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Budapest might be renowned for its ruin pubs and thermal baths, but the surrounding Buda Hills are home to something unexpected: the world’s longest children’s railway. Explore the Gyermekvasút to discover a piece of living history, along with some of Budapest’s best hiking trails.
Upon arrival at the Children’s Railway (Gyermekvasút) in Budapest, it can feel peculiar to see kids, aged 10-14, sporting the typical navy train company uniforms – and, more to the point, running a functioning railway. Bar actually driving the trains, the young employees take on all the job roles you’d find on any ‘normal’ train service: pointsmen, record keepers, announcers, traffic managers, cashiers, ticket inspectors and managing the train’s handbrake.
The building of the Budapest Children’s Railway began in 1948, when Hungary was ruled by a Soviet-allied government, and was inspired by the ‘Pioneer trains’ in the Soviet Union. A key goal of this project was, and still is, to involve children in the transport industry and inspire them to take up related professions later in life. The current version of the route was finalised in 1950, stretching 11.7km (7.2 miles) through the most scenic part of the Buda Hills, which lie to the west of the city. Since 2015, the Children’s Railway has been recognised as the world’s longest children’s railway by the Guinness Book of Records.
High-achieving school pupils can apply for the programme when they are in Grades 4-6 (ages 10-12). According to Viktor Váczi, the railway’s press director, excellent academic performance is essential because “the kids have to undertake shifts on weekdays as well, so the railway company has to make sure they are hardworking enough to make up for those lessons that they occasionally miss.”
The training begins with a four-month course, followed by an exam. After passing it, the kids can begin working. They are scheduled to try every position available and can be part of the programme until they finish elementary school at age 14-15. The young railway workers are scheduled to do shifts every 15-17 days, but work more often during winter and summer breaks as these are their busiest seasons. During this time, they may actually stay overnight in a student dorm at one of the stations.
The Children’s Railway programme is much more than just an after-school activity. Since participants spend a great deal of time there, the community spirit is strong and the railway becomes an important part of participants’ identity. Dani (aged 12), who works as a traffic manager, tells Culture Trip that, “The regular team buildings, the summer camps and the friendships make working there a truly memorable experience.”
Originally devised as a way of training young people for future work developing Hungary’s railways, the Gyermekvasút (then known as the Pioneer Railway) and the wider Young Pioneer movement also functioned as a practical ideological tool, helping to instil the values of the regime in children. Although Hungary’s Communist period is often demonised – as demonstrated by Budapest’s House of Terror Museum, and often with good reason – many former young ‘pioneers’ look back fondly on this particular aspect of their youth; today, though the regime has changed, being a part of the Children’s Railway is a sought-after activity and rare in that it offers the chance to connect with children from other schools.
Though the staff are different, the trains remain as they were during the Communist period, and the stations are maintained in their original style – meaning you get to enjoy time travel for the price of a train ticket. It wasn’t until after the end of the Communist regime that the railway began seeking to attract domestic tourists (as opposed to local residents needing to get from one place to another); the Pioneer Railway has stood since then as a memento of the Communist era, and a piece of living nostalgia.
As Váczi tells Culture Trip, “The best way to discover the treasures of Budapest’s woody outskirts is to begin with a ride on the train.” The railway route offers easy access to almost all the main attractions in the Buda Hills, including a plethora of hiking trails. Though the journey from one terminus to the other takes 45-50 minutes, buying a day pass affords the ability to hop on and off the train at your leisure.
To make the most of your time in the Buda Hills, follow this itinerary:
You probably want to start your trip at Hűvösvölgy, the northern terminus of the railway. This stop is easy to get to via tram 56, 56A or 61 from Széll Kálmán Square, one of the main junctions in Budapest. As a warm-up, you can visit the Children’s Railway Museum there and have a drink or a snack at the traditional station bistro, known as a ‘resti’. Bear in mind that you can only pay with cash (in HUF) at the station.
Stop 1: János Hill Or Virágvölgy
You need only walk a short way through the forest from the Jánoshegy or Virágvölgy station (Virágvölgy is a better choice with young children or with a pram) to reach one of the most popular spots in the Buda Hills: the Elizabeth Lookout Tower. This is Budapest’s highest point and, if the weather is in your favour, you will even be able to see the Tatra Mountains in Slovakia. The view is breathtaking (and not only because it takes a while to get up there!). Once you have finished gazing into seemingly the infinite forest, take a ride on the Zugliget Chairlift for a bird’s-eye view of the city.
Stop 2: Normafa
After hiking on János Hill, you will probably be pretty hungry. Normafa makes the perfect next stop – here you can try several traditional Hungarian street food dishes, such as lángos (deep-fried dough with garlic, sour cream and cheese) and various types of strudel. Moreover, the huge Normafa Park offers a moment of respite, making you feel far away from the hectic energy of the big city.
Stop 3: Széchenyi Hill
To end your trip with more stunning panoramas, finish the day at Széchenyi Hill. This hill stands 427 metres (1,400ft) tall, allowing you to take one last look at the city in all its glory. The Budapest Cog-wheel Railway, also known as tram number 60, will take you back into town to Városmajor, close to the Széll Kálmán tér metro station.