Beautiful Budapest

By | Category: Travel destinations
the Hungarian parliament building

the Hungarian parliament building

London folk (well many of us) are proud of the River Thames, but the Danube is in another league for breadth and impact. The size of the boats and cruise ships put most of the moving craft in London almost in a Dinky toy scale.

So, whether it’s a couple of hours round one of the islands mid-stream on the river or a longer trip including a spot of lunch or dinner, a trip to Hungary’s capital – Budapest – is highly recommended.  A suggestion is to embark on the river early evening or late teatime and come back after dark to get daylight and night time views of the hillside of Buda. Don’t forget the parliament buildings on the Pest side, one of the most reproduced civic structures in the world.  (Photographer’s tip: don’t use a tripod on moving vessels as the engine vibes can blur things slightly – try a higher ISO value for a slower shutter speed).

Budapest is a highly developed tourism destination, excellent value and good fun. It had a history of stability and prosperity in the 19th century as a dual monarchy within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.   Until they were joined in 1873, Buda and Pest were two separate cities opposite each other on the Danube.  Soon after the join, Budapest became the Empire’s second city after Vienna.

the memorial to the 1956 uprising

the memorial to the 1956 uprising

Its past prosperity is reflected in the great art collections in the city.   For example, the Museum of Fine Arts, (Szepmuveszeti Muzeum) founded in 1906, has a permanent collection of over 100,000 exhibits  but you cannot visit the museum for the next two years as it is closed for refurbishment and expansion. It will re-open in March 2018. Budapest is also a world centre for modern art.  What is remarkable is that the museums and their contents survived the darker times that Budapest went through in the mid-twentieth century.  Like other Central and Eastern European countries, Hungary suffered in WW2 and passed into Soviet rule after WWII.

This year is the 60th Anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, a student protest ruthlessly put down by the Soviets with T54 Tanks!   Free elections in 1990 followed the fall of communism and Hungary joined the EU in 2004 but it hasn’t joined the euro. It still keeps its currency, the Forint, for which you will get about 350 to 400 to the pound.

Getting down to another bit of reality I’ve noticed after two visits that Hungarians really like it if you pronounce Budapest their way – which is “Buda- peshed” rather “Pest”.

For a first visit I strongly recommend the Budapest Card which cost €16 online, is valid for a year and comes with an App, maps and directions. Getting around is easy as there is a good metro system with buses and trams plus some trains and a funicular up the hill on the Buda side.    

the Gellert Thermal Baths

one of many thermal baths in Budapest – the Gellert Thermal Baths built in art nouveau style

In Budapest visitors with UK “Senior” travel concessions can travel free on public transport providing they are carrying an age specific Government ID, a copy won’t always be accepted at the barrier. Do carry a UK photo driving licence (credit card size) to avoid carrying a passport.   For anyone travelling I recommend a photo driving licence, even before renewal date of a paper one, at a cost of £15 plus passport details – the system copies in the passport photo.

One other point,  in Budapest  the famous Spa Baths will only accept Hungarian Forint cash in payment for entry, locker towels etc.

Any visitor to Budapest should consider a visit (if only a walk round) to the architecturally spectacular Traditional Thermal Baths in the surrounds of which  are shaded cafes with drinks, snacks and whatever you fancy.   By the way, the natural thermal spa water comes up at 140°C which is of course cooled down.  In mainland UK we have only one single thermal spring water source in Bath which, in comparison, comes up at a measly 40°C.   Just wear ordinary swimming togs.  Art students take a note book and a Boy Scout’s pencil which writes in steam or under water.  Senior citizens don’t get a discount and, like the rest of us, have to pay cash as well but there are plausible claims for benefits in kind!  I have visited several thermal spa locations in other Eastern Europe countries particularly in the Balkans and a lot of fairly cautious spenders from places like Switzerland and Germany go to Budapest simply because it makes them feel better.

the operetta and musical theatre

the operetta and musical theatre

The Opera is excellent value with tickets starting at €20 but there can be booking problems along the lines of:  for productions with “stars” either it’s too early “not yet confirmed” or “too late sorry no tickets left.”  And watch out for July and August events when some regular productions don’t run due to hot weather.

There are also minor shows which are very good value and I personally like an occasional, slightly wild gipsy style entertainment which often pops up in bars and some restaurants around the city.

Having said that the programmes to seek out are those at the Hungarian State Opera (Operaház) where previous musical directors have included Gustav Mahler and Otto Klemperer. In June each year they have a Wagner programme.

One other smaller, 900 seater theatre, is very popular, the Operetta Theatre (Budapesti Operettszínház) with Hungarian operettas and contemporary musicals in the repertoire. Again, there are very few, short-notice tickets available.   Better to book ahead online with a card just in case there’s a problem when you get there.

At the Robert Capa

At the Robert Capa

It’s worth remembering that Budapest vied with Vienna competing on general style and architecture.  The wealth of choice in all the galleries and museums is like a huge arty luxury buffet so one way of planning an outing is to choose a period or style and then checking online for the best spots (with opening hours and entry costs).  Everything style and era is covered from pre- Roman onwards.

There are usually special shows on and galleries specialising in modern art including sculpture and photography offer some of the most interesting exhibits. One such is the Robert Capa Centre. Capa came from Budapest and was one of the greatest war photographers covering the Spanish Civil War and many WWII campaigns.  All this work was in black and white.  However “Capa in Color” shows work from a hitherto unpublished archive of 4,200 colour transparencies from the late 1940’s. Capa cultivated contacts in smart society and Hollywood and was friends with the likes of Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, Orson Welles and Pablo Picasso among others.

Most children, well the boys at least, have had a railway. In Buda, they go one better. The Children’s Railway is more than a pleasant outing in the wooded hills above Buda for the railway (Gyermekvasút) is run by children under the supervision of adult railway workers. There are seven stops on a circular journey and each stop has some sort of feature such as a small zoo.  The uniformed children do all the booking, ticket sales and some use whistles and flags.

how much meals cost

how much meals cost

For tasting traditional Hungarian food I would go straight to the Cyrano Restaurant in a high quality place which has three tasting menus price at €10 to €14 (see picture). It is in Vaci Street, near St. Stephen’s which is so busy teeming with restaurants, bistros and bars that there is a website devoted to it, try this link: http://bit.ly/21kGo6o

Budapest is a very large city (the population is about 1.7 million) and each area has its own “best places.” Finally, it is one of the easiest destinations to reach as there are many regional, direct flights to the city.

For more about Budapest, click here.

Images and story ©  Anthony Lydekker

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