Baths, Bars and the Blue Danube
Ruin bars are a big thing in Budapest. They have a unique and fascinating ambience, as we discovered during our recent trip to Hungary’s capital, but more of that later.
The rush-hour M25 to Gatwick was better than usual and the driver from the appropriately-named I Love Meet and Greet was waiting for us at the North terminal to park our car for us so we were soon on our way to Hungary’s capital, Budapest.
Home for our visit was the Mercure City Centre hotel, perfectly placed for exploring the city which can mostly be done on foot. The hotel fronts Vaci Street, the main tourist pedestrian street in the city and full of bars and restaurants.
Prices were certainly reasonable. At one end of the street we found Pointer, a large bar offering good pub grub which seemed to come in portions ranging from large to ‘you must be joking’. During Happy Hour, actually six hours, a half litre of excellent lager was £1.50 and the wines also come recommended. Tasty inexpensive food and drink is not a problem in Budapest.
The city sits astride the Danube which divides hilly Buda from flat Pest. The most famous of the bridges linking the two sides is the Chain Bridge. It was designed by the English architect William Tierney Clark and constructed by Scottish engineer Adam Clark, the ‘dream team’ that was earlier responsible for the Thames bridge in Marlow.
Buda is the smaller but glossier of the two with the imposing Royal Palace dominating the skyline overlooking the river. A short distance away is the Matthias church and the famous Fisherman’s Bastion, a great place from which to photograph the city, with its magnificent parliament building, and watch the sunset. Full of tourists during the day, after dark it becomes a more sophisticated destination with enticing restaurants. We had dinner at the intimate Pierrot located in a 13th century bakery house. The food was memorable, the sommelier knowledgeable, the service impeccable and the pianist excellent – a great experience at far less than you would pay in London.
The Danube itself is a great attraction and there are numerous boat trips on offer. An evening cruise is a great way to appreciate just what a lovely city Budapest is at night with the magnificent buildings beautifully lit, the experience enhanced by a large glass of bubbly included in the fare.
Andrassy Street is Budapest’s ‘Bond Street’ but considerably longer and running out to Hero Square. We walked a little way up then veered off to explore the local phenomenon of Ruin Bars. The idea is to find a ruin site then breathe new life into it by creating a series of bars there. We visited the most well-known, Szimpla, just after mid-day so most of the visitors were tourists having a look round, but it later becomes a lively, fun and unique place to enjoy an evening drink.
Further along Andrassy Street is the Alexandra bookshop, originally the Paris Department Store, the first in Budapest, which houses the Alexandra book cafe, a coffee house on the first floor with lovely chandeliers and an impressive fresco painted ceiling by Karoly Lotz.
A short walk from there took us to Menza where we stopped for lunch. It describes itself as a canteen but this doesn’t really do it justice. Like many restaurants in the city, you can sit inside or out on the wide pavement. You’ll find plenty of locals, many enjoying a bowl of goulash soup and a large pudding that looks more like a loaf of bread. Menza has something for everyone, no wonder they say that it attracts “a colourful clientele ranging from jovial pensioners and popular actors to distinguishing gentlewomen and exhausted tourists.” Absolutely!
Budapest has the oldest underground railway in mainland Europe, only a few years younger than London’s, so we hopped on the yellow line and got off at Szechenyi to explore one of the largest thermal bath spas in Europe. Around 70 million litres of water a day flow from over 120 springs in Budapest, the one serving Szechenyi delivers water at 76oc. The original thermal bath was built in 1913 and has been expanded several times to include public bathing and even a daytime outpatient hospital. Often bathers pass the time by playing chess but thirty minutes is the longest you should stay in the warm mineral-infused water. We were shown round the busy and popular baths before taking the underground back to our hotel.
Just over two hours flying time from London, Budapest has a unique and intriguing mid-European style, a rich cultural history and is very affordable. Russia dominated between 1947 and 1989 when the country became a parliamentary republic and you still feel the sense of freedom and the enthusiasm to move on. Little remains of the Russian influence except a few Trabant motor cars. You can even get city tours in these old vehicles taking up to three passengers plus the driver/guide. The tongue-in-cheek recommendation is to go for the maximum as it is easier for three people to push it when it breaks down!!
Hungary has its own currency, the Forint, although in Budapest most places accept Euros but give change in Forints. However, many places also take plastic and we didn’t need to obtain Forints during our stay. As everyone seems to speak English and signs are in both languages, Budapest is easy to manage for British visitors. It certainly makes a great destination for an affordable city break with a difference.
easyJet Holidays offer a wide range of accommodation in Budapest, ranging from 3-5 stars. A three night stay on room only basis at the 4-star Mercure City Centre Budapest costs from £180 per person, including return flights from London Gatwick on 11 July 2016 and based on two sharing. The price based on bed and breakfast basis starts from £193 per person. For more information visit www.easyjet.com/holidays or call 020 3499 5232.
I Love Meet And Greet offers valet parking at Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted with prices from £54.55 a week.
Pierrot – fine dining at great prices
Menza – called a canteen but so much more
See and Do
For tourist information visit gotohungary.com and for guided tours visit underguide.com