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3 Ways to See Budapest off the Beaten Trail

3 Ways to See Budapest off the Beaten Trail

If you want to spend most of your time downtown by the Danube, I get it. But just in case you happen to be a cultured, adventurous and interesting person here are some great ideas to get you wandering further afield.

1. Aquincum and the Római Beach

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Flying above the ruinous bath houses of Ancient Rome; what I was born to do

Budapest was Roman territory once upon a time. How nuts is that? The bloody freaking Romans. They actually only ever made it to the Buda side of the city, with the Danube serving as the eastern boundary of their Pannonia region (see map below). Pest and everything else to the east of the river remained presumably savage hinterland. Nonetheless, the Roman settlement of Aquincum, as it was then known, flourished from its origins as a military garrison into a thriving frontier city during the first few centuries after Jesus.

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You can see the location of Roman Aquincum in the northern most part of the yellow section in this map (wikipedia.com)

Today you can walk amongst the ruinous remains of this settlement in Budapest’s aptly named Aquincum neighborhood located in District III aka Óbuda. Aquincum was named thus due the thermal springs that the Roman’s discovered in the area. In fact, historians beleive that this is why the Roman’s chose to settle in this specific location; access to thermal water was incredibly important for Roman civilization. Today you can visit the still standing foundations of the Roman baths amongst the relics of the Aquincum Museum.

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I destroyed my knees that day

To get to this terrific little museum you are going to grab the H5 suburban train (heading towards Szentendre) on the Buda side of the Margaret Bridge. The station you will depart from is Margit-Hid Budai Hidfo, and you only need to purchase a standard inner city ticket (350 HUF for one way) for the journey. As you disembark at Aquincum you’ll catch your first glimpse of Ancient Rome just across the tracks in the form of a decaying amphitheater.

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Balint’s slick kicks do the trick in Ancient Rome

Please note that this is not the museum. But exploring the Amphitheater is a completely free option that stands on its own as a suitable foray into antiquity. There are a ring of mystical trees on the perimeter of the theatre that could easily provide shelter for hobgoblins or fairy folk. This makes it an ideal location for an inspirational walk to warm up your legs and soul for the rest of the afternoon. And now it is time to survey more of the history that has  been  baking in for some 2,000 years in this vicinity. The Aquincum Museum is back across the tracks from the amphitheater and is comprised by a small, yet thorough indoor exhibition as well as a veritable archeological site outdoors. The interactive display indoors is a wonderful starter before your traipse through the sun soaked maze of ancient Roman outside.  All of it is accessible for the tidy price of just under 2,000 HUF for a combined access ticket.

I find it awe inspiring that the Roman’s harnessed the thermal medicinal bounty of Budapest just as we do today. Understanding this legacy of bathing opens a sulfur drenched window to the past; perhaps these ancients were not too different than us after all. Be sure to check out the perimeter of the park where Roman statuary is displayed which has been uncovered at archeological sites throughout the Carpathian Basin. 

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Balint and Jordan unwind on the Római Beach

Now its time for the relaxation to begin. You’re heading to the beach. I suppose ‘beach’ is a bit of a misnomer actually. It’s more of a stony shore. Very stony, so bring blankets if you’re planning a longer stay. But how positively delightful the Római shore is. There are a string of beach bars connected side to side with each other like the ribs of an accordion which melt right into the backdrop of trees facing out towards the Danube. My favorite of the bars is Nap Básci, but Fellini Culture Bistro is probably the most well known spot and is a great choice in its own right. Bean bag chairs litter the stones in front of Básci and there are a collection of floating docks with benches and tables that make an adventurous location for for group gatherings. Hold on to your drinks!

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Eddie flings stones across the shore

Do note that the bean bag chairs are meant for paying customers only – so if you bring your own food and drink find a spot a bit further down the beach. We ignored these rules at first and were kindly asked to move down a bit – all of the staff there were super chilled.

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Tom absolutely loving it

Whether you take the free or paid option you will find yourself in a state of bliss. Just think, 2000 years ago Romans probably drank themselves silly honoring bacchus with a string of wine fueled orgies on this beach. Well that’s what I imagine anyway. Watch the cascade of different sized boats go by – from kayaks to cruise ships and small canoes – and dream the day away on the banks of antiquity.

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Ahhh, what a way to spend a day

You also have the chance to visit the bathing facility of Római Strandfürdő which is a mostly outdoors experience that uses the same water the Romans once did. Ah, what a lovely, lovely world we sometimes have.

2. Népsziget 

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Idyllic Népsziget

The Népsziget is a tremendous option for an afternoon expedition in Budapest if you are interested in juxtaposing the spookily surreal with the idyllic and tranquil. It’s technically not even a real island – despite the name ‘Népsziget’ translating to ‘people’s island’ – as the northern end connects via a narrow land bridge to Újpest aka ‘New Pest’ aka District IV. The lower half of the island-cum-peninsula is technically District XIII, but culturally the Népsziget has always been defined by its role as a refuge for the working class population of Újpest.

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Újpestians in their element

The best way to get to the Népsziget is to grab the M3 underground from Nyugati railway station and take the 15 minute journey to Újpest-városkapu. From here you walk about five minutes to an idiosyncratic green box bridge known as the ‘Újpesti vasuti hid’ aka the ‘New Pest Railway bridge’. It spans across the island connecting the banks of Pest to the Népsziget and then again all the way across to Buda. Conveniently this connection to Buda is right by the Római Beach. Which means that if you are particularly ambitious it is well within your mandate to combine the first two days out I’ve written about in this blog. And what a god damn comprehensive adventure that would be. Never even thought of it until now. Holy smokes folks, what a treat!! What a treat. Ok, I’m getting carried away here, back to the Népsziget.

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The idiosyncratic green bridge

So you’ll walk across the first third of the bridge and take the stairs down to the island. Instantly you’re confronted with a bizarre petting zoo filled to the brim with billygoats gruff, swans and other creatures. It’s a strange setting and provides ammunition for some unusual pictures plus a chance to feed the goats if you feel so inclined. I don’t actually know who’s in charge of the facility or what its for, but its cool. I like it. And that’s all I gotta say about that.

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Animal Farm

Next you have two options. You can either grab some lunch and drink down by the water’s edge at one of the the riverside bars or head straight into dystopia-ville at the old abandoned boat factory. You’ll be heading down by the river in a few hours once golden hour sets in (unless you are clinically insane) so you might as well head on over to the cornucopia of abandonment porn as your next step. But like I said, your choice for I myself am just a disembodied voice.

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Embracing Alexa in the Ruins

Alexa first showed me this destroyed factory last year. This is the place to come if you are in the mood for a spooky, dark touristic experience. I’ve covered the mainstream murals of Budapest in a previous piece, but I feel almost embarrassed having written it after surveying the graffiti lined interior of this shattered and depraved shell of industrial production. There are brilliant works everywhere here; lurking bright and brilliant behind dark corners and within rooms haunted by ghosts.

This is definitely not a safe activity to do if you are on the squeamish side – broken glass lines the floors and there is dust everywhere. But I couldn’t recommend this place highly enough for the brave of you in the audience. It’s one of the most inspirational settings I’ve ever come across on my travels truth be told. But please keep in mind that I am a deranged individual with some depraved tendencies.

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It’s a spooky spooky place, wander at your own risk

And now you’ll definitely need a drink so head on out of the factory, back past the goat herd and down a dusty trail towards the river’s edge. Three bars occupy the swathe of riverside turf below the Railway bridge. There is Wasser, Kabin, and Perem. Wasser is the biggest of the three spots and is a little bit too mainstream for my taste. There is usually a younger crowd here and it certainly is a fine option in its own right, but for me Kabin is the pick of the litter. They have great food options – try the Hungarian eggplant dip for a delicious appetizer – which can be washed down with a cold fröccs as you listen to the steady thump of the DJ spinning away over your shoulder.

Perem has the most serene setting of the three spots with awesome tree laden seating arrangement tucked down a bit of a hill and further away from all the hubbub. No matter which choice you make just sit back and relax while enjoying your recently earned status of off-the-beaten-trail suzerainty over all of the putrid peasants sweating their bollocks off downtown.

3. The Children’s Train amongst the Hills of Buda

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The narrow-gauge children’s train

The mountains of Buda are a ripple of protrusions that ring the city’s back side. They jut  up into the sky like pale green giants protecting us from an invisible foe. Some of these enormous sentinels are littered with rows of terra cotta and ochre roofs – other’s stand near naked: stark, solemn, and supreme. All loom high above our Danubian jewel, their necks tickled by the Hungarian haze. And what better way to traverse this series of peaks than to ride on a train run by children.

The Children’s Train was first established during the communist era as a way to indoctrinate and brainwash young Magyars into a coercive system of exploited labor under the guise of psuedo-equality. Well, that’s the cynical way to put it at least. If I were putting my positive hat on I’d say what I said in my Children’s Train footprint:

The Children’s train is a throwback to the bygone Soviet era. It was part of a larger communist system of instilling values such as leadership, cooperation and discipline into the younger generation. All pretty good things no? Nowadays the Children’s Train has its place as the most benevolent reminder of this mostly terrible period of Hungarian history. 

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The narrow gauge tracks of the Children’s Train during a winter sunset by Normafa

Whichever perspective you take there is no denying that riding on a train run by kids is a unique experience. Hungarian children usually speak better English than the adults – so try you’re luck and you might learn something about the youth of this country. Either way you will be treated with the utmost professionalism and care by the pre-adolescent conductors corps. It must be noted that each time you board the train you need a new ticket, so if you are planning several stops along the route purchase 3 or 4 single ride journeys at the beginning of your trip (they are below 1,000 forints each). The official start of the Children’s train is at the Széchenyi-hegy stop and although there’s not too much to see you might as well start off at this stop so you can buy your rides up at the ticket office before embarking towards Normafa.

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High above the Hills of Normafa

Located high above the city, Normafa has been a favored playground amongst residents of Buda for time immemorial. In the summer it teems with locals bográcsing the day away and frolicking in the fresh air with friends (breathe in deep – the air is truly so much cleaner here than elsewhere in the city). In the winter time its many hills are used for sledding when there is enough snowfall and sometimes even skiing. This is one of the highest points in the whole city (the highest being our next stop). Honestly, if you are feeling like doing your own thing and ignoring my advice you could probably spend the whole day amongst the plethora of Normafa walking trails and be perfectly happy. But since we have further fields to frolic through lets make this first visit a short one. Grab a strudel at the famous Normafa Rétes (one of the best pastries in the city) before moving on.

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Fun in Normafa during the colder months – but no snow!

Now it’s time to get back on the Children’s train and head to the János-Hegy aka John’s Mountain. At the peak of the mountain is Elizabeth’s Lookout which is the highest point in all of Budapest. To get from the train stop to the lookout follow the signs and finally head up the rubberized yellow track to get to the base of the Lord of the Ring’s looking tower. Along the way you will pass the Zugliget chairlift which can be used as an alternative way to arrive to this point if you want to modify the route that I have laid out for you. Empress Elizabeth, the namesake of this lookout was the shadowy and beautiful wife of Emperor Franz Josef, andwas tragically assassinated by an Italian anarchist in 1898. Once you climb to the top of the lookout and soak in the unbelievable view. Its crazy to see Budapest in all of its glory. This is the only place you can see the extent of the urban sprawl and fully visualize the two-sided beast that is Buda and Pest. The first time I came up here I was in shock – it brought me to tears knowing that all of my lived experience in the past year and a half could fit into the blink of an eye. Remarkable.

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The Elizabeth Lookout – What a view

You can now walk back down towards the train and head on over to Hárshegy which is the penultimate stop on the Children’s Train and features another inconceivable view of Budapest from the Kaán Károlyi Lookout. This spot is at the peak of a forest laden trail where even on a nice day you may not pass another human. Then, there it is, a strange wooden palisade erupting from the ground. This is the type of spot that you wouldn’t find if you took 100 separate trips to Budapest over the next six decades. It is so far removed from the city center you might as well be on Mars. There are numerous walking trails to get to the lookout point itself and all of them are awe-inducing. You’ll pass purple and pink flowers flooded in light, strange cave dwellings, and the best smelling flora anywhere in the city.

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Rainbow’s are not necessarily included

If you still have stomach for it get back on the train and head to our last stop: Hűvösvölgy. Now you are just about as far removed from the city center as you can be in Budapest. There is a museum for the Children’s Train here if you arrive early enough. But its probably dinner time by now so head on over Náncsi Néni, a rustic looking farmhouse restaurant on an otherwise quiet corner. Its outdoor patio will stand out immediately.If you look up where to have a “Hungarian” meal in the city center you will most likely get directed towards expensive tourist traps or poor quality restaurants that claim to be authentic. Náncsi Néni is not cheap, but its a real Hungarian institution with incredible food. Walking in here feels like stepping into a time machine to a period that you didn’t even know existed.

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Really a great meal with some delicious Hungarian red wine – I believe it was a Kékfrankos

It’s somehow casual and fine dining all at once and the ambience of the place is truly welcoming. Red and white tablecloths, friendly waiters dressed to the nines and enough Hungarian wines to drown an octopus. The menu runs the gamut of Hungarian food with some French cuisine as well. It’s on the fancy side of things if anything, but all cooked in authentic style with delicious flavours. The duck dishes are all great. Finish your meal with on of the Tokaji dessert wines that Hungary is famous for. You’ve earned it.


Hey there folks. I hope that you’ve enjoyed this article. All three of these trips are fantastic days out that I’ve enjoyed alone and with friends. The photography is my own unless otherwise noted. If you want to see more of my stuff head over to @willie.tv on Instagram. Also stay tuned for my @likelocalsofficial take over days on Monday and Thursday each week.

 

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