If I was to describe Budapest in two words, I’d say Charming and Fun. The Emma Stone of Europe. Previously unknown me, the famous Danube River separates the two cities of Buda and Pest which subsequently became the Budapest we know today (when they unified in the late 1800’s). Buda being the hilly Western side and Pest, the flat and much larger Eastern side. The cherry on the cake about this city is it’s geographic location in Eastern Europe, meaning things are much cheaper when you use Hungarian Forints. Here are some recommendations on how to spend them:
1. Ruin Bars – Effectively, these are bars housed in formerly abandoned buildings so it’s only natural that there’s an eclectic mix of various pieces of mismatching furniture and abstract art. Some feel like normal bars whereas others feel like you’re at the private party of an artsy billionaire. My favourites were Instant (pictured below) and Szimpla (the oldest Ruin Pub in town) where you could easily spend a couple of hours drinking and hopping around to various areas of the bar, all with a different feel. I also wanted to check out Corvintető, located on top of a department store with a killer view of the city, but ran out of time.
2. Relax in a Bath House – It is said that Budapest’s thermal waters are filled with healing properties so if it’s good for you, why not take advantage of the city’s numerous thermal baths. Your unmissable stop here is one of Europe’s largest public baths, the famous Széchenyi Baths, located in City Park, equipped with steam baths, saunas and a massive 18 pools, of which 15 are spring-fed thermal pools. Two final points: To get to the baths, you can travel on the Millennium metro line, the second oldest underground railway in the world and if you enjoyed relaxing in a spa, keep an eye out for Spa-rties as there are quite a few baths which hold nights where playing music and drinking are a fun addition to the pools.
3. Boat cruise on the Danube River – Being on the water is one way to see a city from a different perspective with minimal effort. Just jump on board and see major sites like the intricately designed Hungarian Parliament Building and the Chain Bridge, the first bridge to connect Buda and Pest (pictured below). Given that the Danube separates Buda and Pest, you can see both sides of the city from the one vantage point. If you prefer something a little faster pace, go at night and pick a company that serves alcohol.
4. Conquer a hill – with a spectacular view of Pest and a fairly easy walk to the top, this is a perfect way to get some holiday exercise while taking in the sights of the city. Start by walking across the Chain Bridge then make your way to the top of Castle Hill. Once you get there, you’ll have access to other places of interest including the Royal Palace, Fisherman’s Bastion (pictured below) and the National Gallery. If you’re not as energetic, you can take the funicular or the bus to the top. If you’re looking for something more energetic, climbing Gellert Hill is your best alternative. I didn’t get the time to conquer Gellert Hill but from what I hear, the longer, harder walk is well worth it when you see the view.
5. Feel cultured and classy at the Hungarian State Opera House – With some of the best acoustics in the world, the architecturally impressive building houses some world class Opera and Ballet. I managed to see a great performance of The Nutcracker, nearly as good as the version I saw at Julliard, for a fraction of the cost. There are incredibly cheap seats available too if budget is a concern for you.
Book Café – Head to the first floor of the Alexandra Bookstore and you’ll find a café in the jaw dropping grand ballroom of Lotz Hall.
Saint Stephen’s Basilica – The church where interestingly, the mummified Holy Right Hand of the patron Saint and founder of Hungary, King Saint Stephen is on display
Be adventurous with Hungarian cuisine:
- Food – paprika and stews are commonly associated with local fare but the Goulash will knock your socks off
- Venues – After searching for the best goulash in the city, Kiado Kocsma had the tastiest one I could find. I went back multiple times to check for consistency and it passed with flying colours. Mazel Tov in the Jewish Quarter and Zeller Bistro were also great dining experiences. Both had great ambiance and delicious food.
- Dessert – Dobos Cake, basically a sponge cake layered with chocolate and glazed with caramel and nuts
- Alcohol – palinka (traditional fruit brandy) and unicum (herbal liqeur made with more than 40 herbs)
House of Terror – very sobering tribute to victims of the atrocities Hungarian Jews experienced through two dictatorial regimes. Word of Warning, it’s not for the faint of heart and may take an emotional toll on you
Invisible Exhibition – didn’t have time to do this but I loved the idea – a glimpse into life as a blind person where you’re taken through some common situations without having the luxury of your eyesight. Friends recommended getting the English speaking guide, who is also blind and requires a pre booking.
Caving – I’ve done this in New Zealand and Australia before so didn’t prioritize this activity but people who did it in Budapest seemed to love it. From what I hear, there’s a stunning crystal cave under Gellert Hill.
Escape Room – one of the funnest ones I’ve done and definitely the cheapest. Just remember to book!
If you’re going in Winter, have a go ice skating on Europe’s largest outdoor skating rink at City Park. I also highly recommend getting in the festive spirit at the Christmas Markets. Make sure you try the chimney cakes and have some mulled wine!