I heard for such a long time about the beauty of the capital city of Hungary. The banks of the Danube River, the lace architecture of the Hungarian Parliament, and the Buda Castle overlooking it all. Beyond its fabulous patrimony, I knew the dark history the country went through in the WWII and then the Soviet Period. Since Hungary joined the EU in 2004, I was eager to visit this mysterious city. So when I heard you could dive in Budapest, the destination went up rapidly to the top of my scuba bucket list. These words resonated magically “Imagine diving below a city” and what city… I can describe Budapest being the perfect balance of what I love about Paris and Berlin when historical elegance and free creativity meet. After my Scuba & the City article about Marseille in France, I thought Budapest was the perfect candidate for a second episode!
This article is also available in French.
Buda, Pest and the water
Although at 500km away from the closest seashore, Budapest is a city of water. There is the Danube River which historically separated the two towns of Buda on the west bank and Pest on the east bank. However, it is not the only source of water of the city. The Romans, from as early as 89 AD, already understood it when they founded Aquincum (“Rich in water” in Latin) on the location of Óbuda (the Old Buda) where ruins of the first thermal baths can still be visited.
A vast underground hot spring system is flowing beneath the city. Their combined flow rate is 40 000 000 litres of hot water per day and 30 000 000 litres of warm water per day. The origin of the words Buda and Pest is not clearly identified but one interesting explanation links their origin to the terms voda and peč in Slavic languages meaning water and furnace/cave! I like to think this is the reason, from the 1970’s, some Hungarian cave divers decided to reveal the underwater secrets of Budapest.
Budapest’s underwater secrets: Köbánya flooded cellars & Molnár János Cave
First a stone mine during the 19th Century (this is what Köbánya means), the limestone extracted was used for many famous buildings and monuments such as the Fishermen’s Bastion. After the mine closed in 1890, it was turned into a beer factory as the climate inside was perfect for the malting process. Wells were dug in the mine to extract water for the beer. The beer factory closed when it was not profitable anymore to produce malt in Hungary. What happened next is that the wells started to fill up and flooded the cellars, creating for the greatest pleasure of scuba divers decades later a unique dive site. Most of the tunnels are only accessible to certified full cave divers (a wreck diver speciality can be accepted too), but there is one site open water divers can go as there is no overhead ceiling. The highlights of diving Köbánya is due to its pure fresh water offering perfect visibility and the different artefacts that were left behind when the beer factory closed. Maximum depth is 30m and the water temperature is quite stable all year long at 13°C (Dry suit is recommended but not compulsory). Air in the mine is at 8°C, so be sure to bring warm clothes with you! Köbánya can be considered as an artificial cave diving site but it is not less exciting.
Now, what if I tell you that there is also a natural underwater cave system of thermal springs with water between 20 and 28°C that can be dived below Budapest? Yes, I know, I want to do it too! It is called the Molnár János Cave. However, it can only be explored by certified full cave divers. OK, now I am thinking… what if I return to Budapest to get a cave diving training?
Things to do in Budapest after your dives
In 4 days, I had the time to explore the city at a very relaxing pace. Here are my 4 favourite things I would recommend for any first timer in the Hungarian capital city:
- Bicycle tour along the banks of the Danube River: I could have used for free the city rental bikes (first 30 minutes are free) but I decided it would be just easier to keep the same bicycle the whole day. I rented it at Dynamobike (Képíró utca, 6) not far away from the Liberty Bridge, which an ideal place to start your tour, for only 10€ a day. I followed the bank on Pest side, enjoying the views of the Castle of Buda on the other side and stopping at the Hungarian Parliament to pay my respect to the “Shoes on the Danube” Memorial. I then took the Margaret Bridge and went around Margaret Island to see one of the locals’ favourite green spaces. I then followed the Buda bank toward the south. I stopped at the castle, and as I wasn’t brave enough to go up the hill with the bicycle, I locked it near the Chain Bridge. I climbed the hill walking to see the splendid view on Pest from the Fishermen’s Bastion and the Royal Palace. I finished my loop going further south to take the Liberty Bridge after a stop at the Gellert Baths!
- Thermal Baths: It was a big highlight of my stay in Budapest. Being able to relax and swim at some of the numerous thermal baths of the city for a reasonable price (average price 12/15€) on almost every day was wonderful. One important piece of advice: don’t plan too much after it because you’ll feel like you need at least to take a nap. I visited the Gellert Hotel baths with its beautiful mosaic murals, the Rudas Baths with its rooftop thermal pool with a view of the Danube River and its traditional Turkish baths dome, and the Széchenyi Baths with its famous chess players in the outdoor pools. While you will alternate different temperature thermal pools (from 26 to 42°C) and saunas/steam baths, do not forget to have a quick dip in the cold pool (10 to 15°C) for your blood circulation (Come on, you can do it!). As most people come here to relax in the thermal pools, in each place I enjoyed the swimming pool almost entirely for myself (don’t forget a proper swim suit, your swimming goggles and your bath cap).
- Ruins Pub Crawl: The “Rom Kerts” are the speciality of Budapest. If you want to enjoy an unforgettable night out, don’t miss a pub crawl around the Jewish District where most of them are. Ruins Pubs are in generally ruined buildings’ courtyards and they are often decorated with old eclectic objects like bathtubs, cars or road signs. Some have a laid back atmosphere like the Szimpla Kert (Kazinczy uca, 14), the Fogas Kert (Akácfa utca, 49) or the Ellato Kert (Kazinczy utca, 48). However, some have a fancier setting such as the Mazel Tov (Akácfa utca, 47) or the Doboz (Klauzál utca, 10). With prices of drinks ranging from 2€ to 4€, you can have an all-nighter party without worrying too much about your wallet. With a good dinner before, don’t hesitate to taste the Hungarian Palinka (fruit spirit). It is strong but tasty (I recommend the plum and apple flavours) and they serve it in a very elegant stemmed glass. Last tip: do not hesitate to start your night out quite early to enjoy the many free live music concerts usually programmed at the beginning of the evening.
- Wine & Food Tasting: I knew Hungary was famous for its Tokaj white wine, but what an excellent surprise when I realise almost the whole country is covered with vineyards and the variety of grapes is huge! I started my Hungarian food discovery tour with a cute granny-style canteen in Buda (Nagyi Etkezde, Frankel Leo utca, 36) where without any knowledge of Hungarian you will show the cook directly in the kitchen, with a smile, the dish you’d like to eat. Try the Goulash soup and the Palacsinta savoury crepes covered with a Paprika sauce. A tour at the Great Market Hall (Vámház körut, 1-5) is worth the visit, including the architecture of its high vault. For the sweets, don’t miss a coffee break at the Gerbeaud Café (Vörösmarty Ter, 7-8) to sample some of their cakes and chocolates. One recommendation: Once you are seated, don’t choose from the menu, not everything is in it, go to the counter of the boutique to choose what you would like to taste. Unfortunately, the Hungarian Wine House closed a year ago, so make sure to spend an evening at Kardarka (Király utca, 42). It is a stylish but relaxed wine bar of the Jewish district. Their staff share they best knowledge about Hungarian wines and help you to select white, rosé or red wines while snacking Pogácsa cheese petit fours.
When to go to Budapest?
The good point with the mine and the cave system is they can be dived all year-long as the conditions and the water temperature remain stable. When you visit Budapest has more to do with the outdoor climate for your activities around the city. Hungary has a continental climate which means glacial winters and steamy summers. Winter might be cold but you might fancy enjoying the outdoor thermal pools of Széchenyi with snow around you. Summer temperatures can reach 40°C and the city is quite crowded, especially in August with the famous Sziget music festival. The best compromise would be spring and autumn, in April-May and September-October, that why I decided to go for a long Easter weekend.
Where to stay in Budapest?
There are plenty of hotel and hostels for every budget in Budapest, from the famous deluxe Corinthia hotel to the backpackers favourite design hostel Marick Lodges. In my case, as this trip was also the opportunity to spend some time with a friend and I wanted a cosy feeling for the 5 nights I spent in Budapest, I chose to rent an Airbnb apartment. It was ideally located in the heart of the city, 15 min walking from the Jewish District and less than 10min walking to the metro station Vörösmarty Utca taking us in 5 min to Széchenyi Baths. The flat was newly refurbished and had a sleek and stylish setting. We had a bedroom and a living room integrating a small kitchen; it was perfect. This flat could have easily fitted 4 people with the sofa bed in the living room. For the 2 of us, as we stayed 5 nights, we paid about 20€ per night per person. At this price, why looking further? (Besides, I loved staying in PJ to prepare our breakfast before every new day of discovery in Budapest). If you want to rent the same flat, contact Kitti on Airbnb! (Here is a link to get a credit of 31€/£25 on your first Airbnb stay).
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Credit Photo Kobanya: Michal Sevecek
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