There’s no doubt that almost everyone in Budapest – and every building – is finely tuned to the tourist economy. If there are a few Forints to be made on top of admission prices, they’re there for the taking. But it’s also refreshing to see that some public places remain just that, such as the Citadel at the top of Gellert Hill. And since the Statue of Liberty was good enough for the Americans, so it was for the Soviets at the end of the Second World War.
The grand old lady holds a palm leaf as a symbol of peace, and a dozen excited languages surround her – taking the obligatory selfie of Liberty herself, and yet more spectacular views of the city below.
The “wow” factor comes back to you any time you venture over to the Buda Hills, and most of the monuments are well served by public transport – often a combination of bus, metro and trams. The Citadel itself remains traffic free, meaning a short walk up the final part of the hill past food and souvenir stalls – and Hungary’s own version of Robin Hood.
Actually, the outlaw reference here isn’t completely made up, because the Buda Hills were used as the setting for Sherwood Forest in the BBC’s most recent version of Robin Hood.
Other freebies include St Stepen’s Basilica – a truly grand feat of construction that took sixty years to complete. Most visitors respect the suggested donation of 200 Forints – less that a pound. And for the most part, you’re allowed to take photos; a sharp contrast from most museums that charge a supplement for such privileges.
A lazy final evening takes me into tourist hell – a one hour sightseeing cruise on the Danube. To be honest, I just wanted to see the great bridges and buildings by night. But the €15 charge seems a lot to sit on a boat full of tourists and look through Perspex windows, which annoyingly reflect the video screens showing tacky images of daytime Budapest. Included in the price is a “free welcome drink” which – although offered as Champagne – turns out to be a rather gloopy local fizz. Still, there are briefly brilliant views to be had.
Back in the Jewish Quarter and Szimpla Kert is getting just a bit busy for my liking. But – as I said before – there’s something for all tatstes here, including the rather lovely Yellow Zebra, a cosy cellar bar selling fine craft beer and featuring acoustic music.
Despite a fairly hectic four days of sightseeing and entertainment, it still feels like I’ve only scratched the surface of Budapest. It provides a great combination of European familiarity with visual surprises around almost every corner. It really does feel like a city that can be all things to all people – I’ve seen visitors of all ages and backgrounds. And I don’t think I’ve heard a single voice raised in anger.
There aren’t too many places that can say that.