Everyone I know is enamoured by Budapest, and those who really get beyond the realms of tourism – the overpriced café scene, for instance – often have special “nooks and crannies” they call their own.
It may be a particular fine, vintage art-house cinema that sets one alight, such as the Uránia on Rákóczi út. Or the quiet, little Turkish shrine to Gül Baba at the foot of the Buda Rózsadom Hills. Perhaps a small, independent bookshop in downtown Pest, for example the Massolit bookshop and café on Nagydiófa utca, takes your fancy?
As for me, I favour the Duna shoreline and enjoy island-hopping. There are many to choose from along the river, such as the lesser known Molnár Island, a very peaceful, sleepy little place between Csepel Island and mainland Soroksár, in the far south of Pest.
Then there is Luppa Island, a secluded place just near the Megyeri “M0” Bridge at Budakalász in the far north of the city and only accessible by ferry. And there are plenty of others along the way as I have endeavoured to live up to my Budapest Times article “How to become a real Budapester”, published in June, and made my home with family in District XIV’s Zugló, and left much of the mainstream behind, as you will soon see.
One does not have to go too far from the city centre to find off-beat cultural delights. Central Jószefváros, District VIII, very much comes to mind with plenty of intriguing architecture that is as worthy as elsewhere but more run-down. I often cycle through, taking different routes each time and ignoring the negative press this area often receives. Some of the pre-Second World War buildings are in need of restoration, or clearing altogether to make way for the new.
Now is the time to really visit Jószefváros, as construction work is on the move. This place has been known for being dangerous but nowadays, at least during the day, with market stalls, the school rush, cultural events and whatever follows, it is fine and almost feels like anywhere else.
Also close by, for the sleuths among us, there is the Rendőrség-Történeti museum, holding police and crime exhibits. This speaks for itself and I am sure Agatha Christie would have appreciated a visit. This is to be found at Mosonyi utca, near the historical Kerepesi cemetery, also worth a visit.
Beyond this intrepid area, en route to the Népliget bus station is the refined Rezső tér. I don’t think this small parkland and prestigious Magyarok Nagyasszona Plébánia Templom, with its fine green and white décor and spectacular pillars and dome, has ever received a mention in any tourist guide, despite being reasonably close to the Planetarium. Rezső tér, albeit much smaller, makes a pleasant getaway as much as the Városliget grounds by Heroes Square.
Continuing further along the very busy and prominent Üllői út is Kőbánya Kispest. This large suburb is at the opposite end of the city to the Buda hills, half-way between central Pest and the airport. Many trains heading south or east pass through this very busy but often unfrequented juncture around the clock. Unless one lives there, Kőbánya Kispest may completely escape your attention.
Beyond the unavoidable tower blocks and shopping malls, there are treasures and entertainment to be found, for instance in nearby Kőbánya Alsó with its alluring Szent László Church. If you wish to see something as spectacular as in the Castle District, without the crowds, then make your way here from Nyugati train station (two stops away by rail), and after 10 minutes you will stand before this mesmerising, overlooked cultural wonder, of rich Art Nouveau, built between 1894 and 1899 and easy enough to find along the busy main Kőrösi road.
Opposite Szent László is the delightful Kőrösi Csoma Sándor Kőbanyai Kulturális Kőzpont, a small cylindrical 1960s concert hall that hosts events at prices which would make Aréna frequenters blush. I say this because there is probably not much difference in musical atmosphere between a Sting or a Bródy János concert, except you will be far less “stung” for a ticket in the Kőbánya district.
Much further on from Szent László square with the number 28 or 37 tram is the Kőbánya Bazaar on Maglódi út, which has a life of its own. This very out-of-the-way and vibrant place sells everything from food and drink to domestic appliances, clothes, carpets, spare electrical and car parts, and so-forth; just ask!
I intended not to be too inquisitive while there but it was comforting to walk away with a “real bargain” tucked under my arm before going home.
While on the Pest side, I highly recommend a visit to Újpest. Once again, beyond the intrusive and off-putting tower blocks are various lovely and hidden architectural gems all within the immediate central area.
I would like to draw your attention to the elegant Kűlvárosi Kávéház. This very distinguished, artistic dining place on István út, alongside the number 14 tram, has an imperial early 20th-century setting. Much to my surprise, this ambience hosted a distinguished Hollywood clientèle as pictured on the walls, such as Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg and Ben Kingsley.
All this adds to the further intrigue of who else walked these streets? It would certainly seem a good way to escape the paparazzi. Still, after my impulsive spells of star-spotting and searching the streets for more, it was time to leave Pest altogether for the moment.
So I cross over the Újpesti Vasúti bridge and cycle southwards in full sunshine along the River Danube, passing by the central city “familiars” in their splendour before returning to the equally compelling “unfamiliars” in Budafok, over an hour later, which is as familiar to me as Kőbánya and Újpest.
Once back to the main river cycle lane, I pass by the strikingly tall chimneys of the not-so-deluxe industrial Csepel Muvek works on Csepel Island. Then I continue along this wonderful lane, passing by a noteworthy manor house open to the public at Nagytétény, which finally leads to another favourite lesser known place, a village called Érd Ófalu.
This enchanting, sleepy place, 25 kilometres from central Budapest and three kilometres from the less thrilling Érd, is also by the riverside. It hosts a distinct, fairly recently restored and accessible minaret, thus giving this immediate area a certain oriental flavour.
There is a hotel with spa bath in the vicinity that used to be most eventful but unfortunately has now closed until further notice. Still, all this makes a wonderful outing.
On the Érd Ófalu peaks stands a chapel, and in good weather it delivers wonderful views of the immediate area, as well as the tops of Budapest in the distance.
It would now be most fitting to round this off with a brief mention of the occasional faded bars one comes across from time to time. They may look of place in the central city but perhaps set the trend elsewhere, at least for me.
There are many, such as the retrospective Derby pub near Keleti train station, which has remained aesthetically the same since the 1960s. Also the Bambi, a simple and quiet “Retro Presszó” in Frankel Leo utca, near Margaret Bridge on the Buda side.
Then comes to mind the small, internet Doors pub on Damjanich utca, near Heroes Square. This late-night bar with its slightly oldish crowd celebrates these and other musical legends, alongside live local rock bands – and very budget-friendly beer.
However a question comes to mind: which came first, The Doors or the decoration in this venue? Not that it matters!
Finally there is the intriguing Pingvin Söröző (Penguin Pub) and its eye-catching sign/symbol outside, near Móricz Zsigmond körtér in the Buda District XI; touching in its naivety to some, a distraction to others, I am sure. But sufficient to turn heads.
I could go on but now I must end this tour knowing there will be much again for next time. Alex Stemp