One of the best things about Europe is the ease of traveling within the continent. One visa and plenty of cheap travel options! Last weekend we went on a last minute weekend trip to Budapest, the capital city of Hungary.
How do I explain the city? It is one of the loveliest I have been to. There is beauty wherever you look. During the day, we walked and walked and walked. We saw, we stopped and we just stared. It is one of the rare cities where the river flows right through the middle of it. Not surprising as Buda and Pest were earlier two cities with very distinct cultures, which is true even today and united only in 1873. During the night, we enjoyed great dining, good wine and the eclectic environs of the famous ruin bars! Not to forget the amazing sights of the city all lit up golden against the dark backdrop of night.
Here is the two and a half day itinerary of our first trip to Budapest! I say first because I am sure, we are going there again. I have also mentioned the vegan/ vegetarian friendly restaurants we went to. We had a great meal at all the places.
Day 0: Vörösmarty square — St. Stephen’s Basilica — Danube Promenade — Shoes on the Danube — Hungarian Parliament
Public transport in Budapest is very convenient. As soon as we came out of the airport, we bought a pack of 10 discounted tickets to use over the next 3 days. Took one of the oldest metros in Europe to Deák square which is like a hub of all public transport. From there our apartment at Király utca was a 5 minute walk. There were lots of clubs and cafes on Király. After a quick bite we started walking towards Vörösmarty square.
“You have to start your trip at Vörösmarty square”, we were advised and we followed :-). It is like the hub of all activities and just has a great vibe to set the tone of the trip. The square is full of food stalls with Hungarian and regional cuisines and there are also restaurants and cafes all around the square to suit every taste. Lots of stalls selling local artisan gifts, from handmade jewellery to soaps to honey to ceramic flowers to woollen caps to sweet Hungarian paprika… anything and everything is here. It’s a pleasure to just idly walk around the square.
From there we headed towards Danube Promenade and started walking north. The promenade is beautiful with stunning views of the Buda castle on the other side. We went a little inside towards St. Stephen’s Basilica. The Basilica towers over all the nearby buildings and as we were walking towards it, in many ways, it reminded me of St. Paul’s cathedral in London. Devoted to Saint Stephen, the founder of Hungarian State, the church is magnificent from inside. As it was time for the regular mass, we were able to go a little further inside and there was a beautiful painting of Jesus on the cross inside. We weren’t allowed to take pictures of it.
The outside courtyard had many students on segways, that you could try and hire for short or long tours around the city. From the basilica, we went back on the river front and kept on walking towards the Parliament. Before the parliament, we came across the Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial which literally gave me goosebumps. The memorial is in honour of the many (mainly Jews) who were killed by the Arrowcross militiamen in Budapest during World War II. They were marched to the riverfront, ordered to take off their shoes, and then shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried away. The memorial represents their shoes left behind on the bank. While I was clicking the picture, a mother and daughter approached one of the shoes, the little girl took out a rock from her pocket, placed it in the shoe, bowed and left. In the evening we went back to read more about Hungary’s position during the World War II and especially what the Jews in Hungary went through.
From there we went upto the magnificent Hungarian Parliament building complex. Inspired by Westminster, it is quite impressive, standing right on the banks with beautiful symmetrical architecture. Going around the complex we could admire it from different angles. One can go inside also. The tour takes about an hour and tickets are easily available there. The best view of the parliament though is from across the Danube river, from where you can admire the whole building in one frame.
For the night, we went Andrássy utca, a beautiful street lined with trees on both sides and plenty of restaurants. We went to Mazel Tov, a fusion Israeli restaurant in the old Jewish quarter. It is built in the ruins of an abandoned building and retains the charms of the old building. The old brick walls and balconies are adorned with hanging vines. We loved the food there. They had traditional Israeli dishes and the chef had an interesting fusion menu. I specially loved the pistachio soup and the ‘sweet potato bun’ falafel burger!
Day 1: Gozsdu Antik Market — Fisherman’s Bastion — Matthias Church — Buda Palace — Széchenyi Chain bridge — Citadel — Szimpla Kert — Gozsdu Udvar
The next day we had just left the apartment when I got drawn into a narrow passage where little shops were just coming up… and as it happens, I pulled Sikander in and we went into one of the most popular weekend markets — the Gozsdu Antik Market. I completely lose myself in such places… some stalls will take you back in time with their antique gas masks, communist era memorabilia, vintage signs while some will showcase some beautiful heart made handicrafts. I bought a little piece for myself and Sikander bought himself a Soviet hat before we headed out. This market is cheaper than Vorosmarty square, so if you happen to be in Budapest on the weekend, Gozsdu will be a better bet for finding new and antique souvenirs. The Gozsdu Udvar is a closed corridor between many apartment buildings. The place is full of local pubs and restaurants.
After grabbing an amazing brunch at Oh my green, we took a bus to Buda to explore the Castle district. The entire Castle district is charming. Most of the area is pedestrian with cobblestone roads, colourful homes, ornate fountains, flower beds in full bloom. It is like being in a period movie set. The golden age of Castle Hill was in the 15th century, following the marriage of King Matthias Corvinus and Beatrix of Naples in 1476. The new queen brought with her many Italian artists and craftsmen and Buda soon became the cultural capital.
We started our walk with the Matthias church. The colourful tiles rooftops of the church are a delight to see. Much of the area is free to walk around. We found ourselves a spot on one of the balconies in the Fisherman’s Bastion and just sat there, enjoying the views of the city and those across the river. It is a shame to think that the entire region was bombed to the ground during World War II but it has been beautifully built back up. We leisurely walked around the area, enjoying the Buda palace courtyards, hills and the gardens. The palace also houses the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum
We crossed over through the famous Széchenyi Chain bridge which was the first bridge built to connect the two sides. Bridges and Locks go hand in hand :-). There were very interesting locks on this one from new custom engraved ones to some very antique ones.
It is interesting how the bridge came about. In the earlier days, there was a pontoon bridge to cross the river during summers and in winters the river froze, making crossing possible. In 1820, bad weather made the crossing impossible and Count Széchenyi, had to wait a week to get to his father’s funeral. This experience led him to decide that a permanent bridge had to be built!
For lunch we went to Hungarikan Bistro, a local restaurant which was recommended as vegetarian friendly also. Since we were planning a long night we took a short afternoon rest in our apartment. The evening started at Kadarka wine bar, very close to our place and highly recommended by our host. And rightly so. The staff was very friendly and willing to offer as many varieties as you want for tasting until you find that one perfect wine for you! We stayed put right there all through dinner.
After dinner, we headed back to Buda side and went all the way up to Citadel and the statue of liberty to see the city decorated in twinkling lights up and down. Since it was pretty cold, there were hardly any people around and we just stayed there enjoying the calm and the view.
And well the night was still alive! We headed back to Pest and straight into Szimpla Kert, the mother of all ruin bars. It is a maze inside with little corridors and many bars setup in different rooms:-). Loved it and of course we were hungry again in the middle of the night so headed over to Gozsdu Udvar. The place had completely transformed from morning marketplace to a party street!
Day 2: Rudas Bathhouse — Old Jewish Quarter — Deak Square — Heroes Square — City Park
The last already! But we did feel like we wanted to take it a little easy. I think we took it way to easy by spending the first half simply relaxing in the thermal baths at the Rudas bathhouse. Budapest is famous for its thermal mineral springs and it will be a shame to go without experiencing one and they are definitely very different from Turkish Hamams. There are pools with different temperature water and mineral composition with healing properties. They also have a rooftop pool from where we could enjoy the panoramic views of the city while comfortably sitting in the warm water.
From there we went to Edeni Vegan, a buffet style vegan restaurant serving local Hungarian dishes adapted to suit vegans. In the evening we headed out for a leisurely walk around the old Jewish quarter. There is colourful street art on many buildings. Jewish bookshops and gift shops selling Hanukkahs. The synagogue, the largest in Europe, is a beautiful sight in the area and the holocaust memorial garden a moving experience when you read through the plaques with names of all those who died.
Back to Deák square for some live music at the terrace cafe and then to Heroes square, a monument built in 1896 to celebrate 100 years of the Hungarian State. The central pillar has the angel Gabriel on top, holding the holy crown and looking over the entire city. The semicircular arcade has statues of seven important kings and chiefs of Hungary.
From there the City Park is the perfect place to just sit, relax and watch people pass by. At night we went to Mazi, a Greek kitchen for a fitting last dinner and drinks.
We felt like we saw a lot and yet there was so much more to see. In this trip we did not go inside any of the paid monuments as we wanted to explore as much of the city as we could. If there was more time, I would have definitely liked to go inside few of the monuments and also to more World War II memorial buildings like the house of terror and hospital in the rock. I would have gone to Margeret Island too.
Which is why I know, we will be back for a second time!
Until later Budapest!