Until a few weeks ago, we had envisioned Budapest as one city, but the fact is there are many sides to this spectacular place. From a literal perspective, there are two sides, Buda and Pest, sitting opposite each other along the Danube River. They officially became one city in 1873 and today are joined by a series of bridges and rail lines that make up the greater city of Budapest. However, beyond the two banks of the river, lie the many different faces of Budapest, and this is what makes it such a great place to visit; there is something for everyone.
Budapest for the History Buff
Like many other capital cities in Europe, Budapest features a historic castle quarter. Located on the Buda side of the river, Castle Hill is the place to go for the best views of the city, and it is home to several museums and monuments including, not only Buda Castle, but numerous churches, the National Széchenyi Library and Sándor Palace, the official residence of Hungary’s President.
After exploring the castle district, take a ride on Budapest’s underground metro system, the oldest subway system in continental Europe. Many of the stations have classy tile work and a very historic feel to them. Lastly, don’t miss the Hungarian National Museum which houses great exhibits about the nation’s history and current archeological excavations.
Budapest for the Foodie
Eastern European food is generally not anything to write home about; but, we had high expectations for Budapest. The bar was set high by one of our favorite restaurants from home, a Hungarian spot in Denver called Budapest Bistro. We were not disappointed. Hungarian food takes the basic meat and starch components that are used in so many Eastern European countries and jazzes it up with paprika. This spice doesn’t add heat, but flavor. Some of our favorites included: chicken paprikash, rabbit in red wine sauce and garlic seasoned goose leg.
In addition to the traditional Hungarian restaurants that cover the streets of Buda and Pest, you should also check out the Central Market Hall (Nagy Vasarcsarnok). At a first glance, this market looks like any other in Europe with produce, meat and seafood stands, but upstairs there are several food counters where you can graze to your heart’s content. We particularly loved the stuffed cabbage rolls.
Budapest for the Party Fiend
If you don’t look closely, you may miss one of the most interesting parts of Budapest’s nightlife: ruin bars. Tucked into warehouses and dilapidated buildings, these bars are often unmarked and therefore easy to miss. Stop by during the day for a relaxing coffee or beer, or visit on a Friday and Saturday night to experience the liveliest atmosphere in town. Ruin bars are eclectically decorated, including anything from rusted old cars that have been converted into seating to toilets that are being used as planting boxes. They feature many types of entertainment from DJs to dancers to interactive art pieces.
If you want to read a detailed summary of ruin bars in Budapest, check out this post.
Budapest for some R&R
Likely brought into popularity when the Turks invaded Hungary, gyógyfürdő (thermal baths) are a traditional part of Hungarian life. These facilities usually include indoor and outdoor pools whose temperatures vary based on the minerals of which they are composed. Definitely set aside at least one full-day for relaxing in a fürdő during your visit to Budapest. We loved our visit to Széchenyi Fürdő, one of Europe’s largest thermal baths situated in the center of City Park. You can purchase tickets which provide access to various services, ranging from the use of the basic thermal baths for about 3,000 HUF to pool access with a private cabin, including massages and spa treatments for upwards of 9,000 HUF.
If public baths aren’t your style, no need to worry; head over to Margaret Island (Margitsziget). This island park sits right in the middle of the Danube River and can easily be reached by foot or by public transportation. The park is just over 5 kilometers around and has countless areas for picnicking and sunbathing. There are also tennis courts and trails for biking and running, if working out is your idea of relaxation. A small petting zoo, water park, ice cream stands and cafes make it a family friendly destination.
Budapest for the Arts Lover
If arts and theater are your thing, be sure to visit Budapest during the Budapesti Tavaszi Fesztivál (Spring Festival) which happens each year in March. We happened to be in town this week, and although we didn’t take advantage of its offerings, you can be guaranteed so see a wide variety of operas, shows, and live musical acts at venues across the city. During the rest of the year, the city houses several art museums, including the Hungarian National Gallery which includes a feature on famous artists from Budapest.
As for our personal experience in Budapest…fantastic! Even before we arrived things were going our way. The night before we left Vienna, we saw a sign at the reception desk of our hostel that said “free ticket to Budapest.” Although it seemed too good to be true, we asked for more details. As it turned out, a fellow traveler had purchased a round-trip ticket and wasn’t going to be using the return. So, rather than trying to sell it, they asked the hostel to try and find someone who could use it. Funny how things like that work out; we were actually planning on doing the exact same thing with our round-trip tickets from the Czech Republic.
But anyway, back to Budapest, it has been one of our favorite destinations thus far. Despite the fact that neither of us speaks a word of Hungarian, we felt at home. Before arriving, we had heard some bad things about Budapest being a “sketchy” city with lots of people out to scam tourists; so we had our guard up a bit when we arrived. As it turns out, everyone we encountered was friendly, helpful, and honest. Add the delicious food, sights, and activities, and you have all the makings of a wonderful city. If you are planning a trip to Eastern Europe DO NOT miss Budapest.