I can’t believe that someone hadn’t made me go to Budapest before — it really is the most amazing city and I urge you to visit at the earliest opportunity if you haven’t already!
Split into two parts by the Danube, Buda and Pest, it’s full of amazing architecture and green spaces. Budapest is also renowned for its hot springs and there are loads of places where you can take to the water.
I also got to fulfil a long held dream and eat soup out of a bread bowl!
On the second of our two full days there we bought a 24 hour city card which gave us unlimited travel plus free access to the St Lukacs baths (and some free and discounted museum entries, but the weather was so glorious that we didn’t go to any of these). We started off with our visit to the baths, which comprise some outdoor thermal swimming pools plus a complex of indoor pools and a steam room. The indoor pools vary in temperature from 30 to 36 degrees, and I spent most of my time in the hottest pool, just lounging around and enjoying a spot of people watching. The motto here is that ‘silence is the best medicine’, so the idea is that you just relax and let the warm water work its magic. It was full of locals so I think it’s an engrained part of daily life in Budapest — I could get used to that!
There is a distinct sulphurous smell, which does take some getting used too, and which makes the option to drink the water something that can be a little hard to stomach. I did try a sip but Evian it ain’t.
We didn’t try the outdoor pools, partly because you’re supposed to wear a swimming cap, which I didn’t have, and also because after the relaxation of the warm water I wasn’t up for going into a cooler pool!
Ferries form part of Budapest’s public transport system, and these are a fab way to see the city from a different perspective. They go north and south down the Danube to various points in Buda and Pest, as well as to St Margaret Island, a lovely green corridor that lies in the river between the two sides of the city. We caught a ferry at random and ended up on the island, which had some unexpected treats — it had fountains that shot up water in time to music and stands selling the most delicious boiled sweetcorn.
We rounded off our day with a trip to a ruin bar, another of Budapest’s specialities. These are bars that pop up in abandoned buildings, some of which are temporary and some of which end up becoming permanent fixtures. We went to Sziget, which is one of the oldest and well-known. It’s a warren of interconnected rooms and spaces, all with funky decor, and a huge selection of drinks — they even had cherry beer on tap. After a pint there we ended up going for a second drink in a random burger and beer bar around the corner where a pub quiz happened to be taking place — just our type of drinking establishment! Even though it was in Hungarian I was pretty pleased to answer one music question correctly.
Vienna is only two and a half hours away from Budapest by train, so it was a really nice easy journey to make. We also fulfilled a wish of S’ on this train by having a coffee in the buffet car, which was very pleasant and felt vaguely Agatha Christie-esque.
We got around Vienna using the city hire bike scheme, which I can highly recommend. It’s really cheap — 1 EUR registration fee, then the first hour is free, and it’s around 1 EUR for every two hours after that. Vienna is definitely a cycling city as it’s super flat and has dedicated cycle lanes everywhere, so I felt safe even without a helmet and with very limited gears. There are stations for the city bikes everywhere, so there’s never a shortage of bikes to rent and places to drop them off at, and it’s a great way to see a city that’s quite spread out.
While I liked Vienna, I felt there were so many grand and beautiful buildings that sometimes it was hard to orientate yourself. My favourite bits of the city were the path along the river, where we enjoyed a bottle of Prosecco one evening, and the huge open air food market at Naschmarkt — we bought the fixings for an amazing picnic there, which also included a delicious cherry and cream cheese pie/cake hybrid thing. In the food and drink category, I was also pleased to find Almdudler, the Austrian herbal lemonade that I’d tried a few years before in Bavaria and which has a pleasingly retro can design.
As in all the cities we visited, we rented an apartment through Air BnB and the Viennese one was definitely the best — the kitchen was really well stocked and it even had a Nespresso machine. After two weeks of not-so-good Balkan stove top coffee, this was a very welcome sight.
We also found via Google maps that our apartment was a few minutes’ walk from a renowned cocktail bar (winner of Austria’s best bar 2014!) so we went there for a drink one evening. I’ve never seen a more comprehensive menu — over 20 pages of original cocktails plus all the classics you’d expect. It wasn’t cheap — around £8 each — but the artistry put into our drinks was second to none.
We were away for a fortnight but it felt much longer than that, which to me is always the sign of a good holiday! It was a lot of fun to seeing so many different places in one trip, and while I appreciate it’s not everyone’s cup of tea to be on the move so much, I loved experiencing five countries in one go, seeing where they shared common cultures and enjoying the differences, too.
The Balkans themselves weren’t always the easiest place to actually travel around so I’ll also be sharing a post with some tips I picked up that might be useful for people making a similar trip. I know that I gleaned some useful info from people’s blogs when we were planning so I wanted to give something back!