Budapest was the absolute best. Yes, I rhymed on purpose. The food, architecture, people, and city in and of itself were amazing! Three days was plenty of time to see all of the highlights, and I would have happily spent more time there.
We arrived late at night in Budapest where I found the first thing I loved about Budapest- the efficient taxi cab stand at the airport. You walk up to the stand and tell them your destination. They print out a receipt with your address and tell you which cab number to get in. They also provide you an estimated fare. The cabs drive up, and you jump in the one with your number on it, hand the driver the receipt, and sit back. So efficient! Plus, our cab driver was the nicest guy and tried to give us tourist tips about Budapest in broken English.
We stayed at the Danubius Astoria Hotel. While the furnishings were a little outdated, the hotel was fantastic. We were upgraded to a deluxe room which was very spacious for two people. The concierge was nice and helpful, especially when booking us early morning cabs to the airport for our departure. The hotel was centrally located, right by a metro station and a 10 -20 minute walk to all of the hot spots. A+ for location. Like all of Budapest buildings, the architecture was amazing at our hotel. All the buildings in Budapest are grandiose with a Parisian/Viennese feel to them. Budapest is dubbed the Paris of the East; however, Hungarians will tell you that they are not Eastern Europe! They are in Central Europe.
Day 1 started with Buda Bike tour which was actually a bike tour of Pest. Budapest is actually two cities separated by the Danube. Buda is the posh side situated on the hills where the castle and Saint Matthias church are located. Pest is the more happening side with hotels and restaurants. Plus, it is flat- perfect for a bike tour! Our guide was a French girl who was very sweet; however, she didn’t provide much historical insight into the city. She did inform us that Hungary became a nation in 896, and most of the ornate buildings like the Parliament were built for the millennial celebration in 1896. So most of the big landmark buildings are 96 meters high or have something with 96 included in its design. Also, Hungary is bordered by 7 countries, so 7 plays a symbolic role in their architecture too. Our guide took us to a cool outdoor bar in the city park. We were on the tour with two Canadians and two Californians, and we started talking about refugees. Our guide informed us that Hungary has accepted very few refugees. The government posts propaganda discouraging accepting refugees. She said the flyers she has seen say that terrorist attacks in other nations happen because they let refugees in. I found this very surprising since Hungary has had a history with being the victims of discrimination.
I received the best compliment from the Canadians on our tour. They asked if I cycle a lot because my push/pull pedal technique was excellent. I responded honestly that I ride infrequently, but I was so happy my technique was good. Must be all those years of watching Le Tour de France on TV….
The tour started and ended at St. Stephen’s Church. We walked about 20 minutes over the Chain Bridge to Buda. The Chain Bridge was the first permanent bridge connecting Buda and Pest. Once we arrived in Buda, we had to climb up a hill to the castle. Our first stop was lunch to try some Hungarian goulash (beef stew) which was delicious. Also, Hungarians love their lemonade which is not super sweet like American lemonade. I love lemonade, so therefore, I love Hungary. We went to the Hospital in the Rock Museum. You must take a guided tour which starts every hour on the hour. Hospital in the Rock was founded in the 1930s in the caves underneath the Buda Castle. It was built in preparation for the second war world, and it was under the protection of the Red Cross, meaning it served people from both side of the conflict. Unfortunately, the hospital loss access to water during the war and was severely overcrowded, so a lot of people died from infection. The hospital closed after WW2 and was reopened during the Hungarian revolution against the Soviets in 1956. Afterward, it remained open and also turned into a nuclear bunker.
After the tour, we went to Fishermans Bastion which is a scenic overlook on the Buda side. You can pay to go to an upper level of the Fishermans Bastion, or you can take advantage of the free lower level which offers a great panorama view of the Danube and Pest. We then paid to go into Matthias Church which was well worth the 1,500 HUF. Anna and I both agree that our favorite church is St. Mary’s Church in Krakow. It is painted in bright beautiful colors and elaborately decorated, unlike the gothic stone churches in the rest of Europe that we have visited. Matthias Church was a close runner up. It was also brightly painted, and it had an interesting exhibit in it. Plus, it has brightly colored tiles on its roof, just like St. Stephen’s Church in Vienna which Anna and I both loved.
After the church, we went to Faust Wine Cellar in the Hilton Hotel in Buda. My sister and friend had recommended we make reservations here because it is a tiny room with seating for approximately 20 people. We paid 5,900 HUF for 6 wine tastings, a full glass of wine, and 3 cheese scones. It was delicious, and it was a great way to learn about the various wine regions in Hungary. Honestly, I didn’t know Hungary had such a wine scene until I visited the cellar. The wines were all very dry and good, and they make one very sweet Muscat wine that I do not recommend.
After our wine tasting, we made the trek back to Pest where we walked along the Danube for 30 minutes to our dinner destination of Kisakkuk. We sat outside in the perfect weather (it was 70 degrees and sunny all day and a little cooler at night—a nice break from Texas heat!). The meal was delicious, and we ended it with cake. I got a sponge cake that was soaked in some sort of liqueur with chocolate on top. It was the perfect way to end day one in Budapest.
Day 2 started with a tour of Parliament. The Parliament is the third largest in Europe (the first is London, and second is Bucharest). It is 96 meters high, since it was built for the millennial year. We bought our tickets online in advance for the 45 minute guided tour. The interior was very ornately decorated, as is every building in Budapest. After the tour, we climbed the tower at St. Stephen’s Basilica for a view of Buda. Anna and I agreed that the viewing platform was one of the most spacious we have seen in Europe, perfect for taking photos without a tourist running into you. The tower had a nominal admission fee, and the church itself was free to visit. The church was colorful and ornate, similar to Matthias Church. Our next stop was the Kazinczy Street Orthodox Synagogue. It is a small synagogue, brightly painted in blue that was used as a horse stable in WW2. They offer free shawls for girls to cover their shoulders. We wandered around the Jewish quarter and stopped at Karavan for lunch. Karavan is a food truck park. One truck served langos which is Hungarian fry bread topped with cheese and other toppings. They tasted a like a less sweet version of a funnel cake.
Afterward, we ventured to Buda to visit Gellert Baths. Hungarians love their thermal baths. There are a few in Budapest, and we chose Gellert because it was closer to our hotel. Plus, the art nouveau style of the complex looked cooler than the other major bath in the city. The baths were built in the early 1900s and only closed once when a pipe burst. It stayed open during the entire WW2 although it suffered damage from the war. The complex has 5 indoor thermal pools ranging from 33 – 40 degrees Celsius. There is an indoor swimming pool used for water aerobics, water polo, and swimming. There is an outdoor thermal pool and an outdoor wave pool. In the outdoor area, there is a snack bar, and inside, there are masseuses. We tried out all the indoor thermal pools and liked the hottest pool the best, but it was too hot to stay into long. We then went to the wave pool to cool off. Pro tip: your admission includes a locker, but you can upgrade for about $6 to a cabin which is a private changing room. If one person in your group upgrades to a cabin, you can take turns using it and store your bags in the changing rooms. They are plenty big enough to store multiple bags.
After the baths, we stopped at Central Market Hall which is a giant market selling food and other items. There are some food stalls on the second floor. We walked through quickly and opted to grab cake and lemonade at Amber’s Café. Hungarians love cake. I even saw them eating cake at 10 am. I love cake, so I love Hungary. We tried the dobo cake which is a Hungarian sponge cake with chocolate buttercream and topped with caramel. It was the perfect afternoon snack.
We then headed to Szimpla Kert which was one of the first ruin pubs in the city. In 2004, the owners of Szimpla Kert bought rundown homes and factories that were set for demolition. They turned it into a quirky bar. There is a large open-air portion of the bar since the roof is missing. Then there is a maze of indoor rooms and bars that are fun to explore. The furniture is mismatched, and there are eclectic decorations throughout, including a gnome hanging from a swing, a convertible with a table and seating inside, and a pommel horse. Also, they randomly sell carrot sticks as a snack. Every time the lady asked a tourist if they wanted to buy a carrot stick, the tourist asked a thousand questions to see if it was a joke. It turns out it is not a joke. They simply serve carrot sticks. Szimpla Kert started a trend when it opened. People bought other “ruins” and turned them into ruin pubs around the city.
After drinks, we ate at Kazimir Bistro and stopped at Karavan again for dessert. I got a cinnamon trdelnik which is a spit cake. It is made by rolling dough on a stick and grilling it to create a spiral cake. They are also called “chimney cakes” since they look like chimneys.
Day 3 started with a day trip to Szentendre which is one of the towns on the Danube Bend (curve of the Danube that is north of Budapest). I accidentally bought us month long passes for the HEV suburban railroad, so Anna and I can travel from Budapest to Szentendre for an entire month if only we lived in Budapest. The price of the ticket seemed really expensive, but I didn’t question it since I know nothing about Hungarian transit prices.
The train took about 45 minutes from the Batthyany metro station on the Buda side. We arrived before 9 am in the tiny little town, and most everything was closed. We found a bakery and got coffee and poppy seed crescents while waiting for the town to wake up. We first visited the Marzipan Museum which luckily only cost $2. The Marzipan Museum did not teach us anything about Marzipan, but our $2 admission got us a sample of marzipan and a chance to see many marzipan figures. It reminded me of a wax museum, especially the life size marzipan replicas of Michael Jackson and Princess Diana. Also, the Marzipan Museum had a clean bathroom, so it was well worth our $2.
We then visited the National Wine Museum. Luckily, this “museum” was free, so we were not disappointed when we discovered the exhibit was simply a restaurant’s wine cellar with some poster boards with maps of the Hungarian wine region on them. We later returned to the National Wine Museum restaurant for an amazing lunch. I highly recommend their roasted chicken salad.
We wandered around the town, visited the Christmas Museum which is really just a Christmas decorations shop, saw the Danube River which looked like the Neches River in my hometown, tried to visit the church but refused to pay a 700 HUF admission fee, and stopped at every souvenir shops. The souvenir shops primarily sold hand painted pottery, hand-embroidered pillow cases and table cloths, lavender sachets and soaps, paprika, and wine. Of course, we got suckered into buying some souvenirs. Before we headed back to Budapest, we stopped at one of the million gelato shops in the town. We had seen people eating gelato since 10 am, so we finally caved and got some for our train ride home.
Back in Budapest, we visited the House of Terror Museum which chronicles the Nazi and Soviet occupation of Hungary. It is located at 60 Andrassy Street which was the headquarters of the Arrow Cross Party in 1944 and then the Soviet terror organizations from 1945 – 1956. The Arrow Cross Party was Hungary’s nationalistic pro-Nazi party that ruled the country until the Nazis invaded in 1944. Since the Arrow Cross Party was an ally of the Nazi party, they imposed discriminatory laws and executed minorities, but they evaded mass deportations and executions until the Nazis invaded in 1944. Tragically, 600,000 Hungarian Jews died in the Holocaust. One out of three people murdered at Auschwitz were Hungarian Jews. The Soviets took over Budapest after a 50 day long Siege of Budapest from December 1944 – February 1945 which then started another reign of terror lasting until 1991. The museum was very well-done. I recommend getting an audio guide if you don’t want to read pages of history in each room of the museum.
After the museum, we needed something to cheer ourselves up, so we went to New York Café which is in the Boscolo Hotel. It is called the New York Café because the building was originally built as the New York Life Insurance Company’s European headquarters in 1894. The café had an Eloise at the Plaza feel to it. It was elegantly decorated with frescoes on the very high ceilings and giant chandeliers. A string quartet was even playing when we arrived. We ordered our afternoon cake and lemonade and enjoyed the free Wifi until we wandered a few blocks over to Mazel Tov. Mazel Tov was a very cute, hipster restaurant with string lights canopying over the main dining area. 90% of the tables were reserved, so I would recommend reservations. Luckily, Anna and I went early and got a table in one of their courtyards. The chicken shawarma was amazing.
On our way back to the hotel, we observed that Dob Street in between Kazinczy and Rumbach is full of cutely decorated restaurants, bars, and cafes. It had a very Austin, Texas vibe, and the food looked and smelled amazing.
Our route back to our hotel passed the Dohany Street Synagogue which is also known as the Great Synagogue which was luckily was open until 8 pm. Women must have covered shoulders and cannot wear shorts to enter the synagogue. They sell coverings for 300 HUF which look like the robes doctors wear in surgery. The synagogue is the second largest in the world. The synagogue offers free tours in various languages. We jumped on the tail end of the last English tour for the day and learned that the stained-glass windows were the originals. They were stored in the basement during WW2, protecting them from bombs that destroyed other parts of the complex. The synagogue was the heart of the Jewish ghetto where 70,000 people lived. The Nazis used the synagogue for radio transmission since there were high towers that they used to broadcast radio signals. The Nazis planned to destroy the synagogue, but 3 days before the scheduled demolition, the Soviets invaded, freeing the Jews who lived in it.
We headed back to the hotel since we both had early morning flights. In 3 days, we crossed all the major tourist sites off our Budapest to do list. Overall, we thought Budapest was a safe, clean, and elegant city. Plus, the food was delicious, the people were friendly, and the city was not overly crowded with tourists like other major European cities are in the summer. In summary, we definitely would recommend this city!