BUDAPEST: A PERFECT SPRING GETAWAY

A Maltese couple gets on a bus. This sounds like an opening of a joke, but fortunately, public transport isn’t a joke in Hungary’s capital. So the couple gets on a bus, which is preparing to leave the airport just on time. There is no space at the front, where passengers are obliged to get on, and the driver opens the back door for them. As the two settle among other tourists with their bulky suitcases, the man opens his wallet and looks at a bunch of tickets pensively. His partner waves off this idea, as the bus is too crowded for the driver to see them, and the two high-five each other on avoiding to spend a few euros on public transport that actually works. The bus starts moving across a suburb, enveloped in a spring night’s darkness, and the odour of flowers fills the vehicle through its open windows.

This is an unusually hot spring on the old continent. Temperatures are getting close to 30, but the dry heat keeps Budapest still a very walkable city during the day and at night. Although it is a good idea to buy a bunch of public transportation tickets (I used a pack of 10 for five days, plus airport shuttle tickets), it is easy to move around by a rented bicycle or on foot. The Margaret Island (Margit Sziget) is rightly beloved among locals and tourists alike for a chilled afternoon in the middle of the Danube river, with a tram available for those staying further away.

Water and greenery – there’s plenty of both in Budapest. Photo credits: Daiva Repečkaitė

Speaking of public transport (living in Malta has taught me to appreciate it on the continent), the yellow metro line, the oldest electrified underground system in Europe, is a tourist attraction in itself. Conveniently, it connects the picturesque Heroes square, surrounded by museums and a pleasant park, with the Opera House and the city centre. Budapest Opera is not only a picturesque building and a world-class institution; from my student days, I remember it as impressively affordable.

Hungarian cuisine in Budapest is often a hit-and-miss: while desserts are heavenly, much of the traditional food is cooked, mashed, and cooked again. There are some restaurants that make it taste amazing. Others – less so. Still, as the urban residents increasingly go for quality, there are many international, fusion and experimental restaurants.

Hungary is a great country to enjoy the pleasures of water. Looking at the river, sitting by the river, soaking in thermal baths are the most accessible of those. Tourists usually choose Szecheny thermal bath because of its impressive architecture and the outside pool, which allows being outside in the water even when it’s snowing outside. However, locals told me that tourists have largely crowded out Hungarians from there. Rudas bath has a more local feel, and one can choose between mixed and single-sex days to try out its five thermal pools, saunas and other wellness pleasures.

As David Millner wrote previously, lake Balaton is easily accessible from Budapest. The train ride takes about as much as Valletta to Cirkewwa by bus. The freshwater lake offers a different swimming experience compared to the sea, and some shores are very shallow (good news if you are travelling with children). The lake is surrounded by cute towns with restaurants that serve local fish.

Back to Budapest, one of its many surprises is the mushrooming of take-away chains that use biodegradable cups, bio beauty and tanning salons, and organic shops. With its plentiful surprises and smooth logistics, Budapest makes a great urban getaway for spring and summer.