The crooked pathways wound through Buda’s antiquated streets and shops as I trekked up Castle Hill. I paused to look back upon the panoramic vista of palaces, castles, and architectural masterpieces appearing before me. As I ascended that last set of stairs, I caught a surreal glimpse of limestone-engraved castle walls: Fisherman’s Bastion. There was not a soul in sight as the sun rose casting a golden hue upon the fortress walls. I wandered along the arches and watch towers, unleashing the plots and enchantments of medieval fairytale books I grew up reading; and as I leaned against the ornately sculptured pillars in amazement and surveyed the cities of Buda and Pest and the Danube River that runs through them, I imagined those regal kings and queens here before me—doing the same.
The silence and calm were only interrupted by an angelic chirping of birds and the wisp of a cool morning breeze as the golden hour of sunrise swelled into bright rays, glittering along the Danube and illuminating the teals and oranges of Matthias Church. I knew the crowds would be coming soon, so I continued on to the Royal Palace and museums to take in more of the royal ruins of Hungary’s empires and dynasties from times passed. If headed to Budapest for the first time, consider this your guide on what to see, eat and where to stay!
The Highlights: What to See
Climb Castle Hill
Though many tourists opt to ride the “funicular” to ascend up Castle Hill, there are quaint pathways winding through Buda’s Gothic, Renaissance, Ottoman, and Neo-Baroque shops and homes. Yes, it’s a haul, but—whatever it takes—get up Castle Hill to explore Buda’s Castle District, featuring the Royal Palace, Matthias Church, medieval houses, museums, the Hungarian National Gallery, and best of all: Fisherman’s Bastion.
Budapest is renowned for its abundance of thermal pools and spas with medicinal, natural hot springs. Each thermal pool has its own set of rules, hours, and gender-specific pool times where bathing suits become optional. Our favorite: City Park’s Széchenyi Baths. Grand and ritzy, Széchenyi Baths are woven throughout a golden Neo-Baroque palace with 18 pools, 10 saunas, and spa treatments available for purchase. For a more Turkish bath vibe, consider Gellért Baths, the “palace of baths,” highly impressive in its Art Nouveau-style décor and intricate mosaic tile designs, reminiscent of ancient Roman temples. A hospital was run on the site of Gellért Baths in the Middle Ages, and the pools were later used as “muddy medicinal baths” during the Ottoman Empire.
Budapest’s trendy ruin bars started 15 years ago from the World War II ruins of abandoned District VII—the old Jewish Quarter. Though ruin bars are no longer a secret, it would be a shame to tour Budapest without the experience. Imagine funky, hipster dives held within unassuming, normal-looking homes and courtyards. The original and favorite ruin bar, Szimpla Kert, abounds in wide-ranging artwork and eclectic furniture, including a table made from a Trabant car. Imagine antiquated ruins and terraces forming a labyrinth to explore for a night of drinking and dancing. Check out these other notable ruin bars, as well: Anker’t, Corvin Club, Dürer Kert, and Ellátó Kert here.
House of Terror
The House of Terror, a museum displaying the less regal history of Budapest under Nazi and Soviet occupation, is mandatory in order to fully understand the tragic history of such a decorated, enchanting city. Watch video of the Nazis parading down the very Budapest streets where you dine and dance, with the excruciating excitement and applause from Hungarian onlookers. Witness the killing chambers used by both Nazis and Soviet-backed Communists in the basement and witness clips of the Budapest Jews marched off to death camps. Just to warn you, the city won’t quite look the same after the House of Terror.
Walk Across the Chain Bridge (and do it again at Night)
The modern city of Budapest is actually comprised of two separate entities, Buda and Pest, separated by the Danube River. Impressively suspended by iron chains, the Classicist-style Chain Bridge connects Buda to Pest with massive stone lions guarding the portals on both sides. Thankfully this bridge survived the mass destruction of World War II, as it now serves as a favorite Budapest photo spot with impressive castles and parliament buildings lining Buda and Pest shores. At night, these ornately decorated architectural masterpieces are illuminated by thousands upon thousands of lamps, creating surreal golden hues as if Mitus himself comes to enchant the city with a Gothic and Renaissance-themed Las Vegas.
Where to Eat
Great Market Hall
The oldest and largest market in Budapest, the Great Market Hall, hosts three floors of Hungarian and international eateries and shops. While in Hungary, the Great Market Hall is a perfect opportunity to sample Goulash, a stew of meat or vegetables, with a side of fried Lángos bread. Don’t forget to purchase Hungary’s renowned paprika to bring home: stronger and spicier than the milder paprika at your home supermarket.
For traditional Hungarian food with lively piano entertainment, venture over to Spinoza Café located in the heart of the Jewish Quarter. For an authentic meal, start with the Hungarian cold selection—including goose salami and liver pate. For the main course, choose between beef goulash, stuffed cabbage, or the goose leg. And for dessert: Flodini, a three-layer apple, walnut, and poppy seed cake in plum sauce.
A wonderfully ornate chandelier and red velvet curtain Hungarian coffee house can be found in Café Gerbraud. The renowned patisserie’s endless selection of sweets won’t disappoint and the location, close to St. Stephen’s and Andrassy Street, offer a convenient afternoon coffee reprieve from all your Budapest explorations.
Where to Stay
Aria Hotel Budapest (Splurge)
Aria Hotel is a boutique treat featuring musical Art Nouveau and Baroque décor, conveniently located in the heart of Pest’s Lipótváros neighborhood. Make sure to snag a room with a view, but, if you don’t, there’s always the rooftop terrace. Enjoy a complimentary breakfast buffet and gratis wine and afternoon snacks. Each room contains an iPad controller and a crackling digital fireplace. The regular live music is a perk, and a room comes at about $250 per night.
Corinthia Hotel Budapest (Moderate)
The entrance into Corinthia Hotel wows with a Corinthian columns and a lobby lavished in marble. The impeccably manicured courtyards and stained-glass ceiling indoor pool offer a regal Budapest experience akin to that of Habsburg opulence. The Spa Royale offers high-quality spa treatments, Finnish saunas, whirlpool hot tubs, and a complimentary juice bar. The hotel hosts three restaurants: the Hungarian-style Brasserie Royale, Asian fare at Rickshaw, and Hungarian tapas and wine at Bock Bistro. Enjoy Corinthia’s splendor for $200 per night.
Lavender Circus Hostel (Budget)
For the budget-minded travelers, consider Lavender Circus Hostel for great community and an abundance of creative decor. Located near the Great Market Hall and the subway station, the hostel impresses in its 19th century housing renovated by a creative artist-owner with aquariums, eclectic furniture, and paintings and sketches along each wall. You will be greeted with a shot of Hungarian Palinka and treated just as well for the remainder of your stay. Use the hostel’s kitchen for a meal or two to save travel money! TRAVEL TIP: Payment is cash only and there are only a couple of rooms with en-suite bathrooms, so book well in advance.
Have you been to Budapest before? Share your best travel tips in the comments section below and make sure to check out more of our destination guides!
Meet the Author
Becky Kivlovitz is a writer for The Pin the Map Project with published work in Backpacker Mag, Women’s Adventure Magazine, Texas Music magazine, Wide Open Country and more. Email Becky at Becky@thepinthemapproject.com.
*Becky was invited by Viking River Cruises to Budapest on behalf of The Pin the Map Project. Check out the river cruise she took here. As always, The Pin the Map Project will only work with brands and companies that we 100% recommend to our readers.