Budapest: A City for all Seasons, Part 1 Winter

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Sticking to staycations for the summer, but need to scratch that travel itch soon? In this blog I’ll be sharing why you should start planning a winter city break to Budapest for early 2021!

Why? Because there are just too many great things to say about my favourite European city. In this first part I’ll be talking about Budapest in Winter… 

It’s not a location you traditionally think of as a ‘winter’ destination, as the world famous Spa Bath’s didn’t sound that appealing at 1 degree celsius, but finding myself with a 2 week break before I started a new job, a spur of the moment booking saw me fly to Budapest with my parents in the middle of January 2019… random! 

Was it going to be too cold? Would anything be open? What was there to do in the middle of winter? 

Now, I don’t want to become one of these ‘bloggers’ that says everywhere is ‘the best’, but honestly, Budapest has been my favourite city break so far. It tops Amsterdam and even Rome! It was so good in fact, that I went back twice in the same year! I’ll talk about Budapest in the Summer in Part 2! Coming soon…

Here’s just a few reasons why Budapest is awesome…the architecture is stunning, the food & restaurant culture is second to none (and SO  affordable) and the Hungarian hospitality is awesome. Not forgetting the ruin bars and great nights out, but I’ll cover that another time..

The checklist for a fantastic winter break to Budapest is pretty simple:

  • A hat, warm winter coat and good pair of gloves
  • Cosy and comfortable walking shoes 

Not too much to ask… So, now you’re ready to explore. But, before I jump into our favourite finds, just a quick explanation of the geography & history of Budapest, as it might help you plan your trip…

BUDA & PEST; A BRIEF HISTORY

The city of Budapest only officially came to exist in 1873, after the merger of Obuda, Buda and Pest which were 3 separate cities before. Obuda and Buda sit on one side of the River Danube and Pest on the other. Pest is the ‘newer’, more modern city, while Buda and Obuda’s history date back as far as the Roman’s and architecturally Buda is quite medieval (more on this here…)

Although I had quite a decent history education, I was totally ignorant about how Budapest and the Hungarian people were tragically affected by World War 2 AND a long Soviet Occupation. This history is felt clearly on the Pest side of the city, with the historic Jewish Quarters, Heroes Square, Shoes on the Danube and other key historic landmarks.

So, if you’ve only got a couple of days in Budapest, I suggest breaking your exploration up by the Danube… explore the Buda side one day and the Pest side another. Otherwise you’re free to come and go as you please and the public transport links between the two mean you can cross the bridge(s) as much as you like!

Now that’s explained, here’s a roundup of some of the best wintery experiences in Budapest…

EXPLORING CASTLE HILL

Undoubtedly my favourite place in the city, I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of the views from Castle Hill. Standing at the top of Fisherman’s Bastion, looking out across the Danube really is quite spectacular, especially on a crisp winter evening when the Széchenyi Chain Bridge (right) and Parliament building (to the left) is lit up in all its glory.

The walled district contains important Medieval monuments, from the Royal Palace to the South which is now a museum complex, to the ‘commoners’ quarters in the North, where you’ll find the absolutely beautiful Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church.

All of the architecture is free to wander around, although you’ll have to pay to go inside the museums and the church. If you’ve got time, it’s definitely worth popping into Matthias Church! Dating back to the first king of Hungary, the church is decorated inside and outside with colourful murals, glazed tiles and stained-glass windows. The bonus of going in winter is that the church is much quieter than summer months – allow an hour to wander around, take pics and soak it in.

Top Tips: 

  • If your schedule allows, try and visit Castle Hill in the late afternoon to catch the view at both daylight and dusk/dark. There’s enough to wander around for a couple of hours (with time to pop into a local cafe & warm up).
  • Don’t bother with the Funicular railway up to Castle Hill – it’s a great money-maker for a 2 minute journey (and the queues for tickets are a waste of time), it’s only a 10 minute walk up through the castle gardens… easy enough to route on Google Maps, or take Bus 16 from Central Pest straight up to the top of Castle Hill!

SOAK UP THE HISTORY IN PEST

Now if you’re into your history (or even if you’re not), the Jewish Quarter (on the Pest Side) is now one of the ‘trendiest’ parts of Budapest, but it has a lot of history. The Quarter rightly contains many memorials and monuments to the atrocities faced by the Jewish community throughout the 1900s. To really get a sense of what happened, it’s definitely worth visiting the aptly named House of Terror Museum, which documents the Nazi and Soviet occupation of Budapest and the genocide of the Jewish population. It won’t make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but it’s morbidly interesting and a really important piece of history that shouldn’t be forgotten.

On the Pest Side of the River you’ll also find the art installation ‘Shoes on the Danube’ which again commemorates Jewish lives lost. It’s one of the highest rated ‘sights’ on TripAdvisor & although it’s certainly interesting and humbling, you’ll have walked past it in 2 minutes, so only make the trip if you’re also walking up to the Parliament Square at the same time. 

Parliament Square architecturally is really impressive, so worth walking to before cutting back through to the side roads to make your way to St. Stephen’s Basilica. Much like Fisherman’s Bastion, the Basilica is stunning and for a small fee you can climb to the top of the neo-renaissance Dome to soak up the views of Buda from the Pest side. It’s also surrounded by restaurants and cafes – we stumbled across a cute little cafe with walls lined with art and antiques – Egoist Cafe – and warmed up with a coffee.

TAKE A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE

Now a visit to the zoo wasn’t the first thing that sprang to mind when I thought about Budapest, but having walked our socks off and seen most of the architecture in the first 2 days (Budapest is very walkable), we found ourselves in Heroes Square and saw that the Zoo was still open. For about 11 quid each, we thought why not!

For the first 5 minutes we thought we’d made a mistake as the zoo was deserted and the first enclosure (the Otters), was locked. But, as we wandered around we were pleasantly surprised to find Tigers, Bears, Rhinos, Elephants and Giraffes! And, the best bit, because the zoo was pretty much empty, so it felt like we were on our own private tour 🙂

Near the Zoo, you’ll also find Széchenyi Thermal Bath, but we weren’t brave (or silly) enough to strip down to our swimmers in the freezing cold. There’s also an Ice Rink for the more athletically inclined (again, not for me, see Bambi on Ice)… which in the summer doubles up as a Pedalo Lake which was more up my street (more on that in Part 2…)

A FOOD PARADISE

One of the unexpected reasons that Budapest was a hit (and one of the main reasons I was keen to jump back to the city just 6 months later) was the FOOD! Oh my gosh, the food! 

Everywhere you turn in Budapest, you can get the highest quality, most delicious food for the most reasonable of prices. The quality of the meats, the flavours (Paprika is a base for a lot of dishes and my absolute fave!) and the Nokedli (a Hungarian specialty, not dissimilar to a cross between dumplings and pasta) was to die for.

If you’re looking for a special evening meal, there are plenty of trendy restaurants to choose from, mostly on the Pest side.

Some favourites discoveries of ours (so good I went back to both in the summer):

  • Vintage Garden – a very cute, Instagrammer’s dream on the inside, it’s not all style over substance. The restaurant turns out modern takes on traditional dishes… check out the menu here.
  • Zeller Bistro – it’s best to book this one if you go in the evening as it’s popular due to the live music in the evenings. You’re greeted at the front desk of a ‘normal’ looking restaurant, but walked through to a fairy light dazzled indoor courtyard where you’ll have a magical evening. And, even after 3 courses of deliciousness, we got mini cupcakes for free with the bill. The service is also fantastic! 

Any guidebook worth its salt will recommend Café Gerbeaud, arguably Budapest’s most famous coffee and pastry shop. With fancy chandeliers, cakes and its famous Dobos Torte on display, it does entice you in, but for the premium you pay, it’s not worth a specific visit in my opinion.

Also, you can’t go to Budapest without trying the Chimney Cake…small street vendors in the summer, or cafes in the winter will serve the traditional sweet treat. It didn’t blow my mind, but is kind of non-negotiable on the Budapest bucket list.

In Part 2, I’ll talk more about places to eat… and more importantly drink, plus video evidence of our adventures with Unicum. Intrigued…don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss that one!!

WHERE SHOULD YOU STAY?

The public transport in Budapest is reliable (and cheap as you’d expect), but it’s also really easy to get around by foot, especially if you’re on the Pest side which is better for nightlife and places to eat. Having never been before, we didn’t know this, and found ourselves on Castle Hill, which was beautiful & peaceful and it was lovely to have an excuse to walk through the Fisherman’s Bastion everyday!

We stayed at a little boutique hotel which I couldn’t fault at all and included a continental and hot breakfast every morning which set us up perfectly for a day of walking.

There are plenty of other options in Pest, and you can get some great flight and hotel deals by booking directly with British Airways! 

I hope I’ve inspired you to think about booking Budapest for your first citybreak post-corona (whenever that will be!)

If you’ve enjoyed reading, please share my blog with your friends and don’t forget to follow my @lifepickswithvix on Instagram.

Subscribe below, so you don’t miss Budapest Part 2, Summer, coming soon!

Thanks for reading,

Vix 

xoxo

What happens in Vegas: Top Picks for Couples

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Not sure if Vegas is for you? Here’s our honest account and highlights as Vegas Virgins (p.s. you should definitely go…)

As first-time visitors to Las Vegas, neither of us had high expectations. We love a cocktail and a party, but beyond a hangover… what really happens when a couple holidays in Vegas? 

Despite our love for Orlando (which couldn’t be more touristy), we normally enjoy soaking up the culture on our trips, so… what would Vegas have to offer?

To get the most from our 3 days, I spent too many hours of my life Googling where to go and what to do (standard!)… but it paid off! We literally had the best couple of days, and already are talking about going back in the summer (we went in January) to experience a pool party or two!

So, if you’re toying with the idea of going to Vegas as a couple or are just generally looking to pop your Vegas cherry, here’s our ‘not-to-be-missed’ experiences…

SIGHTS: EXPLORING THE STRIP

Exploring the sights of Vegas by day is way more interesting than I ever imagined!

It really is one giant adult’s playground. 

Every single hotel is themed to perfection, with the stand outs for architecture being the New York New York, Caesar’s, the Venetian and the Luxor. The decor was just amazing – in Caesars you walk past a coliseum, in the Venetian you stroll along shop-lined canals, the Luxor takes you inside an Egyptian pyramid and New York is lined with NY street and a rollercoaster on the inside (only in Vegas!) 

Mandalay Bay was also beautiful with a tropical garden inside, but avoid Paris unless you want a face full of smoke at midday! (One downside of Vegas is smoking is allowed inside every Casino! :()

Top tip: I’d completely underestimated the size and scale of the strip (typical Brit), but breaking it down into 3 sizeable chunks meant we explored a third of the strip each day. We used the Monorail ($25 dollar pp for 72 hour pass) to travel the length of the strip from our hotel at the Sahara (one end) to the Mandalay Bay at the opposite end. Still, be prepared to walk miles using the monorail and Uber it in the evening when you’re all dressed up!

FOOD: CULINARY DELIGHTS THAT WON’T BREAK THE BANK…

As with everything in Vegas you’re paying a premium to well, just be in Vegas. 

They’re definitely catering for the aspiring ‘high-rollers’… but there are deals to be had!

Vegas hotels have 24 hour buffets a plenty, but ever a fan of a bottomless brunch, I didn’t want any old buffet food. 

So, after more research (you guessed it), a highly recommended buffet was Wicked Spoon.

We were not disappointed. Wicked Spoon in the Cosmopolitan hotel was THE best all you can eat buffet I’ve ever been too. Queues can get long, so we opted for an early dinner. The selection was mind-blowing – everything from fresh sushi, to bone marrow, to an amazing salad bar, freshly carved meats of all varieties and a dessert bar to die for. It was like being in a real-life Willy Wonka factory with bitesize treats of all flavours, including lollipop brownie sticks and popping candy icecream. 

For a more ‘fine-dining’ experience (we can be posh when we want) the next day we opted for Hakkasan. Steak restaurants and high-end grills are really popular in Vegas, but we figured Gordon Ramsay could wait until we were back on home soil. 

Hakkasan can be pricey if you go a-la-carte, but we opted for a set menu (weeknights 6-8pm), which included 1 cocktail, 3 courses for $59 (cheap by Vegas standards!) The service, flavours and decor were exceptional – it was a night to remember and not to be missed if you love Chinese food.

Top tip: Most restaurants, even the high-end ‘posh’ ones will have some sort of happy hour or set menu (especially on weeknights). So, you can still sample the amazing food, for literally half the price! Check out their websites for details and be prepared to ask the server as they won’t widely advertise the deal even if you pre-book…

DRINKS: CRUISE FOR BOOZE

There is something for everyone in Vegas when it comes to the drinking scene. If you’re up for gambling you get free drinks at tables and machines in most casinos (although you might have to wait a while & tip the server so they come back ;))

If you’re looking for ‘better’ value, casual, but a fun night out, head to the Old Las Vegas strip in Downtown. With older smokey casinos and much smaller minimum bets, it’s a reasonable scene with regular evening entertainment on huge outdoor stages.

The side roads are also lined with casual bars where you can get unpretentious beers and local DJs keep you entertained. We headed there one night and had a great night dancing outside to live bands singing American Pie…

If you want to stay on the new strip and drink in the day, there’s plenty of casual pub type bars from Planet Hollywood, to Coyote Ugly in New York New York. 

If you’re looking for more ‘fancy’ drinks and an espresso martini is your bag, then head to the Chandelier Bar in the Cosmo. The inviting 3 floor sparkling chandelier was enough to entice the Essex girl in me, and although it was already busy at 3pm in the afternoon, the service and drinks were amazing. It’s also an experience I will never forget, having tried the ‘Secret’ house drink – a verbena cocktail. Not to the ruin the secret, but you chew a special verbena flower and then drink a special cocktail… the reaction of the flower and drink combined will blow your mind!

Top tip: if you’re planning to hit a few bars before a club night, plan your route carefully, it’s not easy walking from one bar to another at night, so best to enjoy a drink or two in your hotel room before heading straight to a club or casino for drinks.

SHOWS: ABSINTHE

There are so many shows to choose from in Vegas, from Michael Jackson tributes to Cirque du Soleil and Cher.

One we’d been told was not to be missed by friends was Absinthe, hosted in a big circus tent outside of Caesar’s. A crazy journey of circus acts from dancers to burlesque dancers and strong men, the evening is made unforgettable by a wildly inappropriate circus ring master and his assistant. If you’re a prude, this one is not for you! But as 2 people with un-PC humour and amazed by the circus acts, we had an amazing night – 10/10!

Top tip: Pre-book your tickets only using a website like https://www.tix4tonight.com… you can save money and there are often discount vouchers available.

SOUNDS: PARTY TIMES WITH TIESTO

Now, we figured we wouldn’t really have had the ‘true’ Vegas experience, until we’d hit up one of their world-famous Nightclubs. So after a fair amount of debate between Omnia or Hakkasan, we settled on a night with Tiesto at Omnia.

Now, if you haven’t been to Vegas before, expect to pay through the nose for a night out. Forget about having a seat unless you can fork out $10-20k for a booth (comfy wedges or heels recommended!)

For most nightclubs, unless it’s Ladies night, you’ll both have to pay a cover charge of around $20-25. As we knew this, we paid ahead for a VIP Entry which meant no queue (which was snaking around the block) and a VIP Bar Card of $100 each. It basically meant the cover charge was free and we didn’t have to queue, win-win… they can be bought directly from Omnia’s site here.

Both Tiesto and Omnia were insane! I’ve been to Creamfields and EDC festival multiple times and as a dance music lover I was not disappointed! Tiesto delivered a set to remember, playing his old classics and new songs not yet released – he was on for over 2 hours, so expect to get great value for money if you’re there for the music!

But, the highlight was Omnia’s incredible chandelier. It suspends above the ceiling and moves in every possible direction, with lights, smoke and pyrotechnics that move along to the beat of the music. It really was mesmerising. There’s some awesome videos of the chandelier on Youtube which you can watch…

Despite having an amazing night, Omnia’s bar setup was questionable and the drinks were extortionate $25 for a double vodka OJ. So, I’d recommend only going if you really love the music and atmosphere, rather than for a boozy night.

3 DAYS IN VEGAS

Is 3 days enough time to soak in everything Vegas has to offer? No! But, did we have an amazing time? Yes!

We’ll be back, but in the meantime if you’re looking to explore Vegas and all it has to offer, check out Go Las Vegas… it might not be worth investing in the card unless you plan on cramming loads of activities in, but it’ll give you a great idea of everything you can do and see! 

Hope you enjoyed this blog and use some tips on your next adventure If you know anyone that’s going please like, share and pass this on using the sharing buttons below 🙂

Vix

xoxo

What happens in Vegas: Top Tips for Travelling as a Couple