Budapest, The Queen of the Danube

When looking for the perfect winter low-cost escape over a week-end, Budapest is the answer: grand architecture, rich history and plenty of sightseeing places, relaxing grand spas, ballet shows, lively nightlife and astonishing panoramic areas all along the protagonist of the scene: the Danube river.

The origin of the name “Budapest” is the sum of the city names “Buda” and “Pest”, which in 1873 were united to become a single city. Many theories circle around the origins of the words “Buda” and “Pest”: the name “Buda” probably comes from the name of its founder, Bleda (Buda), the brother of the terrible Hunnic chief Attila. Another explanation suggests that “Buda” derives from the Slavic word “voda” meaning “water”.

If you are planning to make the most of your visit and see as many museums as possible it is worth to buy the Budapest card which is a true money-saver!

Here are my short-listed things to do in 48 hours:

1.The Gellert Baths

One of the main reasons to come to Budapest is the rich spa history of this town, one of the best destination to come and heal in thermal waters during the 19th century for the European upper class. This spa is the most popular and visited one due to its grand architecture and extension: it included a huge open-air pool, a range of Finnish saunas, plunge pools, waves pool and you can book a set of pampering treatments and oil massages at advantageous prices compared to the rest of Europe. Here is the link for booking tickets and save time.

This elegant spa complex features yellow lively colours and an impressive Art Nouveau style; it was built between 1912 and 1918 and unfortunately it was largely damage during World War II. In 2008 an extensive refurbishment took place bringing back this fabulous place to its former splendour. Allow yourself to indulge for around three hours in these hot and beneficial waters to restore and warm you up during winter.

2. The Hungarian Parliament

This is definitely the building appearing on all postcards, preferably at night when the lights shines over the Danube river and this imposing monument can be seen from the “Buda” river bank. Its construction started in 1885 but it was not fully completed until 1904; the building architect first went blind and sadly died before seeing the end of his project.

The parliament was almost a pharaonic project in terms of money and human investment: more than 100,000 people were involved in the construction project and kilos of gold and precious stones were used for the decorations. The building features a Gothic revival style and two internal parliament halls: one used for the National Assembly gatherings and the other for ceremonies, conferences, and guided tours.  If you want to visit the Parliament interiors than book a guided tour available in multiple languages: here is the official website.

3. St. Stephen’s Basilica

This white and imposing Neo-classic basilica is the biggest one in Budapest and one of the most visited and holiest churches in Hungary due to the presence of the relics, the mummified right hand of the first ruler of Hungary: King Stephen. He converted the nomad Hungarian tribes into Christianity, and managed to create a strong a solid kingdom at that time. The building took more than 50 years to be finished and several architects. Unfortunately, it got damaged during the Second World War bombings.

You can enjoy 360° views over the city from the base of the dome or you can also book a classical music concert.

4. The Heroes’s Square

This emblematic and huge square regroups the most famous national heroes who died for the country independence. The Hungarian War Memorial stands in front of the 36 metres central column dominating the square with Archangel Gabriel on its top holding St. Stephen’s Crown.

According to the legend, St. Gabriel appeared to St. Stephen in a dream and offered him the crown of the country. It was recognised by the Pope as the defender of Christianity at that time. The square is surrounded by the museum of Fine Arts and it’s close to the City Park where the famous Széchenyi Baths are.

5. Széchenyi Chain Bridge

This iconic two towers bridge is best enjoyed at night where its lights shines in the river waters and from there you can take stunning pictures of the Parliament in the background and Buda Castle on the other side. It has been named after its constructor István Széchenyi but it was actually built by Scottish architect Adam Clark, who came here to marry a local lady.

The bridge opened in 1849 after over 50 years of construction and it was the first link between “Buda” and “Pest”. Unfortunately it was destroyed by Germans in 1945 and it was fully restored in the fifties. The tunnel is 345 m long and two lion statues guard the entry to the bridge.

6. Buda Castle District

This area on the “Buda” river bank is the perfect place to stroll around and enjoy great views over the city especially on the chain bridge and the Parliament. The castle funicular, built in 1870 to get the carriages uphill, is the second oldest funicular of its kind in the world. and it runs every every ten minutes. Many tours seller will try to convince you to book guided tours or Segway tours with them saying the road going uphill it’s too steep. If you don’t have a stroller and you are fit, It will take only 10 minutes to reach the great square taking the stairs on the right leading to the Castle district where you will be spoilt with museums and churches to visit.

The Castle district is a city within the city in terms of extension and historic attractions such as medieval houses, restaurants and coffee shops, panoramic views, churches and so on and so forth.

Here are the main attractions:

  • Royal Palace: built and destroyed several times, it was then reconstructed by the Habsburg and now it is home to three important museums:  Hungarian National Gallery, the Castle Museum, and the National Széchenyi Library.
  • Fishermen’s Bastion: a panoramic view terrace built to celebrate the 1000th years of the Hungarian Kingdom.
  • Matthias Church :a neo-Gothic stunning and unusual church used for coronations
  • Faust Wine Cellar: sample more than 22 local wines booking a tasting tasting tour in the cellar
  • Labyrinth: If you visit in the late afternoon, don’t forget to book the lantern guided tour of the labyrinth starting at 6 pm to spice up your Budapest’s visit: the tunnels are 10 km long and are partly natural, partly built in Middle Age to get shielded by invasions. Many people came to hide here during Second World War.

If two days is all you have pick two or three options and visit them on the first day. I only had the time to enter into the Fisherman Bastion during in the afternoon offering great views over the city and the stunning Mathias Church.

7. The Fisherman’s Bastion

This panoramic terrace was built between 1895 and 1902 by the architect Frigyes Schulek to commemorate the 1000th of the Hungarian kingdom. It was also conceived to enhance the beauty of St. Mathias church nearby and embellish the square. This white-stoned fairy tale building it’s decorated with several windows, arches, arcades, etc. proving it wasn’t conceived for defensive purpose.

According to the legend, the name was used to commemorate the fishermen who lived in Watertown by the river Danube; some other say it was due to the fact that the walls were protected by the fishermen who lived below the walls or simply because of the fish market nearby next to the Matthias Church which gave its name to the Fisherman’s Bastion. The seven towers represent the seven tribes’s chiefs that led their people to settle down in 895 AC and put the bases to today’s Hungary. Come here late in the afternoon to enjoy the perfect light and views over the city.

8. Matthias Church

This church was quite a surprise: not only it stars a colourful tiled roof and occasions for great panoramic pictures especially in the afternoon but also astonishing interiors: you will be charmed by the warm red, brown, orange colours and infinite golden leaves decorations, turrets, spires and arches feeling more like stepping into a Medieval Castle rather than in standard church.

Its name honours a King and not a saint for a change, but a King who was famous for being fair. nicknamed for this reason King Matthias Corvinus the Fair. He was unusually crowned without a royal blood line and quickly became a true legend:  he was said to be travelling around disguised as a beggar to see how his subjects were truly living, defending the mistreated villagers, and publicly offending the powerful nobles. He decided to expand the building in 15th century in the Gothic style adding the southern high tower, called “Matthias bell tower”. Today the church is a popular wedding and concerts venue due to its beauty and scenic scenery.

9. Danube Promenade and Cruise

Taking a walk along the Danube is one of the best way to explore the “Pearl of the Danube” at night being spoilt with romantic views of the main city landmarks and enjoying seeing the boats passing by.

Particularly recommended is the stretch between Elisabeth Bridge and the Chain Bridge. You can also join a cruise to relax and rest your feet and see in one hour what to city as best to offer: on the Buda side of the river you can spot the the Liberty Statue on Gellert panoramic Hill and the Fisherman’s Bastion. On the Promenade side of the river you can enjoy restaurants, cafes, and the glorious Parliament view.

10. The City Park

The city park area is packed with great attractions, a boating lake, a castle, thermal baths and museums. There is plenty to do in every season: during summer a Christmas fair and the biggest Europe’s ice rink attract visitors from all over the world and during the rest of the year it is a pleasant place to walk around, hire boats on the lake, visit the castle quarters or the famous Széchenyi Thermal Baths.

Here is all you can see in this area:

  • Municipal Botanical Gardens and Zoo
  • Vajdahunyad Castle (housing the Museum of Hungarian Agriculture): this romantic castle has been built only in 1896, and features a mix of architectonic styles: Romanesque, Gothic Renaissance, Baroque buildings. The guard tower at the entry is a nice point of view over the park. The castle hosts many festivals and concerts during the year.
  • Széchenyi Thermal Baths: its waters are renowned to be rich in sulphates, calcium, magnesium, and bicarbonate and are believed since centuries to help with improving skin and muscular illnesses. You can also come here to enjoy a good massage, steam rooms, especially at night when the steamy hot waters create a mysterious and relaxing atmosphere at the end of your busy day. Book your ticket here to skip the queue.
  • Sand Time Wheel: this gigantic sand timer takes a year to make the sand fall in the bottom part and it is rotated every year at New Year’s Eve!

I visited Budapest in the coldest time of the year to see the famous Christmas Markets and festive atmosphere. If cold and crowds are not your thing than maybe come during spring time when the weather is milder and you can spend more time outdoor exploring the view points, parks and strolling along the river. Avoid summer time which due to the continental weather is very hot and humid.

The local currency is the Hungarian florint which can still guarantee to travellers coming from the rest of Europe an advantageous change and relatively cheap holidays. My everlasting tip is to withdraw the total amount of money you will need either at the airport either directly at the ATM in the city centre for the best conversion rate.

If you have a spare day visit the famous artists’ village of Szentendre and the panoramic Visengrad castle with this time-saving tour!