It’s my fiancée’s fault really. In conversation, she unwittingly set me a challenge of seeing two (new to us) cities over a long weekend. So, in true adventurer style, I got out a map of Europe to look for capital cities that weren’t too far apart. Budapest and Bratislava jumped off the page and I soon discovered we could fly into Budapest on a Friday evening, stay there for two nights before catching a 2-hour train to Bratislava for another night before flying home on the Monday afternoon. The challenge was won!
Budapest is a city of two halves. Buda is on one side of the River Danube, and Pest is on the other. The flat Pest side is where you will find the “city centre” with its many shops, restaurants and hotels. The Buda side is more hilly, but is where you will find the fairytale-like Fishermans Bastion, which offers stunning views across the city. The upper part can be reached on foot, by golf buggies and by a funicular train.
Whilst the city has an excellent tram system, we used the Big Bus Hop-on Hop-off tour bus to see many the main sights. However, on foot is the best way to experience the city and soak up the atmosphere.
After a busy day sightseeing, entertainment is next on the list and Budapest does not disappoint. From rooftop Igloo bars to Ruin Pubs, the city caters for everyone. The Ruin pubs are fascinating places, they are found in long-abandoned apartment buildings, particularly in the Jewish Quarter. As the buildings were too expensive to renovate, they were left to decay until an underground movement started moving in and creating entertainment venues. One can be found in an old car service centre, another in a former supermarket. They are filled with mis-matched furniture and art installations and are a truly unique experience. Szimplza Kirt was named as one of the top 5 bars in Europe recently. However, if that is not your cup of tea, you might find it at one of the most beautiful cafes in the world. The historic New York café has marble columns, chandeliers, stunning murals and prices to match, but it is worth paying for the experience. We stayed at the original Grand Budapest Hotel, the one on which the movie was based. Now called the Corinthia, this hotel is exceptional. From the ornate foyer to the executive lounge, the guest rooms and the ornate spa area, the hotel oozes sophistication.
The train from Budapest to Prague is a regular service which operates numerous times every day. In around 2 hours, we had crossed from Hungary to Slovakia and had travelled from one of Europe’s oldest and largest capital cities to one of the youngest and smallest. The old town of Bratislava is beautiful, and completely pedestrianised so is a pleasure to wander around.
The historic buildings date back, in some cases, to the 13th Century and there is a hilltop castle as well as small cathedrals to explore. St Martins Cathedral is worth a visit, if only to see the underground catacombs. The city has a number of symbolic statues that are worth seeing. Cumil is the statue of a man peering out of a manhole cover, Schone Iaci is the statue of a man with a top-hat, apparently he was well-known local character in the 19th century. The odd juxtaposition to the historic old town can be seen just across the river. The UFO tower, is shaped as a flying saucer and houses a panoramic restaurant. The full effect can be seen at night as the lights appear to hover above the river. The views from the top of the tower encompass the old town, and because Bratislava’s city limits border two countries, you can see parts of Hungary and Austria too.
Back in the old town, a visit to the Grand Cru Wine Gallery is highly recommended. The host welcomes you to his small wine bar like long lost friends and takes you on a tantalising taste-tour of Slovak vineyards and wine varieties accompanied by stories, chat and a really good cheeseboard.
On this trip we stayed in the Hotel Avance, on the edge of the old town but only a few steps away from the riverside in one direction and the town square in the other. The rooms are perfect and very comfortable.
Whilst I won the challenge, with an extra night tagged on, the trip could easily have become a three-city, three-country trip as Vienna, capital of Austria, is a short trip from Bratislava. Maybe that will be the next trip!