29 June 2018

72 Hours in Budapest: Bex's Guide

Have you ever bathed in a 16th century Turkish bath with a stained-glass ceiling? Stayed in the residence of a former prime minister? Haggled for cherries and paprika in a historic market hall? These are just a few of the experiences that Budapest — the ultimate city of two halves — has to offer.

With a population of 1.7 million, the Hungarian capital is one of Europe's largest cities. But its compact city centre — comprising the hilly, historic Buda and the bustling, metropolitan Pest, separated by the Danube — is relatively compact. It is thus easy to see many of the beautiful city's historic and architectural sights, visit a couple of museums and take in a thermal spa or two during a long weekend. Here's what my mum and I got up to on our recent four-day trip (my speciality coffee recommendations can be found here).

Hungarian Parliament Building
Hungary was founded in 896 and the number 96 carries a strong significance. The striking Gothic Revival Hungarian Parliament Building was inaugurated in 1896, and its dome reaches 96 metres in height making it the tallest building in Budapest, along with Stephen's Basilica. My favourite views of the building were from across the Danube when it gleamed in the sunshine. I also toured the inside and I'd recommend booking a tour in advance online as the tours often sell out. The experience only lasts 45 minutes but it's an interesting, if whistle-stop, tour. Photography isn't allowed by the beautiful cupola, but some things are better enjoyed in real life. Don't miss the Shoes of the Danube memorial on the river banks nearby.

Castle Hill
Castle Hill, perched high above the Danube on the Buda side, has numerous historical sights and provides some of the city's best views. Ride the Sikló funicular from the Buda end of the Chain Bridge to the Royal Palace, which has been rebuilt no fewer than six times in seven centuries. The palace is home to the National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum, but we skipped these and enjoyed the panoramic views instead.

A few minutes' north lies Matthias Church, with its orange-tiled roof and ornate interiors, and the Fisherman's Bastion, a seven-towered neo-Gothic terrace. A modern Hilton hotel might not be an obvious stop on a historical tour but this one is built on the site of a 13th century Dominican church and some of the remains have been preserved.

Perched atop Gellert Hill, south of Castle Hill, the Citadella and Liberty Monument are well worth the steep climb to the summit, even on a hot day. The views over the city and the nearby Buda Hills are excellent, and you can always freshen up afterwards with a dip in Gellert or Rudas Baths.

Thermal baths

More than 100 thermal springs flow beneath Budapest and thermal spas are sprinkled throughout the city. Each has its own character, facilities, and rules and regulations (most are now mixed on most days, but some still have male-only and female-only days). Two of the biggest and most popular are the Gellert Baths and the Széchenyi Baths, but it's worth doing your research before you visit. These are the three I visited:

Rudas Thermal Bath
Sinking into the warm waters of the Rudas Thermal Bath while light streams in through the domed, stained-glass-panelled ceiling is like taking a bath in a giant kaleidoscope. The central pool is surrounded by several smaller pools of different temperatures, one as hot as 42C. But don't worry: there's a plunge pool and a pulley-operated cold shower if you need to cool off. There's also a swimming pool and a rooftop thermal pool overlooking the Danube; these cost more money but various combo tickets are available. Note that the baths are only mixed at the weekend.

Széchenyi Baths
Located in City Park, the grand Széchenyi Baths has three outdoor pools — two warm, for relaxing, and one slightly cooler, for swimming laps — and multiple pools inside the yellow, Neo-Baroque buildings. It was very busy when we arrived on a Friday afternoon and the World Cup was being screened, but there was a relaxed, lively atmosphere. Saturday nights are 'sparty nights'.

Palatinus Bath
Of the three baths we visited, the Palatinus Bath on Margaret Island was the most local and family-friendly experience. We spent most of our time in the outdoor pools, which included a lap pool, some thermal pools, various 'fun' pools with a wave machine and rapids, and even stomach-churning water slides. If you only stay three hours, you can get a refund on your full-day ticket, so keep your receipts (and bear in mind that most staff don't speak English).

Margaret Island
One of Budapest's key oases, Margaret Island an easy walk from the city centre, but you can also take the cheap and convenient ferry (D11 or D12) that zigzags up and down the Danube between Buda and Pest. On the island, there is plenty to explore, from the musical fountain (which isn't much of a fountain, and only plays music a few times an hour), to the peaceful Japanese gardens, the Palatinus Bath and the Art Nouveau water tower.

House of Terror
As the weather was so nice during our visit, we spent most of our time outside. The House of Terror is a comprehensive and well-produced museum about Hungary's fascist and communist regimes in the 20th century. The museum is located in a building used by the Arrow Cross Party and AVH, and walking through some of the former prison cells is a chilling experience.

Great Market Hall
Budapest's vast Great Market Hall was completed in 1896 (bien sûr). The ground floor has dozens of produce vendors, with a particularly good selection of fruit and veg, meats and cheeses. We bought supplies here for our picnic on Margaret Island. The stalls upstairs offer plenty of opportunities to purchase lace products, fridge magnets, packages of paprika and other Budapest souvenirs.

Mazel Tov
Part cultural space, part Israeli restaurant, part ruin bar, Mazel Tov's crumbling exterior belies the buzzy, modern space inside. The food — a combination of street food dishes and larger plates — is tasty and well-priced, and there was a lively ambiance, even on a rainy Thursday afternoon.

This modern Hungarian restaurant sources food from the nearby Great Market Hall, and has a large variety of Hungarian wines on the menu. I particularly enjoyed the roast duck, a dish that featured on many Budapest menus.

Struggling to find a table with no booking on Friday night, we decided to go to Menza, which was recommended to me by several friends. Located on the busy, touristy Liszt Ferenc Square, Menza's vintage 'old school canteen' interiors and good-value, modern Hungarian menu make it a popular choice. We scored a table on the terrace and devoured our food. My favourite dish was the garlic soup, which was served with a giant, Yorkshire pudding-like bread roll and a mound of cheese on top. the cheese gradually melted into the soup making it even more decadent.

Barack & Szilva
After failing to secure a table at 'Peach and Plum' on Friday night, we put our name down for Saturday. We sat outside and enjoyed the live music and cooling breeze, soaking up the atmosphere. I enjoyed the succulent duck breast salad to start, followed by some very tender and flavoursome pork tournedos.

Costes Downtown
If this meal were a Friends episode, it would be, 'The One Where We Went for a Quick Lunch and Ended Up with a Multi-Course Michelin-starred Feast'. The less stuffy younger sister of the original Costes restaurant has beautiful, understated decor, impeccable service and delicious, immaculately presented food. Although they serve a tasting menu, it's a 'mix and match' of the à la carte, so we ended up ordering two courses each (and a shared pudding) from the main menu. With all the amuses-bouches and intermezzi, however, it was a more decadent and languorous affair than we were expecting. Both my sea bream crudo starter and mangalica pork main tasted wonderful, although I couldn't stop eating the homemade bread with bacon and onion butter. Overall, it was a very special last meal in Budapest.

I hesitated for a long time between Brody House — an art-themed, shabby-chic hotel inside the residence of a 19th century Hungarian prime minister — and Hotel Rum, a more modern boutique hotel. In the end, we booked the former and would highly recommend the hotel. Each guest room is named for an artist, whose works are displayed therein. Ours was the spacious, quiet, comfortable and funky Ludo Room. Hotel guests can also relax in the 'club rooms', which have stylish lounge areas and an honesty bar. The staff were very helpful and welcoming and the hotel's location, near the National Museum, was peaceful but still central (and close to good coffee).

Ferenc Liszt International Airport lies about 12 miles southeast of central Budapest. There's a direct bus (the 100E), which runs frequently to downtown Pest. The journey takes about 30 minutes and it costs 900 HUF (about £2.50). You can take one of the official taxis from outside the airport terminal (go first to the booth to get a receipt for your itinerary); the journey is slightly quicker than the bus and it cost us about 7,000 HUF (£20).

St Stephen's Basilica

Getting around

Budapest has an extensive and cheap public transport system, with assorted buses, trams, boats and a Metro system. The city centre is small, however, and if you like to walk you might not need to use any of them. During our four days, we just took a boat from the Liberty Bridge to Margaret Island and the funicular to the top of Castle Hill.

The Hungarian language — with a complex, agglutinative structure — is fascinating to a former linguistics student but tricky for a casual visitor to master. Many people working in the tourism and hospitality industries speak great English, although try to learn a few Hungarian words: hello is hello; szia [see-ya] means hi; and köszönöm ['kuh-suh-nuhm] means thank you.

Ernő Rubik mural

There are about 370 Hungarian forints (HUF) to the British pound. Credit cards — and contactless payments — are accepted in most shops, eateries and tourist attractions. We brought some forints with us, but only needed to use them for restaurant tips and public bathrooms.

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