Monday 4 August 2014

European Adventure: Day Seven - Budapest, Hungary

The drive to Budapest was two hours long and thankfully our car was able to play music from my iPhone. As much as I am enjoying the trip and different cultures I like familiar, English spoken music. Brian wasn't to thrilled with the country music playlist but he was out voted by 4. All five of us squeezed into the vehicle and began the drive. We decided to skip breakfast and get something once we reached Budapest - the result was a car full of caffeine deprived people. The drive was mostly on the highway so there wasn't much to see. Once we hit the main Budapest area the roads got a bit confusing but nothing too bad - I attribute this to my kick-ass navigation skills!

The route we took had us crossing over the famous Chain Bridge into the city and the experience was incredible. I knew Budapest was beautiful but I wasn't expecting such beauty and such amazing buildings upon first glance. We found a side street to park on and made our way to the ticket machine - which was definitely an experience! Between the five of us we couldn't get it working. There were some English instructions but when it came time to actually pay the machine didn't work and those instructions were only in Hungarian. We tried coins and a credit card repeatedly to no avail. We don't know if the machine was out of paper or what, but it should be interesting to see if the credit card got charged each time we tried. I turned on the iPhone data and looked up parking - the InterContinental hotel by the Danube River had a public garage. When we first drove in I had actually seen the hotel and suggested parking there, but Dad decided to try for something else. We ended up back at the hotel and parked there instead. It was a beautiful hotel with great washrooms and an awesome cafe/bar. 

Chain Bridge 
Just up the street from the hotel we saw a group of people in red shirts holding up signs for the Hop On Bus.  We had decided this was the best way to see the city so we walked up and bought two-day passes. Initially we weren't going to come into the city on two consecutive days but they didn't have one-day passes, and we didn't want to waste the 48 hour pass. This tour company was great and had excellent value - it included two daytime bus lines around Budapest, a nighttime bus tour as well as a boat cruise along the Danube.

Loving the coffee art
Rather then get on the bus right away the five of us walked down to an area recommended for its caf├ęs. We ended up at a Costa Coffee on a pedestrian street a few minutes away from the famous St. Stephens Basilica. We all had muffins and drinks (everyone but me having coffee). This gave us a chance to lay out the tour bus map on the table and plan out our day. It was now later then we expected so we wanted to try and get as much done as possible. Looking at the map we decided to do the whole red loop once and then decide what stops to get off at.

St. Stephen

After coffee we walked to the St. Stephens Basilica and went inside - wow! What an incredible church both inside and out. The high ceilings, the artwork, the statues, the stained glass windows - it was all amazing. The church started being built in 1851 but it wasn't fully completed until 1905 due to various set-backs. It was dedicated to King St. Stephen who founded the Hungarian state, and it is a beautiful church. It was free to enter the main area but if you wanted to explore or climb higher there was a fee. We decided just being inside was enough and spent maybe 20 minutes wandering around the main level. 

We walked through the pedestrian street and over to Andrassy Ave, one of the most famous streets in Budapest. Growing up my favourite fictional character was from a soap opera, Princess Gillian Andrassy. Her character was from Budapest and often talked about her life there and showed photos of the city. I was maybe 12 years old at the time and from that moment Budapest became a city I wanted to see. So walking up Andrassy street made me smile at the fact my dream was achieved. 

The street is long and beautiful with many shops and restaurants. It is also the street where the Opera House is, which is another beautiful building. I had hoped to be able to do a tour of the Opera House but there just wasn't enough time to fit it in. Driving down Andrassy Ave allowed me to envision what life must have been like on that street hundreds of years ago. All the houses and buildings were large and grand and the street was separated as it used to allow for carriages. What a time that must have been with people all dressed up taking their carriages down the road to catch an opera performance! 

We had a bit of trouble finding the stop to get the bus, but we saw one of the tour company employees nearby and he was able to lead us to where we needed to be. The bus was great - just like the ones in Dublin, Prague and California it was a two level bus with open windows and an audio guide of the city. The audio guide is done via GPS so as we passed certain sights and attractions it gave us information about them. We saw a few places that we wanted to return to but stuck with the bus and did the entire loop around which took about an hour and a half. This gave us a chance to see the city and get plenty of information about the various attractions in it. We also leaned a lot about Budapest, especially information about the time it was two separate cities - Buda and Pest and how they became one.

Below are photo's taken at a photo stop

Once we completed the red line we stopped at a small restaurant called Menza for lunch. It was suggested to us by one of the tour operators but was also on my list of possible places from Fodor's. It was a cool place, styled like a classy cafeteria. The food was good and I really enjoyed my goulash which was just like a beef stew with some pasta. 

When we got back on the bus our first stop was Heroes Square. We spent 30 minutes exploring this area and taking photos of the massive monuments. It was a beautiful place with so much history. Across from it was this small castle which was really adorable. Brian and I looked into touring it but it was being used an as agricultural museum and had nothing from the original residence on display. 

Once back on the bus we stopped at the Boscalo Budapest Hotel so that we could have coffee and cake at the world famous, award winning New York Cafe. This place was unbelievable! Gold on the walls, high ceilings, elegantly dressed waiters, plush carpets and ornate decor. It has won awards for worlds best cafe and is well known and recommended. The prices are about as crazy as you would expect but it was an experience. We each ordered  a desert platter - one which was a selection of Hungarian treats and another more traditionally American deserts - and shared these platters amongst ourselves. It was ridiculously expensive and probably not worth it in terms of food/value but the experience was once in a lifetime. The cafe was the most beautiful place I have ever eaten in, and I am glad that we did it. It's not someplace I would go back to, but one of those you do once just to say you have been there.

Once desert was finished we walked back to the pier so we could catch the river cruise. It was a 25-30 minute walk (which helped work some of desert off!) and allowed us to pass by the famous Jewish area and second largest synagogue in the world. This one used to be the largest in the world until a larger one in New York was built. It was a interesting building and very big, but still smaller then I would have expected for being the worlds second largest.

We split up for an hour with Dad, Iva and Ivan going to ride the Budapest Eye - a large Ferris wheel type attraction that lets you see views of the city. This was not something I wanted to do (way to high) so Brian and I stopped at Costa Coffee again. My foot was pretty bad at this point and I needed a break. I'm glad I didn't do the eye because Iva (who also doesn't like heights) said it was awful. I did see some of dads photos and the view was pretty amazing. 

Everything I had read about Budapest suggested doing a nighttime cruise along the Danube river as the views were said to be stunning. Our tour pass included this so we opted to do the 9:00pm cruise. Oh my god --- it was incredible! Seeing the city from the water all lit up was spectacular. The lights made the buildings come alive and look magical. Right then I could understand why Budapest is nicknamed "the Paris of the east"... And truth be told I liked it better then then I liked Paris!


One of the many bridges 

By the time we got the car we had been in Budapest for 11.5 hours and still had a two hour drive back to the timeshare. Dad and I were the only ones talking on the trip back as everyone else was either sleeping or worn out. We decided that we would still go back to Budapest the next day but get off to a much later start. 

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