This is a repost to a blog that was originally published on May 30, 2018. We recently visited this remarkable city again and experienced things we missed the first time. We hope you enjoy our updated version of the Best of Budapest with a couple of extra things to do and one to avoid!
Regular readers of this blog might remember that we spent the month of February, 2018 working a gin bar, serving breakfast and performing other duties at a quaint boutique hotel called The Thatched Cottage in the New Forest in southern England. (If you missed it you can find that blog post here!) Near the end of our stay, while working the gin bar one evening, we met a couple that was living in London, but was from Budapest. While Betsy served their gin and tonics, they struck up a conversation. They were very interested in what we were doing and when we mentioned that the Hungarian capital was on our wish list, they wrote out four pages of recommendations for us! When Betsy finished her shift, they spent an hour talking about the city and some of their favorite sites. They were so excited about us going to visit their home country and their enthusiasm was infectious. We already wanted to go to Budapest but they really lit a fire under us. Thanks Bea and Imi! The things you can learn while you are on the road!
Our list from The Thatched Cottage, the inspiration for this visit!
Fast-forward to the end of April and we found ourselves with a week between our commitments in Poland and our preparations for Small Group Trips in Tuscany. So off to Budapest we went! We absolutely loved it and here are some of our favorite things about this historic city…..with great thanks to our new friends who were instrumental in creating this list!
The Buda side of the Danube taken from the Citadel
1. Free Walking Tours – One of the ways we like to get to know a city is by taking walking tours. Budapest has a wonderful group of tours led by local guides who do a great job of showing you around the city. We did the The Original Walk and The Communism Walk. Both of the guides were very knowledgeable and fun. They were both certified guides, and had been with the company for at least a couple of years. Since they work for tips, they are motivated to give outstanding service every time, and they do!
2. Fisherman’s Bastion/Mathias Church – Budapest is divided by the beautiful Danube River, and the skyline on both sides is absolutely spectacular. The east bank is the Pest side and dominated by the beautiful Parliament Building. Across the river on the Buda side, sitting on a hill, is the wonderful Mathias Church perched over the Fisherman’s Bastian. It always seems to be crowded but the views of the city, the river, and the bridges are unmatched. On our second visit to the city we finally made it inside Mathias Church and it is as beautiful inside as out. We were also fortunate to hear a rehearsal of a chorus and orchestra that was scheduled to perform the next evening. The entrance fee of about $3 is well worth it!
3. Night time cruise on the Danube – One of the best ways to see the beautiful skyline of this dynamic city is from a boat, and after dark it is lit up like no other. While we were there we heard that Budapest is the second most lighted city at night in Europe after Paris. I believe it! There are many boat operators offering all kinds of options including full dinners, wine and drinks, or parties. We settled on a no-frills trip for $10 each with Portum Lines. Our experience included a welcome drink as we boarded, kinda cheesy music, no audio guide, and cheap patio chairs; but we saw the same skyline people were seeing from boats where they paid a lot more. I’d do it again!
Of course if you take a Viking Cruise that takes you through Budapest, like we did on our second visit, you can enjoy the lights of the city from the comfort of the Sun Deck, Observation Lounge, or Aquavit Terrace. Remember, Betsy is a Master Viking River Cruise Expert and can help you in booking Viking River and Ocean Cruises.
4. Great Synagogue – Before WWII, Budapest had a very strong, progressive Jewish population and the Great Synagogue is a reminder of how important that community was. The building has more of a cathedral feel to it complete with pipe organ and pulpit. It is a beautiful building but a cemetery and courtyard sculpture reminder us how much the Jews suffered during and after WWII.
5. Museum of Terror – This museum, with its striking architecture, is a memorial to the plight of Budapest, Hungary, and other countries behind the iron curtain, during the communist occupation. Like some of the sights in Berlin, this is not a joyful place to visit, but as George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The fact that many of these atrocities happened during our lifetime makes it all the more chilling.
6. MÜPA – This is a wonderful concert hall. It is home to the Budapest Festival Orchestra and an amazing array of events. The calendar is filled with multiple programs daily, from free concerts in the foyer during the day, to pre concert lectures, as well as dance, theatrical, and musical presentations all year long. It is quite amazing. And tickets are cheap! We heard the Festival Orchestra play Bruckner’s 8th Symphony. We had great seats in the balcony and our tickets were about $25!
7. Ruin Pubs – This is a concept that started in Budapest and is beginning to catch on in some other European cities, where some enterprising people take possession of an abandoned building and with very little renovation, open a drinking establishment. We visited the original, Szimpla Kert, and had a blast! The complex features many rooms over a couple of floors. Each room seems to be run by a different group. Wandering around the space you can find a wine bar, live music, silent movies projected onto a wall, craft beer, and art everywhere. There is also food offered at a couple of places but a better bet is the Food Truck Park down the block. We showed up at around 8:00 and walked right in. By the time we left around 10:30 there was a line halfway down the street! Incidentally, Szimpla runs a farmers’ market on Sundays where you can see the space in daylight.
If you want to experience the ruin pub concept in a less gritty atmosphere check out Mazel Tov. The menu focuses on middle eastern Jewish fare with nice cocktails and wine and we thought our meal was fantastic! It is all served in a stylishly decorated building that was abandoned for so long there is actually a tree growing through the roof in the bar area! The night we were there a jazz combo provided live entertainment.
8. The Baths – Another hallmark of life in Budapest are the numerous bathhouses scattered around the city. You may remember our visit to Nordic Spa in Quebec, Canada and the Turkish Spa in Copenhagen from previous blogs, but we’ve never experienced anything quite like this. Our first visit was to the Szechenyi Baths, one of the biggest in the city. It was quite the party atmosphere with three large outside pools of various temperatures and smaller pools, steam rooms and saunas inside. Outside you could see people swimming laps or playing chess, but mostly just socializing and enjoying the water. You can also schedule a massage and other body treatments including a thermal beer spa. Crazy! There is food and beer available and the place is massive.
For a different take, we visited Lukacs Baths. It was much smaller, but very nice if not a little past it’s prime. And where at Szechenyi we were some of the more “mature” visitors, at Lukacs we felt like we were the young guns!
One of the lovely pools at Gellert Baths
We enjoyed the baths so much that on our second visit we experienced two more. Parts of the Rudas Baths date back to the 1500s! This is one of the more popular baths in Budapest and the complex sprawls over three floors. Make sure to find the old Turkish Bath in the basement. It is a little hard to get to as you need to walk through a restaurant to find it but It’s worth it!
On our last day in town before boarding the Viking Idun we went to the Gellert Baths. Perhaps the most elegant of the baths we visited, this place is absolutely beautiful! There is a large out-door area that we didn’t get to enjoy as it was cold and rainy the day we visited. The mosaics on the walls of the older sections are gorgeous. It all felt quite refined.
The interior of St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest
9. St. Stephen’s Basilica – This is one of the most beautiful buildings in Budapest, it is also one of the busiest attractions. In spite of its classical architecture, it was only completed in 1906. The church houses many concerts throughout the year as well as St. Stephen’s mummified hand. It is possible to climb up to the cupola for 360° views of the city. It’s unbelievable to think of the square in front of the basilica as a parking lot during the communist occupation. On our second visit to the city we toured the inside of the church and climbed the tower for some beautiful views of the city.
10. Great Market Hall – You know we’re going to talk about food. We love to go to markets and Budapest’s Market Hall is a great one. Covering three floors, it is enormous. In the basement you find fish, pickled foods, and other smelly things. The main floor has all the other meat, produce, and packaged food vendors. It is the perfect spot to pick up Hungarian paprika to bring home. The top floor is filled with clothes, novelties, and most important, the food court. Several closely packed stalls sell traditional Hungarian dishes including goulash, fried sausages, stuffed cabbage, and lángos, a fried dough disk with various toppings. We had the traditional, garlic sauce, sour cream, and grated cheese….amazing!
Bonus Things to do in Budapest
The opulent House of Parliament in Budapest
11. Hungarian Parliament Building – One of the most impressive buildings in the spectacular Budapest skyline is the House of the National Assembly, commonly known as the Parliament Building. Construction of the massive structure began in 1885. The building is even more beautiful inside than out. The only way to see the interior is to book a tour, and they often sell out in high season. Book early. Tours are given in several languages so be sure you book appropriately. We are very glad we got to see the inside on our return visit to Budapest.
12. Food and Wine – The food here is awesome. The traditional foods are rich and hearty – rest assured you won’t go hungry in Budapest. Look for pork schnitzel bigger than the plate, chicken paprikash served with nokedli (spätzel), foie gras, sausage cones, and cucumber salad. Don’t forget the local liqueur, pálinka! We were also surprised with the high quality Hungarian wine. Both red and white varieties of grapes you’ve probably never heard of make for some very tasty wine selections. A few quick recommendations – Doblo, a great wine bar with very good charcuterie and cheese offerings, GoodSpirit Whiskey Bar for amazing cocktails (we made a point of going on both visits!), and Frici Papa for traditional Hungarian fare.
In the wine cellar at Vizi, our guide Eva describes the wine as the wine maker looks on
On our first visit to Budapest I had read about City & Wine, a company that did a wine tour to the Etyek region outside of town, but I was somewhat skeptical about the quality of what we would taste. On our second trip we decided to give it a try and I’m so glad we did! The wines were really quite good and the three wineries we visited, Anonym, Vizi, and Gradowski were all smaller, family run places, exactly the kind of spots we love to visit. We tasted four wines at each location, met the wine makers, and enjoyed an included dinner at our last stop. It really is one of the best wine tasting experiences we have ever had and for us that says a lot!
Where to Stay in Budapest
We have been able to travel across Europe the last nine months by a combination of WWOOF, WorkAway, and Trusted House Sitters, often for up to a month at a time, in exchange for room and board. Budapest was especially nice for us because on our first visit we moved into a great little Airbnb at a reasonable price where we were able to feel like a local for a week. We were the first people to rent this newly renovated apartment and we enjoyed having the space to ourselves. On our return we used booking.com and stayed in a really cool neighborhood close to many of our favorite restaurants and interesting sites. In work exchange situations, our hosts often determine our schedules. They have been very rewarding experiences, but it was nice to be on our own and spend time really exploring this dynamic city, all at our own pace.
Our cocktails at GoodSpirit Whiskey Bar
One thing to avoid
We had read several recommendations for Memento Park, a location outside of town where many of the massive Soviet Era statues and monuments were relocated after the fall of the Iron Curtain. We never made it on our first trip so we made a concerted effort on our return. While the statues are mildly interesting to see, we did not think it was worth the time and effort to get out there. Public transportation takes almost an hour each direction and we feel the park is not worth that kind of time investment. The park seems rather run down and unkempt. Plaques and descriptors are only in Hungarian. They do offer an English tour that may have made the visit more interesting, but they are offered only occasionally and did not fit into our schedule.
One of the more impressive statues at Memento Park
Our return to Budapest only strengthened our conviction that this is a destination that people should put on their bucket list. It has a very young, hip vibe while maintaining a sense of old school traditions lost in other big cities. It is also very rewarding to see how Budapest has recovered from the days of communist occupation and is creating a new identity for itself. It is also quite affordable compared to other European capitol cities. The city has so much to offer from so many historic prospectives and we highly recommend visiting Budapest for a rich cultural and unique experience.
Would you like to visit this absolutely amazing city or any other place in Europe? We can help with that! Remember that we are always available to you and your friends and family for custom trip planning to Italy, France, Ireland, England and all of Europe. We are experts in creating custom travel itineraries and leading small group trips to European destinations. Feel free to reach out via email — We’re always available to talk about travel!!
Greg Ball – Greg is co-founder and partner of Euro Travel Coach (ETC), which crafts custom European vacations for independent travelers and leads small group tours to Europe. In his previous life he taught Woodwinds and Jazz at the university level for 30 years. As a professor he took his bands to England, Ireland, Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, and England. Since “retiring” he and his wife/ETC co-founder Betsy travel Europe nine months out of the year. Together they have visited over 40 countries and counting! He loves cooking, hiking, listening and playing music, and wine and holds a Level 3 certification from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust.
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