Our third stop on our not-so-quick-trip around Central Europe, Budapest was a chance to try some different activities that were unique to this city in the heart of Hungary.
Dates: May 23–25, 2016
Time on the Ground: Approx 65 hours
Overall Rating: 3/5
Pizza Rating: N/A – We ate some really interesting “pizza” on our way through Slovakia, so we did not have pizza in Budapest.
Airplane: Airbus 330-200 (to FRA)
Free Walking Tour: 2/5 – Overall, we did not enjoy the free walking tour of Budapest as much as our other tours. Our sixth walking tour of the trip in a city that is very spread out combined with an unenthusiastic tour guide made for a lackluster walking tour.
Lay of the Land
Budapest is actually a combination of two cities: Buda and Pest, which did not formally combine until the 19th century. Today, the city, which is the capital of Hungary, is cut in two by the Danube River with the western side considered Buda and the eastern side considered Pest. The Buda side of the river has beautiful green hills that fragment the city’s neighborhoods while Pest is really the urban core with more densely compacted buildings. The city is located in the northern central portion of the country and is by far the most important city economically and culturally.
Like many other Central European countries, Hungary has a complicated history involving empires, democracies, and communism. More than any other city we visited, Budapest had a strange juxtaposition of these distinct histories and styles side by side throughout the city. In one square without moving, you could see something dating back to the rule of the Habsburgs right next to a Communist-style building from the 1950s or ’60s.
We arrived in Budapest from Poland through Slovakia. (Only in Europe can you hit three countries in a single day so easily.) After a morning spent at Auschwitz, we got back in the car and headed south toward Hungary. Since we had only planned to travel the remainder of the day after visiting Auschwitz, we decided to stick with our original plan of taking the scenic route to our destination. Instead of getting back on the Autobahn, we hit the back roads—Route 59, 69, and then eventually Route 2—all the way through Slovakia to Budapest. If you have the time (and the gas tank), we highly recommend this route as well. The drive south was very scenic, but also very remote, especially once you enter Slovakia. Winding roads take you through rolling grassy hills and rundown towns complete with some fantastic views of hilltop ruins and old fortresses.
On the drive, you will definitely feel secluded—in the middle portion of our almost 6-hour journey, we probably only saw a dozen other people over the course of a couple of hours. Additionally, remember to pack extra snacks and to get out extra cash before the drive. We had a really hard time finding something to eat (as well as an interesting time scrounging up enough cash to pay for the food we found since they did not take credit cards). We eventually found an empty restaurant that had something that sounded like pizza from our hand signals with the only waiter in the place. What came out was an extremely interesting interpretation of pizza, but we were too hungry to care (or to remember to take a picture).
Ultimately, we are glad we took the scenic route. But the combination of Auschwitz and then a 6-hour drive through Slovakia made for a long and sobering day. The country was definitely poorer than its neighbors and, excluding the several EU roadwork projects we passed, there seemed to be very little economic development, at least in the areas we saw.
For our stay in Budapest, we opted for the Danubius Hotel Gellert, which is on the Buda side of the river. It was extremely different from the other hotels and apartments we stayed at on our trip, both in its design and feel. From the outside, the hotel is magnificent, especially when lit up at night. The hotel was built in the early 20th century and survived both World Wars, although it was badly damaged in the second. On the inside, the hotel is a bit dated, but not so much that you cannot imagine how truly remarkable it was in its prime. The furnishings, art, and design are all very ornate, especially on the lower levels where restaurants and ballrooms are located. Our room turned out to be the same room that Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber stayed in, the award-winning composer of numerous Broadway shows including The Phantom of the Opera and Cats. At times, it felt like someone from The Grand Budapest Hotel was going to pop out of nowhere!
The hotel is also part of the same building as the Gellert Spas and a day pass to the spa is included in your stay. This was the determining factor when we booked the hotel. Although if we were to visit Budapest again, we would probably stay somewhere on the Pest side of the river.
Overall, the Gellert was a great experience; however, the Buda side of the river is mix of residential and historical sights, with limited nightlife and restaurants. Our first night there, Stephen had to grab an Uber across the river to find something to eat because we arrived too late to eat in the restaurant downstairs. Typically, locals recommend that you stay on the Pest side of the river and visit the Buda side, which we will definitely follow next time we visit Budapest!
Budapest is more sprawling than either Prague or Krakow. With the river cutting the city in two, we ended up walking a lot more than we would have liked to and even took an Uber a couple times to cut down on the walking. There is some public transportation in the way of trolleys and metro lines, but they seemed pretty spread out and hard to understand. Although the streets are extremely walkable and pedestrian friendly, in our case, it took some time to get back to the hotel after a day of exploring.
Free Walking Tour
Budapest is not a great city for a free walking tour. Typically, tours in cities are able to utilize a high number of sites within a relatively small distance of each other. Budapest, however, was extremely spread out, which meant it was less than ideal for a free walking tour. Additionally, the tour guide was less entertaining than our previous walking tours so that didn’t help elevate an already difficult tour. With that said, the tour was still a pretty good way to get an introduction to the city, but there is a lot of walking in between sites. At the end of the tour, we felt like we had only really seen a few sites after a couple hours of walking. Highlights of the tour included St. Stephen’s Basilica, the Chain Bridge, The Fat Policeman Statue (you rub his belly for good luck), and several other popular sites. The tour also introduced us to a Budapest novelty: the langos. This deep-fried bread covered in sour cream and cheese is a yummy, calorie-filled snack. As delicious and unhealthy as it can get!
St. Stephen’s Basilica Concert
The theme of our time in Budapest was serendipity: finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for. By the third stop on our trip, our pre-planning had fallen to the wayside with the unrealistic idea that we would research and plan out the last several stops of the trip more fully during our first couple of stops. In reality, we packed our first couple stops and then found ourselves in Budapest with little on the official itinerary and time to wander! One of the most memorable things we stumbled upon was a concert one evening at St. Stephen’s Basilica. We found out about the concert during our walking tour from a small table that was set up in the entrance to the church. Since we knew we needed to find things to do, we figured it was worth a try! The cost was around $10-$15 USD a piece, but we aren’t positive.
Inside the Basilica itself was absolutely breathtaking. The church is actually one of the newer churches, at least when compared to others we visited on our trip. Completed in 1905 after over 50 years of construction, the church is named after St. Stephen I, the first king of Hungary. Also unlike several of the other churches and cathedrals we visited on this trip, St. Stephen’s Basilica is a focal point in Budapest’s cultural scene. While many other cathedrals and churches are more monuments and used for religious services only, St. Stephen’s is an active church as well as a major venue for organ and other concerts in the city.
The inside of the structure is decked out in gold as well as beautiful red/pink marble, which is especially striking in the dome of the church. The concert was put on by an organist who played from the balcony behind the audience so during the performance you could not actually see the musician. Although it was a different “view” than your typical concert, it was a powerful experience. Instead of being distracted by the artist, you focused completely on the music that was reverberating through the church. The acoustics were different than other classic concerts we had attended in the past. Instead of a “soft” sound of an auditorium or concert hall designed specifically for concerts, a church is really designed to to filled with people there for a service. With only a couple rows of people attending the concert with us, the sound echoed eerily throughout the church, creating a really cool effect. Overall, it was a great way to experience St. Stephen’s Basilica and a really great concert!
Budapest is known worldwide for its thermal baths, a tradition that dates back to the days of the Roman Empire. Although no baths operating today are nearly that old, most still harken the Roman and Turkish traditions and are heated by natural thermal springs. The baths are truly a melting pot of people as they are popular destination for locals and tourists, young and old, poor and rich. For those unfamiliar with public “baths,” think of it as a public pool except the facilities are more ornate and there are a variety of pools with different water temperatures, depths, and sizes. Increasingly in modern Budapest, baths are mixed sex and require bathing suits, but some baths do still have single-sex times where less clothing is required. There is a wide variety of baths to choose from in Budapest. Ultimately, we picked Gellert Baths because of their reviews as one of the top bath facilities in terms of size and options, the most beautiful, and conveniently attached to the hotel we chose!
Gellert has several outdoor and indoor pools to choose from, although there were only a few brave souls in the outdoor pools as temperatures were in the low 70s during our visit. The Gellert Baths are absolutely beautiful with mosaic tiles adorning each pool room in varied patterns. The main indoor pool is lined with Roman-style columns and has a huge arched glass ceiling over it. We spent about 4 hours trying different pools, grabbing food, and relaxing in lounge chairs near the cafe paging through books before we went back into the pools. There are lockers you can rent that were pretty easy to figure out where you can store a change of clothes, books, and other belongings. The baths were a really unique experience and we highly recommend not only visiting a bath, but visiting Gellert in particular! The combination of beautiful facilities, relaxing pools, and friendly staff made our visit really memorable.
River Boat Cruise
Another serendipitous activity for us was an evening river cruise that included dinner. After our walking tour, as we walked along the river back to our hotel, we ran into a kiosk selling river cruises, and they happened to have availability for the next night. One of the things Budapest is most famous for is its beautiful skyline at night, especially from the river. Knowing that, we gladly signed up! We were not disappointed by our go-with-the-flow style. The cruise was about $100 USD for the both of us and included dinner and one glass of sparkling wine.
We went into it thinking we were mostly paying for the 2-hour tour of the river and sparkling wine, but dinner turned out to be delicious as well. The river boat tour provided a different perspective of the city that you cannot achieve on foot or by photo, especially at night! Budapest really has one of the most beautiful waterfronts, especially down near the parliament buildings at the far end of the city. The tour was definitely worth the money, although we recommend booking a little earlier than we did to guarantee availability.
Overall, Budapest was less memorable than some of the other cities we visited on our Central Europe trip. Although we really enjoyed our time in Budapest and the unique activities that we got to do, we did not fall in love with the heartbeat of the city like Prague and Krakow. The city is very spread out, and after days of walking at other cities, we were not as motivated to set out on foot to explore the city as we should have been. Budapest is definitely on our list for a second visit, but certainly not the highest on that list.