I was really keen to spend as much time as possible in the city despite living in a tent at the Sziget Festival for the week and I’m glad I got to see so much of this gorgeous city.
I signed up online for the FreeTours 10:30am Walking tour of Budapest on my first morning as there aren’t any bands I want to see until 7pm and also I might be knackered later in the week.
The public transport is easy and I caught a suburban train to Batthyány Tér station where I stopped underground at Princess Bakery, a Hungarian chain to get a coffee. I paid 510 HUF (less than £1.50) for a delicious chocolate cappuccino and took that with me for the ride. I changed onto Metro Line 2 to reach Deák Ferenc tér which is a main hub in the centre. A few minutes walk away is St Stephen’s Basilica, the starting point for the tour.
The bright blue FreeTours umbrella was easy to find and was thankfully in the shade! They also offer tours in Spanish at 10:30am and there is another English tour at 2:30pm.
Erika was the guide, she is very charismatic and her English is excellent.
The tour starts in Pest, the flat part of the city and then heads over the Chain Bridge to visit the very hilly Buda side.
St Stephen’s Basilica is an important site and is named after the first King of Hungary. Seven tribes of the Magyars (Hungarians) came from the other side of the Ural mountains in Russia, apparently gradually being led westward to the territory where their people would prosper by a bird (called Turul) which was holding a sword. The legend was that where there bird dropped the sword would be the promised land of the tribes. The strange migration is the reason for the bizarre language, unrelated to any other existing language. It has been lumped in little Uric-Finnish branch of languages with Finnish and Estonian, but it’s only the grammar that is similar.
The tribes settled in the Carpathian Basin in AD 895 during a period in European history known as the Second Age of migration.
Stephen, born with the pagan name Vajk in around AD 975, was elected to lead the 7 Hungarian tribes, a position known as the Grand Prince. He realised that it was better for his people to become Christian like the Europeans to the west rather than continue in their pagan ways so he invited the pope to send an emissary and he was baptised and then crowned King of Hungary in AD 1000 or 1001.
The Basilica of St Stephen is the third biggest Catholic church in Hungary. Building of the basilica started in 1851 and it took 50 years to complete but it was worth it!
There is a lot of fake gold and fake marble inside. The relic of Stephen is there – his mummified right hand. Ferenc Puskas was the captain of the golden football team and they beat England in that era 6-3 and that’s a proud moment for Hungary.
Entry costs 200 HUF and it costs 600 HUF to climb up to the cupola.
Down the street opposite the basilica stands the statue of Uncle Charlie; a beloved figure in the city, years ago he was a guard of the silence and he was really popular with the ladies. He used to twiddle moustache at the girls and it is now a tradition to twiddle his moustache if you need help in your love life! If you need help in any other aspect of your life then you should definitely rub his rotund tummy!
Next stop was Elizabeth Square, named after a much beloved character in Hungarian history. Elizabeth of Bavaria, Sisi, was empress of Austria from 1854 until her death in 1898, she was also Queen of Hungary from 1867 she was married to Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary Franz Josef. Sisi’s story is fascinating and tragic and it ended abruptly in Geneva when she was stabbed to death by an anarchist. She was so loved by Hungary that this had an influence over the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary being developed.
Elizabeth Square is home to the Budapest Eye
The time of Franz and Sisi was tumultuous: 16th century Hungary was occupied by ottoman empire and then the pope created the Holy League to liberate these lands, following which Hungary became part of the Austrian empire. The Hungarians are good at organising uprisings but not very good at getting what they want from them! Franz Josef killed all of the leaders of one of the Hungarian uprisings and then he worked out how to forge peace. Sisi was in love with the Hungarians and they loved her too, they felt that she was a rebel and a free spirit like them and she learned the language (no mean feat) and they even gave her a palace.
Hungarian is (apparently) not too tough to speak once you learn it but it’s incredibly difficult to write and there are writing lessons in school all the way to 18 years old. Fun fact: the Hungarian alphabet has 44 letters and there are four different O’s and four U’s!
Erika told us the history of the Ruin Bars which can mainly be found in the Jewish Quarter of the city. Some entrepreneurs rented a courtyard and renovated it enough to make it safe but to furnish it they collected everything that people didn’t need. This isn’t an unusual concept in Hungary – there are special days where you can put out things that you don’t need onto the street, free for people can take. The government takes away everything that is left over after the day. Inspired idea!
We paused on our tour at a small park near the Kempinski Hotel, where you can find a shrine to Micheal Jackson who stayed at that hotel when he visited Budapest. And another fun fact: In MJs history tour video the statue that grows during the film is from the statue in Heroes Square.
Vorosmarty Square is named after the author Micheal Vorosmarty and this is the home of the Christmas market. And the fancy Gerbeaud-ház building has an advent calendar projected onto it for advent. The Gerbeaud restaurant is one of the most expensive restaurant in the city and it’s possible to afford a coffee and cake to give the atmosphere a try.
Shopping at Markets
Don’t buy products near the front door and don’t buy things if the prices aren’t written there. Count the zeroes! Don’t change money at the airport or train station. Blue currency exchange place seems to be fairly reliable. Tips are usually around 10%, only if you are satisfied, if they add service change then perhaps don’t feel pressured to tip.
Hungarian food to try
Red paprika is in everything, sometimes hot and sometimes smoked and more mellow. Cooking oil features heavily too and the food tends to be quite heavy. Order one dish and then order more if you aren’t full then order more. Sour cream and poppy seeds also feature commonly too.
Gulash (guyash in Hungarian) soup with beef, carrots, paprika.
Chicken paprikash with a side of gnoccadli
Langosh is street food for around 600HUF. Deep-fried bread with garlic, sour cream and cheese, you can order half portions. They also sell it with chocolate, marmalade and sugar – Erika says that should be illegal
Kurtush palak – chimney cake, can have cinnamon, sugar, walnuts. You can have smaller portions.
Flaming pancakes filled with walnuts and chocolate sauce.
Letcho tomatoes, potatoes and paprika, also the name of a restaurant.
The Austria-Hungarian empire endured for around 50 years. Buda and Pest were united into the single city. 1918 they lost the war and Hungary was cut into small pieces and they lost 71% of the territory. Then there was an economic crash and a depression. End of 1930s and Hitler offered them some of their land back from Czechoslovakia and transilvaior
They got back around 30% of the territory they lost. The. They allowed the Nazis to march through Hungary to get to Yugoslavia. Then in 1941 the president tried to get the country out of the war. And then the same day his family were kidnapped by Gestapo and then he was told that he had to install a puppet government and Hungary is occupied. And in March 1944 the Nazis started deporting Jews. 44/45 the Soviets arrived and tried to break through into the Nazi lines. In Jan 1945 the Nazis blew up the bridges across the Danube and the Soviets crossed anyway.
60% of the buildings were damaged i. The war but they have done a great job of renovating. In the castle district on the Buda side they have left some of the damage.
The statue on the hill was installed in 1947 to celebrate Soviet “liberation” of Hungary. It is a woman holding up a palm leaf, a symbol of peace.
1949 – 1989 were the official years of communism, though in reality it was from 1947.
The 1956 revolution started off as a peaceful protest and then government forces shot into the crowd and it became a freedom fight. It was eventually extinguished.
The lady was covered under a sheet for three days and unveiled again without the Soviet statue in front and they removed the mention of the liberation by Soviet soldiers and called it the Liberty Statue and now it honours those who died to free Hungary.
Hungarians sometimes call it Gulash communism where they had a slightly tastier version of communism than the rest of the eastern bloc.
We crossed the Chain Bridge, which was the first permanent bridge over the Danube. It was destroyed in the war and rebuilt in 1949, 100 years after it was originally built. Szeycheyney was bridge owner and it was a toll bridge so people hated it for many years as it was so unaffordable. The lions on the bridge were a gift to the city and the artist was so certain that they are perfect that he said he would commit suicide if anyone found any mistakes! A little boy spotted that the lions don’t have tongues. Technically it’s not a problem because the tongues are just hidden in the mouths! The lions will spring to life in defence of Hungary and they have survived so much!
The Mongol invasion in the 13th century lasted only one year and then they withdrew and never returned. Nobody knows why.
Then in the 1400s, King Mathias the last strong king of the Hungarians. The Renaissance palace was a baroque palace which was rebuilt on the site of the palace which burned down twice. The Royal Palace ilwas totally destroyed in WWII and they recreated it in its baroque style, whereas most of the rebuilding was done in the style of the time.
The National Library has a copy of every single book that has been published here and the collection has outgrown the storage.
Up on the big hill in the Castle District in Buda there was the market square which operated for centuries. Now it is full of beautiful residential buildings and the palace where the president works.
Holy Trinity Column which was built to stop the Black Death. Initially the statue wasn’t big enough to stop the plague so they moved the original one and replaced it with one twice the size and the plague stopped.
Matyas Church has the Raven, the symbol of the family is a raven because a raven swooped in and took a letter that the mother had written to the imprisoned Matyas who was locked up in Prague Castle. Matyas replied to his mother by sending his golden ring back with the raven. During the Turkish occupation the church was turned into the main mosque of the Buda side.
We ended our tour at the Mattias church and a German woman, Lisa, and I went to eat lunch at the bistro close by. There is quite a lot of choice at Piknik Pavilion but it was a nightmare to choose whilst in the queue so we should have walked along before ordering. Nevertheless! We each orders a Langos with sour cream and cheese for 1,200HUF but we definitely should have shared! Langos is really nice but very filling so neither of us even nearly finished.
We had stayed near St Matyas so that we could visit inside the church without having to walk too far. Adult entry costs 1,500 into the church and 1,500 to climb the tower. This is also surrounded by the stunning Fisherman’s Bastion which costs 1,000 to enter. I decided just to go for the church entry because I had been here before 4 years ago and didn’t fancy paying again.
Lisa and I went into the church and I got given a paper cape to cover my shoulders, which I thought was fabulous. The inside of the church is stunning. It’s all recreated because the Ottomans whitewashed the walls when they turned it into a mosque but it is gorgeous inside now!
There’s also a lovely exhibition upstairs about Franz Josef and Sisi with interactive boards with cool facts.
Afterwards we walked around the bottom of the Fisherman’s Bastion. The views are fantastic from the lower level, perhaps even better than upstairs because of the complex MC Escher style arches and it’s also free…
A nice cold drink was in order after hours in the blazing sun and we found a great restaurant/cafe down the hill from the Bastion called Hunyadi on the edge of the little park of the same name. I ordered a wine spritzer which is a traditional Hungarian drink, and at this place you have to choose your own concoction so I chose 1 rosé wine measure and 2 sparking water but you can pretty much have whatever you fancy.
I said bye to Lisa and walked along the riverfront to reach the train back to the festival at around 5:30pm.
I headed straight for Frici Papa to get chicken paprikash for brunch then I walked along Andrássy Street past the Museum of Terror. I didn’t visit the museum this time (as I have visited before) but I strongly recommend a visit if you are here.
I walked all the way to Heroes Square full of beautiful marble plinths with huge bronze statutes. My favourites are two of the seven Magyar Chiefs who led the 7 Hungarian tribes over the mountains to the Carpathian basin; the site of modern day Hungary. My two favourite statutes are of Huba and Tas.
I carried on to Városliget (City Park) and went to visit the Gatehouse and Apostle’s Towers and sat for a while in the shade before catching the metro back to the centre and going on the hunt for bubble tea!
Bubu Bubble Tea is one of the best ones I’ve ever been to in terms of variety and the suggested combinations along with price. The teas cost 690, 750 and 950 (£1.90 – £2.60) and they are great. As standard they add a little bit of all of the toppings – first place I have ever been where they do that.
I mooched in some souvenir shops and then returned to the island to change into something more appropriate for the weather.
I took public transport to stop by Lisa’s apartment before we went for coffee and cake at the swanky Gerbeaud-ház. I just got off the metro at Batthyány Ter as usual but this time I got an electric tram on the same side of the river. There is air conditioning!!! I am tempted to just ride around the city on trams tomorrow. This morning I am listening to the Goo Goo Dolls on Spotify. I am already so excited to see them on Monday night I can barely contain myself.
The Green Bridge Hostel is in an awesome old apartment building in a nice bit of town near the centre and the dorms are really spacious. From there we walked to the Gerbeaud restaurant and had a sneaky peak all around the posh interior before ogling all of the stunning cakes in the cabinet. We grabbed a table outside and ordered coffee and cake which were expensive but absolutely fantastic! The perfect balance between richness and lightness. As Erika told us, the cafe terrace is a great place to watch the world go by.
Lisa headed to get her festival wristband and I hit the shops again to pick up the Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts I was buying for myself and my friend El. I visited Bubu Bubble Tea again to try the cherry flavour and then I made use of my Festival CityPass to get back to the island. I’m definitely getting my money’s worth.
Day 4 – Spa and laundry day!
I wanted to try out one of the Turkish Baths that Erika recommended so I went to Veli Bej which wasn’t as hard to find as the internet made out. The spa is beautiful inside but it’s obscured by a horrible glass building.
I paid 2,800 HUF (£7.80) which gives you three hours of pure relaxation. I also paid a 1,000 HUF returnable deposit for a sauna towel and then I headed in. I fancied a massage but sadly the morning slots were booked. The baths are open every day from 6-12 and 3-9pm and they weren’t busy at all when I went (10am on a Sunday) so I had the pools and saunas to myself mostly!
The main Turkish bath is great; a central large hot pool with fountains, surrounded by four smaller pools ranging in temperature from 25 degrees to 39/49 degrees Celsius. There is also a jacuzzi and an area with saunas and steam rooms. Judy before midday a man came round to kick everyone out so I got changed and then headed out to find some water and food as I was ravenous.
I made a beeline for the Central Market and was so sad to find out that it was closed on Sundays. So I popped into Lidl, bought some pastry and a drink and went to sit in the shade on the steps of a pretty marble building.
A local walked past me a couple of times and then he came to sit by me. He kept talking to me in Hungarian and I was just saying that I didn’t understand, after a couple of minutes I realised he was probably saying all sorts of cheeky things to me when he made a really hopeful gesture about us going to have sex. Haha, that I understood. I just laughed and politely declined then I carried on my way.
On my way to the laundry I walked past Will Poulter in the street with his girlfriend. It was so strange because I recognised him so much that for a second that I thought I must know him. But then I realised it was an actor and I had heard him speaking English so I googled “English actor eyebrows”. Go on, do it! Hilarious. Looks lovely in real life, taking a chilled stroll through the streets of Budapest.
I’m getting my laundry done at a place I found online and they were super busy with all the people in town for Sziget so I have to collect it tomorrow. Then I went to meet Lisa to head to the festival again and on the way I stumbled across another bubble tea place where I tried a caramel milk tea with tapioca and sago which was like a strange gooey rice. I’m not a fan but I’m glad I tried it.
Then Lisa and I got the bus/train to the festival. Hopefully I can get the boat soon as I’ve never done it.
Today I want to mainly stay on the island to explore the cool exhibits and whatnot but first I’ve got to go collect my laundry.
I decided to stop at London Coffee Society, which I turned my nose up at yesterday but I fancied brunch again and I had a look at the prices and they’re actually fine. I paid less than £7.50 for a flat white and a gorgeous avocado and poached eggs on toast with serano ham and a rocket salad, which is expensive for Budapest but still totally acceptable. The quality was excellent. This place is always packed and it feels like a cafe in Shoreditch. Considering how busy it was I didn’t have to wait long for my food and I found a seat straight away. Only drawback was sitting next to an obnoxious Aussie woman at the end of a line of them sitting at the bar with me.
I wanted to find a nice cafe where I could sit and do a little planning for the next couple of months because I’m meeting my friend Kat in Kazakhstan for Christmas but I have no idea where I need to book flights from to get there yet. I found a cafe that fit the bill perfectly – Magveto Café was absolutely great. It’s a bookshop/library with some great seating, a nice atmosphere and great coffee for a reasonable price. I had a cappuccino for 450 HUF (£1.25) and sat with my notebook for an hour or so.
Then I was back on my merry way to Sziget. Goo Goo Dolls are playing tonight!!!!
Day 6 – Spa Day (take two)
Spa day! I woke up early and got to Szechenyi Spa at just after 9am. The place was already busier than the Veli Bej spa but this one is HUGE!!
I spent just over 3 hours going in the saunas, steam rooms, thermal baths and the big outdoor pool. It’s amazing how hot one of the outdoor pools is and it was great to just lay in the pool in the sun. The place got more and more crowded and by 11:30 it was jam-packed. When I left at 12:30 there was a queue to get in but it wasn’t right out the door and down the steps yet, that’s for the afternoon craziness.
I got free entry with my Budapest CityPass but the normal prices are 5,200 HUF weekdays and 5,400 weekends (£14-15) for an all day pass. You get a wristband so you can use a locker or you can pay a bit extra and get a funny little cabin thing (which you can share). The massages are insanely expensive, starting at 6,000 HUF (£16.50) for a mere 20 minutes.
I had a post-spa brunch at London Coffee Society and it was excellent again. Then I went back to the Magveto Café and listened to some music and had a nice coffee.
Then I met up with Farrell, an Australian that I met in Riga, and his friend Robin for a late lunch of traditional Hungarian roast goose. I ordered a goose leg and it was absolutely delicious! That and a beer came to around £14.50 but it was a great treat.
Then I made my way back to the festival for the final night!
After the last act that I wanted to see, Sasha, who I was hanging out with this evening and I went back into Budapest to visit some ruin bars. Sadly Anker’t closes early during most of the week, so we didn’t see that one but we went to Kuplung, which was a bit too low key and not very interesting in terms of atmosphere or decoration. Then we went to Instant, which is one of the bigger and more famous ones. There are loads of rooms and alleys to explore and a roof terrace with the crazy owl
I headed back to the festival ground for a few hours sleep and then went into town and met up with Farrell and Robin for brunch before heading to the airport.
Next stop… San Sebastian in Spain!