Why taking a dinner cruise in Budapest is the best way to see the banks of the Danube in winter, and taste some local cuisine on the way!
The only thing more beautiful than the Danube by day is the Danube at night. In Budapest, the parliament building is lit up in chrome and gold, the chain bridge a row of lights stretching 200 metres from one bank to the other. Little yellow trams, their windows lit by an orange glow, scurry to and fro up the river’s promenade.
The only downside? In winter it’s really, really cold.
It was minus 14 degrees one morning when we ventured outside on my recent trip to Budapest, bits of snow and ice gathered on the ground with locals, their faces covered in scarves, walking with their heads bowed down against the biting wind.
The freezing weather was far from the balmy winter 20 degrees I’m used to in Seville, meaning that night times were often spent sheltered away in the hotel room.
That is, until, we took a dinner cruise with Silverline Cruises down the sparkling Danube.
1. Budapest is better by night
As the boat cruises slowly down the wide river, you get a glimpse of the Parliament lit up in shades of gold. It’s the highest building in Budapest; local restrictions prohibit any other building to be taller than it or the nearby St Stephen’s Basilica.
The glass panes built into the boat’s roof mean you can look up as it passes under the famous Chain Bridge; considered an engineering marvel at its conception. Although it was blown up in the second world war, the four stone lions on either end survived – and they take the same pride of place on the reconstructed bridge today. When the Chain Bridge, or Széchenyi Lanchid as it’s known to the locals, was built, it signified much more than a link between Buda and Pest. It was the joining of East and West; the advancement and unification of Europe as a whole. So, it’s little wonder why the structure is such a popular sight in Budapest today.
As the boat ambles gradually down the Buda bank side, you can look up to see the glorious Matthias Church sitting atop the hill, just behind Fisherman’s Bastion. Next to it sits the charming funicular, which runs up and down the hill to the Buda Castle; now the national portrait gallery.
While Budapest is a gorgeous city by day, there’s something about seeing the sights lit up at night (with the dark background of Gellért Hill) that makes them all the more spectacular.
2. You’ll escape the cold – and walking
Have I mentioned that it’s really cold in Budapest in winter? With the mercury constantly hovering in the range of minus 14 and around two degrees, it’s not a city for the faint of heart. I’m acclimatised to southern Spain, so visiting Budapest was akin to stepping into a freezer and locking the door shut.
But don’t let that stop you – there are so many brilliant reasons to visit Budapest in winter. For a start, there are less tourists, and you never get the sense of overcrowding at every museum and cultural landmark. Then there’s the romantic-ness of it; as the snow falls (like it did on my last night there), it settles on the ground and covers the streets in a shiny white.
The boat is heated enough to be able to wear a t-shirt (or fancy dress), and leave your coats heaped up on the back of the chair. If you’re game, however, you can also head outside onto the bow, or upstairs into a chilly glassed viewing room.
If you’ve read The Longest Haul before, you’ll know that I’m an out and proud lazy traveller, and the several-kilometre, three-hour boat loop means I can save all that walking.
3. You’ll get a delicious Hungarian meal
To combat the chilly weather, Hungarian food is heavy with cream, meats, mushrooms, potatoes and cabbage. Basically: comfort food.
As we boarded the boat, we were given a welcome glass of champagne, followed by a four course meal accompanied by local wines. After a plate of meat and pate pastries and a thick, pumpkin soup, I had the tender beef stew with tomato and a sort of sticky rice similar to cous-cous.
There was no need for a knife – the slow-cook meat melted almost instantly in my mouth.
The dinner was finished off by a creamy chocolate dessert – and more wine, of course!
4. You’ll be entertained – off and on the boat
The first half of the cruise is accompanied by two pianists; one playing a grand, white piano and the other a black, seated at he bow end of the boat. Their classical music tinkling seems like to perfect soundtrack to a cruise up and down the Danube, as the architecture slowly moves past.
Once dinner is over, they get to the main show: a ‘piano battle’. It was equal parts entertaining and camp, as the two musicians ‘battled’, musically-speaking, over the affections of the signing hostess. While she sung in a variety of languages to please the international crowd, I have to say I preferred the songs in Hungarian (as opposed to Italian, French, Spanish and English; she tried her hand at all of them).
Taking a dinner cruise in Budapest is the best way to take in the city, taste Hungarian cuisine, and escape the winter chill whipped up off the Danube.
Full disclosure: I took the Piano Battle Dinner Cruise as a guest of Silverline Cruises, Budapest. But, as always, all opinions are my own. I wouldn’t recommend anything on The Longest Haul that I wouldn’t recommend to my closest friends and family!