Budapest, or the cities of Buda and Pest (pron. ‘pesht’) on a long weekend away with the crew (Glenny, Liz, Jono and Ad), the weather turned it on, we hit the pavement and took in the top sites of the city – at one point drinking way too much of the local spirit, Palinka. My pre-trip preparation listed out what I thought to be the top 5 for Budapest, but the guys showed me there were a few sites that trumped one of my must-do’s: the highly anticipated train station. The city itself would definitely make my top 5 cities in Europe, given it’s buildings, ease of getting around, relaxed vibe, cheap drinking and, luckily for us, blue skies. If you’re after all the pictures of the trip, head over to Latest Photos and find Budapest
Budapest Top 5
It was tough to call out a top 5, but I’ve given it a crack below. The lesson on the trip: always get your facts right before dragging the crew to a ‘non-tested’ attraction. Anyway, here we go:
1. St Stephens Basillica
No trip in Europe, or actually anywhere in the world, goes by without paying a visit to an old, pretty nice looking religious building (church, cathedral, temple, synagogue etc). Sure, you can get a bit of ‘nice old building syndrome’ after seeing too many of them in a short period of time, but they’re without a doubt buildings that define cities. Budapest delivered well on this front with St Stephens Basillica, not only is it a ‘nice old building’ but it has a pretty interesting relic inside – a mummified hand.
The building itself is massive and one of the tallest in Budapest, it’s impressive from both outside and in, I’d say the painted ceilings were a personal highlight (as far as ceilings go…). The bit we weren’t really ready for was the mummified hand, tucked away in a chapel at the back of the Basillica. It’s the preserved hand of the first King of Hungary, it has been passed around many countries but seems to have found it’s home in the Basillica.
At a cost of 200 Florint (£0.50), it’s a must do – the crew ended the day on it so it was a nice way to sign off the city before heading to the Ruin Bars to freak out at computer screens taped to walls…
2. Castle Hill and the Wine Cellar
Castle Hill, funnily enough, is a hill with a castle on it. Well it’s more of a small village on a hill, but the castle is one of the reasons to head up. It’s officially in Buda, and climbs up from the Duna River, well worth the hike even if only for the views over the city. We headed up the hill a couple of times, each time crossing the ‘Chain Bridge’, which I’d say is one of the more impressive bridges I’ve crossed (check the picture on the right). Not that we realised it when we wandered over it, flashing our camera’s pretending not to be uber-topurists, but the bridge was bombed and destroyed during WWII with only the pillar remaining – thankfully they rebuilt it.
We navigated our way up the hill a couple of ways, first walking (5mins) and later on on the Fernicular (900 Florint one-way) – Fernicular would be recommended if hungover. There’s plenty of things to check out at the top, first of which is a huge palace that housed the History Museum and Library, right next door to this is the Presidential Palace. Next up is Matthais Church, our first site of the art nouvaeu architecture – Jono was unstoppable with the camera, trying to get every angle of the tiles with the sun beaming off them. The church has a castle wall built nearby which is a great spot for pic’s across the city too, I say ‘pics’ because by this stage we’d invented a game to keep us amused: Don’t say the word ‘photo’ otherwise you have to ask a stranger for a self portrait of yourself posing like a German on holiday – everyone said it, no one followed through on the punishment.
There are plenty of spots for food on the hill, although most of it is pretty touristy. We found a really nice restaurant called ‘Buda-Pest’, where I took in some top notch goulash, huge chunks of meat that fell apart, served with pearl barley. The goulash in general in Budapest is a must, cheap, tasty, filling and best washed down with a pint of Dreher. After lunch we attempted to get into the underground hospital and nuclear bunker, but tours only run every hour and we were 10 mins into the hour so decided to pass it up.
Another pretty unique part of Castle Hill is the underground Faust Wine Cellar, which is housed within the Hilton Hotel. We’d heard reviews and mates had recommended it so we headed down to it late in the day on Sunday, while still nursing slight hangovers. A trip down the 104 (or something like that) steps, slightly freaking out at the dummy lady sitting on a chair part way down, we made it to the small cellar room. We managed to get seated at the big table (of the 8 or so tables) and turned down the need for a highlighter green blanket as we were pretty layered up. The host, Gabor, came over and recommended a few different wines to us. Without exclaiming that NZ Sauvignon was the best in the world, we ordered a few glasses – Furmint is the only variety I can remember – and the sommelier told us about he regions they’d come from. Jono and Adrienne had to leave us after 2 glasses (to get to the airport), but Liz, Glenny and I decided to complete the full Hungarian line-up with a dessert wine at the end. A pretty good experience, probably even better if you don’t have a large one the night before.
3. House of Terror
The House of Terror doesn’t really sound too appealing and for a pretty good reason. It was the interrogation centre in Budapest for both the Nazi and Soviet regimes when they occupied Hungary. When the Nazi regime fell in Budapest, they were forced out of the House of Terror, but the incoming Soviet regime saw it important to take control of Andrassy Boulevard (on which the house sits) and ended up taking the house too. They used it for similar purposes as the Nazi’s, interrogation and murder, both to keep the communist ship sailing but for different regimes.
Not much more can be said about the House of Terror, other than it was an ‘interesting’ experience to learn about the suffering of the Hungarian people and took me another step in the direction of trying to comprehend what it was like being an oppressed communist country – under the power of a crazed man. Well put together museum.
4. Jewish Quarter and Ruin Bars
We spent a night out in the Jewish quarter, it’s quite an edgy place with bars, restaurants and a huge synagogue (what a combination). The main reason it makes it into the Budapest Top 5 is that it is home to the ‘Ruin Bars’. I’d read about these bars before leaving London, they sounded pretty unique, but were crazier than I had imagined. I’m not quite sure how to describe the one we went to (Szimpla); it’s like someone (who was on a concoction of the trip’iest drugs known to man) has taken a whole lot of spray paint, 100 pieces of old furniture, 1000 used household appliances, a bath and some strange paintings, and gone berserk inside an old ruined concrete building. Yet the atmosphere is kind of homely, warm and fun – not sure how they have achieved it but it’s a pretty impressive feat. There are a number of these types of bars around the district (VII) and they’re meant to be really popular with the locals. Weirdest bar I’ve ever been to? Szimpla.
Another spot worth mentioning is Koleaves, a small cafe / restaurant serving up good Hungarian food, pretty cheaply. We ventured there after a few beers at Szimpla and managed to be-friend the waiter – who proceeded to serve us shot after shot of Palinka, apparently there were all sorts of flavours including peach, apple and berry, but for the most part we agreed that it just tasted like tequila. Why we kept drink the stuff, I’m not sure, but it certainly set us up for a large night and a painful morning, the next morning!
One of the cultural attractions in District VII is the Dohány Street Synagogue, it’s the biggest synagogue in Europe and the 5th largest in the world, according to Wikipedia. While can take a tour through the building, we decided that photo’s from the outside were enough for us.
5. Great Market Hall
The final entry into the Top 5 is the Great Market Hall. Brett, Liz and I headed here for brunch on the Monday after a good sleep in. The walk to the market took us along the Duna River, toward Monument Hill, we soaked up the atmos of Budapest going about it’s daily life. The market is inside a huge hall that is decorated on the outside using the colourful tiles that seem to pop up everywhere in Budapest as part of their Art Nouveau movement. Stepping through the big plastic sheet doors, we were confronted with sausages hanging everywhere, locals selling paprika and vegetables and every other store selling fresh meats like turkey, chicken and, well, more sausages. The top floor of the covered market is where we got stuck into some local food, hanging out with plenty of tourists but also a line-up of Hungarian senior citizens who embrace drinking diesel at 11am on a Monday. It was a pretty unique experience, the goulash was good and Glenny’s sausage was intense (smelling garlic for the rest of the day), the lady behind the stall played and danced to ABBA and we counted ourselves in on the diesel front and put away another Dreher. The remainder of the upstairs market is packet with linen, dolls, clothing, vases, bowls etc, we didn’t indulge in a tasteless Budapest t-shirt, but there were plenty on offer if you’d wanted to! Highly recommend a trip to the market, probably the more ‘local’ of things that we ticked off and a good way to see another part of town.