Project Description

Budapest? It is a great city dating back over 1,000 years and located in the heart of Central Europe. We can feel it at the first step: the Hungarian capital was rich, beautiful, cosmopolitan and prosperous until the party stopped to let the devils of History sow terror. Wounded by wars, devastated by Nazism, impoverished by communism which almost killed its soul, the Pearl of the Danube has finally regained its past glory and is today a bustling capital, full of life both day and night, and listed as one of the most beautiful European cities!

I had the opportunity to travel to Budapest several times and therefore was able to enjoy my time there and everything that the city has to offer: from the Castle District to the Parliament, through St. Stephen Basilica and different thermal baths. I even went back to some places several times and that’s why it’s hard to write (as I usually do) an article summarizing roughly one or more days of sightseeing; I may get confused or worse, repeat myself! Therefore I will do things differently and will write an article regrouping all the different places I’ve visited under two “chapters”: one on Buda and the other on Pest. Finally, note that the content of these articles is of course far from being exhaustive, but can always be completed with one or more other trips!

As for the accommodation, I had the opportunity to stay in two establishments of different categories: the Bohem Art Hotel and the Avenue Hostel, respectively a 4 star hotel (once in a while doesn’t hurt, especially as I got a great deal there!) and a youth hostel, both located in Pest. The Hill of Buda also has loads of hotels and restaurants, but they are very often more expensive than those of Pest, even if the latter hosts a much larger amount of them. I guess that in Buda, we pay for the view on the rest of the city which is awesome, as you’ll see a bit down in this article. I also bought a “Budapest Card” which will grant me many discount prices and, most importantly, free public transportation!

Bohem Art Hotel

    • Combines a hip hotel with very high standards and an amazing art gallery featuring young Hungarian artists.
    • Clean, modern and comfortable, excellent wifi, transfer from/to the airport included with most bookings.
    • Located just 50 meters from the Danube, Vaci utca shopping street and close to numerous restaurants, cafes and bars.
    • Hearty breakfast buffet, coffee, tea and snacks available in the lobby daily from 2PM to 5PM.
    • Usually, prices are much higher that what I got for a long weekend of 4 days, but I was lucky to received a great offer. Honestly I would not go back if I have to pay full price as the place, despite the excellent quality of the hotel, is clearly off-budget to me.
    • No views of the Danube despite the proximity to the river, as the hotel is situated between two pedestrian streets. Too bad, especially for the price!
    • Nothing more to say about the Bohem Art Hotel. Frankly, I was not disappointed by the service and I have rarely been so well received in my travels in Eastern Europe, not to mention the quality and comfort of the room, and the huge choice for the breakfast, just great!

Avenue Hostel

    • Central location, next to “Oktogon” metro station and excellent value for money, especially at the last minute!
    • Shared kitchen where breakfast is served every morning (bread, butter, jam and eggs, sometimes even fruits).
    • Reception open 24/7, great wifi, very friendly staff, always willing to help (advices and bookings of any kind)!
    • Private huge box to store individual stuff with a lockpad that can be lend for free by the staff at the reception.
    • Located right next to one of the busiest crossroad between on this side of the Danube. Therefore and as you imagine, it is very noisy at almost every hours of the day (especially on mornings, evenings and nights). Impossible to sleep with the windows closed, so earplugs are essential!
    • The bathrooms and toilets are common and sometimes left in a deplorable state after use… But I shouldn’t blame the hostel for that.
    • Pure inn atmosphere guaranteed! If you don’t like to be surrounded by a group of 14-18 years old whose discussions comes down to “where getting drunk cheaply” or “how many bars can we see in a single night,” go somewhere else or isolate yourself!

Budapest, the Pearl of the Danube

At each of my trips, I arrived by plane directly at Budapest Liszt Ferenc international airport, but you can also reach the Hungarian capital by bus and of course by train, directly and easily from any neighboring capital (like Vienna for instance). From the airport, you can get to the city center with a bus-metro journey, a transport provided by your hotel or by taxi. For my part, I experienced the first two solutions, but the bus-metro ride remains the easiest, fastest and cheapest of all! Just after getting to the arrival hall, you will certainly be approached by drivers or hostesses offering a trip downtown at a specific price: ignore them (unless you’re interested by the offer, but watch out for scam!), leave the building and head to the bus stops.

There, you will find automatic terminals: look for the famous combo ticket for the city center, pay (everything is in English, follow the directions on the screen or on posters around) and stamp it once inside the bus in one of the little orange boxes. Ticket controls are rare, but it’s better to be in order. After about 10-15 minutes, get off the bus and head to the “Communist green toned” subway station nearby. Follow the other tourists in case of doubt or ask a local, assuming they speak English… A man checks your ticket, then let you access the platform. If the metro is already there, get on quickly because the driver will not wait for everybody to board before leaving the station… Yes, I’ve seen it, as we were only 4 on 25-30 people who made our way in the first car before the doors closed. When is the next metro? In about 15-20 minutes.

A few words about the Hungarian underground transportation system: despite the stereotypes, you should not worry about safety (presence of staff almost all the time) and cleanliness (very clean, much more that what I expected). I’m on my way for a half an hour journey towards the city center. That’s the time to get your map of the subway out of your bag, as you’ll have to determine the nearest station to your accommodation, which may require a change of line. Once again, don’t worry about it because it is included in your combined ticket and the various subway lines are well indicated with a color system. By the way, it’s hard to get lost in the heart of this network of only 4 lines. Getting lost in the Tokyo Metro, that I can understand, but there is little chance to happen in Budapest.

In all cases, travel time from the airport to a downtown hotel lasts in average between 30 and 60 minutes. Once you have checked in, take a shower or a nap, but people like me will have only one desire: go for a walk around! After an hour through the different streets and squares around my lodging, I’ve found everything I need: a few cheap places to eat, a conveniently placed ATM where I can withdraw Hungarian forint (the local currency), and a small supermarket where a liter of still water is only 0.49cts! Oh, also note that there are a few tramway lines on the surface which will take you along major roads between Buda and Pest. Great way to save time while traveling and to admire the surrounding buildings easily. The famous “Hop-on, Hop-off” red bus offer the same, but are subject to traffic jam! Then enjoy a good night of sleep before an early morning start, certainly in contrast to your fellow hostel roomates who will stay in bed the whole morning, if not more after a short and alcoholic night!

This article is about a tour of Buda, Pest is currently being drafted. Enjoy!

Hill of Buda, Castle District and Mount Gellért

Depending on your accommodation, you will have to join Buda by first getting closer to the Danube and then crossing one of eight bridges of the city. Real links between both sides of the Danube well before the merger of 1873, they are not only used for transportation, but also as a benchmark and stunning viewpoints on the river. The four most known are: Margaret Bridge, Chain Bridge, Elisabeth Bridge and Independence Bridge. Personally, I choose to take a tram from my accommodation directly to Buda via the Margaret Bridge, one of two bridges which allow access to Margaret Island, but I’ll talk about it later in my article about Pest. Same goes for the famous Parliament of Budapest that can be admired once on the other side of the river.

Before going any further, let me tell you a few words about the famous baths of Budapest. The rich mineral waters are gushing at different temperatures from about 123 thermal springs in all Budapest and some of them are known and renowned worldwide. Hungarians love them and thanks to an excellent health system inherited from the communist period, they’re allowed to go to the thermal baths “on prescription”, which means almost for free. Some spas date back to the Roman times, but it was the Turks that create the architecture of most of them. Vary your bath as you wish: cold pool and hot tub, followed by a few minutes to the hammam before having a massage or some beauty treatments. You’ll leave these places feeling quite exhausted, but also ten years younger as local say!

In Budapest, fürdő (pronounced “furdo”, literally “go to the bath”) is clearly part of the everyday life. As a tourist, you must not miss a visit to one of the spas, if not more as you’ll be clearly spoiled by the available choice. Since we’re in Buda right after Margaret Bridge, I recommend you to visit Lukács (pronounced “loukatch”) and/or Király (pronounced “kirai”) baths, very closed from this bridge. The first bath include several pools, hot tubs, water jets and an artistic marvel: the inner crypt and its burning sulfur atmosphere. This is a mixed spa whose atmosphere is super friendly and very family oriented. Király Baths, meanwhile, are the most oriental baths of Budapest. Under a green dome adorned with a golden crescent, light rays enter the ponds and give the place a supernatural aspect, almost mystical! Smaller than the others, Király baths are rather nudist and slightly gay, just so you know! Obviously, I was not going to walk around in with my camera or my smartphone for obvious reasons (humidity, “suicide” of the camera in a tub of hot water, voyeurism, “perverism”, etc.). Also, if you’re looking for pictures of the inside of these places, ask Google!

If “dipping” yourself in a hot tube is not your cup of tea or just not scheduled today, then I suggest you start here a walk along the Danube. If you are not into “walking” either or if you lack the time to do so, you can take the tramway which runs on this side of Budapest too. Whatever may your means of transportation be, you will have the opportunity to admire some interesting buildings such as the Calvinist Church, built in the 19th century in the Gothic Revival style and the Chain bridge, probably the best known of all and one of the symbols of Budapest. Locals and tourists particularly like f the two statues of lions at each end. In 1945, Nazi troops blew it to slow the Soviet advance, and it took many years to rebuild. A little further away is the Elizabeth Bridge, whose construction was decided at the same time as the Liberty Bridge. For 23 years, it was the largest suspension bridge in the world, but unfortunately it suffered the same fate as the other bridges of Budapest when the Nazis dynamited it in 1945. The extent of the damage didn’t allow its restoration, so it’s a new bridge that was built and opened in 1964.

Well, let’s put aside bridges of Budapest for a while. At the Calvinist Church, you have the opportunity to climb the hill to join the Castle District. An alternative less exhausting but also more expensive would be to take the cable car a little further along the Danube, but some exercise won’t hurt, right?. Moreover, the way to the top is clearly indicated via a few tourist signs, so there is little risk to get lost. On your way up, you will pass through beautiful gardens, another good reason to climb the hill there. Almost to the top, it will be hard not to stop before one of the architectural wonders of this side of the Danube, the Fisherman’s Bastion (or “Halászbástya” in Hungarian).

This is one of the most beautiful observation decks I’ve seen so far. The Neo-Romanesque architecture of the place is great and cover in a striking manner that part of the hill. The set has seven conical turrets representing the seven original Magyar tribes settled in the Carpathian basin in 896, and some statues of such Magyar warriors are spread under the arches. The name “Fishermen’s Bastion” is a tribute to the Guild of Fishermen which was responsible for defending the region against the invaders during the Middle Ages. This place is unique, unlike anything I’ve ever seen in Budapest and perhaps even in Europe. It is also the ideal place to enjoy an unobstructed, panoramic view of the Hungarian capital, yet even more amazing at night!

Within the walls and on top of the ramparts is a restaurant where you can enjoy the view, assuming you find a free table there! The place is very popular and people who try to sneak in just to take a picture of the view are kicked out quickly, so don’t try it! You’ll either need to book a table or visiting the other part of the ramparts, which I choose to do. Indeed, having to eat or drink something to enjoy the view is not something I want to do, but the other side of the ramparts requires the visitor to pay a small fee, so we’re end up having to pay anyway. Close to the Bastion are two souvenir shops, as many ice cream stands and a place where you can buy different tickets to access the surrounding monuments. All right, let’s have a look there and admire along the way the impressive equestrian statue of St. Stephen and the profile of the church of Our Lady of the Assumption of Budavár.

After having waited a few minutes, it’s now your chance to buy one or more tickets including access to the church, tower and/or the remparts. Purchasing “combined” tickets is of course cheaper! Note that the church tower can only be visited in a group and only at specific times, in contrast to the interior of the church which can be seen at your own pace during the opening hours. Don’t lose any more time and enjoy this sanctuary and its wonders, starting with the beautiful glazed tiles and other Gothic decorations that can be admired from the base of the building!

Without going into too much detail about the history of the place (as I normally would tend to do), let’s just say that this building “has heard” about every single major event of Budapest: invasion, glory, destruction, coronation, millennium celebration, end of the Habsburg. First a royal chapel and then a parish church of the German population of Buda, it is inside these walls that Hungarian King Charles Robert of Anjou was crowned for the second time. During the following centuries, it was rebuilt, enlarged, converted into a mosque, demolished, burned and even struck by lightning! So you can imagine the bad state of the church before it was rebuilt in neo-Gothic style. Today it shines brightly and has one of the finest religious interiors I’ve seen!

I guess this it is due to the very rich ornamental paintings that cover the walls, and also the beautiful stained glass windows of the 19th century can be seen in the upper part. The side chapels and the apses contain different altars and neo-gothic decorations dating from the same period and the flags that can be seen in the nave are those representing the different counties of Hungary during the coronation of Franz Joseph of Habsburg in 1867. The cathedral has excellent acoustics, great organs and a small museum where you can admire objects from the medieval cult and other various relics. In short, it is a real historical jewel that was great to see! Don’t miss it!

It is now time to reach the meeting point to visit the tower, right at its foot. A guide will meet you there and will tell you a brief history of the building before accompanying you to the top. On your way up, you can admire a small museum containing some objects like for instance the old weathervane and a shield covered by the coat of arms of the city. Once on the viewing platform, you will have the opportunity to enjoy an awesome panorama of Budapest at 360 degrees! You’ll be given about 20 minutes there, then it’ll be time to get back down.

Just opposite the church is Trinity Square, the main part of the old city with, in its center, the column of the Trinity commemorating the end of the plague. The square is surrounded by the Central Archives, Matthias Church (which we have just seen) and the old Town Hall. From there, my advice is simple: get lost in the streets of the Castle District! The area has something special and very few tourists venture there, so you can easily stroll around without seeing anyone at all!

Shortly before arriving at the castle (actually looking more like a palace), we reach a large square bordered by a long white building and a medieval archaeological area just in front of it. This is Sándor Palace, former official residence of the Prime Minister and now the actual residence of the president of the Republic, aptly nicknamed “The White House”. With luck, you will have the opportunity to witness the change of the guard, in a precise and coordinated ballet which is some kind of event amongs tourists! Careful though not to stay on the way of the guards; these guys yell like hell if you do! It’s quite funny to see the face of tourists that get shouted at!

Finally, we are facing the Royal Palace (or Castle) and its fortifications, the major point on the Hill of Buda and the most visited site of the city. The first royal residence which was established in the mid 13th century by King Bela IV was destroyed and rebuilt at least half dozen times. Residence of kings and queens, the palace also hosted occupants like the Ottomans during the 16th and 17th centuries, or the Habsburgs. Today, the building has a great mix of architectural styles and plays the role of an historic conservator by hosting the History Museum of Budapest and the Hungarian National Gallery, the National Library and a rich collection of statues and monuments that visitors can admire.

A visit to each of these places is recommended, especially if the weather is bad, but in such cases, I imagine most tourists would prefer to stay a few hours at one of Budapest’s baths instead. Anyway, if you are art and/or history lovers, this is probably the best place to learn about Budapest and its rich past.

If you chose to climb the hill using the funicular we talked about earlier, it’s one this place, right next to the Gate of Habsburg and the Turul Monument that you’ll end up. The first is a splendid wrought-iron neo-baroque portal and the second is a large statue of an eagle with outstretched wings, the most important mythological bird of the origin myth of the Magyars. If visiting museums is not part of your to do list for the time being, feel free to walk around the complex, on the remparts or along the fortifications, just for the view you’ll get from there!

In the west courtyard of the palace, we can admire Matthias fountain which tells the story of Ilonka, heroine of a famous popular song of the 19th century and how she fell in love with king Matthias when he was hunting incognito. Then stop at the small Körösfői Kurtoskalacs shop near the fountain, just to taste a Kurtoskalacs (or “chimney-cake”), delicious Hungarian pastry originally from Transylvania. Difficult to resist the temptation to buy one (or more!) And the only issue you’ll be facing is to choose one flavour among all varieties on offer! For me, it’ll be cinnamon, yum!

The tour of the main attractions of the Castle District of Buda may be over now, but there are still things to see on this side of the Danube! Let’s start by getting closer to the river, either by taking the funicular or if you’re still full of energy, you can go down the hill on foot via the “Bazaar of the garden of the Castle” (in Hungarian “Várkert Bazár”) or simply “Bazaar of the Castle” (“Várbazár”). This is a recreational building constructed between 1875 and 1883 right below the castle and fully restored in 2014 as part of a larger project of beautification. Among the added elements are new access for pedestrians on the side of the hill, pretty gardens and terraces with a beautiful view over the Danube and Pest.

Once at the foot of the hill, you’ll have the opportunity to continue the walk we began earlier along the Danube. You can either walk on foot if you feel like it or take the tramway. One of the first notable stops after the Bazaar is Rudas where the eponym baths built under Turkish ruling during the 16th century are located. If you want to take a break in a Finnish sauna or lounge a few minutes in a steam cabin, it’s now time to do so! Special mention to the tank room with its columns located under a large dome: it is stunning and is worth the admission here! Since 1936, Rudas baths have been reserved for men only, but since 2005, they are also open to women, but only on Tuesdays and weekends.

After an hour of rest (or more?) at the heart of the baths, it’s time to do some workout! Damn, isn’t it normally the other way round? Like we workout first and then we rest? Whatever, let’s break clichés and climb off Mount Gellert which overlooks the city from its 235 meters. One of the two main paths leading to the summit is also situated just behind Rudas baths. Beware, it’s quite steep and during warm summer, no doubt that you will sweat like hell, almost if you still were in one of the saunas of Rudas baths! During the ascent, don’t miss the monument to Gerard of Csanád, an imposing statue surrounded by columns from which you can enjoy a beautiful view of Elizabeth Bridge.

Climbing Mount Gellert is not really difficult, the only risk is losing some time looking for the right way among those available, but poorly marked. You will reach the summit eventually as this “mountain” isn’t very big. Remember that it is of course possible to get there by taking a taxi or a bus (No. 27 is the one), the Hop-on Hop-off service (these famous red buses) being certainly the most convenient way to see a lot in a very short time. These buses, as well as those of travel agencies, stop in a small parking a few dozen meters away from the viewpoint. This place being part of absolutely all the city tours of Budapest, don’t be surprised to see load of tourist buses arriving and leaving without any break until the evening. However, this should not prevent you from enjoying the beautiful panoramic view of Budapest from the viewpoint. Remember to take a map to identify the different parts of the city you’re able to see from there! It’s quite simple, the whole city is visible (well, almost): from the Royal Palace to St. Matthias Church, from the Chain Bridge to St. Stephen’s Cathedral, without forgetting Margaret Island in the background. Stunning!

Apart from the view, you can also walk a few minutes up the small nearby hill where you can see a fortress that the Austrians built after the Hungarian war of independence from 1848 to 1849. Today, this “citadel” hosts a restaurant and its panoramic terrace, a hotel and a museum. The latter is divided into several permanent exhibitions and regularly hosts temporary exhibitions. If this is the view from the ramparts you’re looking for, there is no need to go inside the fortress itself: you can enjoy an equally splendid panorama of the entire city by simply walking around the building.

Just behind the fortress are several statues including the Statue of Liberty (no, not the one from New York!), designed by Zsigmond Strobl Kisfaludi, dating from 1947 and erected in memory of the “liberation” of Budapest by Soviet troops. Symbolized by a giant woman holding a palm at arms, the pedestal is flanked by two other statues, a “Winner against the Dragon” symbolizing the fight against destruction and an “Allegory of Progress”, represented by a man with dynamic lines brandishing a torch. The view here is nice, but not as much as from the Belvedere.

Finally, it is time to get back down next to the Danube, either by bus, taxi or on foot. If you’ve made your way up to the summit on foot, why don’t you do the same for the descent, but this time through a different path of the other side of Mount Gellért. After a few minutes you will arrive in front of the largest and most famous spas of Budapest, Gellért. Built in 1908 and opened to the public 10 years later, Gellért offers today 13 pools of different sizes, temperature and composition of the water, not to mention a wide range of spa services: hydrotherapy, inhalation room, hot stone massage, pedicure, chocolate treatment, Cleopatra or medicinal herbs baths, etc. Today, it is one of the most known among those of the Hungarian capital, and therefore one of the most crowed depending of the time of the day. I would advise you to go there very early in the morning, which is probably the best time as the whole complex is still quiet and free of tourists.

The charm works once you have crossed the great main doors, as you reach in a place with quite a unique atmosphere. A passage through the cash registers where you choose your package, then to the locker room where you store your stuff, and finally to the hot springs! Nothing is more enjoyable than a swim amongst splendid oriental, Ottoman and Art Deco decorations, surrounded by colorful mosaics and stained glass windows, high columns and stunning marble statues! Gellért is one of the must-see spas of Budapest, even if I prefer Széchenyi (I will write about it in my article on Pest), for some reasons… Anyway, both are a safe bet and a mandatory visit during your trip!

Our non-exhaustive tour of Buda finally comes to the end. Without having seen absolutely everything, I think we still went around the most important places. You must be hungry after such a walk, am I right? Therefore, I recommend a visit to the Trofea Grill Etterem Buda restaurant, just a few dozen meters from Margaret Bridge. For a fixed amount (~€11 for lunch and ~€16 for dinner), you can enjoy an “all you can eat” buffet composed of delicious Hungarian dishes and meat on grill. Add to that a great selection of wines and beers, appetizers and desserts, friendly waiters and you’ll undoubtedly have a great, gastronomic time there! Otherwise, you’ll have plenty of choices regarding places to eat in Budapest!

After such a good meal, nothing like a good stroll to digest, finish a day of sightseeing quietly or simply enjoy the cool evening, more than welcome in summer! Don’t hesitate to go back to some places already visited during daytime like the Castle District, completely deserted once the sun is gone. A tip: sit on the ramparts of Fisherman’s Bastion (admission is free after dusk) and take the opportunity to see Budapest’s lights turning slowly on as the sun is going away: it’s a beautiful… Nah, not strong enough… Let’s say “magic” moment!

I had the opportunity to see by night all the places I’ve visited during daytime and I loved it! Far from being intrusive, night lighting gives the buildings a mystical look as they seem to emerged from the darkness. I don’t usually go outside every night when I travel abroad, but when I do so like here in Budapest, I am sure to have a great time! Be careful though if you plan to climb Mount Gellért on foot at night: there is almost no lighting and unless you have a full moon night, take a flashlight with you. Yes, it’s something I’ve experimented, but thanks to the flashlight of my iPhone, I manage to get to the viewpoint without getting lost or being attacked! Talking about security and safety, I had absolutely no problems or issue whatsoever, although some places like the main train stations appear a little “shabby”, but you’ll notice it quickly and will avoid them easily.

What to say about Buda… I must admit that I am lacking of adjectives: Buda is impressive in many ways. Apart from the compact crowds of tourists in some areas, it’s very easy to discover the hidden life of this part of Budapest by simply step into a small alley or move away from the tourist areas. Also, you won’t have any problem getting busy around here. Tired? The dozens of terraces, many benches on squares and of course different thermal baths on this side of the Danube are there for you! My visit of the Castle District was memorable, as the place is full of charming streets and squares, restaurants and bars, museums and viewpoints… I almost forget that it is only half of the Hungarian capital! Pest, the next part, is right here!