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My big mistake in Budapest: going it alone

Don’t make my mistake in Budapest; escorted tours are the way to go

My biggest regret after returning from a short break in Budapest? Not taking one of the escorted tours. Three days in Hungary’s beautiful capital were marred by one thing; my complete lack of an internal compass. Yes, that’s right – I got lost.

My plan for the long weekend was pretty simple; Friday I wanted to explore Castle Hill, with the citadel, Buda Castle and wonderful views. Saturday would be spent visiting the Hungarian Parliament – a building that was described to be as ‘like a goblin castle’. Sunday I planned to visit one of the bathhouses and while away the day relaxing in the warm waters. Add in some traditional Hungarian food and pastries, tasting the local beer and the predicted warm weather – pure bliss.

However, the plan was shot within minutes of me arriving in Budapest; the city is laid out in a simple grid format which, if you’ve taken the time to turn the map the right way, is easy to navigate. If you don’t turn the map the right way though, you – like me – will end up on the wrong side of the very pretty – but very long – bridges. Budapest is actually two cities; Buda and Pest separated by the Danube River, and connected by a number of bridges – the most famous of these being the Chain Bridge. You would think that crossing one of these bridges would have alerted me to the fact that I was going the wrong way – but sadly not.

I eventually found my way to my accommodation for the trip, and after leaving by luggage, decided to brave the streets once more to explore Castle Hill. Castle Hill is situated on the Buda side of Budapest, and offers wonderful views over the surrounding area. Buda Castle has a great historical background to investigate and is a wonderful place to spend a day in warm weather…Sadly though; I was unlucky and got caught in the rain on the way back.

Saturday morning I was determined to try again; I would not be beaten by my lack of sense of direction! The Hungarian Parliament Building is said to be based upon our own Houses of Parliament in Westminster, but with red, round spires and a sloping roof, it did seem to be something out of a fairy tale. The Parliament puts on tours of the buildings each day – English lead tours occur at 10am, 12pm and 2pm, but you need to arrive early in the morning to pick up tickets, as the tours are very popular.

I aimed to arrive at the Parliament at 9 to join the 10am tour; I remembered to pick up my passport (which is necessary in order to join the tour) and even some Hungarian Florints (which I didn’t need – the tour is free). However, while my map showed a direct route to the Parliament building, what it failed to show is that you can’t walk along the front – there are Hungarian soldiers positioned with guns, very convincingly persuading people to take a different route. I certainly wasn’t going to argue with them – but by the time I’d walked around the building twice, I still hadn’t found the tourist entrance and it was 9.30am. A friendly fellow tourist finally pointed me in the right direction – and I managed to grab one of the last tickets for the morning’s tour. The tour is interesting – regardless of your understanding of the Hungarian systems – and well worth a visit.

I aimed to visit Margaret Island in the afternoon, but the morning’s excursions meant I only managed to explore as far the beautiful fountain at the tip of the island – the water springs out in time to the classical music, and it’s hugely relaxing. Apparently, the island also includes a small Japanese garden, a small zoo and a tower – sadly, I missed out on seeing all of these.

Thankfully, on Sunday, I managed to find my chosen bath-house (The Gellért Baths) within a fairly short space of time. The baths are beautiful, decorated in an Art Nouveau style and include a communal swimming pool and small thermal bath area inside, as well as an outdoor wave pool, outdoor thermal bath and outdoor sauna. Also accessible are separate men’s and women’s areas – where locals weren’t afraid to strip down to their birthday suits! I had remembered my swimwear however, and kept fully dressed at all times! After a long soak I spent my final evening in the city drinking Hungarian beer in one of the city’s many ruined bars – if you get the chance, a visit to one of these is hugely recommended – contemplating my trip.

Budapest is a beautiful city – and one, I’m sure, most travellers found easy to navigate. However, after three days getting lost in the city, my head was spinning from trying to tell the streets apart, my feet were blistered and I hadn’t managed to see some of the sites I’d planned to. I can’t help thinking that despite my ‘traveller pride’ (you know, that little voice inside your head which says things about ‘independence’ and ‘finding the hidden gems’) I would have done much better – seen much more – if I’d just taken an escorted tour. If I had… well maybe I wouldn’t have to re-sole my favourite shoes either.

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