For short European city-breaks, one of my favourite guide books has to be the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Top 10 series – read on for my review of the Budapest Guide and some of the things we enjoyed in Budapest.
If you’re a regular reader of Heather on her travels, it won’t be news that I’m a fan of the DK Eyewitness Travel Top 10 guidebook series – after all I’ve used and reviewed the Munich Top 10 guide and the Lisbon Top 10 guides on the blog in the past.
These guides are a handy handbag size, but they manage to pack in plenty of information on the top things to see and do, not to mention practical tips and a pull-out map.
The format is best for those who already have their accommodation booked and are interested in sightseeing and exploring a city and want to pack in as much of interest as possible. The guides have the colourful, photo rich presentation and easy to follow lay-out that Dorling Kindersley is known for and will give you a range of Top 10 things to see and do, with the detailed information you need on each recommendation.
As an example the first section of the Budapest guide recommends 10 Budapest highlights, from the Hungarian Parliament building to the Gellert Hotel and Baths, with a couple of more detailed pages on each one. Then there is a section on different Top 10 themes, such as Top 10 Baths and swimming pools or Top 10 Danube sights. The third section divides the city into different neighbourhoods, and in each one lists the recommended things to see and Top 10 cafes and pubs, with a suggested walking tour that will take you around some of the sights in a day. The final section covers useful information, such as shopping tips, getting around and hotel recommendations. Even if you’re not a great fan of Top 10 lists, you can see how using a guide that’s selective like this is really helpful when you’re just visiting Budapest for a few days or a weekend as we were.
When we are travelling en famille, it’s impossible to make detailed plans that will please everybody, so I normally try to pick out one or two things that we hope to see each day and go with the flow for the rest of the time. Here are some of the things that we really enjoyed on our visit to Budapest, that were also recommended in the DK Eyewitness Top 10 guide to Budapest.
Memento Park, situated on the outskirts of the city contains statues and icons from Hungary’s Communist past, and is recommended in the guide as one of the Top 10 highlights of Budapest. I’d agree with that, as we really enjoyed our visit in August, although I suspect that the place might be a bit bleak in winter.
The design of the park incorporates a philosophical message about the Communist era in an imposing brick facade with little substance behind it and ending in a wall, symbolising a road that leads to nowhere. The park is full of statues of Hungary’s communist leaders, with the one exception of Stalin, as he was so reviled that after the fall of communism, his enormous statue was pulled down, leaving only the boots which now stand on top of a plinth outside the park walls.
We took an English tour of Memento park with a young guide who had grown up under communism, and my children enjoyed posing by the old ‘Trabbie’ car and listening in on the communist hotline to the speeches of Communist leaders. In the courtyard outside the park there’s another exhibition room where we watched an extremely spooky film used for training secret agents – I’ll now always be suspicious of men in suits who leave their briefcases on the coffee table, in case they’re secretly filming me.
Read my article about Memento Park – Icon’s of Budapest’s Communist past
Margaret Island – Palatinus strand
One of the musts for a trip to Budapest is the thermal bath or spa experience that is part of the Hungarian culture. The most famous of these baths is the Gellert Hotel and Baths, but there are many others scattered around the city. With two teenagers to entertain, we looked for baths that are family-friendly and found them in the Palatinus Strand on Margaret Island. Margaret Island is mentioned in the guide as one of the Top 10 things to do in Budapest and is an island in the middle of the Danube that can be reached by bridge or ferry and is a favourite green space for locals to take a weekend stroll, or go jogging, cycling or rollerblading.
The island is named after Princess Margaret, the daughter of King Bela IV, who in 1242 vowed that if God would spare his country from further invasion by the Mongol invaders, he would give his daughter to God. The nine year old princess was promptly sent to live on a convent on the island, where she stayed for the rest of her life.
There are a couple of bath complexes on Margaret Island, but Palatinus Strand is the larger of the two and is a complex of out-door pools, some with waterslides and wave machines, others with fountains and jets and still others with warm thermal water. Palatinus Strand is mentioned in the guide both as one of the Top 10 Children’s attractions and Top 10 Baths and swimming pools in Budapest. You can have treatments at the complex and the place has a rather old fashioned air with slightly crumbling concrete buildings and cafes. We spent a couple of hours there swimming and relaxing and had lunch from the outdoor cafe that sold a mixture of burgers, pizzas and Hungarian specialities like fried chicken livers.
On the Buda side of the city, the ground rises steeply above the River Danube, with a stone look-out point of the ornate Fisherman’s Bastion and behind it the Mátyás Church, both of which are major tourist attractions. The Mátyás church is in the guide as one of the Top 10 Budapest sites and it is notable for the colourful tiled roof and the interior that is also painted in the same rich shades of red, teracotta and green.
The church is only open to tourists at certain times, and if you go in wearing a top that leaves your shoulders bare, you’ll be given a scarf to cover yourself up. As the family are not that bothered about looking around old churches, I left them in a pleasant outdoor cafe in the small park just opposite and went in on my own, taking the English language audio-guide, to find out about the history of the place.
Afterwards we climbed up on the Fisherman’s bastion where there is a cafe on the walkway around the walls, and where you can get an amazing view over the Danube towards the Hungarian Parliament Building. There was a gypsy band playing for the tourists, and we listened for a while and then continued along the top of the hill towards the Hungarian National Gallery.
Just across the river from the Fisherman’s Bastion and Matyas Church is the Hungarian Parliament Building mentioned as another Top 10 sight in Budapest. The parliament building was completed in 1902 and was inspired by the Houses of Parliament in London, with its river frontage and neo-gothic style. There are daily tours but we contented ourselves with the fantastic view we got from our bedroom window from Art’otel, the hotel where we stayed, just opposite.
Hungarian Arts and Crafts festival
After visiting Matyus Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion we walked down towards the Hungarian National Gallery, mentioned as another Top 10 Budapest site. However, as we got closer and found craft and food stalls, we realised that the Hungarian Arts and Crafts Festival was in full swing in the grounds all around the Castle District. We paid to enter and found many different stalls selling traditional crafts such as painted eggs, ceramics and embroidered textiles. There was also a stage where a succession of folk groups and singers were performing as well as traditional Hungarian dancers with plenty of skirt twirling by the ladies and boot slapping by the men. The festival is named as one of the Top 10 Festivals and events and takes place every year in August.
The Chain bridge and the Castle Funicular
Once we had enough of the crafts and gypsy violinists, we found ourself at the top of the Castle Funicular, with a great view over the Chain Bridge, another Budapest landmark and one of the Top 10 Danube sights in the guidebook. The bridge was the first permanent crossing between the two originally separate cities of Buda and Pest and was completed in 1849, with towers supporting the enormous chains from which the tower gets its name. The Funicular is another Top 10 Danube Sight and is popular with tourists, although to be honest it was rather expensive, for the very short ride down, that could have been easily walked.
We were only in Budapest for two full days, at the beginning and the end of a week’s stay in Hungary that was mainly spent at Lake Balaton, but I’m amazed how many things we managed to pack in to that time.
Not that I want you think that we’re into tick box sightseeing, but we found plenty to enjoy just by wandering around the key areas or by planning to go out of our way to see a few specific things that proved to be worth the recommendation.
I’d recommend the Eyewitness Travel Top 10 Guide to Budapest from Dorling Kindersley as a great small guide if you only have a short time to visit the city and want to choose some key sights to focus on. Like all good travellers, I’m sure you’ll also come across your own favourite places just by wandering the neighbourhoods and seeing what you come across.
Do let me know whether you explored any of the places we visited and whether you found them to be worth their Top 10 recommendation – or perhaps you have your own Top 10 list to share?
The Top 10 Eyewitness travel guide to Budapest by Craig Turp costs £7.99 and can be bought from Amazon, the Dorling Kindersley website and other good bookshops and can find more information about the series on the Dorling Kindersley website here.
Disclosure – I received a complimentary copy of the Dorling Kindersley Top 10 guide for the purposes of this review
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