Why I went here? My interest with Budapest started a few years ago when I first heard that American Airlines started a direct flight to the city from JFK (no longer the case, btw). After reading about it and watching countless travel videos, I became fascinated with the city and added it as a must visit on my Eastern European itinerary. They also have one of the best Christmas markets in Europe (I went in December).
Best time to visit? Budapest is best around early spring or fall. It has very warm summers and cold winters. December is worth going however, despite the weather, to experience the Christmas markets. The city boasts one of the best in the continent.
Best way to get there? When I went, I flew from Brussels. Budapest is well connected via cheap flights from around the major hubs in Europe: London, Paris, Frankfurt, Dublin, Brussels, Amsterdam, and if you are traveling from the US, you will likely stop over in these cities regardless. Flights from the US begin at around $1,050 depending on the location and the time of the year. From Ferenc Lizst (BUD) airport to the city, take a bus that will connect you to the main metro line (blue). The metro will take you practically anywhere you need to go in Buda and in Pest. It is convenient, relatively inexpensive (around $11 for a day pass that includes the airport zone) and often reliable. Just ensure that you have a ticket prior to boarding and that you stamp it when on the bus.
What to see/do? Budapest has over 1,000 years of colorful history so it is hard to determine where to start exploring. It might be fitting to begin with the baths. After all, most people go to Budapest to relax and take part in this many centuries old tradition. There are several bath options to choose from, but the two most popular ones are Széchenyi and Gellért. The former is located near the zoo, just north of the city center and has an astounding 18 pools. It is one of the largest public baths in Europe. The latter is known for its elegance and style. Located on the Buda side, it boasts several steam rooms of varying temperatures and an ornately decorated pool whose image has become symbolic of bathing in Budapest. Once you’ve had your bath, gear up for some serious sightseeing. Start on the Danube embankment. From here, you will see three of the city’s iconic sights: the Hungarian Parliament, Buda Castle, and the Chain Bridge. The Parliament was one of the buildings commissioned by Emperor Franz Joseph to commemorate the millennium anniversary of the founding of Budapest. Its distinct neo-gothic architectural style is one of the most beautiful and recognizable buildings in the world. Buda Castle had its beginnings all the way back into the Middle Ages. Though much of its medieval structures are long gone, the building remains as one of the most important historical and cultural icon of the city. The Chain Bridge is the first of the many bridges built to permanently connect the old city of Buda, to the newer, more cosmopolitan city of Pest in the mid 19th century. It has a pedestrian walkway that visitors can use and which I highly recommend. The Buda side ends near the funicular that will take you up to Buda Castle hill and the Pest side ends near a beautiful square adorned by some of the finest art nouveau buildings in Budapest. Music is also one of the city’s main draws and its Opera House, located on Andrássy Utca, is one of the best examples of the city’s opulence during the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is considered to be one of the best music halls in the world just behing La Scala and the Paris Opera. I would highly recommend watching a performance here, whether it ballet or opera. The tickets are relatively inexpensive and you get to experience great music as well as the grandeur of old world charm.
Other notable attractions:
Heroes Square – dedicated to Hungarian heroes within its 1,000 history; located north of the city center
Shoes on the Danube — these cast iron models of shoes in the 40s represent the victims who were shot and thrown off the Danube by the Arrow Cross, a Hungarian ruling party that had fascist sympathies
St. Stephen’s Basilica — one of the tallest structures in Budapest built in the early 20th century; it has a magnificent dome and the mummified hand of its patron
The Great Market Hall — a bustling building filled with all things Hungarian; this is the city’s largest indoor market selling meat and produce as well as handicrafts and souvenirs; the 2nd floor has a self-service cafeteria serving traditional Hungarian food; a nice option for a quick lunch before heading back out for more sightseeing
Matthias Church — located on the Buda side, adjacent to the Royal Palace, this 700 year old, distinct church was the scene of many coronations including that of Franz Joseph and his wife Elizabeth
Food and drinks: Typical Hungarian cuisine is similar to most of Eastern Europe. They are heavy on meat, potatoes and cabbages. Paprika is an ingredient that is distinctively Hungarian. It is included in all of their major dishes, whether it be fish, meat, or vegetables. Definitely try some goulash. A good one will be slightly viscous, but more broth than oil. Eating out in Budapest is still relatively inexpensive so a decent three-course lunch will cost you around $15 and dinner will be around $25. For drinks, definitely try palinka, a type of Hungarian liquor that comes in many fruity flavors. It’s smooth like vodka, and just as potent, so be very careful after you’ve had a few.
Where to sleep? There are plenty of accommodation options in Budapest. There are several on the Buda side, but I would recommend booking on the Pest side instead. Pest is flatter and has more transportation connections than the other side of the river. Most of the attractions are also on the Pest side. And since Budapest remains one of the most affordable cities to visit in Europe, you can get a decent hotel for less than $100 a night depending on the season. Splurge at the Four Seasons and you will still pay a fraction of the price (rates begin at 275 euros) than say Paris, London, or Vienna.
Why I would go back? It was my first venture outside of Western Europe so I was a little bit tentative coming here especially after the first few hours upon arrival, but the city far exceeded my expectations. I loved Budapest. I went in December so it was rather cold. I would have liked to see the city in spring when the flowers are in bloom and when I am able to walk around comfortably and enjoy much of the city on foot. The city is beautiful despite the past 75 years of discord. It is just now finding it’s groove and tourists are once again beginning to appreciate its worth. Inexpensive, with good food and great culture makes Budapest a great tourist destination. And of course, the spa…I will definitely come back for that!