Our visit to Budapest started quite dramatically and I’m sure it will go down in the annals of our family history as one of those stories that is retold for years to come. It will start something like this…”Do you remember that time we towed the caravan right through the centre of Budapest?” We can laugh about it now, but I’m sure Andy will tell you that it was no laughing matter at the time! The city didn’t appear to have any proper ring road, and before we knew it we were crossing the river just downstream from Buda Castle and dodging buses and trams as we tried to find a way through the busy streets alongside the rest of the city’s traffic. But I’m happy to say that Andy is such an experienced tower now that he kept his cool and we made it through unscathed!
Anyway, having made it safely to our campsite (Arena Camping) on the eastern outskirts of the city, our first job was to find out how to get around. We were meeting up with Andy’s sister, Anne, and brother-in-law, Martin, who would be staying in an apartment in the centre and so we would be commuting in and out of the city each day to spend time with them. I explain all of this in detail below, but I should say that it was one of the easiest cities we have found to navigate around and the public transport was frequent and reliable. And you will also almost certainly need to use public transport at some point because everything is quite spread out.
BUDA and PEST
The first thing to know about Budapest is that it is actually TWO cities: Buda, on one side of the River Danube, and Pest on the other. The two were joined together, along with Óbuda (Old Buda) in 1873 and the city’s name was originally hyphenated, but the hyphen was soon dropped in favour of the more straightforward Budapest.
First Impressions and a Bit of History
Our first impression of Budapest was of a bustling, lively city with lots of pavement cafés and plenty of green space. It also had lots of big, public squares and very grand, imperial style architecture. The city has had a turbulent history full of sieges, uprisings and occupations and its buildings and bridges have been destroyed more than once over the centuries. Its golden age was during the period of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1867 until the end of WWI. During this period, the impressive Parliament Building and St Stephen’s Basilica were built, wide boulevards were laid out, lined with grand buildings and the M1 metro line (the first in mainland Europe) was built. It was a city that rivalled Vienna and Paris, but its fortunes were to change dramatically with the outbreak of WWI.
The aftermath of WWI, when Hungary had been an ally of Germany and Austria, led first to the collapse and break up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then, in 1920, to the Treaty of Trianon. The treaty, signed between Hungary and the Allied powers, placed military restrictions on Hungary and redistributed about two thirds of its territory and population to the newly created states of Romania, Czechoslovakia and what was to become Yugoslavia. Not only that, but those citizens who suddenly found themselves living outside of Hungary lost their Hungarian nationality within one year of the treaty being signed. Budapest became the capital of this new, depleted Hungarian state.
In WWII, Hungary again allied itself with Germany, but towards the end of the war, it tried to switch allegiance, with disastrous results for the city and the country. In 1944, having got wind of the fact that Hungary was planning to surrender to the Soviets, the Nazis occupied Hungary to stop this happening and later took over Budapest, installing a fascist government there (the Arrow across) who were loyal to Germany. In early 1945 there was a two month long siege in which Soviet forces finally captured the city, but most of it had been destroyed in the process, including all of the bridges across the Danube. After this it took 30 years to rebuild the capital.
From the end of WWII until 1989, Hungary was under communist rule. There was an unsuccessful uprising in 1956 but then after that the new leader, János Kádár, made cautious, more liberal, reforms, creating what became known as ‘goulash communism’ that gave Hungary more cultural and economic freedom than other Eastern European countries. In 1988 the communist party abolished all travel restrictions to the west and in 1989 they authorised a multi-party system: Hungary opened up its borders and became a free, democratic European republic. In 1999 it joined NATO and in 2004 became a member of the EU.
Walking around the peaceful city today it is hard to imagine the years of hardship and turmoil that went on here in such recent times.
We spent a hot afternoon exploring the Buda area of the city, starting with taking the Castle Hill Funicular from near the Széchenyi Chain Bridge up to Buda Castle.
Castle Hill Funicular
The Castle Hill Funicular runs on a 95 metre track and carries 24 passengers in each carriage from down by the river up to the top of Buda Hill. It was built in 1870 and until 1928 it was the only means of public transport up to the palace in Buda castle. The journey only takes a few minutes but the views it affords over the Danube towards the Pest side of the city are spectacular. It was crazyily expensive for such a short journey, but with the temperature in the low 30s Celsius , it certainly beat walking up the hill! The carriages had a vintage feel and look to them and you could just imagine the well dressed ladies and gents of the city making the journey at the turn of the century.
Buda Castle District
The medieval town of Buda grew up around a castle built by King Béla IV in the 13th century. The hill on which the castle is built rises 170m (558ft) above the Danube and its location was intended to protect it from invading hordes. The Royal Palace or Castle has been destroyed and renovated many times over the centuries and now houses several museums, including the Hungarian National Gallery.
The Castle District is a charming area of the city. Although much of it was rebuilt in the 1950s and 60s, it has a medieval character, with cobbled streets and romantic alleyways and today is home to many luxury hotels, cafes and restaurants. It is also the location of the Sándor Palace, the official residence of the Hungarian president. It was a very pleasant area in which to stroll, although it was extremely busy with big tour groups.
The distinctive Matthias Church with its colourful roof tiles is visible from all over the city. It was named after King Matthias, who remodelled and extended it in 1470 and had the distinctive tower added. Over many centuries it was the coronation church of the Hungarian kings. When the Turks came to power in the early 1500s, they destroyed most of the city’s churches, but retained this one, converting it into a mosque. One of its most striking features is its colourful roof, which is made up of 25,000 tiles that were manufactured at the nearby Zsolnay Works in Pest.
Between Matthias Church and edge of the hill overlooking the river is a turreted lookout called the Fisherman’s Bastion, which is one of the most visited places in the city today. It was built in 1895 as a monument to the medieval Guild of Fishermen once responsible for defending this stretch of the castle wall. From its turrets and walls you get what has to be the best, most breathtaking panorama of the city, with views along the Danube and over to Pest, where the magnificent Hungarian Parliament Building dominates the riverside. The Bastion has seven turrets, which are meant to represent the seven Hungarian tribes who founded the present day country in 895. If you want to get the view from the very top turrets, you have to pay a small fee, otherwise the lower walls and turrets are free to access.
After this we got the number 16 bus back down to the river and from there a tram back to Anne and Martin’s lovely apartment in Pest. It has been wonderful to see some familiar faces and we have had such fun and so many laughs sharing meals and exploring this lovely city together. And there will be more to come over the next few days.
It is still stupefyingly hot here. Every day the weather forecast has promised thunder storms, but they have never come, or if they did they have been so short lived as to make no difference at all to the temperature. As a result, we have only been able to manage the city in small chunks with plenty of rest stops and taking things slowly. Fortunately, the public transport system here has made getting around trouble and hassle-free.
Using Public Transport in Budapest
We found that using public transport in Budapest was easy. Everything, including signs and announcements, is in Hungarian AND English, so there really is nothing to worry about. For more information about public transport in Budapest, visit the BKV website and the BKK website.
Tickets and Travelcards
We purchased a 7-day travelcard which allowed us unlimited travel on all public transport – buses, trams, trolley buses, the metro AND some services along the river – for the whole length of the lines. It was incredibly convenient because we were simply able to get our travelcards from the ticket machine at our nearest bus stop. The machine allowed us to choose the language in which information was displayed and took us step by step through what we needed to do. We selected the type of travelcard we wanted, entered our names (each travelcard had our name printed on it) and selected when we wanted it to start. Each travelcard cost 4,950 Hungarian Forint (€16.50). You could also purchase travelcards for shorter durations or another good option was the group travelcard, which allows us to 5 people to travel together on the same card and cost 3300 Hungarian Forint (11€) for 24 hours. A ticket for a single journey with no changes cost 350 HUF. We found that the metro stations in Budapest didn’t have any ticket barriers on the entrances or exits and our travel cards didn’t need to be validated each time we used them. Single tickets however, needed to be validated at one of the machines on the bus, tram or entry to the metro.
The Metro System
The metro system only has four lines and so it is relatively simple to navigate. The public transport maps on the buses, metro etc and at the stations also have details of all of the connections you can make from each stop, which also helps with getting around. Like the London Underground, some of Budapest’s metro system is quite old and some of the stations still had wooden escalators. Line 1 was built in 1896 and was the first metro system in mainland Europe. Lines 2 and 3 were built in the 1970s and 80s and Line 4 was completed in 2014. We got the Line 2 metro from the end of the line at Örs vezér tere into the city and some of the stations that we used had the steepest, vertigo-inducing escalators I have ever been on! And they were fast too: you had to be ready as you reached the end because you were literally thrown off at some speed!
The stations on Line 1 have a real historic feel to them with lovely ornate tiled place names and wooden ticket booths. The carriages on this line were also smaller than on the more modern lines and felt quite cramped. In contrast, the trains on Line 4 are much newer and brighter and were also air conditioned, which was very welcome in the heat. Line 4 is also fully automated and the trains are driverless.
Similarly on the buses and trams, some of the fleet is comfortable, new and air conditioned, but much of it is older, hotter and bone-shaking. The main thing though is that services seemed to be extremely frequent and there was always space to get on. And in the centre of the city, most stops had electronic signs giving details of the waiting time for the next services.
Once again, Google Maps became our friend to quickly locate the correct bus stop or nearest metro line to our destination. I wrote about how this works when we were in Barcelona and you can read about it here.
All in all, we used public transport all over Budapest without any problems and it made our exploration of the city very easy and enjoyable.