Originally three cities split by the Danube river, Buda, Pest (said Pesht), and Old Pest are now united as one large Hungarian capital, Budapest.
Budapest is a beautiful city full of amazing architecture, delicious foods and a history of being taken over by it’s neighbors. But Hungarians are resilient and their capital is now a thriving wonderful place to visit. I’ve highlighted eight things that will make your trip to Budapest one to remember for years to come.
Take a free walking tour of the city
We learned a lot about the city on our three hour walking tour guided by the wonderful Dora. Our tour was booked through our base as we were on a trip through the base’s ITT, but it’s easy to find out about the free and paid walking tours here.
Dora was a great tour guide. She taught us about Hungarian and Budapest history in a fun and interesting way, tossing in jokes to keep us on our toes. In three hours we walked all over Budapest from down town on the Pest side to the hilly Buda side, including a lovely stroll over the Danube on the chain bridge. The best part about a guided tour is that you’ll learn things you’d never learn just by wandering the city alone.
Visit the beautiful parliament building
We ventured to the parliament building and got some amazing photos of the outside and a little show of the changing of the guards, but unfortunately we weren’t able to get in. Tickets to get a guided tour go quickly and it’s best to book in advance. If you want to risk it, go early that day as there are only so many tours in English given a day. When we got there the only tickets left were in Russian. We ran into a family from our base that had just gone in and they said if you REALLY want to see the buildings and don’t care as much about the history, book one of the tours that they have left. Even if you don’t understand the stories the guides tell, you’ll at least get photos of the inside.
Take in the city from above
There are several ways to do this in Budapest. For those passive viewers, there is the Budapest Eye, a massive ferris wheel located in Elizabeth (Erzsebet) Square.
For those with a little more desire to climb, you can see most of the Pest side from the top of Fishermans Bastion on the Buda side, just outside the breathtaking Mattias church. The bastion has “fairytale” turrets that look a little like Disneyland and a little like the Excalibur in Las Vegas. None the less, it’s a gorgeous view.
For those who are ready to make a huge climb, you can climb to the top of the 96 meter high dome on St Stephen’s Basilica located on the Pest side of the Danube.
Eat a book themed meal
Probably my favorite part of our trip to Budapest was our Valentines dinner at Konyvbar and Restaurant where every month or so they choose a different book on which to theme their tasting menu. Our book on Valentine’s Day was “Little Women” and they had five different courses each representing a different part of the book. I loved the ingenuity of each dish and the fact that the waiter told us the story for each dish and how it tied into the book. We splurged a little and got the wine pairing to the meal and I have to say, it’s definitely worth it. They knew exactly what they were doing and even changed the wine pairs to go with a couple of my vegetarian substitutions since I don’t eat seafood.
Everything about the evening was spot on and I can’t wait to return to Budapest just to go there again. It is a small restaurant though, so I wouldn’t leave booking a table there until you get to Budapest. Email or call them at least a couple weeks before you go.
Visit the largest Jewish Synagogue in Europe
The Dohany Street Great Synagogue is the largest synagogue in Europe and also houses the Hungarian Jewish Museum. We only had time to visit the outside of this spectacular building on our walking tour, but even the outside of it is breathtaking.
The Great Synagogue is located in the Jewish Quarter of Budapest, which was also the Budapest Ghetto during World War II. Nazi’s forced Hungarian Jews to live in this walled part of the city, cut off from the world, from November 1944 to January 1945. In comparison to other Nazi occupied countries, the Budapest Ghetto was fairly short lived as the Hungarians were initially allied with Nazi Germany and thus remained a relatively “safe” place. It wasn’t until the end of the war when they realized they wanted to align themselves on the side of the Allied Forces that Nazi Germany invaded and occupied the country. However, during this short time thousands of Hungarian jews were sent to their deaths at concentration camps.
Whether you head inside or just view the beautiful architecture from outside, take a moment to reflect on the struggle that many faced not that long ago.
See the city at night on a river cruise
One of the most amazing things we did on our short trip to Budapest was take a dinner cruise down the Danube. There are many river cruises you can take on the Danube, from cheap to expensive, but I’d absolutely insist you take one.
We opted for the more expensive of the tours after reading tons of stellar reviews on the Pannonia Gastro Boat. There were only 12 on our trip, eight of them were in our party. The intimate feeling of the dining room was lovely and I didn’t feel packed into a long table where I’m solely a plate to fill.
We had five star service from the time we stepped foot on the boat greeted by finely dressed staff. Our nearly three hour long cruise took us up and down the Danube while we ate a delicious six-course, wine-paired dinner. Between courses we were able to sneak out on deck to snap photos of the beautifully lit architecture as we floated by. The evening was absolutely dreamy and worth every penny in my opinion.
But if you don’t have that kind of money to spend on a dinner cruise, there are several other options.
Take a dip in the baths
I didn’t get a chance to get to the baths while we were there because we were pressed for time AND because I forgot a bathing suit. But I do hear that it’s a huge draw. Our tour guide said that they are often very busy, especially the large ones and it’s recommended to go early in the morning to get some quiet time in the baths.
I definitely want to return to Budapest and try this as I love the different pools at Glen Ivy in California. The one I’m most interested in visiting is the Gellert Baths, an art nouveau bath complex located on the Buda side of the city. When I get there, I will definitely share my experience. If you get there before I do, please tell me how it is!
Grab a drink in a ruin bar
Ruin bars! What a novel concept. I love the idea that bar owners in Budapest have taken abandoned and derelict buildings and made them useful again. If buildings had feelings, I’m sure these would be so happy to have company again.
There are several ruin bars in Budapest and you can even take a ruin bar tour if that’s your thing. We didn’t have a ton of time so we just headed to the most famous of the ruin bars, Szimpla Kert. A factory in it’s previous life, this ruin bar has tons of rooms that house different bars (a wine bar, a beer bar, a cocktail bar, a craft beer bar), a food station, and small areas where you can just sit and talk quietly with your friends.
We headed there fairly early on a Saturday night so it was busy but not packed. I was able to have a cocktail, take some great photos and generally enjoy myself before it got too over crowded.
If you’re not into the drinking scene and just want to see the ruin bar, head there on Sunday morning because it turns into a little farmer’s market selling fresh veggies, cured meats, nuts, mustards, and tons of spices including the most popular Hungarian spice, paprika. They even host a breakfast on the second floor, so come hungry!
These eight excursions will keep you more than busy on a weekend away to Budapest. I’d definitely recommend maybe three full days instead of the two and a half I had because there is so much to see and do. Budapest was never on my bucket list of places to go, but I’m so glad I did. If it’s not on yours, add it, I promise, you won’t be disappointed.