Feeling Festive in Budapest.
Updated: Jan 30
Straddling the banks of the Danube river, Budapest's popularity as a tourist destination has soared over the past decade. Brimming with cultural sights and activities whilst remaining one of the cheapest cities in Europe, it is a destination that is equally favoured from the young backpacking crowd to the more mature sophisticated travel connoisseur. Seeing as I often happily flit between those two categories I knew I would enjoy all this city had to offer!
I'd heard nothing but positive feedback from people I spoke to who had already been to Budapest. Most of these reviews were from trips undertaken in the height of summer, with stories of revelling in glorious sunshine in the City Park or splashing around in the outdoor geothermal pools. I'm not the biggest fan of the cold and was unsure about the prospect of visiting over the Christmas period, but I had a few days and a few pennies to spare and thought I would make the most of the opportunity. With only three days to spend there, deciding how to spend them was a challenge!
Budapest's popularity has soared over the past decade, and it's easy to see why!
Western bank: Buda
On the first afternoon I took a walk around the historic banks of Buda, followed by the climb up Gellert Hill to the Citadella. This fortress affords breath-taking views over the whole city, so if you make sure you arrive in time for sunset you can grab a beer or glass of wine from the hilltop bar and then join the rest of the onlookers in watching the sun go down. Further along the western bank you'll find Buda Castle and the Fisherman's Bastion: I did not venture into the castle itself but enjoyed mooching around the Fisherman's Bastion with my camera, admiring its impressive architecture and taking in (yet again) more outstanding views of the city.
You simply cannot complete a trip to Budapest without a visit to one of its famous geothermal baths, with the opulent Gellert Hotel Bath and the expansive Szechenyi Bath complex being the most popular. I decided to opt for the slightly smaller and lesser-known Rudas Bath (http://www.rudasbaths.com/), a traditional Turkish bath that is one of the oldest functioning baths in the city. Popular with the local city-dwellers, this one has a more cozy feel and the original medieval bath is incredibly atmospheric with its domed roof and twinkling ceiling lights; the main attraction, though, has to be the luxurious rooftop jacuzzi where you can unwind in the bubbles and gaze across the Danube towards the brightly-lit Liberty Bridge.
Eastern bank: Pest
Budapest has a captivating history, which some of its famous places of worship can attest to. The Dohány Street Synagogue is a must: it was my first time inside a synagogue, which was interesting in itself, but the attached museum gave a sobering insight into the history of Budapest's Jewish Quarter. I'm not normally one for museums but this one was a real eye-opener. I also paid a visit to the Catholic cathedral of St Stephen's Basilica, which becomes a focal point for the Christmas markets throughout December; you can meander through the copious stalls selling cute handmade trinkets, or simply sample the traditional food and drinks on offer. After dark the Christmas light shows add a truly magical feel (see the main picture, above), so you can't help but fall into the festive spirit!
The eastern side of the city is definitely the more lively half, with plenty of bars and restaurants. I spent my first night at the Budapest Jazz Club (https://www.bjc.hu/home/), which hosts live performances most evenings and serves great food. Travelling solo you can easily feel a little out of place eating and drinking alone, but the staff here made me feel really welcome and made the effort to chat A must-see recommendation is the wonderfully unique Szimpla Kert (https://szimpla.eu/), a funky nightlife venue that consists of a repurposed warehouse. I spent ages wandering around here as there are several rooms/bar areas each with its own distinctive style; depending who's taken over the piano on the night, you could find yourself treated to some more great live music.
My last stop in Budapest the day I flew home was a visit to the Invisible Exhibition (http://www.lathatatlan.hu/en/home/). I was taken through a doorway into an area of absolute pitch-blackness and from that point on my fate was entirely in the hands of my guide. Immediately, I felt overwhelmingly vulnerable and I had to quickly learn to put my complete and utter trust in those around me. The group I was with moved through a variety of rooms that were designed to replicate everyday situations encountered by the visually-impaired, from finding your way round an apartment to crossing a busy main road. The guides, who are all visually-impaired themselves, talk you through the exhibition and the various strategies they use on a daily basis. It was a fascinating experience and an extremely memorable one, as I really felt that I gained a level of empathy that I wouldn't have been exposed to otherwise - as well as a heightened appreciation of all my other senses!
Although I only had three days in this vibrant city, the fact that it was fairly easy to walk between the main sights meant that it was possible to cram a lot of sightseeing into a short space of time. A December visit will definitely leave you feeling festive and ready for Christmas!
(Note that all recommendations and reviews within this blog are genuine and no money has been received through advertising. As I wasn't allowed to take a camera into the baths, photo credit for Rudas Bath goes to http://www.bathsbudapest.com/rudas-bath)