(credit Mike Pickup)

“I can’t wait to return”

Hungary’s capital city proved a hit with Sylvia Saxon and her group – who loved its culture, castles and cuisine

We loved our short break to Budapest earlier this year – and for many of us it was a first. Our British Airways flight left on time, which was a minor miracle seeing as we left amid some of the worst winter conditions this year. I knew a couple who decided to travel separately and ‘do their own thing’ and sadly didn’t make it (their low cost airline took off the following day). However, luck stayed with us as we were upgraded from our original hotel to its sister, which just happened to be a very centrally located five-star. Not that the first one – The Continental – wasn’t great; on my first visit I had loved it, but owing to a complete refurbishment in some of the bedrooms, and a furniture delay, we were swopped a few days earlier as a precaution.

For much of its history, Budapest was a tale of two cities. The famous Chain Bridge – the first permanent structure to span the Danube – wasn’t opened until 1849, and before that the river formed a barrier separating the communities on each side. The characters of Buda (to the west of the river) and Pest (to the east) remain very different to this day. Buda holds the palace and medieval castle district, before giving way to the leafy hills. Pest is the financial and commercial heart, home to the parliament building, the business district and the main concentration of shops, restaurants and bars.

The spice of life

What makes Budapest an enchanting spot for a city break is the variety it offers. On any given day you’re likely to encounter Art Nouveau mansions or a Neo Gothic church topped with vivid red roof tiles and pastel medieval houses. You’ll stroll Parisian-style boulevards and quaint cobbled alleys, relax in lush parks or paved squares, browse bustling markets or shopping malls, enjoy coffee and cake in a local café or a beer in a lively bar.

Even during the communist period, Hungary always leaned towards the West. It’s a cosmopolitan capital but, despite this, an aura of history and hard times past is evident in the occasional bullet hole from 1956 and a flaking 19th century town house.

Hit the road

Budapest’s public transport system, run by BKV (Budapest Transport Company) is fast, inexpensive, reliable and comprehensive. It consists of metro, HEV trains, trams, buses and trolleybuses. EU citizens the over 65s travel free, apart from the funicular, chair lift and on the boats, and ID cards and passports suffice as proof of age/citizenship.

Trams are pleasant, comfortable way to travel around, providing an informal sightseeing tour of the city. The most important lines are 4 and 6, which loop around the centre of Pest and Buda. Something intriguing to me… riding around Budapest on a tram, memories of an old Bond film perhaps!

In the past, whenever I’ve visited a place with my group, I don’t often return in a hurry – but with Budapest I’m already planning my return. My huge thanks to Travel Editions (traveleditions.co.uk) and everyone who helped make this trip so very successful.

Hungary for the facts?

Sylvia’s top tips for dining in the city…

  • Hungarians are immensely proud of their cuisine, and the places to head to buy fresh produce are the indoor and outdoor markets. The most atmospheric are the market halls, several of which date back to the last century – the most famous being the Great (or Central) Market Hall (Nagycsarnok) facing the southern end of Vaci utca. Food specialties include sausages, salamis and paprika, which is added to many dishes.
  • The most common word for restaurant is ‘etterem,’ although you might also come across ‘vendeglo’ and ‘casarda’; the latter specialising in traditional food.
  • As well as Hungarian, many world cuisines are represented. Chinese buffet-style restaurants are popular for quick and inexpensive meals; it’s also worth looking out for the tourist menus offered between certain hours of the day.
  • Coffee and cake are ubiquitous in Budapest, and there are some grand cafés. Since the re-establishment of self-rule, interest in coffee has risen even higher, and a few old haunts that managed to survive have been revived and restored

Let it float your boat

Landlocked it may be, but Hungary has water in abundance. The earth’s crust is relatively thin in this region, and natural thermal water emerges through springs and drilled boreholes. There’s a rich bathing tradition: the Romans soaked in Budapest almost 2,000 years ago, and the capital has around 50 baths – more than any other world capital.