It’s difficult to sum it up. There’s no buzz word or catch phrase to describe it. Budapest isn’t charming like Paris or quaint like Bruges, but it’s a stunning city with a crazy history and a lot going on. I didn’t know much about Budapest before booking our trip, but had several friends highly recommend a visit. There are two parts to the city – Buda is on the west side of the Danube and is the hillier and more suburban side of the city while Pest (pronounced “pesht “) is the urban center is on the west side of the river.
After researching the options of transportation from the airport to the hotel, we ended up with a taxi. While it cost more, it was the fastest, most convenient and didn’t require several bus changes. We were able to check into the Promenade City Hotel a little early and drop off our things before heading out to explore. The hotel was in a great location on a pedestrian street close by to the river. The hotel recommended Evidens for lunch as it serves traditional Hungarian dishes. Following lunch, our plan was to walk to the House of Terror museum, but like in most cases, we ended up taking a scenic route for square donuts at The Box. They were definitely worth the extra walking. I didn’t expect them to be filled with deliciously flavored cream. Right around the corner from the museum, we stumbled upon a chimney cake street stand and it couldn’t be passed up. For around 300 HUF we had ourselves a delicious steaming curly cake.
The House of Terror is a museum containing exhibits related to the fascist and communist regimes in the 20th century and also serves as a memorial to those detained, tortured or killed in the building. The museum also describes what life was like for Hungarians at that time. It sits at 60 Andrassy Street which was first the party headquarters for the Hungarian Nazis (the Arrow Cross Party). Later the Political Police (PO) took over the headquarters. The atrium has etched pictures of the victims lining the several storied walls with a tank and oil fountain display in the center. Unfortunately we were unable to take any photos inside. We started with our audio guide on the top floor and worked our way down through the exhibits to the basement. I am really happy we opted to get the audio guide as it explained so much more than what was initially offered in the displays. We learned of the history of Hungary with the Nazis and communists invading and taking control of the country and people. The exhibits were interesting the way they were creatively designed. The map room, the room with the cross and the Hall of Tears stood out. In the basement they have reconstructed prison cells along with exhibits outlining the retaliation and emigration of the Hungarian people.
We walked over to Buda as darkness was setting in and saw the beautiful parliament building, Chain Bridge, Castle Hill and Royal Palace illuminated as we walked along the river path. The city’s beauty really transformed as the lights twinkled on.
Upon the recommendation of a friend, we headed to Szimpla Kert, but first grabbed dinner at El Rapido Tacos nearby. Szimpla Kert is located in the Jewish Quarter and was Budapest’s first ruin bar, an abandoned building turned into a complex of bars. Upon stepping inside, it felt like we were in another world and I’ve never seen anything else like it. It is a collection of bars that literally is in an old stove factory. With small unique rooms each filled with graffiti walls and old furniture, each bar has its own vibe.
We honestly felt like we were in some post-apocalyptic world or a movie set. Each bar is a little different in the decor or what they serve. There is a wine bar, a craft beer bar, a shisha bar, one that serves food, another with live music and another with yummy cocktails. The outside courtyard has an old Trabant re-purposed as a seat along with a screen showing old movies.
This article does a good job summing it up with some great photos. We first did a lap around the two floors to see all of the different rooms. It was pretty crowded even though it was early for a Friday. We eventually planted ourselves in the bar offering live music with their open stage night. We listened to a mix of different acts, but you haven’t quite lived until you’ve heard a Hungarian and a Frenchman beatbox.
We started our morning with a run along the river and to Margaret Island. I’ve always found running is a new city is such a great way to get your bearings and see the sites up close. We first saw the Danube Shoe Memorial along the river to honor the people killed by the Arrow Cross group. Up next was the grandiose and beautiful parliament building before getting to Margaret Island. Margaret Island has a 5k running track around the island offering pretty river views. Within the middle portion was a hotel, playgrounds, pools, Japanese gardens, ruins and a football field. You can tell that it would be a popular site to visit in the summer with the bike rentals, beach chairs and ice cream stands.
We visited the Great Market Hall for lunch which was a short walk from the hotel. It’s a huge multi-floored market selling a variety of things. The ground floor was mainly meats, fruits, vegetables and paprika stands. The first floor offered souvenirs and food stands. Brad chose an eggplant dish and I went with a langos, a traditional Hungarian fried bread. It’s typically eaten with cheese and sour cream, but there are a variety of sweet or savory toppings you could pick. You can’t go wrong with nutella, banana and strawberries.
En route to the metro, we stopped off at Budapest Baristas for warmth and caffeine. I always love finding independent coffee shops in new cities. The metro system is very easy to navigate. It was interesting how beautiful the stations were with their tile and wood. The Budapest metro system was one of the first metros, even before the tube in London. The trains used to be pulled by horses and you can pick up on the history while riding with its simplicity. It was also interesting the train lines are just 15 feet underground and you can see daylight coming down the stairs as you’re waiting for the train to leave.
After validating our ticket, we traveled a few stops to City Park. The park is a large green space in the city and has a castle, the largest ice skating rink in Europe, a circus, a zoo and thermal baths. The Vajdahunyad Castle was built for an exhibition to celebrate the 1000th year of Budapest and depicts different architectural styles. We wandered around the park a bit before heading to the Szechenyi Thermal Baths.
We purchased tickets at the hotel, but I’m not sure it saved anytime waiting in a queue. Since we were not going back to the hotel before dinner, we opted to rent towels from the spa for 1000 HUF (about $4). The queue to pick up and drop off towels was quite long and slow and if we had to do it again, we’d just bring our own towels. We were given a wristband which secured our locker. We could have rented a small cabin to use instead of the locker room, but it was more money and we didn’t find it necessary. We did bring flip flops which was nice to have since it was so cold. Outside are two hot leisure pools and a tad cooler lap pool. The one leisure pool was closed for renovations so it made the open pool pretty crowded. We were still able to find some of our own space and even saw the infamous men playing chess while enjoying the warm water. We checked out the inside warm pools before swimming a few laps. We were probably at the spa for about 3 hours and it was nice to not be limited on time.
We had a booking at Robinsons Restaurant which was recommended by a friend. It worked out perfectly since it was right near the thermal baths. My steak had delicious flavor as it was grilled over charcoals and Brad’s salmon was perfectly cooked with tasty sides. Both went great with the Hungarian wine we ordered. We split the marzipan cake with chocolate and almonds for dessert.
We strolled through Hero’s Square on the way to the metro stop. The square is beautifully lit with interesting statues and the Millennium Monument in the center.
We rode the metro and headed back to Szimpla hoping to find similar music as the night before. Unfortunately there was a DJ instead of live music. So after checking out the different bars, we headed out for a snowy walk back to the hotel.
Szimpla has a farmers market on the weekend mornings and we were curious as to what it looked like in the daylight. We found Solinfo Cafe for breakfast en route to the market. It was so strange to see the ruins and bar rooms in the light with vendors selling meats, cheeses, fruits and vegetables. Right outside Szimpla was Karavan. While currently closed for the season, it is a food court for food trucks and looked amazing.
We explored the interesting streets on our way to the Buda side of the river, finding street vendors on Gozsdu Court and a chimney cake stand.
We crossed the Chain Bridge and walked up the slushy switchbacks to the Royal Palace and castle hill. The palace was razed and rebuilt at least six times over the past seven centuries and currently holds two museums. The sun had finally come out and it turned out to be a beautiful day with blue skies and warming sunshine.
Outside the palace was much more urban than I expected with buses, taxis, houses, bars and restaurants. Brad and I checked out the castle towers with their beautiful views of Pest. Matthias Church reminded us of St. Stephen’s Church in Vienna with its colorful tiled roof.
We planned on taking an afternoon river cruise which left a few bridges down on the Pest side of the river. We went with Legend City Cruises which lasted 1 hour and 10 minutes. The audio guide could have been better, but it was nice to have one at all. We saw portions along the southern part of river before traveling north and around Margaret Island. The boat was comfy and warm and we were given two free non-alcoholic drinks. It was a relaxing way to see more of the city.
A stop for cakes and coffee at Pesti Jegbufe serves as a late lunch after the cruise. Brad’s tiramisu was just ok, but my strawberry cake was really tasty!
We had a couple hours to kill and Brad found Miniversum Museum online. It was a very intricate 1:100 scale model of Hungarian, Austrian and German landmarks. There were also buttons along the way which, when pushed, moved a bus, turned on lights or made the propellers on the plane spin.
The intricate details were fascinating and it was funny how they sprinkled in Star Wars characters walking down a street or a T-Rex eating someone in the middle of apartment buildings.
The night prior, we scoped out dinner in the Jewish Quarter for our last night. This area of Budapest quickly became our favorite based on the unique bars and restaurants. Fat Mama had an interesting drink menu, traditional Hungarian dishes and featured their own smoked meats.
Brad tried the aubergine cream which was kind of like chunky puréed aubergine on bread and I started with the goulash. We each got sandwiches which were really tasty. Following dinner, we hit up Desszert Neked for a take lemon meringue tart. There were so many pretty and delicious looking desserts. We once again went back to Szimpla Kert for a drink before heading back to the hotel.
Our final morning in Budapest was uneventful with a cab ride to the airport for our mid-morning flight back to Luton. Knowing nothing about Budapest prior to the trip, it is a beautiful city with a fascinating history and I can see how it is a favorite to those that have visited.