It was a less than serene start to our first morning in Budapest. We’d overslept, owing to blackout curtains and a non-functioning alarm, and had therefore jumped out of bed, into some clothes and out onto the streets of the city before being fully awake. We were on the hunt for a hot, caffeinated beverage, but the city seemed strangely shut down and deserted. It was after 9 on a Monday morning – most capitals would be buzzing.
Finally, we found a cafe open for business – after walking for 15 minutes. Soon, we were revitalised and ready to face the day – and slowly, Budapest began to rouse for the day.
That first quirk of Budapest was quickly followed by its first charm: the glorious Basilica San Esteban, or St. Stephen’s Basilica. Named in honour of Hungary’s first King and patron saint, it is impressive enough on the outside, with its classical pillars and domed roof, but inside it is something else. I don’ t think I have ever been into such an ornate Church – it seems to be more or less gold-plated.
Feeling satisfied that we’d sampled our first bit of Budapest culture (The California Coffee Company cafe can’t really count!) we bought tickets for a hop-on-hop-off bus tour. A sales rep along one of the main streets had told us we could have them more cheaply than the face value suggested, so my friends nominated me to go and haggle with the woman selling the tickets. I was ready to protest, but she merrily sold them at the reduced price of 4,000 ft (about £12), including an evening river cruise and a coupon for free goulash. Clearly February is not tourist season in Budapest.
No sooner had we hopped on the bus than we discovered the second quirk of Budapest – the Michael Jackson tribute tree. Opposite the Kempinski Hotel, where Jackson reportedly stayed when he visited the city, one of the trees has been covered in pictures and letters dedicated to Jacko. I was beginning to love Budapest.
The rest of the bus tour proceeded relatively sedately; we enjoyed the views as we crossed the bridge over the Danube from the Pest side and into Buda. Further down the river, we could see the Chain Bridge – the most beautiful of Budapest’s bridges. Ahead of us we could see the dreamy spires of Buda’s old town. So far, so charming.
We got out at Castle Hill to explore, and were bowled over by the panoramic views of the city. It was a chilly, misty sort of a day, and the Pest skyline of domes and spires, though not far away, was shrouded ethereally. It made taking good photos difficult, but certainly added to the drama of the views.
Walking through the cobbled streets of the Old Town, we were struck by another quirk: there were Christmas decorations still adorning shop windows and and doorways. The weather was still wintery, but it struck us as distinctly odd that, in mid-February, nobody had thought to take them down. Clearly, it’s not considered bad luck to leave them up after Epiphany.
By the time we returned to the Pest side of the river, it had fairly come to life. Suddenly, there seemed to be cafes everywhere, there were people thronging in the streets, shops doing business. Monday must just be a late start. My kind of city! We enjoyed the sights until it got dark, then, feeling the chill, retreated to our hotel – the beautiful Boscolo New York Palace – to unwind in the spa. It was absolute luxury.
Budapest has bags of classic charm, but its quirky side – from slightly dilapidated grandeur to the Jacko shrine – is just as much of a reason to visit the city. I will be writing more about the highlights of Budapest over the next couple of weeks, but I hope that this has piqued your interest about this complex Eastern European capital.
Have you been to Budapest? What did you think?