It was shortly after our first Viking River Cruise that we decided to book another. The first one was on the Rhine River in 2019, so we booked the Danube River for 2020. After several pandemic-related cancellations, we finally got to go! I think perhaps we had looked forward to it for so long that it was impossible to live up to our expectations. Even though it wasn’t perfect, it was still a great experience and river cruising remains one of our favorite ways to travel.
Our re-scheduled trip date approached without cancellation, but we remained unsure we would go. I was just recovering from foot surgery and walking was a major obstacle. Towards the end of September, I was walking better (not great, but better) and I was determined not to be the reason we stayed home! That left us with just a couple weeks to finalize airline arrangements, complete COVID related surveys, confirm vaccination documentation, comply with testing requirements, not to mention pack!
Our 8-day cruise was to start in Budapest, Hungary. The more we researched the city, the more fascinating it sounded, so we booked two extra nights there. The majestic Danube cuts through the middle of Budapest, once two separate cities known as Buda and Pest. Budapest merged into a single city in the 19th century and is now the capital of Hungary. The historic “Buda” side sits in the hills of the west bank and is known as the castle district. To the east is the “Pest” side, which is larger, flatter, more cultural and vibrant than Buda. It would be difficult to find another city with a more beautiful natural setting or one that tops the architectural and historic heritage of Budapest.
We spent two nights at the Budapest Hilton in the Castle district of old Buda, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The hotel’s interior includes the remnants of an ancient Dominican cloister. Right next to the hotel is the iconic Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church; and the Buda Castle and Royal Palace are a 15-minute walk away. Fisherman’s Bastion is a set of walkways and terraces built between 1895 and 1902 in the hills overlooking the river. The Matthias Church was used for centuries as a coronation church for Hungarian kings.
The most impressive thing about the Budapest Hilton is its view across the Danube where the magnificent Parliament Building sits on the opposite bank. When we checked in, we had an option to pay a bit more for a room on the top floor with a view of the river. I’m grateful my husband was willing to splurge. It turned out to be the best decision of the trip and a view we will never forget!
We spent our first day exploring the Pest side of Budapest from the city’s hop-on/hop-off bus. It was great for the first few stops, but after we hopped off at Hero’s Square, it was difficult to hop back on. We spent 15-20 minutes at Hero’s Square, noted for its Millennium Monument featuring statues of the Seven Chieftains and other important national leaders. The bus circled every hour, so we were certain we had time for a drink at a little cafe across the street. Well, we missed the bus (I’m sure it came early!) and rather than wait another hour, we decided to walk to the next stop. Big mistake! What we didn’t know was that many of the bus stops had been temporarily relocated due to major construction in the city, so the map we were given was of no help. It took a while for us to catch up with the bus again, and by the time we did my foot had had enough. We spent the rest of the evening in Buda, close to the hotel.
The next day we had the morning free but needed to be back at the hotel at 1:00 for the transfer to our ship. It seemed the perfect time to walk to Buda Castle and explore the complex where centuries of Hungarian Kings had lived and ruled. It was first occupied by King Bela IV between 1247 and 1265. The original Royal Palace was destroyed during WWII. Today, the massive complex is one of the most important landmarks in Budapest and houses the National Library, the National Gallery, and the National History Museum. We enjoyed a leisurely stroll back to the hotel, re-taking photos of Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church under a blue sky instead of grey like the previous day.
A word about river cruises. River ships dock at various places in the cities they visit, and these docking locations are determined by the port authority, not the ships. Viking is usually privileged to get prime spots because of their long history in each port they visit. The most sought-after location to dock in Budapest is near the gorgeous Parliament Building. Another ideal spot is at the Chain Bridge, the first bridge connecting Buda and Pest. These are the two most symbolic structures of Budapest, but we could see neither from our ship. Apparently, the closure of the Chain Bridge for repairs that will take several years to complete affected docking locations up and down this portion of the river.
One of the things we really wanted to see was the Shoes on the Danube Memorial. From our docking location, we were told it would be about a 20-minute walk, so we set out right after dinner. I wouldn’t advise it! What was supposed to take 20 minutes was more like an hour one way, and it was very treacherous at night on the uneven pavement. The Shoes on the Danube is a poignant memorial to the Jews who were killed on the east bank of the river during the Nazi occupation. It was a moving experience, even in the dark, and I’m glad we took the risk.
Another letdown was that we didn’t “sail” in Budapest at all. Nope, the ship didn’t move one inch while we were on board! We slept on the ship one night and then it sailed to an insignificant location outside the city while the passengers were on an included excursion the following morning. And the excursion? It was merely a bus tour which made only one stop – in the Castle district. Yes, the exact area we had already thoroughly explored! Then we rode the bus out of town to the ship. Sigh!!
Despite the issues, Budapest is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen and I’m privileged to have been there! We came away with (mostly) splendid memories and some truly stunning photos.
Next up in this travel series: Sailing Through Austria