Cultural influences from both East and West have left their mark on Hungary’s capital, from the grand cafes of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire to neglected statues of one-time Soviet heroes. Stuart Wadsworth delves into Budapest.
Centre of Europe, grand old dame of the Habsburg Empire, inventor of ‘Goulash Communism’ and, more recently, 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, arch-hipness, Budapest packs a massive punch and leaves you reeling with options for exploring, starting from its world-famous baths right down to the kerts, semi-legal drinking dens set up in ruined courtyards, and much loved by local imbibers.
The Hungarian capital is really two cities – Buda and Pest – separated by the wide tract of the Danube, and only officially became one entity 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 history and culture buffs and fans of architecture to beer-guzzling hedonists and all-night ravers.
Best of the Beaten Track
The first thing to do on arrival in Budapest should be a stroll along the Pest-side of the river, with its views up to Buda, the bridges 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 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. If you don’t fancy queuing buy a skip the line ticket via Get Your Guide.
Other notable buildings on the Pest side of the river include St. 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 objects of art 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 sheer number of exhibits impresses.
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, a little further north, should both be seen – the latter particularly at night, when the orange lighting give the place a shimmering hue and offer excellent photographic opportunities. During summer you can stroll back down the hill and 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 at Holdudvar.
For a great tour of the Buda Castle district, look no further than Urban Adventures. Whilst Get Your Guide have an extensive list of tours, activities and day trips to choose from, from guided walks to river cruises.
For a more off-beat experience in Budapest, head out to the suburbs (take bus 150 from Kosztolanyi Deak Ter) to Memento Park – a unique totalitarian theme park, which houses monuments and statues of 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.
If you want to explore more of Buda than just the castle, 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, 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 where each of the towns of Szentendre, Esztergom or Visegrad offer a change of scene from the capital – the latter is home to a mighty castle looking down from a hill to the Danube. The bend is a one hour by public bus from Ujpest in north Budapest, or else opt for an organised tour which provides transport. This highly rated tour includes three course lunch in Visegrad and during the summer months you return to the city via river cruise.
Another great excursion is the wine-making town of Eger. You can either take a day tour from Budapest, or, if you fancy staying longer, check out our weekend guide.
For more hipster fun check out our Top Five Budapest Design Spots and discover “made in Hungary” sneakers, glasses frames and eco-friendly fashion. And don’t forget to call by our Secret Seven list of unusual things to do in the capital.
Experience & Events
If you come to Budapest and fail to visit one of its many bath houses, shame on you (click on the link to reveal our special extended Top Five!). Hands-down the best baths in Budapest are 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, sauna, swim, sauna or even go to the gym. Your 16 Euro or so entry fee is a bargain for a day of luxury, and you’ll leave feeling wonderfully relaxed. Reserve your spot with a skip the line ticket.
Come nightfall, if you’re not fed up of being wet, return for a “spa-rty” in Szechenyi baths every Saturday night in summer, or at Lukacs baths during the colder months. At €50 or so euro a ticket it ain’t cheap, 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. Upcoming parties listed on Spartybooking.com.
Budapest’s biggest and best party is of course the Sziget Festival, which takes place on Obuda Island each August and brings a mix of the world’s best acts in dance, pop, rock, folk and metal together for a week of music and mayhem – check our review of the festival here. You can camp (provided you don’t need sleep) or book a hostel/hotel (way in advance). Day tickets are available for ageing ravers who don’t have the stamina for the whole shebang.
Another good time to come is June when the Essentials Festival is in full swing, and you can combine a city break with concerts and special events around town. Check our review for more info.
Probably by now you’ve already noticed the Escape Games phenomenon that has swept over Europe… but did you know it started in Budapest? And there are plenty of rooms to try out…
Cheapskates will be pleased to know that the hostel scene in Budapest is very competitive and, as a result, the quality is usually very good. Casa Del Musica is close to most of the nightlife, with a friendly vibe, very colourful decor and super-helpful staff. Nearby is Bubble Hostel – smaller, and cosier, and with a great party vibe. Young owner Olga herself is an enfant terrible of the local nightlife. For something a little bit quieter, head to the top of the hill in Buda where Citadella Hotel lies – it actually doubles as a hotel and hostel. Meanwhile if you’ve got a bit more disposable income at your erm, disposal, then you might prefer the historic elegance of the Hotel Gellert (which houses the baths of the same name), or the luxuries of the five star Hotel Kempinski Corvinus to hostels. For more options you can compare prices and ratings of all Budapest’s hotels on Booking.com.
For something more local (and affordable!), try searching Homestay’s search engine of hosted rooms and apartments. Readers of Urban Travel Blog get a 5% discount whenever they book via one of our links!
Budapest’s dining options are endless, with many places offering great lunchtime deals, such as Ring with its top quality burgers – avocado and prawn with gorgonzola being the most mouth-watering. For great Hungarian food in rustic surrounds, try Fatal; 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 Brody café (Brody Sandor u.), near Muzeum – complete with posters of Ferenc Puskas on the wall, 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 ten euros. Asian restaurants are in rich supply, but for an eaterie that combines Oriental and Magyar influences head to Parasz Presszo. If you fancy some Hungarian spicy soup followed by a Thai curry, this is the place to go.
Those who fancy a guided introduction to Hungarian gastronomy will enjoy this tour by Urban Adventures which takes you to Central Market Hall (with cured meats tasting), an award winning chocolate factory, a Jewish restaurant and a classic Hungarian restaurant for goulash soup and strudels.
The phenomenon of ‘rubble’ or ‘ruin’ bars in Budapest (known in Hungarian as kerts) is beginning to gain fame around Europe and the world. 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. Easily the most well-known 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. To read more about Budapest’s eccentric garden bars click here, as the Editor reveals some of the new generation of ruin pubs shaking up the scene, like Fogashaz and Doboz. Kerts-aside, Pince is a great place to go to sample some traditional Hungarian wine, music and dance, whilst maybe the best late-opening place to go 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. For something more refined, go to either the Red Lion 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.
When the weather is warmer be sure to check out the city’s best rooftop venues, as reported on by Urban Travel Blog. For a pub crawl that takes you to several of the hottest spots in town click here.
Getting There & Around
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 flies to and from over 20 euro-destinations, including London, Rome and Madrid, whilst flight search engines can help you compare prices on all the major airlines flying into the capital. Train connections are excellent – there are three main train stations with services to and from the likes of Krakow, Bratislava and Belgrade – and buses are also frequent, running at all times of day to numerous destinations. The new bus company Orangeways links Budapest to many major European cities also, at very competitive rates.
For more info the excellent 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. Funzine.hu – 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 is the Tourist office site – 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, popular with American backpackers. For some not so 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 opium addiction, finally killing his wife and then himself in 1918. Dezso Kosztolanyi’s Skylark is a tragic story (Hungarians specialise in tragedy) of an old couple and their beloved child by one of Hungary’s most famous scribes. Imre Mora’s Budapest Then and Now reveals portraits of the city, past and present.
Budapest has featured in countless international films, albeit often masquerading as somewhere else – usually Moscow, but in the case of Evita for example is has even been featured as Buenos Aires. It has also starred as itself in I Spy with Owen Wilson and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and An American Rhapsody with Scarlett Johansson. For a great Hungarian movie check out Bizalom (Confidence).
Soundtrack to the City
Heaven Street Seven – Marta
Parno Graszt – Ratyake Phiro
Quimby – Most Mulik Pantosan
Kiscillag – Kockacukor
Besh O Drom – Amikor En Kissrac Voltam
Rezso Seress – Gloomy Sunday (aka The Hungarian Suicide Song)
View Budapest City Guide in a larger map
For all our Budapest stories and tips click here. The Hungarian capital is also recommended as one of our favourite budget destinations in Europe…
24 thoughts on “Long Weekend: Budapest”
The caves in budapest is wonderful. I guess you guys might want to add that in your “unmissable attarctions”. You can check out the blog i wrote a few months back on my visit to budapest. I have mentioned about the caves as well.
Buildings are beautiful; sights are plentiful & historial; language is difficult to understand; police are everywhere; Danube is beautiful; guided tours are a must; Pest side is rundown; don’t walk at night outside of immediate danube shopping area; worth a long weekend city break
Hey. That is really one of the best short guides of budapest i ever was reading :). I will show it to our guests next time before they come ! Thanks for it !
Thank you for this great post about Hungary’s capital city. I personally love this city very much for this great tradition and cultures. I will visit this city to see her beauty. My one of the best friend Kate live there. I wanted to meet her.
Hi Mamun, thanks. It’s definitely a favourite of Urban Travel Blog’s! Hope our tips help you make the most of your time if you do decide to go!
The parliament no longer offers free tours to EU citizens, though it is cheaper than ticket prices from non-EU people!
Thanks Maria for the useful input! Will update the blog post shortly!
Thanks for sharing this interesting post with us.
This article is really great and shows Budapest in it’s best and natural light. Eating out in Budapest is usually expensive and finding a decent restaurant is always a bit tricky like with any foreign place. But if you want to eat at a really traditional restaurants where the locals go and save a bit of money then head to District 7. I personally don’t think you can have a bad meal there, even if you don’t like goulash!
nice article, I really like the way you’re presenting Budapest. Well written! 🙂 I’ve also got some insider info about the city here: Budapest Startup City Guide
It’s full of useful info if you’re into entrepreneurship 🙂
Have a nice day!
Thanks for sharing your post, I love this all pictures specially “The Game Heats Up” 😉
Thanks for sharing the tips! It is such informative. I am an adventurous person and passionate lover of skydiving. Any skydiving recommendations in Budapest?
Thanks for sharing this interesting post.
Thanks for sharing. It’s really interesting 🙂
I visited Budapest in June 2015, really love it, especially the night river cruise along Danube River. The view is amazing. I miss Eastern Europe so much, I would like to visit again, especially Budapest, Prague, Krakow and Salzburg. Very very nice cities 🙂
Wow, thank you so much for all the information. Well written. I am doing an Eastern Europe tour next year and my last stop will be Hungary. This was great and I can plan my trip ahead.
Budapest is the capital and the largest city of Hungary and it among the larger city of European nations. Buda Castle is among the best sample of architect of the olden times. Your blog is beautifully written and it is very helpful for those who wants to visit the Europe.
Congrats, great post. You captured the multi-faceted and somewhat controversial nature of the city very well. An unfortunate development is that a recently passed legislation forces most businesses to be closed on Sundays, so don’t forget to plan around that if you only have a weekend in Budapest. I collected some other very useful tips and trivia for foreigners on my travel blog: http://toobigabite.com/2015/05/08/hungary-5-my-kind-of-tips-and-trivia/ (part of a series about Hungary). I hope it helps.
On the other hand during my last visit to Budapest in 2015 (I’m from Hungary originally), I was pleasantly surprised that they funnelled quite a lot of money into restoration projects, especially around the central districts, making the area more pedestrian-friendly. Enjoy your visit to this vibrant and ever-surprising city.
Hey, wish I would have found that guide before I went to Budapest. I really appreciate it that you also focus on the more budget conscious travelers, and giving a soundtrack to the city is a really cool idea. I’m gonna check out the one for florence when heading there in a few weeks. For people who are into photography, this walks you through some top photo spots and might give some additional hints. http://www.travelpixelz.com/photography/budapest-top-10-photo-spots/
Looks awesome, I’m planning on having a little nose around Budapest in the next few months. Thanks for sharing the info!
Great article and very nice information about Budapest. I think this city is must be on list when we visit n travel to Europe. The photos is just awesome and i love it. Thanks for sharing
Great city Budapest, I always enjoy there. Lot of rock concerts, nice clubs, beautiful girls, friendly people. It is close to Wien where I ma working, close to Bratislava where I travel often, close to Novi Sad and Belgrade. I just can stand Hungarian food, I dont know why, have to be up to me.
Budapest is indeed a beautiful city. I’m lucky enough to go there and I always find something new to photograph.
I really recommend going with the M4 line and discover Budapest from the underground, with its incredible hidden architecture: http://pierrepichot.com/portfolio-item/budapest-metro-stations-photo-essay/
Very useful insight. It might also be worth mentioning that pensioners travel free on the (excellent) public transport if they can prove their DOB. A passport or driving license will do. If you happen to be a singer, Runbysingers are offering a singing holiday this year in Budapest. Details at http://www.runbysingers.org/budapest-singing-holiday.