With a mix of Vienna’s elegance and the laid back culture of Berlin, Budapest is a weekend destination said to be enjoyed by many. And with myself, my brother and parents all visiting, and loving the city, at different times within the same year, I’m sure this statement is quite true.
The Hungarian capital is really two cities – Buda and Pest – separated by the river Danube. Hilly Buda is calm, serene and full of elegant buildings including the likes of the Citadella and Fisherman’s Bastion. Buda looks down onto flat Pest, a hub of more modern culture, where the National Museum and the country’s Parliament co-exist alongside cafes, restaurants and a thriving nightlife scene.
If visiting – and only having a small handful of days to explore like myself – there is by far a select few things that you NEED to do and see. Whether you’re experiencing the subfreezing temperatures of a Hungarian winter, or enjoying the sunshine and warmth of this landlocked country between April and September, these top ten sights, eateries and experiences are all a must.
VISIT FISHERMAN’S BASTION FOR PANORAMIC VIEWS
The panoramic viewing platform Fisherman’s Bastion, up in the hills of Buda, looks across the Danube, Margaret Island and down on Pest. The lower levels of the fairytale-like Bastion are free to explore and with a small cafe on one side of the platform, as well as fancy restaurant below, it is the perfect place to sit back and take in the city’s stunning surroundings. You should also explore the seven ornate turrets of the structure. The turrets symbolise the tents of the seven Magyar tribe leaders who settled the Carpathian Basin in 896, which ultimately lead to the existence of modern day Hungary.
EXPLORE THE DANUBE AND ITS BRIDGES BY BOAT
You can walk along both banks of the Danube to take in the sights, but taking a boat trip down the river is a great way to see the city both by day, and by night. A number of boat companies depart from Pest’s bank multiple times throughout the day and take around an hour to reach the island and make their way back.
SOAK IN THE SZÉCHENYI THERMAL BATHS
Budapest’s abundant underground thermal waters mean that there are dozens of thermal baths dotted throughout the city, with the most popular being the Széchenyi Baths. The hot thermal waters allow the outdoor pools to remain open all year round, but venture inside and you’ll find a number more baths, saunas and steam rooms. A visit to the thermal baths is a quintessential part of the Budapest experience.
INDULGE IN THE COUNTRY’S FAMOUS CHIMNEY CAKE
Chimney cake, or kürtőskalács, is made from a sweet yeast dough, of which a strip is spun, wrapped into a tube like shape and covered in sugar. No Hungarian Christmas market is the same without chimney cake, however due to its popularity, it is now available from street sellers all year round. One sugary roll only costs around 300 forints (80p) and often comes in a variety of flavour options including chocolate, cinnamon, walnut, vanilla and coconut.
WALK ANDRÁSSY AVENUE TO HEORES SQUARE
Lined with spectacular neo-renaissance mansions and townhouses, Andrássy Avenue joins the main city with City Park. At the end of Andrássy Aveune, alongside City Park, lies Heroes’ Square, which is one of Budapest’s postcard landmarks. Statues of Hungarian leaders line the square, while two museums sit at either end. City Park is another beautiful attraction to explore, and is the home of the spectacular Vajdahunyad Castle and Budapest Zoo and Botanical Gardens.
TRY THE AUTHENTIC HUNGARIAN DISH, GOULASH
Hungary is famous for its cuisine, which is heavy on its use of paprika, meat, and cabbage. Goulash is the city’s traditional dish and is a bowl of slow-cooked beef, vegetable and paprika broth. Budapest isn’t short of good goulash stops, but for an authentic take on the dish, look down the city’s many side streets for a back to basic eatery.
ENJOY LUNCH AT LIBERTÉ
Budapest is renowned for its long established coffeehouse culture and Liberté is Budapest’s little bit of America. This little find is not a cafe you’ll find in many (or maybe even any) guidebooks, but its a hidden gem that serves incredible food and drink for pennies. Everything on the menu is straightforward, looks incredible and tastes absolutely delicious.
RUN (OR WALK) AROUND MARGARET ISLAND
Margaret Island sits in the middle of the Danube and come rain or shine is the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of the main city. Explore the historic water tower and medieval ruins, rent pedal carts and cycle around the parkland or see the sights by running a lap of the 5.5km track which circles the island.
WALK ACROSS THE CHAIN BRIDGE
Without stating the obvious, you can’t explore both sides of the city without crossing at least one of Budapest’s many bridges. The Chain Bridge was the first bridge to permanently connect Buda and Pest and was completed in 1849, however it has a sad tale to tell. The bridge’s architect was so immensely proud when the bridge was complete, that he challenged anyone to find fault with his work. However soon after, it was discovered that the lions that stand guard at either end of the bridge were missing their tongues. This left the architect so distraight that he committed suicide.
HIKE UP GELLÉRT HILL TO THE CITADELLA
Gellért Hill is the highest peak within Budapest and is a challenging, yet highly enjoyable hike. Begin your hike beside the Gellért Baths and walk the winding paths and steps up to the Citadel, where there are viewing platforms down onto the Danube and the entire inner city. (Or if you’re all walked out, there is always the option of walking a little further along Buda and taking the funicular, which is the fastest way to get to the top of the hills for sure).