Down the Danube a short 75 minute boat ride from Vienna, Slovakia seemed like a great place to visit on our way to Budapest. Truth be told, we expected the boat ride to be scenic - it is the Danube, right! But it was actually not at all as beautiful as we anticipated, even if it was quick! In any case, we arrived in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, ready to check out this small city for a few days.
Bratislava, Slovakia borders Austria and Hungary, and is the only national capital to border two sovereign states. The capital city, Bratislava is a mix of medieval towers and 20th-century buildings, and while we didn't know what to expect, we were up for discovering this city of about half a million people.
Bratislava isn't big, but it is quaint. The Old Town was bustling every night during our visit, with people enjoying outdoor dining along the cobblestoned streets and buskers playing violins, guitars, and singing. Bratislava Castle is located right beside the Old Town, but while the castle hill was populated as early as the late Stone age, it was destroyed by Napoleon and burned down in 1811, so what we see today is a restoration that took place in the 1960's. Worth visiting? Hmmm, nice to see for a few minutes but that's about it.
The city does have unique and odd sculptures all around, so that makes for an interesting stroll, and if you want to see the place from above, the "UFO bridge" is a great place to rise above it all.
We went up and enjoyed a cocktail atop the viewing area/restaurant in the "UFO" one evening and it was worth it to see down the Danube and across the city. It didn't take long, so once we'd exhausted the city we decided to rent bikes and head to Devin Castle, just up the Danube. We'd seen the castle from afar on our boat ride to Bratislava and wanted to see it up close. We rented bikes right along the river and headed on our way!
Only, after about twenty minutes riding alongside increasingly rural farms and mountains, we realized something wasn't right, and that's when we discovered that each of us thought the other knew where they were going - which we didn't. So, instead of going to Devin Castle we actually ended up in Austria, 16 kilometers away!!
It was a lovely and scenic bike ride, passing crops and even some vineyards, and we finally stopped in the little town of Hainburg an der Donau for some cold beers because were hot and thirsty at that point. So we ended up having a fun day anyway, but lesson learned: Make sure one of us knows how to get where we're going.
After three days in Brastislava, Slovakia it was time to catch the train for a 2.5 hour ride to Budapest, Hungary. We had been wanting to visit Budapest for ages!! So we were really excited to arrive in this gorgeous, rich historic city.
Budapest, the capital of Hungary, is divided by the Danube, with Buda on the West bank and Pest on the East. Most of the city's historical sites are located on the Buda side, but we stayed on the Pest side, choosing an apartment with a view of the Danube. It was a great location, not only because we had an incredible Greek restaurant right downstairs, but because everything in the city was walking distance away. While we did enjoy our share of Greek food, we also enjoyed traditional Hungarian dishes while visiting, including goulash, chicken paprikash, stew, and Unicum, a Hungarian herbal liqueur traditionally enjoyed as a digestif and apéritif, or for the younger crowd, a shot (tastes like Jägermeister but not nearly as good).
Let's just say, one shot of this was enough for the entire trip! Won't be ordering Unicum again soon, but you have to live like a local at least once and this was our one time with this liqueur.
Because we were on the Pest side, we got to walk across one of the eight bridges that connect Buda and Pest just about every day! Starting with a visit to the Buda Castle and palace complex. Once the home of Hungarian Kings, and completed in 1265, today you can find lots of sites to visit up on the hill above the Danube (there is a funicular that takes you up there in a few minutes in case you don't want to climb).
There is so much to do and see up here, we spent an entire day wandering around the castle district and checking out the National Gallery, the castle, churches, and Fisherman's Bastion with its fairy tale towers and spectacular views of the river and the city below. There are seven museums in the castle district, and, for magic fans the House of Houdini museum is near by, but we'd had our fill of wandering at this point and skipped it. We opted for some gelato and headed back to the Pest side of the city.
The iconic Hungarian Parliament Building, on the Pest side, is probably the most identifiable symbol of this beautiful city. Even if you don't visit inside, walking around the colorful gardens that surround it is worth doing. St. Stephen's Church is also on the Pest side and a short walk from the Parliament building, and the way the pedestrian street leads right up to the front door is pretty brilliant and awe inspiring!
Definitely walk along the Danube so you can see Shoes on the Danube Bank, a powerful memorial to honor the Jews and others who were massacred by Hungarian fascists during WWII. The persecuted were ordered to remove their shoes and then shot at the edge of the water so their bodies would fall into the river and be carried. away. The memorial consists of 60 iron-sculpted shoes and reminds us of the atrocities that took place and the shoes left behind on the bank. It's a powerful place to visit and reflect.
There is a lot of serious history in Budapest and in Hungary's past, but there are also opportunities to enjoy the city of today. We knew we wanted to experience a thermal spa so we booked ourselves a day at Szechenyi Bath, the largest and most popular thermal bath in Budapest (it's also one of the biggest natural hot springs in Europe). The sunflower yellow neo-renaissance architecture truly makes you feel like you've stepped back in time.
But we didn't just enjoy the natural spa, we also took advantage of an unusual activity: a beer bath! We sat in our very own acacia wood barrel with a personal, serve-yourself beer tap and proceeded to enjoy bubbling in malt, hops, and beer salt while enjoying unlimited beer! Super relaxing and fun, definitely give it a try if you go to the baths, but you need to book in advance.
After our 45 minute beer bath, we headed to the main baths for the rest of the day, which was amazing and a Budapest must-do. The water was so warm and lovely, even on a sunny, hot day.
If you're visiting Szechenyi Bath, you can't help but pass through City Park, and it's well worth taking the time to stroll this gorgeous place. Built in 1896, beautiful Vajdahunyad Castle sits right beside a lake, its stunning turrets and architecture reflecting in the water. Take a walk around! We heard in the winter there is an ice rink there, which must be amazing, and in the summer there are concerts. We took the metro back from the park and it was a great experience, definitely try it, Budapest has the oldest metro line in all of continental Europe!
We'd heard about the ruin pubs in Budapest so set out one night to find them. These bars turned abandoned buildings in Budapest's Jewish Quarter into a happening nightlife spot, and the night we went there were so many people! The place was abuzz with fun-seekers and the atmosphere was a lot of fun. We enjoyed some of the best burgers at a food truck in the quarter, and the bars are eclectic to say the least. It's quite an experience.
We happened to be in Budapest in August around St. Stephen's Day, a national holiday that honors the country's founding king, St. Stephen. Wow, this is a big deal and the city was ready to celebrate! The banks of the river were lit up with colorful lights and strobes, neighborhoods had stages for concerts and local music, and food stalls were dishing out local favorites. It was amazing!!
On our last night we wanted to see the city from the river and experience some local music and dancing so we booked a cruise and set off down the Danube. We got to listen to live music from the Hungária Folk Orchestra and watched a Hungarian folklore dance show, which was amazing - especially when we got to get up and join them on the dance floor!
Budapest is not only architecturally beautiful and interesting (no building in Budapest is taller than 96 meters), its history is both tumultuous and varied (you can still see bullet holes in some buildings from the 1956 revolution against the communist regime). You can experience an underground world and thermal water springs, castles and caves, and see how three cities combined around the Danube to become one. Our time in Budapest was magical, and it surpassed our expectations. This European destination is one that must be experienced to be believed and should absolutely not be missed.
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Enjoy a taste of our travels with drink recipes on Instagram - Worldwide.Cocktails.