Thousands of people line the banks of the River Danube, the keenest have been there for hours. Standing on the Pest side you wonder how many people exactly have turned out in the drizzly cold and try to judge by the faces staring back at you from Buda. You realise they’re probably doing exactly the same looking over at the merging crowd you’re now a part of.
The trams have stopped running along the river route and instead the tracks are filled with people. Some knock back the wine from bottles, others play with the light up toys bought from the tens of have-a-go vendors in the vicinity while the rest get stuck into the huge pretzel and sweet delights sold along the route.
This is the way it goes at the St Stephens Day Fireworks in Budapest every August 20th. Our Stephen was the first king who founded the state of Hungary.
The St Stephens Day festivities go on for two days with processions (to follow St Stephen’s mummified hand through the city (!)), markets, a high mass, concerts and dedicated exhibitions. They even had a cake competition to decide the official cake recipe for the year, and this year crowned a honey-walnut-rosehip creation the ice cream of 2014.
But now’s the time for the finale, the St Stephens Day Fireworks.
And doesn’t this lady look happy about it…
9pm, time for the fireworks
As regular as the number 6 tram, the 9pm fireworks are an institution during the St Stephens Day celebrations. I’d say a high percentage of Budapest’s two million residents piled out to see them, as well as thousands of tourists. There were people as far as the eye could see – at least two miles.
I wanted to find the best place to stand to see the fireworks so made my way up to the Elizabeth Bridge, only to find it about six people thick. The bridge is so sleek and lit up I decided I’d rather have it in my photos than take them from there.
I walked down and wandered along the Pest bank eyeing up potential perfect spots. It was 8:30pm and the banks were filling up. The likes of Lily Allen and Coldplay were pumping out the huge temporary sound system and chatter, wayward kids and snogging couples surrounded me as I made my way to outside the Marriott Hotel and opposite the Royal Palace.
I spotted some kids jumping up to the currently unused tram tracks. I clocked that this was where I could get the highest, most uninterrupted view with a stunning backdrop too.
Dead on 9pm the first fireworks went up, perfectly in time to the music. Obligatory oos and ahs surrounded me, warming to know that happens in other countries too. Everyone was stood with their faces to the sky, their skin changing colour as the fireworks did.
There were five sets of fireworks, every one bigger than the last and each set intercepted by a dramatic Hungarian voice who I assume was telling the story of St Stephen. These fireworks did things I’ve never seen fireworks do before, and for a full 30 minutes. There were three sets from where I could see, all combusting up the river in harmony.
Here’s a little video I took that will explain better than my words ever could, keep watching for the excitable camera work…
5 ways to get the best view
1. The view from the Elizabeth Bridge would have been good. You could see all the way down the river and take in the three firework displays together, where I was you could only really see two. The Chain Bridge would’ve been good too as you’d be right in the middle, although I wouldn’t know which way to look.
2. A lot of the stationery boats on the River Danube offer some sort of meal deal for the fireworks. They didn’t look very busy, I assume that’s because they were so expensive you could only really afford it if you were a tourist. I’d say they were a good shout for the view though.
3. I really enjoyed where I was stood – in among the people on the Pest side outside The Marriott. The fireworks reflected off the windows and it made a really cool effect. It was exciting and I liked seeing the different reactions from everyone around me. It was also nice and warm surrounded by excited locals.
4. The first time I stayed at the Intercontinental – I had to go away and come back – I had an incredible view from my room. It looked out over the Danube and had a huge window you could sit on the window seat and look out. Unfortunately they wanted to charge me an extra €100 per night on top of the IHG Reward Points I’d already used to have a river view for the fireworks. If you’ve got the cash though I’d say this was a great option – when I came back I saw lots of buffet trays outside the river facing rooms. They’d obviously ordered a feast and watched from their Intercontinental hotel room.
5. The final option that I saw was to join one of the gala meal deals at one of the restaurants along the riverfront. Not sure about this one. You’d be sat under an awning which would restrict your view, you’d have to sit down to watch, it was expensive and there would always be someone in front of you. But if you’d rather sit down and admire the view with a glass of Champers, this would definitely be the option for you.