Discover Budapest’s hidden gems of the Duna-Ipoly National Park
Photo : Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest
13/7/2017, 7:41 AM●9-minute article
During summertime, sun-soaking crowds fill Budapest’s central zones to immerse in a variety of alfresco urban attractions, but sometimes we have an urge to get out into nature and enjoy sedate moments amid fascinating flora and fauna. Luckily, there are several sites of Hungary’s Duna-Ipoly National Park here within Budapest, offering ideal destinations for adventurous jaunts, including 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 Magyar village just 30 kilometers from Budapest.
During the month of July, to accommodate the tourism high season and the anticipated arrival of thousands of FINA fans, extra English-language tours are being offered at all of the following Duna-Ipoly National Park sites – read on for more details.
Hidden beneath a pleasant residential area of the Buda Hills, a cavernous maze welcomes visitors to discover a subterranean attraction often referred to as “Budapest’s underground flower garden” for 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 transportation is to take bus 29 from Buda’s bustling Kolosy Square, located just a few steps away from the “Szépvölgyi út”stop of the HÉV commuter train departing from Batthyány Square. Ride bus 29 uphill to the “Szemlő-hegyi-barlang” stop, where you can’t miss the cave’s visitor-center entrance. Here people of all ages can explore what’s inside this concealed chamber by signing up for organized tours taking groups around the easily accessible cave, while a guide provides information in English and in Hungarian throughout the tour. After we descend into the belly of the Earth through a lengthy corridor, we find ourselves 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 for their characteristic shapes.
Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest 9 pictures
The tour continues along narrow passages with gigantic cracks towering above us, from which water keeps dripping on our heads thanks to the cave’s very 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 are recommended to dress warmly, even during hot summer days. As we navigate between hidden halls of varied sizes, spectacular calcite plates turn heads along the journey, and we see crystals sparkling around us 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 we emerge from the subterranean realm, an interactive exhibition completes our visit, where bilingual information boards provide additional guidance to visitors about Hungary’s caverns and the Szemlő-hegyi Cave, while a small souvenir shop sells various keepsakes, including jewelry and diverse figurines. Log onto the official website for more information.
This month, English-language guided tours at the Szemlő-hegyi Cave are available during July 13-30 every day (except on Tuesday, when the facility is closed) at 10:30am and at 11:30am.
Szemlő-hegyi Cave is not the only underground attraction of 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 the aforementioned Kolosy Square and get off at the fifth stop (“Pál-völgyi cseppkőbarlang”) to begin a rugged excursion toward the center of the Earth.
Here we discover a rustic facility amid a wooded valley that serves as the Pál-völgyi visitors’ center, 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 are welcoming for almost everyone – even those with claustrophobia – and are frequently 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 some 30 kilometers, 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 like crystal formations and fossilized 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.
This month, English-language guided tours of the two easily accessible caverns of the Pál-völgyi Cave are available from July 13-30 every day (except on Monday, when the facility is closed) at 1pm and at 2:30pm.
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 Center from downtown is to take bus 8E from Ferenciek Square toward Buda across the Elizabeth Bridge, and disembark at the “Korompai utca” stop; from there look for the sign leading to a short uphill walk to reach the natural retreat. Before we set off on the hiking trail that encircles the hill, we can view a playful exhibition inside a round-shaped shelter that highlights what makes this soothing oasis an important facility within the Hungarian capital, and a short movie with English subtitles introduces Sas Hill’s history to visitors.
Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest 6 pictures
We are eager to start our guided tour that takes us around the 30-hectare dolomite-covered property with several intriguing destinations dotting the panoramic path. On our way to the lookout point at a height of 267 meters above the city, we pass by 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, we 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
Our tour continues with a leisurely hike that takes us off the previously traversed trail to go around cliffs that are blanketed with a profusion of plants, including such species 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, colorful butterflies, and hundreds of spider species. As we conclude our tour, we feel that this elevated getaway gave us a refreshing pause from city life, while the fascinating views that we enjoyed almost throughout the whole length of the hike kept us connected with Budapest; visit the official website for more details.
This month, English-language guided tours at the Sas Hill Visitor Center are available during July 13-30 every day (except on Monday, when the facility is closed) at 11am and at 3pm.
The visitor center is open on March 1-November 1st from Tuesday through Sunday between 10am and 6pm. Address: Budapest 1112, Tájék utca 26
Ethnographic Village Museum of Ócsa
Found about 30 kilometers 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’s 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.
This month, English-language guided tours at the museum are available with a handicraft presentation on July 18th and 19th at 10am.
How to get there: By car, we can reach the village museum of Ócsa by taking the M5 motorway from Budapest towards Szeged. After getting off the motorway at exit 30, we continue along Üllői utca, to Kiss János utca, until we 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 Railway Station to Ócsa, or bus line 2522 or 2523 from the city’s Népliget station.
Address: Ócsa 2364, Dr. Békési Panyik Andor u. 4-6.
The museum is open during February 1-November 26th from Tuesday through Friday between 9am and 4pm, and on Saturday and Sunday between 10am and 5pm.