Day zero: Public transport, the Budapest Card, and accommodation
On this occasion, Budapest is the third destination of a week-long trip for me. I arrive on Thursday evening, exhausted, fragile, and in need of more than a little respite. At the airport, I pick up my 72-hour Budapest Card. It is possible to pre-pay for these online, and all you need to do on arrival is visit the tourist information stand at the airport to collect your card. It comes with a helpful collection of booklets and maps to illustrate the uses and perks of the card, which include unlimited travel in and around the city, plus free or discounted entry to a host of attractions. The Metro system is clean, feels safe, and not crowded, and bus 200E takes you from the airport to the beginning of the Metro 3 line, Köbánya-Kispest. From here, it is easy to navigate around the city underground system. It is the simplest public transport system I have encountered so far (even in my emotional, tired state).
It takes around 50 minutes in all for me to arrive at my destination – a hostel, just off Blaha Lujza Tér. Whilst I can’t fault the location – or the price (I had paid around €19 for a three-night stay) – I begin to feel a little less enthusiastic about my choice of abode as I find my way along a maze of dark and dirty corridors, deep into the interior of what appears to be a primarily residential building. Locating the hostel, which does indeed appear to be someone’s apartment, with as many bunkbeds squeezed into every room as possible, I check in and am shown around by one of the owners. He shows me the broken facilities, and the one usable toilet which must service everyone in the building. He shows me the bedroom, which has no plugs or individual lights and, worse, no lockable storage available. Thinking of the size of my backpack, the valuable camera equipment I am carrying, and my desperate need for a quiet night’s sleep, I sink into one of the creaking sofas in the tiny communal area, log onto Booking.com, and reserve three nights at the Marriott across the road.
Those in a better frame of mind than I could have made much more of their first night in Budapest, I’m sure, but I am simply thankful for a hot bath, a king-size bed, and the opportunity to sleep for 14-hours straight. And for this reason, it remains ‘day zero’.
Day one: Hungarian History Museum, alternative touring, and pub crawling
Grateful for the large, peaceful, and comfortable room on the fourth floor of the Marriott, I open the curtains and ask the busy city below to show me what it has to offer. I mark out the main places of interest for today on my map and head out to find some breakfast. Houmous on toast and coffee acquired at a nearby Starbucks, I continue to the Hungarian History Museum. It is free to visit with a Budapest Card, and has an interesting collection of Hungarian artefacts, together with several rooms devoted to the city’s communist past.
From here, I wander towards the Danube, conscious that I have not yet seen the river, and stop on the Szabadság híd (the imposing green bridge at the South of the city) to join other travellers taking photos before the water. I turn back and stroll North along the Pest side of the river, towards Deak Ferenc utca, the starting point of free walking tours organised by Original Europe Tours. Waiting for our guide, I immediately make friends with Olivia from Paris, and discover I have found the ‘French me’ – divorced, working, ambitious, two sons, travelling whenever she can find the time. There are five of us on the tour – a larger crowd have joined the more traditional ‘original’ tour, also starting from Deak Ferenc utca at 14:00 – and we explore street art, primarily in and around the Jewish Quarter. Our tour guide is knowledgeable and fun, and I would definitely recommend this tour if you want a slightly different way of seeing the city. We finish in Szimpla Kert – the place that began the ‘ruin bar’ movement – on Kazinczy utca. Arriving at dusk, it is the perfect time to explore the eclectic collection of bars that make up the building, before the night-time crowds arrive. As the tour ends, the light fades further, and a myriad of fairy lights begin to sparkle in Szimpla Kert, Olivia and I decide to grab an empty table and have a beer and a burger there whilst we can. We share an enormous vegan burger, swap stories, and my plans to visit Paris in 2019 are cemented.
Night-time brings an organised pub crawl (run by All Night Crash), joined online several weeks before my visit. We meet at Oktogon, where I am surprised to see relatively few solo travellers. There are several couples and a large group of (already extremely drunk and rowdy) Austrian lads. Joining forces with the only other solo members of the group, Surina and Ryan, we visit several ruin bars, enjoying a shot (of varying degrees of alcoholic content!) in each, before finishing up at an enormous nightclub, at which we have VIP entry. Given that the queue for the club stretches beyond the end of the block, we are glad of our temporary VIP status as we’re ushered straight in. Inside, Budapest’s status as ‘party town’ is clear to see. There is a crazy and unique atmosphere in every room, each of which plays a different genre of music, but shares the same stone walls, eccentric décor, and highly intoxicated revellers. The club is open until 7:00am, but we head back to the hotel – two of us finding we are staying at the same place – at around 2:30, stopping for a kebab (falafel for me) on Erzsébet körut on the way back, which we calculate costs around £1.30 each. In fact, I suspect I have spent no more than £12.00 during the entire night, so low are the prices of food and drink.
Day two: Biking the city, communism tour, and vegan street food
Day two begins with a quick stop at a corner shop for bread and fruit for breakfast, before meeting at Yellow Zebra HQ on Lázár utca for a bike tour. One of my favourite ways to see a new place, it does not disappoint. We cycle about 15km, taking a circular route which encompasses City Park, the Buda side of the river, and everything in-between. The end of the tour signals a stop for coffee and strudels, which – being made from filo pastry – are mostly, and completely by chance, vegan. Here, I chat to two American friends, one of whom is spending a year travelling the world with his wife. Suitably envious, I sign up to follow their Instagram and we collect our bikes to return to the shop.
Tour ended and bikes safely stowed, I check the time and realise I have ten minutes to make it to the meeting point for my next activity – a free communism walking tour, recommended to me by travellers I met in Amsterdam a few weeks previous. The tour begins in Vörösmarty Square at 10:00 and 15:30 every day (although the 15:30 walk does not run between January 7th and March 26th). There is a large group for this one, and we are given a very detailed and fascinating insight into communist times in both Budapest and Hungary as a whole, whilst visiting numerous important sites in the city. We finish in darkness, at the Parliament building, which is lit spectacularly against a clear sky. En route to the hotel for a well-deserved and much needed sit down (here, the travel card comes into its own), the street food garden on Kazinczy utca provides a delicious vegan Thai curry, which I take back to my room. The evening sees me meeting up with a fellow single traveller from the UK, Maxine, who is on her first solo trip. We are re-joined by Ryan from the previous evening, together with another Brit, Nathan. I have passed comment many times that it is unusual to meet British solo travellers when abroad, but on this trip, I have come across three others already. We head to Szimpla Kert, just about manage to beat the huge queues that begin to form behind us, then explore a few other places before heading back at around midnight, not before indulging in a little more street food on the way home.
Day three: Lukacs Baths, and trying to spend as many Forints at possible
By day three, the only two of the group from yesterday left in the city are Nathan and I. Feeling the effects of two very late nights, we put our Budapest cards to use and jump on the Metro to the Lukacs Baths thermal spa, and join the locals for a Sunday soak. There are many small indoor pools, all at different temperatures, plus three large outdoor pools. The warmest also has a ‘whirlpool’ section: basically heaven for two tired and hungover Brits.
The city is full of Thermal spas, with many near the river on the Buda side, although the majority of tourists head for the Széchenyi Thermal Baths in City Park (head here during the winter months and you can also enjoy skating on Europe’s largest outdoor ice-skating rink). The first spa hotel opened in Budapest in 1880 and have been a prominent part of city life ever since.
Rejuvenated, we cross the river and seek out a very late lunch, opting for the most expensive restaurants and bars we can find in order to try and spend the remaining Forints in our possession (realistically, I could have halved the amount of currency I took with me). Even the nicest food and drink available doesn’t empty our wallets, and I make my way to the airport with enough Forints to comfortably see me through another weekend in this city of culture and fun. I’ll put it on the list for 2019, too…