Budapest is wonderfully grand, but if you look closer, you will find a fascinating city whose rough edges have been shaped by history.
River cruises almost always overnight in the compact Hungarian capital as there is so much to see here. You are docked right in the heart of the action as the Danube flows through the centre of the city. Even if you don’t get off the ship (which would be a shame), the views are spectacular.
Budapest is actually two cities, Buda and Pest. Graceful buildings line the Pest bank – not least the fairytale, neo-gothic Parliament building – while the old ramparts and the turreted Fishermen’s Bastion gaze down from a steep hill on the Buda side of the river.
City tours take in Heroes’ Square, with a distinct Communist-era feel; it is easy to imagine huge military gatherings in this vast parade ground. You will visit the castle and admire the intricately coloured tiles of St Matthias Church, with views down over the river and the city. The cobbled streets of the Fishermen’s Bastion, on top of Buda hill, are lined with restaurants serving rich, meaty Hungarian goulash, flavoured with paprika grown in the fields east of the city.
There are things you can do independently, too. Take to the waters in one of the many hot springs; the most iconic is the 100-year-old Gellert Spa, famed for its gorgeous art deco interiors. Take a towel and a swimming hat.
The Museum of Fine Arts has a magnificent collection ranging from ancient Egypt to Old Masters and Impressionists. The House of Terror, the former HQ of the secret police, is a chilling documentation of events between World War II and Hungary’s 1956 uprising. Afterwards, cheer yourself up in the Great Market Hall as you browse all manner of local produce, from sausages to paprika and sweet Tokaji wine.
If you are feeling adventurous at night, check out the legendary ‘ruin bars’, pubs and cocktail bars that have sprung up in the bombed-out buildings of the old Jewish quarter, decorated with vintage furniture and eclectic art. They are grungy, but fun. Szimpla Kert is the most famous, doubling up as an open-air cinema and farmers’ market.
Budapest is a Hungarian haven of culture, history and unforgettable experiences – and you can discover them all on river cruises along the delightful Danube.
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