Budapest, capital of Hungary, is the unification of the cities Buda and Pest which lie either side of the river Danube. Known as ‘the heart of Europe,’ the city was voted the ‘Best European Destination of 2019’. This isn’t surprising when you consider the fascinating cultural, religious and military history, displayed through the famous landmarks, memorials, squares and cathedrals.
I visited while interrailing in the scorching summer of 2019. Three days gave enough time to explore the entire city, making Budapest a great destination for a short and cheap holiday.
Where to stay
Due to a tight budget we decided to stay in hostels. Although not everyone’s cup of tea (especially with the popularity of low-cost airbnbs), hostels are great social environments. They’re a great place to meet many like-minded people from all over the world sharing stories of their travels.
I stayed at a hostel called Shantee house which has a relaxed bohemian feel, located west of the river in Buda. It caters for large groups or single travellers, with dormitories or private rooms. There is also camping space in the garden for your own tent or a yurt you can rent, sleeping up to 6 people. You can even choose to sleep in a hammock!
“Like most European cities, Budapest has a great nightlife”
Inside, the hostel offers a shared living space and kitchen area you can use to cook. You can sit and eat breakfast at the balcony, overlooking the fountains in the peaceful zen garden. What’s more, prices start from only 3500 HUF a night which equates to just under £9!
Our first day was spent exploring the city and visiting the famous landmarks. Our hostel was located close to the citadel, built after the Hungarian revolution of 1948, which stands upon Gellért Hill. It’s a long walk up the hill but you’re rewarded with amazing views across the river and a perfect opportunity for some photos.
“At the turn of the century, people decided to transform the large ‘ruins’ into a trendy spot for bars and clubs”
The citadel is also home to the liberty statue. This bronze memorial commemorates the lives of those who fought for independence and marks remembrance of soviet liberation during the second World War. From the citadel, it’s a short walk up the river to Buda castle which is surrounded by beautiful monuments and has two museums. From this height you get a great view across the Danube of the Hungarian parliament building and its magnificent gothic architecture.
Like most European cities, Budapest has a great nightlife. After our day of sight-seeing we headed out to explore the bars. A great place to start is the old Jewish quarter, to check out the famous ruin bars, the most renowned being Szimpla Kert. After the second World War and the holocaust, these abandoned buildings lay desolate for decades. At the turn of the century, people decided to transform the large ‘ruins’ into a trendy spot for bars and clubs. The empty structures made the perfect place to host large groups of people.
“The network of caves bought us out several kilometres from where we began”
The buildings remain stripped back to the bare foundations with electrics, pipes and wiring all on display. Rooms are crammed with eclectic furniture rammed together to create a quirky art installation; chairs hanging from the ceiling, antique cars, and disco balls make for a completely unique experience.
To kick off our second day we’d booked in for a caving tour. Unknown to many, the entire city is built over a labyrinth of passages. The limestone caves were created by hot water from deep underground, the same water that heats the famous thermal spas! The caves are filled with clusters of calcite deposits known as cave popcorn that you have to manoeuvre around, while stalactites and stalagmites make a glittering spectacle. The network of caves bought us out several kilometres from where we began, up a narrow stairway that leads to an overgrown garden overlooking the city, 215 metres high.
“It was on our bucket-list to visit the insta-worthy thermal spa”
In the afternoon we decided to head over to Pest. Travelling across Margaret bridge we discovered an island upon which there’s a musical fountain where you can dip your feet while enjoying an ice-cream. Wander across the island to take a walk through the rose garden; nearby you can purchase candyfloss on a stick bigger than your head! A small petting zoo lines the bank of the river and you can enter the enclosures and feed the goats!
On our final day we ventured further into Pest. It was on our bucket-list to visit the insta-worthy thermal spa. Budapest has an array of thermal baths, the most famous being the Széchenyi which is the largest natural hot-spring spa in Europe! For a small fee you can lounge alongside the pools (there are 18 in total!) or relax inside in the saunas and steam rooms.
“The city has its own underground metro service which makes transport across the city simple”
Széchenyi spa is opposite the more recently built Vajdahunyad castle, another display of lavish Hungarian architecture, where you can take a pedalo out onto the gorgeous surrounding lake. The lake is located within the city park, so you can enjoy the green space and shade of the trees in summer. In the winter however, the lake is transformed into a beautiful ice rink! It also hosts an abundance of Christmas markets where you can enjoy a traditional Hungarian chimney cake.
Like Nottingham, Budapest has an excellent tram service, although it can get quite overcrowded. Alternatively, the city has its own underground metro service which makes transport across the city simple, and it’s nowhere near as busy as the London underground! But the best way to explore the city is really by foot especially in Buda, the older part of town, where you can explore the narrow alleyways.
“There is a host of street markets in the Jewish quarter where you can pick up a light lunch to enjoy in the jostling streets”
Places to eat
Goulash soup is the most traditional Hungarian meal and should be part of your Budapest experience. The dish resembles a meat stew, traditionally beef, filled with lots of spices making it the perfect winter comforter.
The fifth district is the best place to experience the local cuisine. Generally, like much of continental Europe, Hungarians enjoy selections of meats and cheeses with bread. However, there is a host of street markets in the Jewish quarter where you can pick up a light lunch to enjoy in the jostling streets. For a more exotic experience, there is a zoo café in the city centre!
All images courtesy of Lilith Hudson.
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