Buda or Pest? They’re both good reasons to visit this often overlooked destination
It’s known as the “Paris of the East”, but even the mighty Seine is no match for Budapest’s stunning setting on a gentle curve in the Danube River. A romantic and cosmopolitan city filled with beautiful neo-baroque, gothic and art nouveau buildings, Budapest blends old world charm with bohemian delights.
Literally a city of two halves – hilly Buda and flat, buzzing Pest – its landmarks date to the 1896 millennial celebrations when the city was remade with large squares, monuments, a magnificent parliament, state opera, grand market hall and Europe’s first subway.
One of the major start and finish points for luxury cruises along the Danube River, travellers arrive here every day from Passau, Vienna and Bratislava, or celebrate in the city after a fortnight exploring the continent on an epic cruise from Amsterdam. Often overlooked by Australian travellers, it could well become a highlight of your trip.
PARIS OF THE EAST? SOUNDS EXPENSIVE …
It is … for locals. But for the average Aussie, Budapest offers similar high end amenities, shopping, fine dining options and entertaining as western European capitals at significantly cheaper prices. The only drawback is the low, low prices tend to attract boozy Brits on stag-dos, who roam the streets in pedal-powered beer bars, chanting songs and chaining each other to traffic lights.
WHERE SHOULD I STAY?
Buda, home to the Castle District and some upscale residential areas, is quieter but more romantic and it has lovely views. Pest is the livelier, more commercial side. With its endless cool restaurants and ruin pubs, and refreshing lack of international chain stores, the Jewish Quarter in Pest is a popular choice with travellers. Accommodation in Budapest ranges from the extravagant art nouveau grandeur of The Four Seasons Gresham Palace through to cheap party hostels. Airbnb offers plenty of great deals on entire apartments in the centre for $30 to $100 a night.
HOW DO I GET AROUND?
Most of the city’s highlights are within walking distance of each other and the centre – though it’s fun to use the charming Metro Line 1, which is a tourist attraction itself. The second underground electrified line in the world to open in 1896 (after London) it’s also one of the shallowest, running just 3.5 metres below the road. Alternatively, you can hire a public bike and ride all over the city for three days for $5 (sign up online at molbubi.bkk.hu). And tourists love tram No.2 along the river, which National Geographic lists as one of the most scenic tram journeys in the world (although Melbourne’s Route 96 also makes the list, reducing its credibility somewhat).
WHERE’S THE BEST PLACE TO ENJOY THAT FAMOUS VIEW OVER THE RIVER AND PARLIAMENT?
It’s certainly one of the best views in Europe, and the banks of the Danube are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Head up the stairs to the top of Gellert Hill. It’s easy to find: cross the famous Chain Bridge (or its neighbouring bridges) to Buda and look up for the 14-metre high Liberty Statue. Built to honour the Soviet Army ‘liberators’ in 1947, it now pays tribute to those who laid down their lives for ‘Hungary’s prosperity’. Many tourists opt for the similar but less impressive view from the Fisherman’s Bastion on Castle Hill, which has a funicular.
HAS THE CITY THROWN OFF ITS COMMUNIST PAST?
Yes, it’s been almost three decades since the country became a democracy and, from the 1960s onwards, the Hungarians enjoyed the much milder “goulash communism” with more freedoms than any other Soviet bloc country. One of the most popular attractions is the House of Terror, which details the Nazi and Soviet abuses that culminated in the failed revolution of 1956. It’s housed in the former headquarters of the secret police.
WHAT ABOUT A SHORT CRUISE?
There are so many operators you can essentially turn up and ride anytime during the day and night. Options range from a two-hour dinner cruise with live music, or you can see the exact same sights while munching on a sandwich for almost nothing by catching one of the regular BKK public transport ferries.
WHAT’S A RUIN PUB?
A peculiarly Budapest invention, ruin pubs have been around since 2001 when the original and some say the best, Szimpla Kert took over a
WITH ITS ENDLESS COOL RESTAURANTS AND RUIN PUBS, THE JEWISH QUARTER IN PEST IS A POPULAR CHOICE WITH TRAVELLERS
derelict building, filled it with flea market furniture and created a cool cross between a Berlin squat and a funky, bohemian art bar. There are now 21 of these underground pubs, offering live music, DJs, film nights and art exhibitions, along with drinks and food in reclaimed courtyards, old carparks and abandoned warehouses. They often close down without warning, so check out what’s current at: ruinpubs.com.
WHAT ABOUT DINING?
There’s an astonishing variety of cuisines on offer, from Thai to Turkish and everything in between – along with more gourmet burger bars than hipsters to eat in them. The fine dining is very fine, with four Michelin star restaurants: Costes, Costes Downtown, Borkonyha and Onyx (which offers a three-course lunch special for $90). If you’re eating local, head to the Central Market Hall to try some goulash. In Hungary, it’s actually a soup, while the thick stew we call goulash is known as porkolt. The street food is great too: try some chimney cakes: pastry cylinders coated in butter and sugar that transforms into a caramelised crust before your eyes as it cooks on a spit.
WHEN SHOULD I VISIT?
Budapest averages around 2200 hours of sunshine each year – one of the highest levels in Europe – and has modest rainfall so it’s a good option most months. It’s probably best to avoid winter’s freezing temperatures and bear in mind there are days over 35 degrees during the hottest months. May to Sept is high season.
WHAT’S WITH ALL THE SPAS?
Budapest is famous for its thermal baths dating back to Roman times, fed by the 125 mineral water hot springs in the area. The indoor pool at Gellert Spa, with its Roman columns is popular with locals, but the most impressive is the ornate neo-Baroque Szechenyi Baths built in 1913. It has 21 indoor and outdoor medicinal and swimming pools, including a circular rapid that whizzes you around and around. In cooler weather, steam floats evocatively off the surface of the outdoor pools like something out of an ’80s video clip. Remember to research the extremely confusing ticket/wrist band/locker/private changeroom system before you arrive. After dark on weekends, they hold dance pool parties here.
HOW DO I GET THERE?
Qantas flies to Budapest via Dubai from the mainland capitals – the second leg is operated by Emirates. You can also fly the entire way on Emirates, or on Qatar Airways via Doha (except from Brisbane). If you’re coming overland, note the refugee crisis has spurred a border crackdown. Australians don’t need a visa but if you’re arriving from nonEU countries be prepared for a thorough grilling.
The city of two halves, Buda and Pest, is the perfect blend of romance, old world charm and dining options that range from four Michelin star restaurants to gourmet burger bars.
THE HUNGARIAN PARLIAMENT
TRAMS ON MARGARET BRIDGE
FOUR SEASONS HOTEL GRESHAM PALACE
SZECHENYI THERMAL BATH