Updated: Feb 27, 2020
Centre of Europe, grand old dame of the Habsburg Empire, inventor of ‘goulash communism’ and now emerging in the 21st century as one of central/eastern Europe’s major weekend getaway destinations, Budapest is a city which demands your attention. A heady mixture of Vienna’s elegance and coffee-house culture and Berlin’s rough-edged, hip archness, Budapest packs a massive punch and leaves you dizzy with the sheer number of options available. One week is barely enough to really see all this city has to offer, never mind a long weekend – it is a city you will find yourself revisiting if you go only once. It is really two cities – Buda and Pest – separated by the wide Danube – and only officially became one towards the end of the 19th century.
Hilly Buda – calm and serene, full of elegant architecture such as the Castle and Fisherman’s Bastion, looks down onto flat Pest, where business, commerce, culture and a thriving nightlife scene co-exist along with a slightly seedy sex trade, giving the city a remarkable multi-faceted nature; it really does seem to have something to offer everyone from culture buffs and fans of architecture to beer-guzzling hedonists and all-night ravers. And, unlike say Prague, don’t expect to be surrounded by groups of drunk Englishmen; Budapest has remained (relatively) stag-resistant so far…
Best of Pest...
The sheer number of things to do in Budapest can leave the first-time traveler here bewildered, and because of the size of the city, there is a danger of trying to cram too much in, without leaving time to relax. Probably the first port of call on arrival is the waterfront – a stroll along the Danube gives great views up to Buda, the bridges (especially the Chain Bridge) and Parliament Building. The latter, a massive gothic-style construction from the turn of the century, dominates the skyline and impresses from virtually every angle. A visit is a good idea – free to EU citizens or €12 for non EU citizens, the tour is short but informative, and allows you into the inner sanctum of Hungarian law-making. The building contains 691 rooms, but you see just a few – the Lower House (where the National assembly meets) – being the most impressive. Other buildings on the Pest side of the river not to be missed are the Saint Stephen’s Basilica – a massive neo-renaissance edifice – and the Great Synagogue – the largest of its kind in Europe and second-largest in the world. For a bit of background on the country’s complex history, a visit to the Hungarian National Museum is in order. The museum (founded 1802) contains over one million art objects and is housed in a handsome neo-classical building constructed in 1846. Although it could be a bit more interactive and lacks information in English, the number of exhibits is impressive.
Cross the Danube via the Chain Bridge (Szechenyi) and head up to Citadella via Gellert bathhouse – another impressive 19th century construction – for the best views of Budapest. Check out the little Gellert Hill Cave church on the way, which contains an underground church. Buda Castle and the Fisherman’s Bastion, both on the Buda side, a little further north, should both be seen – the latter particularly at night, when the orange lighting give the place a shimmering hue and make photography excellent. Stroll back down the hill and, in the summer, escape the heat and noise on Margaret Island, situated in the middle of the Danube, where you can relax in one of the many shady parks and have a beer or three. There is a very impressive fountain show here during the summer months; between April and September, on the hour from 10am to 10pm, the fountain dances, spraying water up high in sync with various musical accompaniment. After nightfall, a special light-show also takes place, making it even more impressive. Fun for all the family.
Dipping into Budapest's Baths
If you come to Budapest and fail to soak it all up in one of its many bath houses, shame on you; it really should be number one on your list of things to do here. The afore-mentioned Gellert Baths are the oldest and possibly most elegant from outside, but lack atmosphere inside, and are popular mainly with older people who go there for health reasons. Hands-down the best baths in Budapest however is Szechenyi, in the east side of Pest near the zoo. With 15 different pools to lounge around in, ranging from freezing to steaming hot, it is not only the largest bath house in the capital, but also one of the largest in Europe. Watch chess players immersed to the neck in the thermal waters, admire the neo-baroque architecture or make new friends – this is one of the most sociable baths you’ll ever visit. Have a wash and scrub-down, swim, sauna or even go to the gym. Your €12 entry fee is a bargain for a day of luxury, and you’ll leave feeling wonderfully relaxed.
Nearby is the city zoo with its distinctive Elephant House, and the stately pile which is Vajdahunyad Castle – and you can walk back to the centre via Andrassy Utca – one of the most beautiful thoroughfares in the capital. For a slightly off-beat museum experience, head out to the suburbs by bus 150 to Memento Park – a unique totalitarian theme park, which houses monuments and statues to communist icons like Lenin, Stalin, Marx and Engels, along with Hungarian leaders of the era like Bela Kun and Endre Sagvari . A good time to visit is dusk, when the statues cast a slightly forlorn, eerie shadow.
Whilst on the theme of Communism, you should check out the Terror Museum; a building which, for several decades, was the most dreaded of locations – the HQ of the political police. It actually covers two periods - the Nazi and the Soviet - but mainly the latter. Visit secret torture cells (with instruments) and see footage of survivors from this grim period. Audio-guides available. If you want to explore more of Buda, why not head up into the hills via the Cog Railway, which winds uphill 14km, before changing trains onto a narrow-gauge Children’s Railway – a living reminder of Communism’s wacky side, when even under-16’s got to be in charge – this is a railway run entirely by kids, including station masters and ticket inspectors!
Take a chair-lift from the highest point on the route – Janos-Hegy (527m) for a bird’s-eye view of the hills. If you still have time to spare, head to the Danube Bend for sweeping views of the river. Just over an hour’s bus journey from Ujpest in north Budapest, a visit to Szentendre, Esztergom, Vac or Visegrad – which houses a mighty castle looking down from a hill to the Danube – is a nice day-trip getaway, especially in summer. The 'bend' in fact refers to a 50km stretch of river which flows from the Slovak border through some stunning hilly countryside, and is so called because the Danube dramatically changes direction here and takes a 90 degree turn to the south. In fact, you could easily spend a few days getting to know this peaceful region, and there's a bike path running from central Budapest all the way to Esztergom on the Slovakian border, which at 90km makes a nice couple of days' cycling for most people, including plenty of time to stop off and look around at each of the sites mentioned above.
Events and Experiences
If you are not tired of the baths, head for the 'Sparty' at Szechenyi Baths (formerly Cinetrip Water Circus) – a unique club night which takes place once a week on Saturdays. It’s steeply priced – €50 for the most basic to €75 for a premium ticket – but a night of techno music with jugglers, air acrobats and belly dancers surrounded by beautiful people in swimsuits is not an experience you get every day, and it has rapidly been gaining fame (and notoriety) across Europe – disco kids heading here from all over for nights of unadulterated fun. Budapest attracts some big music acts, and The Budapest Spring Festival, which takes place in 2019 between 5-22 April, heralds the arrival of Spring with a series of classical concerts, chamber music and even folk dancing, and features some 250 events in over 50 venues. For five days in August, Margit island plays host to one of Europe’s biggest music events, the Sziget Festival. In previous years, it has attracted artists of the calibre of Radiohead, Massive Attack and Gorillaz. This year, The National, Johnny Marr, Florence and the Machine and others headline. For motor sports fanatics, the Hungarian Formula 1 Grand Prix takes place in late July at the Hungaroring circuit, which usually attracts big crowds, big stars and plenty of action.
Hitting the Hay
The hostel scene in Budapest is very competitive, and as a result, the quality of service on offer is usually very good indeed – arguably the best value in any capital in Europe. For a dorm room on average, you pay €8-12 off season and €10-15 from June to September. Grand Backpackers, 250 m from Blaha Lujza Square and a 5-minute walking distance from the ruin pubs and restaurants of the Jewish Quarter, it has a friendly vibe, colourful decorations and super-helpful staff; also very good value. Another good option is The Loft – one of the best small hostels in Budapest, with exceptionally friendly staff who also take the time to help you find your way around the city. Coffee Home Hostel is a great, well-located place to go as a solo traveler – they don’t take bookings for groups of 4 or more – and they make an effort to show guests a good time in the evenings as well. All of the above hostels have the usual freebies like internet, tea, coffee, linen etc, as well as comfortable lounges and kitchens or common rooms. For something a little bit quieter, head to the top of the hill in Buda where Citadella lies – it affords you the best view in Budapest, and the Citadella Guesthouse features en-suite accommodation, a garden with barbecue facilities and a sun terrace. A shared fully-equipped kitchen and a common lounge are also available. En-suite doubles come in at about 25 per person. Peaceful and quiet, this is for couples or people who want to avoid the nightlife – it’s a long walk uphill after a night out in Pest! For a more boutique experience, head to Acquincum Hotel which is located in a prime area alongside the Danube on the Buda side of the city, facing Margaret Island. The hotel is surrounded by medieval streets, wine bars, restaurants and its own green park. There is also a fine restaurant which offers Hungarian and international cuisine, and a bar is also available. There are also thermal pools, a gym, sauna, wellness centre and a spa on site.
Budapest’s dining options are endless, and you will find yourself dropping into all sorts of tempting-looking places even when you aren’t hungry. Many places offer good lunchtime deals – one of which is Ring Burger Bar – a place for top quality burgers – avocado and prawn with gorgonzola being the most mouth-watering. Just down the road, at Diwan's Indian rooftop Kitchen, you can fill your face with inexpensive and delicious Indian fayre – lunch deals with soup, main course and naan bread cost €5 - and with great views to boot. For great Hungarian food in pleasant rustic surrounds, try Regős Vendéglő; the menu is extensive and you can sample great goulash here along with other Hungarian staples like spicy fish soup. A slightly more downmarket place which is nevertheless excellent is Eldorado, near Rakoczi ter. Metro station, this is as Hungarian as it gets. Try the hearty bean soup or stuffed pancake filled with veal – soup and main course with a beer will set you back less than €10. If you want to tingle your taste buds even more, try out one of the many Chinese restaurants around town – they usually represent good value and serve healthy portions. Momatoro Metelt, tiny but with great service and ambience, is hard to beat. There are a few new Thai options too, the best of which is arguably Buddha Express near Nyugati station. Food is cooked in front of you in pleasant surrounds, and the Thai curries are filling and delicious. Another place which combines the spiciness of Thai and Hungarian food, offering a mixed menu of both, is Parasz Presszo. So, if you fancy some Hungarian spicy soup followed by a Thai curry and a tempting pastry for dessert, this is the place to go. Ruben Etterem, near to the Jewish district and many of the hostels in Pest, gets rave reviews from backpackers for price and quality. The crispy duck with chilli sauce goes down a dream at about €6.
Get Ruined in the Kerts
The phenomenon of ‘rubble’ or ‘ruin’ bars in Budapest is beginning to gain fame around Europe and the world. Basically derelict buildings which have been artistically transformed by decorating them with old junk such as bathtubs, bicycles and household items, they are wonderfully atmospheric and interesting places to hang out. Probably the most well-known (and best) of these is Szimpla – massive and with hundreds of nooks and crannies to explore, it has a great summer garden and cinema screen for regular viewings, and displays local artists’ work. Kuplung, down the road, stages many exhibitions, concerts and events. Csendes and Szoda are equally wonderful places to go, either for a quiet drink during the week or wild night out at the weekend. Eleszto Craft Beer Bar is a relative newcomer in the heart of the Jewish district, appealing more to the more discerning hipsters. Housed in an ex-glass factory, the surrounds are suitably industrial. Decent food also available. Maybe the best late-opening place to go however is Instant – cavernous, friendly, with a great mix of people and general party vibe, it seems to be the default place to go for most people with a taste in music, and having recently changed location and teamed up with the also well-known and -loved Fogas haz, it seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance. For something more refined, go to either the Flying Bird Tea House – dreamy and relaxing - or Sirius Tea House – an Alice-In-Wonderland place with incredibly imaginative design such as ropes, ladders, bean-bags and wardrobes that lead to other rooms. Wonderful.
It couldn’t be much easier. Budapest is in the centre of Europe, and has great communications with most cities in Europe, and the world. The Hungarian budget airline Wizzair also operates from here. Train connections are excellent – there are three main train stations – and buses are also frequent, running at all times of day to numerous destinations. The new bus company Flixbus links Budapest to many major European cities also, at very competitive rates.
Sadly, the usually-excellent In Your Pocket: Budapest is now defunct, but there is a wealth of information about what’s on in Budapest online. The very good City Spy map series should be your first stop – www.cityspy.info - it shows plenty of cool bars, cafes, restaurants and other places of interest. www.funzine.hu/en – the website for Budapest Funzine - a bi-weekly magazine and website, is another excellent source of information about what’s on. A bit more official, but quite informative, is the Tourist office site – www.budapestinfo.hu . As usual, Lonely Planet’s Budapest guide is reliable and informative, especially on budget choices, and the Rough Guide also has a city guide for here. Rick Steve does a guide to the city also, which appears to be popular with American backpackers.
For some light reading, pick up Geza Csath’s The Magician’s Garden and Other Stories – disturbing stories written in the magical realist genre. The author was tormented by insanity and opium addiction, finally killing his wife and then himself in 1918. Dezso Kosztolanyi’s Skylark is a short, tragic story of an old couple and their beloved child by one of Hungary’s top writers of the 20th century. Imre Mora’s Budapest Then and Now gives the traveler a personal and very informative set of vignettes of the capital, past and present.
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Follow this link for more information on the F1 Grand Prix in Budapest and much other useful info.