Budapest has been on my list of weekend destinations for some time. It is undoubtedly beautiful, steeped in history, culture and if you ignore the stag parties (Which it’s pretty easy to do!) I think it is a somewhat underestimated European city.
Towering fairy tale spires, romantic gothic churches and the pockmarked buildings bearing their war wounds; Budapest’s architecture, culture and history are enough to rival Paris or Prague. With easy navigation through the cities two halves, Buda & Pest and very reasonable prices all make Budapest a fabulous option for a weekend visit.
Our weekend in Budapest was a much-needed break from our hectic jobs, and I was looking to redress the work-life balance for 48 hours. With this in mind, I wanted a luxurious weekend with a slightly more chilled itinerary and Budapest more than delivered.
Getting to Budapest
As we are bound by our working schedules, we took a late flight, 8.45 pm out of London Heathrow and we were on the ground, transferred to the hotel and checked-in by 1 am. Although it was a late arrival, it meant that we got all day Saturday rather than losing our Saturday morning to travel. Flights to Budapest operate regularly from London Heathrow with carriers such as British Airways, Lufthansa, Air France and Swiss International airlines. We took a taxi from the right outside the terminal which proved no issue as there were plenty to be had. The service was efficient, clean and reasonably priced around 6500HUF (£17-£20). For flights arriving after 10 pm, I would recommend a taxi as there are limited public transport options at this time.
Where to stay
We booked our trip as part of the British Airways Hotel and flight deal, which is great service allowing you to specify star rating, dates and price for your accommodation. We opted for the five-star Hilton Budapest located in the Buda Castle District. This was absolutely the best choice. Our room was a King guest room was a gorgeous view of Matthias Churchyard. The room was spotlessly clean and the staff couldn’t have been more helpful during our stay. Late check-in, storage for bags and sorting out room keys niggles; there was no problem they weren’t willing and happy to help with.
One of the biggest perks of the Hilton was breakfast. When I have the time, I’m a big breakfast fan. The Hilton offers the usual smorgasbord of continental and hot breakfasts including some phenomenal omelette offerings from the resident egg chef. However, food aside, it’s the view from your breakfast table that can ignite your appetite for adventure. I would advise arriving fairly early between 7.30 – 8.30am to breakfast to secure one of the window tables.
What to do
This was a new one for my husband and I. Normally we would opt for solely exploring the city on foot. However, after a few hours of exploration in the blistering heat, the kind of heat where you can smell the asphalt, we came across the Big Bus tour. A Deluxe Ticket came with hop on and off for three days, River Cruise, Buda Castle Shuttle return, Night Tour and Guided Walking Tour. With so many options we felt it would be beneficial in helping us see more of the city in a short space of time. The ticket cost €36 and was worth every penny.
The bus stops are easily located across the city and the historical commentary you can plug into was particularly interesting. Driving past seemingly unremarkable buildings to discover they have a detailed and fascinating history. Such things we would never have known by simply wandering past on foot.
Take to the water. As part of our Big Bus ticket, a river cruise was included. We opted for the sunset cruise on Saturday evening. Watching the sunset above the city from the water brought a whole new perspective on our trip. The commentary was detailed and informative and helped to make sense of the history on both sides of the river. Snacks and drinks were also available throughout the cruise.
Buda Castle – Budapest History Museum
I absolutely recommend a walk around the castle district and Buda Castle itself. Despite various reconstructions healing the wounds of war the whole area and particularly the medieval part is still completely charming. Although Budapest is littered with museums and galleries, we opted for the Budapest History Museum. We wanted to experience a broader history of the city, and the Budapest History Museum was perfect. The exhibitions depict the 2000 years of Budapest’s turbulent history. From the Austro Hungarian empire to the horrors of World War Two.
The Budapest History Museum is open from Tuesday – Sunday between 10 am – 6 pm with an adult ticket costing 2400HUF.
Imperiously sitting in the middle of the Danube is Margaret Island. Margaret Island is 500m wide and 2.5km long but, despite its small size, this gloriously green public park is packed with things to do. The island is located between Árpád Bridge and Margit Bridge and is easily accessed on foot.
For such a meagre strip of land, Margret Island boasts a varied past. From Royal hunting grounds, the victim of a great flood in 1838 to the site of a Dominican Nunnery where King Bela famously sent his daughter Margaret after the Mongols departure from Hungary. Since that time the island has been known as Margaret Island.
We spent a very pleasant hour or so meandering around the park, taking in the musical fountain and availing ourselves of the various ice-cream sellers.
Once part of the 13th Century Church of St Mary Magdalene, this stunning tower is all that remains after the church was heavily bombed during World War Two. A trip to the top is absolutely worth the panoramic views of the city. Be warned it is high, but the areas are enclosed and the steps although steep do have handrails.
A ticket costs 1500HUF but there are significant discounts for students or those who hold a Castle Shuttle Bus ticket. The Buda Tower is open every day from 10 am to 6 pm. Please be aware that opening times are different if you are visiting during January or February.
The Fisherman’s Bastion is one of the best-known landmarks in Budapest. It is located in the Buda Castle district; you simply can’t miss it. Stepping out of the Hilton Hotel, you are confronted with a fairy tale fortress with turrets, spires and mock Bastion features. My initial thoughts were it looked significantly different from the other historical buildings I had seen so far, beautiful, yes, but somehow artificial. The Fisherman’s Bastion was built in the 19th Century to serve as a lookout over the city. The purpose of the Bastion has never been used as an actual fortification for Buda.
As a lookout over the city, the Fisherman’s Bastian more than delivers. Panoramic views sweeping across the skyline in both directions. You’ll be spoilt for choice of which vista to snap.
Budapest’s parliament building is hard to miss. It stands as a striking, landmark on the banks of the Danube. Any guesses as to which other famous European parliament influenced its’ design…
I had heard you could tour the parliament so as we circled the imposing spires to find the entrance, we were disappointed to find parliament was unexpectedly closed to the public due to an event. Disappointment aside a tour of the parliament is yet another reason for a return visit.
If you want to avoid our planning blunder then do book your tour tickets ahead of your trip via the Hungarian Parliament website: http://hungarianparliament.com/tours/
So, this one is on every Budapest list of things to do I read. Public baths in Budapest have been around for centuries. Sitting on a matrix of 125 thermal springs, marinating in warm water has been part of everyday life since Roman times. Sadly, an afternoon ‘taking the waters’ wasn’t an option. With time being short and the weather being unbelievably hot we didn’t make it to one of the thermal baths. However, I had read up on which one to visit. My top three choices for thermal baths would have been
- Gellert Baths: These smaller baths were top of my list. I didn’t want to go somewhere that would be completely swamped with tourists. I had also read the Gellert Baths have some of the most beautiful Art Nouveau décor seen anywhere in the city.
- Danubius Health Spa Margitsziget on Margaret Island: This was my second possible option. Although this modern spa lacks the old-world charm of some of its more famous counterparts, it does offer an extensive range of spa treatments. Feeling in need this weekend for a bit of pampering I put the Danubius Health Spa Margitsziget up there on my list.
- Szechanyi Baths: Finally, although I would have preferred a smaller bathing environment to escape the tourist crowds the Szechenyi Baths boast fifteen different pools and is undoubtedly one of the largest public baths Budapest has to offer. If a large scale, wedding cake experience is what you’re after then the Szechenyi Baths should be on your list.
Hospital in the rock
Everyone I had spoken to before going to Budapest had recommended the Hospital in the Rock. This was one attraction, firmly etched on my list of places to go. The Hospital in the Rock is part of a six-mile system of caves and tunnels used during World War Two. During World War Two it was a working hospital caring for the bombing victims and soldiers alike. The hospital was called back into service in 1956 during the revolution. The hospital was expanded to meet the potential growing threat of chemical and nuclear attacks during the Cold War.
Locating the museum initially felt like a bit of a mystery, and I sure do love a mystery. There were well-labelled maps in the castle complex, shiny billboards informatively suggesting we were but a short walk from the museum, but it did not appear. We must have walked around the uppermost part of the castle complex a number of times to no avail. I blame the 34-degree heat! Anyway, as if by magic on our second day and umpteenth loop we came across a lift shaft and staircase with a small sign indicating we were finally on the right track. At the bottom of the stairs turn right and nestled into the rock as you would assume was the museum, unimposing and humbly fronted it might easily have gone unnoticed if you weren’t on the hunt.
The museum was fascinating, horrifying and completely immersive. Photography is not permitted inside but I was honestly far too engrossed in my surroundings to think about taking pictures. Some images that stay with you without the need to scroll through your camera roll.
Nuclear war preparation films, operating rooms and wards the information and displays were informative and engaging. If you are visiting Budapest then the Hospital in the Rock should be at the top of your itinerary. My only caveat is that the tunnels are cold so take a jumper!
Where to eat & drink
New York Café
Whilst trying to ignore the sweat that was definitely turning my white t-shirt a fetching shade of translucent and listening carefully to the audio commentary on the bus my attention was piqued by the mention of The New York Café. The New York Café was a favourite haunt of writers, creatives, artists and newspaper editors. So, with literary history just around the corner, we decided we would make a beeline to the New York Cafe for dinner.
I’m unsure what I was expecting but it wasn’t the elaborately decorated, multiple chandeliers imposing themselves on the room and intricate frescos lined walls that greeted us. Visually, it was stunning.
The New York Café serves a variety of traditional Hungarian cuisine, more modern classics and of course a plethora of simply splendid cakes.
Book. Book. Book. I’ll say it again…book. If you want to enjoy the gastronomical delights of this Jewish Quarter garden party then you’ll need a reservation. We first tried for dinner on Saturday night to no avail but were lucky enough to grab a spot on Sunday lunchtime. Mazel Tov is a Middle Eastern restaurant set in the Jewish Quarter of the city. It has the ruin bar ambience combined with a conservatory. Cascading plants tumbling from the gallery perfectly set against the industrial interior design.
The cocktails and a Shawarma grill plate made for a perfect Sunday lunch.
Budapest now boasts a plentiful supply of these quirky secluded bars. Ruin bars litter the Old Jewish Quarter which was left to deteriorate after World War Two. The bars have popped up in the abandoned shells of buildings, shops and factories. Décor in the bars range from car boot sale chic to your nans living room circa 1970, whatever you choose you’re in for a visual and unusual treat.
Sadly, our Saturday night plans were cut short as I succumbed to the slightly less pleasant symptoms of heat exhaustion but a ruin bar beverage is up on my list for a return trip to the Hungarian capital.
Our weekend in Budapest was rammed full, blisteringly hot and proved to be a wonderful weekend escape. As with all our weekend adventures I left feeling keen to return and unearth more cultural gems of this glorious city. I would love to return in the winter months. I reckon a marinade in the world-famous baths with snow falling around you would be fairly close winter weekend perfection.