My first introduction to Hungarians came in the form of a lovely couple named Mash and Pearl (the lovable English names they adopted during their time in the UK), who rented my spare room for a year or so. Pearl would cook me this amazing pork stew with sweet paprika and tons of onions while Mash would dress up as a viking at the weekends and perform in woodland re-enactments.
Pearl eventually moved to Budapest for work in 2016 , so I jumped at the opportunity to visit her and find out what I was missing out on in this popular city break that everyone and their mum seems to have been on, except for me!
1. Fisherman’s Bastion
Arriving at nearly midnight into Budapest on a mid-September evening, Pearl walks me through the still busy streets of Pest, where the nighclubs are just getting started, along the Chain Bridge, which crosses the River Danube, and over into Buda, where her apartment is just one street away from the incredible Fisherman’s Bastion. This neo-Gothic, Disney-style castle, was built in the 18th Century as a viewing platform and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Budapest. Entry is free, with a small fee for the top turrets, although they stop charging after 8pm and before 9am. If you go there in the middle of the night, you would likely have the place to yourself… and what a romantic view… just the kind of place for a marriage proposal!
2. Margaret Island
The next morning, the sun is scorching – luckily Pearl warned me about this crazy September heatwave, which isn’t unusual for Hungary, so I am prepared with shorts and sunblock at the ready. We take a couple of Walnut Crescent Pastries from the local patisserie for breakfast, and eat them while we stroll along past the stunning Parliament Building, which sits on the waters edge on the Pest side of the river. Within 20 minutes, we arrive at Margaret Island. A huge park right in the middle of the Danube river. At the entrance, there is a big round, musical fountain. Spurts of water leap gloriously skywards, to a soundtrack of Vivaldi and Swan Lake. In the evening, this fountain lights up and plays more contemporary music, by the likes of Coldplay and Michael Buble. The fountain is surrounded by huge Sycamore trees. Its so hot, people are sunbathing at the waters edge.
Further on into the park, we have the fun option to hire a pedalo (here its called a Bringo Cart) for exploring this green oasis. I let Pearl do most of the pedaling, as she has been saying she hasn’t exercised for a while, and I am on holiday after all! We pass a beautiful rose garden, a peaceful, Japanese zen garden, and make a pit-stop at a cafe serving unique Chimney Cakes (hollow pastries cooked on a huge wooden rolling pin), then rolled in cinnamon sugar.
Aside from the sheer beauty of the nature on this Island, there are restaurants, a bar (Zipp Club), an Athletic Centre, a mini-zoo, and a thermal bath!
3. Buda Hills Chair Lift (Libegő)
Next, we ascend to the highest point in all of Budapest via chair lift. But before that we take a short visit to an underground cave which is on the way up. It’s super cool and provides an icy respite from the searing afternoon heat. Not the most beautiful cave I have ever seen but apparently the Buda hills are riddled with them, so there are plenty more to explore. Arriving at the chairlift, the whole contraption looks like it needs renovating, a bit like a scary fairground ride, with just one metal bar separating you and long drop into the forest below. Mountain bikers can be seen weaving in and out of the bushes as they race down the steep hill. The lift takes you up, up and away into the Buda Hills, to the lookout tower on János Hill.
On the ascent, the view was mainly behind us, and I found myself constantly turning round to get a view, so if you are only going one way, be sure to take it going downhill for the better view. At the top is a cafe, where Pearl and I celebrate being back on solid ground with a delicious Sour Cherry Ice cream! Most things made with sour cherries in Hungary will odds-on be a winner (including chocolate & sour cherry cake, Cherry strudel, and the local fruit brandy Pálinka). There are various rewards at the top of this hill, including an amazing view from the lookout tower, which was swarming with bees – although they seemed quite docile, a beautiful woodland, parks and fields where a picnic can be enjoyed and even a spongy yellow running trail, made from a bouncy material which is better for runner’s joints.
4. Roman Baths
Budapest lies on a geographic fault line, so there are tons of thermal baths sprinkled across the city to luxuriate in. I chose to visit the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath (the largest in Europe!). It’s located in the huge city park where an open air art exhibition was also being held that day. The relaxing sound of hang drums and guitars can be heard from buskers who frequent the park. Be sure to take with you a towel, your bathing suit and some flip flops. Then get ready for one of the most delicious soakings of your life… The teal waters are a gloriously warm temperature which felt good even in the midst of a heatwave. I made friends with a fellow traveller, an Alida from Australia, idling by the poolside, as we took pictures for each other. There’s plenty of dry spaces for sunbathing too. In the evening the ambience is altogether more seductive and romantic… perfect for a date night.
5. Ruin Pubs (not just places to get ruined!)
That evening, feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, and with it being my last night in Budapest, we decide to venture to the side of town we have slightly neglected, Pest. We start with food at Vigado, which is right next to Pearl’s apartment. She walks past it every day, but she has never eaten there! There is even a great view of the Parliament Building lit up in the dark, from the outside tables. We start with a velvety glass of local Hungarian red wine (Thummerer Trefli Voros Cuvee) and I order a pancake stuffed with meat in a creamy paprika sauce, which is huge for a starter, but very tasty. Next up is a Beef Goulash, which is spicy and hot with soft melting pieces of meat. The service is impeccable and the staff are charming.
After dinner, we walk off the heavy food and wander into Pest to check out some of the Ruin pubs. You might be wondering why they are even called Ruin Pubs? This is because they sprang from the ruins of derelict buildings and factories, and were decorated with unwanted furniture and mismatched cast offs from bygone eras. The decor has a somewhat quaint, eclectic, eccentric, artsy, shabby-chiq feel, finished off with a good dose of LED-decorated trees and colourful strobe lights. We find two next to eachother called Fogas Ház and Instant, which have open air bar areas and plenty of rooms playing different music. Tonight is an open mic night, and there’s a queue of local wannabe rock gods waiting their turn to perform and wow the crowds (or make everyone grimace with their slightly off key renditions of popular hits). The wine here is the cheapest I have encountered anywhere in Europe at just €2.50 a glass, it really would be hard not to get ruined!
After a relaxing hour enjoying some pretty good original Hungarian songs and enduring some slightly bad Bowie covers (he would be turning in his grave!), the DJ takes command of the music and the courtyard is filled with the sounds of upbeat salsa mixed with a little old school hip hop, which gets the dancefloor going. A few strangely coloured shots later and we have made friends with some of the musicians who have stayed on to party.
There’s plenty I missed out on in my short visit to Budapest, including the Weeping Willow holocaust memorial in the Jewish Quarter, the funicular railway, the other 120 thermal baths I didn’t visit, not to mention the 200 other caves in the system (which incidentally were created by the same thermal waters that supply the Roman baths around tow). There really is plenty to come back for…