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Underground Budapest: The city's caves and dungeons hold many stories and much fun

There’s a whole subterranean world to explore in Hungary’s capital city, from gaming arcades and shops to restaurants and pubs, all located in basements and caves

The Pinball Museum or Flipper museum a 400 sq. m space dedicated to arcade games,
The Pinball Museum or Flipper museum a 400 sq. m space dedicated to arcade games, (Joanna Lobo)

It’s popcorn unlike anything I have seen. White, round and cold to the touch. It is abundant, a veritable concession stand’s worth of popcorn. Except, there’s no movie on display here. Real life is proving more picturesque and entertaining.

I am below the ground, chilled to the bone, in the 12 degrees Celsius climes of the Szemlő-hegyi Cave. These majestic caves are a natural treasure in Budapest, known especially for their unique limestone formations, over 40 million years old, commonly called popcorn or cauliflower. These, I learn, during a 40-minute underground tour, were created by the upward movement of hot thermal water. It’s eerie underground, with the sound of dripping water breaking the silence. We walk in single file behind our guide, marvelling at the white crystals of gypsum, popcorn formations and calcite plates in different chambers. I breathe in deeply. There’s no dust or pollen here, which makes this cave a favourite for those suffering from respiratory illnesses. In fact, patients often come here for speleotherapy.

Nearby, Pálvölgyi cave proves to be a more strenuous trek but still rewarding, rich in dripstone formations nicknamed Beehive and Organ Pipes, shining calcium-crystals, even fossil imprints. And, the air is as pure.

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In my week in Hungary’s capital, I discovered that the best attractions are subterranean. On the surface, Budapest is vibrant, buzzing, and colourful but, dig deeper, and there’s a different world waiting to be explored. While the popular Pest side of the Danube river is flat, Buda is filled with labyrinths and bunkers, and Buda hill, with caves like Szemlő-hegyi and Pálvölgyi.

On the first day itself, I unknowingly travel on what is a unique part of Budapest’s history. The underground yellow line (or M1) is picturesque—small wooden and yellow carriages and decorated stations. Locally, it is the “small underground”. Historically, it is the first underground line on the European continent. For tourists like me, it’s a picturesque way to travel along the city’s heritage and popular Andrássy Avenue.

In Budapest, even public transport is magical. As is its Jewish Quarter.

Once a Jewish ghetto, today it is party central. This title owes its creation to ruin pubs, where budding entrepreneurs turned dilapidated, forgotten buildings into thriving bars and party places. But it’s the basements that are intriguing. Some are thrift stores, where faux leather and sparkly tiaras lie with warm jackets and polka-dotted dresses. Some are restaurants. And, some are restaurants with attached museums dedicated to pálinka.

The fruit brandy pálinka is Hungary’s national drink. The museum dedicated to it is just one room with history printed on boards, some old photographs, and pots used to store the spirit. It is inadequate, but there’s a free drink at the end and I pick up some valuable tips. Pálinka is drunk at room temperature, ideally a few minutes after pouring, in a tulip-shaped glass. It is strong and leaves a burn down the throat. I sip on it, enjoying its warmth.

It’s bleak and rainy outside, so I seek warmth elsewhere. By now it’s evening and the Jewish Quarter is alive with activity. I follow a small picture of a lamp, down a flight of stairs and into a cavernous basement bar. Lámpás is advertised as a cheap place to drink. It’s a dive bar, dark, with exposed pipes, and narrow passages leading to seating spots. The menu is limited—this isn’t the place for cocktails and Instagram reels, and there’s no food. It’s a place meant for nursing a glass of beer or really cheap house wine and being unwelcome gate-crashers at a birthday party.

Perhaps my favourite underground space is the Pinball Museum or Flipper museum. It’s a 400 sq. m space dedicated to… arcade games, over 130 of them! Exposed brick walls, flashing lights and the sounds of bleeps and chimes welcome me. Though a museum, it is actually a nostalgic playground, with games dating back to the early 20th century. The bulk of these are pinball games, with superheroes and action heroes, cartoon characters and storybook villains. Super Mario is there, as are Pink Panther, Rocky Balboa and even the Rolling Stones. I try my hand at almost every pinball machine, fulfilling childhood fantasies that were born after watching these games on American shows. I also play air handball, basketball, test my arm strength (I am a banana crusher), swipe fruit at Fruit Ninja, and watch people “play” legendary rock numbers.

Four hours later, as I leave reluctantly, a life-size Darth Vader bids me adieu. If this is the dark side, count me in.

The Szemlő-hegyi or popcorn caves are a natural treasure in Budapest, known especially for their unique limestone formations, over 40 million years old.
The Szemlő-hegyi or popcorn caves are a natural treasure in Budapest, known especially for their unique limestone formations, over 40 million years old. (Joanna Lobo)

From one fictional character to another. In Buda Castle, I hear about Count Dracula or, rather, his inspiration, the sadistic Vlad the Impaler. The labyrinthine network of tunnels under Buda Castle were once torture chambers and a prison, which held the infamous Vlad in the 15th century. It is believed that his time in the bowels of Buda Castle turned him into the monster who loved torturing his enemies. One legend says Vlad died in prison and his body is buried there. Though I am listening to this story in bright sunlight, on a tour of the Castle District, it gives me chills.

Another (subjectively) less creepy section of Buda Castle’s underground cave network is the Hospital in the Rock. Once an air raid hospital, then a nuclear bunker, it is now a museum with mannequins.

Away from the chilling stories and tales of Castle Hill, I head to another popular hill dominating the Buda side of the river. Gellért Hill is where I test my stamina with a trek, soak in the greenery, and enjoy breathtaking views of Pest. And once I have had my fill, I make my way to a church to give thanks for all that beauty.

Europe is awash with beautiful historic churches, rich and stunning architectural marvels. On Gellért Hill, I find a church that is ideal for prayer. There’s no decorations or glamour here. Instead, there’s a replica of the miraculous Black Madonna. And, it is in a cave.

St Ivan’s Cave, Sziklatemplom, or simply Cave Church, was the home of a hermit monk before being taken over by Pauline Monks. It was walled up with concrete during Communist rule but reopened in 1991. It’s a faux cave but still impressive. I follow a tunnel-like corridor that leads to the deeper, man-made section of the church. It’s a functional church and there are shrines all around, including a relic of Saint Paul, a beautiful ceramic relief of St Gellért, a painting of a Polish monk who died to protect a prisoner in Auschwitz, and intricate Transylvanian wood carvings. The place is cool and peaceful, calling for quiet reflection.

It’s a reminder of how, in Budapest, some of the best experiences are down under.

Joanna Lobo is a Goa-based journalist.

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