Why Go Anywhere Else? Budapest In A Weekend

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The key to a successful weekend vacation? Making the most of your time. So when I say Budapest is the “easy option” of eastern Europe, I mean it in a good way: you can dive right in and enjoy every second.

By Laura Bridgestock

Budapest has always been a step ahead of its neighbors in the Eastern Bloc — Budapest was, after all, the site of the first major uprising against the Soviets back in 1956. Whereas travelers visiting other cities around the region often end up scratching their heads trying to make their way about, Budapest is one of Central Europe’s (and the Continent’s) most visitor-friendly cities, which has both its upsides as well as its downsides. Most Budapesters speak some English and getting around the city is extremely easy to do. But being stopped every five minutes by someone offering you a guided tour can get annoying, and there’s only so many Subways that can spring up before it starts to detract from the city’s charm. But, at least for the time being, it’s still very possible to enjoy the best of both worlds, and to do so in just a few days.

Summer, like the rest of Europe, is a busy time in Budapest. While I was there, vintage planes were swooping up and down the Danube for the Red Bull Air Race, and there was a lively folk festival with music, craft stalls, and freshly cooked traditional food (think huge curly sausages, barbecued pork and succulent beef goulash — not exactly paradise for vegetarians, but still worth checking out).

My reason for visiting was to attend the massive Sziget Festival, one of the largest music festivals in the world. This year over 380,000 people made their way to Obudai Sziget (Old Buda Island) for the annual event that takes place in mid-August and ends each day with a big international headliner — this year I saw both the Sex Pistols and REM. But ask any festival-goer and they’ll tell you that the music’s only half the fun. One of my favorite things to do when I’m not watching an act is to wander through the island’s wooded paths, stumbling across different performance stages and joining in on the wide-ranging activities that go on throughout the day and night. One hour you might find yourself watching a Vietnamese water puppet show, the next you may find yourself taking a pottery class as you wait for the glitter to dry on your newly customized t-shirt. Hey, you might as well do something while Alanis Morisette is playing.

Once the party’s over and you’ve caught up on some much-needed shuteye, there’s plenty to see back in the city. Chain Bridge, the city’s iconic suspension bridge, is a good starting point. The bridge was Budapest’s first to span the Danube River, and on the Buda side is a small hill where you can find the fairy-tale style royal palace which looks particularly magical when lit up at night. The Old Town area around the palace has a quaint Germanic high street with some charming-looking restaurants, and from the nearby Matthias Church you get an amazing view across the river to the ornate neo-gothic parliament building.

But for the best views, head east to the top of Gellert Hill where you’ll find the old Citadel fortress as well as some of the most impressive, awe-inspiring statues that are located throughout the city. Climbing to the top can be hard work — especially around mid-August when daytime temperatures hover in the mid-90’s — but it’s all worth it once you finally reach the top and are able to take your first look below at the spectacular panoramic views of the city.

There’s plenty to see on the Pest side as well. St Stephen’s Basilica and the Great Synagogue are both within easy walking distance from Chain Bridge, but there’s no need to make a plan, the whole central area’s full of beautiful old buildings, aging gracefully. Even my hostel was inside a gorgeous old courtyard-style building, full of character and atmosphere but, thankfully, complete with modern facilities.

For a truly surreal experience check out Memento Park, the giant sculpture garden just a short bus-ride from the center of the city. Memento Park is home to a huge collection of communist-era statues that survived the overthrow of Soviet rule and is a good way to get a sense of Hungary’s recent history without having to pick up a 200-page textbook. The sheer size of each of the statues is pretty striking; the massive statue of Stalin’s boots alone are as big as any normal-sized statute. There’s also a user-friendly exhibition including some training movies once shown to secret agents.

Budapest is home to a number of famed hot spas, all of which happened to be closed in the late afternoon when I wanted to go, so instead I took a stroll around Margit Sziget, the huge island park that includes a tiny zoo and a pretty Japanese garden. Afterward, I headed over to the Pest side of the river for dinner at Café Cathedral in the basilica square where the surroundings are magical, the food’s great — a mixture of Hungarian, French and Asian — and the cocktails are both delicious and surprisingly affordable. As I sipped my banana daiquiri (I know, not very Hungarian) and sampled the complimentary goose liver pâté, I was amazed at how much I’d packed into just three days without feeling completely overwhelmed: surely the sign of a perfect long weekend.


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