After visiting Prague, my friend and I traveled to Budapest for a week. We wanted to continue our journey through affordable cities in Central Europe, and we really wanted to try the thermal baths. During our time here, we really fell in love with the city and all it had to offer. Below are highlights on where to go, where to shop, what to eat, where to stay, and how to get around.
Things to do:
Hungarian Parliament Building. This iconic building in Budapest is very beautiful and an impressive structure. It is definitely picture worthy, and we took a lot of pics. We also took a guided tour of the inside. Tickets for these tours are sold onsite but only for the day of, and they do sell out. It is better to book tickets ahead of time online. I personally thought the tour was good but a little pricey. However, this should not discourage visitors who are really interested in learning more about the building and want to take a peek inside. There are some beautiful rooms inside that will make it worthwhile for those with a real interest. For those who are less interested, it might not be worth the price. Taking pictures of the outside is free, and the outside is the real showstopper. If visitors are taking the tour, plan to spend about 45 minutes here.
Buda Castle Hill. This complex has multiple sights including the Buda Castle. Visitors can explore the castle grounds and get some good views of Pest for free. The inside of the castle has been turned into a couple of museums. We did not go into these so I cannot rate them. But this is a must visit place even if skipping the museums. There are a couple of restaurants on the castle grounds and some vendors as well. However, I recommend not eating by the castle as there are better choices on the hill. To get to the top of the hill, visitors can climb or take a funicular railway. I would recommend taking the railway up to get some cool views and then walking back down. While visitors can tour the grounds on their own (and this is what we opted to do), it may be worth the money to take a guided tour, which will likely include more than just the castle grounds but the church and bastion as well. There were tour guides waiting by the funicular railway that were offering free tours (basically pay what you can as a tip). Plan to spend 1 hour just exploring the grounds.
Matthias Church. This church is located on Castle Hill. It has unique architecture and a colorful tiled roof. It is very pretty and a worthwhile sight. Visitors can also pay to go inside. We opted to skip this and just admire the outside. By the time we got here we had already seen a number of churches and knew there was going to be more on our trip. But the inside is supposed to be pretty so it might be worthwhile for others that have a real interest in churches.
Fisherman’s Bastion. This terrace is another stunning example of architecture with great views. It overlooks the Danube and is located in front of Matthias Church. We took some great pictures here. I would recommend grabbing a seat at the café on the terrace and enjoying a drink while looking at the view.
Margaret Island. This small island is located on the Danube between Buda and Pest. It is a great place to spend an afternoon outdoors. There are lots of pedestrian pathways to walk, a musical fountain, several gardens, a small petting zoo, ruins of a convent, a water tower that can be climbed, a spa, bars, and restaurants. In the summer people come here to lay out and get some sun. This is a very relaxed island, and we really enjoyed our time here. We explored the whole island and even payed the small fee to climb to the top of the water tower. Although there are restaurants and bars here, the options are limited so it might be better for visitors to bring their own light meal or snacks to enjoy on the grounds. Plan to spend 2-4 hours here.
Gellert Hill. The top of this hill offers great views of the Buda side. Getting to the top requires a short hike. My only advice is to bring water. We were definitely thirsty when we got to the top. There is a cart selling drinks at the top, but the prices are four times the amount from the store so bring water and a snack purchased beforehand. Also, try to go around sunset. We were able to see the sun set from here, and the buildings light up, which was really pretty. Plan to spend 2 hours to get up and down and enjoy the view.
Heroes’ Square. This square features important Magyar Chieftains and Hungarian national leaders as well as the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. There are also a couple of galleries on either side as well. We did not visit either of these galleries so I cannot rate them, but it might be worth a stop in one of them when going out here. The walk to get here is pretty, but there will definitely be a lot of tour groups here taking pictures. While I enjoyed taking a long stroll to get here and looking at the sites on the way, this square may not be a must see for those not planning to go to the galleries.
Budapest River Cruise. This was one of our favorite activities here. Taking a cruise of the Danube river at sunset allowed us to take some great pictures and see some breathtaking views. And we were able to see the city lit up at night. This company offers regular cruises, wine cruises, cocktail cruises, and dinner cruises. We opted for the wine cruise and had a great time. The wine was local, delicious and plentiful. This company has representatives downtown that can provide visitors with more information, which is how we found it. They also have a website where visitors can book online. The cruises run about 2 hours.
Turkish Baths. Budapest has access to a lot of thermal waters so there are a lot of baths and spas spread throughout the city. To get the best experience, try a couple of different ones. We went to Gellert Spa, which is one of the bigger and more popular ones. It costs a little more, but it is a larger complex so go ahead and buy a day pass. There is an outdoor pool and sunbathing area, an indoor pool, and several thermal pools. Visitors can rent towels there, but it is better to bring one. For those traveling in a mixed group, cabins can be rented to share. Otherwise, there are separate lockers for men and women, and mixed groups can meet up outside of the lockers. The pools and baths here are all mixed. We also went to a smaller bath, Kiraly Thermal Baths, close to where we were staying. It was cheaper, and we really liked this one as well. It had several thermal pools of different temperatures and a couple of sauna rooms. The main thing to know before going to any bath is whether it is mixed or for males only or females only. Also, remember to bring a towel and swimsuit. Some baths require a hat for people with long hair so be sure to bring a band to tie hair up as well.
Vaci Street and the Great Market Hall are the places to go for traditional Hungarian souvenirs. One item sold everywhere is hand painted eggs. These are an Easter tradition in Hungary but are sold year round. They could also be used as ornaments at Christmas time. Another popular item is paprika. For those who enjoy cooking or know someone who enjoys cooking, this is a great gift. Hungary is known for this spice, and it is used in many local dishes. It is sold in different variations and often in a cute pouch with a small wooden scoop. A third popular item is wooden secret boxes. These are sold in different sizes and are hand painted in different colors. The secret is in the way to open them, which will be shown by the seller. This would make another great gift or souvenir.
What to Eat:
Chicken paprika is one of the recommended local dishes that can be found in most traditional Hungarian restaurants. This dish is chicken in a paprika cream sauce served with noodles. It is hardy and not spicy. Langos is another popular dish. This is fried dough served with garlic butter, sour cream, and/or cheese. There is a restaurant devoted solely to Langos. But these can also be found as street food near parks. Chimney cake is a popular dessert that is served warm and dusted with sugar or cinnamon. These can be found as street food as well.
For drinks, go to a ruin pub. These pubs are known for their unique decor and fun experience. Most of them are located near the Jewish Quarter. The largest and most famous one is Szimpla Kert. We came here a couple of different nights. This pub is an amalgamation of several bars (including beer, wine, and cocktail bars) put together with a large covered outdoor seating area. This place gets crowded so be prepared to stand and hover near seating. Do not be afraid to grab empty seats at a partially filled table. Just sit down and make new friends, which is what we did. This place is also open during the day, and there is a farmer’s market on the weekends, although we never made it here for that so I cannot rate it. At night there is also a lot nearby that houses multiple food trucks with lots of tasty street food for late night snacks.
Where to Stay:
Budapest has a lot of Airbnbs that are cheaper than hotels. However, Airbnbs do fill up here. We waited to book a week before our stay and most of the places were taken (although we later found out that our visit overlapped with an international swim competition and a large formula one event). We ended up staying in a cute apartment on the Pest side of the river close to the river. From here, we were able to walk across the bridge to get to Margaret Island and to the Buda side. And we were close to the sites on the Pest side. I would definitely recommend staying in this area.
We arrived to Budapest by bus from Prague, which took about 7.5 hours with no transfers. We took the bus because there were less train options and the amount of time for the journey was the same for both. For those able to plan ahead and get a good deal on tickets, a flight will save a lot of time. The bus station is within walking distance of public transportation. And public transportation is linked to Google maps. There might be discrepancies in the Google maps route, however, if there is construction work or reroutes. We ran into this problem once and ended up having to get off the bus at a random stop and grab a taxi to get back to where we wanted to go. Double check routes before leaving. Tickets for public transportation can be bought in metro stations. These can be used on the buses and trams as well. Like most European countries, the public transportation is a bit on the honor system. Tickets are not needed to board public transport, but those caught without tickets by plain clothed inspectors will be fined. We did actually get our tickets checked once here so it was good that we had them. Tickets must be validated before boarding and kept until they expire. While in the city, we mostly walked and used public buses. We did take taxis a few times in the evenings but found that the rates varied with some of the drivers being less honest. So try to avoid taking taxis if possible. When we departed Budapest, we again took a bus, and we took public transportation to get to the station.
I was very impressed with the beauty of Budapest. The architecture and green spaces were really nice. The prices were really good as well. There was a lot to do so I would recommend spending 3-4 days here at minimum. We visited at the end of July, beginning of August. There were some hot days, but there were ways to cool off in the pools and baths so it was still a nice time to visit. Despite all the events happening in the city that brought in tourists, it did not feel too crowded. This city is great for people who want to visit Europe but also want to stretch their dollar a little further and who are interested in stylish architecture.
I usually try to read a book about the places I am visiting before I go, but with this fast paced journey across Europe I did not have time to read a book about every country I stopped in (12 countries in 4 months!). And for some of the countries, I ended up going back and reading books about them after my visit. For Budapest, I ended up reading The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer. This epic novel takes place in both Paris and Budapest (it would make a great read for either city) and follows the journey of one young man and his family during the years leading up to WWII and during the war. This novel is long so it will take some time to read, but it is gripping. It sheds light on the experiences of Hungarian Jews, which has been told less than others. Although it does not reflect the current culture of Hungary, it sheds some light on some of the darker aspects of its history and is worth a read.