Breathtaking Budapest

For October’s travel post, I’m taking you on a journey to the charming castle-filled city of Budapest, which I fell in love with over a weekend.  This is a perfect time of year to visit, when the crowds are gone and a hearty bowl of goulash can keep you warm.

The Danube divides the capital city into two parts:  Buda and Pest.  The river also forms the backdrop for romance, with eight picturesque bridges crossing it.

On the Pest side, after browsing the expensive stores along the northern part of Vaci Utca, the main shopping street, enjoy some people watching over an expensive cup of coffee and slice of cake at Gerbeaud, before making your way to the touristy shops lining the southern part of the street that are hawking paprika, linens, dolls, dresses, and other assorted chotchkes.  Shop around and bargain for the best prices, but definitely don’t wait to make your purchases at the airport where it will be three times as much.  (Note: the underground market on the northern part had cheapest prices for paprika but not necessarily anything else.)  Avoid the slew of tourist restaurants along here if you aren’t starving.  You’ll be better served trying something slightly off the beaten path.

Plus, once you get to the end of Vaci, you’ll find the Central Market Hall, where you can pick up some cheeses, produce and salami (Pick is the favorite brand but you can probably find it cheaper elsewhere).

Inside the Central Market Hall in Budapest

Head back to your hotel to drop off your goods if staying nearby or if you have saved the shopping for another day and are ready to relax, cross over the bridge to the Gellert Hill area on the Buda side, where you can experience the famed thermal baths at Gellert Spa & Bath, which also has an outdoor wave pool if the weather is warm.  Prices and times might be confusing, so ask around for the latest information and bring a towel with you.

Hotel Gellert

Outdoor wave pool

Indoor thermal bath

From here, it’s a decent hike up to the Castle District, where Buda Castle is.  It is not a bad walk up the hill, but you can take the funicular, a lift or other public transportation to get there.  (This is a great place to visit even if you are elderly or disabled.)

Fishermen’s Bastion

The town planted some grape vines on the side of the hill to preserve the land and restore the tradition of vineyards that had previously existed.  Inside the Castle grounds are the National Library, the National Gallery and the Historical Museum.  The area is really nice for the views you get of the Pest side and Parliament in particular.  As you walk out (probably the main way in), there is the President’s office and then Matthias Church with its glorious green and yellow hues and the Fishermen’s Bastion.  Be sure to check for the latest info on exhibitions and hours.

By now you’ll be ready for a big meal.  If it’s open, try Babel – arguably the best restaurant in Hungary, which I literally stumbled upon and has since changed locations.  The food prices were ridiculously cheap for the incredible taste and presentation.  Intriguing pig trotters carpaccio with crayfish and perfectly cooked veal sweetbreads with a pea puree and langoustines. The rabbit terrine, potato stew and the duck that they had.

Pig trotter carpaccio

Couldn’t wait to dig into the sweetbreads

Amuse bouche 1

What a presentation!

Amuse bouche 2

They, of course, focused on Hungarian wines, which are all the rage lately, though I’m still not a fan and thought they were over-priced.

After a good night’s sleep, get on line early to get a ticket for a guided tour (offered in several languages) of Parliament, at the foot of the Chain Bridge.

View of Parliament from the Buda side

Even though EU residents can get in for free (US passport holders must pay), everyone must have a ticket to get into the building.  The ticket line and process is very confusing and frustrating, so if you can manage to book this with a group, I’d suggest it.

The cigars holders still remain.

My guide was extremely sarcastic and funny, though I am not sure how many people understood her jokes since the majority did not speak English as a first language.  She said that the architect came up with a way to heat and cool the building using steam or giant ice blocks in the cellar.  An early form of central air apparently.  She also mentioned that there were 30 million people in Hungary before WW1 and only 10 million after (this was a result of political upheaval and not from deaths). She also told us a story about how the cigar holders functioned.  Smoking the cigar (usually a Cuban) was not allowed in the main room, so the diplomats had to leave them in the holders when in session.  If a speech was particularly engaging, then there was a lot of ash left in the holder.

So there came to be a saying about a good speech — “It’s worth a havana” — which is still used today.  I wonder what the price of a cigar was back then….

If you haven’t done this already, after the tour, walk or take a boat ride on the Danube up to Margaret Island, where all the locals hang out on sunny days (reminded me of Central Park).  There are bikes you can rent, horse and carriage rides, and a jogging path.  The island has a couple of shady swimming pools and a little zoo, which you can basically see by walking around the outside.  Over halfway through the island are the ruins of a Dominican nunnery and the grave of St. Margaret, a one-time resident of the island and for whom it was eventually renamed.  There are also a few bars and a festival area that occasionally has concerts.

North of Margaret Island is the UNESCO site of Palvolgyi Cave, where the tour is in Hungarian.  My tour guide, who on a Sunday morning reeked of alcohol, seemed very knowledgeable, but I couldn’t understand anything he was saying.  They forgot to actually give me a ticket but did give me a paper with some English descriptions about the various stopping points and what to look for (stalagmites, bats, animal-like formations, fossils, etc.).  If not for that, I would have had no clue whatsoever.

A sample of the incredible underground formations.

The fact that it was lightly raining made it even better because you could see how the water changes the rock formations inside.  There is another other cave just down the road, and you can get a combined ticket if you want.  Palvolgyi is older, bigger and more adventurous (you have to walk 400 steps and climb a tiny metal ladder during the tour).  The other cave (Szemlohegyi) is flat.

If you have time, take a stroll down Andrassy Ut to Heroes’ Square.  Like Fifth Avenue with fancy stores followed by museums and other amazing older buildings, but unfortunately, many of these are dilapidated and in major need of repair (missing windows).  I hope that within 5 years or so, this will become an extremely posh area since several mansions were for sale and renovations already had begun on others.  From Heroes’ Square, check out the City Park, which houses Széchenyi, the largest bath in Europe and a good option instead of Gellert.  For a wonderful view of the city, climb the tower at St. Stephen’s Basilica (or take the elevator up).  At night, catch a performance at the Opera, or if you prefer techno, there’s a “party island” full of bars and restaurants that may be more your style.

Whatever you do, don’t leave Budapest without having a cup of goulash and at least trying some of the throat-burning palinka liquor.  The apricot flavor I had was anything but sweet, but it will surely warm you up on a cool day.

No trip to Budapest would be complete without some goulash and palinka.

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