Budapest – The Heart of Europe

Having travelled from Prague on the Metropol Sleeper (read about that here), I arrived into the stunning Budapest Nyugati station about eight in the morning. With under 48 hours in the Hungarian capital, I had limited time to explore and so the first task was to find somewhere to dump my bag.

Budapest Nyugati station

My initial plan had been to use the left luggage at Nyugati station, however despite two different maps showing a facility within the main station building, both of these were out of date. Due to restoration work being undertaken there is currently no left luggage facilities and so plan B was to head to my hostel and hope I could leave my bag there until check in.

Transport wise, I’d recommend getting a either a 24hour or 72hour travelcard depending on how long you’re staying. These cover travel on all buses, trolley buses, trams and the metro along with some suburban rail services (although it doesn’t say which ones). A 24hour ticket costs 1650HUF (under £4) and means you can just jump on services without having to purchase and validate single tickets. Tickets are also available on the mobile app and you can find all the info on tickets here.

Budapest has an extensive Tram network

With metro line 3 currently undergoing major engineering works, which as a result means the central section is closed, I had a choice between getting the extremely busy but very regular replacement bus service or catching a regular trolley bus service across the city centre. Opting for the latter I had a five-minute wait for what turned out to be a much quieter journey, which took about 10 minutes to get across to Kálvin tér close to my hostel.

Thankfully my hostel was ok to look after my bag until I could get into my room that afternoon and so I headed back out to travel to my first stop, Budapest’s Underground Railway Museum. Located within Deák Ferenc tér metro station, under the square itself, the museum is part of the station’s travel centre with entry costing 350HUF plus an additional 500HUF to be able to take photos (a total of less than £2).

Car 81, one of the heritage underground carriages on display at the museum

Initially the Underground Railway Museum was quite busy, with a large group being shown the exhibits, something that worked in my favour as the heritage underground carriages were unlocked and open to look around. These underground carriages are some of the original cars to have operated on the metro, which itself is the oldest in Continental Europe, second only to the London Underground.

With the museum being underground itself, delivering the three carriages was quite a feat, with them being lowered by a crane through a hole in the ceiling before this was then filled in. On a slightly easier to transport scale, the museum also includes segments of the original tunnel which were in use from 1896 until 1955 when the line was refurbished, and the segments replaced. There are also numerous other artefacts, documents and photos on display with about 50% of the information boards also being displayed in English.

Some of the other artefacts on display in the musuem

Having thoroughly explored the Underground Railway Museum, I decided to head a little way up the main road from Deák Ferenc tér to outside St. Stephens Basilica from where I could pick up the next thing on my plan for the day. Unfortunately, due to Covid, there weren’t any free walking tours operational in Budapest (at least that I could find) and so I opted to go for what I tend to find to be the next best thing, a City Sightseeing bus tour.

‘Iconic’ tickets (the basic level) for the bus tour cost just over £20 and include just the bus tour over the single route operated in Budapest. For an extra few pounds you can get a ‘Essential’ ticket which also includes a boat trip along the Danube and a 48hr bus ticket. There’s also a ‘value’ ticket which allows 72hrs on the bus whilst also including the boat tour and a ‘night tour’ when its in operation.

Műcsarnok art museum on Heroes’ square

The bus tour has 20 stops, covering a wide range of the city’s sites, including the Dohány Street Synagogue; Heroes’ Square; and both Nyugati & Keleti railway staions along with the east bank of the Danube, below Castle Hill and the Citadella; and many more. It takes about 90 minutes to do the full loop and I’d certainly recommend it as a way to see the highlights quickly and get your bearings of the city.

As we arrived back at St. Stephen’s Basilica it began to rain and having naively left my coat at the hostel I decided it was time to head back there, check in and have a bit of a break. Conveniently the sightseeing buses stop right next to some public bus stops, including one for the bus directly back to Kálvin tér. After spending an hour back at the hostel it was time for a late lunch and I was hopeful that my next stop would be somewhere I could pick up something tasty.

Rákóczi Market Hal

Located at Rákóczi tér, the Rákóczi Market Hall is a beautiful building originally opened in 1894, and continues to host a market today. Gutted by a fire in 1988, the building was restored and reopened in 1991. Unfortunately the market hall is not as busy as it once was with only a few stalls open during my visit and one corner now home to a small supermarket. Deciding not to buy an entire wheel of cheese for my lunch, I headed back out to pick up the sightseeing bus from a nearby stop to make my way across the Danube to my next stop, Buda Castle.

Towering over the western bank of the Danube, the original Buda Castle was completed in 1265, however the large Baroque Palace that currently occupies the site was not constructed until the mid 18th century. The castle now houses the Hungarian National Gallery and The Budapest History Museum. Since 1870 Castle Hill has been connected to the city by a funicular railway, however this was unfortunately closed for refurbishment during my visit, meaning the best way for me to reach the top was to catch a bus.

The view from part way up Castle Hill

If you end up needing to catch a bus around the Castle Hill complex, don’t do as I did and pay £10 to catch the blue tourist bus and upon reflection this is a rip off. There is a circular public bus that runs from outside the funicular station at the bottom of the hill and covers almost the same route as the tourist bus. Crucially its included within the 24/72hr public transport tickets meaning its not costing you anything extra.

Personally the best thing about Castle Hill is the views it provides across the Danube and wider city. My first stop was the Fisherman’s Bastion and whilst I didn’t pay to climb the uppers towers and turrets (1000 HUF or free before 0900/after 1900), the lower balconies still provide absolutely amazing views, especially of the Hungarian Parliament building. The Fisherman’s Bastion is accessible from the rear of Matthias Church, another stunning building that has a beautiful multi-coloured roof.

Part of the Fisherman’s Bastion and the view it provides

If I’m honest, I was struggling to enjoy Budapest. Whilst it was a beautiful city with amazing buildings and stunning views, I just wasn’t back in the groove of travel. Whether it was tiredness from 24hours of travel or just the anxiety of travelling in a ‘post-Covid world’ I don’t know, but I was struggling. Deciding to take a local bus back towards the hostel, have a nap and then head out for dinner, I made my way down the seemingly infinite steps to the bottom of the hill.

With night having fallen and torn between my grumpiness and making the most of my one night in the city, I opted to jump off the bus on the Pest side of the Danube and take one of the trams along the river bank to try and get some photos of the illuminated Castle Hill complex. Spending five minutes alongside the Danube helped clear my head and with some photos taken I made my way back to the hostel.

The Castle Hill complex from the east side of the Danube

Having had a quick nap and re-charge (both me and my phone) I headed back out and found a street near the hostel with plenty of restaurants to choose from. Whilst I am usually quite strict whilst away to have local food, this street did seem to be lacking a traditional Hungarian restaurant and, not wanting to venture too far, I opted for a Georgian restaurant, Tifliso.

Despite not being what I had originally intended to go for, I had a thoroughly enjoyable and filling meal with an excellent mix of Georgian dishes including: Khinkali (Georgian Dumplings); Ojakhuri (Roast Potatoes & Pork Belly); and finished off with a slice of Napoleon cake. If you’re in Budapest for a few nights and want to have something different to traditional Hungarian fare, I’d certainly recommend it. You can find Tifliso on Ráday utca, just down from Kálvin tér.

A small part of my meal at Tifliso

With another day of exploring and travel ahead of me, it was time to call it a night and so I headed back to my hostel full and happier than I had been earlier in the day. The following day I had most of the day in the Budapest area before catching the train to Bratislava, and so I headed to the airport to visit the Aviation Cultural Centre (which didn’t happen) and do some spotting from the airport’s Visitor Terrace (which you can read about here). Budapest definitely needs re-visiting in the future when I’m a bit more with it again, as due to my mood I certainly didn’t explore and enjoy the city as much as I could have.

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