Train Ride from Vienna to Budapest
As the train from Vienna to the East European city of Budapest chugs along, I feel a twang of disappointment by the sight of the landscape outside. No mountains and no lakes, this train route is so unlike the ones we have gotten used to in our train journeys through Europe.
The terrain looks flat and dry. We pass though mostly fields and small towns, getting a sense of the Hungarian countryside but I feel apprehensive about the destination we have chosen.
Finally, after an uneventful journey of two and a half hours, we reach the Budapest Keleti Station and the sight does nothing to allay my reservations about Budapest. The station wears a gloomy look.
Thankfully, the apartment where we are to stay, has sent a driver to pick us up from the station. While on our way, we see some run down industrial building and a lot of graffiti on the walls. It has started raining.
Our apartment is at Kiraly Street, right in the Budapest Centre, the historical quarter of the capital. The apartment is nice and spacious with all the amenities and I feel that it is one thing which feels right amongst all the things which seem to be going wrong.
Aah! But these feelings stay just a while, for the moment we start exploring the city, we get taken in by the gorgeousness of the city.
This capital city of Hungary simply takes you by surprise. Budapest is unique and beautiful, full of a rich history and buildings which thoroughly impress with their architectural style and attention to details.
The beautiful Danube River stands between the quaint and older Buda on one hand and the modern and hep Pest on the other. “Budapest” is the combination of the city names “Buda” and “Pest” since they were united to become a single city in 1873.
It is evening time and we walk around, just to find a pulsating city beneath the serious demeanour it wears. The streets are dotted with elegant buildings. We stroll along the streets and are soon near the banks of the Danube.
We take a walk down the length of the famous Chain Bridge which connects Buda to Pest. Its official name is Széchenyi Chain Bridge and it was the first permanent stone-bridge connecting Pest and Buda, and only the second permanent crossing on the whole length of the river Danube.
The illuminated Hungarian Parliament building on the Pest side is best viewed from the Buda side and that is what we do.
The Chain Bridge too is illuminated and it’s a fabulous walk back towards Pest with all the lights being reflected mesmerisingly by the river Danube. The Danube is a vital part of Budapest. It is a short walk with its fair share of sights, main being the Hungarian Parliament. The place has a lot of statues and this walk was not an exception.
We are already impressed by how lively Budapest is!
Budapest is also less expensive as compared to other European cities. Accommodation and public transport is very reasonable. At many places however, cash is preferred to credit cards. 1 USD amounts to 297 Hungarian Forints and Forint is what is accepted everywhere. Very few places accept Euros or Dollars and that too at very steep exchange rate.
Also, the best thing is that many of the must visit attractions are either free or have low ticket rates. You can visit St. Stephen’s Basilica, walk along the Chain Bridge, Heroes Square, some lookout points at the Fishermans Bastion, the City Park etc.. Several walking tours are available for free.
Explore the delights of Pest
Out of Buda and Pest, Pest has a vibrant and happening nightlife. The best restaurants, bars and clubs are in the city and so are most of the architectural marvels. We start with exploring Pest.
What is one defining image which comes to our mind when we think of Budapest? It is of course the iconic Parliament of Budapest or the Hungarian Parliament. This gorgeous centre of Hungarian constitutionality is a part of the World Heritage sites along with the square in front of the Parliament also known as Kossuth Lajos Tér. The stately building looks as stunning in the morning as it looks in the night.
Take a guided tour(available in different languages) if you are interested to know more about the Parliament and see the magnificent and lavish interiors. 40 million bricks were used in the building process along with half a million precious stones. The interiors are made of 40 Kgs of 22-23 carat gold foil. The tour including the security check takes around 50 minutes.
St Stephen’s Basilica
A Neo classical Roman Catholic Church, with an imposing exterior as well as interior is not to be missed when you are in Budapest. The Basilica is named after St. Stephen and has Hungary’s most holy possession , St. Stephen’s mummified right hand.
You can reach the top or the Cupola for some beautiful views of the city after taking 364 steps up a spiral flight case. The interiors look beautiful with intricate art and design and ornate doors and ceilings.
There is no fee to enter the church though it is expected that a donation of 200 HUF should be given. For the Panorama Tower, the admission fee is 600 HUF for adults and 400 HUF for children
For the music aficionados, St. Stephen’s Basilica hosts organ concerts throughout the year where celebrated musicians of Hungary perform. You can book tickets here.
Heroes’ Square (or Hosok tere in Hungarian) is one of the most-visited attractions in Budapest. It is an elegant monument which was built to commemorate the 1896 Millennium celebrations to honour the fact that Hungary’s ancestors found a place to settle down in the Carpathian Basin.
The memorial won the first prize at the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris. At the centre stands the Column, the focal point of the monument. Behind the column is a semicircular arcade with statues of famous men who made their mark on Hungarian history.
We visit the Heroes square both at day and night during our trip and at both the times, the place is teeming with camera happy tourists, all trying to capture the monument in its full glory.
Museum of Fine Arts and The Palace of Arts
On the north side of the Square is the Museum of Fine Arts, a museum said to be having a superb collection of European art, housed in a monumental classical building. The Palace of Arts or the Mucsarnok stands opposite the Museum of Fine Arts and is an exhibition hall, mainly used to host exhibitions. The building has a glorious facade with colossal gilded columns.
The Great Synagogue
The Great Synagogue was built between 1854 and 1859. It is the largest in Europe and has a capacity of 3,500 seats while it is the 2nd largest in the world.
It was built by the Viennese architect, Ludwig Förster, in Moorish style inspired by the Muslim models of North Africa and Spain. Take the guided tour to understand more about the history of the Synagogue. It also has a majestic organ on which, at its inauguration in 1859, composers, Franz Liszt and Camille Saint-Saëns, performed.
You will really like spending some time at the City Park which seems to be a very popular place with the locals. The park is especially popular with kids and has the Budapest Zoo, the the Széchenyi thermal bath and Vajdahunyad Castle.
Most of these sights, except the Castle, are to the left of Heroes’ Square.
The City Park also houses a lake, where you can hire a boat in summers and ice-skate in winters.
Szechenyi Spa Baths
Well, having researched extensively and thus having concluded that a visit to Budapest would not be complete without a visit to one of its many fabulous bath houses, we have already made up our minds to visit the Szechenyi complex in the outskirts of Pest.
The bath is more than a hundred years old (built in 1913) and has natural hot spring waters with medicinal properties in its 18 pools.
There is an entry fee. The complex is beautiful and has numerous indoor pools each having a different temperature, steam rooms and sauna, plunge pools and a pool for exercise. The outdoor pools have underwater jets and are very relaxing. Massages and other treatments are also available at a very reasonable price.
We have an amazing time at Szechenyi and after having spent a considerable part of our day there, we decide to head back to the City Center but not before spending some time at the beautiful City Park.
You can find all the information on their website here.
This is a beautiful castle built on the banks of the City Park. Actually, it was meant to be a temporary structure made out of cardboard and wood in 1896 to commemorate the 1000th birthday of the Hungarian State. Due to its popularity, a permanent structure was rebuilt in 1904.
The castle complex is surrounded by a moat. There is a a Romanesque church and the Hungarian Agriculture Museum.
House of Terror Museum
House of Terror Museum at Andrássy Boulevard is a grim reminder of the terrors of the Nazis and communist regime in Hungary and serves as a memorial to the victims of these regimes, including those detained, interrogated, tortured or killed in the building.
In 1944, when the second world war was nearing its end, the Hungarian Nazi Party took control of Budapest and made this building its headquarters. Known as the ‘Arrow Cross’, the local Nazi branch did not last long. In fact, it was only in power for a matter of months, but that was long enough to spread its evil.
The building was opened as a museum in 2002 and gives a comprehensive perspective of the Nazi and Communist rule.
Do make it a point to visit this emotional experience.
Eat your heart out at the Great Market Hall
Not for anything is this oldest market of Budapest built in 1897, called great. This is the largest indoor market of Budapest and is also know as Central Market Hall due to its central location.
The Great Market Hall is an amazing place to try different types of Hungarian food items. It gives a first hand feel of the local culture and you can feel the pleasant chaos here. While you will find different souvenirs shops on the top floor, the ground floor has a lot of variety of food items such cheese, meats, vegetables, Hungarian goulash, pastries etc.
While you are there:
- Do buy the paprika, which is a very popular Hungarian product used in a variety of Hungarian dishes.
- Have Langosz, a bread that can be had with a variety of sweet toppings.
Remember that it is closed on Sundays.
Shop in Vaci Utka
Shop at Vaci Utca or Vaci Street, which is a pedestrian street, in the evening. It is a one kilometre stretch and has a vibrant atmosphere. There are a lot of street performances which we thoroughly enjoy, most notable among them being a Hungarian dance.
Experience the vibe at Andrássy Avenue
This avenue having an extremely hip vibe, and established in 1872, and is also known as the Champs elysées of Budapest.c It connects Elizabeth Square with Heroes’ Square at City Park, is about 2.4 Kms long and is lined with elegant mansions and town houses known to be designed by renowned architects.
The avenue is full of chic restaurants and cafes and is also lined with boutiques by top fashion designers such as Louis Vuitton, D&G, Dior etc.
You can also visit the Hungarian State Opera House which also offers guided tours. It is a neo-Renaissance opera house and was designed by Miklós Ybl, a famous 19th-century Hungarian architecture. Construction began in 1875, the Opera House opened to the public on the 27 September 1884.
The Andrássy Avenue was declared a world heritage site in 2002 and it is worth spending some time here just taking in the spirit of the city.
Buda is the more tranquil side of the city, away from the hustle and bustle of Pest. It is home to many structures of historical importance and some of which provide a stunning view of the Pest side.
Take the Budapest Castle Hill Funicular to the Széchenyi Chain Bridge at river level to Buda Castle above. This magnificent Baroque complex overlooks the city from its position atop the Castle Hill. The palace was constructed in in 1265. But most of what we see today was built between 1749 and 1769.
The castle now houses the Hungarian National Gallery and The Budapest History Museum. Our guide book mentions that the castle has had a tumultuous history that reflects the ups and downs of Hungary’s fortunes. The castle consists of a number of wings arranged around the Lion Courtyard.
This beautiful structure which looks straight out of a fairytale is known for the stunning panoramic views it offers of Pest, across the Danube River. It was built from 1895 to 1902 and is open all year round. The terrace has 7 turrets or look out areas which represent the 7 Hungarian Tribes who founded Budapest.
The upper turrets have a small admission fee which is used to maintain this beautiful structure. Some of balconies and towers are free to enter.
Spend some time here to get some beautiful pictures of Pest.
Mathias Church or the Mátyás-templo as it is known, is a Neo-Gothic style Church which was constructed between the thirteenth and fifteenth century and underwent significant renovations at the e end of the nineteenth century. It is a beautiful structure with a very colourful vibe and very unlike most of the Churches found in Europe.
A lot of classical music concerts are hosted by the Church throughout the year. Matthias Church has also witnessed several Royal weddings and coronations, including that of Charles I in 1916 (the last ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire).
Gellert Hill rises majestically above the Danube River, offering a panoramic view of the city of Budapest.
You can walk to the top by taking the route which starts at the Gellert Hotel. We chose to walk. The climb though steep is a pleasant one. As we walk on, the view becomes clearer. It is a nice sunny day and soon we reach the highest point of Gellert Hill.
The backdrop of Pest against the beautiful Danube is there for us to see. For a moment, we feel as if we too own a slice of the city. The Chain bridge looks as imposing in the day as it had looked the night before.
We stroll around and spend some time at the Citadel, an impressive structure which played a role in World War II. It is from the Citadel that a German SS regiment held the city at bay. This fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered a symbol of freedom for Budapest.
We also see a statue of a lady watching over Budapest to honour the memory of those who sacrificed their lives for the independence of Hungary, at the Liberation monument.
Do Experience in Budapest..
Tram No. 2
Take the Tram No. 2 for an awesome ride along the Pest side of the Danube River and see the views of Buda Castle (on the other side of the river), Grand Market Hall, Liberty Bridge, the Chain Bridge, Shoes on the bank of Danube, baroque Neo-gothicParliament building, the Margaret Bridge and the Margaret Island.
One unforgettable experience was the sight of bronze shoes at the Jewish Memorial which pays tribute to Jews who died in World War II, along the banks of the Danube River.
There are a number of very good free walking tours available in Budapest lasting from 1.5 hrs to 3 hrs. You will get to learn about the history and culture of Budapest and this is a good way to understand the place. The tours are paid for small groups but otherwise can be joined for free. Do not forget to tip your guide generously.
General Budapest Walk – The walk is focused around the best sights that Buda and Pest have to offer.
Jewish District Walk – An excellent walking tour with an introduction to the rich past of the historical Jewish quarter which is in the 7th district of Budapest, on the Pest side of the city.
Evening Walk – You can learn about some of the Hungarian and Budapest’s history, culture, cuisine and nightlife during this useful, compact walk.
Street & Urban Art Walk – Discover the colourful painted walls of the Jewish quarter and learn about how an innovation was created in the area during recent years by graffiti artists and the city.
Ride the Metro
Ride the Budapest Metro to explore the city. It is the oldest electrified underground railway system on the European continent (inaugurated in 1896), and the second-oldest in the world. We take a ride on the metro, stations changing one after the other while we take in the sights of the city by getting down at a stop and then catching a ride to another.
Sometimes the journey rather than the destination gives more pleasure. It makes one more aware of the people and the culture of a place.
The Metro is composed of 4 lines operating every day from 04:30 to 23:00 and serves around 50 stations. These lines are called M1 (yellow line), M2 (red line), M3 (blue line) and M4 (green line).
The Budapest metro operates with a frequency of 90 seconds to 10 minutes according to the schedule of the day.
The lines M1, M2 and M3 intersect at the station, Deák Ferenc Tér (city center in Pest). You can change lines without having to use a new ticket.
This East European City is a total charmer and completely takes you by surprise. The drab exterior hides an elegant city with stunning structures, the beautiful Danube flowing through it, with vibrant food and music scene!
I would just say never judge a book by its cover.