This trip was organised by the Hungarian tourist office, designed to show the best available, so clearly not a ‘budget’ break. We stayed in 5* hotels, ate at some fantastic restaurants and sampled the prize-winning wines at several vineyards. OK, I can see there is little sympathy from the reader at this point, but we did visit lots of different places each day within a very tight timescale, walked miles and over four days covered the east of Hungary and the capital Budapest. Useful websites are at the end of this blog.
Several flight options to get to Budapest, including Hungarian airline Wizz Air which flies from Luton – not the easiest airport to get to and a scrum for a seat, but despite a tiny carry-on bag allowance, there is extra-large capacity hold luggage at up to 32 kg.
With limited availability for forint outside Hungary, it is better to change when you get there. I wrongly assumed it would be euros, so changed them as soon as I arrived at the rail station – not the best rate here but there are lots of other places to change currency. From here, the hotel was a mile down the main street but you could get the metro one stop to Astoria rather than walk. Good news – public transport in Budapest is free for over 65s!
The Danubius Hotel Astoria is a comfortable 4* hotel, very welcoming and ideally situated for exploring the city. A wide range of foods is available for breakfast and the restaurant acts as a cafe during the day. Next day, we had a tour of the city on foot. There are trams, buses and a tourist bus with a 48 hour ticket so easy to get around.
Around the corner from the hotel, we passed the impressive synagogue in the Jewish Quarter, lots of little cobbled courtyards and the splendid front of the Gerloczy Kavehaz cafe bar (easier to write than say) which is, apparently, the favourite haunt of Jeremy Irons. Budapest has often been the location for film sets, whether as itself or disguised as Prague or Munich. You can see why with its traditional 18th and 19th century buildings in the grand Baroque style.
The elaborate Hungarian Art Nouveau style reminds you of the quirky Gaudi style in Barcelona. Once a year, these old buildings are open for the public to see the elaborate architecture inside – but not on the day we were there.
Liberty Square near the US embassy has lots of different sculptures representing different political struggles of Hungary, including a bronze statue of Ronald Reagan for some reason. If you think our parliament is extravagant, you should see the somewhat excessive Parliament Building here. It cost a lot of money and took a long time to build – same everywhere then.
Right in the city centre is the Kempinski Hotel, recently renovated with modern decor and stylish rooms – even the lift was impressive! The accommodation includes free Wi-Fi, bathrobes for use in the spa, turndown service and complimentary water – their website photographs are must-see to really get a feel for the luxurious surroundings. They have 4 rooms suitable for those with disabilities, although I didn’t view one. The spa smelled beautiful, and the coffee lounge sweets will certainly require a follow-up visit to the gym.
Still in the centre, the Buddha-Bar Hotel is definitely hi-tec, modern and exciting. It was opened two years ago, with oriental-inspired red and black décor and a fantastic corner suite with huge bathroom and ‘unique’ toilet – unfortunately we weren’t able to see it in action! There are rainfresh showers as well as standard ones, a Zen garden on the second floor and the lively Buddha Bar. Aimed more at a younger market, they do have two rooms with wheelchair access and various quiet bars and restaurants. Music is club – or is it house? – with a fascinating beat to start but so repetitive you lose the will to live after 5 minutes. Zumba devotees may last longer than 5 minutes. I would certainly stay here as the rooms are fantastic.
A well-known restaurant is the Michelin star Onyx, offering traditional Hungarian dishes and an emphasis on presentation. Their Evolution Menu offers high quality local ingredients and their Tasting Menu gives you a chance to try different foods. It is part of the Gerbeaud building which now houses a cafe next door – superb pastries and chocolates available as gifts.
For first-class dining, you cannot beat the Gundel Restaurant, where staff are trained to perfection, and superb food is served at beautiful place settings. There was an exciting presentation of the main course under huge shiny metal domes that were all raised at the same time by waiters – almost a fanfare of trumpets! It is traditional Hungarian cuisine fused with French influences, many invented by the chef/owner who writes cookery books – a special treat for any visitor.
The restaurant is next to the zoo and across the road from the Szechenyi Thermal Spa. The hills surrounding Budapest contain hot water springs and as part of the Ottoman Empire in 15-1600s, there are still four Turkish Baths remaining. After such a lunch, the baths was not our first thought, but there are lots of pools at different temperatures with ledges where people basically just wallow and enjoy the waters. The large central pool is 28°C and other pools go up to a glorious 38°C. It is very relaxing and the locals use it regularly young or old. The outside pool is where old men play chess each day and apparently have celebrity status. A must if you are in Budapest.
Another favourite is the Topart Complex and Varosliget Cafe at the boating lake, just across from Heroes Square. Fresh coffee is roasted every day – the smell is divine –and the cafe overlooks the boating lake. Winter or summer it is a fascinating location, especially when the lake is frozen (well, artificially) and used as an ice rink. The great hall is used either to watch the skaters or for a special gala ball. In the summer, Friday night is salsa night on the terrace, and the Torley Champagne bar serves a wonderful array of sparkling wines. It is a beautiful, romantic setting.
Finally, after all these visits in one day, we enjoyed a meal at the Spiler bar. It was very loud, with up-beat music and crowds of happy people of all ages chatting and laughing. Great menu, good food and wine served by friendly staff, and an impressive collection of Campari bottles with designer labels as a backdrop to the bar area. They have another restaurant opposite which specialises in Asian cuisine, so plenty of choice. An excellent way to end the day’s sight-seeing.
More about Jacqueline
Jacqueline is a keen observer of surroundings, looking with both an artistic and a questioning eye. Professionally, her work has been as a trainer, course writer and tutor, and management consultant in manufacturing companies with a PhD in health & safety in small firms which is generally a conversation stopper at parties! She is also a textile artist, printmaker and a history of art tutor. At 65 years old, married to husband Leslie for 32 years, Jacqueline is still excited and fascinated by travel. With 5 sons and Leslie’s 2 daughters and son, they were clearly never going to start travelling until later than most people. Jacqueline loves long-distance treks (having done 3 for charity) and she still has many new places to explore.