While we’ve had fun over the last month showing our readers how best to “Explore Budapest by Metro”, the city has even more to offer and even more ways to get there! In a special, four-part supplementary series, The Budapest Times looks at how best to “Explore Budapest by Public Transport”.
Suggested Route: Jászai Mari tér-Szalay utca-Kossuth Lajos tér-Széchenyi tér-Eötvös tér-Vigadó tér-Március 15 tér-Fővám tér-Boráros tér-Közvágóhíd
Sites to See: Hungarian Parliament, Széchenyi Chain Bridge, “Shoes on the Danube Bank” monument, Danube Promenade, Vigadó Concert Hall, Váci utca, Central Market Hall, Gellért Hill, Gellért Thermal Baths, Zwack Museum of Unicum, Palace of Arts, National Theatre.
While the Budapest metro system, with its UNESCO-recognised Millennium Line, seems to get much of the publicity, it is really the iconic yellow trams, the ones that chug up and down the scenic cityscape like lazy, lemon-drop lemmings, that really lend the city its classic, old-world charm.
But the Budapest tram system is more than just charismatic carriages designed to add a certain “je ne sais quoi” atmosphere to the city; they act as integral arteries moving locals to and fro. In fact, the trams carry nearly 275,000 more people than the metro – every single day. That’s enough to qualify as Hungary’s second-largest city!
While there are more than 30 lines that cover more than 150 kilometres of our capital, there may be none more iconic, none more lovely than Tram #2 – a tourist site unto itself. So what better way to begin our series than with a look at Budapest’s Tram #2?
That’s a lot: The Budapest tram network carries 275,000 more passengers than the Budapest metro system – every day. That’s more people than Hungary’s second-largest city, Debrecen.
A few things you never knew about the trams…
The fame of the Millennium Line metro – the second oldest in the world – does indeed mean the tram network is too often overlooked. This is despite the fact the system holds several significant records, such as the busiest tram line in Europe (with a tram running every 60 seconds during rush hour) and the longest tram carriage in the world (the articulated carriages are up to 53 metres long).
Established in 1866 with a horse-drawn line between Újpest-Varoskapu along Váci utca to Kalvin tér – near parallel to the Tram Line #2 that we are featuring today – the city’s tram system has grown to among the world’s largest with 33 different lines covering 156 kilometres. The system at one point had grown as large as 83 separate lines, but with the completion of metro lines two, three and four – which were featured in previous articles in this series – the reliance on trams has lessened and the network tapered to its current size.
The system is once again growing in popularity and necessity and there are plans for continued expansion. So now that you know a little about its history, why not head on over to Jászai Mari tér to begin what National Geographic has called the most beautiful tram ride in Europe.
Nowhere better: In National Geographic‘s ranking of the world’s most scenic tram rides, Budapest’s Tram #2 was rated the best in Europe and #7 in the world.
Line #2 – The most beautiful tram line in Europe
Along with Amsterdam, Berlin and Lisbon, Budapest’s Tram Line #2 is considered to be among the most scenic tram routes in all of the world. Here are a couple of pointers before the tour begins: (1) Be sure to pick up an all-day ticket so that you can jump on and off at your leisure. For more on transit fares, see Part One of our Explore Budapest by Metro series; (2) Try to find a seat on the side of the tram nearer to the Danube. You’ll find the best views from there; (3) A one-way trip, without jumping off to see any sites, runs about 25 minutes. You’ll probably want to do the return trip though, to get back to central Pest; and (4) The trip offers spectacular panoramic views of Buda with its Castle District, and the Danube and its stately bridges.
We recommend taking a ride both during the day and at night, as the difference in views will be worth your effort. If you have enough time only for one ride, we suggest jumping on a little before sunset, which makes the view along the majestic Danube among the finest in all of Europe.
The tour begins at Jászai Mari tér, a cosy little area near Margaret Bridge. The bridge itself is a worthwhile visit (see our tour of Metro Line Three for more) and you can reach the tram stop taking a short 10-minute walk from Nyugati railway station metro stop.
Get comfortable and get your camera ready for some wonderful pictures as the tram chugs its way south along the Danube to Szalay utca, on the north side of one of Budapest’s most photographed sites – the majestic, neo-Gothic Hungarian Parliament building (Metro Line Two article).
Where’s Guinness?: The Budapest tram network is the busiest in Europe and features the longest carriages in the world.
We recommend getting out here and taking a tour inside Parliament (HUF 2000-5200), but be sure to also check out the highlights of Kossuth Lajos tér, including its statuesque Ethnographic Museum, the memorial to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Kossuth Memorial to the Regent-President of the Kingdom of Hungary during the 1848 Revolution, after whom the central square is named.
Either walk over to the Kossuth Lajos tér tram stop, on the south side of Parliament, or get back on at Szalay utca for the short journey winding all around the square. Head to the next stop, located at Széchenyi tér. On the way, muse on the “Shoes on the Danube Bank” monument that honours Jews killed in World War II. The series of bronze shoes represents the story of Jews shot at the edge of the Danube so that their bodies would be carried away by the fast-flowing river. The spot also offers among the best sightlines of the 13th-century World Heritage Buda Castle District (Metro Line Two article).
From Széchenyi tér you’ll be able to grab some wonderful shots of one of the symbols of the Hungarian capital, the Széchenyi Lánchíd (Chain Bridge, Metro Line Two article).
The promenade route
Before you leave, be sure to marvel at the opulence of one of Budapest’s finest examples of Art Nouveau architecture at Gresham Palace, at the rear of Széchenyi tér, and then hop back on the tram to head to Eötvös tér. This is where the Danube (or Duna) Promenade begins.
Popular among locals and tourists alike, you’ll be just as likely to see beautiful, bright Budapesters out for a jog as you will scores of tourists fighting for the best pictures of the Chain Bridge and Buda Castle.
Name that bridge: The scenic Danube tour takes you by six of Budapest’s 14 bridges. How many of them can you name?
This wide pedestrian promenade has ample benches for sitting, some of the most famous cafés and restaurants in the city, and several delightful statues, including one of István Széchenyi – after whom the famous Chain Bridge is named – and one of William Shakespeare.
We recommend walking up to the next stop, Vigadó tér, where you will find another enchanting statue, this one of the Little Princess. Near to the little lady is the Vigadó Concert Hall, the popular home to prestigious balls, concerts and the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble. This imposing Art Nouveau building is fondly known as “The Place for Merriment”.
You are now near the heart of central Pest, Vörösmarty tér (Metro Line One article), home to among the most renowned cafés, restaurants and shopping in continental Europe. From here you can walk down Váci utca (see Metro Line Three), the famed pedestrian-only street that features top-end shopping and kitschy souvenir stores alike, or you can get back on the tram and head towards Március 15 tér (15th of March Square). [Note: there is no platform for the southbound trains at Vigadó ter. You’ll need to wait on the northbound platform and cross the tracks when the southbound train stops.] The views of the 290-metre Elizabeth Bridge are pleasant, especially with the 140-metre high Gellért Hill and its Citadella in the background.
The viaduct route
No matter whether you take the pedestrian route via Váci utca or the tram route via Március 15 tér, you’ll end up at the same place – Fővám tér (see Metro Line Four). Located at the base of the photo-friendly Liberty Bridge, you’ll want to get off here and check out the Central Market Hall.
Among the most popular tourist venues in Budapest, this is the perfect place to taste authentic Hungarian cuisine and to pick up something for your loved ones.
If the mood strikes you, head across the bridge for a hike up Gellért Hill. There are a few worthwhile sites to see here, including the über-cool (and very inexpensive) Cave Church. The view from the summit offers maybe the best panoramic view you can find of Pest.
After the hike, we recommend taking a dip at the Gellért Thermal Baths across the street. One of the most famous spas in a city known for its famous spas, the Gellért offers several pools both inside and out and is most noted for its wonderful Art Nouveau glass-roofed main gallery.
When you’ve finished relaxing, head back across the bridge and jump on the tram headed towards Boráros tér. This stop, located at the base of Petőfi Bridge, is your link to the Grand Boulevard. The iconic thoroughfare that encircles central Pest that will be covered in next week’s article.
For anyone who is interested in Hungarian history, a quirky museum or is just plain thirsty, we recommend taking the 10-minute walk over to the Zwack Museum of Unicum to learn about the national shot (see last month’s article).
Why do we call this the viaduct route? Because the tram is running along a bridge between the river embankment and promenade that is known as a viaduct. The structure itself dates back to 1900.
After whetting your thirst at the museum, jump back on the metro and head down to the final stop on the Tram #2 tour – Közvágóhíd. Located near one of the newest bridges in Budapest, the Rákóczi Bridge, this stop will take you to the city’s Palace of Arts – one of the capital’s foremost centres of culture.
The award-winning 10,000-square-metre building was designed in 2005 and is home to the Bartók National Concert Hall, Ludwig Museum and Festival Theatre. The concert hall is notable for its pipe organ – one of the largest in Europe – that features over 6500 different wooden, tin and reed pipes; while you can find paintings from some of Hungary’s finest artists, as well as Picasso and Yoko Ono, at the Ludwig Museum.
Light it up: Each year for Christmas, the city decorates Tram #2 in over 35,000 fluorescent lights for a truly decorative yuletide ride.
Next door to the Palace of Arts is Budapest’s National Theatre. With its roots dating back to 1837, the unique design of the new theatre, opened here in 2002, features a spiralling pyramid next to an ultra-trendy park that pays homage to the Hungarian drama and film industry.
This completes your tour of Tram Line #2, but if you still have the time or energy we recommend tacking on one of four tours: (1) head back on Tram #2 to Vörösmarty tér, which will lead you to the Metro Line One tour; (2) jump on Tram #1 and take the 25-minute ride to Ferenc Puskas Stadium to begin the Metro Line Two tour; (3) jump on the HÉV suburban railway – located next to the tram stop – to Ráckeve. Located roughly 50 kilometres south of Budapest, the site offers a wonderful 15th-century monastery (the Serbian Kovin Monastery), a stately Baroque castle (Savoy Castle) and popular hiking trails; or (4) head back on Tram #2 to Boráros tér or Jászai Mari tér, at either of which you can transfer to Trams #4 or #6. Be sure to check out next week’s issue for your guide to that route.