Exploring Budapest, Hungary
Budapest, Hungary...a charming, vibrant, energetic city that captured my heart from the start and didn't let go. We were a week into our travels when we arrived in Budapest. It was a rainy evening and we were quite tired, but as I stepped off the train from Bratislava, Slovakia, I didn't realize that I was about to discover what would become my favorite European city.
Related Topic: Exploring Bratislava, Slovakia
I have been to almost 15 European cities and have loved every single one of them, but there's something about Budapest that got under my skin.
What was it that made me fall so head over heels in love with it? I'm not entirely sure! It was beautiful, but so was every other European city I've visited. The food was amazing, but I'm not a foodie, so food alone won't win me over. The history, the culture, the people...all were fabulous and for whatever reason everything combined together to create a magical place for me. So, today, I want to share with you some of the various things I loved as a means to inspire you to add this lovely town to your bucket list.
A little background
We spent 3-1/2 days here and I feel we barely scratched the surface. There is SO much to explore here! Every time we'd turn a corner or go down a new street, we'd discover something that would make us stop in our tracks and change course to explore another good find.
In case you're somewhat new to Budapest, let me take a moment to explain a couple of things. Budapest is divided by the Danube River into two districts - Buda and Pest. Historically, these were two separate cities, but in 1873 they united into a single city...Budapest. Each district has it's own feel and history. The Buda side is where the government buildings (except for the Parliament building) are located and tends to be quieter and more residential. The Pest side is filled with restaurants, shops, and the hustle and bustle of a vibrant city.
Connecting the two districts are numerous stunning bridges that you can cross on foot or by car/bus (we did both).
To get around town, I highly recommend one of the hop on/hop off bus services. There are multiple options and they seem pretty similar in what they offer. The company we chose included four different lines, a day boat tour down the Danube, and a night boat tour. The passes were good for 48 hours and only cost about $20 each (so it's a total bargain!!).
We also used the metro line one afternoon and found the process of getting tickets a little complicated to navigate. It wasn't really clear what type of tickets we needed by looking at the map. Fortunately, a very friendly local woman took pity on us and explained everything. Once you have your ticket in hand, you must validate it before going through the entrance to the train lines. They have employees standing guard to check your ticket for the validation mark (which can be done near the ticket machines). Apparently, if you fail to get it validated you may be subject to a hefty fine!
What to See & Do: Buda
We didn't spend that much time on the Buda side. The majority of the highlights of the city can be found on the Pest side, but we did spend the better part of a day exploring the quieter side of the city.
After crossing over the bridges into Buda, you'll likely wind your way up the hills to the top. Before doing so, I highly recommend hopping off the bus (or parking your car) to explore along the river front. There’s not a ton to see, but there are numerous beautiful statues and if you don’t mind a line, you can opt to head to the top of the hill via the funicular (which was our plan until we saw how long the line was!).
On the Buda side you’ll find a quieter area, but one rich in history. The Castle District, which is located on top of the hill, is the most prominent section of the district. It houses the Castle (which doesn’t really look like a castle!), the Matthias Church, Fisherman’s Bastion, and the home of the President of Hungary. Its a beautiful section of the city with quiet, charming streets.
Matthias Church is easily spotted from the Danube or from the Pest side. This 700 year old Roman Catholic church sits high above the river and has witnessed numerous coronations, wars, and was a camp for the Germans and Soviets during World War II.
What is stunning about this church is the tiled roof, which is covered in Zsolnay tiles (which are common around major historical buildings in Hungary). The intricate pattern and colors were unlike anything I’d ever seen!
While the church is open to visitors (for a small fee), we didn’t go inside because numerous weddings were underway (there were brides running around everywhere!). But, even if you don’t venture through the doors, this church is worth a visit to appreciate the beautiful architecture and those tiles!
Fisherman’s Bastion is located directly in front of Matthias Church (along the river side). It looks like a fairytale fortress complete with lookout towers and elevated walkways. it’s fitting that it’s located within the Castle district since it looks exactly like the exterior of Cinderella’s castle!
It was originally built between 1895 - 1902 to serve as a lookout tower over the Danube River. Parts of the walkway are open for free, but some sections require a small fee for access (and I have no idea why…they seemed roughly the same with regards to the views!).
The views from Fisherman’s Bastion make this a must see stop!
The Citadel is a fortress that sits high above the city. It was built in the 1850s and provides stunning views of the city stretched out below. While you can’t go inside the Citadel, take a little time to walk around the structure to see the pock marks along the face of the wall from past attacks.
Overlooking the city is the Statue of Liberty. She holds a palm leaf high above her head and she is the symbol of the Hungarian capital. You can pretty much see her no matter where you go in the city.
What to See & Do: Pest
The Pest side is filled with shops, hotels, restaurants, busy streets, churches of all sizes, and basically everything else you might want to see and/or do. If you visit Budapest, you will spend the bulk of your time exploring this diverse district.
Great Market Hall
The Great Market Hall is a must see! The Market Hall contains 3 floors of fresh food (vegetables, fruits, meats, etc.), restaurants for quick Hungarian dishes, and shops of local and handmade goods. You could easily spend all day in here exploring. Tourists definitely find their way here, but the Hall also serves locals as a means to get fresh food and goods.
The Market is a great place to pop in for lunch to experience traditional Hungarian cuisine and to browse the stalls for some unique gifts to bring home.
One thing to note…if you go upstairs to the non-food stalls, be wary of the prices. While I snagged a gorgeous pair of lined leather gloves for about $40, I also fell in love with some beautiful hand carved and painted Christmas figurines that were priced over $100. Fortunately, I did not buy one since it was so pricey because while browsing in some shops on the Buda side, I found the exact same pieces for half the price!
The Parliament Building…ahhh….my FAVORITE building in Budapest! This gorgeous building looks like something straight out of Harry Potter and sits prominently along side the Danube River. You cannot miss it! It is the largest building, not only in Budapest, but all of Hungary!
We didn’t go inside…the tours in English were sold out hours in advance, but we did walk around the building and all sides feature beautiful views and intricate details.
One of my favorite parts of the area surrounding the building was a feature that took me by surprise! It was rather hot during our visit and while taking photos of the backside of the building, I suddenly heard a hissing sound and felt something cool around my feet. I looked back and was a little taken aback to see a fine mist coming up from the ground all around me. Small circles in the concrete release a cool mist at various times throughout the day! People flocked to it and I have to say, it was a nice break from the heat!
At night, the building really comes alive! The entire structure is ablaze in lights and you can’t help but to gaze at the building no matter where you are (and this is why taking a night boat tour on the Danube is a required activity!).
Váci utca Street
This street is one of the main pedestrian streets and one of the most famous streets in Budapest. It’s definitely geared towards tourists, but a great spot for doing a little shopping or enjoying a fantastic meal!
We stayed two blocks from this street so we made the most of it by eating dinner at various restaurants, dipping into the shops and buying unique things to bring home, and just enjoying the scenery!
There are numerous thermal bath houses in Budapest, but the Szechenyi Baths are one of the more famous ones. It’s a little over 100 years old and housed in a gorgeous building. While taking a dip in the public pools wasn’t really our thing, we did pop into the main entrance to check it out.
The lobby is stunning and I was almost ready to slap down the cash to gain access, but I thought I’d look a little weird just wandering without slipping into a bathing suit. So…we took a few pics and carried on, but if you have any desire to relax in the baths for a few hours, I would definitely check out this one!
Sleeping Beauty’s Castle
Sleeping Beauty’s castle is the local name for Vajdahunyad Castle. While not a true castle in the historic sense (i.e. royalty never lived here!), it was built in the last 19th century as part of the Millennial Exhibition. I’m not really sure why it’s referred to as ‘Sleeping Beauty’s’ Castle other than perhaps it looks like the fairy tale structure, but it was beautiful to walk amongst the grounds.
We happened to visit while a festival was underway, so it was packed with people and stalls selling various types of food, candies, and handmade goods. I never shy away from a good festival, so I was thrilled to experience a Hungarian festival (which was very similar to ones we have here in the U.S.).
Hero Square is a huge square where local events routinely take place. Bordering each side of the square is the Museum of Fine Arts and the Palace of Arts. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is also housed in the square.
While there isn’t necessarily anything to do here, it is a beautiful area to visit to appreciate the history of the Hungarian people and to examine the various statues on display.
As previously mentioned, the Danube River runs right through the middle of Budapest separating it into the two distinct districts - Buda and Pest. As with any river, to cross it you need a bridge and Budapest boast seven beautiful bridges.
During World War II, the five bridges that were present at the time were destroyed. It’s amazing to see how they were rebuilt and restored, but also sad to think of the destruction this city endured during that dark time in history.
At night these bridges light up and add to the beautiful panoramic scene. My favorite bridges were the Liberty, the Elisabeth, and the Chain bridges. We walked across these bridges multiple times during our stay - both at night and during the day.
What to Eat & Drink
The food scene in Budapest was right up my alley. If you’re a vegetarian, you might find it a little challenging because a lot of Hungarian dishes are heavy on the beef side of things. Fortunately, I am not a vegetarian, but even for me, I needed a break from the meat and ended up ordering a cheese pizza for dinner one night!
With that said, the food is excellent! You can’t come to Hungary and not eat goulash, so just consider that a must! Goulash is basically a meat stew, for lack of a better description. In addition to meat, it’s filled with spices and a few veggies for good measure. It’s very hearty dish and on a cold night, it would be next to perfection!
Another traditional Hungarian flavor that I fell in love with was their Lecso sauce. Lecso is a spicy pepper that can add quite the kick if you are lucky enough to have a seed fall into your dish (which is what happened to me and my lips instantly went numb when I licked them!). On it’s own, it’s not too spicy, so don’t let me scare you away from trying it!
The sauce is typically paired with tomatoes other peppers and served over rice, chicken, sausages, or other meats. I LOVED this stuff and have tried to find it in the US since returning, but no luck. If you find yourself in Hungary at some point, just do yourself a favor and try this yummy goodness, okay?
And…like we discovered in Vienna, gelato is quite popular here (not quite as much as we noticed in Vienna, but still on almost every block!).
Related Topic: Exploring Vienna, Austria
As for specific restaurants we enjoyed, add Cafe Europa, Grappa, and Buddha Bar to your list. Each of these restaurants had amazing food, excellent prices, and a awesome vibe.
Where to Stay
I have one word for you on where to stay…Pest! Pest is where it’s at. Given that Buda is a bit more residential you’ll find more options on the Pest side.
To be even more specific, aim to stay in District 5. This is the inner city and not only do you have a range of restaurants at your fingertips, it’s within walking distance of the bridges and major attractions, yet it was still quiet at night.
Like Vienna, we opted for an Airbnb and I LOVED our apartment. It was located in district 5 and was central to anything we wanted to do. We could easily walk to the Danube, the Great Market Hall, subway lines, etc. Just outside our front door we had our pick of restaurants, a small grocery store for snacks and drinks, and we were two short blocks to the Vaci Utca street.
Relative to the US, Budapest is very cheap (that pizza I had for dinner one night was only ~$3.50…for an entire pizza!). But, you will need to use your calculator to figure out what things cost! Hungary is not on the Euro and their currency, the Hungarian Forints, is roughly 275 forints for $1 (that obviously varies and is what it was while I was there).
As for how much time to spend there…I’d say at least 3 to 4 days, but if you can swing longer, do it. I feel we only scratched the surface and the night before we left, we were still discovering new gems in our own neighborhood.
Budapest was a city that wasn’t previously on my bucket list so I went in with no expectations. I left completely in love with this gorgeous, friendly, charming city and I know that I will be back one day because I don’t think I’ll be able to stay away. The morning we left, I didn’t have the usual ‘sad to see vacation end, but ready to get home’ feelings. I was filled with sadness and a strong desire to stay. Reluctantly I said goodbye and boarded the plan home, but I left a piece of my heart there.