City guide

One Ticket to Paradise: bus 21 to Normafa park

Photo : Gábor Szabó/We Love Budapest

When the bustle of downtown Budapest becomes overwhelming, you can always escape the concrete jungle with an easy day trip to any of the many green areas located within the city boundaries. Some can be reached with a single ride from the centre aboard one of Budapest’s ordinary public-transport vehicles. Our One Ticket to Paradise series presents some of our favourite open-space oases accessible from town by taking a mass-transit trip with no transfers. This time we ride the 21 bus from central Buda to Normafa, a panoramic park that sprawls across a ridge of the Buda Hills.

When first becoming familiar with Budapest, most people regard the city’s hilly Buda side as a sleepy idyll of garden-ringed villas and bucolic tree-lined lanes, while bustling Pest bears the brunt of metropolitan infrastructure and buzz. Such assumptions are shattered when these newcomers encounter central Buda’s Széll Kálmán tér, a recently refurbished square in a sea of concrete where numerous public-transport lines crisscross above and below ground. The jumble of tram tracks and colliding commuters is evidence enough of Buda’s genuine status as an urban locality – albeit one with plenty of flowery mansions and parkland just a short journey uphill.

Photo: Gábor Szabó/We Love Budapest

Anyone can be whisked away from the malls and fast-food joints of Széll Kálmán tér to the wide-open green space atop the Buda Hills within a matter of minutes. Simply step aboard bus 21, carrying passengers to Budapest’s beloved Normafa parkland that sprawls across the long ridge between Széchenyi Hill and János Hill, the city’s highest peak. Normafa is a wooded wonderland for all ages, featuring playgrounds, picnic tables, workout equipment, a rubberised running track, snack stands and rolling meadows, all set before sweeping vistas across the Magyar metropolis and beyond.

Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest

Standing at the centre of Széll Kálmán tér near the concrete clock, this triangular square can be somewhat confusing as trams whiz by on all three sides and buses jockey for position at scattered stops amid near-constant traffic congestion. However, it’s fairly easy to find the terminus for bus 21 (which is also the boarding point for bus 21A, travelling on the exact same route to reach Normafa) – just head up the stairway with an outdoor escalator toward the massive red-and-white building that looks like a castle. This is the Postapalota, built in the 1920s to be Hungary’s postal headquarters, and now being refurbished to house deluxe office space.

Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest

After reaching the top of the stairs or escalators, turn left and you will soon reach the bus 21 stop across the street from the crenellated postal landmark. As bus 21 is an important public-transport route for working-class residents of the Buda Hills, the coach may be crowded during its first few stops, but the ride to Normafa only takes about 20 minutes, so even if you have to stand, it’s a relatively short ride. A lot of people disembark by about halfway up the hill, and seats will likely be available before long.

Photo: Zsolt Pataky/We Love Budapest

Passengers lucky enough to sit by a right-side window will enjoy the rising view as bus 21 climbs above Buda’s apartment-building rooftops and into the winding lanes towered over by leafy trees and grand fin-de-siècle villas. Some have crumbling fixtures but many have been restored to their original glory by their well-to-do occupants. Several now serve as embassies. Between the mansions’ mansards, peeks over urban Buda become increasingly far-reaching as the ride ascends alongside the Cogwheel Railway tracks through Svábhegy, an eminently pleasant self-contained hillside neighbourhood.

Photo: Norbert Juhász/We Love Budapest

A few more stops after Svábhegy, bus 21 passes a century-old water tower before reaching our destination at Normafa. Be careful not to get off too early at the Normafa, Gyermekvasút stop unless you want to catch the Children’s Railway there. To reach the main entry point to the parkland’s primary open-air attractions, disembark at the Normafa stop. (Bus 21 continues from here to its nearby Csilleberc, KFKI hilltop terminus next to a mysterious walled industrial complex appearing like somewhere James Bond would sneak into, although this is also the starting point for a nice hiking trail to Budaörs. Regardless, the route for bus 21A concludes at the Normafa stop, so feel free to take either line to reach the promised parkland.)

Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest

From the Normafa bus stop, it’s just a short stroll around the restaurant and food booths (more on them soon) to the park’s most popular patch of open space, where several benches line a ridgetop trail and grassy slopes spread below into the Buda Hills and the northern half of the city beyond. From here, it’s possible to spot major Budapest landmarks such as Parliament, Margaret Bridge and the entirety of Margaret Island, all appearing like tiny scale-model pieces. In fact, a bronze topographical map/relief statue is mounted here to highlight the various mini-mountains of Buda’s skyline.

Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest

This area near the bus stop features several snack stands serving classic Hungarian street food such as rétes (strudel baked on-site with a variety of fruit fillings) and savoury lángos fried-dough treats, perfect for munching at wooden picnic tables or carrying off to the nearby meadow for an impromptu picnic. The charming Normakert restaurant is also here with indoor and outdoor seating amid rustic antiques – and for those looking to lose weight rather than pack it on, this same section of Normafa has a free street-workout facility.

Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest

Walk a little further on from the food stands to discover Anna Meadow, Normafa’s biggest recreation area. Amid acres of undulating fields, this grassy expanse has a huge playground with active attractions for kids of all ages, including a long zip line.

Photo: Gábor Szabó/We Love Budapest

Fire pits welcome the public for cookouts here. Since the last bus 21 departs Normafa at around 11pm every day, it’s possible for this public-transport expedition to include an evening campfire while watching stars shine bright over city lights below.

Photo: Gábor Szabó/We Love Budapest

But the attractions of Normafa don’t end at Anna Meadow. Several hiking paths stretch out from this hilltop haven, including one that winds through thick forest towards the peak of János Hill, site of Budapest’s über-panoramic Elizabeth Lookout Tower and the summit station of the Zugliget Chairlift, as featured in a previous instalment of One Ticket to Paradise.

Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest

While Normafa is naturally most popular during spring and summer, bus 21 is busy year-round. In autumn, this is one of the city’s best places for enjoying nature’s colours, while this peak parkland is a major Budapest sledging destination whenever winter snowstorms coat the hilltops with fresh powder… even though some of the most popular runs are technically off-limits.

Photo: Attila Polyák/We Love Budapest

Whether soaring down its slopes on a toboggan or sunbathing on a picnic blanket in Anna Meadow, Normafa is an all-season destination for everyone in Budapest thanks to bus 21, providing residents with an affordable and easy getaway to relax, breathe fresh air and reflect on the city scene from a lofty perspective.