LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

Budapest

Heritage football capital now prestigious host

Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game

November 25 is the anniversary of 6-3. In a dark bar in Budapest, simply called 6:3, candles, solemn handshakes and a loop-video replay of the match in question mark another year gone since 1953. Back then, Hungary gave England, and the world, a lesson in football, only to lose the World Cup a year later.

The bar theme is no coincidence – it was once owned by Nándor Hidegkuti. His deployment as a deep-lying forward that Wembley afternoon was as crucial, if not as visual, as the instinctive Puskás drag-back. Tactical nous and tradition always characterised Budapest’s great clubs – Ferencváros, Újpest, MTK – founded in the late 1800s.

Ferenc Ray, the Hungarian thought to have introduced football from Switzerland, played for none of them, but Budapest Torna Club (BTC), inaugural winners of the Hungarian league in 1901.

Touring teams (particularly Southampton) and the arrival of influential English coach Jimmy Hogan from a Viennese internment camp in 1916 helped establish Hungary’s superior passing game. MTK’s György Orth and Imre Schlosser of Ferencváros (FTC) were among its key early exponents.

Domestic football, dominated by Budapest, turned professional in the 1920s. Hungary reached the World Cup final in 1938, and emerged from the war with talented duo Ferenc Puskás and ‘Cucu’ Bozsik playing a modern version of Hogan’s game at Kispest, a sleepy suburb of south Budapest.

With the Communist restructuring of sport, Kispest became the army side, Honvéd. Called up were forward Sándor Kocsis, FTC goalkeeper Gyula Grosics, practically Hungary’s finest XI, in fact. Along with MTK’s Hidegkuti, this formed the ‘Aranycsapat’, the Golden Team’: the Magic Magyars.

After 6-3, Hungary repeated the lesson: 7-1 over England at Budapest’s newly opened Népstadion. After the improbable defeat to West Germany at the 1954 World Cup Final, Hungary saw its game cut off in its prime when Honvéd’s senior and junior players stayed on tour abroad during the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. Bozsik and Grosics then came home to a broken nation.

Puskás and Kocsis became stars in Spain. Coaches Béla Guttmann, Pál Csernai, and later  Puskás himself, successfully took the Hungarian game abroad.

During the silver age of the 1960s and 1970s, with packed league double-headers at the Népstadion, MTK, Újpest and Ferencváros all reached European finals. Even little working-class Vasas made in-roads.

As state sponsorship withered, the fur coats came out, bundameccs (‘fur coat match’) local slang for fixed. The game was up. After 1989, poor crowds and poorer football typified any given Saturday. Vác won the title in 1994, and Budapest’s century-long near monopoly on the championship was over. All that was left was the FTC-Újpest derby.

With Ferencváros forcibly demoted for financial irregularities in 2006, political favour fell on dominant provincial side Debrecen.

Subsequent politicians, headed by football-mad Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, then backed a major stadium rebuilding programme across Budapest and Hungary. The former Népstadion, reconfigured as the Puskás Aréna, hosted four games at the Euro 2020 finals, two involving a resurgent national side backed by huge populist support. 

Hungary had ended 30 years of hurt one night in Oslo in 2015, followed by the second leg of the Euro 2016 play-off at the Groupama Aréna, new home of Ferencváros. Two wins over Norway sent the Magyars to their first major finals since 1986. As well as wild celebrations in Budapest, the achievement gave rise to the spontaneous post-match singing of the national anthem between players and fans.

This, along with a fan zone on Budapest’s Heroes’ Square and march to the nearby Puskás Aréna, became standard rituals for local supporters at Euro 2020 and at international matches thereafter. The national stadium, meanwhile, gained favour with UEFA when it hosted Champions League games at the height of the pandemic. 

It was at an empty Puskás Aréna that November that perhaps the most outstanding and important goal scored in Budapest in the history of Hungarian football – a late, late run and super strike by golden boy Dominik Szoboszlai to put his country through to the Euro 2020 finals it would be co-hosting. Iceland’s players were spared the considerable collective din of 69,000 Hungarians going doolally.

Unfortunately, as it turned out, overlooked for the Stade de France when it came to re-awarding hosting of the 2022 Champions League Final, the Puskás Aréna welcomes the Europa League final in 2023. While a certain number of Hungary’s fans still need lessons in how to behave, England’s players subjected to appalling racist abuse here in 2021, there’s no doubt that Budapest has become an otherwise popular and successful stage for major sporting events. 

Easily accessed by air in two or three hours from almost anywhere in Europe, with a superb hotel stock and transport infrastructure – around the city, at least, the airport still needs a swift transfer link – Hungary’s capital has staged two world swimming finals in five years and the European handball finals in 2022. 

In 2023, another (!) new stadium hosts the World Athletics Championships. Ferencváros, MTK, Vasas and Honvéd have all received new-build grounds. Many locals, particularly in Budapest, with its green mayor and liberal outlook, begrudge huge sums being spent on sport with hospitals in such poor condition. Most visitors, however, treated to a beautiful, affordable metropolis with a buzzing nightlife, don’t need to think too much beyond fun and entertainment.

Lads usually break off from stag-circuit revelry to see domestic football at any one (or two, if they’re keen) of four top-tier grounds on any given weekend. There are currently three to choose from in the second-flight NBII and a handful in the three-region NBIII. (See Best 10 groundhops in Budapest.) Few forget their visit to BKV Előre, the main stand and wonderful stadium bar an authentic echo of the 1960s. It’s also the shortest groundhop in Europe, MTK exactly 11 paces across the street. 

Away from completely dominant Ferencváros, now very much back in favour with the government, league crowds are still pitifully low, even at Honvéd, where a young side won the club a first title for 24 years in 2017. Up in Angyalföld, Vasas are also enjoying a mini-revival after gaining promotion in 2022. Újpest, under the much-maligned yoke of owner Roland Duchâtelet, remain a basket case, however loyal the fan base. No lilac supporter would have slept soundly after the 6-0 pasting given to their side by eternal rivals Ferencváros in September 2022. At home, no less.

As for MTK, relegation in 2022 will hardly see an increase in spectators – gates were never the club’s strong point. Their new ground, impressive outside, underwhelming within, is named the Hidegkuti Nándor Stadion. The deep-lying striker of the 6-3 game would have appreciated the gesture – and his 6:3 bar being faithfully looked after by a team of expats cognisant of its heritage.

Getting Around

Arriving in town, local transport and timings

Budapest’s Liszt Ferenc Airport is 16km (ten miles) south-east of town. Terminal 2 is the only one in operation, comprised of adjoining buildings A and B. Most budget flights depart from Terminal 2A. Terminal 1 closer to town is not open to the public, although the rail terminal opposite still functions.

Public transport from Terminal 2 involves busesThe 100E leaves from outside Terminal 2 Arrivals every 8-10mins, then every 30-45mins through the night. Journey time to three central points, Kálvin tér, Astoria and focal Deák Ferenc tér, is around 45mins, depending on traffic. Airport-bound buses set off from Deák tér beside cobbled Városháza park.

The service requires a special airport shuttle ticket (Ft2,200/€6), available from the machine by the airport stop or from metro stations in town. Inspectors validate your ticket as you board. 

Next to the 100E stop at the airport, the 200E bus (every 10mins) runs to Kőbánya-Kispest at the end of blue metro line M3 for the price of a regular ticket, (Ft450/€1.20). Further up the line, some sections replaced by special buses at weekends, the Népliget stop serves the Ferencváros stadium and Budapest’s main international bus station. From there, tram 1 goes to MTK and the Puskás Aréna

Each main train terminus has its own metro station, Keleti, Nyugati and Déli.

The BKK public transport network consists of four metro lines, buses, trams, trolleybuses, electric trains and boats. Night buses also run, along with the 24hr tram 6 down the city’s busiest boulevard, the Nagykörút

A book of ten tickets is Ft4,000/€10.35, a 24hr pass Ft2,500/€6.70, available from machines at major stops including the airport, and at metro stations. Foreign credit cards are accepted. Stamp single tickets by putting the grid-patterned end into the orange machine, either on board the vehicle or at the top of metro escalators.

When you come out of airport Arrivals, you’ll see a kiosk – this is for the Főtaxi (+36 1 222 2 222) service into town. Give your destination to the dispatcher and your car will pull up. The standard fare into town is around Ft10,000/€27. Be careful of taxis waiting outside major hotels and nightlife hubs, particularly Gozsdu udvar.

To and from the airport, the miniBUD communal minibus is cheaper than a taxi, but charged per head, so is only economical for single passengers. A journey to/from the city centre is around Ft6,700/€18. 

Where to Drink

The best pubs and bars for football fans

Budapest is a great bar city, the scene extensive enough for the many stag parties not to become too overbearing. District VII, between the Great Synagogue and Klauzál tér, is the hub. Within it, the Gozsdu udvar passageway is flooded with revellers. There, the themed Puskás Gozsdu is the most sport-focused option.

The most football-friendly of Budapest’s now overly famous ruin bars, UdvarROM and the adjoining Füge Udvar, fill with young foreigners until the early morning.

The Stifler chain comprises a couple of burger-and-soccer joints on and off the Nagykörút, the busy tram-lined street dotted with football-friendly bars along its Erzsébet körút section. Others include Ziccer!, the outlet for the TrollFoci platform for Hungarian football discourse, nearby Winners and Score. Pointer pubs can also be found at prominent Pest locations.

For a little more individuality, Champs on Dohány utca is tastefully decorated, with painted likenesses of Hungarian Olympian heroes since 1896. It usually runs a summer terrace sports bar on Margaret Island. 

Right in the centre, Irish-run Jack Doyle’s is the best of the city’s pubs, big on sport, food, live music and atmosphere. It sits beside what was the Pilvax Café, where the 1848 revolutionaries gathered before taking on the Austrians. 

Nearby local bar, the Staropramen Söröző, provides a quiet space to watch the match a minute’s walk from the airport bus stop. The other main pubs in town, Davy Byrne’s is equally Irish-run and sits in lively District VI, while long-established Becketts is located on tourist-friendly Liszt Ferenc tér.

Where Lonyáy utca meets the Nagykörút, near the Boráros tér stop on main tram lines 2, 4 and 6, the 6:3 takes its name from the famous scoreline when Hungary beat England at Wembley in 1953. Its former owner, Nándor Hidegkuti, scored a hat-trick that day, and the bar remained in local hands until taken over by expat football fans in 2018. Augmenting its priceless Puskás-era mementos and keeping its traditional feel, the incoming owners lay on live-match screenings and occasional special events.

Up in Óbuda, a short hop on the 17 tram from Margaret Bridge (Buda side), the Puskás Pancho Sport Pub is located just past the statue dedicated to Hungary’s greatest player. Menu, décor and on-sale souvenirs relate to ‘the Galloping Major’, Pancho to Madrileños, Öcsi to Hungarians.

On the same side of the river, named after the Chain Bridge it stands near, the Lánchíd Söröző at Fő utca 4 is a homely, retro-themed bar/restaurant comprising two rooms, old Who videos shown in one, TV football in another.

Finally, in the departures terminal of Budapest airport, Scando sports-bar chain O’Learys provides a farewell pint and gawp at football before you board your plane.

Where to stay

The best hotels for the stadiums and city centre

The official Budapest Tourist Office website is extremely poor, with no hotel information or English page.

Many hotels are convenient for the Puskás Aréna and nearby Keleti station. On the Kerepesi út side of the stadium, the Danubius Hotel Arena Budapest is a four-star with a pool, gym and spa. Slightly further away are the conference-friendly Green Hotel and, opposite each other on Cházár András utca, the spa-equipped Lion’s Garden Hotel and comfortable, budget Dominik Pánzió

The lower mid-range Royal Park Boutique Hotel and Baross City Hotel are next to Keleti, as is the recently opened Intercity, the well-known German chain of station hotels. Alongside, the Golden Park occupies a prominent building long facing Keleti station.

Round the corner onto main Rákóczi út, the Danubius Hungaria is Hungary’s largest hotel, dating back to the golden age of rail and thoroughly modernised since.

Of historic interest and at a main transport hub convenient for Keleti and the Puskás Aréna, the Astoria is also right in the city centre. Slap opposite MTK, the ACHAT is an upscale German chain four-star.

Near Ferencváros, the three-star Hotel Millennium is particularly convenient as it’s also on the main road to the airport.

For the stadiums on the northern section of blue metro line 3, Újpest and Vasas, Nyugati station is a handy crossing point. Built into the adjoining mall, the business-friendly Crowne Plaza ambitiously opened during the pandemic, anticipating a new age of rail. Round the corner on the Nagykörút, long-established upscale chains such as the Radisson Blu Béke and Corinthia, original built for the 1896 Olympics and Hungarian millennial celebrations, are steeped in history.

Further along the Nagykörút, the New York has been taken over by Thailand’s Anantara group, keen to play up its golden heritage. has 

The city’s impressive hotel stock in the city centre is a key factor in Budapest hosting so many major sports events. Generations of Grand Prix drivers have stayed at the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus – just ask to look at the guest book while top football teams also sleep at The Ritz-Carlton next door. 

For something a bit more individual, only two minutes from the main square, Vörösmarty tér, the D8 Hotel exudes chic urban style. On the other side of the square, the Párisi Udvar shows what can be done when you convert an elegant arcade from the city’s golden age into a luxury hotel. Round, the corner, the mid-range City Hotel Pilvax plays up its location, the coffeehouse where the 1848 Uprising was instigated.

Budapest also specialises in rooftop hotel bars, such as at the music-themed Aria and Hilton Garden Inn behind the Opera House, whose panoramic terrace can be hired out. Near Pest’s bar vortex, the Soho Boutique adds flair amid many apartment rentals.

Over the river in Buda, the Hotel Clark is named after the Scots engineer who completed the Chain Bridge it overlooks, best viewed from its rooftop bar. Nearer Margaret Bridge, the Novotel Budapest Danube provides river views to guests in superior rooms.

Where to shop

Shirts, kits, merchandise and gifts

Hungary, Ferencváros and Újpest tops are among the international football merchandise on offer at Lion’s Sport, on Rákóczi út halfway between Blaha Lujza tér and Keleti Station. Football Factor at Andrássy út 81 deals more in kits of top European sides, and the latest multi-coloured boots. Another branch has opened at the Allee shopping mall in Buda.

More niche is a tiny emporium tucked away at the back of a courtyard on Budapest’s main shopping thoroughfare, Váci utca. Hungarian Football-Sport Shop, signposted at No.23, is a treasure trove of Khrushchëv-era badges, scarves, shirts and pennants.

Tourist souvenir chain Memories of Hungary usually stocks a number of Puskás-related items, mugs, T-shirts and replica shirts. You’ll find a branch near the Basilica, one by the Fishermen’s Bastion in the Castle District and one at the airport.

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