After our wine extravaganza, it was time to move on to some bigger sites so we headed to Budapest. We decided to save ourselves some stress and trouble and bought the vignette for the motorways. The 10 day version costs 2,975 HUF for cars (good job Trevor is small enough). We stayed at Arena camping on the eastern side of the city. The site is very nice with great and very clean facilities. No surprise it was very busy. The only downside was its location next to train tracks and under the flightpath of the airport. Upon arrival, we received a full introduction to the city including a map and tourist booklet. Transport in and out of the center was split into 5 minutes on the bus and about 20 min on the metro depending on the station. We purchased the 72 hour ticket which gave us unlimited use of the whole public transport including boats. It costs 4150 HUF and was totally worth it.
The Hungarian capital is a huge place and the biggest city on our summer road trip. It is separated by the Danube into Buda on the western and Pest on the eastern shore. Buda is dominated by the castle hill with the vast palace and adjacent buildings. Towards the other end of the hill are the famous fisherman’s bastion and St. Matthias church. The second hill in Buda is crowned with a citadel (now museum) and the statue of liberty.
Pest on the other hand has everything you expect to find in a city:shops, restaurants, entertainment and nightlife plus the parliament. This separation means both parts have very distinctive characters.
Since we arrived on the campsite in the early afternoon we went into the city on a reconnaissance mission to get an idea of the place and plan the following days. After wandering the high street we needed a break and found the cosy little Cafe called Molnar’s. Their speciality is super yummy kürtöskalács (tree cakes), a Hungarian delicacy. We tried them hot, filled with ice cream and they were absolutely delicious. This place is also about half the price compared to high street stalls. In the café we met a Polish and a German girl and had such a great time that they almost missed their river cruise. We also opted to jump on a boat to see the place from a different angle and highly recommend this to any tourist. Cruising in the evening meant great photography light on the Pest side namely the parliament which is modelled on the houses of parliament in London. On our way back to Trevor we decided to go shopping but got carried away and didn’t arrive there until 9.30pm. At this time our planned curry turned into pasta and sauce which left us rather sad after looking forward to curry all day.
On our first full day in the Hungarian capital, we went straight to Buda and up the castle hill. All the houses are grand but a lot of them now house hotels or restaurants. One notable building is the Hungarian national archive at the end furthest away from the palace. We didn’t catch a tour but even the outside was impressive. Wandering towards the palace we reached the fisherman’s bastion and the St Matthias church. The bastion is one of the highest lookout points in the city and provides visitors with amazing views over Pest; especially the parliament.
There are cafes and you can pay 800 HUF to go up to the top level of the bastion. In our opinion that is not worth it as that is only about 5m higher. It was built in the 18th century to provide exquisite views over city and river and not, as the name suggests, as fortification. It is however totally worth paying the 1500 HUF to see the inside of the church. It is impressively carved on the outside with the bightly coloured and patterned roof. Inside the church is painted top to bottom and also very impressive. After admiring all the painting we wandered through the little museum and learned more about the church and empress ‘Sissi’ Elisabeth and her love for Hungary.
Next point on on the list of must-sees was the palace complex. It consists of a number of grand and huge buildings some of which seem to be still in administrative use. We walked around the different parts and enjoyed the great views from the terraces. Sadly there is no palace as such to visit. There is an art gallery and a four story palace museumm but partly due to the heat neither of us was in the mood to visit them. As there was not much else to do we crossed the river again for some ice cream. Zoë had discovered a highly recommended Italian ice cream parlour so we decided to try and find it. We can say the search was totally worth it. Pomo d’Oro is one of the best ice cream parlors we’ve been to in a long while!
The last sightseeing point on the list of the day was the parliament. At the north end of this beautiful gothic building is the tourist center and a museum. We didn’t know that spaces are limited per day and as we arrived quite late, we didn’t get in. It was only possible to see one of the two chambers and a few selected rooms. After getting an idea of the inside from postcards in the shop, we decided not to bother and went into the museum for free. We got a free audio guide so we could wander around freely and still get all the information. The museum is small but very well set up, taking the visitor through about 600 years of Hungarian history. There were a lot of detailed information to listen to but sadly we made it less than half way through when a guard informed us that they closed in 8 minutes. After this we rushed through, only listening to the overview commentary for each section which is a shame since the Hungarian history is a lot more interesting than we thought.
After a super yummy traditional Hungarian dinner at Belvárosi Lucas Etterem behind St. Istvan basilica we met up with our new firends from the café the day before and another friend of theirs and threw ourselves into the local nightlife. Their new friend had been living in the city for a few years and took us to a couple of bars in the jewish quarter.
The next day we went to see Europes largest (second largest in the world) synagoge and its museum. We had done some research and it seemed to be well worth a visit. This feeling quickly changed once we arrived. The entrance fee is an extortionate 4000 HUF per person! Once we passed the airport like security check, Matthias was handed a paper kippa and hairpin to cover his head. The synagogue was nicely decorated and had some very unusual features like an organ and two pulpits as well as three naves. Seems like the architect got a few things wrong here… The entrance included a free tour. Quite cleverly, flags of different countries had been spread around the pews to show were each tour starts. Our guide gave us a well informed and interesting tour and explained differences between the mostly neolithic (or more assimilated) jewish communities in Budapest and Hungary. We found it a bit hipocritical to say that they worked on a sabbath if they had or wanted to, but invited a non-jewish person to play the organ during their service as jews are only allowed to play a trompet made from sheeps horn. Oddly, they also don’t see the organ as part of their synagoge since it is placed behind the cabinet with the torah scrolls. Supposedly only 5-10% of the community are conservative jews; the others are more liberal and are even happy to eat non-kosher meat every now and then. It also seemed strange that they used a small synagoge located in the garded due to they high heating costs of the bigger one. Surely they earn enough money from the rip off entrance fees to be able to afford some heating; especially as they seem to be getting a fair amount of donations, judging from various plaques on the walls. The museum was very disappointing. Located on the third floor of the adjacent building, there was an info desk but only 10 of the estimated 200 items on display had any information attached. There were no descriptions attached to the rest and no hint to were to get them from.
Sadly this experience ruined this otherwise awesome city for us as we were very wary paying entrance for something which might not be worth it. Without it, we also might have stayed an extra day to explore some gardens and parks. We still went to the St. Stephens (Stz. Istvan) basilica and were glad we did it. Entry is free but donations are suggested (viewing tower and treasury cost money). The basilica is grand and impressive yet not overloaded with gold and paintings. Hungary’s second biggest basilica impresses more with the huge open space inside than its decorations and should be on every tourist’s top 10 list.
One last note: You might have expected us going into at least one of the famous thermal baths (notably the art-nouveau Gelert baths). We might have done that in bad weather (which we didn’t get) but we also discovered that the big baths are expensive. A full day with locker starts from 4900 HUF per person per day which gives you only access to pools. They also seemed to be nice but a lot less exciting than the cave baths in Miskolc.
The day after we left Budapest with mixed feelings. It is a definite must-see and awesome city but not everything is worth going to just because somebody recommends it.