Things to do in Budapest: The allure of the East
Looking to spend a weekend in Budapest? Fab! This 2-day Budapest itinerary gives you the lowdown on where to eat, where to stay, and all the things to do in this charming city
Apprx. Reading Time: 7 minutes
The crew are busy setting up the equipment, and the cast is probably away in their vans, away from prying eyes, busy donning makeup. They’re doing their best to not attract extra attention, but the hefty cameras and lenses aren’t helping.
In a city immortalized by Hollywood, you couldn’t ignore the vigor in the air, even if you wanted to. We quickly make our way to the Shoes on the Danube, as Budapest got engulfed in shades of purple and pink.
Not all attractions are ‘fun’
Things to do in Budapest: The Shoes on the Danube
Some visitors are busy clicking pictures and trying to capture the perfect moment as the sun rapidly sets behind the Széchenyi chain bridge in Budapest providing the perfect Instagram moment, yet there are some others, placing candles and flowers and offering a prayer. It’s a sad and poignant moment by the Danube.
The shoes were built in memory of the Jews in Budapest who were made to take off their shoes before being shot into the Danube river by fascist Arrow Cross during WWII. There are about 60 pairs of shoes representing the unfortunate incident.
Built by a Hungarian sculptor called Gyula Pauer the art installation captures the fact that war never brought anyone joy. Visitors by the shoes, ensure they maintain silence and pay their respects.
The Pest castle in the background gets enveloped in gold and the moment stays etched in my memory forever.
Neighborhoods start to light up, and the bridges start to twinkle. Each bridge is built differently and is lit differently too. The architectural beauty in Budapest isn’t lost on us.
The Danube slowly courses by, and while it’s quiet and peaceful by the shoes, I realise it’s time to head off on a cruise on the Danube. I realise I haven’t eaten in a while and I look forward to the traditional dinner on offer on the cruise.
Timings & Cost: Open 24 hours, Free
Unparalleled Romance and glittering structures
Things to do in Budapest: Cruise and Dinner on the Danube
We get on the cruise; we’re taken to our tables and entrees are served. It’s formal yet casual. It’s calm outside on the deck as the Parlament slowly drifts by, the same colors enfolding it as well.
Inside musicians play traditional music, we’re served wine and the buffet is served. I’d decided at the last minute that I would do something that would help me completely enjoy the experience for a few hours. Help me cut off from the outside world for a few hours and the cruise was the right decision.
I trust TripAdvisor when making a lot of my travel decisions, and I hurriedly searched for options and booked the cruise instantly. It was hassle-free, and I had clear instructions on where to assemble in addition to what I could expect while on the cruise. I wasn’t aware at first that Tripadvisor provided such an option! All I knew was it provided reviews, so I was pleased when I could book activities after reading reviews, picking out the option best suited for me and having my tickets sent to me instantly!
I help myself to some Hungarian Chilled Cherry Soup (Meggyleves) and Töltött káposzta (Stuffed Cabbage) while it’s warm and I quickly feel full although there’s lots of food and even a variety of desserts on offer. The vessel slowly takes a turn and takes us down the Danube once again and gets us back to Budapest.
We decide to call it an early night to head off to Fisherman’s Bastion early the next morning.
Timing & Cost: Please refer to details on the TripAdvisor website by referring to the link above
Colors that don’t stop surprising
Things to do in Budapest: Buda Castle and Fisherman’s Bastion
We got up super early the next day and walked up to Fisherman’s bastion over on the Buda side. We could already see gorgeous views of the Pest side in Budapest, and the sunrise was equally charming as the sunset the previous day. The main attractions, Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church were next to each other, and you could see the Parlament on the other side.
As someone who’d probably visited a bastion before, this looked more like a fairy-tale version sans the defense bit and my assumptions were right. It was built to celebrate the 1000th birthday of the state and was more about providing a panoramic view of the city and enjoying it. It did fulfill it’s purpose well!
Matthias Church which stood next to it looked more like a colorful mosaic puzzle put together. It stood tall and was beautiful inside as well.
A couple had turned up early to get wedding pictures and once I’d taken loads myself, I sat near one of the turrets and spent a few moments watching them. While there were many other activities I could take up on the Buda side like visit the Hungarian National Gallery, Széchenyi National Library and Budapest History Museum, deciding it was time to get breakfast, I skipped it all and made my way to New York Cafe to have breakfast at the ‘most beautiful cafe in the world’!
Note: If you’d rather prefer walking, you could also take the funicular at the base of the Chain bridge to get up to Castle Hill. (1100HUF/£3 for a single or 1700HUF/£5 return per adult).
Cost & timing: Fisherman’s bastion – Open 24 hours however the topmost tower is open after 10 am and costs a Euro. However, the views aren’t too different.
Matthias Church – HUF 1500 and extra HUF 1500 to go up the bell tower
River-fronts, lit bridges and an exceptional Parlament
Things to do in Budapest: Walk along the Danube and admire the Parlament
Making our way along the riverfront on the Buda side, I was awarded some more great views of the Parlament. Locals took their dogs out for a walk while some others continued on their morning run. It was just another day in Budapest as I continued to fall in love with the city. Other than Fisherman’s Bastion, walking by the Danube was the best way to get gorgeous pictures of the Parlament and many other monuments that you’d pass along the way.
I slowly made my way over the Chain Bridge, which you’d cross at least once if you took a stroll through the city. Majestic lions stood sentry on either end. I walked right up to the middle and stood for a while admiring the very first bridge that connected Buda and Pest.
These two cities were disconnected till Charles Bridge was built somewhere in the 1870’s making it Budapest. The bridge provided panoramic views of both the sides. In the evenings all the bridges in Budapest were lit differently, and people would sit on them having a chat or enjoying the sunset. I didn’t attempt to do so as being tiny; I couldn’t hoist myself up!
After a few minutes, I continued on my way to New York cafe.
Making cafe culture ‘Grand’
Things to do in Budapest: Have coffee in New York Cafe
As I entered New York Cafe, everything about the place screamed opulence. Possibly everyone sitting around us was a tourist yet I knew I had to pay a visit as it was frequented by prominent artists, writers and aristocrats in the late 19th century and wanted to check the buzz for myself.
Grand it was, with pillars of gold and elegant paintings on the ceiling, which made me feel I could have been in a palace rather than a cafe.
Budapest is known for its historical grand cafes. However, I had a feeling that New York cafe could be one of the most expensive ones with coffee costing about 8 Euros. Giving in to temptation, I also tried one of their desserts as I knew this was something I couldn’t give a miss and may probably not end up visiting anytime soon again.
Timing: 9 am to 12 am
Panoramic views and details in gold at St.Stephen’s Basilica
Things to do in Budapest: Visit St. Stephen’s Basilica
When I’d visited the bastion in the morning, St. Stephen’s Basilica was clearly visible on the Pest side and obviously so, as, as per law no building was supposed to be higher than the Basilica or the Parlament! Both the buildings were of equal height symbolizing equality between mortal and spiritual beliefs. Now as I stood next to it, it looked stunning from the outside.
I waited patiently till it was ten as I wanted to take a lift to the cupola for a panoramic view of the city. Mass was on, so I prayed for a couple of minutes and admired the intricate gold detailing, tapestries and breathtaking artwork. The Church was one of the most photographed buildings in the world, and you could easily see why.
The Basilica also contained the relic of the hand of St. Stephen which you could pay to see for a small amount, which I skipped.
Once at the top of the tower, I could almost see the whole of Budapest, but it was time we got lunch before heading to the baths.
Cost & timing: Open for tourists: Mon – Fri: 09.00 – 17.00, Sat: 09.000- 13.00, Sun: 13.00 – 17.00. For the cupola it’s 10 am to 16.30 and the charge is HUF 600
Things to do in Budapest: Take a dip in the Thermal Baths
After having a tasty meal of Chicken Paprikash and Goulash, I was excited to relax and try a dip in the medicinal, thermal baths. The Gellert spa in Budapest with its Art Nouveau architecture was one of the most ancient and massive spas I’d visited in a while. It had an outdoor pool where the majority of the crowd was concentrated.
After leaving my belongings in one of the free lockers, I realized after I’d paid for a swim cap that I didn’t need one for the thermal baths, but it was mandatory to have one for the pool.
I did carry my towel though. So, when you plan on visiting do ensure you get your slippers, towels and swim caps if needed.
There were three baths in the spa with different temperatures. You were supposed to go from the coolest to the warmest and vice-versa. You could stay for the whole day if you wished! There were sauna and steam rooms too.
Some were having a hen party as well in the spa, so definitely an option to consider if you’re planning on one! While Gellert Spa was quite the artistic one, there’s also Széchenyi Bath which is the largest in Budapest and quite colorful too, bright butter yellow to be precise with blue in spots. Many pictures that you’ve probably seen when it comes to ‘spa’s in Budapest’ would be of Széchenyi, with locals playing chess surrounded by steam! In total there are about eleven thermal-heated baths in the city…..you could spa hop!
The spas were popular among tourists and locals alike. However, since tourists were on the rise, so were prices. Locals opted to go during off-peak hours of preferred the highly recommended Lukács Baths or the Rudas Baths, so I’d opt for those if you were looking for a quieter/local experience. Once I stepped out it was chilly! Rushing to the lockers, I quickly changed and continued to Gellert hill located opposite to the spa.
Ensure you don’t have any wounds to avoid infection and burning sensations when you visit!
Timing & Cost: Gellert Spa 6 am – 8 pm, Ticket & Cabin 20 Euros, Széchenyi Spa 6 am – 10 pm, 19 Euros
The Church in a cave
Things to do in Budapest: See Pest from Gellert hill on Buda side
Annoyed that I had to hike the hill after my stint at the spa and I hadn’t carried a bottle of water, I felt loads better once I was at the top as it was a UNESCO site, had charming views at every pit stop I took and the statue of Liberty stood high on the top of the hill. I could see almost all of the bridges connecting Buda and Pest from the top.
The place was full of tourists who quickly left after sunset. It was calm and the breeze was blowing pleasantly. A few pictures and a souvenir later, off we went to see the Church in the cave.
The Church hardly had a few people visiting. It was not a tourist attraction and people were engrossed in prayer. I wanted to visit as I’d never been inside a natural cave Church and it seriously felt good to sit and pray for a few minutes. After we were done, it was time for dinner!
Timing & Cost: Mon to Sat from 9.30am to 7.30pm. 600HUF (£1.70) for adults and 500HUF (£1.50) for children. Service takes place at 8.30am, 5pm and 8pm every day.
Local food full of flavor and color
Things to do in Budapest: Try the local food
As someone who isn’t too fond of cooking but loves eating and will toil for a nice meal, most of the times my excursions involve going on a hunt for the most delicious meals being served in the city at different price ranges. We sometimes don’t mind paying a little extra if the food is going to be etched in my memory forever!
Budapest has got flavorful food to suit every budget. Tired after a full day of exploring Budapest, when I sat down to get a meal at Rezkakas bistro, the dumplings accompanying the goulash were some of the best I’ve ever had! They were soft and slightly chewy and the meat was cooked and spiced to perfection. The paprika in Budapest did make the dishes extra savory. No two goulash can be the same and the goulash and paprikash at Hungarikum Bistro were equally yum.
After having our fill, when we strolled through the streets, smells of deep-fried dough wafted through the air. Many stalls were selling savoury langos, topped with sour cream and garlic and they were heavenly!
Traditional Hungarian food is hearty and warm and if you eat meat you’re in luck!
…And drinks to accompany it
Things to do in Budapest: Try Hungarian wines and local drinks
Budapest isn’t all about the food….you’d be surprised to know that a large region on Hungary, the Tokaj region – a UNESCO site, produces some of the tastiest wines in Europe, but not all wine can call itself from the region (even if it is) unless it undergoes strict quality checks.
What makes these wines special is that the grapes are made to ‘noble rot’ first…a natural fungus grows on the grapes under the right conditions, getting them ‘raisined’ in the process, making the wines sweeter.
At the Tasting table where I was informed of the characteristics, there’s endless bottles of wines and spirits and charcuterie. The wine tastes sweet reminding me of the Santo Red I had a while ago in Santorini. Not being a wine person and eager to try the highlights ‘Palinka‘ and ‘Unicum’, off we go to the ruin bars.
Palinka, a fruit brandy made from plums and apricots is easier on the palate than Unicum, which reminds me of aniseed and liquorice as I quickly swallow it. It’s fiery and leaves me with a spicy aftertaste and a grin on my face. Unique to Budapest and literally ‘unique’, Unicum gets me prepped to explore the ruin bars.
Anything but ruins!
Things to do in Budapest: Pub-hop in the ruin bars
Synonymous with Budapest are it’s ruin bars. When owners couldn’t be bothered to preserve buildings or shops, they abandoned them. Many would call abandoned spaces as ‘unsafe’ and ‘ugly’, so the clever folks here converted them into hipster spots full of cool, vintage, artsy stuff selling liquor!
There was a car bumper right behind an exotic vase, a bathtub full of cushions were placed in a corner and bright lights were present in corners.
The scene was like a pub when we visited in the evening but when we paid Szimpla Kert another visit on Sunday…it was a different sight altogether. Flea markets were in full swing and some vendors were selling veggies. An angel made of glass caught my attention and I knew I had to get it right away.
The place had a different buzz altogether, one that I wouldn’t have imagined when I visited a couple of nights ago.
Szimpla Kert was the most famous and the one we visited, however, there are numerous you can visit. Most of them are concentrated in the 7th district – in the Jewish quarter but there other scattered throughout Budapest.
Anker’t was another ruin bar that looked more like a garden than a pub. There were many and you could opt to go on a ruin bar crawl.
Jewish culture and cuisine
Things to do in Budapest: Get a taste of the Jewish culture here
Mention of the 7th district reminds me of the scrumptious Jewish food I had while on my Tasting Hungary tour while in Budapest. Our guide informed us about the Jewish history and culture in Budapest while we devoured Flódni, with fillings of apple, walnut, plum jam and poppy seed between 5 layers of cake, Pogásca’s and Cholent.
Somewhere in 1868, the Hungarian Orthodox declared themselves independent of Progressive and Conservative Judaism, as Neo-Orthodoxy – ‘The Torah together with the way of the earth’, which is what a lot of the Jews in Budapest practice today. Hearing snippets of the Jewish culture reminded me of Israel and the hospitality of its people.
We also step inside the Dohány Street Synagogue, the biggest in Europe, at the end of the tour. It’s noisy and people are engrossed in prayer and praise which went to show how people from the same religion mingle with the culture of the place and represent themselves differently!
Street art around every corner
Things to do in Budapest: Go on a street art hunt
The Pest side of Budapest is full of street art and it’s quirky and colorful! There’s one dedicated to the inventor of the Rubik’s cube which has a 3-D effect when you try to take a picture!
The Jews in the 7th District were celebrating the end of Shabbath. There was a small music festival, food stalls and lots of pop up events. I’m not sure whether every Sunday looked like this, but it was very happy and cheerful in the neighborhood as we hunted for murals. I’m assuming it would have helped to go with a tour, but all we wanted to do was lazily hunt for them ourselves.
The district was full of them and smells of delicious food kept wafting through the air and even though I was full my tummy rumbled!
My favorite was a one with a bird in it’s clockwork house!
History as it was
Things to do in Budapest: Visit the House of Terror
An offbeat thing to do while in Budapest is to visit the House of Terror that ‘spells’ terror while you’re passing by.
Gory events of the past are described and depicted as is and since we were short of time and I wasn’t prepared to face and educate myself of terrible events that had happened in the past, I chose to skip this one.
Timing & Cost: Open every day except Monday – 10:00 am-6:00 pm, Full price ticket 2000 HUF
I’d been in Budapest for four days and the city had me mesmerized. The food, culture, architecture and the sights were unlike I’d ever seen and four days were definitely not sufficient to even scratch the surface!
While popular for hen-do’s and stag parties, you can’t help but think out loud that Budapest isn’t quite the right fit for the same. The place exudes romance and has just the right ingredients for a blockbuster movie!
PIN FOR LATER!
- If you’re looking to wander around town and sample the Jewish food why not try Taste Hungary? Excellent selection of restaurants! Read more about it here
- There are many items on this list you could do for free!
- If you’re looking for places to stay which are mid-range and within walking distance of major sights, Hotel Parlament is great option
Looking to head off to the islands to catch some sun and sea? Why not head to Mykonos? All details here!
Explore more of the region
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