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.