Thursday, February 11, 2016

Four days in Budapest

Continuing with our recent January travels (I promise this will be the last travel-logs for a month or so), we recently spent four nights in Budapest. We flew Ryanair again via London Stansted Airport.

We stayed at the City Ring Hotel, short walk from Budapest-Nyugati Railway Terminal and the Hungarian Parliament building. The hotel itself was fairly comfortable and based on what we paid for, I can't find any fault with it. There's free (but flaky) WiFi connection accessible from our room and a mini-fridge in the room. There is however no kettle (we brought our own kettle), something which we have learned never to expect in most European hotels.
Fisherman's Bastion
As there aren't any direct railway service from the airport to the city centre, we took the frequent 200E bus from outside the airport terminal to the closest metro station (Kőbánya-Kispest) before taking the M3 line into the city. It was rather straightforward if a little tiring process (the bus isn't one designed to take multiple luggage). Taxi rides to the city would cost about 23 Euros, which is rather pricey.

We found four nights in Budapest to be just about perfect - not too long to overstay our welcome, and yet long enough to enjoy most of the attractions. Most of Budapest's attractions are within walking distance from where we were, and those which aren't, are easily accessible via their extensive bus and tram public transport system. The metro doesn't cover a significant portion of the city, so we relied more on the trams and buses - always a great method of seeing a new city. The flat'ish nature of the Pest district (east side of the Danube) meant that you could walk almost anywhere.
Szechenyi Baths
The Buda part is made up of two primarily hilly bits. Of this, the Castle Hill district has numerous ways of getting to the top of the hill, one of which is a paid for funicular. There is also a lift not far from the funicular which will get you up to Budapest Castle for free. Of course, if you are anything like us, you can just walk up casually. Once up there, you can easily spend the entire day in the Castle Hill, visiting the various museums, or St Mathias church and the Fisherman's Bastion. Once night sets in, however, you would want to make your way to the more lively Pest district.

We spent two separate mornings visiting two of Budapest's most famous thermal baths - Szechenyi and Gellert. Szechenyi is the bigger of the two, with three outdoor pools and 15 indoors. Gellert has two (smaller) outdoor pools, one which was closed in winter, and five indoor pools. Both are architecturally different, with Gellert most famous for its art-nouveau detailing where as Szechenyi is built in a neo-baroque style. Both are priced similarly, though Gellert does not offer discounts for early morning bathers. Szechenyi is located in the City Park in Pest where as Gellert is situated inside Hotel Gellert on the foot of Gellert Hill in Buda.
Gellert Spa
Between the two, if I was pressed for time and also returning to Budapest in the future, I would definitely do Szechenyi. Gellert is definitely worth visiting, especially for fans of art-nouveau (I am), but there isn't as much to do there as Szechenyi. Szechenyi provides visitors with quite a bit more choices. You can jump into the outdoor pool with the fun whirlpool, or watch the locals play chess, or go inside to one of the aromatherapy sauna and steam rooms, before soaking into one of the many thermal baths. Szechenyi does get busier, but there's plenty of room for everyone. While we were at Szechenyi for only five hours, we could easily have stayed there the entire day if we did not have a prior appointment at the parliament.

Speaking of the parliament, you could visit the interior of the Budapest parliament building as part of a paid for tour. Two ticket prices exists, one for European nationalists and one for none-Europeans. Tours are organised in languages. You can prebook online (like we did) or walk up to the ticket counter at the visitor centre. The tour lasted close to two hours and require some walking. You will learn about the history of the impressive neo-gothic building, the Hungarian empire itself and visit the normally out of bounds main entrance hallway, the coronation crown and assembly hall.
Assembly Hall, Hungarian Parliament
Budapest is a cheap city to visit. You could easily get by by eating soup for lunch and gyros for dinner, but to truly appreciate the city, you would need to budget a little more. Our favourite budget eat is Leves, a small takeaway shop that sells delicious soup served in large cups and sandwiches for under 1000 HUF. Best of all, it is close to the tourist trap that is Central Hall Market, which you will inevitably visit to tick it off your list.

Another of our favourite cheap eateries is Pizzica, the pizza joint found on the off beaten track, Nagymezo Utca - close to the State Opera House. Frequented by locals, Pizzica serves probably one of the tastiest pizzas we've had outside of Italy (Pizzarium in Rome - check it out!). We had a couple of slices of pizza and beer for under 4000 HUF for dinner on the third evening of our visit.

Grand Hotel Budapest
We spent the final half day visiting the Buda Castle district again - early morning in order to avoid the crowds (there wasn't a single human around), before heading back into the city centre to check out what we believed are inspirations to Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel (which isn't filmed in Budapest, or anywhere in Hungary for that matter) - the Boscolo Hotel and Corinthia (formerly known as the Grand Hotel Budapest). It is worth visiting both hotels, particularly the Corinthia, if not to enjoy the architecture and learn about its glamorous and turbulent history.

Our final meal in Budapest was at the retro Menza cafe and restaurant in Liszt Ferenc. Adorned with 1960s style furnishing, including wallpapers, the stylish restaurant serves classic Hungarian dishes including the garlic soup with langos as well as contemporary European cuisine. The prices were very reasonable for the quality and portion we got - we had two courses (one of which was a main from the daily lunch specials) and two drinks for about 8000 HUF, which turned up to be just under £20.
Menza Budapest
Budapest is a city we will definitely visit again, not least because of its location (it would make a good starting point to a pan-Balkan tour), but because we find it refreshingly none-pretentious. Budapest's history is filled with glamour, style and violence, and yet while some cities would attempt to hide its past by moving on, Budapest embraces its grittiness.

More pictures of our trip to Budapest

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