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Jess Mc Murray
The world is split into two types of people. Those who say Buda-pest, and those who say Buda-pesht. Both sides have pretty strong feelings about the other. I won’t disclose which side of the fence I sit on, but I will tell you that for those not in the know, Buda and Pest are two different halves of the city, sitting on either side of the great and mighty Danube river – linked for the first time only in 1849 by the Chain Bridge.
The two sides are often described as holding dramatically different personalities; Buda is the quieter but grandly imposing hillside half – with huge swathes of woods ideal for the city-weary backpacker who would like to get out into the countryside and not see another human for hours on end. It too is the home of the Citadella, which gives unrivalled vistas across the Danube and across bustling Pest. It is also home to the children’s railway – a narrow gauge railway that trundles through the hills and is manned entirely by 14-16 year olds. (I’m relatively sure this is a cutesy initiative to empower and encourage children in their entrepreneurial efforts, rather than the use of slave labour, but you might want to go and check this for yourself).
Over across in Pest, you’ll find much more of a true ‘city’ vibe – a place filled with bars and cafes, bustle and people. Pest is much more spread out than some of its European counterparts – there’s no quickly identifiable central square or old walled town, though guides will refer to inner circles and outer circles and Belvaros – the historical centre.
Buda and Pest are very accessible, either by a relatively comprehensible series of trams and metro lines, or – for those feeling more energetic – by foot (and you’ll never be short of a café or bar for a bit of reinvigorating refreshment). If you’re using public transport, you buy tickets at newsstands or metro stations, and they’re good for a single ride – if you’re transferring between lines then you’ll need a new ticket.
So what might you choose to do as you’re wandering through the tall, apartment-lined streets? In terms of the more traditional sightseeing, three of the ‘tick-box’ visits are Parliament, Heroes Square and Szechenyi baths.
The Parliament is truly stunning – best viewed from the Buda side as dusk is setting and the building and bridges are lit up in all their glory. Tours are available inside.
If you want to see more bling than Kanye, Kate Middleton the DoC, and any particular K Jenner you can think of (what is it with K names and gold, eh?). Just down the river bank from here is the ‘Shoes on the Danube Bank’ sculpture, a very poignant reminder of 3,500 people who were taken to the river bank in 1945, asked to remove their shoes, and then shot and pushed into the river.
Heroes Square is impressive – and, depending on how excited you get by Hungarian chieftains and kings – also very interesting, and is flanked by the Palace of Art and Museum of Fine Art, as well as the City Park, providing a full day of entertainment.
For a completely different day to help you recover from all that history and culture, you can hit the heated pools of Szechenyi (or other options such as Kiraly and Gellert). Not only are these worth visiting for the indulgence and relaxation, but they are architecturally grand and an adventure to explore, with a maze of heated pools, steam rooms and plunge pools, along with various massage options.
If you really feel like over-indulging though, Trofea is the place to go. There are three locations around the city, and the concept is ‘all you can eat and drink’. But not in that ‘dump it all in a vat, fill them up on carbs’ way. For the equivalent of about 20 euros, you can drink unlimited beer, wine or ‘champagne’ (Hungarian sparkling wine really, but that doesn’t sound quite as grand), and eat stunningly presented sushi, foie gras, steak tartare, sliced meats, salads and items cooked for you on the grill (as well as a killer dessert station). Trofea is one of the only all-you-can-eats that doesn’t make me feel like a lesser human being at the end of the evening, and is honestly worth the price of a ticket to Budapest alone.
No round-up of a city would be complete without a little exploration of the food on offer, and the best place to learn about Hungary’s food traditions is to check out the wonderful ingredients on offer at the Central Market Hall. Here you will find stalls groaning with fruit, vegetables, cheeses and cured meats – as well as the vibrant red stalls with famous Hungarian paprika packaged in every available size and shape. Upstairs there are various ‘handmade’ crafts (so that will sort out a gift for Auntie June, because who doesn’t love a bit of crochet and engraved wooden spoons?). Most importantly though, there are a range of ‘street food’ stalls offering delicious spicy sausages, traditional Hungarian goulash and Paprikash and Langos (fried dough loaded with cheese and sour cream – as delicious as it is greasy).
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