Hip. Vibrant. Romantic. Budapest is truly an European gem with so much to offer. Picturesque boulevards, great food, plenty of bars, thermal baths, fantastic architecture and a rich history make the underrated capital of Hungary the perfect vacation destination. Whether spending 3 days or 2 weeks, there are plenty of places to see and things to do, for every traveler and every budget.
Over a century ago the Astro-Hungarian empire with its two capitals (Vienna and Budapest) was the largest political entity in Europe. Having visited Vienna before, my impression is that Vienna feels more grandiose because everywhere you look there is a majestic palace. In Budapest, one can still feel the remnants of its turbulent past. It is a city where we can appreciate the beautiful decay of the architecture and admire the resilience of a nation determined in making their country shine again.
Although we spent 4.5 days in the city, we bought the 7-day pass for public transportation because it was still cheaper than buying ‘as-you-go’ tickets. There is an office conveniently located at the airport where tickets can be bought. Also the staff was friendly and spoke good English. They oriented us about the different options and difference in price. The 7-day pass included a boat ride in the Danube (not valid on weekends).
Public transportation was perfect. We did not have to take a taxi at any time. The trams run on-time and the trains, although you can see they’ve been used for a long time, were clean and reliable.
Where to Stay
The city is divided by the Danube river, with sleepy Buda on the West. This is where Castle District is, with the Liberation Monument and Fishermen’s Bastion. Although is very pretty during the day, it is dull and quiet at night. We stayed in Pest, at the East of the Danube.This is the vibrant part of the city and where visitors spend most of the time. Pest is surrounded by cafes, restaurants and ruin pubs. Is as alive during the night as it is during the day. Staying in Pest is the best option to truly experience the city.
We stayed at this Airbnb studio, located in the heart of the city. Location was perfect, as it was close to public transportation and eateries. Maria, the owner, was very friendly and welcoming. Provided us with tips of the city and plenty of maps to get around.
Soak in the thermal waters
This is the #1 thing to do. Going to Budapest and not experiencing the thermal baths is like going to Disney and not seeing Mickey Mouse or going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. There are many baths to choose from, and quite frankly with more time, I would have probably visited all of them.
We chose Széchenyi Baths because they were recommended to us by some locals. When Googling “Budapest baths” one probably get pictures of yellow buildings with a series of pools, those are Széchenyi. A visit to the baths provide not only an opportunity to relax, it is also a culturally elucidating experience because the thermal baths have been part of the city’s history since Roman times. To make more bang for your bucks, I recommend spending at least 4 hours. We booked a 1-hour Thai massage upon arrival. Then proceeded to put on our swimsuits and splash in the several pools. We also got into the sauna and (very) hot-water pools where we spent over an hour talking with a nice Greek couple about the financial crises in Puerto Rico and Greece.
A stroll along the Danube (and take a boat)
A nice way to get to know the city is walking along the Danube promenade. It offers fantastic views of the Parliament, the Chain Bridge and even Castle Hill. Taking a boat at sunset (included with the 7-day pass) provides the opportunity to stretch the legs and see the city from a different perspective.
One of the things we wanted to see along the promenade was the “Shoes on the Danube Bank”. Located on the Pest side of the river, not too far from the Parliament, we found this commemoration site to the victims of the Holocaust. It comprises 60 pairs of metal shoes, a reminder of the victims that were thrown in the waters of the river. It is heartbreaking to see the shoes, knowing that in order to save bullets, sometimes several people were tied together, but only one was shot, taking with him/her the rest, alive, who then drown in the freezing waters.
Check out House of Terror
The House of Terror is a must-see. Now a museum, the building is the former headquarters of the communist secret police: the Fascist Arrow Cross Party. The regime that ruled Hungary during the 20th century. The exhibitions feature a soviet tank and propaganda, telling the story of Hungary during two different, but similar governments: The Nazis and the Soviets. No pictures allowed. Allocate 3 hours.
Visit the Great Market Hall (and buy some paprika)
The Great Market Hall was built in 1897 and is now the oldest and largest indoor market in Budapest. The ground floor is packed with vendors selling everything, from vegetables, meat, fresh fruit to Hungarian specialities, including paprika and ‘szalámi’ (spicy sausage). Souvenirs and traditional food like ‘lángos’ and goulash are found one floor above. Allocate 1-2 hours.
Go to Castle Hill and tour the Fisherman’s Bastion
For postcard-like views of the city, plan to begin or end the day atop Buda’s proud Castle Hill. There are several ways to get there: by funicular, by bus or by foot. Depending on your physical shape and budget (funicular is more expensive), you can either take the funicular up and walk down, or take the bus and funicular down or simply walk. The funicular might be fun not only because it offers marvelous vistas, but also because it is the second oldest funicular of its kind in the world (inaugurated in 1870). However, we did not take it because the line was too long, so we took the bus instead.
Don’t let the architecture of Fisherman’s Bastion fool you. It might look medieval, but it was actually built in the early 20th century in neo-Gothic style. The seven towers of the Bastion represent the seven Magyar tribes that helped to settle the Magyar people in the Carpathian Basin. 2-3 hours
Experience a Ruin Pub
For a unique bar experience, we had to visit a ruin pub. Several of them are found on the Jewish Quarter. These ruin pub scene started in 2001, when abandoned houses that were left empty after World War II were transformed in hipster bars where locals go for a drink and watch a soccer game. The buildings still look abandoned from the outside, but once inside they are filled with a vibrant atmosphere, loud music and smoke. We recommend Szimpla Kert, the first ruin pub. It has several bars, including a quirky and creepy shisha lounge, filled with stuff toys and dolls.
Splurge on a Michelin Star restaurant
Since this was our 10th wedding anniversary getaway, we decided to have a fancy dinner at Michelin Star restaurant Onyx. This was the second restaurant in Hungary to receive a Michelin star. Now there are over 4 of them.
Glamorous chandeliers, shiny mirrors and elegant employees made our visit an unforgettable culinary experience. The menu was paired with excellent selection of local wines. The sommelier came each time to pour a glass and tell us a story of the region and wine producer. From water-buffalo tartar to goose liver to rooster soup and a delicious sponge cake, the food kept coming, almost non-stop! We even had a pre-dessert before the actual dessert arrived. Reservations required (we booked our table 1 month in advance).
Enjoy the city’s street food
Of course one does not need to splurge to have an authentic culinary experience in Budapest. There are plenty of budget-friendly dining options. Next to Szimpla Kert, is for example Karavan Street Food, a place with several food trucks offering local street food. Lángos, pizza, microbrews and gelato competed for our attention.
Savor the coffee culture
Like Vienna, Budapest has a fascination for coffee culture. Plenty of coffee shops abound. We enjoyed the Nutella and Oreo cinnamon rolls from The Bite cafe, opposite the Nyugati railway station (Nyugati square-Jókai street corner).
There is also the opulent (and overpriced) New York Cafe. With fancy decor, this cafe is part of Budapest’s literary history. The most influential news paper was edited there and the cafe was frequented by famous writers and editors. The building was abandoned after the WWII, but it was restored to its original splendor in 2006. I would not recommend to eat here because the food was overpriced and not good. But it is nice to have a cup of coffee and a pastry to experience the atmosphere.
Be playful with the (many) statues encountered throughout the city
I was impressed to see how many statues are found throughout the city. Almost at every corner there is one telling a unique history. Take a moment to appreciate them, read about the artist and get to know a bit more about their story. Here are some of my favorites.
Bonus: Where to eat
People don’t probably travel to Budapest to eat burgers, but this place is really worth it. The burgers are tasty and juicy, but the best part is the service. We felt welcome from the minute we entered the door. When we were ready to check out, the guy told us, “please don’t leave, I have a surprise for you but it’s going to take 5 minutes”. He brought us a delicious chocolate molten cake topped with vanilla ice-cream. It was Alexis birthday and our anniversary the day before, but he did not know that. He made us feel special. Oh, the little things.
Popular among locals, this is a great spot to have brunch on weekends. Cheap, great food and good coffee. It is always packed so be ready to wait in line. I recommend the Turkish eggs.
Across from Cirkusz, there is a Jewish bakery or “Cukrászda” where you can have a coffee and Kosher pastry while waiting for a table.