Budapest Trip Diary

Pictures and stories from our trip to Budapest, from April 22 to April 27, 2013. Supplement to A Tale of Two Cities blog post.

This trip, originally, was going to involve a cruise on the Adriatic, with a possible extension to visit a city in that area or on the way. But Dubrovnik is a bit of a tricky place to get to from Canada, and we were having trouble finding a flight that fit into the budget along with the cruise cost. So the backup plan became a week in Budapest followed by a week in Prague.

We booked the trip through Gate1Travel, whom we’ve used before. I have to give Jean all the credit for working through the various options and permutations on their website until we found an itinerary we were happy with from a timing, location, and cost perspective. We ended up leaving Sunday instead of Saturday, as that saved us money. In Budapest we went with three-star hotel to get a better location; Prague made us a bit more nervous (from our reading) so we went with a four-star at a somewhat less central location. My main contribution was suggesting we take a night train from Budapest to Prague.

Gate1, to their credit, checked with us on that one night that we did not have a hotel booked. But they agreed the night train thing should work.

Sunday / Monday: Getting there

As noted on the blog, the KLM flight experience was quite good. We had a really good steward on the way up, which only added to the positives of our well-positioned economy seats (selected in advance), and a flight that actually arrived early.

One thing I didn’t mention there was a nice feature of the Amsterdam airport we transferred through. We hadn’t slept that much on the flight, as it left on the early side (5:30 pm) and it just wasn’t that long. So we were pretty sleepy in Amsterdam, where we had something like a four-hour layover.

Well, the Amsterdam airport has this section with couches, lawn chairs, and bean bags. Not only that, but it’s done up with faux grass and trees, and bird sounds piped in. It’s an area you can comfortably nap in, in other words. Why don’t more airports have that?

We took advantage of that, although with a little paranoia about sleeping our connection. (We didn’t.) The next flight was also on time and only 2 hours, and from the airport we just took a taxi to the hotel. Our taxi driver was very nice, giving us some pointers about the city (like pay in Hungarian currency, not Euros).

Monday: Orientation to Budapest

We had no ambitious plans for the first day, knowing that we’d be jet-lagged and therefore tired and slightly grumpy. Our three-star hotel was fine; the main downsides were not providing face cloths (?) or conditioner and, as noted on the blog, charging what we thought was too much for wifi. It seemed a bit warm at first, but we were able to adjust to that. We also came to adore its very central location. It was really convenient to everything we wanted to visit.

The first day we mostly walked around the area it was in, which is called Central Pest, and isn’t the major tourist mecca of the place. We weren’t far from the waterfront, though, and also saw that.

The Lion and St Matthias
Beautiful Budapest

We did the first of what would many stops at Cafe Central next door, which had free wifi! The first day we went with snack items—I was delighted to find they had a menu of those. I had “Jewish eggs”, which involved eggs, duck fat, and veggies, while Jean tried some goulash with sausage and egg.

We also both had a latte, which was just delicious. When served, though, he also offered us a small glass of clear liquid, saying “Vodka!” We were very intrigued to be given vodka with our coffee. Sniffing it, though, it seemed incredibly mild. And upon tasting? It was water. With a Hungarian accent , “water” kind of sounds like “vodka”.

Our dinner was at a cafe selected from the Rick Steeves’ book. It was a good meal; I had duck, Jean had something else that I now forget (he said mine was better). We both had Hungarian pinot.

And not having napped since the Amsterdam airport, we then had a good night’s sleep.

Tuesday: Parliament and State Opera House tours; organ concert

The plan for the next day was to get a tour of Parliament, though we did stop to buy our train tickets on the way (to get that done). Jean also stopped for a fair number of photos, until I opined that maybe we should focus on getting to the ticket line.

Gotta say that waiting over an hour in line to buy tickets to tour a building is not the funnest way to start your vacation. (We probably weren’t there at the ideal time.) At least it was a nice day and all, but still. Not so fun. Then when we finally were in for tickets, we almost freaked about the seller asking for passports, as we weren’t carrying ours around. Fortunately, they did accept our driver’s licenses as ID instead.

We had a bit of time until the actual tour started, so we walked around a bit, though construction made it a bit challenging. And then we had lunch at La Iguana, a Tex Mex place. We somewhat felt like alcohol, so I had a lime margarita, while Jean went with a concoction of sparkling wine and strawberries. Both were good; in fact, we ended up each having two, which probably wasn’t so smart, on my part.

The food was good also. Jean had the special of Mexican soup followed by chicken and coriander skewers. I had chicken chimichangas. At one point we discovered they had wifi, so then we proceeded to ignore each other to check email and tweets.

Then back for the tour itself, which required another lineup, but a much shorter one. Then we toured through their very opulent Parliament House, with fancy gilding and carpet all over. Particular notable were the cigar holders all along the walls; they must have really been into cigars. And we got to see the Crown jewels, which in some ways aren’t so impressive, unless you know how old they are.

Crown Jewels in the Hungarian Parliament
The crown jewels at the Budapest Parliament

But it was only about a 45-minute tour, so seemed a bit of a letdown after all the effort.

Cathy Posing on the dome of St Stephen's Cathedral in Budapest.
View of Budapest from St Stephen’s Cathedral

But it was still a lovely day, and not too late, so we walked over to St Stephen’s Cathedral, and climbed the tower for a view of the city. We didn’t visit the church itself, but did pick up a flyer for a concert taking place there that night.

We then walked on the fancy Andrassy Ut street, and arrived at the State Opera House at about the perfect time for their 4:00 tour. So we took that in, and as described on the blog, that was very enjoyable. One notable feature that I didn’t mention on the blog were the vents under the seats in the concert hall. Those help with acoustics, but in the old days, they also used it as a form of air conditioning, involving huge ice blocks. It was very expensive, but then, only the very rich went to the opera. Now, she explained, it’s government subsidized, so anyone can afford to go. (Obstructed-view seats are just $5.)

Budapest Opera House
Another view of the Opera House

She also noted that the bar was the center of social life at the time, and that the Royal box is still in restricted used today: only the heads of government or their guests can sit there. They have concerts almost every day from September to June.

Our Tuesday dinner was at Klaasz Bistro. It was my first time of having the Hungarian starter soup made with fruit, in this case strawberries. It was fantastic. Jean went for the grilled foie gras; you get bigger servings of that there than you do here. He then followed with roast duck, while I went for very tender pork served with shitake ravioli in lemon-garlic sauce. All yum. I stuck to one glass of Pinot; Jean started with a sparkling wine, then followed with Pinot.

Served cold this strawberry soup was refreshingly delicious on this hot hot day.
This Hungarian fruit soup is really good

We had decided to go to the concert in St Stephen’s, but on the way, we stopped at Franz Listz Square, which was hopping.

Franz Liszt Statue in Budapest Hungary
Mr. Franz Listz

We then attended the concert, which gave us a view of the interior of St. Stephen’s, of course. The performance was centered around organ music, but also featured a violinist, trumpet player, soprano, and tenor, in various combinations with the organist. They were all very good, but it was pretty mellow music for after a long day; at times we had to work not to nod off. The church also got very cold (which I supposed help with the staying awake, though).

Wednesday: Castle Hill, Listz Museum, House of Terrors

As we weren’t bowled over by the hotel breakfast, and were craving Internet, we had breakfast at Cafe Central. (We didn’t make a habit of that, though; later, we just stuck to the cold items at our hotel breakfast buffet, as all the hot things were pretty dire.)

Then we headed from Pest to Buda to climb up Castle Hill. It was a beautiful day (as all were), and we didn’t have difficulties with the hills or stairs up. The walk was through woods, with trees in bloom, so that was quite nice. And at the top, it was cool to get close-up views of the monuments you could see from below.

Liberty Monument in Budapest
You see this from below all over Budapest, so it’s nice to get up close

They also had quite a few vendors up there, whose merchandise was quite nice, though I didn’t end up buying anything.

After climbing down, we then walked along the waterfront to the other half of Buda, where we took the funicular up. We were able to walk through some of the grounds that had been closed the last time we were in Budapest.

We then walked down and across the bridge to Pest, where we had lunch at Cafe Kor. We both started with the cold strawberry soup that we’d liked the night before; it was good here, too. I then had the tagliatelle with honey sauce, roast duck, and apples. Nice. Big serving, but I still ate most of it. Jean had the roast duck, with potatoes and some fruit. He enjoyed that as well.

When we came to pay, we were informed that they didn’t take credit cards other than American Express. As we’d had to pay cash for the concert tickets also, Jean had to locate a bank machine to pay our tab. Fortunately, that wasn’t too far away.

We headed then to the Franz Listz museum. It is indeed pretty small; just three rooms with some artifacts of his, like pianos, paintings, and letters. And scores. The special exhibit was on his collaborations and influences on or by other composers. Even if you are interested in Listz, it’s not really that interesting. But at least it doesn’t take long!

We then went to something completely different: The House of Terrors, which I think I’ve adequately described on the blog. Jean had particular trouble with the basement, which apart from being the most alarming part to visit, was also really crowded. So we didn’t dawdle at the end.

We had a bit of trouble with dinner that night, after finding that the Wine Bistro we had planned to go to didn’t take credit cards (machine broken, they said). We didn’t have a backup place in mind, but eventually selected one near the hotel. It was neat-looking, with very high ceilings and an impression that were outside, nearly.

But, they clearly were dealing with a big group that night. This created a couple problems:

a) They allowed a couple guys a few tables over (who might have been paying for the big group) to smoke, though this is illegal in Hungary now.

b) They took forever to bring our food, and we were hungry.

We were super-grumpy when our meals finally arrived (though at least the smokers had left by then), and somewhat disappointed by the smallish serving size. Fortunately, they bribed us with more wine, on the house. Also, the food was quite good. Jean had roast lamb with morel risotto; that was the best of the evening. I had scampi with black tortellini, which were unlike any tortellini I’d had before—including saltier. And that was in a very good tomato sauce.

We hadn’t had any appetizers, so we went for dessert. I had chocolate souffle with rhubarb ice cream, which was all really good. Jean had a pistachio cream thing he also enjoyed.

Thursday: Hero’s Square, City Park, Széchenyi Baths

For the first time in Budapest, we took the subway, promptly messing up by buying short-distance tickets (3 stops) when we really needed more than that. Oops. Sorry, Budapest.

Our destination was Hero’s Square, which we’d seen on our last trip to Budapest, but wanted to do again in a more leisurely way. I ambled around with my guidebook (on Kobo) reading about all the statues. Jean took photos of them.

Heroes Square Budapest Hungary
The statues at Hero’s Square

We decided not to visit the art galleries in the area, but did walk down parade square to see the sand dial monument erected to celebrate Hungary becoming part of the European Union, and the memorial to the end of communism via people power.

We then walked into City Park, which is beautiful. (Nice day again, of course.) They have some castle grounds there left over from the World Fair, which are kind of neat. We also located, but didn’t visit, the zoo and the amusement park.

City Park, Budapest
City Park has its charms

We had lunch at Grundles, then went to visit the Széchenyi Baths, both of which I cover on the blog. We decided to walk back from there—a bit of a challenge when so relaxed by the baths—and that’s when we stopped in at Cafe New York as well. We were lucky to get a seat, as not everyone who wanted to could.

Dinner that night was at our beloved Cafe Central: For all our visits there, we hadn’t actually had a full dinner there yet. The joint was jumping, and they had live jazz band. They talked us into a full bottle of wine with the promise of a free dessert for ordering that, and recommended a Hungarian Cabernet Franc, which was very good. Richer than the Ontario ones usually are.

Dinner at Cafe Central
At our home away from hotel, Cafe Central

As a starter, I went with the porcini mushroom soup, which was quite good, not too salty. Jean had a venison stew, I think. As mains, I had roast duck with mashed potatoes and red cabbage. Big serving! I couldn’t finish it all, though the duck was delicious. Jean had bison cheeks or some such, which he also enjoyed. (We both were catching up on Internet through dinner, which sucks in a way. We were hoping to have a better wifi situation at the next hotel.)

For our free desserts, Jean had a very good caramel thing, and I went for a chestnut cream parfait, as that seemed lighter.

Friday: Day trip to Eger

We decided to take a bus trip to Eger (faster than the train), and were pleased to find that we really did need only three metro stops to get to the bus station. We eventually figured out that we had to buy the bus tickets from the driver, in cash (fortunately, we had enough). Doesn’t seem a great system to me, as it’s pretty slow to load. The bus was pretty busy, so we sat across rather than beside each other. It was a two-hour ride.

Once in Eger, we spent some time trying to get oriented and making sure we’d be able to get back to the bus station. Then we decided we were hungry, so we located a restaurant, per Rick Steeves. The food there was good, but we had way too much of it. I started with a large goulash soup, then had butterfish fillets with pasta and carrots. Jean started with a mushroom soup with marzipan, and followed by gnochi with bacon bits in a creamy sauce.

We then visited Eger Castle, which wasn’t bad, but couldn’t really compete with some much grander castles we’ve seen. The town itself was kind of cute, with cobblestone streets and lots of vendors about. They also had a nice square with some statues.

Eger Town Square in Hungary
Eger City Square

We visited the Marzipan Museum mentioned on the blog, and stopped in at the market briefly (fruits and vegetables, as one would expect). We visited a couple churches, and noted that those places are always remarkably cold. We located an astronomy museum we’d read about, but concluded we weren’t in the mood to visit it.

Jean was feeling a bit “off” after the big lunch, so he joined me at the wine tasting, but didn’t partake himself. We then bused back to Budapest.

Dinner that night was an Italian place, Trattoria Toscanna. I really didn’t want anything too big, so went with salad followed by thin-crust veggie pizza. Jean was feeling better, and he had grilled mushrooms to start, then duck and plum ravioli. We both had a glass of Eger red wine with that.

Saturday: Market, Holocaust memorial

It was our last day in Budapest, so we of course first prepared to check out, leaving our luggage at the hotel.

We then headed to the market, where we wanted to get some paprika for ourselves and other people. But we also enjoyed walking around the place; it’s somewhat crowded, but a really nice market.

Budapest Market exterior
Budapest Market from outside

We didn’t have much of an agenda for the day. We did walk over to Buda again to get a look at the Gellert Hotel, and the church in the rock, which wasn’t open at that point.

Gellert Hotel in Budapest
Gellert Hotel also has baths

We went back to Pest for lunch. A guy on the street encouraged us to try the restaurant he was promoting, so we went along with that. It was good, actually. I had a lemongrass fish soup, then a fried goose liver on apple and mashed potato. With that, I finally had the Tokaje sweet wine, which is quite enjoyable. Jean had ravioli in white sauce.

We then walked along the water to see the memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. They were shot into the Danube, and the memorial is in the form of shoes by the water.

Shoes as tribute to Holocaust victims
Memorial to victims of the Holocaust

We then went to check out the Ethnographic Museum, but it was closed. So we then kind of ambled around the city. In front of St. Stephen, they were filming a commercial featuring a band all dressed and painted in white, with white hair. We also had our first ice cream of the trip.

And for the final dinner before our train ride, we were back at Cafe Central. I had the trout with green beans and almonds, which was quite nice, with a rosé (which he almost forgot to bring me). Jean had the gnocchi in Parisian herbs. It was good but small, so he also got a Tiramisu dessert. I had a latte and he had mint tea.

We then retrieved our luggage from the hotel and took a taxi to the train station, in plenty of time.

Next up: Prague Trip Diary