Kate Seabrook & Paul Sullivan profile one of their favourite European cities…
An Introductory Walking Route
One of the most pleasant ways to introduce yourself to the Hungarian capital—just eleven hours away on a direct daytime train (with dining car) from Berlin, or a slightly longer overnight journey—is to walk a loop along both sides of the Danube. You could start at the striking Hungarian parliament building (Országház) on the Pest side, follow the river promenade southwards past the poignant Shoes on the Danube memorial, and to the peripheries of the city centre.
You might pop in for a look and a bite at the covered market hall (Nagy Vásárcsarnok) before crossing Liberty Bridge to the Buda side, where you’d stroll past the historic Gellért Thermal Bath and enter the Gellérthegy Jubileumi park, where you could explore the Gellért Hill Cave—a grotto chapel in a hillside cave network, formerly used as a monastery and a World War 2 field hospital—and the Liberty Statue, erected in 1947 to commemorate those who lost their lives fighting for the country. There are playgrounds and quiet areas here for families too.
Keep going through the park for classic views across the river to the Pest side, perhaps stopping off at the Garden of Philosophers before either heading down to street level to Várnegyed (the Castle Quarter), which contains Buda Castle, the Royal Palace and Hungarian National Gallery with its collection of Hungarian masters, or continue on to the Citadel and Fisherman’s Bastion. A little farther on you’ll find Batthyány tér subway station where you can snap a perfect photo of the parliament building from across the water, which is particularly stunning during blue hour.
Armed with a general overview of the city and a phone or camera full of scenic snaps, you’ll be ready to explore the myriad charms of the historic centre and surrounding neighbourhoods….
Museums & Galleries
Budapest has plenty of big-hitter sights. Among the best for history buffs are the striking Parliament Building; the Hungarian National History Museum, the biggest in the country with a collection that traces the nation’s history from the Stone Age and Roman and Ottoman eras through to communism; and for those interested in the city’s darker history, the House of Terror, former HQ of both the fascist Arrow Cross Party and the Hungarian version of the communist secret police. The Holocaust Memorial Center is as poignant as you might expect, with a (modern) museum detailing the destruction of Hungarian Jews, as well as a synagogue and memorial garden.
Art lovers have an array of choices, too. The Hungarian National Gallery, set inside the Royal Palace, is the place to discover Hungarian artists such as József Rippl-Rónai, Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka, Lajos Tihany and Mihály Munkácsy; the Museum of Fine Arts, located close to Heroes’ Square, has five floors of works from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, Renaissance and Baroque paintings by masters like El Greco, Rembrandt, Velázquez and Raphael, and a gorgeously restored Romanesque Hall. The Ludwig Museum mixes contemporary Hungarian and international art; there are works from Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein but also excellent Central and Eastern Europe sections.
The Dohány Street Synagogue, Europe’s largest, has been the main place of worship for Budapest’s Jewish community since 1859. The building encloses the Garden of Remembrance, a mass grave for Jews murdered in 1944-45, and the weeping willow Holocaust memorial. Attached to the synagogue is the Jewish Museum, featuring objects from the lives of Hungarian Jews and much more.
Budapest also offers a slew of smaller, quirkier, and more specialist venues. Photography fans won’t want to miss the Robert Capa Centre, which has changing exhibitions that focus on press and reportage photography, and the nearby Mai Manó House, a.k.a. The Hungarian House of Photography, which showcases the works of national and international photographers in a splendid building brimming with frescoes; Manó, by the way, was a royal court photographer during the Austro-Hungarian era and his former studio can still be visited on the second floor.
Lovers of modernist architecture will be interested in the Walter Rózsi Villa, which was built in 1936 and designed by local architect József Fischer for the opera diva Rózsi Walter and her husband Géza Radó. The Bauhaus-style white building also contains design pieces by the likes of Marcel Breuer. For something quirkier, the Pinball Museum is Europe’s largest interactive museum dedicated to, yup, pinball machines: 130 vintage consoles that date as far back as the late nineteenth-century, many of which you can play on for free once you’ve paid to get in. Boing!
There are also some quirky museums in the district of Obuda, which has a charming village vibe and makes for a pleasant little trip out of the centre. The Museum of Trade and Tourism, more interesting than it sounds, is a must for retro signage and packaging fetishists; the Imre Varga Collection is dedicated to Hungary’s greatest sculptor; and the neighbouring Kassak Museum and Vaserely Museum are dedicated to the works of their respective namesakes—Hungarian avant-garde painter and writer Lajos Kassák and op-art master Victor Vasarely—plus some excellent changing exhibitions.
There are also Roman ruins to explore (although Aquincum has a more impressive selection of those), a beer garden (Kobuci Kert), or grab a coffee or glass of wine from the little Imbiss in the middle of Obuda’s square.
Green & Quiet Spaces
Heroes’ Square might be a vast and fairly charmless place in itself, but the adjacent City Park (Városliget) is a must. As well as strolling the winding pathways, there’s also a zoo, a small theme park, the Széchenyi Thermal Bath (famed for its handsome architecture and evening parties, or ‘sparties’) and Vajdahunyad Castle, which houses the Museum of Hungarian Agriculture if you’re into that kind of thing. The lake adjacent to the castle lake offers either sedate pedal boat experiences or ice-skating, depending on the time of year you’re visiting.
Another fabulous green space in the city is Margaret Island—a former royal hunting ground that used to be called Rabbit Island. It’s quite small, just under a square kilometre in size, but is charming enough to while away an afternoon or even a full day just strolling around, enjoying the gardens and ruins, and eating ice cream or pizza and drinking beer. There are squirrels running free, rescue storks and peacocks in the kids’ zoo (which is free to enter), an Art Nouveau water tower you can climb—and the Palatinus Bath is a favourite location for both locals and visitors to take a splash or just relax in one of the many pools.
Who doesn’t love a cemetery? Budapest has the wonderful Kerepesi Cemetery near Keleti train station. This leafy and serene place is home to the graves of many prominent Hungarians including Zsa Zsa Gabor, dahlink. Another cemetery-esque place is Memento Park, where communist statues go to die—or rather to be ogled at, including the Grandstand, a replica of the tribune that served as the pedestal for the eight-meter-tall bronze statue of Stalin that used to stand on ‘Felvonulási tér’ (Parade Square).
If you feel like getting out of town a bit, try renting a bike from a local vendor (Bikebase has central locations) and cycling along the Danube to Szentendre. It’s on the EuroVelo 6, around 20 kilometres from the city, and offers baroque architecture, cute houses along cobbled streets, as well as a smattering of museums, shops and galleries.
The city is full of them, and everyone has their favourite. Szechenyi is the most famous, and arguably the most beautiful—it’s also one of the busiest and most expensive.
Rudas, on the Buda side, is our personal favourite, since it has atmospheric Ottoman vibes (it was built in the sixteenth-century), bucket showers and a refreshingly nippy plunge pool; it’s only open for mixed bathing between Thursday to Sunday though, and you’ll need to check the hours on the website as they vary for each day. Make sure you purchase the combination entry ticket which covers the Ottoman thermal baths (our favourite bit), the wellness area (which is more modern; check out the yellow shower room and the spa on the roof with a view of the Danube) and the swimming pool.
Another favourite is Kiraly, which has a similar vibe to Rudas in that it was also built during the Ottoman era, but a bit more down at heel. Unfortunately it’s currently closed for renovations and it seems unsure if it will open again. For something much swankier, the Art Nouveau Gellert Baths are very touristy but worth it if you want to splurge. They offer an “accidentally Wes Anderson” aesthetic, reasonably priced massages and pedicures and a ticket includes access to all ten (!) of the outdoor pools.
Our favourite local place in District VIII is Csiga Café at Vásár útca. 2. It has good breakfasts, a dirt cheap lunch menu between noon and 4pm on weekdays, and a solid dinner menu too. Bookings are highly recommended for evening visits.
Lugas Etterem (Bajcsy-Zsilinszky útca 15) is highly recommended for Hungarian bistro-style food and wine—be sure to request the full wine list, as only house wine is listed on the main menu, and make sure you visit outside peak times or make a booking as it is very popular. They have some vegetarian options though if you eat meat it’s hard to get past the deer stew with Hungarian potato donuts. If the weather is nice you can sit outside and gaze up at the basilica.
Pörc & Prézli Étterem at Lazar útca 1 (also near the Basilica) is a more modern space but also great for traditional Hungarian food. It’s not particularly vegetarian friendly, but there’s also an outdoor terrace with a view of the Basilica. For a restaurant that serves Hungarian classics with a twist, Retek Bisztro at Nádor útca 5 is a safe bet, and has an adorable retro character. The food and service are really nice and we went back for a second visit because we enjoyed it so much. It has an excellent list of Hungarian wines by the glass For Jewish cuisine, Kazinczy utca’s Macesz Huszár is the best in the business.
Cafes & Bars
Some of the best coffee in Budapest can be found at Coffee Stand Gutenberg on Gütenberg tér— the square provides a pretty impressive view as you sip your coffee too. They have also opened outlets at Kazinczy útca and Dob útca both in District VII. Also in District VII is English language bookshop Massolit at Nagy Diófa útca 30, a cosy place for coffee, cake and an intimate chat or some reading.
For authentic retro café vibes on the Buda side, check out Bambi Eszpresszó at Frankel Leó útca 2-4. Bambi has not changed since it opened in 1961 and maintains all its charm, offering a simple menu from breakfast omelettes to beer and sausages; prices are low and it’s a local meeting place for everyone from older Hungarian intellectuals to hip young things (English is spoken).
Rengeteg RomKafé at Szinyei Merse útca 22 is a quirky little place where you can drink the best hot chocolate of your life—or an iced version in summer—under the benevolent gaze of 1,500 teddy bears. The menu is only in Hungarian but the owner is very friendly; just ask for a recommendation or tell him what flavours you like.
For fancy Scandinavian croissants hit up Freyja at Szövetség útca 12 in District VII. And if you want to enjoy High Tea (either English or Hungarian style) in opulent surroundings try the New York Café; there is often a queue for a table at popular times (reservations are only possible for dinner) and be prepared to pay a pretty penny for it. For a touch of elegant history that’s slightly cheaper, head to the city’s oldest patisserie, Ruszwurm, whose cherrywood counter is over 200 years old.
For drinking, there’s a lot more than ‘ruin bars’ to Budapest (although some of those are fun too). Golya at Orczy útca 46-48 is a long running café-bar and community meeting space which hosts events and live music. Their new location has a great roof terrace now. Auróra is another lively community place that hosts gigs, film nights, workshops, discussions and more—both of these are well worth supporting since these kinds of socially-minded venues seem under constant threat of closure by the authorities. You can find Auróra at Auróra útca 11 in District VIII.
Macska at Berkocsis útca 23 is a friendly cat-themed bar (no real cats) with craft beer and vegan snacks; InVitro BeerBar at Izabella útca 40 in the VII offers craft beer—both their own brews as well as imported beers—with good vibes and a metal soundtrack.
Konfekcio at Vig útca 20 (near Csiga cafe) is a tiny purple vintage/thrift shop brimming with sass. The prices are reasonable and the owner Kata wears many hats from art historian and curator to local style icon, also creating her own one off creations out of repurposed vintage fabrics under the label Konfekcio Couture. Jajcica at Szondi útca 58 is vintage clothing heaven with a very friendly owner and many rooms to rummage through and a decent selection for both men and women.
At Prater útca 9 in the 8th district there are two vintage shops next door to each other. You normally have to go into the small shop (which sells the higher end stuff) and ask them to open the bigger shop next door if you want to browse there. Öltöző (Dressing Room) at Síp útca 24 in District VII is a little basement shop that is generally more 80s orientated but has some earlier stuff as well. Vintage Humana at Károly körút 8 and József körút 74 is where Humana sends all its vintage stuff in Budapest. Keep your eye out for the regular discount days to score a bargain.
For other kinds of shopping. Artushka at Klauzál útca 4 is a charming little shop that has colourful handmade leather shoes, adorable handmade toys, jewellery and other gifts. Borfalu at Szondi útca 66 is hands down Budapest’s most interesting wine shop, with a comprehensive selection of only Hungarian wine (including some great natural wines) for those wanting to broaden their horizons beyond Tokaji and Bull’s Blood.
If you really like your vino, consider a day trip to the “Valley of the Beautiful Women” in Eger, one of the country’s great wine centres and accessible by train in a couple of hours.