KICKING back in the roasting hot waters of the famous Széchenyi baths in Budapest it was more than just the healing qualities of the minerals that were making me relaxed.
It was our last night in the Hungarian capital, and truthfully, I was delighted and more than a little relieved that it had all worked out so well, considering it was the first time that we had taken a full-on city break with the kids.
And you know what? Despite our hesitation, it had all worked out.
It had long been our intention to take the kids on a big city adventure but selfishly we had put it off for a long time.
Because for me, all the best bits about visiting a foreign city, from wandering around museums and aimlessly walking through old towns to idly spending hours over a few beers and enjoying late dinners in restaurants are simply not on the cards when you have two young children in tow.
As somebody may have said, children can’t play with a view, which was brought home to us when we arrived on the Italian Amalfi coast earlier this summer to be greeted with indignation from the seven year old and groans from our smaller one who had just turned four.
Enjoying the view over the River Danube
“But we can see the sea from our house,” our older boy had complained, referring to the villa we had been happily staying in before we set off on the nerve-wracking drive along what is one of the most beautiful drives in Europe.
A tense and sweaty two hours later we breathed a sigh of relief that we had survived several near misses with the oncoming coaches and buzzing scooters while narrowly avoiding a sheer drop to the sea 500 feet below.
And all the while trying to placate the two increasingly annoyed critics in the back seat.
Gratefully getting back onto the motorway myself and my wife had looked at each other and decided that the rest of the holiday would be spent on the beach.
Because kids just aren’t that interested in what we as adults are interested in are they?
They like different things on holiday and so we decided if there were to be any further adventurous road trips then they would have to have a water park with slides or at least a bloody good zoo at the end of it.
It was with the same hesitation that we had booked the family holiday to Budapest late last year, wondering how we would keep them entertained for five whole days in a city.
Meeting the cops in Budapest
Budapest had been on the bucket list for some time but was further down on the list than all the other obvious cities to tick off in Europe.
But after years of gradually moving down the list and ticking off visits to Berlin, Paris, and a very lost weekend in Brussels, we had arrived at Budapest.
Except this time we had two smaller travellers with us.
All reminiscing of dancing on tables in Barcelona, getting lost in Istanbul or searching for the site of Hitler’s bunker in Berlin at 2am was put on hold as we engaged in some serious online research along the lines of ‘Budapest for kids’.
Armed then with various ‘top ten things to do in Budapest with kids’ suggestions that we had downloaded from various websites we set off on our cheap Ryanair flight for our Hungarian adventure.
I find that the trick to having an enjoyable fight with children the age ours are at is to not push it.
Goofing around in Budapest
An hour or two is fine. Three hours is getting tricky and after that you’re up against some serious boredom threshold has been reached territory.
So the three- hour flight to Budapest from Dublin was just about right, even though both of them got sick on the plane. And on each other.
Suitably frazzled by the time we arrived we had at least indulged ourselves in a little luxury in that we had arranged to be picked up at the airport as it was late flight and we wanted to get to the apartment with zero hassle.
And that was another important feature of the week. Rather than book into a hotel we had found an apartment located in a complex smack bang in the middle of the city centre.
For a few extra euros we got a beautiful place, fully kitted out with all the comforts of home and a secure balcony with brilliant views of the hills over the city.
Our designated driver had picked us up at the airport and cheerfully regaled us with tales of being a local on our way into town. He was particularly happy as it was his ‘name day’ the following day and he was looking forward to going out to celebrate.
The Parliament buildings in Budapest
Yes, name day, when basically everybody who has the same name goes out to celebrate on one particular day, rather like a birthday, except, of course you go out on the lash because Tuesday is ‘Steven Day’. Apparently it’s a big tradition in Hungary but I have to confess, I’ve never heard of it before.
He took pride in his city and delighted in pointing out the magnificent buildings as we passed along on the quiet city streets. A quick spin over the famous Chain Bridge that spans the Danube and we were at our apartment on the ‘Buda’ side of the city.
Divided in two by the River Danube, Pest, on the east bank, is flat and spread out while Buda, on the other side, straggles up and over a series of mountains.
Even though they were excited with their new, temporary home, the kids were soon asleep and after they settled down we took a glass of wine out onto the balcony and stared up where the lights of Gellért Hill and Castle Hill over on Pest glittered in the night sky.
A powerful statue on Gellért Hill
Early the next morning we were up with the sun that came blazing into the apartment and a local coffee shop on the corner provided our breakfast needs of juice, croissants and strong black coffee for the day ahead.
The first day’s outing was to Margaret Island located slap bang in the middle of the Danube and about 20 minutes out of the centre of the city.
This was a no brainer as far as kids are concerned as it had trails and walks running around and through its 2.5 kilometres of landscaped parks. We rented a peddle car that accommodated the four of us and it was great fun as we furiously pedalled our way around the island.
We stopped off to see a water display of fountains projecting water high into the air in time to classical music before we treated ourselves to an ice cream in one of the many parlours dotted around the park.
Then it was home on the busy metro system that was simple and easy to work out and despite the rush hour on numerous occasions during our stay tired but friendly commuters would insist on giving us their seats so we could sit down with the kids.
Mesmerised by the underground system, the kids loved the trains and over the next couple of days we took the metro to stops all over the city. We used it to stop off near the hills of Pest where we clamoured up to the tops for views all along the length of the Danube and the great bridges spanning the river.
We were mesmorised by the amazing Metro
As it was early winter many of the outdoor children’s activities were closed but they still enjoyed running through the thick forest that blankets the hills and taking well-earned breaks with packed lunches spread out on picnic tables.
Happy but feeling a bit foot sore after all the walking we decided to take it little bit easier for the last two days. We found that the perfect way to unwind was in visiting one of the famous baths that is one of the most popular and relaxing activities in Budapest.
An ornate floor tile in the Gellért baths
We were a little unsure of the welcome children would receive at some of the baths as on some of their websites it was vague about whether kids were welcome at all while others strictly warned off bringing kids into waters that were 40C in places.
So for our first bathing excursion we chose the historic Gellért baths, one of the most famous bathhouses in Europe that are located in the beautiful Art Nouveau Gellért Hotel.
Visiting the beautiful Gellért baths in the Art Nouveau Gellért Hotel
The exquisite furnishings, artistic mosaics, and stained glass windows and sculptures of this grand old hotel were amazing to look at although obviously our two were more interested in getting into the water.
And while there are sections devoted specifically for adults where the waters can reach a skin tingling 40C the rest of the baths housed enough smaller pools and swimming pools that were ideal for the little ones.
The Gellért baths
After soaking up the fun for hours, for our last day there was really only one attraction left on the list that everyone agreed on. We had a busy day planned with a boat trip along the Danube to be the highlight but after the enjoyment of the day before it was back to the baths.
And this is where we realised Budapest had kept the best till last as the Széchenyi baths really are a unique experience.
While the Gellért had out door sections they were closed on the day we were there so the Széchenyi, with its huge outdoor pools and hot springs, was a real treat.
Darting along in the cold air before immersing ourselves in its hot waters was an exquisite pleasure and the kids loved the more relaxed nature of the place.
The baths are a local institution and are not just for tourists. As the evening descended more people arrived and by nightfall there was a real carnival atmosphere. Some of the older locals were playing chess on boards while immersed in the steaming waters while others were standing under the fountains getting pummelled by the flow.
The amazing Széchenyi baths in Budapest
Meanwhile the kids were thrilled, whizzing around the sections where the water was spun around in a whirl pool.
As night properly fell the magic of this place settled over us and it was a hard job deciding to leave and even more difficult convincing the other two to get out with us.
Back home, happy and relaxed, the kids begged us to go swimming that weekend, but I’m afraid, as functional as it is, our local swimming pool in Dublin just couldn’t measure up.
It’s a long way to go for a bath, but I reckon another trip to Budapest would be worth it.