Budapest is a city of contradictions: of dilapidation and shiny surfaces; of slow, leafy suburbs and frantic roundabouts; of climbing frames for dogs, vending machines for books, fast food and deliciously prepared brunch, kindness and dismissal, a really great synagogue and more than one scary-to-walk-over bridge. I came across all this by simply walking.
There are many blogs about the tourist sights of this Hungarian capital city, so I will try not to repeat too much. (You will find some of the links below.) I came by bus from Athens, overnight, arriving half a day late due to a five-hour delay at the Serbian border (I’m told it’s to do with gangs and cigarette smuggling). I came and went a few times, but despite that I saw a fair amount of the place in quite a short time.
As a UK pedestrian, I had to keep reminding myself to look left before stepping off the pavement, and to beware motorbike and bicycle food delivery guys as they come upon you (often on the pavement) from behind, unexpectedly. I walked everywhere, from bus station to hostel to train station to a different hostel, and so on, meaning that I saw outlying as well as central areas. However, I’ll start with the more famous middle.
Budapest sits either side of the River Danube which you can walk along, but don’t think Paris and the Seine, nor even London and parts of the Thames, as it’s bordered by busy roads and tram/train lines. I stayed at two cut-price hostels: The Heart of Budapest on Dohány útca (street) and the Maverick Urban on Lónyay utca. Because they are cheap, they are both east of the waterway which divides Pest (where I was) from Buda and Óbuda. It is worth knowing that Pest is the party side and Buda the quieter, sight-seeing part (more about the hostels below).
The Budapest sights and architecture
My first early morning walk took me to the near bank of the Danube from where you get impressive views of the Budapesti Müszaki és Gazdaságtudományi Egyetem (BME, the University of Technology and Economics) opposite, with its deep terracotta, mosaiced roof, the Gellért Spa / Baths, the Citadella Fortress on the wooded Gellért Hill and the Liberty or Freedom lady-Statue on top holding her palm leaf aloft. Between, are the bridges: the green (London Tower-type) Liberty Bridge with its golden crown, the Elizabeth Bridge (no, not our Queen, we don’t hold any sway here, for once, thank goodness), the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, and more. I crossed two of them and they’re scarily high above the water. On one, bikes whished past my ear, and on the other there was an army of older men with white hair and beards cleaning its white girders. I got a light spraying!
Some of the architecture is grand, not unlike that in Vienna (remember your school history and the Austro-Hungarian Empire?), with royal statuary on the external facades. Some is old, buildings which haven’t seen a lick of paint in a while, but are active. Look through the dilapidated outside, and there are green living quarters where children safely play inside.
Then there are the more modern places like the enormous Modern Art Gallery with it’s smart cafe, plus miles of half-built apartment blocks going up between the gallery and the bus station.
There are lots of turquoise church steeples in the Central European Baroque style; some Catholic, others Orthodox, and numerous other steeples, new and old.
As an older woman alone here, I was struck by how numerous are the ‘sex palaces’ and other sex shops / references, and this was replicated in Siófok, a town on the bank of Lake Balaton which I also visited. I met with a lot of surly male responses to questions like, ‘Please can I fill my waterbottle?’ – scowls, disinterested shoulder shrugs, and turnings away without bothering to answer. A couple of times men just stood close by and stared for too long, but I was never approached nor subjected to anything worse than that. I felt safe walking around in the day and evening. Indeed, I witnessed the same sort of men being kind and loving to their wives. The younger men who worked in the cafés I ate in, like their female counterparts, were polite, very helpful, and spoke excellent English.
The Heart of Budapest hostel on Dohány útca is okay. It consists of two spacious rooms, one for women only (sadly, it’s very unusual to find such dormitories at hostels nowadays which doesn’t encourage us to travel alone), but you do have to go through the mixed dorm (4 beds) to get to it. There’s one toilet / shower for everyone, and a self-catering kitchen with small table and facilities (both moderately clean, not bad). Although it’s on a main street, it takes some concentration to find it, even with the detailed instructions. The room was warm, so the window was open, meaning it was unavoidably noisy.
There’s no washing machine or drying area, not even somewhere to hang damp towels after a shower, though there is a ‘super’ quick launderette almost next door which provides automatic powder and has driers. Cost: 1800 Forint (HUF) for a wash, 700 HUF per dry.
Currency – forints
Forints are the local currency – they don’t use the euro. At the time of writing, you would get approximately 427.5 florints to £1 stirling. It took me a while to get my head around the conversion.
I booked the room late, so was with the men. A Ukrainian ex-soldier (retired) dressed only in his boxers, told me about himself – how things were so bad at home with bombing and children being killed, that he thought he might as well go touring, look for beautiful places, after all he didn’t know what would happen next (by which I understood him to mean that he may not survive into old age). He was very enthusiastic about the war museums he had seen, and he sat (uninvited, but friendly) on the edge of my bed to show me photos of himself beside tanks and holding guns in the places he’d visited. The other two were quiet (apart from snoring) and smiled politely.
WeHummus is very close to the hostel, an independent (sort of fast-food) place with cheap, good fare. I had an excellent chat with Adam who was serving, a highly competent high school lad who talked interestingly about history, politics, and Budapest of course.
The hostel is in the Jewish Quarter, very close to the beautiful Great Synagoue, and opposite Magveto book cafe (just drinks and snacks, but good to sit and write in).
The other place I stayed was the unfortunately named Maverick Urban hostel, and it is near the top of my list of good, cheaper places to stay in Europe. It can be found on a street corner with tables and chairs outside, and you go through the bar to the reception. It resembles an Ibis-type hotel, but that’s a good thing for a hostel because it means it’s clean!
Each bunk has a curtain round it, a light, and a phone-charging socket inside. The mattress was comfy, the bedding clean. There are big, safe lockers which emit quite a loud buzz in the middle of the night when opened (as does the door when returning from the toilet) with the key card, but they are also clean. Importantly for a backpacker, there is a clothes drying rack next to a hot radiator in the women’s toilet which is a few doors down the corridor. There was hot water. Bliss. The kitchen I used was very small – okay – and there was a separate table to eat at. My food was stolen from the fridge, which is pretty normal. Finally, there is a “chilling-out area” on the roof which I didn’t see.
Petofi Irodalmi Múzeum – this is an historic museum of Hungarian literature with a lovely courtyard and garden. The cafe opens at 10am. “Sandor Petofi was a passionate young poet who during his short life (he died at age 26, presumably in battle) created an enduring literary work that motivated the Hungarian people during the rebellion of 1848 against the Austrian domination. His poetry continues to be taught and recited today.” (from Trip Advisor by Gabriel H, Bellaire).
It backs on to Károly-kert, the oldest garden in Budapest which has one of the city’s many dog playparks (yes, you read right!) as well as one for kids. There is also a Pocketbook machine (sadly there was no literature by women, although there were a few female faces pictured on the outside of stories by men, including Lina and Panni (YouTubers), Juhaksz Anna (cultural manager), and Eszter Horgas (flautist). George Orwell and Shakespeare featured.) Two men bought books while I was there, so it is used – a great idea. Beside it was one of those free book shelves where you can put your finished one (mine: an interesting but curiously unsympathetic biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Margaret Forster) and take a new one. There’s a map of all the similar places around the city. Unfortunately the city library was shut.
Beside it was a sign about the Towering City Wall and the Murder Chamber (in Hungarian) and it was established in 2022. There is a city history museum here, another good (children’s) playpark, and a great place to sit and listen to the fountain and enjoy greenery in the middle of the city.
I have always been an early to bed /early riser and so, once again I went for a morning stroll. When hunger started to call, and because finding somewhere which was open at that hour and was good for breakfast took me some time, I will share what I eventually found: Portobello (good title!) The green tea and sourdough with miso roasted mushrooms, sauerkraut and walnut muhammara were excellent. There was also an impressive range of cakes. Walking back to the Maverick with a contented tummy, I found a great barber who spoke English and kindly shaved the back of my neck for free (see below). There were other possible breakfast places (Mantra was one) which opens at 8am.
If you don’t want to walk or can’t, here’s a link for travelling in other ways.
Budapest by Locals – history page
Budapest City Guide
Offbeat Budapest 10 best Ruin Bars
10 Weird things to do in Budapest