Budapest: Where To Go, What To See, What To Do
Mike and I have been home from our trip to Budapest and Kraków for a little over a month now and as I’ve been sorting through all my photos and rounding up our favorite spots, I find myself already dreaming about a return visit to each of these wonderful cities. We spent 5 nights in Budapest and 4 nights in Kraków and while we felt this was plenty of time to hit the big “to-dos”, we could have easily extended our stay in each cities and found plenty to keep us busy. From history to architecture to food and culture, these two cities offered everything we hoped for and then some.
The first question everyone has asked us, before and after our trip, was why Budapest and Kraków? The simple answer is word-of-mouth. Here and there we’ve had friends or fellow travelers mention Budapest and Kraków as two European cities that they really loved, so this year we decided to see for ourselves. Both cities were also incredibly inexpensive which was a definite plus!
We started our trip in Budapest, arriving on a Monday morning to a small studio apartment in District VII that we rented via Airbnb. The apartment itself was great – clean, modern, and comfortable – but the location of the apartment proved to be its best feature. District VII or Erzsébetváros (Elizabethtown) is, in my opinion, the best area to stay in Budapest, and our apartment was right in the middle of it all. There were a seemingly endless amount of unique and interesting shops, restaurants, cafés and bars right outside our front door. District VII is where you’ll find Budapest’s Jewish Quarter as well as many of the city’s famous Ruin Pubs – previously abandoned buildings turned bars and clubs. Our apartment was also steps away from Deák Ferenc tér, a major hub for public transit around the city – so when we wanted to venture out it couldn’t have been more convenient. We paid a ridiculously inexpensive price of $250 TOTAL for 5 nights and would have happily paid much more.
Budapest has everything you could ask for in a major European city – a river, a castle, beautiful churches, bridges, monuments, museums, an opera house, a central market hall, Michelin-starred restaurants, shopping…the list goes on. I’ll cover food & drink in a separate post because we did a LOT of eating and drinking, now it’s onto the main topic of this post…where to go, what to see, and what to do in Budapest.
When planning our trips, one of the very first things I do is look into tours of the city. On Bali and in Berlin we road bikes, in Prague we opted for Segways and a food & culture tour, and in Budapest we decided on a tour by Trabant. Some may consider the Trabant an inefficient relic from the days of the Eastern Bloc, but we loved this cute little car and our fantastic tour guide, Balázs!
I found My Personal Budapest via TripAdvisor and booked an entire day tour with Balázs Ackermann. Balázs owns several Trabants that he has updated and restored on his own and he also uses them for his acrobatic car stunts (we stayed on all 4 wheels during the tour)! He picked us up bright and early from our apartment and we were off to explore the city. After a morning hitting the highlights, we headed outside the city to Balázs’ home where we met his parents and enjoyed a delicious traditional Hungarian meal prepared by his mother. We then made our way back to the city where we ended our day with a “Hidden Gems” tour where we visited several spots off the beaten tourist path. We loved this tour and thought it was the perfect way to get a great overview of Budapest, thank you Balázs!
For our birthdays this year, my brother and his fiancée went the experiences over things route and planned a sunset wine tasting for Mike and me while we were in Budapest. Experiences over Things wins every time – this boat ride was so fantastic and was easily our most memorable experience in Budapest. We lucked out and there ended up being just one other couple on the tour with us, so the four of us had an incredibly intimate experience. Our guide was friendly and knowledgeable about Budapest and all the great Hungarian wines we were tasting. The sunset followed by the glowing lights along the banks of the Danube was completely unreal; as we sped along and our captains blared “Thunderstruck” over the tiny boat’s speakers, we knew this was something we would never forget.
The Széchenyi Thermal Baths are one of the largest thermal baths in Europe, with their water supplied by two thermal springs. The water is said to have medicinal properties due to its natural warmth and the abundance of minerals found in the water. There are many thermal spas in Budapest, but Szechenyi is the largest and most popular so that’s where we decided to go. It felt a little like we were hanging at public pool in Budapest, if public pools had a pricey entrance fee and were housed in a Baroque palace. It was a great place to spend an afternoon relaxing after walking around the city for days, although the stag party in attendance added a hint of Las Vegas party pool atmosphere.
Our first stop bright and early on our Trabant Tour, Heroes’ Square is one of the largest main squares in Budapest and where you’ll find the statues of various Hungarian leaders.
A beautiful Roman Catholic basilica, St. Stephen’s Basilica is where you’ll find the supposed right hand of Stephen, the first King of Hungary.
The House of Terror is a museum that features exhibits relating to the Communist regimes that once controlled Budapest and Hungary as well as memorials dedicated to the regime’s victims. The exhibits were interesting but there was something missing that made it just an ok museum for us. There were English printed papers to read in each room, but we may have gotten more out of it if we understood Hungarian.
A touching memorial right in front of the Parliament building, Shoes on the Danube was created to honor the Jews that died in Budapest during WWII. Here Jews were lined up by Arrow Cross militiamen, ordered to take off their shoes and were shot at the edge of the water so their bodies would fall into the river.
A striking building that you can’t miss, the Hungarian Parliament building is best viewed from the river below or across the banks on the Buda side from Fisherman’s Bastion. They offer guided tours if you’re interested in checking out the inside.
One of several suspension bridges that connects the Buda and Pest sides of the city, the Chain Bridge is easily Budapest’s most famous bridge, and the one closest to the castle.
Despite the fact that the Hungarian State Opera House was just a few blocks away from our apartment, we didn’t end up making it there. They offer tours at 3pm and 4pm daily and the inside is supposed to be beautiful. A great option for a rainy afternoon.
Just across the Chain Bridge you’ll find Castle Hill, home to Buda Castle, Fisherman’s Bastion (Halászbástya), and Matthias Church. They offer a funicular ride to the top, but we opted to avoid the lines and make our way up on foot. This is a great area to spend a day – great views, shops, and architecture. If you’re an early riser I strongly suggest taking in a sunrise from Fisherman’s Bastion.
We took the easy way up Gellért Hill via Trabant and the views from the top were stunning. Here you’ll find the Liberty Statue, or, as our tour guide described it, a giant Hungarian bottle opener.
Deák Ferenc tér was just a few blocks from our apartment so we ended up here multiple times throughout our stay. The square is filled with young people and there are several restaurants and bars lining the perimeter. At night everyone had a drink (or bottle) in hand while they jammed out to the evening’s entertainment.
We didn’t take a tour with Imagine Budapest, but I stumbled upon their office while shopping one day and had to give them a mention. They specialize in various themed tours that sound really cool, definitely worth a look!
+ Just walk!
One of my favorite things to do in any city we visit is to walk around with no destination in mind. Budapest is an incredibly vibrant, lively city with something interesting waiting around every corner. I stumbled upon shops, buildings, and farmers’ markets that I never would have found in any guide book. I loved all the different architecture around the city – Budapest has everything from Art Nouveau to Gothic to Roman and more, with an interesting contrast of Communist-era buildings in between. Let yourself get lost for an afternoon and see what you find!
I love to shop and when I’m traveling I make it my goal to find unique, locally-made gifts and souvenirs to bring home. This has proved to be surprisingly difficult in other large European cities we’ve visited because every shop seems to have the exact same touristy things! This was not the case in Budapest and I was in heaven. The Central Market Hall is where I found nearly everything I brought home – true Hungarian paprika, ceramics, lacework, crystal, Christmas ornaments…the list goes on, and on, and on. The first floor of the market is like a farmers’ market, with meat and produce counters lining the walkways. The second floor is where you’ll find all the goods as well as a food counter to fuel up while you peruse. There is a basement as well but I didn’t get the chance to venture down there.
When it comes to the goods, no price is necessarily a set price, so come prepared with cash and be ready to bargain. It’s a bit overwhelming at first and not every stand has high-quality products, so my advice is to make a lap or two before buying anything then go back to pick out the things you really liked. The building itself is also very beautiful and makes for great photos!
The most beautiful chocolates you ever did see, their bars are sure to win over your family and loved ones back home, and make sure to grab a truffle or 5 for yourself.
Stylish and unique little gifts and souvenirs, with a cute little section of children’s goods as well.
If you’re doing any cooking on your own in Budapest, this is a great shop to check out for specialty ingredients. I went into it thinking it would be Hungarian focused, but it definitely is not. At Culinaris you’ll find high quality ingredients from around the world.
If you’re looking for wine, specifically good Hungarian wine, Bortársaság is where you’ll find it. We tried several different wines that we loved from Sauska winery and Bortársaság had a plentiful supply.
A cute little shop and café on Király Street where I found some beautifully packaged candies and soaps made locally in Budapest.
A bit on the touristy side, but Memories of Hungary did offer a few neat souvenirs to bring home.
That’s all for now! Stay tuned for Part 2 featuring everywhere we ate and drank in Budapest!