Vienna Budapest Day Trip. You find it tough to leave Central Europe without having seen Budapest? My home city marks one corner of the ‘Golden Triangle’ Vienna – Budapest – Prague. My day trip from Vienna to Budapest let me connect the pieces of our Central European culture, from coffeehouses and palaces to Pawlatschen courtyards. Find out how it was.
Vienna Budapest Day Trip
I joined a guided tour to Budapest from Vienna. The coach started off when the bin men were busily tidying up the city, three hours before shops opened. That tour secured a maximum of Budapest during a 12 hour day. We went straight from V to B on the highway.
Along the way, Hungarian tour guide Elisabeth filled the passing rapeseed and corn fields with must-knows about Hungary: stories about Árpád, the first Hungarian king, the Hungarian language and the making of Budapest. My favourite was the legend of the Turul bird. It unfolded just as its statue rolled by on a hill… A good 230 km later we landed in the Hungarian capital at 10.30 am.
Vienna Budapest Day Trip. Six hours of sightseeing stretched out at our arrival. This was pretty good for a day visit to another European capital, allowing you to enjoy the city’s key landmarks and have time on your own.
The plan was to start at Heroes Square at the fringe of Pest. On the way, we drove along Andrassy Utca, an elegant 2.5 km long avenue lined with elegant villas, museums and embassies.
I decided to use the free time before lunch for a 1:1 with the Hungarian hero statues on the square, and some villa gazing in Andrassy Utca.
If it hadn’t been a Monday, I could also have visited the Museum of Fine Arts on Heroes square.
More than two dozen gulyash soups, chicken paprikashs, seabreams, pork medallions and one zakuska later Elisabeth added the town of Pest to our menu…
Pest embraces two thirds of the city, with key landmarks splattered evenly across. It is a very residential district – if you ever moved to Budapest you would probably live there.
The after-lunch tour started by coach, to help us connect landmarks and orientate ourselves. I don’t think I would have made it to the Jewish Synagogue – the third largest in the world – on foot, let alone see the beautiful Basilika or understand why historic personality Ferenc Rákócy means more than two words to Hungarians. (More historic anecdotes and references to the current zeitgeist would have perfectionated the tour, for my personal taste.)
Walking Through Buda
Vienna Budapest Day Trip. Being ferried all the way across the Danube and up the steep hill to the castle district of Buda made us grateful. Local guide Judith and two colleagues sliced our group into small chunks of roughly 10 people each: Unlike at other large group tours, we listened to stories at a normal volume and without voice system, and avoided having our heads counted on a continuous basis.
To the untrained eye it seemed Buda had been put under a glass dome during World War II. It seemed almost immaculate. In reality, most of the historic buildings on site were reconstructions, carefully rebuilt by the Communists after the War. ‘There is a new wave of rebuilding in Budapest since some time. But the locals dislike that permanent state of re-construction the city is in”, explained Judith.
Judith gave landmarks St. Matthew’s church and the Fisher Bastion the attention they deserved. I wanted to know more and was about to queue up to enter the church but then opted for an individual walk to finish off Buda on my own. It was no problem leaving the tour and rejoining them at the bus pick up point. That interplay between guided tour and being able to carve out some extra free time to explore was just up my street.
A caveat about exploring Buda on your own: Everything is strictly signed in Hungarian only. Therefore, either you walk around with a guide book, or you balance your own ‘mystery exploration’ with an informed guide for the rest of the tour, as in my case.
Free Time in Pest
Vienna Budapest Day Trip. Back in the shopping and leisure district of Pest, we had two hours free time: We could either zoom in on landmarks seen during the coach tour or explore new places pointed out in the city maps and guides handed out. I headed for the historic market hall at the end of main shopping street Vaci Utca. My personal discovery: Budapest shares those wonderful historic ‘Pawlatschen’ courtyards with Vienna (see photo).
The central market hall from the 19th century was light and airy, and its coloured bricks and large windows magnificent.
The ground floor was covered with fruit and vegetable stalls, bread and sweet shops, most of them of Hungarian origin. The upper floor was buzzing with tourists buying Hungarian textiles and souvenirs.
I decided to give the National Museum a nod before settling for ice cream coffee under the colourful stucco and historic chandeliers of Café Central next to the University Library. It was a lucky catch, which I proudly made on my way to the super market for some authentic gift shopping: tarhonya and paprika in three varieties each, plus ayvar and some surprise jar with an unpronounceable name.
Vienna Budapest Day Trip. There is not much to say about our return journey. It happened smoothly and painlessly between 5 pm and 8 pm. In hindsight, I probably covered as much of Budapest as I did during two full days on my last self guided visit a while ago. If I had properly read up a city guide back then, I’d be on a par with my one-day guided tour experience.
A final word about the tour guide: Elisabeth belonged to the small camp of guides ready to add individual care to big coach tours. She walked through the rows asking each participant whether they had questions, whether they were generally happy and had everything they needed. Her English and Spanish were immaculate, and probably her Japanese, too (!) as far as I could judge.
Find out about tour availabilities and booking the tour.
NOTE: I was invited by the tour operator. All opinions expressed are my own.