Discover Budapest’s hidden gems around the Duna-Ipoly National Park
Photo : Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest
We Love Budapest
In summer, sun-soaking crowds fill Budapest to immerse in a variety of alfresco urban attractions, but sometimes you might have the urge to get out into nature and enjoy sedate moments amid fascinating flora and fauna. Luckily, there are several sights in Hungary’s Duna-Ipoly National Park that lie within Budapest’s borders, ideal destinations for adventurous jaunts. These include English-language guided tours inside spectacular cave formations and panoramic trekking at a Buda hilltop reserve, while anyone who wants to get out of town can visit a historic Hungarian village just 30 kilometres from the city.
Hidden beneath a pleasant residential area of the Buda Hills, a cavernous maze welcomes visitors to discover a subterranean attraction referred to as Budapest’s underground flower garden because of its floral-like formations created through hydrothermal karst activities. With its unpretentious exterior, at first it might be hard to imagine that this site conceals a million-year-old cave once filled with natural thermal water, which now flows to fill the pools of Budapest’s Szent Lukács Bath.
Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest 9 pictures
The most direct way to reach Szemlő-hegyi Cave by public transport is to take bus 29 from bustling Kolosy tér in Óbuda, near the Szépvölgyi útstop of the HÉV commuter train from Batthyány tér. Ride bus 29 uphill to the Szemlő-hegyi-barlang stop, where you can’t miss the cave’s visitor-centre entrance. Here people of all ages can explore what’s inside this concealed chamber by signing up for organised tours taking groups around the easily accessible cave, while a guide provides information in English and in Hungarian throughout the tour. After you descend into the belly of the Earth through a lengthy corridor, you find yourself in a dimly lit hall where nature’s fascinating creations surround the group, including a variety of pea-stone formations that create diverse figures, including some named after their characteristic shapes.
Coach house in Budafok: M V type (BBVV) locomotivePhoto: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest 9 pictures
The tour continues along narrow passages with gigantic cracks towering above, from which water keeps dripping down thanks to the cave’s high moisture content, causing the floor to be wet everywhere. With a steady temperature of about 12 degrees Celsius all year round, anyone who heads down here is recommended to dress warmly, even during hot summer days. As you navigate between hidden halls of varied sizes, spectacular calcite plates turn heads along the journey, and you see crystals sparkling around you as the tour guide’s flashlight illuminates the walls. Besides this glittering highlight, plenty of other attractions await visitors throughout the tour, including cauliflower-shaped stones, artificial stalagtites, and an area even deeper under the ground with outstanding acoustics.
Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest 4 pictures
Finally, when you emerge from the subterranean realm, an interactive exhibition completes your visit, where bilingual information boards provide additional guidance to visitors about Hungary’s caverns and the Szemlő-hegyi Cave. A small souvenir shop sells various keepsakes, including jewellery and diverse figurines. Log onto the official website for more information.
Szemlő-hegyi Cave is not the only underground attraction in Budapest’s Duna-Ipoly National Park sites – anyone seeking a more extreme subterranean adventure can explore the equally fascinating chambers of the nearby Pál-völgyi cave system, also located beneath the Buda Hills. Just board bus 65 from Kolosy tér and get off at the fifth stop (Pál-völgyi cseppkőbarlang) to begin a rugged excursion toward the centre of the Earth.
Here you discover a rustic facility amid a wooded valley that serves as the Pál-völgyi visitor centre, where amateur spelunkers from around the world gather for daily tours in a few nearby caves. Just a few steps away from this quaint cottage, a pair of easily accessible paved caverns with artificial lighting welcome visitors as young as five for educational tours, highlighting another underground flower garden of enchanting mineral formations and gypsum crystals, as well as calcite and barite crystals alongside plenty of stalactites and stalagmites. These three-hour tours accommodate almost everyone – even those with claustrophobia – but are usually offered in Hungarian. While foreigners can join those excursions, basic 50-minute English-language tours are also offered; check out this website for more details.
However, most international visitors to Pál-Völgyi are here to descend into the third cave on the other side of the valley. This is the entryway to a nearly pristine series of interconnected caverns stretching for some 30 kilometres, which can only be explored by crawling, climbing, sliding and shimmying through tight and twisting passages that are usually only traversed by hard-core spelunkers. To join this adventure-caving excursion, participants need to be in relatively good physical condition, and are provided with coveralls and miner’s helmets with a headlamp – there are no lights installed down in this cave system.
At the beginning of these daily English-language tours, the experienced guides unlock a steel door and lead their crew down a tall ladder into a sprawling subterranean labyrinth full of geological wonders such as crystal formations and fossilised seashells from millions of years ago, when Hungary was submerged under the prehistoric Mediterranean Sea. However, to reach these natural attractions and many more, visitors must follow their guide through slender fissures, between the walls of long crevasses, and into tight crannies, all the while taking care not to slip into deep chasms or to disturb precariously balanced overhead boulders.
This three-hour adventure-caving experience is more of a physical escapade than an easygoing tour, but these active spelunking excursions frequently end up being a highlight of Budapest visits; check out this website for English-language details about adventure caving, and see the park’s official website for general information.
A triple-peaked rocky mini-mountain towers above central Buda, which appears as a bare geographical formation from a distance, but anyone who climbs up to Sas Hill (Sas-hegy in Hungarian) will find a rich nature reserve enhanced with lush vegetation. The easiest way to get to District XII’s Sas Hill Visitor Centre from the city centre is to take bus 8E from Ferenciek tere towards Buda across Elizabeth Bridge, and disembark at the Korompai utca stop. From there, look for the sign leading to a short uphill walk to reach this natural retreat. Before you set off on the hiking trail that encircles the hill, inside a round-shaped shelter you can view a playful exhibition that highlights what makes this soothing oasis an important facility within the Hungarian capital. A short movie with English subtitles introduces visitors to the history of Sas Hill.
Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest 6 pictures
By now you should be eager to start your guided tour that takes you around the 30-hectare dolomite-covered property, with several intriguing destinations dotting the panoramic path. On your way to the lookout point at a height of 267 metres above the city, you pass a pair of terrariums that are placed directly on the park grounds for examining various lizard species in their natural habitat.
Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest 9 pictures
After ascending the highest accessible point of the hill, you will enjoy wraparound views over much of Buda and Pest, including far-reaching vistas over the winding Danube, Buda Castle, Parliament, the Budapest Eye, the Citadel and Margaret Island, while a picnic table is set up at the peak to provide alternatives for an alfresco feast amid scenic settings.
Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest 15 pictures
Your tour continues with a leisurely hike that takes you off the previously traversed trail to go around cliffs blanketed with a profusion of plants, including species such as the Hungarian barberry (which survived the Ice Age thanks to the pleasant microclimatic conditions provided by the dolomites), while Sas Hill is also home to foxes, rodents, birds, colourful butterflies and hundreds of spider species. This elevated getaway provides a refreshing pause from city life, while the fascinating views throughout the whole length of the hike still keeps you connected with Budapest. Visit the official website for more details.
The visitor centre is open on Mar-Nov, Tue-Sun 10am-6pm. Address: District XI, Tájék utca 26
Ócsa Ethnographic Village Museum
Found about 30 kilometres south of Budapest, a well-preserved hamlet welcomes those who want to venture out of town to take a time-transcending journey in the Hungarian countryside. An expansive collection of traditional village-style furniture, elaborate folk costumes and a selection of centuries-old agricultural tools are presented throughout this open-air exhibition that tastefully blends in with the town of Ócsa and its surrounding scenes.
Besides the life-sized displays, visitors can join handicraft workshops to prepare varied utilities that were regularly used in the villages centuries ago, including baskets and doormats, but those who are just here to get a taste of what rural life was like in the 18th and 19th centuries can spend their time wandering around the thatched-roofed houses. Check out the official website for more information.
How to get there:
By car, you can reach the village museum of Ócsa by taking the M5 motorway from Budapest towards Szeged. After getting off the motorway at exit 30, you continue along Üllői utca to Kiss János utca, until you reach Dr. Békési Panyik Andor utca, where the museum is located. Those who arrive by public transport can take train S21 from Budapest’s Nyugati station to Ócsa, or bus 2522 or 2523 from Népliget.
Address: Ócsa 2364, Dr. Békési Panyik Andor utca 4-6.
The museum is open Feb-Nov, Tue-Fri 9am-4pm & Sat-Sun 10am-5pm.