get from the airport into the city centre and BKK (Budapest’s transport people) have a good online route planner, in English.
In 2011 we travelled to Budapest by train from Bratislava in Slovakia. The journey took about five hours and cost us €17 each.We bought our tickets direct from Bratislava station the day before our journey. The Man at Seat 61 website has information about this service, including times, on the Prague to Budapest page.
The train arrived into Budapest Keleti Pályaudvar Station; an ornate destination-station, one of the classical train stations of Europe. The station is on Metro line 2 and 4. We used the metro to get to our hotel in Buda. The Man at Seat 61 website has comprehensive information online about the station, including transport links etc.
We flew home with Wizz Air (£30 each). To get to the airport we caught the train to Kobanya-Kispest metro station and then we got on bus 93 but our driver told us to get onto bus 200 – even though the timetable said this went to T2 and not T1. However, we were getting a bit close to departure time so we decided to risk it – and it did go to T1. So did bus 93 – our original bus pulled up behind ours when we got to the airport. The combined journey ticket was about 300FT. We bought it from the underground station and then stamped it on the bus.
Budapest has a great public transport system, which includes trams, underground trains and buses. However, most of the main tourist sites are within walking distance of each other and Budapest is a wonderful city to walk in – with wide, tree lined boulevards and lovely large squares.
Every journey cost us 300 forint (about 90p). I think today (2016) is is 350 FT.
Incidentally, Budapest has the second oldest underground line in the world (undergroud trivia fans).
Where we stayed
2009 – Hotel Gellert
I usually put the Where we Stayed section at the end of the page, but because our 2009 hotel was such a significant part of our trip and because visiting the hotel spa was one of the things we did in Budapest, I’m writing about this first.
We stayed at the Hotel Gellert, as featured in the ‘1,000 things to do before you die’ book.
Hotel Gellert is an art-deco hotel situated on the banks of the River Danube. It is possibly the craziest, most fun, brilliant hotel that I have ever stayed in (and I’ve stayed in a lot!) It smells of school dinners and potatoes but it has so much character. The reception area is an opulent, stained glass, marble, dark wood dream, the hallways are lined with stained glass and it has a tiny bar off the reception which can only fit about three people in.
Our room was a good size but was a little strange and dated. There were buttons in our room which you could press to call room service, a cleaner or a maid (ours had worn away slightly so it looked like the buttons were to call the devil, Jeeves and a penguin with a shovel (see photo above)). The rooms had strange wood-panelled bedroom areas, proper shoe shine brushes, chandeliers and bullet proof shutters. Our room had a view of the River Danube and the parks of Gellert Hill.
The Gellert has a great location at the base of Gellert Hil on the Buda side of the river, on the banks of the River Danube, by the cave church and the Liberty Bridge, opposite the central market and the For Sale pub.
But the best thing about the Hotel Gellert, and the reason we stayed here, was the spa…
Put on the robe in your room and make your way to the private, art deco, wrought iron lift, where the lift lady (who we think is from a fairy tale) takes you down to the spa entrance. You then have to make your way through the statue clad, marble, art-deco entrance hall, through the labyrinth of corridors and changing rooms, through to the central chamber. (We nearly got lost and gave up – but the prize at the centre of the maze was well worth it).
As I wasn’t able to take my camera in, I can’t show you what the Gellert Spa looks like – but picture the most perfect Turkish/Romano baths, with huge ionic columns, around a large central pool; water spouts pouring from lions heads; stone bench jacuzzis with natural water bubbling through; a stained glass roof which opens up to the sky; a dark, steamy, stone pool jacuzzi tucked away at the back.
The central pool was one of the most beautiful pools I have ever seen in my life, but the water in it was freezing! I discovered this after I dove in. We spent a lot of time giggling as other people discovered this too. (Incidentally, that cold pool was the best hangover cure in the world – and if you enjoy Budapest like we enjoyed Budapest you will need the best hangover cure in the world).
However, I’m glad we did brave the cold water, as this only made it more delicious as we sank into the thick, molass like, mineral water of the hot pool. Sinking into that water was like sinking into a vat of hot mulled wine: absolutely wonderfully soul warming. The girls and I spent ages in that hot water, lounging on the stone benches, gossiping, oggling the yummy Hungarian men and soaking our cares away.
Once we had had enough of the hot pool (and the cute Hungarian men) we made our way to the private pool areas. Here there were private treatment rooms, changing rooms, a sauna and steam room and two art-deco private hot pools. On the Friday we were there it was ladies only session and we saw far too much of some ladies for our liking. It was better in the mixed sex bathing session on the Sunday as everyone kept their clothes on. The water in these private pools was much hotter than the other pools and they left me feeling rather light headed.
The Hotel Gellert (including yummy buffet breakfast and unlimited spa entrance) cost us £100/ room/night.
The Hotel Gellert is a destination hotel: one of the best hotels in the world, which has hosted royalty and celebrities and now us. It’s possibly my favourite hotel in the world and I can’t wait to go back.
2011 – Plaza Art Hotel
in 2011, we were on a bit more of a budget so we decided to book somewhere a little cheaper and to visit the Gellert spa separately.
Hotels in Budapest are amazing value and we used Hotels Combined to find us a bargain. We could have booked the 5 star Corinthia for £70 per night, but instead we settled for the 4 star, £40 per night Plaza Art Hotel.
The Plaza Art Hotel was a beautiful, unpretentious, fun hotel on the banks of the River Danube, under the Fisherman’s Bastard, opposite the Parliament building.
Our room was lovely: it was a proper little cocoon. We had a wide screen tele, power shower with different jets, bath, kettle and a metal bird coming out of the wall. Jeff told me he was getting freaked out by the bird staring at him. “There’s no bird, darling, you’re hallucinating again”, I said. But I was wrong. There was a metal bird statue coming out of the wall. We named him Dave.
I think the art work in the room was a feature of the hotel. As well as Dave, we had an amazing, huge, dark painting on our bedroom wall. Apparently the art work is by American Artist Donald Sultan and you can see a guide to his work on the hotel website.
The hotel also had a bar and a spa but we didn’t use these.
The staff were really, really friendly and let me use the office computer to print my boarding pass. Thanks guys.
What we did on our holidays
Climbed Gellert Hill (twice)
Gellert Hill is the hill situated by Gellert Hotel and Spa, on the Buda side of the River Danube. For some reason, I decided that running up Gellert Hill would be a great way to get over my hangover; a way to blow the cobwebs away. I also climbed the hill as I wanted to have an explore on my own before everyone else got up.
I panted my way up through the park, through the cold, icy air, past stunning view points, to the platform at the top – only to discover that there is a huge plateau at the top with shops and restaurants, the citadel and a bus stop.
Unfortunately, after I’d exhausted myself climbing to the top everyone else decided that they’d like to climb Gellert Hill too – so I climbed it twice in one morning (though the second time I was helped by a glass of mulled wine).
Gellert Hill is covered in parkland and playgrounds and at the top are some wonderful dominant, triumphant statues, the citadel and amazing views over Budapest and beyond.
I was glad to have climbed Gellert Hill as one of the first things we did in Budapest, as viewing the city from above was a great way to orientate myself within the city and to work out where all of the key sites were. Also, running up Gellert Hill justified all the cakes and pastries that I ate later on.
Visited the cave church in Saint Ivan’s Cave
At the bottom of Gellert Hill, by the Gellert Hotel, is the cave church. This is a working church, in a cave. Because it’s a working church, it is only open to visitors at certain times and unfortunately we were only able to visit at the wrong times, so we couldn’t go in to see it. However, we were able to visit the entrance-way to the church (in the outer cave) where there are shrines, cave storage cupboards (i.e. storage cupboards made out of cave alcoves, not cupboards where you store caves) and display boards about the history of the church.
The church was built in the 1920s, as it is believed that this is the cave where Saint Ivan lived and healed people. Prior to being a church the cave was someone’s home. Even though it is less than 100 ears old, sadly the church has already had a tragic history: In the war it was used as a field hospital and then in 1951, in a crack-down on the Catholic Church, the communist secret-police sealed up the church, executed the monastery’s superior and imprisoned the monks. However, when communism fell in 1989, the cave was unsealed and by 1992 the church had been restored and the Pauline monks had returned.
The church is part of a huge complex of caves underneath Gellert Hill (see the Labyrinth section below for more info).
You can find out more about the church and see photos on the Sacred Spaces website.
Walked along the Grey Danube and over the bridges
Despite what the song tells you, the Danube is not blue – it is grey. There are some wonderful bridges over the Danube (including the beautiful chain bridge) and we had a nice time just wandering along by the river.
Like London and Paris, this river defines the city and is the point from which to navigate from.
The main crossings in the city centre are the Liberty Bridge, which is close to Hotel Gellert, and the beautiful Chain Bridge, which is near to Parliament.
Budapest Castle and the Castle District (UNESCO)
It was raining a lot when we visited Castle Hill, so we did not explore as much as we would have liked to. Instead we spent most of our time looking for a bank and a coffee shop. (We found an ATM by the Hilton Hotel).
The castle is at the top of castle hill. It’s not an ancient, dramatic castle – more of a European, great palace type of castle (which in my mind isn’t a castle – but there you go). There’s not a huge amount of remains inside the castle from its imperial past as the interiors were looted by the Nazis and the Red Army at the end of the second world war. Today, the castle houses the national library, Budapest museum and the Hungarian National Gallery. It also seems to be a focal point for festivals and concerts etc.
There are very beautiful views from the castle area and impressive statues, squares and flags.
You can take a tour of the castle and as I studied Austro-Hungarian history for my history A-Level I would have liked to have visited. However, the others weren’t that bothered and so we went to look for cake instead.
Also at the top of Castle Hill is a small town, a beautiful church, the marzipan museum, a small market, the entrance to the labyrinth and the Bastard (see below).
Whilst Graham and I went to look for an ATM, Bethen and Marita went to look for somewhere to have a drink. They met us and told us they had found somewhere really cool – and then they proceeded to lead us through an innocuous looking door on a side street and down a long, long, rickety flight of stairs. They took us to the underground cafe at the entrance to the Labyrinth.
Underneath Castle Hill there is an extensive network of tunnels and caves: six miles worth! A company set up funky exhibitions within the cave system, so that you could go and hang out with wax figures of famous, inspirational people; visit a pantheon; or travel through the tunnel of love, amongst other things.
You can take a tour of the tunnels but as we were short of time we just went down into the underground reception area (which is also situated in the tunnels) so that we could get a feel for what the whole tour would be like.
One of the best things about the Labyrinth was the steamy warmth. We’d been running around outside in the cold rain and it was lovely to descend into the hot air.
Budapest is such a fairy tale city: from the lady who lives in the lift, to the tunnels full of monsters under the castle and the crazy statues. I love it.
Apparently, the Labyrinth has had quite a terrible time since our visit. On 29 July 2011 it was raided by the police, the visitors were forcefully ejected, the complex was closed down in a forceful raid and the authorities destroyed the exhibits! You can find out more about this on the Labyrinth website.
However, apparently a Labyrinth tour does still exist and you can find out about it at labirintusbudapest.hu. From what I’ve read online, this tour isn’t so good and is an ‘imposter’ of the previous Labyrinth. This all sounds like something from a movie!
Visited the Marzipan museum (Castle Hill)
Have you ever seen the covenant of Budapest made out of Marzipan? I have. I have also seen Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the Kremlin, Kung Fu Panda (see above) and cute, smiley worms made out of marzipan.And all for £3. I feel my life has been vastly enriched by this experience.
The museum is at the back of the Hilton Hotel and it has a cafe. You can find out more on the museum website.
Visited Fisherman’s Bastard (Castle Hill)
Okay, it’s not called the Bastard really – it’s called Fisherman’s Bastion. I’m not really sure what the Bastard is for. It’s the front of a castle – but with no castle behind it – a bit like a Lego house. I suppose it must be a defensive building for castle hill, but it doesn’t look that sturdy and mostly it’s just pretty and a nice place to get photos. Also, I’m not sure what it has to do with fishermen. It overlooks the river but it’s very high up – they’d need really long fishing lines if they wanted to catch anything from here.
Apparently, according to the guidebooks, the Bastion was built in 1905 and its purpose is purely decorative. The fisherman connection comes in as this used to be the site of an old fish market and the fishermen’s guild from Vízívaros (Watertown), which is below this point, defended this part of the city.
It was raining heavily and really cold when we were at the Bastard so we did not spend a long time there – just enough time to avoid the grumpy jester with his eagle, and enough time to get the obligatory shot of us sat in the window with Budapest in the background (it’s the law that if you go to Budapest you must take this photo).
Took the fun-icular
Funiculars are fun. The funicular in Budapest runs from the Chain Bridge to the top of Castle Hill (which is not actually that high).
We walked up the hill and then Mo and I took the funicular back down. Graham and Bethen who descended on foot beat us but Mo and I had a fab time taking photos of the view and waving to passers by.
You can find opening times and up to date ticket prices at the funicular page of the BKV website.
Visited St Stephen’s basilica
St Stephen’s Basilica is a very dark, ornate, beautiful, atmospheric cathedral located in the heart of Pest. It is named after St Stephen, who was the first king of Hungary. Apparently the cathedral contains St Stephen’s hand, but we didn’t see this.
There is a large plaza in front of the cathedral and I had a lot fun running around on the mosaics on the square in front of the cathedral.
There are lots of nice restaurants, shops and cafes around the cathedral.
We only peeked into the Opera House lobb, though we did consider attending the opera when we discovered that some of the seats were as little as £3. The opera house is incredibly lush and opulent. The lobby was covered in fabulous frescoes. Attending an opera here is one of the things that I’d like to do if I go back again.
Incidentally, outside the opera there was an abandoned Citroen, with the doors open and very loud classical music coming from the stereo. It was so James Bond that I was almost disappointed when it didn’t blow up.
Visited the market
One of my favourite things to do when travelling is to visit the local markets to look at the food and the drink. The central market in Budapest is situated in a beautiful, wrought-iron, art-deco building. The market is interesting, although I did get the feeling that it was a market for tourists rather than a market for everyday Budapestians. However, it was still an interesting visit and a good place to buy Christmas presents.
We also visited the Christmas market, which was exactly the same as the other Christmas markets from across Europe, but it was a lot of fun to wander round, drinking mulled wine from mugs and shopping for door knobs.
Shopping in Budapest was great. As well as many of the top European stores (such as Pimke, H&M and Bushka), there were quirky clothes stores, antique centres and many markets (including a Christmas market). We found that most items were cheaper than in the UK. Thank goodness for our baggage restrictions else we would have gone slightly crazy. As it was, I came home with two furry hats (including one shaped like a rabbit), a giant pencil (thanks Bethen) and some Unicom, the national spirit.
We only had a day in Budapest in 2011 and because this was Jeff’s first visit we spent a lot of time revisiting the major sights from my first visit. Also, this was my birthday, so we spent a lot of time just pottering around and giggling and having fun.
This time the weather was glorious. It was crisp and cold but also fabulously sunny, so we spent a lot of time just wandering outside, enjoying the winter sunshine.
We started our explore by climbing up Gellert Hill (again) for the views, then we went to visit the castle. We walked through the courtyards and used their toilets, though again we didn’t tour the castle.
We went into the entrance of the Labyrinth (there was a kid’s birthday party taking place down there), then we went for birthday cake in an art-deco cafe at the top of the hill. We walked around the town at the top of the hill and visited the supermarket. Then we went to have a look at the pretty, 15th century, gothic Matthias Church, with its fabulously tiled roof. Sadly it was closed so we couldn’t go inside.
We said hello to the statue of St Stephen (see above) and then we went to the marzipan museum (again). We took the obligatory photos at the Bastion, then we got the funicular downhill to the wonderful Chain Bridge. We took a romantic stroll across the chain bridge, took photos of the fabulous parliament, then we strolled through the new town, popping in and out of shops.
That night we went back to the For Sale pub for my birthday tea and then ended up in a bar with some crazy Italians.
We did mean to go back to Gellert Spa but we slept in, which is why we’re going to have to go back again.
What we didn’t do on our holiday
We didn’t have time on these two trips to explore Budapest in depth. Mostly, we just spent time enjoying being in the city and wandering around looking at things. However, if we go back I’d like to visit the following:
The House of Terror
I’m not sure that I’d like to visit the House of Terror but I do think it would be a good place to visit to better understand the history of the city and to bear witness to the horrors that took place. The House of Terror contains exhibits relating to the fascist and communist histry of Hungary and is also a place of remembrance for the victims of these regimes.
The Shoes on the Danube Bank
The shoes on the Danube Bank is a memorial to the 20,000 Hungarian Jews, who were executed on the banks of the River Danube during World War 2. The Arrow Cross fascist militia men lined people up on the banks of the river and told them to remove their shoes, before they executed them; their bodies falling into the river. This simple but powerful memorial consists of brass replicas of 60 pairs of shoes from this time, including men’s workboots, ladies shoes and small children’s shoes – showing the wide nature of the victims
The shoes on the Danube are near to the parliament building on the Pest side of the river.
Spas and beaches
Budapest sits on natural thermal springs and so there are a number of spas across the city and many hotels have spas. Some of these spas have huge outdoor areas, some are tiny and Turkish like, lit only by star shaped vents in the roof. I’d like to go back to try them all so I can choose my favourite.
Spa Budapest has a list of all the thermal and open air pools in Budapest and comprehensive information about visiting them all: www.spasbudapest.com.
Margaret Island is an island in the middle of the Danube and a recreation area for the city. The islands houses gardens, a running track, leisure areas and Palatinus water park, the largest open-air pool complex in the city.
Momento Park/ Statue Park
A little bit like Grutus Parkus in Druskinikai, Lithuania, Momento Park is a park which houses all of Hungary’s communist era statues. I know how fascinating it was to go to see all of these relics in Lithuania, so I’d be interested to go here too.
Where we ate and drank
For Sale Pub – Where ‘Peanuts go on the floor!’
The For Sale pub became our local in Budapest in 2009. It’s situated next to the Liberty Bridge, opposite the central market, just on the other side of the Danube to our hotel. Before our trip, a colleague highly recommended that we visit the The For Sale pub and now I’m highly recommending the same. We went for lunch and liked it so much that we went back in the evening, and when we returned in 2011 we went to the For Sale pub for my 32nd birthday tea.
The For Sale Pub is a Bavarian style beer bar, decorated in dark wood and with unshelled peanuts on every table. It’s dark, it’s cosy, they serve great beer and humongous portions of meat, potatoes and pickles (seriously – you’ll never eat again).
But what makes the For Sale pub different is that every wall and the ceilings are covered in business cards, tickets, flyers, address cards and letters – so that the walls almost look as if they are feathered. It’s a complete fire hazard – especially as you can still smoke in bars in Budapest.
We had a wonderfully warm, beer soaked, friendly evening in the For Sale pub. It wasn’t a party party atmosphere, but a friendly Sunday night kind of place (even though we went on the Friday). There was singing and dancing and lots of beer.
The waiters were curmudgeonly but cute (the others thought they were just rude and not cute). They shouted at us when we put the peanut shells in our ashtray. They swept all the shells off the table and shouted ‘peanuts go on the floor!’
Cactus Juice Bar
Bethen spotted this place when we were out exploring and it was brilliant. So brilliant in fact that we went in for a quick drink at 6 p.m. and finally left at 2 a.m. after loads of gorgeous food, wine, beer and champagne. The bar was a Tex-Mex, cowboy themed bar, with guns on the wall and they had obscenely high bar stools, a great restaurant, good value food, very cute waiters, a cool, friendly crowd, great music and a warm, fuzzy, friendly atmosphere (or maybe that was the champagne).
The cactus juice bar is located off a side street between the Opera House and the House of Terror.
When we returned in 2011 we went to the For Sale pub for my 32nd birthday and then we ended up in a crazy, fun bar off Molnar U, run by Italian holiday reps on their winter break. We played table football and drank sparkling wine and the DJ played ‘Happy Birthday To You’ to me, about five times. It was fun but I cannot for the life of me remember the bars name or find it on the map. Suffice to say, it was a fun night though.
Budapest is full of amazing nightlife. If you’re looking for cool or alternative places to go for a drink in Budapest, then check out World’s Best Bars’ Budapest page.
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is my own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
If you think I’ve missed something important or have got something wrong, please let me know in the comments section below.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.