This is one of a series of journal entries from our Viking river cruise. I kept it so you could know what to expect on the Grand European Tour from Budapest to Amsterdam. To be honest, I think this is one of the best European river cruise itineraries out there. We had a blast.
Our first full day on board sure didn't have a promising beginning. I awoke at an ungodly predawn hour to the muted patter of rain outside our window. Fearing the worst, I dragged myself to the window to see if my imagination was playing tricks on me.
Raindrops dripped onto our balcony railing and blurred the Danube in the city’s predawn light. Groaning, I fled back to my warm cocoon of covers, with visions of an ocean of Viking’s bright red umbrellas dancing in my head.
But by breakfast time, the rain had become a light mist. Bins of those bright red umbrellas stood sentry at the door as we walked out to Viking's waiting tour buses. The crew were really on top of things.
Our included morning tour of Budapest
We had boarded the ship yesterday, so today was our first full day on the ship. It began at 8:30 with a bus ride through the drizzle to the Castle District, the oldest part of Buda.
The Banks of the Danube, the Buda Castle Quarter and Andrássy Avenue are three of the best things to see in Budapest. So much so, in fact, that they have been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
Today's tour would include more than just that, though.
Read more: ;10 Budapest Sights You Don’t Want to Miss
As the bus took us along the Danube banks to Elisabeth Bridge, our guide told us about the city. He pointed out a statue is of a woman holding a palm leaf up on the hill ahead. First called the Liberation Monument, It was erected to honor the Soviet soldiers who “liberated” Budapest at the end of the Second World War.
After the Velvet Revolution, it was renamed the Liberty Monument and is one of a very few Soviet-era statues that still remain in Budapest. Most of those that survived the fall of Communism have been banished to Memento Park, a sculpture park outside the city.
I think that would be a great attraction to add to an itinerary, if we make it back here.
Once at our destination, we braved the unseasonable chill to walk through Buda's ancient cobblestone streets. For such a compact area, there's a lot to see.
The advantage to having a guide is that they can show you things you might have missed if you were sightseeing on your own. For example, we saw a historic letter box that's still in use, and he told us which typical Hungarian souvenirs weren't made in China.
Of course, he also told us more about Buda's buildings as well. Some were famous, such as the Royal Palace, National Gallery and the National Széchenyi Library, and some were just plain pretty.
Matthias Church and Fisherman's Bastion are two of Buda's highlights, and so is a certain irresistible cafe.
Tip: If you would like to take a guided tour of Budapest, click here for some great ideas.
One of the city’s best-known landmarks, Matthias Church has witnessed many coronations and royal weddings in its 700 years. Unfortunately, we couldn't enter so our guide had to adjust the planned walking tour a bit. Apparently, today's mass was in honor of the Prime Minister’s birthday, so tourists weren’t welcome.
Our walking tour ended at Fisherman’s Bastion, which offers a breathtaking panorama of the Danube. This is probably the best place to take photos of Budapest.
At this point, everyone took off to explore on their own, promising to meet back at the bus at 10:45.
Architecture and history are all well and good, but the damp weather sent us in search of a café instead of exploring the city streets. Coffee is probably our favorite way to warm up.
We soon found a charming coffeehouse that looked centuries-old, called Cafe Ruszwurm. As we entered, an ancient wood-and-glass cabinet greeted us, full of tempting pastries. There was no way we could just get a mere cup of coffee now.
A pretty young waitress dressed in a traditional outfit took our order: two espressos and a tasty sour cherry strudel to share. We savored the the cafe’s homey atmosphere until it was time to return to the bus.
I later learned that Cafe Ruszwurm is one of the oldest traditional cafes & confectioners in the city. Also, that cherrywood counter that we admired is 200 years old!
The second part of our tour took us to Pest, on the other side of the river. The itinerary was supposed to include a walk along Andrassy Avenue, Budapest’s high-end shopping street, along with passing the Hungarian State Opera House and culminating on the far end at Heroes’ Square.
Bad timing, unfortunately. Today was Heroes' Day and they were rerouting traffic and holding events on the square.
So, no walking tour for us. Our guide and driver did their best though to make it up to us with an extended bus tour of the city. All good. Our guide was interesting, and we were able to see places most Viking passengers probably never have the opportunity to visit.
Lunch on the ship
When lunchtime rolls around, you can choose between a light lunch on the Aquavit Terrace or full menu service in the dining room that includes a salad bar. We ordered from the menu, but the salad bar looked so good that we decided to do salads tomorrow instead.
Ria, the Maitre d’, is responsible for ensuring that all passengers on a special diet receive suitable dishes. Every morning she brings us the day’s menu and we select our lunch and dinner items in plenty of time for the chef to prepare. Judging from the sheet she was carrying it looked like there are quite a few people with dietary limitations.
How to spend the afternoon
Viking's afternoon itinerary has something for everyone. You can enjoy free time … or pay to take one of three optional tours.
- Jewish Budapest – the highlight is a tour of Dohany Street Synagogue, the second-largest synagogue in the world
- Budapest Spa Experience – enjoy a few hours at one of Budapest’s therapeutic thermal springs
- Hungarian Horse Show – watch the legendary Hungarian cowboys display their famous horsemanship
Having arrived a few days early, we had already visited the Jewish Synagogue and one of Budapest's famous spas (see our photos here). Let us tell you about the third tour.
Our 40-minute bus ride to Lazar Equestrian Park came with a warning: Today was a holiday and It would be quite crowded. Moreover, it was Children’s Day and there would were kids everywhere.
Stepping off the bus, we were all welcomed with a traditional biscuit and a glass of plum- or apple-flavored Hungarian brandy called palinka. As usual, Dan and I each asked for different ones so we could try them both.
Next, we were taken to the stables so we could meet some of the Lipizzaner horses, then were escorted to the equestrian show, which was outstanding.
It’s one thing when a kid stands up to get a better view, but it’s quite another when a horde of Chinese tourists do it. They felt it was perfectly acceptable to barge to the front of the audience, obliviously blocking everyone’s view while they took a shipload of photos. Thank goodness the host finally instructed everyone to sit down.
If you're looking for a business idea, offering “How to Be a Good Tourist” lessons in China would be a great idea.
After the show, we took a horse-and-carriage ride around the property. The highlight was a museum that displays some of the numerous awards that their Lipizzaner horses have won.
Before we returned to the bus, Dan and I bought some ice cream and a sweet dessert that tasted like a thick custard and was topped with stewed plums. We arrived back at the ship a little after 6.
Back aboard the ship
Once back aboard, Hotel Manager Felix Anheier gathered everyone in the Lounge, and Captain Oliver Barsic could welcome everyone aboard with a kir royale/mimosa/champagne toast.
Then our Program Director Dewi gave the Daily Briefing, which is basically an overview of what to expect the following day.
As dinner ended, our ship began to drift downriver. This signaled the beginning of our cruise and the Bragi’s departure from Budapest. We joined many other passengers on the Sun Deck to bid goodbye to the city and toasted our departure with a glass of Tokaj.
This Hungarian wine is so unique that the region it comes from has actually earned UNESCO status. (It is known as the Tokaj Wine Region Historic Cultural Landscape.)
Once Viking Bragi had drifted down to Gellert Hill, Captain Oliver kicked the engines into gear and headed the ship back upriver. Liberty Monument waved goodbye with her palm from the top as she watched us go.
We are only 3 weeks from midsummer so it wasn’t fully dark. The twilight blue hour gave us a memorable view. One by one, lights came on along the river and the sight became magical.
I overheard someone say “I can see why evening cruises are such a popular attraction in Budapest. The view is remarkable.” Lit up, the city was aglow.
Next stop: Bratislava.
2019 update: The Viking Grand European Tour itinerary no longer includes Bratislava. Instead, you'll spend two days in Vienna.
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