Take a couple of days to explore the atmospheric streets of Hungary’s capital, finding tumbledown pubs, thermal baths and contemporary design shops nudging against grand civic buildings and the gloriously blue Danube. Wandering through, fill up on old Magyar favorites in a Soviet-style canteen or local produce from a farmers’ market.
1. The journey: Budavári Sikló
The doors of Margit are pulled shut, its passengers huddled within, and the tiered, wooden funicular is hoisted up Castle Hill, clanking beneath two wrought-iron pedestrian bridges on its 95-metre journey. Opened in 1870, the Budavári Sikló funicular still exerts a particular pull on visitors to Budapest: you can’t come and not ride at least once in its burgundy carriages. Emerging at the top, people soon disperse – some stopping to take photos with the armed sentries guarding the presidential palace, others rummaging for lace in an antiques shop or stopping for a Borsodi beer on a cobbled square. All will end up at Fisherman’s Bastion, a fanciful, Neo-Gothic terrace, complete with turrets, and dragons hiding in the stonework. It’s worth jostling past the inevitable crowds to peer through the bastion’s open windows at the Danube and Parliament far below, before diving back into the quieter streets of Castle Hill and making your own discoveries.
2. The excursion: Magitsziget island
Okay, it’s not really an excursion: Margitsziget is very much part of Budapest. Hop across to the island plopped in the Danube though, and thoughts of the city fade very quickly. Home to religious building from the 12th century, it saw a change of purpose in the 20th century: this is now holiday land, Hungarian style. Families and friends hop on to all manner of contraptions – electric scooters, go-karts, canopied bicycles – and whizz through the parks, pausing to watch the dancing fountains, play a game of ping-pong or lick ice cream in the shade of a ruined convent. The daytime shrieks of kids careering down the water slides of Palatinus Strand are replaced at dusk by the drifting strains of tango: couples, frowning in concentration, dance beneath the chandeliers at Holdudvar hall. Dance finished, it’s time for one last beer before heading back to the city.
3. The sight: Hungarian Parliament
The Holy Crown of Hungary, which perched atop the heads of its monarchs for more than 900 years, sits on a red velvet cushion in a glass case, protected by sabre-twirling guards and watched over by statues of the country’s most celebrated kings, queens and princes. Around it, visitors swirl, gazing into the case, up at the stained glass in the double-domed ceiling, and back out towards the grand staircase, a gilded Baroque wonder too ornate to absorb in a single glance. In Budapest’s parliament, it’s very hard to know where to look next. The building was years ahead of its time when it opened in 1904. It had electric lighting, air-conditioning, lifts and ventilation, and, in a typically egalitarian move, statues representing all the professions of Hungary at the time, from saddle-makers to shepherds (all of them elaborately moustachioed). There are more idiosyncratic designs in here too. In every corridor, brass holders are built into the walls, ready to clutch the lit cigars of members while they disappeared into the assembly hall for speeches and votes. If a speech was interesting enough to keep their attention while their cigar burnt down outside, it was said to be “worth a Havana”. A visit to parliament today is worth much more than that.