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Budapest is a dream city. The great architecture, the long history, the numerous monuments and museums, and the Danube charm all justify the reason why Budapest is one of the best destinations in Europe.
We packed to visit Budapest with great anticipation. We were told that 3 days in Budapest would suffice. But there are so many things to do in Budapest that even a 2-week trip would hardly be enough to scratch the surface. We really wanted to get to know this fairytale city that can easily enchant you with its elegance. Although the still present Soviet austerity makes it a bit rough around the edges, it adds to its charm. And so, we walked till we dropped, smelled the fascinating aroma of paprika, and got back exhausted but also thrilled – and ready to give you the best Budapest travel guide.
Things to Know about Budapest
One of the best attractions in Budapest is the Danube River. It cuts the city in two and basically provides the boundaries of how the city used to be. Budapest was actually born when the old cities of Buda, Pest, and Obuda (old Buda) unified in 1873.
Buda occupies the west side of Danube right across from Pest, while Obuda is spread on the third district, where the ancient city of Aquincum laid.
The short version of the history of Budapest:
It all started when the Roman Empire transformed a Celtic settlement into the city of Aquincum. The tribe of Magyars (the Hungarians as we know them today) settled in the area in the 9th century. The Mongols raided the region in the 13th c. After a period of turmoil and Ottoman rule, the three cities merged to form Budapest that became the co-capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1867 to 1918. The culture, economics, and politics were highly influenced by the Soviets during the Soviet military occupation, which lasted through the cold war for about 45 years.
The influence of the Soviets is still present – you can feel it in the air. To this day, Pest is the most cultural part of the city, although many tourist attractions are found in Buda. Pest is also the political center of the city since it hosts the Parliament.
Some practical tips and things to know about Budapest include the following:
- Budapest is the capital of Hungary and a member of the European Union, but not a member of the Eurozone. The currency is the Hungarian Forint, abbreviated as Ft or HUF.
- There are money exchange booths all over the city. Some take NO commission. Avoid the local banks since they charge more than the booths. You’ll hardly find a place to accept euros, but most of them accept debit & credit cards. Just make sure you tell them to charge in Forint; otherwise, the cost will be higher for you.
- If you withdraw money from your bank account, pay attention before you push the buttons. The system asks you which currency you prefer. It’s easy to press “euros” by mistake and thus end up having less money in your pocket and nearly nowhere to use it. Make sure to check the currency rates. 1 euro=315 Ft – but there are fluctuations.
- Some people speak English, especially in some retail stores and restaurants. But most Hungarians don’t speak English and so, you need to practice your pantomime skills.
- The good news is that there are plenty of “tourist-info” kiosks scattered around Budapest, especially in the most tourist areas.
- There are 7 bridges joining Buda and Pest. They were all destroyed during WWII, but the lions that decorate the Chain Bridge remained intact.
- Budapest boasts of its large Jewish community. At the beginning of the 20th century, Budapest was also known as Judapest or Jewish Mecca. Today, it hosts the largest Jewish synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world.
- Are you a smoker? If so, you are in bad luck. Since 2012 smoking (this includes electric cigarettes too) is not allowed in any building. Although the Hungarians are heavy smokers, they obey the law to the letter. While walking the streets of Budapest, you will notice many people smoking outside shops, banks, restaurants etc. You will also see people smoking in the small balconies.
Just for the sake of historical interest:
Like most north European countries, Budapest’s buildings lack balconies. You will notice that most buildings have one or two balconies on the first floor. There’s a history behind that. When the buildings were constructed (a century and so ago), the owners asked for the structure of balconies for their homes on the first floor but not for the rest of the building that meant to be offered for rent.
If you are smoker and find a “smoking” room, don’t book before you ask. Not even Airbnb owners allow people to smoke indoors, but do allow e-cigarettes or point the direction to the balcony. If you are a smoker, prefer to travel when the weather is warm.
Where to Stay in Budapest
The accommodation choices in Budapest are plenty. You can book a hostel, Airbnb, or hotel room in Budapest within budget. It’s no wonder that Budapest is an excellent destination for all tourists – backpackers, families, or young couples – everyone. The local hotels are not very expensive unless you choose high-end ones on the Danube, while there are hostels to accommodate those on tight-budgets. Most people opt for Airbnb rooms since they are affordable, numerous, and most of them located in and around the center of Pest – where all the fun is.
Important tip: most buildings are very old dating back to the late 1800s. This simply means that many of them don’t have elevators. If you book an Airbnb room in Budapest and not keen (or able) on climbing stairs, ask if the building has an elevator.
Things to Do in Budapest
Just walking the streets of Budapest is enough to sense the history of the city and perhaps the best way to admire the unique architecture influenced by distinctive styles over several periods. Hard to miss the gothic architecture in the castle district and the neo-gothic style of the Hungarian Parliament building. If you pass through the Batthyhany square, admire the baroque architecture of the Church of St. Anna.
Budapest is also full of buildings in classical and neoclassical architecture, like the Hungarian National Museum, while the Great Synagogue in Dohany Street represents the romantic style. In short, nearly all buildings are old and bear the signature of a significant architectural style. What’s interesting is that the buildings are aligned and usually of the same height – facts that contribute to the high aesthetics – very pleasing to the eye.
Get to know Pest
Walk along the Danube or take the tram
One of the most romantic things to do in Budapest is to stroll by the river. There’s a large promenade, which hosts several cafes and restaurants too. If you stand on the side of Pest, you see Buda across the river and the castle. You can walk from the Elisabeth bridge to the Chain bridge and all the way to the Parliament, or take the tram (line 2).
Shoes on the Danube Bank
The shoes on the Danube bank is a monument erected in 2005 in honor of the 3,500 people (800 of them were Jews) who were shot into the river during the WWII by the Hungarian Arrow Cross militiamen – a fascist party. The idea was conceived by the Hungarian director Can Togay and the monument was created by the sculptor Gyula Pauer. There are 60 shoes made of iron – and some of them are black and look real – we (tourists) all wondered about that but nobody dared touched the shoes. Every year, tourists and relatives light candles and leave flowers. You might be wondering, why shoes? Because before they were shot, these people were told to take off their shoes – the most valuable of their possessions. It’s really moving.
Andrassy is the high-end street in Budapest. If you like to shop at Gucci, this is where you want to go. If you cannot afford expensive brands, that’s alright. This a tree-line, beautiful street worth walking and also where the Opera House and the House of Terror are located.
If you walk the Andrassy Avenue, you’ll end up at the Heroes’ Square – the largest in the city. The monument represents the thousandth anniversary of Hungary. If you are tired and don’t want to walk the 2,5km of Andrassy Avenue, get the tube. This is the millennium underground (M1) and the second oldest one in the world, after the London underground. If you stop at the Heroes’ square, you are also in proximity to the Museum of Fine Arts and a breath away from another local attraction, the City Park.
This is the largest park in Budapest and the first public park in the world. It’s beautiful and also hosts a replica of a Transylvanian castle surrounded by an artificial lake. Apart from admiring the statue of Anonymous, the park, and the castle, you can also visit the Museum of Transport and the Budapest Zoo.
The Hungarian Parliament Building
No words can describe the impressive building of the Hungarian Parliament. Just its size is enough to dominate – let alone its stunning architecture. 268 m long, 96 m tall, and 123 m wide, it’s one of the largest buildings in the country. Part of the building is open to the public although we didn’t go in, it is said that it’s interesting but not as impressive as the building’s exterior.
Public Baths, Spas & Sparty
During the Ottoman rule, the Turks created many bathing facilities and some structures are still in use today. One of the most famous facilities and tourist attractions in Budapest is the Szechenyi Spa Baths. It’s luxurious and interesting, but also crowded. Now, if you like to combine the pleasure of public baths & spas with partying, visit such local facilities at nighttime. That’s what the locals call Sparty.
The truth is that despite their old age, all buildings in Budapest are well taken care of. The ones abandoned were turned into bars and rightfully so, they are called ruin bars. The most popular is the Szimpla Kert ruin bar in the Jewish district. It’s an old building whose rooms are turned into bars and little shops. They serve coffee in the morning and get really crowded at night to the point that the neighbors have posted little “be quiet” signs around. We visited Szimpla Kert and liked the free spirit and the unique design, but weren’t very excited about the coffee or the politeness of the people working there. But it’s worth taking a stroll.
The 2.5km long Margaret Island in the Danube features a great parkland and several recreational activities. You can bike, walk, or drive a cart to explore the island, the medieval ruins, and the famous music fountain (the water dances in the rhythm of classical music).
House of Terror
The House of Terror in Andrassy Avenue is housed in the building of the former headquarters of the Arrow Crow party. At one point, this same building served as a prison and a place of torture. Today, the locals turned these days of ordeal into exhibitions. You can visit the old prison in the basement, discover testimonials from some victims, and see exhibitions that portray the Nazi and Communist regimes.
St. Stephen’s Basilica
We visited St. Stephen’s Basilica the last day of our trip and sadly it was raining and so not suitable to climb the 302 steps to the cupola of the 96m dome to admire the view of the city. All the same, we admired the exterior. This is the largest church in Budapest and was dedicated to the first king of Hungary (Szent Istvan Kiraly, also known as Vajk) who was canonized due to his dedication to Christianity. Today, his mummified right hand is found at the St. Stephen’s Basilica – a church with great acoustics and so a venue for organ concerts on Mondays.
Great Market Hall
The Great Market Hall in Budapest is nothing more than a market, but one worth visiting. Although there are several big and beautiful markets in Budapest, this one is extremely large and very old – built in 1897. It’s also known as Central Market since it’s found in the center of Pest (5 min walk) and spread in 3 floors, where you can find anything & everything you want. There’s a discount market in the basement whereas the ground floor hosts vendors who sell anything from salamis, dairy products, and meat to all kinds of fruits and vegetables. The second floor is home to food stands, where you can taste Hungarian food and snacks. We tried out langos, which was great apart from being extremely greasy, but all food stands were packed with people eating. In this floor, you will also find souvenirs and products, ranging from leather bags to clothing – not the best place to shop but you may find some small items to bring back home. It’s worth visiting since the building is astonishing inside & out.
Visit the medieval Buda
Once you get acquainted with Pest, it’s time to meet the posh Buda and visit the castle. Access is easy and the choices are several. The first thing you need to do is cross the Chain Bridge. The legend is that if you put a lock in the bridge, you lock your love forever. And so you will notice many locks all around the bridge. Once you pass the 370m bridge, you’ll be in Buda. There’s the funicular right in front of you, which isn’t very cheap for the seconds it takes to take you up to the castle and the queue is so long, it’s discouraging, but totally worth both your patience and money. The funicular opened in 1870 and is the second oldest (of its kind) in the world. If you don’t care about hopping on the funicular railway and don’t mind settling with easier transports, you can take the mini bus. No need to search for it either. There are people all around selling their services. Naturally, the cheapest way to get to the castle is to walk. But it’s exhausting, especially if you have already walked some distances.
Useful tip: When we got up to the castle, we noticed an elevator hidden in plain sight – it’s across from the funicular but not seen right away. And it’s most likely a way to go up and down with ease (and without paying).
The castle is huge and surrounded by a great yard, which offers great views to the River Danube and Pest. Once a palace, the Buda Castle is now a Unesco World Heritage site.
The National Gallery is housed in the Buda Castle. It hosts paintings of Hungarian artists, but also a great collection of international artists. Apart from the permanent exhibitions, ranging from Monet to Cezanne, it hosts temporary exhibitions as well. It’s truly worth visiting and not only to admire the amazing collection of over 6000 paintings, 10000 drawings, 5000 prints and 2100 sculptures but also the interior of the building.
Once you visit the castle, take the road in front of you that leads to the Fishermen Bastion. It was built only recently by the Hungarians and its seven towers represent the seven Magyar tribes who settled here. Built in a neo-gothic style, this monument aligns smoothly in the environment and offers panoramic views to the Pest.
St. Matthias Church
Just next to the Fishermen Bastion stands the amazing church of St. Matthias. The rooftop of St. Matthias church will leave you in awe. It’s the color and design that make the difference. This old church in Buda has a breathtaking interior too. It used to serve as the coronation place for the Hungarian kings. Today, it’s a church but also a venue for concerts and one of the greatest attractions in Budapest.
The 235m high Gellert Hill overlooks the Danube River and is close to the Liberty Bridge. If it’s not foggy, you can enjoy a great view of the city. Here is where the Citadella is located. This is the Hungarian word for fortification and now the Gellert Hill citadel is a tourist attraction since it portrays a place of great strategic interest in the military history of Budapest.
Go to Museums
You can’t get enough of museums in Budapest
There’s a large number of museums in Budapest. Whatever pops in your mind, be sure that you’ll find a museum of its kind in Budapest. So, it’s not only about visiting the National museum or Aquincum Museum. You can also visit the Museum of Applied Arts, the Museum of Ethnography, the Museum of Military History, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Pharmacy Museum – the list goes on and on. You just take your pick based on what you like, what you are interested in, and how much time you have in your hands.
What to Eat in Budapest
Tasting the traditional cuisine of the places we visit is the norm. The classic dish in Hungary is goulash. Due to the cold weather most months of the year, the local food contains lots of meat – from poultry to beef, veal, and pork. Now, goulash is exactly what you need if it’s cold outside, although Hungary doesn’t get too much snow. Goulash is meant to be a stew, but it’s often a dish with meat and veggies. Paprika is the main local product and so used in plenty of varieties in most dishes.
If you don’t care to try out the local cuisine, you’ll be happy to know that there are many burger houses. The Hungarians love their burgers. There are also plenty of Italian restaurants. We tried the Vapiano restaurant in Vorosarty ter. This is the fast food for pasta and pizza at affordable prices – an honest solution. If you want a classic Italian restaurant that won’t hit you in the wallet either, only minutes away stands the Bottega di Brontolo – amazing food, warm people, great service.
Street food is very popular in Budapest. The locals often eat langos – a deep-fried bread which is served with cheese and sour cream. Actually, you can add anything from Bolognese sauce or plain cheese to sausages. We’d prefer it sweet with some sugar and cinnamon or jelly, but didn’t find it in such options.
If you are looking for some hot coffee spots in Buda, you cannot go wrong with Ruszwurm. It opened in 1827 and is the oldest café in Budapest. It’s only minutes away from St. Matthias Church, very beautiful, and quite cheap if you consider that it’s a popular tourist attraction – hence, very difficult to get a table.
Budapest is known for two great desserts. One of them is called dobos torta. That’s a sponge cake layered with chocolate and topped with hardened caramel. A dessert to die for!
The traditional Hungarian specialty is kurtoskalacs. What makes this dessert special is its shape which is the result of how it is prepared. The Hungarians put sugar on dough and wrap it around a wooden cylinder which turns over heat and becomes a crispy donut-like where you can add almonds, cinnamon, or chocolate. It’s basically a long cylindrical crispy donut that may also be put in a cup and the void is filled with cream or ice-cream. That’s the breakfast to keep you walking all day long.
Try out the ice cream at Gelarto Rosa. It’s right next to the St. Stephen’s Basilica and what’s amazing about it is the shape of the ice-cream – a rose.
Even if you cannot afford an expensive dinner or don’t want to spare a considerable amount of your budget just for a cup of coffee, visiting New York Café in Budapest is a must. It’s actually been there for decades, but it wasn’t until 2006 that it was remodeled to its present posh state – a replica of the original interior of the café in the beginning of the 20th c. The current Italian Renaissance eclectic architectural style simply stands above the crowd – hence, the reason for you to visit. Prefer to go on a weekday when it’s not as crowded as during weekends. Even if you don’t want to eat or drink, or there’s a long queue to do that, you can still enter to admire the splendor of the interior.
When to Visit Budapest
Budapest is beautiful all year round. It doesn’t snow every year, but it gets really cold during the winter. Naturally, spring and autumn are the best seasons to travel. But you’ll find cheaper air tickets in the offseason. Although there’s moisture due to the Danube, you don’t feel it to your bones. Now, if you like to visit around Christmas time, it’d be lovely. One of the greatest events in Budapest is the Christmas market on Vorosmarty square. It starts early November and offers a delightful experience since there are many stands with gifts, leather products, but also food. And there are live music concerts every day of several music genres.
General impressions & tips
When you first step foot on Budapest, you are in awe. At least we were. The mystical vibe of the River Danube, the grey colors, the wide streets that give you a sense of openness, but also the discreet austerity of the Soviet influence gets your attention. Budapest is in a transitional phase. The young people are warmer than the oldest ones, who are still skeptical about tourists, although hospitable.
Budapest is the capital of Hungary but very, very calm. You don’t hear unnecessary noises or horns. Actually, one of the things we noticed in the streets is the absence of motorcycles in the center of the city. People use public transportation (which is excellent) and all types of electric scooters and bikes. What’s incredible is that they have created separate roads for bicycles and scooters – hence, safer streets. All streets and pavements are in great condition, and overall Budapest is a clean city.
If you are interested in culture and thus to see museums and monuments, visit Budapest for as many days as you can. But even if you don’t have the time or luxury of staying for long, this is a destination you cannot miss. Walking the streets of Budapest, enjoying a cup of coffee at the famous Gerbeaud café in Vorosmarty square, hopping on a boat for a Danube cruise, and paying your respects on the shoes by the river are all worth even a short visit to the city, which is rightfully labeled as the Paris of the East.