There’s a reason that Budapest is nicknamed the “Paris of the East." It took me no more than two hours to fall head over heels for this astonishing city. Walking along the Danube, wandering around the old Jewish Quarter, lounging in the large plaza in front of St Stephen’s Basilica – Budapest is a city for dreamers and Romantics. Full of history and brimming with culture, the history has character packed into every crevice.
Oddly enough this beautiful city was once Buda and Pest, divided by the Danube. Today, Buda is characterised by its hilly winding streets lined with cobbles. It is crowned by Buda Castle which now houses multiple museums including the National Gallery. Meanwhile, Pest has become the cultural hub. The boulevards are wide and flat packed with shops and restaurants serving food from every corner of the globe.
For a city that remained oppressed by Soviet communism before regaining autonomy in 1991, the city has emerged a phoenix from the ashes. Years of war and strife, which lasted into the 1960s, have been washed away. Traces remain. Buda Castle will never quite regain its former glory after being gutted by the Soviets in the 1950s. And despite being one of the fastest growing economies in Europe, the city’s homeless population is also one of the largest and has become such a concern that homelessness has recently been criminalised. But, as a whole, in the last thirty years, Budapest has retaken its rightful place in the ranks of Europe’s most beautiful and cosmopolitan cities.
Food and Drink
Best Hungarian Experience: Spinoza
Budapest, Dob u. 15, 1074
Open 7 days a week, 8:00am-11:00pm
If you want a taste of old Budapest, there isn’t a better spot than this. Located in the old Jewish quarter, the restaurant serves up some delicious traditional Hungarian and Jewish dishes from breakfast through dinner. Make sure to taste their traditional goulash and don’t miss the apple strudel. The restaurant is cozy and a bit eclectic with a beautiful upstairs indoor balcony. But the best thing about it is the music. There is a pianist every evening to complete your dining experience and every Friday the restaurant hosts a Klezmer concert. Tickets include a traditional Hungarian-Jewish three-course meal.
Best of the Best: The Bigfish Seafood Bistro
Budapest, Andrássy út 44, 1061
Open 7 days a week, Noon-10:00pm
This was the best food I had in Budapest. Shockingly. Last I checked Budapest is nowhere near a coast so I have no idea how The Bigfish Seafood Bistro gets such incredibly fresh and tasty fish. The restaurant is trendy and crowded so make sure to book a spot or get there early to get a seat. Diners order inside where a lot of the fish is on display behind the counter. There is a lovely outdoor seating area though it can get cramped. Diners often share tables. There is rarely an empty seat in the restaurant! I cannot recommend their mussels in cream sauce enough, but they have hoards of delicious dishes to choose from. Make sure to check out their desserts. They are almost as good as the mains!
Street Style: Karaván
Budapest, Kazinczy u. 18, 1075
Open 7 days a week, 11:30am-Midnight Sun-Wed, 11:30am-2:00am Thurs-Sat
Budapest has quickly become a foodie’s city. It has exploded with incredible new restaurants serving up cuisine from around the world and street food is no exception. Karaván has collected together some of the best street food kiosks you’ll find in the city. There is plenty to sate your hunger from Italian to Hungarian dishes. Vegans will also appreciate the opportunity to indulge in some vegan burgers. It’s the perfect place to grab a quick lunch or a late night bite.
Souvenir Shopping: Great Market Hall
There is a reason this market is called “great.” It is three floors. Built in 1897, the beautiful market is an architectural feat. On the ground floor you will find food items from fresh produce and meats as well as perfect foodie gifts from chocolate to cheese and of course, Hungarian paprika. Upstairs you’ll find a few street food kiosks and hoards of stalls selling souvenirs and traditional Hungarian items. Some of them are cheesy but if you’re willing to hunt, you’ll find a few beautiful handmade pieces.
Mainstream Shopping: Váci Utca and Andrássy Avenue
Whether you choose Andrássy or Váci all comes down to your budget. Váci Utca has plenty of high street stores and souvenir shops to satisfy those with a more meagre budget. It is generally crowded with tourists and you certainly won’t find any unique pieces but it is great if you just want to do some quick shopping at your tried and tested stores. Andrássy Avenue is the place to go if you’re looking for higher end stores. It has everything from household names like Gucci and Burberry to a few more reasonably priced stores like Cos.
Top Tourist Things to See and Do
Hungarian Parliament Building
Cost: HUF 6000 (Non-EU citizens) or HUF 2400 (EU citizens)
The Hungarian Parliament Building is easily one of the most beautiful government buildings in Europe. Over one hundred years later, the building remains the tallest in Budapest and the largest in all of Hungary. Located right on the Danube, every inch of the building is ostentatious. Around forty kilograms of gold were used in its decoration. Many visitors don’t realise that they can also tour the interior. Guided tours are conducted daily in multiple languages. Visitors can see the beautiful rooms as well as the Holy Crown which has crowned over fifty Hungarian kings since the twelfth century.
Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church
Cost: Free (Fisherman’s Bastion), HUF 1500 (Matthias Church)
There is nothing quite like the pearly fairy-tale turrets of Fisherman’s Bastion. It’s a bit of a hike to get up to the stunning terrace but it is definitely worth it. You will be rewarded with some of the best views of the city. The lookout was built at the turn of the nineteenth century, a hybrid of neo-Romanesque and neo-Gothic architecture. The result is a unique collection of fanciful white towers which look like they could have been built for the Sugar Plum Fairy.
In front of the Bastion sits the equally stunning Matthias Church. The Church is striking with its gleaming neo-Gothic architecture topped with a multi-coloured mosaic roof. A church has supposedly sat in this spot since the eleventh century and the building even served as a Mosque during the Ottoman occupation in the sixteenth century. In the nineteenth century it was restored to its current glory.
Cost: Prices Start at HUF 5500
The thermal baths of Budapest have been drawing visitors for hundreds of years. Before the modern baths were developed, the Romans and then the Turks enjoyed the city’s thermal springs. There are several baths to choose from but the most popular are the Szechenyi Baths. They are some of the biggest natural hot springs in Europe with a total of 18 baths. Since they were built just over a hundred years ago, millions of visitors have relaxed in the beautiful pools. You can also enjoy a glass of wine or a massage during your visit.
Lesser Known Spots
Hungarian State Opera
Cost: HUF 2490
It doesn’t get grander than this. The nineteenth century opera house is staggeringly beautiful from its limestone façade to its richly decorated interior. The opera house is currently closed for restoration but will be reopened in 2019. Visitors can enjoy an opera or ballet or take a guided tour in Italian, English, French or Spanish. The tour also includes a mini concert.
Cost: HUF 4000
It’s not everyday that you get to visit the largest synagogue in Europe. The mammoth Moorish revival style structure can host up to 3000 people and is also one of the largest synagogues in the world. After being heavily damaged during World War II the building was restored in the 1990s. On the north side of the synagogue is the Holocaust Tree of Life Memorial which presides over the mass grave of some of the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews killed in the Holocaust. In tribute, the leaves of the tree bear the family names of some of the victims.
Getting To and From the Airport
Probably the easiest way to go back and forth from the airport to the city centre is to take the 100E bus which takes passengers directly from the airport to Deak Ter Station. Buses run every half an hour from the airport from 5:00am to 12:30am and every half an hour from the station between 4:00am and 11:30pm. Alternatively you can take the 200E bus to the M3 metro which will also take you into the city centre.
If you aren’t lucky enough to be staying in the city centre, then your best hope is taking the 200E bus to Ferihegy Station where you can catch trains to destinations further afield. If this doesn’t appeal to you, there is a steady stream of taxis waiting outside the airport. Taxi rates are fixed at HUF 300 per kilometre plus a HUF 700 base fee.
Getting Around the City
Budapest’s metro system is not as advanced as some other European cities. There are only four lines which operate mostly on the Pest side of the city. Metro tickets cost HUF 350 for a journey on one line and HUF 530 for a journey which involves one switch (two metro lines). Tickets need to be validated at the station before boarding the trains.
Budapest also has many streetcars and over 200 bus lines in operation so you will most likely be using these more than the metro. Tickets for these are the same as the ones you use for the metro and can be purchased at metro stations, ticket machines or from newsstands. If you’re going to be using public transport frequently it is maybe worth buying a ten pack of tickets for HUF 3000 or a one (HUF 1650), three (HUF 4150) or seven day (HUF 4950) travel card. If you choose to the buy the Budapest Card, you will get free use of public transport included in that purchase.
Photography by Savannah Hayes
Top: Fisherman's Bastion
Middle: Budapest; Great Market Hall; Hungarian Parliament; Great Synagogue
Bottom: St Stephen's Basilica