If you were to ask someone which city in Europe they most want to visit, they would probably respond with London, Paris, Barcelona or any other city in Western Europe. Budapest would mostly likely be left out as it’s slightly off the path that most tourists take. I honestly didn’t have Budapest on my radar either. Daisy had always wanted to go there and since we were in Belgrade it was only a few hours away, so we decided to take a quick trip. I left our weekend in Budapest stunned by its overwhelming beauty, it may just be the most picturesque city I have ever been to.
Where to Stay
Our usual routine is to go through Airbnb to find an interesting apartment or room. They offer more of a personal experience than going with a traditional hotel, and are often much cheaper! This time was no different… After a little searching, we came across an incredible apartment with a balcony looking out at St. Stephen’s Basilica which is the largest church in Hungary. The view alone was worth it and the location was in the center of the Pest side of town in District V, within walking distance from the main attractions.
As with most places, the closer to the city center you are, the more expensive things become, including rooms and eating out. For more budget options, look to stay in the outer parts of District I on the Buda side and Districts V, VI, VII, VIII and IX on the Pest side. There is a very detailed write-up on the districts here.
TIP: If you are staying further outside of the city, be sure to purchase the Budapest city card. It waives any public transportation costs and has many other perks too. Read up more about it here.
We awoke very early on our first day to catch the Parliament tour which is an absolute MUST-DO if you’re coming to Budapest. The Parliament building is the largest building in Hungary and a prime example of Gothic architecture. The interior was just as impressive! If you go make sure to book your tour in advance since they may sell out, especially in the busy summer months. Tickets can be bought here.
After our tour, we strolled along the Danube toward the Chain Bridge. Along the way, we saw many pairs of shoes on the bank of the river. There are about 50 pairs, made of metal that has been bolted into the ground. During Nazi occupation, a group of Jews was told to take off their shoes and were shot on the spot. This macabre memorial is one that you’ll never forget.
We kept going and made it to the famous Chain Bridge that connects the two sides of the city. Make sure you walk across it and admire the views of the river and of either side. Once we reached the Buda side, we were greeted by a massive palace up on the hill towering over us. The quickest way to reach the top is to take the Funicular up (you can also hike it, but it was very cold out so we opted for the ride…)
TIP: There might be a long line for the Funicular and the best way to skip it is to purchase an open top bus tour from any of the companies selling them there. They will waive the funicular ride fee (€6) and let you skip the line! If you are a museum buff, then go ahead and purchase the Budapest city pass as well (if you have the Budapest city card mentioned above, don’t purchase the city pass as they share many discounts).
The Castle District-Buda Side
The view from the top of Buda Castle is amazing. You can spend hours there just walking around and sipping coffee or mulled wine to keep warm. There are three museums in the castle but we did not venture in any of them since we were short on time and wanted to enjoy the sights and keep exploring.
After plenty of mulled wine, we walked out of the castle walls and checked out the neighborhood behind. The trees were in bloom and we stopped to enjoy this great view of Buda.
After walking around the Castle District for a while, we ventured off to find Faust Wine Cellar, a popular underground room, to go wine tasting. We mixed up our directions and instead ended up in “The Labyrinth” which is a cave system underneath the castle. We were expecting wine and scones but instead were walking around narrow, dark caves underground where Dracula (Vlad the Impaler) was held prisoner. It felt as though we were in a horror film with the smoke and music being played inside. Interesting, but not for the faint of heart. (Don’t worry, eventually we did find the wine place we were looking for, and rewarded our bravery by sitting for a nice, relaxing wine tasting – reservations recommended, we almost didn’t get in!)
Before our wine tasting, we headed to Matthias Church which is at the heart of the Castle District. The church is set in beautiful white and dominates the square. Be sure to purchase tickets to go to the top of the bell tower where you have the best views of the entire city. A true panorama that will take your breath away.
Also located in the Castle District is beautiful Fisherman’s Bastion, which looks like a castle straight out of Disney World.
After a very long day of sightseeing and lots of walking, we headed back to the Pest side of town for a quick dinner then relaxed on the beautiful balcony of our Air Bnb.
If we had more energy our first evening, we would have headed straight to one of the Baths or just hung out longer in the Castle District to enjoy the nighttime views.
Since we hadn’t yet used our Bus Tour tickets, this was at the top of our list for the day. We also hadn’t seen the Pest side much either. We hopped on our bus and rode it up to Heroe’s square where Vajdahunyad Castle and several museums are located. The Heroe’s square has the iconic Budapest sign so be sure to snap a picture of that. I managed to get Daisy sitting in the S of the Pest side, a fitting moniker for her ;).
The statues in the center of the square are of the seven chieftains who united the Magyar empire. I would not recommend climbing the statue, but it seems that you are allowed to get up on the first step to take a photo.
There is a beautiful castle just behind Heroe’s square. It looks like a castle out of a fairy tale, complete with lion statues, green ivy growing on the tower and a moat with a bridge connecting the separate sides. You won’t find characters out of a Disney movie there though, it now houses the Museum of Agriculture (go figure). It was a Monday when we visited and the museum was closed, we were however able to go up to the top of the tower and walk on the bridge. There was not a single soul up there and we enjoyed the view for about half an hour without anyone coming up.
There is also a picturesque church in the castle courtyard and it just put this place over the top. Seriously beautiful and since the museum was closed, we had the whole grounds to ourselves…
New York Cafe – The most beautiful in the world
We spent some time walking around before finally hopping back on our tour bus. Our next stop was the New York Cafe. Considered by many to be the most beautiful cafe in the world, it has ornate decoration, gilded age style interior and a phenomenal menu with elevated prices. If you’ve ever been to the Louvre museum before, it reminded us of the Napoleon rooms and felt like you’re having coffee there. The dessert menu is spectacular and champagne was a must.
We made a grave mistake in not looking at the final departure time of our bus from the New York Cafe stop (we were here a little off season, so their hours were much shorter). We still hadn’t completed our full bus tour around Budapest and this was our last chance! Since we already missed the New York Cafe final pickup, we had to make a dash for it to the next stop which was near the Chain Bridge. Along the way, we passed through the Jewish quarter and the absolutely gigantic Dohány Street Synagogue which is the largest in Europe! We didn’t have enough time to truly explore this area but I was able to snap some pictures.
A little out of breath, we made it to the bus just in time! After hopping on, we rode all around the Buda side before coming back to Pest. The Open Top Tour Bus is a great way to see the city, it really puts things in perspective and the audio tour lets you listen in to the history and fun facts of the area. During the pauses they played music and now “Budapest” by George Ezra is forever stuck in our heads. We went with Big Bus Tours, but all of the companies seemed to have very similar prices and routes.
Sunset River Cruise
We landed back at the start just in time for one of the river cruises. This was included in the price of the bus tour and was phenomenal. An absolute must do and we caught the perfect sunset one. Take a look at their schedule and decide which one is best for you. They have dinner cruises, as well as pizza and beer ones. While on the boat, we drank champagne ($2/glass!) and enjoyed the scenery. The whole thing takes about an hour and a half and was a perfect end to another busy sightseeing day.
A trip to Budapest cannot be complete without a visit to Szimpla Kert in the ruin pub area. These pubs are located in the Jewish quarter of District VII. These bars started up in “ruined” buildings, hence the name, and a movement was born. I have never been to a more eclectic place than this. Its basically a collection of bars all connected together and each one having its own feel. Nothing is in order, but it is so mesmerizing being there. Make sure you try some Szimpla beer. Also, since most of the bars are in danger of being closed due to noise complaints, once you exit keep conversations to a minimum.
What we would do if we had another day
If we had another day in Budapest we would have loved to go to some of the baths. Budapest is well known for the numerous bath houses around the city installed by the Turks when they occupied the city. The Szechenyi (Say-chen-ee) baths are the most popular ones as well as the largest and the most expensive. We didn’t bring towels with us on our walk and were not going to pay ~€ 20 to rent a towel each. So, if you plan to do the baths, definitely bring your own towel! There was one thing that we really wanted to do called a Sparty, basically an all night party at the baths (every Saturday), unfortunately the weather wasn’t cooperating the week we were here so we will have to come back soon! The parties can sell out and should be booked in advance. If this is your cup of tea, check out more info here.
The final thing that we really wished we had seen was to go to the world famous Opera house. We did pass by it, but to see an Opera there would make for a very romantic and unforgettable evening. The tickets aren’t too expensive either, if you don’t mind the nosebleed seats!
I hope you enjoyed this small city guide of Budapest and let us know what we should add for our next visit to this incredible place!