The problem with short breaks is often just that - so much to see, but not enough time. Laszlo Varga is the man to meet if you want to hit the ground running in the Hungarian capital of Budapest
With 72 hours in Budapest and a long list of ‘must see’ sights I was determined to hit the ground running and make the most of my time. Cue Laszlo Varga, a former triathlon and team time trial road racing national champion who helps visitors go the extra mile in the Hungarian capital.
Laszlo runs, in every sense of the word, novel sightseeing tours of the one time separate cities of Buda and Pest straddling the River Danube, which have long since grown together in both name and geography. In the time it takes to board a tour bus, sort out the pecking order for seats, take off your coat, be introduced to the driver and listen to the guide’s preamble Laszlo will get you up to the top of Castle Hill and back.
I only read about Laszlo’s track record after signing up online for two morning tours, which led to a touch of cold running feet. But the reality is far removed from a boot camp and runs can be short or long, flat or hilly and paced for rookie joggers or seasoned marathon types alike. As I got into my stride Laszlo provided interesting sound bites about the places we passed en route, which was much better than the long-winded information overload you get on some sightseeing tours. In our 12k excursions the Chain Bridge - the oldest and grandest of Budapest’s eight bridges - imposing parliament buildings, St Stephen’s Basilica, Royal Palace, Fisherman’s Bastion, Gellert Hill, Heroes’ Square, City Park, Vajdahunyad Castle and Szechenyi thermal baths - a Budapest institution - were just some of the places I ticked off my list.
Runs begin and end at the client’s hotel, so it’s a great way to get your bearings as well as being a no-brainer for solo women travellers, or those with couch potato partners or friends, concerned about running into the unknown in an unfamiliar city.
Of course, pounding the streets isn’t everybody’s cup of tea (although the tea sweetened with honey really hit the spot at the end of our first run through an unexpected snowstorm, which made the Budapest streets resemble a magical scene from Narnia). One of the many beauties of Budapest is its relatively compact size. The majority of sights are within walking distance or a stone’s throw using the cheap and efficient bus, tram and tube network. It’s well worth taking the Millennium line, continental Europe’s first underground, which runs from close by the Chain Bridge to Heroes’ Square, the Museum of Fine Arts, City Park and Szechenyi baths. The retro tile-lined stations lead to equally cute carriages and it’s a straightforward run up and down. That said, I managed to overshoot the last station with a couple of Italian tourists, both parties mistakenly assuming we were locals who knew what we were doing. The shouts of the fierce female driver, as she changed ends in a dark tunnel, soon put us right and we meekly alighted at the next stop.
You can’t go too wrong if you just wander the streets with a map in hand. Castle Hill dominates the greener Buda side of the river and is an obvious first port of call. If you don’t want to walk to the top you can pay £2.50 (HUF 840) and travel on the funicular. Over in Pest the wide Andrassy ut boulevard traces the line of the metro and ends up in Heroes’ Square. Chic designer shops rub shoulders with the opulent Hungarian State Opera House (www.opera.hu), one of the city’s most stunning buildings (if can’t get tickets for a performance you can still soak up the atmosphere of the velvety, gilded interior on a guided tour). Bookworms won’t want to miss Alexandra, a blissful combo of a bookshop and wine store with an ornate café housed in an old ballroom. Thankfully Budapest has not succumbed to the plethora of ‘big name’ coffee shops monopolising UK high streets, and I took a caffeine break at Komedias Kavehaz (www.eszemiszom.hu/komedias), the Comedian’s Cafe, at Nagymezo utca 26 in the heart of the ‘Broadway’ theatre district. It’s an atmospheric wood-panelled gem, where live music is often on the menu alongside the flavoured coffees and cakes that each bear a subliminal ‘drink me/eat me’ label.
Culture vultures should take the number 2 tram to the contemporary cultural quarter that’s risen from the old factory buildings in the area between the Danube and Soroksari Street, by the Pest end of the Lagymanyos bridge. on the outskirts of Pest. The architecturally dazzling modern concert hall and National Theatre (www.nemzetiszinhaz.hu) host everything from programmes by the Hungarian classical music fathers, Liszt, Bartok and Erkel, to modern international programmes.
Hungarians have a saying that their history was written by their enemies, and behind the beautiful facades the eclectic Roman, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Art Nouveau and Bauhaus architecture bears witness to a city that has struggled to preserve its national identity through a turbulent history that’s witnessed war, invasion and occupation. The House of Terror (www.terrorhaza.hu) is a chilling reminder of fascist and Stalinist regimes and Memento Park (www.mementopark.hu), 10km southwest of the city centre, is the retirement home for more than 40 communist-era statues - think Marx, Lenin, Engels et al - that once graced public spaces.
After all that food for thought it’s time to work up an appetite of a different kind. Whilst fast food and touristy haunts abound, there’s much more to Hungarian food than goulash (which, incidentally is a soup rather than a stew). Whet your appetite at the Nagycsarnok, or Great Market, at IX Vamhaz korut where stalls are piled high with meat, vegetables, dairy produce and paprika, the ‘red gold’ that’s the essential ingredient of many dishes. That night I dined out in style at Castle Hill’s Rivalda (www.rivalda.net), a former 18th-century monastery that’s now a theatrical-themed restaurant showcasing Hungarian ingredients with a modern slant. My catfish stew, served with sour cream pasta, crisp pickled vegetables and a deliciously dry Hungarian white wine, was the cat’s whiskers at around £15 (HUF 4,700).
When it’s time for bed the multi-award winning Lanchid 19 is the coolest and funkiest address in town (standard rooms start from around £87 (HUF 27,300) per night and buffet breakfast is £13(HUF 4,000). Right by the Danube beneath Castle Hill, young designers took their inspiration from chairs to create imaginative themed walls for each room. In mine, number 51, Philippe Starck’s ‘male and female’ Louis and Victoria Ghost chairs had led to a pattern of his and hers Strictly Come Dancing-style numbered steps above the bed. Having been given the run around Budapest by Laszlo - in the most enjoyable way - I was in no hurry to put the fancy footwork to the test and opted to lie down and put my feet up instead.
Run & View offer Budapest sightseeing tours for individuals and groups. Prices start from around £25 (HUF 7,800) for one person to £87 (HUF 27,300) for a group of six. Call 0040 7339 92327 or visit www.run-and-view.com.
Malev Hungarian Airlines operates two daily flights from Gatwick to Budapest. The ‘full frills’ carrier boasts one of the youngest fleets in Europe and fares start from £90 return. Check online for the latest deals. Call 0844 4822360 or visit www.malev.com.