Sunday, 25 March 2018

The best of Budapest in 72 hours

Rum Hotel
Let's go to Budapest, I said to my friend. Yes, let's, friend agreed. We met up for a planning evening and agreed an itinerary so we could fit everything in. Yay.
Why Budapest? People asked me. Really? Have you not heard about this beautiful city with a fascinating history? My answer? Why wouldn't you want to go?

To get a jam-packed visit on a budget, here's what you need to know:

Roof crosses
1. There is now a bus directly from the airport to the center of the city, with the last stop at Vösüsmarty tér, which is pretty much Pest central. It's the 100E and costs 900HUF, which is about £3.50 (or was, in March 2018). It takes about an hour, but is very popular, so not everyone gets a seat. You can also get a taxi, which is more expensive, but not crazily so (about £18),

Breakfast view
2. We stayed at the Rum Hotel, which was very convenient: about 2 tram stops from Vösüsmarty tér or a 10-minute walk. About 15 minutes' walk from the Jewish (aka 'Party') district where the ruin bars and much nightlife takes place, as well as even closer to the Central Market Hall and the very pretty No 2 tramline route, that runs along the Danube and which you'll no doubt ride a number of times. For a room with a double bed and a sofa bed, it's about €120 per night and that includes a good buffet breakfast with fantastic views of the Liberty statue. Two drawbacks: one, the lighting in the rooms is dim. Like, too dark to read by. We figured it was aimed at the 'screen-reading only' crowd, but it was a little wearisome to be in gloom; and two, the bathroom doesn't provide 100% privacy. This seems to be a hotel trend. Note to hotels: no one wants to watch or hear their friend or partner do their toilet. No one. Moving on...

Central Market
3. The Gelert Baths. These are fantastically ornate thermal pools in a neo-Classical building on the Buda side of the river. Pricey by locals' standards (about £12pp), but for a one-off, worth it to see the cupid statues and marvel at the tiling. There's a swimming pool, plus four increasingly hotter pools, plus treatments and steam and sauna rooms. Warning: you will feel incredibly relaxed after you've been, so don't do this first thing in the morning as we did - save it for the end of the day when you can go back to your room and collapse.

4. If you like food (who doesn't) stop in the Central Market on your way to the baths. It's another beautiful building and there's every kind of pastry, paprika, fruit, veg, meat and bread on the ground floor. Upstairs is 'Hungarica', or what the rest of us might call tourist tat, but still fun to look at and where you might buy your postcards.

5. We went to The Makery, a concept/experiential restaurant in the Jewish District. The idea is to make eating out a more hands-on thing, so you're given an iPad, from where you choose from the menu, your ingredients are brought to you (almost) all pre-prepared – except for an apple we had to peel and which friend had great difficulty getting to grips with, which put her in a bad mood about the whole thing – and then you follow the very simple step-by-step instructions. The upside? You produce dishes that actually look exactly like the picture and are certainly different from anything I would normally make (apple beer soup anyone?). The downside is that making your own dinner is time-consuming, so either don't come too hungry or come early enough that you can wait to eat.

View of Budapest from the hills
6. Getting around is easy. Really easy. Before you leave the airport, buy a 72-hour tourist travel card. It's actually more of a piece of paper, but at approx £12 is a bargain and means you can jump on and off the buses, trams, metro, water ferry and most everything else except the children's railway, the funicular and the chairlift. But don't let that stop you taking these modes of transport. The highlight of our visit was getting the No 4 tram from Pest over the Margit hid (bridge) to Széll Kálmán tér (a tér, by the way, is a square), taking the little escalator up to a higher street to catch the bus to the Hotel Budapest. Opposite this is the Cogwheel Railway, which you ride up into the hills, before changing over to the Children's Railway, which is a wonderful thing. Kids aged from 11-14 sell you the tickets, wave the train on, main the coaches as guards and generally do everything but drive the engine. It's a leftover from Communist days and a must-do.

You also get fantastic views back from the hills to Budapest. To make the journey complete, on your return journey, hop off at the Libegö stop and walk up the trail through the woods about 20 minutes, then get the chairlift down. 

Szempla kert
7. Of course, you'll have to go to Szempla kert, the biggest and best-known of the ruin bars. What's a ruin bar? Re-purposed old-style apartment buildings that were built around courtyards, now turned into banging clubs. Each room of the apartments has a different scene, from cocktail bar to craft-beer stall to speakeasy-type vibe to loud, thumping nightclub sort of thing. Szempla kert has all kinds of odd bits and pieces crammed into it and, like all the ruin bars, is furnished with what was found in rubbish skips, so no two chairs are the same and nothing matches. It's loud, busy and full of visitors – and locals – of all ages. We actually met friend's friend here on the Saturday night and she was 78. That said, I'm not sure she enjoyed it and we didn't stay as long as I'd have liked because she wanted to find somewhere quieter (as did friend, tbh), but I did manage to have a long-awaited palinka. Palinka is a fruit-based brandy that tastes like gut-rut moonshine, but as a national drink, it has to be done at least once.

8. Final day. Friend's friend kindly invited us for tea at her apartment and this was a real highlight. It reminded me so much of the apartment I grew up in in NYC, with its parquet floors and white walls and the general proportions and layout. I guess the NY architects took their cues from Europe when they built their pre-war buildings.

That's it really! Except, we noticed an odd thing. License plates with the word 'JEW' on them. Of course, the Hungarian language doesn't include this word and it could be argued they are simply randomly generated letters and numbers, but as friend's friend said, it's still a word that would be recognized there. I include them for interest and because it was slightly – just slightly – unsettling to see.

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