A. When you can spend the whole day there.
Having been to the ethnographical museum in Városliget, I was well-prepared for a slow "death by folk culture", but thankfully, the Skanzen museum near Szentendre isn't the murderous type. It needn’t be regarded as a museum at all; rather a collection of historic, picturesque villages set against the Pilis hills. If you think you can combine it with a trip to Szentendre, you'd better be talking about the weekend rather than the afternoon.
At the entrance, now a faithful replica of the railway station in Mezőhegyes, a map gives you some idea of the scale of the site, which sprawls out over 60 hectares. As I stroll towards region VI, “Market Town In the Great Hungarian Plain”, which feels like the natural direction to walk in, the landscape unfolds. The sails of a windmill emerge over the ridge against a backdrop of green hills, while authentic thatched cottages appear further along the path.
Many buildings are open to the public. The furnishings are quite literally at home, sidestepping the predicament of the conventional museum: i.e. how to present functional day-to-day items without harming your visitors' brain function. Nosing around authentic houses from the last three centuries left my senses pretty much intact.
Barns, shops, workshops, mills and a small farm are all teeming with activity, presenting numerous opportunities to observe, purchase or take part in a small piece of Hungarian village life. Hammering holes into pieces of leather with a blunt chisel is also a decent way to keep 10-year old children occupied.
The amount of time you spend at the Skanzen really depends on how much you like wandering around villages and whether you're aware of everything on offer. House-viewing fatigue does set in after a while, so a visit to the wine cellar or the inn might perk you up a bit.
The Skanzen’s peaceful car-free environment is ideal for a picnic, which can be supplemented with produce from the local bakery. Granted: bread may be bread may be bread, but the Skanzen's bread hasn't been sitting in your bag all day.
The latest addition is a railway line that connects up five of the regions, complete with a 1930s railcar (which, this being Hungary, was still in regular service until 1989.) For 500Ft, and if you get your timing right, you can make the long walk back to the car park a breeze. Well, if breezes travel at 15km an hour, that is.
You can get to Szentendre in 40 minutes by HÉV (the suburban railway), leaving from Batthyány tér or Margit hid. The Skanzen is a further 20 minute bus journey from Szentendre station.
Disused Railway Sidings [map]
Pest VIII, Kőbányai út 21 (T28/62), 1 min
Blaha Lujza tér is not the prettiest part of Budapest but if you walk in four out of five directions, you're still in town: cosmopolitan enough to find tourists looking at upside-down maps. The fifth direction, however, along Népszinház utca, is as well-known as the fifth dimension and you can take a tram straight into it. English voices here raise eyebrows, or at least the temper of the drunken tramp standing two feet away from me. He got quite angry but stopped short of lunging at me. (It seems I'm something of a disgruntled tramp magnet.)
You know when you're at the market because the tram takes a sharp left in front of an enormous brick spacecraft-of-a-building, before stopping a hundred metres later, next to some disused railway sidings. The latter announce your arrival. It's at this point that you're wondering what the Hell you're doing here.
The market has scaled down a little in recent months, making the collection of makeshift stalls negotiable without a compass, although walking from one end to the other is still a distance event. On sale: counterfeit brands, fake perfumes, genuine radio alarm clocks from the 1980s. I'm told it's the only place you can buy Vichy skincare products without going to a chemist. I've also heard rumours that you can buy guns, although that's not exactly advertised. Personally, I think the atmosphere is the best value, although socks come a close second.
The market also serves as a gambling den: poker games go on in full view, particularly during the week, when business is slower. Little piles of notes are not so much as hidden, although furtive glances are de rigeur. Photos are restricted to what you can capture discreetly on your phone, unless you want to be yelled at or lynched.
So many Chinese people in one place need feeding, and consequently the food here is a big improvement on the city's Bufés, at a decent price too. (More on what's on offer here.) But don't believe that price board that looks like it's been there for a decade: it has, and protesting that your rice is twice the marked price is unlikely to count for much.
The Chinese Market is a real oddity, and if it's not the most immediate of Budapest's attractions, it is a side of the city that's bafflingly interesting, in a grimy kind of way. The down-sizing, however, could be a sign that the authorities are starting to tighten the noose, so get your sneaky snapshots of Budapest's underbelly while you can. If they ever do succeed in shutting it down, I hope provision is being made for those of us who want socks, Chinese food and fake perfume in the same place. And what on Earth will they do with all those Chinese people?
Four trams run along Népszinház utca from Blaha, but only two, the #28 and #62 take you to the Chinese market. All are equipped with drunken tramps.
Budapest is a bustling metropolitan city of incessant clamour, miserable people in shops, trams, buses and smog. The homeless and dogs alike use the streets as their toilet, while underground, people rush headlong into your path in a no-holds-barred free-for-all. That’s why a spot for some inner solitude is crucial.
It’s surprising how little traveling you have to do to feel like you’ve reached the verge of suburban and earthly terrain: just a little south of Castle Hill and within spitting distance of the city center (depending on the power of your expectoration.) Although the cave-chapel, close to the foot of the hill, is certainly worth a look, it doesn't give much respite from the masses - not least due to its tiny proportions. My mission for peace was of the urgent, selfish variety, so I opted for a more personal route.
There is a surplus of paths snaking their way through the park, akin to the inner reaches and windings of New York’s Central Park. No matter which strategy you have for traversing the trails (both paved and muddy), you’re bound to stumble upon surprises along the way: a tent pitched on a small patch of grass, couples getting mawkish, and strange playgrounds that materialize out of nowhere.
Five rather massive slides lie somewhere about halfway up the hill. They may look like a death wish for small children, but after I'd youthfully bounded up the steps, I found the downhill journey a bit on the slow side. Fun nonetheless.
There are countless lookout points where you can catch your breath from the arduous climb, and take in the now calming din and expansive views of Budapest below. It’s pretty easy to wax nostalgic about the beauty of this place. Sure, city life is a daily war, but here, towering above it all, you can feel like a conqueror.
The "Statue of Liberty" and Citadella, lie atop the hill and for some, will be the main motivation for the climb. But for me, it’s the serenity of the journey itself that’s the main draw. At the top you’ll find the typical tourist hubbub and vexing vendors rushing you with their, “English? Deutsch? Français?”, which might prompt you to find the nearest trail and lose yourself again in the undergrowth.
The most popular approach is from a Gellért Baths, direction but you can also start at the foot of Erzsébet hid, by the Szent Gellért statue, or take a #8 bus to Sánc utca for a lengthier exploration.
175km South of Budapest
If you have more than a day or two, Szeged makes for an ideal starting point for more drawn out excursions into nearby northern Serbian towns like Subotica (Szabadka) and Novi Sad, where a little Hungarian, even in a Budapesti accent, might go farther than English.
Pocket-sized Szeged isn't exactly packed with things to do but with or without the Serbian add-on, there should be enough to satiate the weekend wanderer or Budapest escapee.
Trains run every hour from Nyugati taking approx. 2hrs.
After being given swipe cards and number tags, we paired off and guessed where the dressing rooms were. On the way up the stairs, there's a cloakroom where you can rent a robe for 1000 ft (oh, and a deposit of 10,000 ft!) You only need the swipe card when entering or leaving the bathing complex, while the number tag will gain you a locker. (You may only get one of these if you pay as a group.) Don't forget your locker number as it doesn't correspond to the number tag, as far as I could surmise.
The main bathing area at the Gellért is beautiful, but the large pool was quite cool - outdoor summertime temperature. As none of us had trudged here through the falling snow to swim laps in a chilly swimming pool, we took a pass on it.
Most people congregated in the smaller 30 degree (celsius) pool to the rear. This is the only warm pool in the Gellért which is mixed gender. It's a bit dark, and crowded with couples and families who want to bathe together.
When I realized this, I understood why the most beautifully appointed thermal bath in Budapest is given such mixed reviews. You do have a range of different pools, saunas and services available but only if you want to go a gender-segregated area. So after about an hour of lolling socially in the warm pool, we went our separate ways to investigate.
The bathing area for men is just as strikingly beautiful, if not more so, than the main room. Two large baths flank the room, both are warmer than the 30 degree co-ed pool. There is also a steam room, a sauna bath with three chambers of varying temperatures, massage rooms, and a small polar bear tub. Clothing here is optional and most men choose to wear the little white aprons that are provided. The aprons are popular but a little absurd: they really don't cover much at all!
After you've returned to the dressing room and have gotten dressed, a tip of about 200 forint for the attendant is good practice, depending on how helpful you think they were.
So let's be completely honest here. The Gellért is for tourists and huppies. (Do you really have to ask?) At an admission price that compares to the cover charge at a velvet roped club in Los Angeles, few Hungarians could go here very often. So if you want to take a real authentic Hungarian thermal bath with a bunch of Japanese, German and British tourists, go for it at the Gellért. It is great to try it out once though, and preferably with members of your own gender. It's definitely a beautiful place and singular experience, if not the place for your regular Budapest bathing ritual.
This article originally appeared in a slightly different form on sfinbudapest.com. Read more from SF here.
Pest Centre, V,
Kossuth tér (M2, T2/2a), 3 min
The poignant Jewish memorial on the Pest bank of the Danube is so discreet that you're unlikely to spot it. If you try to find it from the direction of the Parliament, you may find yourself dodging cars and leaping barriers to get there. Alternatively, take the more sensible route, along the river from the Chain Bridge and you’ll find a series of shoes, cast in iron, no more than two feet from the bank.
They're beautifully crafted and the detail is superb, right down to the stitching, eyelets, laces and grip on the soles. Styles vary: low heels, high heels, heavy boots, slip-ons, shoes with buckles, open toes, and a tiny pair of toddler’s boots. They’re not new shoes and the small patches of rust are reminiscent of scuffed leather.
Even-more discreet are three plaques, in Hebrew, Hungarian and English:
Unknowing tourists might be inclined to smile on seeing this unusual, idiosyncratic collection, and those that spot the plaque will no doubt feel a pang of guilt. Of course, they shouldn't, but such a reaction shows what a human memorial this is: something that connects you to humans who were treated as though they were not.
Tragically, the memorial is too modest for most. I sat by the river for half an hour and watched no fewer than three quarters of the visitors lightly kick the shoes, presumably to test their composition, before shrugging and moving on. (This might explain the absence of a few pieces.)
I couldn't help but feel that this gave the memorial an even greater depth: the world remembers the holocaust and doesn't so much ignore it as not understand what it meant.
If you'd like another perspective on this memorial, read SF's entry here.
Kozma u. 6
Pest, X, Tram 28 from Blaha [map]
Walked among the rows and plots, sensory overload. Bauhaus lettering chiseled into black marble, sometimes with only the word "APU" (father). One was particularly eloquent and powerful - a large black panel with the name of the deceased over the place of his death: Auschwitz 1944.
The Schmidl mausoleum is by far the most famous of all the monuments in Rákoskeresztúr. A secessionist masterpiece designed by Béla Lajta, it was restored in the early 2000s. A flash photo of the interior shows the beauty and artistic imagination that went into this beautiful place of memorial.
There was one stone that jumped out at me, and I had to get a shot of it. It was the grave of Viktor Wittmann, who was unknown to me - but there was something about his monument that said "photograph me".
My 6th sense about these things is usually right. Turns out Wittmann was a Hungarian aviation legend who died in WWI. What was interesting to me is his connection with my man Frigyes Karinthy, a brilliantly funny Hungarian Journalist from the first half of the 20th century that I love. Seems that Karinthy wrote an exceptional memoir about Wittmann and his heroic exploits; so the headstone led me to another interesting literary work to follow up on.
The weather was beautiful and dramatically autumn, and the late afternoon light made the leaves pop against a gloomy sky. It was the perfect backdrop to experience the place, viewing the stones and crypts that are so uniformly elegant, dignified and moving.
Bolhapiac, Városliget, weekends, until lunchtime, 120ft.
Pest, XIV, Széchenyi Fürdő, (M1) 5 min
There are two major flea markets in Budapest – one is a train and a bus ride south, the kind of sprawling, ramshackle bazaar where you could easily imagine yourself haggling over a Mogwai in a battered box. The other is a good deal smaller, held in the city park at weekends.
For my money, this is a more sensible, manageable alternative; it's perfectly possible to roll out of bed, onto public transport, through Városliget and right up to the door. There's no better place to be on Sunday mornings except maybe, church.
Heading right, through the city park, brings you towards an ominous enclosure surrounded by sharpened tree trunks. From the outside it looks like a not-very-secure post-apocalyptic fortress. This is in fact Petõfi Csarnok, a sizeable concert venue which in recent times has played host to artists such as Method Man and Redman, John McLaughlin and Nick Cave. At the weekends though, it's a different animal – a flea market where anything goes, and what goes on sale can sometimes beggar belief.
Perhaps the ballsiest item I've seen available was an empty bottle of Unicum - the kind of thing that may well have been polished off earlier that morning, then stuck bravely on the stand in the hope that an unsuspecting tourist would be taken in. Staggered, I asked the stall-holder how much it cost, and he said '6.000 ft' (about 20 pounds). 'Why on earth does it cost 20 pounds?' I replied, and he tipped it up and pointed to a 'very rare mark' on the bottom of the bottle. A very rare mark on the bottom of the bottle?! I'll take two!
Like any flea market, this one has an extremely high junk to not-junk ratio, but there are a few pretty interesting items around. If you're on the lookout for gifts, some of the stalls give you an opportunity to purchase presents for all the family... should your grandfather want a completed stamp collection (4000 forint), your brother, an air rifle (12,000 ft), your Mum, a tablecloth (3000 forint), your Dad, a copy of Quad Desert Anal Fury (2000 ft), and an accordion with a toy spider attached for yourself (God knows how much).
A lick of Hungarian will help when it comes to getting that copy of Quad Desert Anal Fury down to 1400 ft – most prices are negotiable, so make sure you barter. There's plenty of characters there too. A couple of personal favourites are the lady who only sells toys from Kinder Surprise, and has an in-depth knowledge of all of them.
Another great stall is stationed near the entrance, just outside the toilet, run by a very friendly couple whose table is full of cheap communist-era badges and postcards. Although I know Hungarians who are unhappy about people selling this kind of thing (and me buying it), there's something undeniably fascinating about finding a handwritten card posted to Stalinvaros, a name which has long since been swallowed up by history.
For souvenir shopping - forget Váci utca, this is the best place around, and I'm not just saying that because I'm cheap. A final word of advice... the stall holders start packing up from around 11.45, so it's recommended to arrive reasonably early. And, even though they aren't really that great, it's probably not a bad idea to eat a sausage there either. Just so you can really blend in.
Balatoni út [directions]
Buda, XXII, B150 from Kosztolányi Dezső tér
In recent years, you may have seen adverts for “Statue Park: Gigantic Monuments from the age of Communist Dictatorship.” You may even have ventured out to the back of beyond that is the 22nd district and followed the signs to “Szóbor Park”.
Now, some bright spark with an elementary understanding of English, and/or an awkward sense of irony, has renamed it... Memento Park!
Before we get bogged down in detail, let’s get a few things straight:
- The park, under whichever moniker, has a unique, truly remarkable collection of controversial treasure.
- At least two of the statues are gigantic.
- There are no rollercoasters.
- Whoever put this together did it without a great deal of money.
“This crude, monumental brick wall has all the characteristic elements of socialist realism (pillars, arches, wall spaces)”, announces the booklet that you can’t read yet because you haven’t got as far as the shop. This crude, monumental brick wall has, in fact, gone out of its way to look nothing like socialist realist architecture: a blatant concession to the “if it looks too realistic, there’ll be trouble” school of thought.
I admit that it can’t have been easy designing The Park. It was 1993 when it opened, two years after the last Soviet soldier left Hungary. If anybody had dared or wanted to preserve the effect that the statues had when they littered the streets, they might have been lynched!
The red-brick theme pervades the whole park and does have the effect of undermining the statues' presence somewhat. The statues themselves are plentiful and varied, although the Lenin, Marx and Engels out there on the wall would really have helped to add a bit of familiarity, especially with the dearth of information on display.
Just a few sentences for context; and maybe some 'then and now' photos of where the statues used to be located, would have really brought the park to life. If you don’t buy a booklet you’ll be completely stranded, although you won’t have to endure the justifications for the positioning of the statues, which are crassly employed as a metaphor for the path of communism.
(Csepel Iron and Metal Works, 1969, above.)
The recent additions that prompted the name change are largely welcome, if not life-changing. A couple of wooden huts outside give a bit of background on both the park and Hungary's violent past - essential for anyone who's just passing through. There's also a video about Commie spies which is worth at least 5 minutes of your time, if only for the ancient film footage they employ.
Then, outside on “Witness Square”, or “the car park” as it might otherwise be termed, are Stalin's boots, standing almost as they did back in 56, following their owner's 'be-body-ing'. The rostrum then was somewhat more ornate, and obviously didn't employ red brick.
All in all, Sculpture Park, as it will be renamed in 2012, is an achievement in conservation rather than presentation. Hopefully, by that stage, the organisers might consider a facelift. They could do worse than take a few pointers from Csepel Iron and Metal Works, 1969.
Római Part [map]
Buda, III, Romaifürdő (HÉV), 10 min
Ok, I’m on the HÉV. Now what? Keep going until you get to Római Fürdő. Under the underpass, where everyone else is heading and along the quiet, leafy road. Római Fürdő itself, an outdoor bathing complex popular with Hungarians, is worth a stop if you’ve remembered your swimming stuff... maybe if you’d got here a little earlier. Equally, if you’ve brought your tent, you might want to camp out for the night at the campsite. But, if you’re anything like me, you could just keep walking.
It’s a pleasant suburb, and you should already be feeling a lift, and probably, at this point, your girlfriend has started singing “Éhes vagyok!” at you (“I’m hungry!”). Disaster: I didn’t tell you to bring any money! You check your wallet and her purse: you’ve got 1700Ft between you.
Once you reach the river (and this is your destination), you’ll find something like a resort area with a few bars and food stalls, some selling the Hungarian equivalent of fish and chips: fish and chips. Between you, you can just about afford a pint of beer (hair of the dog), a large piece of fish, a couple of bits of bread each and some pickles. The fish is cooked in a breadcrumb batter but there are bones in it, so don’t eat it too recklessly.
Along the river, a path leads the way past hotels that would once have adorned ultra-modern postcards but now sit motionlessly dreaming of the past. Not quite so motionless was the small floating pier, on which we lay peacefully in the sun being violently rocked by the passing boats. If the water really appeals, you can hire canoes, which cope with the waves rather better.
Further along, ice cream, lángos (savoury doughnuts) and palacsinta (pancake) huts will tempt you and I would certainly have bought a palacinta from the hatch at the bottom of someone’s garden, if I'd had sufficient funds. On our remaining 180Ft, we had to settle for a rainbow rocket lolly.
Római Part has its charms: like an old seaside resort that’s just got enough left to keep it ticking over: the river, the sun and the fish being an eternal attraction. In fact, I’m told that the ‘resort’ opens year round, so for some at least, the fish and the river are enough.
Take the HÉV (suburban railway - green and white trains) from Batthyány tér - you can do this on a standard transport ticket or, indeed, a BKV pass. Alternatively, catch a 106 bus from Árpád hid metro stop on the blue M3 line.
Romai Part, Roman banks
Komor Marcell utca 1 [map]
Pest South, IX
Millenniumi Kulturális Központ (T2,24), 1 min
Lágymányosi híd (HÉV), 1 min
There's something encouraging about arriving at an art museum and finding a tango class in the courtyard. I can't help smiling as they dance between the oddly-placed pillars. Already, the Ludwig museum feels refreshing, and happily, this is only the start of it.
In fact, this whole MŰPA/LUMÚ end of town really seems to be forging ahead in a welcome direction. It provides a new angle on the city and a reason to travel as far south as Lágymányosi híd, the southernmost of the city's bridges. Looking up the river from the top of a short but Babel-like tower, I can still see the statue on Gellert Hill, which proves that I'm in Budapest despite the alien surroundings.
The main building, the "Palace of Arts" is shared by art galleries, to the right, Concert Hall and Festival Theatre, to the left. Make sure you take a wander around: design is apparent throughout in ergonomic curves and thoughtful use of space.
The term 'modern art' is a little over-stretched, encompassing at least a century of vastly differing styles. (That anyone should take a dig at modern art as a whole is the kind of stupidity you can only admire.) The Ludwig's own collection embraces movements from the sixties to the end of the nineties. A couple of late Picassos mingle with Warhol's Single Elvis and the dynamic man-and-paint explosions of Hajas Tibor; to name but a few. The collection is usually confined to the third floor but sometimes breaks loose into the temporary galleries.
Temporary exhibitions are also focussed on contemporary art, usually but not exclusively with links to Central and Eastern Europe. In 2008, these include photography and installations from Bosnian-born Braco Dimitrijevic; environmental, conceptual works from Agnes Denes; a whole host of Fluxus artists; and Keith Haring's pop-graffiti. (Full schedule here.)
Leaving the museum with a head full of ideas, I turned back towards the little tower of Babel, noticing the door for the first time. The tower is bigger on the inside, the entrance starting about halfway up a spiral walkway. A host of little twilight rooms exhibit contemporary applied arts: from strange pottery to warped fashions. I couldn’t predict the next room’s contents if I tried.
It's surprises like this that complete the Ludwig museum: capturing the imagination rather than expecting the exhibits themselves to do all the work. Refreshing indeed.
The Palace of Arts/Ludwig Museum is by the Danube in the south part of Pest, right next to Lágymányosi híd. From the city, take either the number 2 tram, which runs along the Danube, or alternatively the HÉV from Boráros tér, one stop in a Csepel direction. From other parts of the city, the 24 and 1 tram are also an option.
LUMU, MŰVÉSZETEK PALOTÁJA, LUDWIG MÚZEUM MUZEUM
Szabó Marcipán Múzeum
Dumtsa Jenő u, Szentendre [map]
18km North of Budapest
Take the HÉV suburban railway from Batthyány tér (M2)
In every major city in the world, you can see churches, art galleries and historical museums but it can be hard to find something that's truly individual. So the idea of a Marzipan Museum might seem quite refreshing. But stop! There’s a reason that the world isn’t littered with marzipan museums…
“Garden with pagoda”, 18kg, 98 hrs: looks like plastic tat. Vases, two of them, not dissimilar to something you’d find in a bargain bin in Poundstretcher, Dollar Tree or Grot.
They’re made from marzipan? I don’t believe it! But how did they manage to get that cheap look? And the paintings, they’re marzipan too? I was sure that was genuine felt tip. But what’s this? Russian dolls that look just like Russian dolls! Marzipan, you say? What, they’re actually made from marzipan? You’ve got to be kidding me!
Presumably, the function of the Marzipan Manufacture section is to demonstrate how these miracles are worked. For now though, we must be content with a part-constructed dinosaur and some pastry cutters. The next enclave is dedicated to plants: a veritable florist’s display of plastic-look pot plants, plus, inexplicably, one goggle-eyed dragon. Conversely, the second cabinet, “Cactuses, pre-historic animals”, seems somewhat devoid of the latter.
Upstairs, I’m overcome with a sense of enchantment at the fairytale wedding cake, fairytale carriage and portrait of the fairytale princess herself, the late Diana. She's sneering. Onward then to a celebration of Hungary: the magnificent parliament building takes centre stage, except that the detail isn’t really detailed enough to be impressive. There’s something about that chocolatey roof and the butter-icing colouring of the stone that, frankly, makes me feel nauseous.
Oh my God, it’s Michael Jackson! A larger-than-life Michael Jackson, circa 1994, with a fat head. It would be rather too flattering to assume that the melted effect was intentional. Likewise, Mozart’s violin looks anything but solid and I imagine the strange din it might produce. On a brighter note, a floral-patterned pillow does faithfully reproduce a stitched effect, and, if I were anywhere else, I would believe that the rack-railway steam engine was made of iron.
Throughout the visit, there’s no free marzipan, which seemed to me to be something of an oversight. Just a little taste, that’s all I ask. It might just have been enough to tempt me into buying some fantastic marzipan sweet sensation or other. In fact, I would recommend that you use the admission fee to do exactly that. Who started all this building stuff out of marzipan anyway? Just eat it. (Cue Michael.)
40km North of Budapest
If you’re planning on visiting the Danube Bend, which you absolutely should, don’t assume that the towns are much the same. While Szentendre is all about the town and Esztergom is all about the cathedral, Visegrád draws you in to the landscape and the remnants of a faded world.
Travelling from Budapest by train takes around an hour and brings you to Nagymaros, the slightly larger one-horse town across the river. It’s pretty unassuming but has a nice blend of ease and charm, its greatest asset being the view of Visegrád. The stunning geography of the hills, piling up on each other like sofa cushions, is punctuated with Salamon’s Tower, the Citadel, a simple church and a smattering of houses hiding amongst the fabric of the trees.
The Danube here takes on the guise of a lake; its breadth looks broader still, as it curves around the hills. The Nagymaros side offers an opportunity to sit by the river on peaceful sandy beaches, without the intrusion of a road. A modest selection of restaurants and bars are also genuinely riverside. After you’re through daydreaming, a small car-ferry connects to the opposite bank.
The centre of Visegrád is essentially a handful of restaurants. However, a few hundred metres along Fő utca are the excavated and partially reconstructed ruins of the Royal Palace. It doesn’t look particularly palatial at first glance, in fact it looks distinctly farmhouse-like, so don’t expect regal grandeur. The cloistered ‘formal courtyard’, with its replica of the Hercules fountain, is the pinnacle and hints at how the palace might have appeared five hundred years ago. The subtlety is perhaps preferable to a complete reconstruction.
On top of the hill rising steeply behind the palace are the ruins of the Citadel. Continuing on foot, a path runs perpendicular to Fő utca, passing the brutally restored Salamon’s Tower. The journey to the summit is demanding. Turning one corner, I see half a dozen people negotiating the slope, moving awkwardly from side to side like extras from Dr Who. If you’re a smoker, prepare to wheeze, or alternatively take the bus.
Reaching the summit though is worth the endeavour, despite having to pay if you want to get anywhere near the stunning views. The Citadel itself is embellished with tableaux of medieval life, houses a waxwork museum and is home to some rather unpleasant smelling horses, all of which are a little superfluous (particularly the horses.) They do little to detract from the scenery though, which is simply magnificent.
isegrad, Vishgrad, Vishegrad, Najmaros, Nadjmaros, Nagmaros
Take a train from Nyugati palyaudvar to Nagymaros (1hr), or alternatively take a boat, if a three-and-a-half hour trip appeals to you. There's also a hydrofoil that only takes an hour, if you have money to burn.
Állatkerti körút, Városliget [map]
Pest, XIV, Széchenyi Fürdő (M1), 1 min
The prospect of a trip to the baths tends to conjure mixed feelings. It’s certainly quintessential Budapest and those who don’t try it will surely have a niggling regret. But most people also find it a pretty daunting experience, especially if they’re already aware of the level of customer service in the city, i.e. zero. So the trick is to match your expectations to reality and take a few precautions so that you can actually relax.
Széchenyi baths is a great option for the first-time bather. It's frequented by a lot of tourists, so you needn’t feel like you’re the only one who has no idea about what you’re doing. That’s not to say that the staff will be eager to help you but it’s comforting to know that other people aren’t being helped either. It’s also architecturally outstanding – turn of the century neo-baroque – so the chances of you leaving without appreciating something are fairly slim.
The main entrance faces the road, rather than the park (Városliget) and there are multiple ticket options, which may be a bit confusing. Take the cheapest and you’ll get your money’s worth with three outdoor pools, some pungent indoor pools of wildly varying temperature, and even the use of gym equipment, if you can find it! Should you want to step up the pampering level, the words ‘massage’ and ‘sauna’ should be understood too. For current prices, check here.
Whatever you do, don’t go expecting a pristine health-farm environment, that’s not what this is about, and some parts of the building are looking a little worse for wear. There’ll also be unidentifiable stuff in some of the pools, and you won’t know if it’s something to do with the minerals or not.
Széchenyi’s assets, though, are plentiful. Relaxing outdoors in hot spring water in such impressive surroundings is not something you can do just anywhere. On colder days especially, the steam rising from the pool creates a unique, even mystical atmosphere. There’s a time-stood-still feeling about the place, like you’re part of an ancient tradition, which of course, you are. And no matter how you’ve been mistreating your body, you’ll find some sanctuary here. If you really want to go the whole hog, take a chess set with you and enjoy being tutted at by the locals for making idiotic moves.
1) Take a towel, a swimming costume, and maybe some flip-flops. Although you can hire the former, it’s easier and cheaper if you don’t.
2) If you're going to worry about the security of your valuables, leave them at home; the whole point of the baths is to relax. Just take enough money to see you through: 10,000Ft will cover even the most indulgent bather.
3) The locker situation has really improved recently - find an open one and put the swipe card into the slot on the back of the door. In addition to the standard lockers, there are some pretty insecure ‘security’ lockers, which the baths don't take reponsibility for anyway, (and theft is not unheard of.)
4) Put any ticket-like things that you’re given at the entrance in the same pocket. You get a (small) partial refund if you stay for less than three hours, but the staff can be a bit officious when it comes to trying to claim it.
5) Explore. Don't worry about walking the wrong way - just take a chance or there's a good chance you'll miss half of what's on offer. About a dozen pools, steam room and sauna are all included in the standard ticket.
6) If you want to use the swimming pool, take a swimming cap, since they’re obligatory for anyone with hair.
Széchenyi baths has its own metro stop on the yellow line, M1, “Széchenyi Fürdő.” The huge yellow building with several spires houses the baths.
Szechenyi, Szécheni, Szecheni, Séchenyi, Sechenyi, Secheni, furdo, lido
Andrássy út 60 [map]
Pest Centre, VI, Oktogon (M1, T4/6), 2 min
Recent Hungarian history doesn’t get a great deal of press, so a museum that really examines its brutal, fractured past has the potential to be of enormous value. The House of Terror, though, sounds more like a fairground ride. I wonder whether that’s just a translational blip or whether there’s some serious wrong-headed thinking afoot...
From the word go, imagery does most of the talking. In the entrance hall, two symbolic gravestones are dedicated to those who suffered at the hands of the Arrowcross (Hungarian fascists) and the AVH (Soviet secret police), both of whom used 60, Andrássy út as their headquarters. A little further in, a tank sits in a pool of water, surrounded by victims' faces. Then, in the first room of the exhibition, photographs of a forlorn Budapest flash before your eyes, as the city finds itself caught in the cross-fire of World War II. A specially composed soundtrack confirms that we're in Spielberg territory and therefore may not be getting the most balanced reading of history here.
Despite this, for the uninitiated there's a lot to glean about Hungary's past: the evaporation of much of her territory; the sense that history was under someone else's control; the replacement of one regime with another and with it the requirement to be a fascist one minute and a communist the next. Many of the issues facing modern Hungary can be traced back to these events.
Substance however comes a definite second to style. It’s no coincidence that Orwell’s 1984 springs to mind: there are flatscreen TVs everywhere, but only two carry English subtitles. As the museum unfolds along its predetermined route, the images just keep piling up, while the information never quite materialises. Certainly there are A4 pieces of paper that you can read along the way but they rarely reference the exhibits.
Design continues to outstrip appropriateness. The deliberately sluggish three-minute journey down to the basement, accompanied by the description of a hanging is presumably supposed to be touching. In reality it’s in pretty bad taste and, in a lift crammed with people, is close on ridiculous. Finally we arrive at the prison cells in the basement, which should make me feel something, since the brutality really happened here. But it's too late. Perhaps if I hadn’t known that they were reconstructed, perhaps if the rest of the museum had been a little more balanced, a little less slick...
The House of Terror has often been accused of being a politically motivated project, an attempt to discredit the Socialist party, having been commissioned by the old Fidesz government. Of course, others say that the Socialists would rather pretend that none of it ever happened. Where the truth lies is hard to say, but certainly, a wall of photos of victims of the AVH, followed by a wall of Communist Party members does seem a lot like finger-pointing and, as with the rest of the museum, doesn't do much for impartiality.
Walk up Andrássy út from Oktogon and the House of Terror is on the left after two blocks: a normal looking building painted entirely in pale blue and framed with the word TERROR.
Terrorhaza, Terror Háza, Terrorháza, Terrorhouse
János Hegy [map]
Buda, XII, János Hegy (Childrens' Railway), 15 min
One of the great advantages of Budapest is that it’s really easy to get out of. I love the city, don’t get me wrong, but every couple of weeks, I like to breathe unpolluted air; I like to see green things; I like to listen and hear nothing.
Thankfully, Budapest has its very own built-in countryside. Buda’s hills are the nearest faraway place. From the centre of town, you can be at Moszkva tér in ten minutes. After two stops on tram 56, you’re still in the city. But as soon as the cogwheel railway starts juddering and jolting, you know that you’ve escaped.
After a few minutes, the train pauses at a curious backwater. The houses of the well-to-do hide amongst the trees and the city visibly retreats into the distance. When you first use the cogwheel railway, you’ll realise that it’s less romantic than it sounds. It’s just bog-standard BKV transport, functional at best, but its function is romantic enough to make it a pleasant trip.
At the terminus, a short walk across the park brings you to the Children’s Railway, which is an enjoyable farce. There’s a mosaic in the station building that speaks volumes about the pride that the Soviets took in their scouts movement. Happy but disciplined children blow whistles and wave flags. Today, somehow, this tradition has been preserved. Three children salute us as the train pulls out of the station.
At János-Hegy, crooked steps lead out of the station and along a path which winds up towards the summit. Thankfully, a few stalls sell drinks and snacks before the steep climb to the lookout tower. The tower itself, looking fresh from its renovation in 2005, is more than a little reminiscent of the Fisherman’s bastion. It marks the highest point in Budapest and the views, naturally, are outstanding: in one direction, the city’s miniature landmarks; in the other, rolling hills coated in a deep green fleece.
For the descent, forget about the railways and head for the chairlift. Gliding down the hill, with the city opening out ahead of you is simply serene, or, if you’re a little wary of heights, exhilarating. Take a deep breath as you reach the bottom and ponder how to get off the damn thing, and with any luck, you might still have some oxygen left in your lungs by the time you get back to the city.
To follow the route above, take the 56 tram from Moszkva tér two stops to the Cogwheel railway terminus at Városmajor. Travel the entire length of the cogwheel railway, which should take about 25 minutes and costs just a single BKV ticket. At the Széchenyi-hegy terminus, bear left past a small cafe and continue on foot to the Children's Railway station at the end of the road. János Hegy is the fourth stop. After decending by chairlift, take a 158 bus back to Moszkva tér. You can take the chairlift both ways, if you prefer.
Janos Hegy, Hedge, Hill
Kossuth tér [map]
Pest Centre, V,
Kossuth tér (M2, T2/2a), 0 min
Budapest doesn’t have the highest international profile, which affords me a great satisfaction in showing people where I live. At Batthyány tér metro we head for the far escalator in a well-rehearsed act. My unsuspecting guest rambles on about something which will be abruptly forgotten as soon as we emerge by the side of the Danube. The Parliament’s score of spires reach into the sky, as the river winds under a trio of bridges before disappearing somewhere at the foot of Gellért Hill.
This is undoubtedly among the finest cityscapes in Europe, and the Parliament building is its crowning glory. But don’t satisfy yourself with having glanced over the river at it.
Getting into the Parliament is no mean feat, so a little guile might avert serious queues and mild sunstroke. English tours are by far the most popular so if you’re not too worried about catching all the facts and stats, it might be worth taking a chance on your foreign language skills. Visits are by guided tour only but they are free for EU citizens, provided you remember your passport. For information on tours and tickets, click here.
Any misgivings about the toil required to get inside are quickly dispelled. The route through the building is an acclimatisation to grandeur. I’ve wandered around a few cathedrals in my time but never have I seen such a concentration of grandiosity (bear in mind that I haven't been to Rome.) And yet, the fact that a lobby can be so sumptuous, and a staircase so magnificent, is mere preparation for what lies beneath the dome.
The ceiling of the cupola is a spider’s web of gold and green; a sixteen pointed star; the light of Hungarian democracy. It fuses effortlessly with the stained glass windows and is quite dizzyingly awe-inspiring. The centrepiece is the Holy Crown, the symbol of Hungary’s 1000 year history, first worn by the nation’s founding father, St. Istvan.
Meanwhile, a visit to one of two near-identical chambers, depending on whether the national assembly is in session, reminds us that this is a functioning parliament, which proves to be surprisingly modern. Each seat in a horseshoe of antique-looking pews is activated by a personal swipe-card, allowing MPs to submit their “yays” and “nays” electronically.
The success with which the Parliament depicts a glorious tradition of democracy is truly impressive, and shows no sign of the century of political instability that has accompanied its existence. For the other half of the story, turn to Kossuth tér itself, which bears one or two scars.
The Parliament lies on Kossuth tér and as the largest building in the country, you can't miss it as you emerge from the metro or tram stop.
parlement, parlament, congress, hub choice
No matter how long you're in Budapest for, there are a few places we think you should really check out. So we've created:
Click on the logo above, or in the right-hand menu in any of the sections: bars & cafes; eating out; or sightseeing, to find our list of unmissables. Or just keep your eyes peeled for the tag.
If there's anywhere you think we've overlooked, please let us know.