Budapest On Foot
Aaron Saunders, River Cruise Advisor
Friday, July 15, 2016
After beginning our Viking River Cruises’ Passage to Eastern Europe voyage in Bucharest, Romania last week, it’s now time to say goodbye: today, Viking guests enjoyed a day at their leisure in Budapest, Hungary to cap off this 10-day journey through some of Europe’s most fascinating countries.
With another group of guests occupying Viking Embla, this final day in Budapest began from our post-cruise base at the Hilton Budapest hotel. Located on the “Buda” side of Budapest, it has the advantage of offering picturesque views of Fisherman’s Bastion and the Matthias Church from its perch up on Castle Hill. Unfortunately, it’s also removed from the majority of attractions in the city, most of which lie on the “Pest” (pronounced “pesht”) side of the Danube.
Last evening, I walked down from the hotel and across the Chain Bridge over to the Pest side in about 15 minutes. Today, the bridge was closed for the Red Bull Air Race, which begins tomorrow and runs through Sunday. Today, turbo-charged prop planes were doing practice maneuvers along the Danube. It made for some great views and photo opportunities – but it meant a longer walk to cross the Elizabeth Bridge into Pest. Total time: nearly 45 minutes.
If you don’t want to walk, you have two options: a taxi, or the Number 16 – Deak ter bus. Budapest city council recently chased Uber out of the city, so that option is no longer available.
Normally, neither option would be an issue. Today, I’m glad I made the walk along the Danube promenade and over the Elizabeth Bridge: traffic was absolutely snarled in every direction, with cars prevented from accessing any points on or near the Chain Bridge. Add to that the closure of the Liberty Bridge, and you’ve got the makings for the worst Friday morning commute ever.
Now, I chose to enjoy a day in Budapest on my own. While Viking doesn’t offer any complimentary tours today, it was offering four additional cost excursions:
- Szentendre Excursion – 8:30 AM – 1:00 PM, €59pp. Visit Szentendre, 10 miles north of Budapest, to visit the galleries and shops of this quaint town. An extensive collection of Margrit Kovacs ceramic works are located here as well. Tour includes coffee break with snacks and beverages.
- Best of Budapest & Thermal Baths – 8:30 AM – 11:00 PM, €209pp. You read that right: this all-day tour lasts for over 12 hours and includes visits to the Grand Market Hall; a traditional Hungarian lunch; a dip in the Rudas Thermal Bath, and an evening dinner with wine pairings at the Borkapolna Wine Chapel just 1.5 miles from the hotel.
- Dohany Street Synagogue & Jewish Budapest – 1:00 PM – 4:30 PM, €59pp. Focusing exclusively on the Jewish history of Budapest, this tour includes a visit to the massive Doany Synagogue along with a walking tour of the Jewish Quarter. Once the Budapest Ghetto, guests can visit to the Tree of Life memorial to the over 400,000 Hungarian Jews killed by the Nazis.
- Godollo Excursion – 2:00 PM – 6:00 PM, €79pp. This tour travels 18 miles outside of Budapest to see Godollo, the location of the Royal Palace of Hungary that was used as a summer retreat for Emperor Franz Joseph.
I, on the other hand, set out to have a random day in Budapest. All you need is a map and a couple of addresses to start you off.
Personally, I wanted to find two of the better-known bookstores selling English-language books in Budapest: the Oxford Bookshop at Gerlóczy u. 7; and the Atlantisz Book Island at Anker köz 1-3, about ten minutes’ walking distance away from the Oxford Book Shop in the Jewish Quarter.
The Oxford shop is tucked away on Gerlóczy utca; a nondescript, unassuming street that looks highly residential. It’s not. Use Google Maps if you have to, or circle it on your printed map, or have the Concierge at the hotel point it out to you.
The shop has, unsurprisingly, one of the largest collections of Oxford Press books in English in Hungary. That means you’re good to go on your Collins, Dickens, and Shakespeare. However, the store also has a very decent selection of books in English about Hungary, or written by local Hungarian authors that makes it worth checking out (enter the store and immediately turn 180 degrees to your left.
Atlantisz Book Island looked appealing. Tucked away in the heart of the Jewish Quarter, it’s selection of English-language books in both fiction and nonfiction is far better than Oxford’s. But its prices are higher – higher than identical books at the Oxford Book Shop, and even higher than the list price. I picked up one title that was priced at 4850 HUF (about $17 US) – even though the list price was $11.99 US. The book I picked up at the Oxford shop for 3100 HUF (about $11 USD) was on-par with its list price; at Atlantisz, it was nearly double that.
Certainly, when you’re on Váci utca, the main pedestrian (and, of course, tourist) shopping street, I’d expect higher prices and potential scams. But I was a bit surprised to see just how much higher these books were priced in a shop that’s well away from this famous shopping street.
Speaking of Váci utca, I avoid even walking down it these days. It’s absolutely packed with tourists this time of year, and every five feet you’re hassled by shopkeepers, tour operators, and, yes, scam artists. Tourist scams are a very popular pastime here. To keep yourself safe: keep an eye on your belongings, don’t take out money from ATM machines that don’t look secure (or aren’t inside of a major commercial bank), and don’t accept invitations from strangers to go for drinks. Remember: if it’s unsolicited, it’s probably a scam.
But whenever you’re exploring, feel free to wander. Go down those side-streets. Pop into the shops that look interesting, and enjoy a drink on a patio if it looks appealing. Stop and smell the roses. Especially here in Budapest, it’s not the distance you cover; it’s what you discover that matters.
After four hours on the Pest side of the city, I hiked back across the Elizabeth Bridge and back up to the Hilton. Truth be told, I’m not sold on the Hilton Budapest as Viking’s hotel of choice here. There are plenty of wonderful properties on the Pest side (the Kempinski, Sofitel, Four Seasons Gresham Palace and even the Marriott come to mind) that Viking could utilise. The Hilton’s location up near Buda Castle would be fine if the hotel were exceptionally renovated. It’s not. Aside from the lobby and public spaces, the hotel’s rooms look like they haven’t had a refresher in 20 years. But that onus is more on Hilton to modernize, and perhaps the business it receives from Viking will compel it to do so.
In fairness to the Hilton, the service from the hotel staff is excellent, and the bartenders make up a mean Whisky Sour in the lobby bar.
Although Viking didn’t offer any complimentary touring today, I didn’t mind one bit. The line is encouraging guests to discover their own Budapest, whatever that may be. Some may not leave the hotel; others, like me, might traipse 15 kilometres around the city in an all-out day of exploration. Or, you might take one of Viking’s optional tours.
Viking leaves it up to you to decide how you want to spend your last day in Budapest. After over a week of helping us to create memories, the company wants you to create your own special memories for yourself. And that sounds like a perfect ending to me.
Our Voyage Report from onboard Viking River Cruises’ Viking Embla in Eastern Europe has sadly come to a close, but stay tuned for our full Voyage Recap coming next week. Be sure to follow along on twitter @deckchairblog or using the hashtag #LiveVoyageReport.
Viking's Passage to Eastern Europe
|Day 1 & 2
|Veliko Tarnovo & Arbanassi, Bulgaria
|Cruising the Iron Gates
|Vukovar & Osijek, Croatia
|Recapping our Journey