When it comes to naming top cities, I admit it takes a bit to push Istanbul and Saint Petersburg down my list of “Favourite European Cities”. These two great metropolises have enjoyed this status for a long while. This all changed when we reached Hungary’s capital Budapest (our 28th country and 17th capital city in two years of full-time travelling).
Europe’s hidden gem of capital cities has now been discovered by the people who matter the most (us).
No longer can Budapest conceal its wonders. This city is far too sophisticated, too intriguing and far too downright interesting to be kept from the rest of the world.
If you want to visit somewhere unique where the pulse of the city buzzes all day and night then don’t look beyond Budapest.
The best things to do in Budapest could keep you mesmerised for days and many of them are free. Discovering Budapest by night-lights brings this magical fairytale city alive. Walking or cycling along the Danube without saying “wow!” is just not possible at any time of the day or night.
Watch the locals and visitors alike enjoying the many open-air green parks and seating along the Danube. Smile at the groups of young and not so young friends talking, laughing, eating and drinking in the wide-open city spaces. Bask in the tranquil laughter of friendships enjoyed day and night over a beer, local wine or maybe even a Pálinka or Unicum.
The people are happy, mellow and accepting of their lot in life. Whilst this city’s capitalist freedom is young, it is clearly mature as showcased by the attitudes of the residents.
The best building in Europe that we have come across, and in my humble opinion, is tucked away in Budapest. Check out the photos further down to see why we give this title to the Parliament Building. This building even appears on the list of top 20 European buildings from Trip Advisor.
Whether it’s funky or retro, new or historic, political or sobering, this city has it all and more in spades.
Made up of two distinctly different cities (Buda on one side of the Danube, and Pest, pronounced pesh, on the other), both work in perfect harmony to bring to life Europe’s number one city, in our books.
So, what can Budapest offer its visitors? Check out our list of the best of Budapest, including things to see, experiences, eating establishments, nightlife, and different foods to try. Then see if you can fit these into your Budapest schedule.
After ten days we hardly scratched the surface of what this city offers its explorers.
Here is the list of the main places we visited in the summer of 2019.
Given we travel in our motorhome our preferred mode of transport once parked up in or near a city is our trusty eBikes. Betsy, our motorhome, was safely located near the university, here are the GPS coordinates 47.4717, 19.0591.
However, this city is far from easy to navigate on bikes, due partly to the numerous road works underway but also because of the unsettling way that cycle lanes suddenly stop with no clues as to where you are then supposed to ride. We persevered in what were the most challenging navigations a city has thrown at us. Perhaps we needed to take a leaf out of Hansel and Gretel’s book and drop a few breadcrumbs so we could find our way back home easier.
Regardless, I’d still recommend giving cycling a go if you can. Otherwise you’re in for lots of walking and/or navigating public transport, which is apparently very good. Alternatively, you can hire bikes, electric scooters, or Lime scooters that are dotted throughout the city.
View of the Parliament Building Across the Danube River
1. Memento Park
When discovering significant historical facts throughout Europe, most of them happened prior to my existence. This park, however, was built in my living memory. Except, having been bought up in New Zealand half a world away, the events that happened in Hungary in the 1980’s didn’t even start to register on my radar. Until now.
The open-air museum was opened to the public in 1991 in an unusual attempt to display to the world, via Communist era statues, what this country endured at the hands of Communist leaders.
The political history of Hungary is fascinating and is a story I believe everyone should read.
After the fall of Communism in 1989, many statutes erected around the city of Budapest, which included those of Lenin, Marx, Engels, Stalin and 38 other Hungarian Communist leaders, were immediately removed. These now stand in Memento Park as reminders of Hungary’s history.
Of immense intrigue is the monument you will see before even entering the park; a gigantic replica of Stalin’s boots.
Stalin was born on 18th December 1878 in Russia and assumed leadership over the country following Lenin’s death in 1924. For his 70th birthday an eight metre high bronze sculpture was built for Stalin and erected in Budapest, as a ‘gift’ from the people of Hungary.
This gift was to last just eight years before meeting its end on 23rd October 1956 during Hungary’s October Revolution, after an angry mob tore down the statue. Fragments are reportedly spread amongst homes of Hungary’s residents, a somewhat ‘weird’ souvenir. The boots seen in the museum are a copy of the original ones.
Click on the picture gallery to see all 12 photos from Memento Park.
2. Hospital In The Rock
It also seems a little weird to have a Hospital in a Rock, however that’s exactly what Budapest had (and still has, although today it’s a museum).
The naturally occurring cave system under Buda Castle was further excavated out from 1937 to create first an Air Raid Control Centre, and then air raid bunkers for the civilians. By February 1945, a fully functioning modern Red Cross hospital had been carved out within the hill. In 1944-45 during the Siege of Budapest the hospital cared for up to 600 patients at a time, although it had been designed for just 60-70 patients.
During 1956 the rebellious Hungarians used the hospital again during the uprising against the Soviet Rule. Afterwards the hospital was used as a prison for a short while before being re-purposed as a nuclear bomb shelter.
The hospital equipment was upgraded in 1958-62 to take account of the risks of a chemical or nuclear attack. Installed were a water tank, diesel tanks, ventilation and poison gas-filtering system. Two Ganz diesel engines were built to power electrical generators so the whole facility could be self-sufficient for three weeks.
By the 1960’s the facility became obsolete and in around 2007 the hospital became the museum.
Interestingly, the complex also housed a communications outpost, nothing to do with a hospital, where the equipment remains in place as part of the museum.
The ticket price, which includes a guided tour, is 4,000 HUF (€12) per person.
Unfortunately the taking of photos was prohibited, so thanks to Wikipedia for this photo.
3. Matthias Church
We’ve visited, oh I don’t know how many churches and cathedrals in our time, and I can safely say this one was as impressive as they come.
Built in the latter half of the 13th Century, this Roman Catholic Church has seen many changes, including her name. She is known as The Church of the Assumption of the Buda Castle, more commonly known as the Matthias Church and more rarely as the Coronation Church of Buda. Take your pick – but it is a spectacular church whatever you call it. The entry price is 1800 HUF or just over €5.
4. Fisherman’s Bastion
This is located right outside Matthias Church, so you will find it easily. With stunning views across this gorgeous city, we were advised to visit at sunset. The seven stone towers supposedly symbolise the seven chieftains who founded Hungary.
This monument, the best known in Budapest, was built between 1895 and 1901. It received its name from the Fish Town below with the residents being the protectors of the castle walls in the middle ages.
If you want the ultimate photographic shot go early or be prepared to wait a while. It gets rather busy during the day and I would imagine the evening to be no different. Sadly we didn’t make it there at sunset.
5. Parliament Building
As already mentioned, this is my favourite European building so far. Okay, I haven’t been to Prague yet, but any building would have to be spectacular to out-do this beauty.
During the day the Parliament Building stands in pride of place alongside the mighty Danube. Go back at night and see the lights transform this attraction from a large but interesting building, to something out of a Disney fairy tale. Even the birds circling atop give in an air of impressiveness as though they can’t get enough of looking at her. Or perhaps there are just lots of insects mulling around, attracted by the lighting?
6. Buda Castle
While in Budapest you can’t help but notice the imposing Buda Castle. And no trip to this capital city is complete without heading up there. So mounted on our trusty eBikes we set about cycling up the steep hills to this Castle. “Gosh I’m so thankful for electric bikes”, I remember thinking when passing people struggling to take each step while climbing skywards in the baking hot sun.
The views from here are stunning, overlooking the entire city spread along the mighty river Danube.
The castle, originally completed in 1265, was built for the Hungarian kings. Today it houses the Hungarian National Gallery and The Budapest History Museum.
7. St. Stephen’s Basilica
We were the last group allowed in to see this Basilica before it was closed off for the day in preparation for a wedding. What lucky people to be married in such an amazing location! It’s the things that little girls dream about all their lives, a white wedding in a beautiful church (or was that just me?) I sat for a moment and wondered how someone would go about getting married here? Perhaps I could convince Alan to renew our wedding vows in such a stunning setting.
St. Stephens Basilica was named after Stephen, the first King of Hungry (975-1038). His right hand remains at the church. Today this basilica is the third largest church building in Hungary, is absolutely gorgeous inside and out, and is well worth a visit. We were fortunate to come across two stunning churches in one city.
Click on the photo gallery below to see the photos of St. Stephens.
8. Andrássy Avenue
It seemed strange to me to have ‘an avenue’ as a tourist destination. Originally a street where the rich and famous once lived (and probably still do), it is now the premier shopping street in Budapest. This street leads you down towards the majestic Hero’s Square. However, on our way back down the street we came across something quite unexpected… part of the Berlin Wall and a sculpture of the Iron Curtain.
Heroes of the crushed1956 Revolution are immortalised on plaques on the building wall, with their photos and names visible for all to thank. The entire story of the end of Communism in Hungary is displayed on large billboards, written in Hungarian on one side and English on the other. Needless to say, it took us a while to leave this most poignant of streets, transfixed and moved as we were by the determination and brave actions of the Hungarian people fighting to be free of their oppressors. Many of them were just teenagers or young adults in their twenties and here they were prepared to fight and die for what they believed was right. They are modern day heroes in my book.
Being able to see and touch an actual piece of the Berlin Wall made the events of 1956 and the collapse of the Soviet Era around 1991 feel more real.
9. Heroes’ Square
And talking of Heroes, sitting between the end of Andrássy Avenue and City Park you will come across one of the major squares in Budapest, called Heroes Square. Aptly named for the iconic statues featuring the seven chieftains of the Magyars and other important Hungarian national leaders.
Check out this busker who was playing the piano whilst sitting on a foundation-less chair in front of adoring tourists and locals alike.
10. Szechenyi Baths
Hungary is well known for its hot water. While drilling for oil the common find was thermal water, and lots of it. Frustrated at the lack of oil, the decision was made to use what the country had in spades – thermal water. With over 1,300 thermal springs throughout Hungary, Budapest has its fair share with 123 spas, not least of which is the famous Szechenyi Baths.
We had been holding back from visiting a Hungarian spa due to the high summer temperatures that reached 33C. With a short cooler break in the hot weather we cycled the eight kilometres to the baths from Betsy’s location on a 26C day and enjoyed the warmth of the outdoor pools. We tried the numerous indoor pools, which were inevitably crowded, and ‘too cold’ for our liking.
You can spend a whole day here for 5,500 HUF (€16.45) each.
So if you’re thinking about a visit and it’s cold outside, then don’t fret, there’s something here for you. Or even if it’s summer you won’t regret visiting.
Click here for more information.
11. Szimpla Kert – Ruin Bar
Having no preconceived expectations about ruin bars, I was pleasantly surprised. The lack of modern décor was somewhat of a welcomed relief. If you were to take your favourite marker pen here and add to the wall writings, then you’d fit right in.
This former stove factory, which is the first and still the best ruin bar, should be on every tourist’s itinerary. The labyrinth of graffiti smothered semi-derelict rooms and corridors, strewn with memorabilia and unique urban fixtures has brought the area to life. With 6,000 people per day passing through these doors it’s obvious to see that there is plenty of money to be made from these ruins. Despite knowing that demolition could happen at any moment I can’t see the city being in any rush to bring the axe down just yet.
The food and drinks here are delicious and cheap. We had a huge plate of fried chicken wings, plus a beer and glass of wine for just €11.30.
For more information click here.
12. Central Market Hall
For hungry visitors and foodies alike, a visit to the Central Market Hall will sure satiate your eyes and your stomachs. With traditional dishes on offer, head up one level to the top floor and fill your heart’s (or tummy’s) delight from the many food stalls tempting you to part with your money.
From the tasty and downright decadent fried bread based Langos to the Toltott Kaposzta (stuffed cabbage leaves), you will be in seventh heaven trying all things Hungarian. Or if a traditional Goulash or Chicken Paprikash is on your list of must-try’s, then again you will find them here. So, bring with you an empty tummy and some cash but be prepared to fight your way through the throngs of people.
Also on offer was some of the local alcoholic drinks for the truly brave. Pálinka is a type of fruit brandy, distilled from a variety of fruits grown mainly on the Great Hungarian Plains. It is a strong and intense alcoholic beverage and comes in a variety of flavors, including apricot (barack), pear (körte), plum (szilva) and cherry (cseresznye). Unicum is an alcoholic, bitter mixture made up of 40 herbs and spices from all across the world. It has a dark colour and it tastes quite bitter. Just the name would surely turn most Westerners off the idea of taking a shot.
The ground floor boasts a huge array of fresh fruit and vegetables, traditional Hungarian cured meats, sausages and salamis and some more places to eat and drink. If you want to buy the famous Hungarian paprika (and you should) there are multiple stalls selling every variety under the sun, although the prices looked a tad high.
The basement houses the fishmongers and pickled vegetables, another traditional Hungarian food. They are so creative with how they cut the pieces into smiley faces, cats and other shapes to make the jars more attractive.
13. New York Palace Café
From the dizzy decorating lows of the ruin bars to the heady opulent heights of the New York Palace Café, you’ll be wondering if you are still in the same city. These two places couldn’t be further at odds, nor could their prices.
The New York Palace is a famous grand hotel, unlikely to be stayed in by those of us who can’t, won’t, or perhaps don’t need to, spend a fortune on accommodation. Thank goodness for motorhome travelling.
However, a visit to the luxurious New York Café under the hotel should be on your list of must-dos while in Budapest. The coffee, at €7 was a bit rich for our liking, and given I don’t even drink coffee, was never on my radar. However, a tasting plate of sheer deliciousness made up of cakes and deserts for €16, well, that’s another story. We shared a plate and sipped from our water bottle (despite several suggestions by the waiter that we buy a coffee). We drank in the opulence slowly and left with a free postcard (I wasn’t sure if that was just because we were Kiwis or if everyone was given one).
14. The Cat Café Budapest
Having been on the road now for more than two years, we miss an occasional cuddle from our fury four legged friends. Although we were not allowed to pick the cats up, we could pat to our heart’s delight and that’s what we did. We could choose from the fourteen creatures that sat patiently soaking up all the attention.
I only wanted to come here for a pat, but thought that in order to extend our stay we should order something. So a cake and cup of tea was ordered and oh my, were their cakes delightful? I’m salivating just writing this and remembering the white chocolate mousse sitting on a base of crunchy chocolate yumminess (if that’s a word). Alan’s cake was equally delightful and didn’t last the distance, being scoffed in record time.
Click on the gallery of photos below to see more…
So there you have it, the fourteen places we visited while in Budapest. Make sure you have plenty of time to also soak up the atmosphere and just hang out in one of the many green parks adorning the city. We have left some things undone and unseen in Budapest but they can wait for another visit. In the words of Arnie, “We will be back!”
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