The Many Sides of Budapest
Aaron Saunders, River Cruise Advisor
Thursday, July 14, 2016
Every time I come to Budapest, Hungary, it seems to look a little better than the last. In the five years that I’ve been coming here (this is visit number seven), I’ve seen a lot of changes. I’ve seen the addition of new restaurants, two new Starbucks coffee outlets, and a Hard Rock Café. I’ve seen buildings that were once bullet-riddled up on Buda Castle refurbished.
Budapest is one of my most favorite cities in all of Europe. It’s also one of my sleeper travel surprises. After all, on my first visit in 2011, I wasn’t expecting much. But that was before I truly discovered this great Hungarian capital of culture.
Our river cruise aboard Viking River Cruises’ Viking Embla officially came to a close this morning, but our Passage to Eastern Europe cruisetour is far from over. On this 10-day itinerary, Viking includes a two-day post-cruise stay at the Budapest Hilton as part of the overall journey. It’s the perfect way to end this unique voyage, and allows guests to really get to know this wonderful port of call.
Disembarkation was positively leisurely this morning. If you’ve ever been on an ocean cruise, you’ll know the mass of controlled chaos that awaits you as thousands of guests (and pieces of luggage) must be transported and accounted for.
That’s not the case on Viking Embla. After a leisurely breakfast in The Restaurant, guests were merely asked to vacate their staterooms and have their luggage outside of their doors by 8:30 a.m. Stateroom keycards were exchanged for passports, and bills settled with credit cards or Euros.
Just because we’re off the ship doesn’t mean Viking is scattering us to the wind; far from it. Today, Viking provided a full-day Panoramic City Tour for us which hit some of the best highlights of Budapest. Departing at 9:00 a.m. from the ship, it concluded at the Budapest Hilton at 3:00 p.m.
Our journey began up at Fisherman’s Bastion, near Buda Castle on the Buda side of Budapest. If you’re unsure of which side is which (the Danube separates the two sections of the city); think Buda Castle. The “other side” – the one with the majority of the city center – is the Pest side.
Surrounding the Matthias Church (and, incidentally, our hotel), Fisherman’s Bastion was constructed between 1895 and 1902 on Castle Hill. It was nearly destroyed during World War II, and had to be meticulously rebuilt.
I’ve done this Panoramic City Tour so many times that I could probably give the thing – and yet, I continue to take the tour on every river cruise because, as I learned today, you’re always in store for something new.
Today, instead of including the entry fee to the upper level of the Fisherman’s Bastion (admission isn’t, in fact, free), we were treated to a look inside the Matthias Church. I’ve done this excursion seven times on four different cruise lines, yet I’ve never been inside this church. I couldn’t believe it.
First built in the 11th century, and then rebuilt four hundred years later, the Matthias Church is one of the iconic landmarks of Budapest’s Castle Hill district. Also badly damaged in World War II (much of the church was nearly entirely bombed out), the church underwent significant restoration between 1950 and 1970. Another refurbishment project was carried out over seven years between 2006 and 2013.
Inside, the church is like no other I’ve ever seen. It’s interior is almost Turkish, or Moroccan, in terms of style and colour, while the exterior leans towards late Gothic styling.
Now, admittedly the church was packed. This is mid-July in Budapest, after all. But even if you had to buy your way in (Viking includes the cost of admission in this tour), a visit to this church would still be worth it. I’m sorry I’d never been here before in the many times I’ve been to the city.
Afterwards, it was off to Gellért Hill – one of the highest points of the Buda side of Budapest, and the prime vantage point for shutterbugs wanting a shot of the city against the River Danube. It’s 235 metres (about 770 feet) high, and offers that postcard-perfect view. Don’t stop at the first vantage point you come to; it’s overrun with tourists. Instead, continue walking up the hill for another 300 metres or so to come to a second larger, more elevated viewpoint. This is where you’ll get the best shots.
Following our photo stop, we drove down the hill and crossed the Elizabeth Bridge; one of 11 such bridges that cross the Danube. All were bombed and demolished during the Second World War, and all – except, seemingly, the Elizabeth Bridge – were rebuilt in their former style. The Elizabeth Bridge, if you’re curious is “the big white one” that appears just east of the more-famous Chain Bridge.
From there, we had free time to grab lunch in the historic Great Market Hall, which lies at the foot of the Liberty Bridge and intersects with the end of Váci utca, the city’s prime pedestrian (read: tourist) shopping district.
The Great Market Hall has everything you could ever want, from fresh meats and produce to every conceivable type of Paprika known to man. That it’s done up in a gorgeous turn-of-the-century style that belies its 1897 origins is just the icing on the cake.
Once again, this beautiful structure was nearly destroyed during World War II. Once again, the Hungarians meticulously restored it.
During our free time (which, at 45 minutes, wasn’t nearly long enough to grab a proper lunch), I ran over to the Liberty Bridge to snap some photographs. I’ve always loved this bridge, even moreso than the Chain Bridge. With its bright-green paint job and wrought-iron construction, it’s always come to symbolize Budapest for me. I’ve walked across it on past trips in the searing heat of summer. I’ve crossed it in the middle of December, with flakes of snow swirling all around me. The Liberty Bridge reminds me that Budapest is almost my Hungarian home-away-from-home.
Today, however, the bridge was closed to traffic, which gave me the unique opportunity to walk down the centerline of the bridge deck. It also let me see some teenaged tourists doing something amazingly stupid: climbing up the steel supports to snap selfies.
Most were standing or sun-tanning a quarter of the way up, but two or three people walked (walked!) up the steel structural supports all the way to the top. If the wind would have picked up, it could have blown the kids to the bridge deck or the Danube far below, where Death’s crooked arms await.
Nobody fell – but as I walked back, a Police car happened to see what was going on. The car drove through a barrier onto the bridge deck and the crowd on the bridge arms scattered. Cops rounded up whoever they could find. Not a great way to start a vacation.
Afterwards, we completed a bus tour of the city before arriving back at the Budapest Hilton. Unfortunately, all four of the coaches from Viking Embla pulled up at the same time, and chaos ensued, with lines that clogged the lobby of the Hilton and which took over 30 minutes, from start to finish, to navigate. Unlike the InterContinental Bucharest, our keycards were not ready for us, meaning each guest had to go through the full check-in procedure.
Fortunately, some good news: Hilton has provided Viking guests with complimentary Wi-Fi and complimentary breakfast for the duration of our stay, and the property made a point of asking if I was a Hilton HHonors member, which I am. These package hotels rarely count towards my frequent stay points, but it seems as if this stay will; my number was added to my reservation, and my keycards were issued promptly. Well done, Hilton!
Tonight, I walked over to the “Pest” side for dinner, departing the hotel and walking down the stairs at the Fisherman’s Bastion and across the chain bridge. Total time from the moment I left the Hilton to reach the end of the Chain Bridge on the “Pest” side: 16 minutes at a brisk walking pace. Let’s say 20-25 for moderate to fast walkers. That’s better than I thought. Coming back was a touch longer at 25 minutes, but that’s because most of it was uphill.
At sunset, as I returned to my hotel, Viking’s Viking Var sailed under my feet as I crossed the Chain Bridge. Headed off to her next port of call, she thundered along the Danube, churning up the water in her wake. With the setting sun framing the background, it made for a truly truly memorable sight.
Tomorrow, Viking offers a selection of optional (additional cost) tours, so I’m going to show you just what you can do, on your own, here in the great city of Budapest, Hungary.
Our Voyage Report from onboard Viking River Cruises’ Viking Embla in Eastern Europe will continue tomorrow with one last day in Budapest, Hungary! Be sure to follow along on twitter @deckchairblog or using the hashtag #LiveVoyageReport.
Viking's Passage to Eastern Europe
|Day 1 & 2||Bucharest, Romania|
|Day 3||Veliko Tarnovo & Arbanassi, Bulgaria|
|Day 4||Vidin, Bulgaria|
|Day 5||Cruising the Iron Gates|
|Day 6||Belgrade, Serbia|
|Day 7||Vukovar & Osijek, Croatia|
|Day 8||Kalocsa, Hungary|
|Day 9||Budapest, Hungary|
|Day 10||Budapest, Hungary|
|Day 11||Recapping our Journey|