Last time I was in Budapest it was summertime, with thunderstorms threatening to crack the warm humidity and we took the children to watch the Hungarian folk dancing for the St Stephen’s day festival. This time I was back in February with a breath of snow in the air, but the promise of spring just around the corner. This was a family trip of a different sort; I had 48 hours with my parents and sisters, to see the sights, eat some great food and have as much fun as possible together.
I hope you enjoy the video below about our 48 hours in Budapest
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For such a short trip, I think the choice of a hotel can really make or break the experience, so after reviewing the many hotel options on the Avios website, we decided to go for 5 star Intercontinental Hotel. This classy hotel combines location and luxury and is perfectly positioned on the banks of the Danube, close to most of the main sites of Budapest.
The bedroom window framed a postcard view of the Royal Palace on the Castle Hill, so it seemed obvious to make this the first area to explore. A brisk walk across the Chain Bridge and we found ourselves at the foot of the hill, in front of the funicular which is more of a tourist attraction than something that the locals use. I guess it’s one of those try-it-once kind of things, but a little expensive at 1000 HUF (£2.90) or 1700 HUF (£4.90) return for the 5 minute journey. I’d already tried-it-once on my previous visit, so instead we decided to climb the easy paths that run up the hill. Once at the top, we followed the stone steps to the wrought iron gates that guard the Royal Palace and found ourselves in a wide paved square, beside the upper funicular station.
The Castle Hill
At the top of the hill the views from the balustrade towards the Pest side of the city and down the Danube were spectacular. In front of the Sandor Palace we watched the soldiers marching back and forth and stamping to attention, as they guarded the residence of the Hungarian President. It was pretty chilly, so we kept moving along the cobble street that runs along the top of the hill towards the St Matthias Church.
On our last visit in the summer a couple of years before, the family had decided to let me look around the St Matthias church alone, and sat in a shady cafe just opposite while I went inside. The church interior was surprisingly colourful with painted frescoes and pillars in rich shades of red and ochre. I recalled hearing somewhere, that many Medieval churches had paintwork that was far more colourful than the bare grey stonework that we see today. I loved the multicoloured tiled roof of the church which is not the original, but was replaced when the church was restored after shelling in the Second World War.
In front of the church is the Fisherman’s Bastion, a fantasy colonnade of turrets and arches, built at the end of the 19th century as a monument to the Guild of Fishermen. Here we found more spectacular views towards the Hungarian Parliament Building on the opposite side of the river, built on a similar design to the Houses of Parliament in London. In summer when we were here, there were open air cafes set up on the battlements and in the arcades, and I listened to the gypsy violinists playing Hungarian folk music for the customers, giving everyone outside a free concert. In February it was far from balmy, so we warmed up in the nearby Ruszwurm Cukrászda cafe over a coffee and slice of strudel.
St Stephen’s Basilica
Back on the other side of the river we walked from the Intercontinental to St Stephen’s Basilica, another major landmark of Budapest, with a dome that dominates the skyline. We had a browse around the souvenir shops in the square and the side streets near the Cathedral which are full of little restaurants and bars, making this a good area to eat out (we tried the Strudel House later that evening). We decided to return to the cathedral for Mass the following Sunday morning and afterwards had a look around the Basilica, which is named after King Stephen I, the first king of Hungary who brought Christianity to his country. Canonised after his death, the saint’s mummified hand is displayed in one of the chapels of the Basilica and is paraded every year on St Stephen’s Day (20 August) which is a national holiday.
Later that afternoon we walked along Andrassy Avenue, an elegant boulevard with shops selling all the top international brands. We passed by the State Opera House, which I would also have loved to visit, on our way to 60 Andrassy Avenue, now known as The House of Terror.
The House of Terror
This museum was once the headquarters of the Hungarian Nazis and until the 1950s housed the communist state terror organisations, where suspects were brought to be interrogated, tortured and executed in the bleak basement prison cells. The museum gives a fascinating insight to how the Hungarian population suffered under Nazi and later communist rule, and is a monument to the victims of terror.
Inside the foyer, we were greeted by a black and white wall of the faces of the victims who suffered here, together with a tank trapped within the inner courtyard, reflecting in a shallow pool of dark water. On the upper floors we passed through a series of exhibition rooms with films and videos showing marching armies and care worn faces of old men and women telling their stories of evacuation, deportation and oppression under the communist regime. The tour ended with a slow descent in the lift down to the basement to a video commentary about the process of execution and then we walked past the cold prison cells. Our visit to the House of Terror was a stark but fascinating and compelling experience that I would highly recommend if you want to understand Hungary’s recent history.
The No 2 Tram
If you want a low cost sightseeing tour, jump on the No 2 tram that runs along the river and stops outside the Intercontinental Hotel. In one direction the tram will take you past the Hungarian Parliament Building to Margaret Bridge and Margaret Island, where we enjoyed an afternoon dip in the open air Palatine Baths on our summer visit. In the other direction, the tram will take you towards the Central Market and Liberty Bridge which you cross to reach the Gellért Baths. You just need to stop at a convenience store to buy a book of tram tickets, which you validate on the tram each time you use one.
The Gellért Baths
On Sunday afternoon after Mass at St Stephen’s Cathedral and an elegant brunch at The New York Cafe, we took the tram to the Gellért Baths for that quintessential Budapest spa experience. This is one thing that’s equally fun in summer or winter; in summer the outdoor pools and terraces are open, while in the winter you can linger in the steamy Turkish baths with sauna and heated pools. The baths are part of the Gellért Hotel, but if you enter at the side, you’ll come straight into the glass domed foyer to buy your ticket at the kiosk. You’ll be given a rubber wrist band with a magnetic disc which gets you through the turnstiles and opens your changing cubicle where you can leave your clothes and belongings securely locked up.
In the central bath you need to wear a swimming cap, but in the other heated pools this is not required. There’s a small heated pool next to the larger one but at the far and of the baths from the entrance you’ll find heated Turkish baths and saunas as well as treatment cubicles on both side of the building. It’s worth checking which day to go as it seems that on some days, the two identical Turkish baths are segregated into male and female, while on other days all areas are mixed. Last time my parents came to Budapest and tried the Gellért Baths, they were directed to different changing rooms and spent some time wandering around, trying to find each other again. We had a good couple of hours trying out all the pools – our favourite was the beautifully tiled Turkish bath and we braved a run up the cold stone steps to the outdoor pool, which was thankfully heated once we got in. Bring your own swimsuit, towel and cap, as these seemed relatively expensive to hire, and flip flops are also useful to keep your feet off the cold and sometimes grubby floor.
The Central Market
On our final morning, we took the No 2 tram again to the Central Market which I’d also visited on my previous trip. The large, glass roofed indoor market is great to walk around and admire all the fresh fruit and veg, as well as the many stalls specialising in meat products of sausages and goose live pate. There were also as a large number of stalls just devoted to selling all kinds of Paprika products, the favourite spice of Hungary.
Upstairs there are stall selling handicrafts and souvenirs and this is a good place to come to buy small gifts to take home, such as the painted eggs that I’ve been collecting to bring out at Easter or hang from my Christmas tree. Along one side there are also a number of food stalls selling snacks and beer. You might like to try the Lángos which is a typical Hungarian street food; a kind of flat doughnut that’s served with many different sweet and savoury toppings, but traditionally spread with cream cheese with a sprinkling of grated cheese.
After lunch at the Central Market it was time to head back to the hotel to pick up our bags and take our taxi to the airport. We’d packed a lot in to our 48 hours in Budapest, revisited some old haunts and made new discoveries, had fun in the process, but still left plenty to uncover for next time.
More things to enjoy in Budapest
Avios is an easy way to collect points at the places you shop online everyday, when you buy fuel or spend on your credit card. Then you can exchange the points for a flight, hotel, holiday or fun day out with your family. There’s plenty of inspiration on the Avios website to start planning your next citybreak. You can follow Avios on Twitter @AviosUK or on their AviosUK Facebook page and see some flying lawnmowers on the Avios YouTube channel
Through Avios we booked the luxurious 5 star Intercontinental Hotel Budapest which was perfectly positioned beside the Danube for sightseeing. The hotel has a lovely spa with a pool for those early morning swims as well as relaxing treatments. The hotel can be booked using your Avios Points and a room similar to ours at the time that we were there in February was around 15,000 Avios points or £150-180 per room/night including breakfast but may be higher in peak season. It’s worth looking out for packages that include breakfast and use of the exclusive Club Lounge. You can follow the Intercontinental Budapest on Twitter @ICBudapest and on their Intercontinental Budapest Facebook Page.
Thanks to Avios and Intercontinental Budapest for hosting our 48 hours in Budapest.
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