- Twenty eight point five years ago in a bustling town on the east coast of Ireland called Drogheda, my mother gave birth to me; a bouncing baby boy named Colm who weighed in at a hefty 11lbs 1oz. Needless to say she never had another child after that, but that’s beside the point. For 18 years I lived in this town, spending my time testing the patience of countless schoolteachers, stocking dusty shelves in off licences and delivering half-shredded newspapers to the ever- growing local community. This town is separated by the River Boyne. On one side you have the bustling ‘town side’, while on the other you have the residential ‘faaaaaah siii-yid’, or the ‘far side’ for those of you not familiar with my town’s native tongue.
From here I moved to our capital, a city divided into the north and south sides by the River Liffey. At this stage you may be wondering where I am going with this. Well, after living in two settlements where a river played such an integral part in splitting it, I could immediately relate to Budapest, a city divided in two by the Danube, one of Europe’s grandest rivers. On one side you have Buda, the hilly side adorned by imposing palaces and neo-gothic churches, while on the other you have Pest, the flat side that today is the financial and commercial side of the history-steeped Hungarian capital.
Even though this city is so big (it covers 525 square kilometres), many of its most eye-pleasing buildings are clustered around the river, meaning you can see what makes this city so beautiful in a short space of time.
The best known of these buildings is the Royal Palace, a hugely impressive structure that looms over the Danube from Castle Hill. Dating back to the 13th century, and home to King Béla IV and Empress Maria Theresa in a previous lives, today this stately building is where you will find both the Hungarian National Gallery, the largest collection of Hungarian art in the country, and the Hungarian National Museum, a 200-year old museum brimming with historical relics. Walking around its grounds is a dream, but there’s no denying the fact that it looks far more impressive from the Pest side of the River. That’s not to say you shouldn’t make the trek across the Danube to visit it. You should.
When you’re over there you also must wander further north up Castle Hill until you encounter both Mathias Church and Fishermen’s Bastion. The aforementioned church has one of the most striking interiors you will ever come across, largely due to its snakeskin like walls and pillars decorated by an intriguing mix of Art Nouveau and Turkish designs making it totally distinguishable from St Stephen’s Basilica the city’s cathedral on the Pest side. Fishermen’s Bastion is the viewing platform that surrounds the 500-year old church. Constructed by architect Frigyes Schulek, the views over Pest it affords those who mount it are unforgettable.
Parliament, home to the Hungarian Parliament and building of 365 spires, is the main cause of this. Built between 1885 and 1902, it is one of the finest examples of gothic architecture in Eastern Europe and, if you allow me to be so blunt, sticks out like a nun in a brothel on Pest’s promenade. It is said the man who built it, Imre Steindl, examined every last spire to make sure they were to his (high) standard. Upon seeing Parliament up close, this story isn’t so hard to believe.
Just as Venice is associated with canals, Amsterdam is associated with soft drugs, and Vienna is associated with classical music, Budapest has an association with baths thanks to 70 million gallons of water produced by 118 thermal springs thousands of meters below the city. As a result, there are over ten baths and pools scattered throughout the city on both sides of the river. Gellert Baths, the Art Nouveau emporium accommodating both Hungarians and tourists alike, is the city’s best known. Its main pool is the city’s most photographed and almost as recognisable as the palace around the corner from it. But it attracts a mainly elder clientele and you can’t help but feel like you are imposing when bathing there.
Instead, if you plan on soaking in some of Budapest’s thermal spring water, I recommend you so in the Széchenyi Baths in City Park. There you have the choice of swimming in the large outdoor pool, relaxing in one of two outdoor thermal pools (one with whirlpool and Jacuzzi), or retreating to the indoor area where you will find another 6 pools, ranging from 38˚C to 34˚C in temperature. If you plan on doing anything the same day as visiting the pools plan on making it something you won’t feel too disappointed if you don’t get round to it. The act of leaving the pools will test you to your limits.
Budapest’s nightlife seemed rather quieter than that of most other European capitals I have visited in recent times. The fact that my visit was in November was possibly the reason for this, as stocking up on Christmas gifts such as perfume for Mum, socks for Dad, and relationship breaking presents for that someone special in your life tends to restrain the amount of socialising done in that month. Putting all that to one side, I still managed to stumble across a few establishments that enabled me to let my hair down. Beckett’s, an Irish bar heaving with quintessential Irish bar mementos such as rusty bicycles dangling from ceilings and rural signposts stating ‘Tipperary 2,000KM’, was one such place. Luring stag parties, ex-pats, tourists seeking refuge from their motherland for the weekend and locals, it is a bit of a hike from the city centre, but one which is worth it, particularly on Friday nights.
If you don’t think you can manage the 15-minute walk to get there, or you’re not in the mood for waving down a taxi at 10pm, Negro facing St Stephen’s Basilica is one of the city centre’s chicest bars. Not so swish is Café Zuccas just around the corner on Hercegprímás utca.
The streets surrounding St Stephen’s Basilica is one of two areas within close proximity to each other known for their late-night haunts. The other is around the Hungarian State Opera House and on Andrassy Ut. Morrison’s Music Pub, one which borrows the name of a deceased front man but has little in common with him, is one which crops up in conversation upon conversation about where is good to go out in Budapest. Another is Cactus Juice further up the avenue.
Located at the western tip of Vaci Utca, Budapest’s flagship shopping street, the Great Market Hall is a huge 19th century market place and the best place for lunch in Budapest. Slightly touristy, its upper level is lined with stall after stall dealing in Hungarian delicacies such as goulash, dumplings and Hungarian sausages. If you’re shopping on Vaci Utca and are wondering where to dock in for lunch make this your port of call.
Tree-lined Liszt Square is the perfect place for evening meals thanks to the café after café after café which border it. One of these is Café Vian, an extremely relaxed bar/restaurant where people meet for quiet drinks and others make themselves comfortable for early evening bites. The red décor make you warm to it straight away.
Budapest is a vast city with lots to see. If you peruse your guidebook before going to make a ‘to-do’ list you’ll find it will be longer than you had expected. You need three days here to truly appreciate it. If I go back any time soon, which I’m sure I will due to the number of stag parties I find myself going on of late, I’ll have my list prepared. But this one will be a shorter one: Drink. Be merry. Bathe.
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