If you’re a regular reader of this blog then you’ll know it’s perfectly possible to have a day out in Europe, so long as you don’t live too far away from the airport and the flight schedules permit an early out, late back pairing. Following on from my days out in Amsterdam, Belfast, Bremen and Lisbon, the latest trip saw me heading to the Hungarian capital Budapest. The links to those previous day trips can be found at the end of this post. As with the others, I’ve been to Budapest before, but well over a decade ago, so I was keen to revisit what had been an enjoyable destination.
Arriving at midday local time after a civilised 8.30am flight, it was good to hear the famous Ryanair on time hurrah and even better to find that Hungary’s border police valued speed over anything else. An easy bus and metro ride got me into the centre of Budapest, giving me about six and a half hours in the city after the commute to and from the airport had been factored in. Once again, having waited for a flash sale, I paid less for my flight than I would have done for a train ticket into London, with my time equating to less than £5 per hour of sightseeing. I thought that was good value. The one day travel card, good for bus, tram and metro, was also excellent value at 1650 forints, about £5.
First stop was an old haunt: Cafe Gerbeaud. Located in Pest, this famous coffee house has been a fixture for well over a century and still knows how to put on the style. A cappuccino and some delicious biscuits topped up the massive breakfast of huevos rancheros I’d wolfed down at Stansted. The sun was pleasantly warm for October and so I decided to take a stroll along the banks of the Danube and over the city’s famous Chain Bridge.
With skies blue and visibility good, it was too tempting to take the funicular up Buda’s Castle Hill. The ticket wasn’t included in the travel card, more’s the pity, but it was 1200 forints for a single ride – hardly break the bank rates. The views from the top were as fine as any in Europe, with landmarks like Pest’s parliament building easy to spot.
The castle occupies a prominent position, as you might expect. There are wine tastings to sample and museums to explore, but one of the great pleasures is just to sit in the sunshine and admire that view over Pest. As luck would have it, the changing of the guard ceremony was about to start in front of the Presidential Palace just as I reached the top. A forest of cameras, phones, selfie sticks and mobile phones recorded the occasion, but there was plenty of room for everyone to get their shot.
The weather was just too good to resist and so I continued my stroll through Buda’s castle district to picture postcard Fishermen’s Bastion. It’s not a place to hurry, unless an out of control Segway rider is heading your way. There are loads of museums and plenty of cobbled streets, and as access to traffic is limited it’s easy to wander around.
The white domes of Fishermen’s Bastion have a touch of the Sacre Coeur about them. The place was constructed between 1901 and 1903, designed to complement the Church of Our Lady which dominates the square adjacent to it. There’s no need to pay to enter for the view, or to have a coffee in the expensive cafe in the ramparts, though, as you can enjoy the same splendid vistas for nothing if you walk a little further along.
Back on the bus, I headed down to the river to search out an old Turkish Bath I’d read about. Instead, I found what looked like an abandoned sanatorium but what was actually a working thermal baths. It turned out to be the Lukács baths, whose website provided a bit of background missing from other web posts about Budapest’s baths:
“The Lukács Thermal Bath has a rich historical background: monastery baths were built in this area as early as the 12th century, the first spa hotel was built in the 1880s, a drinking cure hall was added in 1937, and a daytime hospital was established in 1979. At the end of the 20th century, the thermal bath was thoroughly renovated and all facilities were modernised.”
Budapest has loads of them dotted about the city, including the swanky baths at the Gellert Hotel and the famous Széchenyi Baths in City Park. These were less well known, perhaps off the tourist track because it looked like no one had maintained them for an age. Undeniably atmospheric, I decided against a dip in case the building fell on me and in any case, it was late afternoon and getting a little chilly. Instead, I decided to go back to Pest instead for a stroll through City Park. The lake had been drained for cleaning, alas, so I cut my losses and caught a bus to the market.
I could wander around a market all day, and Budapest’s, housed in a glorious building down by the river, is no exception. Ropes of paprika hung like Christmas decorations from greengrocery stalls and rows of salamis adorned the butchers. I’d been tipped off about a cheese pastry, a kind of crispy rolled croissant filled with cream cheese and dipped in finely grated cheese. It was deliciously more-ish.
Temptation would have to be resisted though, for almost next door was one of Budapest’s newer architectural efforts. Known as Bálna or the whale, this modern structure connects several old warehouses with a confection of glass and steel. It opened, I read, in November 2013 after protracted disputes between the city and the developer, but not all of the units inside had been filled – a mix of shops, bars and restaurants – leading to some commentators renaming it the white elephant.
It was getting late. The sun had cast a pink hue over the Gellert and left the faintest of reflections in the Danube. There was just time for a light supper before heading back to the airport for my 9.35pm flight back home.
Previous day trips…
Regular readers may recall previous posts about days out I’ve done by air:
- to Amsterdam https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/01/26/just-back-from-a-day-trip-to-amsterdam/
- to Lisbon https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2014/10/20/just-back-from-a-day-trip-to-lisbon/
This time, Ryanair are in the hot seat and it’s off to London Stansted for my flight to the north German city of Bremen.
Flight times, for once, are very convenient. The outbound flight departs at 7.55am and is scheduled to arrive in Bremen at 10.20am. It’s a short flight with a one hour time difference. The only downside is that you hit Stansted at peak rush hour. Don’t be tempted to rock up too late; the queues for security are long and just as tedious as anywhere. Of course, with Ryanair your boarding passes are already printed and as it’s a day trip, there’s no luggage to worry about. If you are tempted to shop before you take off, Stansted offers a buy and collect service and you can pick up your shopping on your way back in. Coming back, the flight’s at 9.20pm, but the ten minute tram ride from the city centre and the diminutive size of Bremen Airport mean that you can get away with leaving as late as 8pm. Touchdown at Stansted is scheduled for 9.45pm though we were a little late.
After a take off delay of fifteen minutes or so due to earlier fog at Stansted, I passed swiftly through passport control at Bremen’s tiny airport. Ryanair use a separate terminal. It is as pared down as Ryanair users would expect, but the advantage of being apart are of course that there is no one else to share the passport queue with. In less than ten minutes from the wheels hitting the tarmac, I was through the airport and off to find transport into the city.
Getting to the city
Bremen Airport is obscenely close to the city centre and by far the easiest method of getting there is by tram. Exit the Ryanair terminal and turn right. Walk past the main terminal and ahead of you is the tram stop. You’ll need Tram 6 marked Universität which departs every ten minutes. The fare costs 2,70 euros. You can either buy your ticket at the machine at the stop or hop on board and buy one from the tram’s machine. Small notes and euro coins are accepted – don’t go trying to use a 50 euro note as it won’t let you. It’s only a few minutes to the Domsheide tram stop. Alight there and you’re a minute from the cathedral, town hall and main square. The tram then goes on to the main train station.
A network of buses and trams can take you all over the city. The Bremen tourist board have produced a series of very useful PDF guides which include a very clear street plan as well as a map of tram and bus routes. I downloaded these onto my Kindle app before setting out, but you can of course pick up paper copies from the tourist information desk when you get to Bremen if you prefer a hard copy, or they’ll send them to you through the post on request. Here’s the link: https://www.bremen-tourism.de/information-material
Much of the city centre is walkable as it is a compact place, but if laziness or inclement weather strike then it’s handy to know which tram to jump on and the guides also detail opening hours and which buses or trams to use. As with the airport tram ride, fares are 2,70 euros for a single but you can also buy a day pass for 8,90 euros which also gives you discounts off some of those city’s must-see attractions.
How to spend the day
First stop for me was the obligatory pose with donkey, dog, cat and rooster. The famous bronze sculpture resides beside the town hall. You’ll see donkey’s front feet are well worn – it’s considered good luck to give them a rub. The four creatures are Bremen’s mascots if you remember the Brothers Grimm’s fairytale.
Next, I walked through the main square. The Rathaus (town hall) was under wraps which was a pity as it is a splendid building minus its scaffolding. It’s UNESCO listed and it is possible to take tours of the inside. The cafes in the main square are tempting and I can recommend coffee and cake of course. Duck behind the Schütting (Guildhall), which sadly isn’t open to the public, and you’ll come across Böttcherstraße which is the marvellous Art Deco creation of a famous local coffee manufacturer. If you can, time your visit to coincide with the chiming of the hour at the House of the Glockenspiel (look up and you’ll see it).
A short stroll from Böttcherstraße took me to the Schnoor quarter. This is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Bremen and was once where the sailors hung out. The name Schnoor comes from the low German “Snoor” meaning string, which could have been a reference to the way the old houses line up or perhaps to the making of ropes or nets for the ships that passed through here. The area’s very touristy but worth a visit nevertheless.
Still in Schnoor, I had a schnitzel lunch in Beck’s; if you get there early enough you can bag the table with the window out onto quaint Wuste Statte. Flipping the main meal to lunchtime makes sense; most restaurants offer reasonably priced lunch menus and the local cafe culture lends itself to an early evening coffee or an aperitif with a cake or snack before you leave.
Wandering the streets of the Schnoor to walk off lunch was a delight. There, you’ll find many artists and artisans, but for me the delight was the intricate detailing and artwork that formed part of many of the buildings. It’s very important not to rush and also to look up, or you’ll miss them.
From the Schnoor quarter, it would have been logical to move on to Viertel, but as the sun was shining I decided to take a boat trip up the Weser instead. A 75-minute round trip cost 10,50 euros and was rather pleasant, passing the Docklands area of Uberseestadt. Boats depart from Schlachte. Look out for the Beck’s brewery and also some famous names on some of the factories and warehouses: Kellogg’s and Primark among them. With little wind and a clear sky, there were some lovely reflections on the water.
Back on dry land, I walked up to the park that lines the northern edge of the city centre. There’s an old windmill on a hill overlooking the park which was the perfect stop for a cherry juice: a cooling breeze to take the edge off a humid day. Because of the weather, I opted to catch a number 10 tram to Viertel. It’s one of Bremen’s more Bohemian neighbourhoods: think Notting Hill but not quite as affluent. There’s some fantastic street art to be seen, a few shops selling vintage clothes and furniture as well as plenty of decent cafes. I was glad of one of the latter when a thunderstorm brewed suddenly and equally glad when it was short lived.
Strolling back through the Schnoor, the thunderstorm had an unexpected silver lining. Crowds of tourists typically frequent the narrow streets but even though the sun had reappeared, people were slow to venture out again, so I almost had the district to myself. A meander to the main square for a coffee and it was time to head back to the airport after what had been a very pleasant day. The hot weather had prompted me to take it easy, but there is a lot more to see in this Hanseatic city. I could have taken a tour of Beck’s brewery, seen how Mercedes-Benz make cars or ponder whether modern works of art have as much value as their earlier counterparts. Another time, I think. This place is worth another visit.
For more on Bremen, check out my previous blog on the city here https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/10/03/beautiful-bremen/.
Is an Amsterdam day trip viable? In the second of an occasional series, I test whether it’s really worth making the effort for just a single day’s visit to this popular Dutch city. Would I regret not paying for a hotel room as I dashed from attraction to attraction?
I chose to fly from London’s Southend airport, around an hour from Central London but only a short drive from my Essex home. Southend, though expanding, is still a small airport, making it possible to transit the airport in just a few minutes – none of the long queues for security or marathon hikes to the gate that characterise Britain’s larger airports. easyJet fly out to Amsterdam at 7.30am and back at 6pm, making a short day out a cheap possibility. It’s wise to note that easyJet fly into a satellite terminal at Schipol, making for a tidy walk to the gate for your return flight. But they have a good track record for punctuality and my outbound flight was on time. On the return leg, we landed early and thanks to the time difference, I was back in my kitchen feeding the dogs their dinner almost before I should have left Schipol. (Don’t worry about them, we have doggie day care for such occasions.)
Getting into the city
Having made it across the airport without getting distracted by the many shops and even a branch of the Rijksmuseum (Schipol has got to be the best airport in Europe, don’t you think?) I exited through self-service passport control leaving the tulip bulb purchases for my return. Keep straight on as you exit customs for the train station, the quickest way into central Amsterdam. Directly in front of you are bright yellow ticket machines which take cash and cards. A single ticket into the city costs 5,10 euros with a 0,50 euro surcharge for using a credit card; UK issued cards work fine. It’s worth noting, though, that they take coins and not notes if you wish to pay cash. Make a left and head for the train; it’s a quick fifteen minute ride into the city. Trains leave frequently for Amsterdam Centraal Station immediately to the north of the main city. I waited one minute for a train and was walking Amsterdam’s streets by 10am.
The city centre of Amsterdam is compact and unless it’s raining, it’s a pleasant experience to wander the back streets and canal side paths on foot. You’ll need eyes in the back of your head, though, to avoid being run over by a bicycle. The city has dedicated cycle lanes but it’s all too easy to forget where the pavement ends if you’re trying to take a photo. If you hire a bike yourself, it’s customary to ring your bell rather than mutter profanities at wayward pedestrians obsessed with getting the perfect selfie.
For longer distances, the easiest method of getting around the city is by tram. Single rides cost 2,90 euros and the ticket is valid for an hour. Tap the ticket on the reader as you are given it to activate it. If you are likely to make more than three journeys, it’s worth your while buying a day pass, costing 7,50 euros. Tap in and out each time you ride.
What did I do?
I’ve been to Amsterdam before, so decided to give the big museums and the Anne Frank House a miss this time. If you are making a first visit then you should really consider staying a few days to give you time to do the sights justice. Queues for the Anne Frank house are frequently long (even on a Monday in January!) so if you do want to go, and you should, plan to make this first on your day’s agenda when you visit.
I made for the Begijnhof instead. It’s an easy walk from Centraal Station – cross over the canal and head down Damrak, the main drag. Damrak is tourist central, but you can arrange everything from canal boats to bicycle hire here and buy souvenirs tackier than you’ve ever imagined. From Dam Square, continue down Kalverstraat (almost as bad as Damrak) until you get to Spui.
Accessed through a wooden door, a passageway with impressive vaulted ceilings leads through to an enclosed square, the Begijnhof. Women have lived on this site since 1150, primarily to care for the sick. By the fourteenth century, the place had become a nunnery, the women referred to as “beguines”. Taking pride of place in this inner courtyard is the church. The Begijnhof is also the site of one of only two surviving timber buildings in the city, this one dating from 1528. Visitors can access half the square, so long as they keep off the well-manicured lawns; the rest is for residents only. Entrance is free, though donations to the church are welcomed.
The Begijnhof is around the corner from the Bloemenmarkt, on the Singel, which claims to be the only floating flower market in the world. Don’t worry if you haven’t timed your visit for spring, even in winter the stalls are a riot of colour, selling cut flowers and bulbs. The packaged bulbs are aimed squarely at the tourist market – locals make a beeline for the loose bulbs as they’re considerably cheaper.
Next, I set about exploring the area known as “De Negen Straatjes” – the nine streets. This is an area bisected by canals from the Singel to the Prinsengracht and gentrification has resulted in a wealth of designer boutiques, gift shops and art galleries that lend themselves to ambling. This is not a district to walk with a purpose, more an area in which to potter and dither before recharging your batteries in a cafe. Forget Starbucks – though there are plenty – a canal side coffee shop is the way to go. I recommend the Koffee Huis “De Hoek”, a far cry from the smoky cannabis cafes for which Amsterdam is better known. Try their cheese and ham pancake washed down with proper freshly- squeezed orange juice and bag a window seat for brunch with a view.
Continuing along Prinsengracht, and just past Westermarkt I passed the long queue for the Anne Frank House. Further along on the opposite side of the canal is an interesting little museum devoted to tulips. Behind the extensive gift shop and down a steep flight of steps, a series of small interconnecting rooms tell the history of this iconic Dutch flower, which you’ll soon learn, isn’t Dutch at all. In fact, it is native to Asia (who knew?) and it was the Ottomans who introduced the flower to the Netherlands in the sixteenth century. They soon became fashionable, with growers competing to see who could produce the most sought after bloom. Speculators moved in on the industry and soon bulbs with the right “pedigree” were changing hands for crazy sums of money, with some selling for twenty times the annual salary of the average Amsterdam resident at the time. Out of control, the market crashed in 1637 and it was to take a further 200 years to steadily rebuild it. Fortunately, the prices of tulips are far more reasonable today, as is the 5 euro entrance fee.
Back at the Westerkerk, I jumped on a number 14 tram heading east to my second museum of the day – the Dutch Resistance Museum. This absorbing museum recounts the experiences of the Netherlands from 14 May 1940 to 5 May 1945, the period when the country was occupied by Nazi Germany. As well as resistance, the museum explains how people chose different paths in coping with the invasion – some collaborated, some fought back. The exhibition covers all forms of resistance: going on strike, forging documents, helping people to go into hiding, publishing underground newspapers, maintaining escape routes, and even armed resistance and espionage. Entrance costs 10 euros which I thought was good value for money. Take the free audio set that’s offered as it unlocks a series of explanations in English; the exhibits are all signed in dual language but some of the text is on the small size. A short film puts the museum in context, in kid-friendly language, and there’s a special children’s section to the museum as well. Families, this is your part of town – Artis zoo’s just across the street.
All that history had made me thirsty (and my back ache) so sinking into a chair in the Cafe Koosje on the corner of Kerklaan and Plantage Middenlaan came as a welcome relief. The hot chocolate topped, of course, with a generous dollop of cream and the friendly wait staff made this a good place to take a break.
It was time to head back to the centre for some shopping and my mind was on food. Taking the number 14 tram back to Waterlooplein, I walked to Staalstraat where I’d read about a foodie’s paradise at number 20. Het Hanze Huis is crammed full of European foods, from syrups to flavoured tea, chocolate to tasty biscuits. Mouth already watering, I decided to continue by number 24 tram (tram-hopping like a local!) to the market on Albert Cuypstraat. A mix of market tat, food trucks and cheese stalls, this place is definitely worth a visit. I stocked up on Stroopwafels, a family favourite, from a charming man who posed happily for a photo. Bag full, I had to pass on the Gouda cheese, but figured I could at least get that in Sainsbury’s.
Heading back to the centre on the number 4 tram, my final stop was to a pub with no bar. I’d come across De Pilsener Club, located on Begijnensteeg, via several bloggers on the net. The pub’s nickname is De Engelse Reet, which apparently translates as “The English Ass”. Perfect, I thought. After all today’s walking I need a seat for my own ass. According to what I read, the pub has been in business since the end of the nineteenth century. It’s been in the current owner’s family for four generations (I read that they all share the same first name, so that’s four men called Tuen Van Veen) and they don’t like change. Stepping over the threshold is like travelling back in time, with sanded floorboards and tables pockmarked through years of use. Given the early hour (for a pub, anyway) I expected to have to drink alone, but two tables were occupied when I walked in and by the time I left, it was full. It seems it’s a very popular meeting place in the late afternoon for Amsterdam’s over 60s.
As with Lisbon, I pre-planned my itinerary in order to minimise the chances of wasting time arriving somewhere that’s not yet opened up for the day or unnecessarily backtracking across town. Both times I’ve been fully prepared to ditch things as the day goes on, but was once again surprised by how much I ended up doing. I’ll admit, Amsterdam has never been one of my favourite cities, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could find a city I love within a tourist city I really don’t. A bit of extra research this time uncovered parts of Amsterdam that were a whole lot more rewarding than the Red Light District, tacky souvenir shops and mainstream museums I might otherwise have felt obliged to visit.
I also made good use of the Travel Telegraph’s app, and grew increasingly fond of its “favourites” capability and very functional zoomable map – particularly helpful as my paper map began to disintegrate in the drizzle. Because of the shorter flight time and the exceptionally quick train connection, having a later outbound flight and earlier inbound flight wasn’t an issue, though I could quite happily have holed up in De Engelse Reet and made a night of it. Next time that’s where you’ll find me, though perhaps I’ll get Tuen Van Veen to serve me up a couple of hard boiled eggs to soak up the Heineken.
I thought I’d experiment. Since launching in March of this year, BA have been pushing Day Tripper fares out of Heathrow to destinations such as Munich, Vienna and Rome. The initiative has proved so popular that they have rolled out more destinations including Lisbon, Stockholm and Barcelona. The fares are only available on Saturdays and Sundays but are a reasonably priced way of getting a change of scenery if you’re out of holiday or your budget won’t stretch to a hotel as well. It got me thinking about where I could go and what I’d have time to do, and then of course, could I beat BA in terms of price and hours spent? I could, and settled on a return fare with easyJet from Luton to Lisbon.
I flew from Luton on the 6.40am flight scheduled to arrive in Lisbon at 9.30am. The flight was delayed by about forty minutes due to fog in Lisbon, still beating the 7.40am BA flight which was scheduled for a 10.15am arrival. No baggage made for a very quick transit through Lisbon’s airport and a direct connection to the city centre by metro meant I was in the city for mid-morning coffee. My return flight was due to leave at 9.00pm meaning I left the city centre at around 7.30pm. This again compared favourably to BA’s schedule where the last flight out departs at 6.50pm. Having said that, a half-hour delay from Lisbon (no reason given) meant that we didn’t touch down at Luton until almost midnight, making it a very long day.
What is there to see?
Having been to Lisbon before, I was able to take in the sights of Sintra instead, a forty minute train journey from Lisbon’s Rossio station. There are plenty of tours available but as the return train fare is just over four euros it seemed a better option. In Sintra, the sights are spread out up a very steep hill, but the local bus 434 offers a round trip hop-on hop-off fare for five euros. I enjoyed wandering the streets of Sintra’s historic town centre, in particular looking at the peculiar bulging chimneys of the fifteenth century National Palace and the ornate interior of St Martin’s Church. There are enough beautiful buildings to forgive it the tourist tat shops and there are plenty of places to eat a tasty lunch.
The bus then chugged up to the Moorish Castle, its driver becoming increasingly exasperated by the inconsiderate parking shown by many visitors and local residents. At one point the bus got wedged between a house and the stone wall opposite on a particularly tight turn, but a local dog walker came to the rescue and helped him make the most of every inch of the road. After the castle, I headed up again (thank goodness for the bus) to the Pena Palace. With its odd shapes and eclectic colour scheme, it looks for all the world like it has been transplanted from a Disney theme park. It’s actually a nineteenth century Royal Palace set within the attractive Parque de Pena.
Returning to Lisbon late afternoon, I still had time to ride the Number 28 tram up to the Portas do Sol viewpoint, one of my favourite spots in the city. From its terrace cafes, you have a fantastic view across the Alfama District of terracotta rooftops and pastel-painted homes dotted with fabulous churches overlooking the River Tejo. The tram is an attraction in itself, dating from the 1930s with its distinctive yellow livery and its wooden benches and old levers. Be careful of the pickpockets that ride the tram; warnings are clearly signed on the inside of the trams yet an elderly German man on my tram lost a wallet to them which he’d unwittingly left in his back pocket.
So what’s the verdict?
Obviously, with time so limited, it’s best to choose either Sintra or Lisbon, and if you’ve never been before, I’d say Lisbon. Take a seven minute train ride along to Belem, where you can photograph the Monument to the Discoveries and visit the Belem Tower.
Next to the park, Jeronimos Monastery is the final resting place of Vasco de Gama, the famous Portuguese explorer. The Pasteis de Belem bakery, dating from 1837, does a roaring trade in the tiny tarts for which Lisbon is well known, but you will have to queue – they sell around 50,000 on a normal day.
Back in the city, hang out in the many squares, such as the Praça do Comércio, rebuilt after the great earthquake of 1755. Wander the lanes of the Alfama and take in the views of St George Castle. Enjoy the view of the River Tejo from the many miradors that dot the city. Built over seven hills, you either need strong leg muscles or a day pass for the trams, elevators and metros which make getting about so much more pleasant under a hot sun. It was 33°C yesterday.
So, I’d say it was definitely worth doing. It was a long day, but Lisbon is a great choice for a Day Tripper city break.