We didn't plan to do too much on our first day in Budapest. I had in mind to take things slowly, settle in at the hotel, maybe stroll out for beer and some dinner, read the guidebook and half-heartedly think about what to do the next few days. I'd been really lazy about planning our trip but on the way to the hotel we'd passed a fabulous looking building which prompted me to try to find out what it was. I found it in the guidebook – it was the Museum of Applied Arts – and I went to check out the details online. That's when I realised that we had turned up on a very special day, or rather a very special night.
June 22nd 2013 was the 'Night of Museums', an annual event when hundreds of museums in Budapest and all across Hungary keep their doors open until 2.30 in the morning to mark mid-summer and the longest day. Museum goers can go to as many museums as their feet and energy can cope with, all for a single fixed price. This was one of those times when you just know that no matter how much you'd rather have a beer and a nap, if fate has put you in Budapest on the 'Night of Museums', you'd better get your sorry butt in gear and go see some museums. Despite having got up early for our flight, and more importantly despite the temperature in the high 30s, I was determined to take the 'Night of Museums' and shake it by the jugular.
This year was the 11th time that Night of Museums has run in Budapest and the 9th time it's been done throughout Hungary. Over 300 museums take part nationwide with the largest representation in Budapest where more than a hundred museums are in the scheme.
I sent my husband to reception to quiz the receptionist on where we could buy the armbands that are needed to access the museums. He came back with a rough indication of where to go and the name of the Metro stop for the first of our chosen museums. At around five o'clock we set off, walking to Deak Ter, the nearest Metro station on the line to the Museum of Applied Art. Hubby wasn't too clear about precisely where he was going to find the tickets so we bumbled around for absolutely ages until some guys who were trying to sell Hop On Hop Off bus tickets confirmed that we ought to be able to get the tickets inside the Metro station. We headed down, spotted the logo of the Night of Museums at the ticket desk and lined up to get our armbands. This was our first introduction to the confusion of trying to work out how things work in Budapest.
The armbands cost 1500 HUF (around £4.50) per person. For children it's a mere 600 HUF but I wonder how many youngsters will really want to get dragged around a load of museums late at night. The same ticket seller sold us two Metro tickets, telling us that we needed only the short 3-stop tickets which cost just 300 HUF. He also gave us a pamphlet about the museum bus services which was entirely in Hungarian. I tried really hard but I could make absolutely no sense of it. After we got back to the UK and I read the website details again, I realised that the 'museum bus service' which was included in the armband price seemed to actually mean that we could use the regular buses. What we couldn't figure out was how to find them so in the end we walked everywhere.
The night kicks off at 6 pm but we rolled up to the Museum of Applied Arts about half an hour earlier and were allowed in. To celebrate the special night there were food and drink stalls in the lobby and a stage had been set up in the atrium where a group of very serious skinny women did a rather odd little fashion show with what looked like plastic bags. I'm not sure if all of the museum was on show or just a part of it but we spent about an hour there before buying some delicious food from one of the stalls for our dinner. We then hit the road, maps in hand, and headed to our next museum, the Hungarian National Museum, about 10 minutes walk away. We stopped for a beer in a pavement cafe along the way to rest our feet and build our strength for the challenges to come.
At this second museum a programme of special events had been laid on in the open-air courtyard inside the building. There were various talks – in Hungarian of course – and we briefly stopped to watch a troupe of rather strange belly dancers. Our third museum choice was the so-called 'House of Terror' which was not far from our hotel but a very long walk from the second museum. Maps in hands we wove our way through the back streets of the city, sweltering in the shocking summer heat.
By the time we'd reached the House of Terror it was heaving with visitors. I guess that being on Andrassy Street, the 'Champs Elysee of Budapest' it was more attractive to those who didn't want to go too far for their museum entertainment. It was quite an ordeal to get round with so many people and such hot and humid conditions.
We were exhausted after the three museums and the long walk so we called it a night at around 10.30 pm and headed home to the hotel. If the weather had been cooler and if we'd had a clue how to use the bus service, I think we might well have managed a couple more museums before we threw in the towel but the heat was exhausting and there's no point burning out on day one and being too tired to enjoy the rest of your holiday.
The museums we'd visited would have cost us around 5000 HUF if visited individually so our 1500 HUF armbands were a bit of a bargain although perhaps it would have been more pleasant to visit under quieter conditions. If you are thinking about visiting Budapest in June, it would be well worth checking ahead to see if you can take advantage of the Night of Museums.