If you want to spend a few days in a beautiful city which somehow has managed to retain much of its old world charm, while offering all the experiences of a modern cosmopolitan European city, then you need to add the capital of Budapest to your travel bucketlist. Set on the beautiful River Danube, it feels as if you are leaving the West and entering the East. I had the joy of visiting this beautiful city for my birthday in early December. So without further ado, here is my ’48 Hours in Budapest’ post documenting everything I got up to.
I arrived late Friday evening having flown from London Heathrow and I normally leave my car in the long stay car park as I find it’s a far better deal than travelling by train. Once in Budapest, there are various ways to get into the city ranging from a well-organised taxi service as soon as you exit arrivals (always go to the proper office to get a ticket) or an airport bus.
We stayed at the fairytale located InterContinental Budapest hotel that is situated directly by the Chain Bridge overlooking the Royal Palace. Truly, nothing prepared me for the spectacular view that awaited me from my bedroom window!
From here it was very evident that Budapest is a city in two halves, my hotel was in Pest and I was looking across the River to the older part, Buda. If you’re only there for a couple of days I would strongly recommend a city sightseeing tour to see as much as you can quickly and then you can decide where you want to revisit. I used the “Ideal City Tour” which was a small group so no long queues to get off and on the bus and all the guiding was in English.
We started by driving across the Danube to the Buda side and up to Gellert Hill, named after Bishop Gerardus who was martyred here in the 11th century. Crowning the hill is the Citadel, built by the Austrians in 1848 and hardly used until the Germans occupied it in World war 11
Now it was on to Buda’s Castle Hill and the Old Town. The southern part is occupied by the enormous former Royal Palace although sadly today its regal life is well and truly over
Very close by is the Matthias Church, named after Hungary’s most popular medieval king. It has been used for coronations starting with Emperor Franz Joseph 1 who was crowned to the music of Franz Liszt, their most famous composer (more on Liszt below with a visit to the Franz Liszt Memorial Museum). It was also a mosque for over 150 years by the Ottoman Turks but is now a Catholic Church.
If the tile detail outside alone doesn’t take your breath away, then the graceful architecture and stunningly rich, all-embracing wall paintings in the interior of this majestic building will leave you speechless with its unique blend of orientalism and romantic historicism. And that coupled with the Neo-Gothic features that can also be seen truly differentiates it from any other church (for me at least, what about you?)
It’s an odd, but beautiful, structure comprising turrets, terraces and arches. Designed by architect Frigyes Schulek and built between 1899 and 1905, the white-stoned Fisherman’s Bastion is a combination of neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque architecture.
The bastion is made up of 7 towers with each one symbolising one of the 7 Magyar tribes that, in 896, settled in the area now known as Hungary. The structure looks straight out of some fairy-tale and conjures up thoughts of Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, and to see those sort of princess vibes in real life head to Hello Miss Jordan to see her seriously magical photos from this spot.
We left Fishermen’s Bastion through the old part via the original bridge, the Chain Bridge. This is next to the Funicular which is a favourite means of transport for tourists up Castle Hill although it is rather pricey.
Back on the Pest side we drove to the Jewish Quarters where you can find the largest synagogue in Europe (second in the world). Before World War 11 there were 125 synagogues serving a huge number of Jews. There are many reminders in this area of the horrors of the Holocaust and memorials to the 450,000 to 600,000 who perished, accounting for a third of all Auschwitz’s victims.
Our next stop was Heroes’ Square but to get to that we drove along their most elegant avenue, Andrassy Ave said to be modelled on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. It boasts many magnificent buildings including the Opera House and ends at Heroes’ Square. It is a very large open space and is dominated by a huge column which is headed by the Archangel Gabriel who is said to have appeared to St Stephen in a dream and offered him the crown of Hungary. On either side is a semi-circular colonnade with statues of historical figures as well as the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. On each side of the square are 2 neo-classical buildings which face each other, namely the Exhibition Hall and the Museum of Fine Arts.
Just behind Heroes’ Square is the City Park, a large 250 acres green space where the locals can relax. Within it is a Castle called Vajdahunyad which is a reproduction of a fairy-tale castle in Transylvania and now houses the Museum of Agriculture. Also in the park are the zoo, circus, amusement park and the famous Szechenyi Baths, one of the largest medicinal bath complexes in Europe. Our tour ended by driving by the magnificent Parliament which rivals Westminster any day and St Stephen’s Basilica, their largest cathedral named after their founder who brought Christianity to Hungary in the 10th century.
Another example of old meets new is opposite the Fishermen’s Bastion where the Hilton Hotel built in the seventies has incorporated some monastic buildings dating back to the 13th century. Worth popping in for a snack to have a look as I did.
We grabbed a quick bite to eat and decided to head off to the Gellert Spa and Bath Thermal Baths which we’d seen earlier at Danubius Hotel Gellert. Bathing in the heated medicinal water is a “must do” activity when in Budapest and the 1918 Art-Noveau Gellert baths are among the very best.
The history of Budapest has forever been linked with its thermal baths. One of the reasons the Romans first colonised the area is so that they could use the thermal springs for their baths. There are still ruins visible today in Óbuda of the enormous Roman baths that were built during that period. The earliest remaining records about the “magical healing spring” are from the 15th century. Later the Turkish favoured this spring because it was warmer and larger than any other in Buda. In the 17th
The Gellert Baths opened in 1918 offering medicinal water treatments using the same deep underground springs the Knights of St. John used in the 12th century, and later on the Turks to feel the invigorating powers of the
Even though it was freezing outside, the sensation of bathing at 40C was just wonderful. And just some advice in advance; it will cost you to hire towels etc so it’s advisable to bring your own swimsuit, bathing hat, towel, bathing robes and slippers etc with you (my swimming costume was kindly gifted to me by UK Swimwear).
Budapest Christmas Market
Emerging out into a cold and dark Budapest evening was quite a shock so where better to head to than a traditional Christmas Market. There are several in Budapest but the Christmas fair on Vorosmarty Square is one of the oldest and the most spectacular of them all. While the air is filled with the smells of mulled wine and cinnamon pastries our eyes were dazzled with the array of gifts and food for sale.
There were numerous authentic handmade gifts where local Hungarians are keeping old trades and traditions alive such as items made from the characteristic blue-dying now listed by UNESCO that is seen above.
This particular stall sells the examples of Blue-dyeing (
The Kovacs family started their career in Kecskemet (an area south-east of Budapest) then moved further south, to Kiskunfelegyhaza, but in 1926 they finally settled just east of Kecskemet, at Tiszakecske, where their shop still operates with century-old equipment and wooden motif blocks.
Miklos Kovacs, a Master of Folk Art (Nepmuveszet Mestere) and his family create beautiful blue textiles with a resist-dyeing method where the white fabric is first printed with a resist paste, using wooden motif blocks or sometimes a block-printing machine. The fabric is then immersed in an indanthrene solution that works much faster than the original indigo dye. The printed areas resist the dye and come out white, resulting in a delicately patterned blue fabric.
As usual I spent far more than I had intended and headed back the short distance to my hotel for a good night’s sleep!
The next morning we decided to revisit the Buda side to enjoy its treasures at a more relaxed pace. The old town is a delightful place just to stroll on its cobbled streets and admire its colourful houses and historic monuments. It’s also a good place to buy authentic souvenirs such as their beautiful Hungarian embroidery. It’s not cheap, but considering how much handiwork is involved I bought the most beautiful skirt and a tablecloth and I will always treasure them. If that’s not your thing, look out for their porcelain or woodwork. Otherwise, if you want the usual big names and modern shops they can all be found on the Pest side.
Museum of Music History
My last visit up on the hill was just a few steps away from Fishermen’s Bastion and Matthias Church to the Museum of Music History. Located in the magnificent Baroque surroundings of the Erdody Palace, this speciality museum traces the history of musical life in Budapest from the 18th to the 20th centuries. It is where Beethoven stayed in 1800 and now houses orchestral instruments and Hungarian folk instruments.
As a music student, I thoroughly enjoyed this wonderful spot. The beautiful instruments displayed, the history depicted, and the enthnomusicological journey of the museum was both interesting and stimulating. It’s fascinating to see how influential Hungarian folk music was to classical music in this period and there is so much to learn about this tradition and also Hungarian culture. Perhaps one for the music lover, but thoroughly recommended.
New York Cafe
After lunch I headed back to the Pest side as there were two things left on my “to-do” list for things to do in Budapest. Firstly, I wanted to visit an area known for its cultural life where you can find the famous New York Cafe. It’s situated at the junction of Erzsebet Korut and Dohany Utca.
New York Cafe has preserved all the authentic decoration and flair that once made it an inspiration for the enquiring minds of Hungary’s cultural and intellectual community.
It is here that you can cast your gaze upwards to the ceiling (and there’s often a wait to get in so you’ll have even longer to admire every exquisite
It’s had a troubled past but now its glorious neo-baroque interior is a sight to behold and the reason I had to queue to get a table, but so worth it! The decor now, is completely and utterly magnificent with Venetian glass lamps that softly illuminates the marble and grand details everywhere you look. A visit to this most enchanting spot allows you to soak up the colour and the chatter of one of Europe’s most legendary destinations and is highly recommended.
Liszt Memorial Museum
From here I made my way through the pedestrian-only precinct Liszt Ferenc ter with its numerous restaurants and chic cafes. Hungary’s most famous composer and pianist Franz Liszt dominates this area with his statue, magnificent Liszt Academy of Music and The Liszt Memorial Museum.
The Franz List Memorial Museum is a reconstruction of Liszt’s last Budapest flat on the first floor of the old Academy of Music, where the composer lived between 1881 and 1886. The collection of the museum contains his original instruments (such as this iconic Chickering piano) furniture, his books, scores and some personal objects and memorabilia.
Franz Liszt was the ultimate classical superstar. A legendary composer, pianist and pedagogue who captivated Europe and the effect became known as ‘Lisztomania’, a term that wouldn’t exactly feel out of place in the 21st Century! So when I visited Budapest I just had to soak up all the Lisztomania I could.
I think every pianist dreams of playing Liszt. I started to learn how to play the piano when I was 4 years old and I spent most of my childhood playing the piano trying to be a mini Liszt! I’ll never forget the first time I heard Liebestraum. I was enchanted beyond my wildest dreams and it’s still my favourite piece in the world to play and listen to.
Interestingly, ‘‘Lisztomania’ has similarities to the celebrity phenomenon we see today that had its roots not in post-war popular recorded music, but in the classical concert halls of 19th Century Europe, where an outrageously talented young Hungarian named Franz Liszt overcame a very poor background to become a bona fide ‘celebrity’. In fact, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word was first used in the way we use it now in the 1830s, as Liszt rose to fame.
Folklore Dinner Cruise
Well that’s nearly all I could fit into my 2 days but one final treat awaited me. For our last night, we booked a Budapest River Cruise and Dinner from the Danube Boat Tours by Silverline. This was a
A 3-course meal offered us a good selection of Hungarian food and wine and they dealt with my lactose-free diet with no problem, and there are also plenty of vegan options which is fabulous. We were entertained by a quartet of very talented musicians, a lovely operetta singer and then a group of dancers all in Hungarian costumes. For more information, or to book this for yourself, head right here to book a Budapest Dinner Cruise whilst you are staying in Budapest.
By the end of the evening and my 2 days in Budapest, I had fallen head over heels in love with this magical city and I can’t wait to return one day!
I hope you enjoyed following my adventures in Budapest! How many of you have also been to Budapest and what did you get up to? Also, please do let me know if you like this ’48 Hours in…’ type of posts to document my travels! I absolutely loved putting it together and I’ll try to go back into the archives now to document past travels with you all! For now, browse all my travel adventures here.