Enchanting, mysterious and the very definition of charm, Budapest has all the romance and complexities one would expect from a town that dates back to the Stone Age.
Comprised of two cities rolled into one, the Hungarian capital has survived everything from invasions, dynasties and even communism to become a popular – albeit still blissfully underrated – European destination.
Hilly, affluent Buda and bustling, widespread Pest were formed along the shores of the Danube River in the late 1800’s, following centuries of extraneous (and clearly influential) occupations. Its intricate history has made for a famously buoyant, if not somewhat impervious culture, and Budapest’s passion and resilience – as well as its palpable appreciation for art, beauty and freedom – permeates the atmosphere in a way few cities can imitate.
For this and other reasons, Budapest simply begs to be explored. The views from one of its many scenic lookouts reveals a patchwork of architectural splendor and style (even by European standards); oxidized monuments artfully complement scores of repurposed ruin bars, while Gothic-style government structures share the street with modern shops and apartments.
There are historical sights galore, but there’s a trendy, bohemian element to Budapest as well, bolstered by an adventurous food scene – and an even more audacious nightlife.
The city is made up of a daunting 23 districts, but the transit system is easily understood, and much can be accomplished on foot.
Check into Kempinski Hotel Corvinus Budapest, located smack in the middle of Pest’s financial district. A 5-star green hotelier and leader in social responsibility through its Young Artist Programme, Kempinski Hotel Corvinus’ interior pays tribute to Budapest’s eclectic elegance with its use of warm tones and sleek design.
Spend the afternoon acquainting yourself with the surrounding neighborhood, which features several points of interest such as St. Stephen’s Basilica, the largest church in Hungary and resting place of the mummified right hand of St. Stephen himself.
As evening falls, hop on the number two streetcar running along the riverfront, and watch the sunset across the Danube from the patio of Jónás Craft Beer House.
From there, find your way to Ferencvaros, Budapest’s ninth district, and Jedermann Café, a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it establishment where the laid-back atmosphere makes it totally acceptable to linger over a glass of pálinka – or the popular regional wine, Bull’s Blood – for hours. It also hosts live music every Friday and Saturday night.
For a different tone of excitement, take a nighttime dinner boat cruise along the Danube for an eyeful of iconic landmarks – many of which are beautifully illuminated for your viewing pleasure.
Forego your standard morning meal and grab the number two streetcar toward Central Market Hall, the city’s enormous Neo-Gothic go-to for farm-fresh fare. It’s here you’ll discover lángos, a Hungarian favourite consisting of deep fried dough, sour cream and shredded cheese. It’s certainly no health food, but in Budapest, it’s a breakfast of champions.
Next, stretch your legs with a walk to Gellért Hill and the Citadel by way of the Szabadság bridge, where you’ll see both the Liberty Statue and incredible views of Pest from the Buda side.
When you’ve seen enough, the number 41 streetcar runs to Castle Hill and the Royal Palace, where you can ride the Sikló – a 19th century railcar – up a steep incline to the top.
On a rainy day, the Royal Palace is perfect for a crash course in Hungarian culture. It houses the Castle Museum, boasting medieval artefacts from Turkish rule, and the Hungarian National Gallery’s range of contemporary and ancient art pieces.
If there are blue skies above, it’s a 10 minute walk to Holy Trinity Square and the 700-year old Matthias Church. Feast your eyes on its vividly colored ceramic rooftop and tour the medieval streets that surround the square, where antique shops and restaurants abound.
For lunch, treat yourself to ham pastries at Ruszwurm, a family-run café that’s been serving up buttery delights since 1827. Rumor has it, the establishment was a favorite haunt of Elizabeth “Sisi,” Empress of Austria. Alternatively, stop by the Fisherman’s Bastion behind Matthias Church for a scenic bite at its restaurant overlooking the Danube.
In the afternoon, head back across the Széchenyi Chain Bridge and take the M1 to Hero’s Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built to commemorate the city’s many leaders throughout its 1000-year old history.
Although Budapest is a ‘so much to do, so little time’ kind of city, try to spend at least a few hours at one of its thermal baths. Széchenyi is close to Hero’s Square, and worth visiting if only to take in the jaw-dropping splendor of its Neo-Baroque design.
With 18 different pools, summer night swim parties and temperatures ranging from 70 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s easy to spend a full day at the baths. If you’re pressed for time, however, Széchenyi is open until 10pm most nights.
Following your shvitz, take the M1 to Mazel Tov, a ruin pub renovated from an abandoned outdoor courtyard into a classy spot serving up Middle Eastern street food. Live music plays nightly, and the hostess greets you with a shot of green tea before seating you amidst the colorful – and often crowded – dining room.
After dinner, spend the rest of your night exploring Budapest’s other popular ruin pubs. A favorite after-hours activity for locals and tourists alike, these lively establishments are staged in otherwise dilapidated buildings, and there are new ‘pubs’ popping up all the time, particularly throughout Erzsébetváros, the city’s buzzing seventh district.
Try Szimpla Kert, an animated bar with a quirky collection of rooms filled with discarded toys, televisions and vintage cars; or Ellátó Kert, a covered garden pub and taqueria with a low-key vibe and great selection of wine.
Shake off the bright lights and loud music of last night at Espresso Embassy, a hip and intimate coffee shop squeezed under a vaulted ceiling steps away from the Danube Promenade.
Stay in or take your latte to go and visit the Soviet War Memorial, located in the picturesque Szabadság Square, before heading to the House of Terror for an illuminating glimpse into the world of Hungarian life under Nazi and Soviet rule.
Got time for lunch? The Funky Pho is a vibrant and splashy restaurant serving creative Vietnamese food with an eco-friendly flare, proudly one of the first certified sustainable restaurants in the city.
If there’s space in your itinerary, indulge in some vintage clothes shopping before you depart; there are plenty of basement spots and stylish storefronts throughout Erzsébetváros.
INS & OUTS
Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport is situated outside the city; either a 23 minute drive by car, or a straightforward one hour trip by transit, depending on your budget and comfort level.
If you’re entering Budapest by train, there are three stations to choose from, servicing 25 European cities, including seven daily trips to Vienna departing every three hours.
Being a riverside town, Budapest is also a popular destination for European river cruises, often as part of a larger itinerary spanning the Danube.
Britney Hope is a freelance writer who technically lives in Canada, but can usually be found just about anywhere else.
She is best known for her journalism work covering the Canadian travel industry, where she specializes in trade news, executive features and sustainable tourism practices.
Britney’s work has been published on Wisebread.com, PAXnews.com, in PAX magazine and in Post City Magazine. She’s the author of a travel guide for San Francisco through Unanchor.com, and was a literary short story winner in the 80th Annual Writer's Digest writing competition.
You can check out Britney’s work on her website, and follow her adventures on Twitter.