The Expat Goes Home
The trouble with being an expat is that you end up being a stranger to your own hometown. In your absence things move on; after a few years you being to feel alienated. The post How to Live like a Local in Budapest two years ago was born of the experience of visiting my own city with the eyes of a tourist: I was trying to show off the attractions – especially the unique ones – to my children. It was a wintery experience of Budapest, however, so today, you’re going to get the summer edition. If it’ll inspire you to visit one of the most lovable and liveable cities in Europe, good. 🙂
How to Live like a Local in Budapest (Summer Edition)
Four Seasons in Budapest
But first of all – is visiting Budapest in summer actually a good idea? 🙂
Well, that depends on how well you tolerate hot weather.
Hungary is a landlocked country with a landlocked – continental is the word – climate: this means four well defined seasons. The winters are snowy and cold; the summers are scorching and dry. The gloomy time to visit Budapest is late autumn: fog, rain, barren tree branches, chrysanthemums and candles in the cemeteries on the Day of the Dead. The hopeful time to visit Budapest is April and early May when the gardens of Buda overflow with flowers, the weather is pleasant with white fluffy clouds on a blue sky and love is in the air.
But in summer the sun beats down on the concrete of Budapest with relentless determination all day and every day – 30-35 degrees Celsius is par for the season. Then at night the concrete radiates back the heat: the city is an oven, although if you’re lucky, the heat will be broken by a spectacular thunderstorm or two.
Having said that, it is possible to enjoy in Budapest in high summer and this is how:
Where to Stay in Summer
Flats and houses are not normally air-conditioned in Budapest – or elsewhere in Hungary – but it’s possible to stay comfortable in a Budapest flat without air-conditioning:
- Take a flat with a terrace in a block of flats in a leafy garden in Buda.
- Or stay in an old block of flats in the city centre where the thick walls will keep you cool enough.
- If you really don’t tolerate heat well, this might be the time to opt for an air-conditioned hotel. (Much as I’m an advocate of living like a local.)
Escape the Heat
The budapestiek are no more fond of living in an oven than you are. Follow them in escaping the heat by:
- Going underground: this is the time to visit some of the many caves of Buda and admire the stalagmites (take a jumper.) Or experience the Gothic horror of the Labyrinth in Buda Castle. Instead of bus, travel by the metro. (Unlike in London, the Budapest metro is warm in winter and cool in summer.)
- Going to the lido. Budapest is not just the home of thermal and Turkish baths but also of pleasant lidos with wave and adventure pools, large grassy areas, shady trees, ice-cream and pancake stands… Go to Palatinus lido on Margaret Island with its eleven pools of varying temperatures or enjoy the outdoor areas of the stylish Széchenyi Baths in Pest or Gellért Baths in Buda.
- Taking an afternoon siesta in a café. It’s hottest at 2 pm – the perfect time for a late and lingering lunch with a glass of chilled white wine? It won’t break the bank either.
- Cruising on the river. Take a boat upriver to visit the little town of Szentendre just north of Budapest on the west bank, or take the hydrofoil all the way up to the Danube Bend and enjoy the cooling breeze off the river and the lovely landscape.
If you want to get off the boat and look around: Szentendre is home to artists' workshops and small art galleries as well as the skanzen - an outdoor museum introducing you to a traditional Hungarian village. The Danube Bend, about 50 km north of Budapest, is the area where the Danube turns 90 degrees from west to south among wooded hills. You can climb up to the Fellegvár (Cloud Castle) of Visegrád or to the dome of the archbishop's cathedral in Esztergom for stupendous views across the Danube. In the case of Esztergom, those views are into Slovakia.
- Going out at night. Wait for the midday heat to pass and go out in the pleasant evening cool. See the colourful musical fountain of Margaret Island, go for a stroll on the Duna Korzó to admire the lit up landmarks, eat out in restaurants or cafés with chairs on the pavement – you can sit out in short sleeves.
- Shopping or eating out in one of the air-conditioned plázas (shopping malls). When shopping malls were introduced in Budapest in the early nineties, locals forsook the main shopping streets immediately. While the demise of the nice boulevards is sad, not having to cope with the weather – be it heat, rain or freezing cold – while out shopping makes life definitely easier. In addition to the controlled temperature, plázas feature anything and everything from indoor waterfalls to rooftop gardens. If you can forego gourmet food, you’ll probably find something tasty to eat as well.
- Eating some ice-cream. The perfect way to cool down – and you can find an ice-cream shop in nearly every street. Nowhere else in Europe, apart from Italy, the home of ice-cream, will you find so many flavours to choose from.
- Exploring the parks and the wooded hills. Of which there are plenty. Castle Hill is all built up but Gellért Hill is wooded; as are some of the other hills in Buda, go for János hegy where you can follow shady paths through the woods to arrive at lookout points. In Pest, head for City Park with its rowing lake and other attractions. Last, but definitely not least, Margaret Island is one enormous shady park with old convent ruins, a musical fountain, lidos and lots of old trees to walk under.
- Dining in a cellar restaurant. Tend to be pricey but you’ll find them in all the touristy areas, like Buda Castle or near the Danube embankment. If it’s not in a touristy area, perhaps you’d better avoid them – it’s more likely to be the type of pub where the working class start their working hours with a glass of pálinka (or two) at 5 am and knives might fly by 10 pm. 🙂
Enjoy the Views
Budapest boasts amazing views and summer, when the skies are clear, is one of the best time to enjoy them. Pest is flat like a pancake while Buda and Óbuda are hilly. The Danube itself, spanned by several bridges, is as wide as the Thames in London; it’s banks are a UNESCO World Heritage site as is the Castle of Buda overlooking the river. The landmarks are lit up at night. You’d be hard pressed to find a European city with better views than Budapest.
Where to find the best views?
- From under the walls of the Citadel on Gellért Hill towards the north. Your view will encompass some of the principal landmarks: Buda Castle, Chain Bridge and the Parliament as well as Margaret Island in the distance. Not to mention all of Pest. (It’s a pleasant climb up to the top of Gellért Hill from the Danube side through shady paths even in summer but if you don’t fancy the climb, you can take a bus.)
- Walk round under the walls of the Citadel to the south side and from under the Statue of Liberty, you can see the city in the south, with Liberty Bridge in the foreground.
- From Buda Castle: whether you look through the arches of Fisherman’s Bastion or go out on the ramparts in front of the National Gallery, you get views over Pest, again with the Chain Bridge and Elizabeth Bridge, the Parliament building and the Danube – and Gellért Hill with the Citadel.
- Climb to the top of St Stephen’s Basilica in Pest for a wide-sweeping view towards Buda.
- Take a ride on the grandiloquently named Budapest Eye at night. A 65 m high ferris wheel in a quiet city square, blocked in by several story high apartment blocks, not even by the banks of the Danube? It’s hard to believe when you stand under it or even as you’re going up but the views from top are well worth seeing – especially at night. And in comparison to the London Eye, it’s dirt cheap.
- From the lookout tower (Erzsébet-kilátó) on János-hegy. János-hegy (John Hill) is the highest hill in Budapest with 527 m. On the top is the lookout tower, named after the Empress Elizabeth (wife of Franz Joseph) who was unaccountably fond of Hungary and the Hungarians; Elizabeth Bridge too is named after her. It’s easy to get there by taking a bus up the hill but you might find it a lot more interesting to take the Children’s Railway (a narrow gauge railway operated by children) or the chair lift (Libegő, not for those suffering from vertigo but another great way to cool down). On a clear day you can see to a distance of about 80 km from the tower, that’s all the way into Slovakia, and summer days are nearly always clear days. You’d never believe it but you’re still in the city too – although it’s all woods. 🙂 The area is very popular with locals both summer and winter.
- For more unusual views, ride on one of the trams that run along the river banks. Tram 2 runs along the Pest embankment; tram 19 on the Buda embankment.
- Walk along the Duna korzó. This is not a name you’ll find on the city map, but it’s how the pedestrianised area along the Danube on the Pest side is known between Chain Bridge and Elizabeth Bridge. You get a great view of Castle Hill, the bridges and Gellért Hill, with the Citadel, the Statue of Liberty and the Statue of St Gellért in the hillside (with the waterfall underneath).
- Cross the Chain Bridge or Elizabeth Bridge or Liberty Bridge from Pest to Buda. And then back.
- Take a cruise on the Danube. Day or night, for views on both sides. And the refreshing breeze. 🙂
More Summer Things to Do in Budapest
- Go to the Sziget Festival. What was a low key event for young locals in the early 1990s developed into one of the largest music festivals in Europe. The week long festival takes place on Hajógyári sziget (Shipyard Island) in the Danube. You can buy a day pass or camp on the island for the duration of the festival. Unlike at Glastonbury, you won’t be up to your neck in mud either!
- Go for a row on the lake in City Park. Europe’s largest outdoor ice rink in winter turns into a boating lake in summer in an area rich of other attractions. In addition to the perfectly nice park itself, you’ll walk past one of the major tourist sights (Heroes’ Square), you can visit any of four museums (Fine Art, Modern Art, Agriculture and Transport), and finish your day with a visit to an elegant thermal bath with indoor and outdoor pools or the zoo.
- Watch Formula-1 on Hungaroring
- Watch the fireworks over the Danube on St Stephen’s Day. The 20th of August is the day of Hungary’s first Christian king and a national holiday. It’s typically celebrated by a religious procession from St Stephen’s Basilica in which the Holy Right Hand of Stephen is carried around in its jewelled casket with banners and other religious paraphernalia and an air show above the Danube, finishing with fireworks over the Danube at night. The fireworks lasts half an hour and if you want a good view, you might want to camp out a few hours early on the embankments, the bridges or prime spots in the hillside on Castle Hill or Gellért Hill. (Take a picnic. 🙂 )
- Attend a theatre performance or concert. You might not speak Hungarian but you can always enjoy a musical in an open air theatre or a classical concert in St Stephen’s Basilica. Or one of the folk shows in the Vigadó. 🙂
- Watch the university boat race. Like the Sziget Festival, this too started as a low key event in the 1990s – a race among the amateur rowing teams of a few Budapest universities built on the Danube. (As I recall some of the teams back then were barely able to keep time!) Nowadays it’s more substantial, even involving foreign teams on occasion, although it’s in no way at the level of Oxford vs Cambridge. On the plus side, you can sit on the steps of the Danube embankment admiring a beautiful city’s major landmarks while watching the boats going past. There are worse ways to spend a summer afternoon.
- Attend a sparty (a spa bath party). I have to admit I never tried it myself but you if you like partying in a swimsuit in a pool under laser lights with a cocktail in hand… you can party on Saturday nights pretty much all the year round at Széchenyi Baths.