My Baker’s Dozen of Things to Do in BUDAPEST
Many are unaware of a certain jewel that resides in the centre of Europe, but for me, heritage, tradition, culture and history collide into this Roman, Gothic, Renaissance, Ottoman, Baroque, Classic, Romantic and Art Nouveau style city: Budapest, Hungary. Filled with a certain beauty, elegance, oddity and style, a remembrance of its royalty and its recent Communist past, Budapest is certainly a contender for one of the most value-packed cities in Europe. Having lived in this very city for a year myself, here is my Baker’s Dozen from a local’s point of view of the attractions I found the most enjoyable, interesting and filled with fun for all ages.
First off, Budapest has an extremely good public transport system. Arguably it is one of the best and most extensive systems in the world, even if it is not the prettiest or cleanest. I can’t think of a place that the Budapesti Közlekedési Vállalat (BKV) / Budapest Transport Company cannot get you to in the metropolitan and surrounding urban/countryside areas, both cost effectively and on time. We used public transport for our whole year of living in the city, and it was easy to access, well connected and even fun to use. So, if you’re there for a short or long period, I would recommend getting a Budapesti Bérlet (Public Transport Pass) available for purchase at any Metro Stop or throughout the city from the new automated vending machines. If you’re traveling on more than four separate sections on your trip, it already becomes worthwhile to invest in a 24 hour Travel Card. This will grant you unlimited access for 24 hours to any form of public transport available in the metropolitan area of Budapest, be it Metro, Tram, Bus, Trolley Bus, or even the local Hév, which links up with the surrounding towns outside of metropolitan Budapest.
Bonus: You can even use this ticket to get a free cruise on the Danube river, cruising past all the major landmarks on the river. The trick is that you need to use this on official workdays and get on an official BKV ferry. You can even use it on selected national railway lines traveling in the BKV metro area and if you have a monthly pass you might receive a discount on regional train tickets to your next destination throughout Hungary, depending on your eligibility (as children, we traveled at half price and accompanying adults got 30% off). Check that out on their website. Have your ID and ticket always ready as there is an army of inspectors at every stop, as well as the undercover types, constantly traveling on all the modes of transport to catch fare-evading fiends. It is a general sport in Budapest amongst a lot of people to travel without tickets and run the gauntlet, but with a 16,000Ft on-the-spot fine, around $60, it could become an expensive sport. My advice for your peace of mind: Buy a ticket; Forget the rental car; Public transport is the way to go.
1: Gellért Hegy – Gellért Hill
The famous 235m hill overlooking Budapest is one of the city’s most visited attractions and best vantage points to get that classic Budapest snap. For those who will make the relaxed climb through the alcoves of dark green trees and make it to the very top, be prepared to be greeted by magnificent, awe-inspiring views of the city down below. Gellért Hegy was named after Saint Gerard or Gellért after he was thrown down the mountainside in a barrel, by a supposed pagan hoard, where he met his death in 1046 in what is now referred to as the Great Pagan Rebellion. Today you can visit the point he was rolled from, where his statue now stands. I greatly enjoyed the short hike that takes you up Budapest’s mountainside to the top, where the city’s Statue of Liberty welcomes you. Located above The Liberty Bridge, Gellért Hill is a recognizable landmark from all over the city and offers breathtaking photo capture opportunities of Budapest that you and your camera might crave. Whether during the day, when you can view the city at its busiest or at night, when everything below comes alive in a spectacular array of light, Gellért Hill is an attraction not to be missed and you can easily see why it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Sight as part of “The Banks of the Danube”.
2: Budapest Operetta Színház – The Budapest Operetta Theatre
No visit to Budapest is complete without indulging in one of Budapest’s Famous Operettas. While some would choose the Hungarian State Opera House, considered to be amongst the most beautiful of Opera Houses in the world, my personal choice is The Budapest Operetta Theatre. With shows being available from January to August, you should try to visit, even if just to see its opulent interior. Enter into the sumptuous and luxurious lobby where available for purchase are a variety of Hungarian snacks including giant pretzels – plain, salty or cheesy. Then make your way into the rich velvet-red theater where an award winning operetta or musical awaits you. Having had the privilege and pleasure of attending more than once, I can assure you the sparkle and magic never wears off. My favourite shows included “Gone With The Wind” and “Elisabeth” (which focuses on the life of the famous Empress Elisabeth of Austria and Queen of Hungary). Despite the fact that the shows will play in Hungarian, easy to see and read English subtitles for the musicals or German subtitles for the Operettas will be available through the whole show.
Located off Andrassy Avenue on Nagymező Street, the theater is easily accessible via the Metro 1. Simply exit the stop marked “Opera”, cross the road, marvel at the architecture of the State Opera House and walk one block down. On your left will this Old Grandeur await you.
3: Oktogon Bistro
Looking for a place to eat, all you can eat that is, which is easy to reach, not expensive, but still serves all of the traditional, mouthwatering flavours of Hungary? Then perhaps I have the place for you! Located in the 6th District on Teréz Körút at Nr. 23, Oktogon Bistro was the very first place we visited on our return to Budapest and that first spoonful made me melt with happiness. This buffet style restaurant has everything crafted in the classic tastes of traditional Hungarian fare. It even has freshly made pizza, and if you are a meat eater, you can even select from a variety of marinated meats that will be cooked up for you freshly on their grill. From 1190 Hungarian Forint for a full fare ($4.50 US) plus the cost of a drink, or 1390 Forint with a soft-drink included ($5 US), Oktogon Bistro won’t empty your wallet and will leave you satisfied. The only catch is, the drink included means a 200ml drink, or for Americans, 6.8 fl oz and no free refills. This is the standard soft-drink serving size throughout Hungary and drink prices will generally be sold by the 100ml on menus in restaurants.
The best days to visit would be weekdays as this place is overrun with locals on the weekends, but you can always call ahead and make a booking (Ph: (+36) 1 952 1453). There is also Free WiFi, when it works.
They have multiple locations in Széll Kálmán Square on the other side of town and on the M1 and M0 motorways.
As for some traditional Hungarian snacks of Lángos (Fried Bread) and Kürtös Kalács (Chimney Cake), you can’t miss them if you’re walking on any of the major thoroughfares in Budapest. Your taste of Hungary wouldn’t be the same without them … that is, unless you’re gluten and lactose intolerant, in which case, you’re not missing anything!
If you are traveling with children you can relate to that fact that no matter what city you explore, they will always be looking for some heart-racing thrills in the form of a theme park. From personal experience as a youngster, I can assure you that my brother and I always were and we found the perfect place in Budapest to let our energetic bodies splash wild and free at Aquaworld Water Park. Only 50 minutes by public transport from the heart of the city, or a 25-minute car ride, you should be able to arrive before your kids disintegrate with excitement.
Cost is on the moderate side considering water-park entry fees around the world, with prices being 4990 Forint ($18 USD) per adult ticket for a full day (06:00 to 2200) and 2840 Forint per child (3-14 ages) for a full day ($10 USD). If you don’t want to spend all day, you can purchase a 2 hour ticket, but how can you have fun in a water park in just two hours? If you want to experience Aquaworld at night in its glittering twilight form, (16:30 entry time) 5-hour evening tickets can also be an option.
Spa and Sauna are available for the adults and so is a Kiddie Club if you wish to have your children supervised while relaxing, all for an additional cost. A restaurant cafeteria is also available from lunch time, with some good healthy meal choices from traditional Hungarian cuisine to an international selection at what you might consider reasonable costs for a resort. I recommend going to the waterpark on a weekday as not only do the prices rise on weekends, but so do the crowds. Whatever route you choose, you can be sure of a splashtacular time as you tunnel through the various different waterslides, sunbathe by the outdoor pools and have an awesome time with your family.
More information can be found online at http://www.aquaworldresort.hu/en/aquaworld/prices_and_opening_hours
P.S. A quick tip. I’m not sure if it is still available, but when we went, we found some discount vouchers for the waterpark at the Tourist Services brochure section of one of the major hotel chains in the city. Anyone can go to the hotel lobby to check, and it was worth our while as we received a 10% discount on our entry costs.
5: St Stephen’s Basilica
You don’t need to be religious to appreciate St Stephen’s Basilica. Enter into the tranquil precincts of this neo-classical and neo-renaissance style Cathedral that is situated in the very heart of Budapest. Surrounded by the bustling Bajcsy Zsilinszky Boulevard, you will be surprised by the peacefulness you feel as you make your way inside the largest church in Budapest. The patron saint of the basilica is St Stephen, the first King of Hungary. You can even view his mummified right hand in a glass case to the left of the main altar. Entry into the basilica is free, but you are asked to make a donation that will help upkeep this magnificent building. As it is a donation, you can decide how much to give or if you wish to donate at all. Guided Tours are also available Monday through Friday from 10am to 3pm, but I would recommend simply wandering the cathedral yourself where you can marvel at the stain glass windows, the painted domes, statues honouring the Hungarian saints and the cool quietness of the church. If you wish, you can join the various tourists and locals who flock to hear the daily mass being conducted. For an additional 500 Forint ($2 USD) you can walk up the stairs or take the elevator to the basilica’s observation deck where breathtaking panoramic views of Budapest is sprawled out before you. If you are in Budapest, don’t give St Stephen’s Basilica a miss.
6: Margit Sziget – Margaret Island
Surrounded by the crowded and hectic city, lies a natural haven of relaxation where time and stress can disappear. Escape the city’s buzz and make the quick journey to Margit Sziget (Margaret Island) for a delightful afternoon filled with all the escape the sanctuary has to offer. The refuge includes a miniature zoo, a natural thermal water-park in summer, medieval ruins, open air amphitheater and cinema, two international thermal water hotels, a magical singing and dancing fountain, a five kilometre jogging track and endless playgrounds and parks all surrounded by a walkway and jogging track that spans the entirety of the island, offering beautiful views and small alcoves for a delightful picnic in the sun. The island is the prettiest in early spring when the flowers begin to burst into dramatic shades and hues. If it’s entertainment you seek, there is something for all ages around every corner. From the island, you can even catch a ferry ride on the Danube. If you have a Budapest Travel Card and it is an official workday, you can use your card to take a pleasurable quick cruise down or up river for free. This option is not included on the weekends, so please do keep this in mind.
If you want a novel way to see the island, without walking and still using organic power, you can rent a fun Bringo cart or the “cyclo-pousses” to see the island. Bicycles and roller blades are also available to rent, as are novelty car-type golf carts. Whether it be by wheels or your own feet, Margit Sziget is a marvelous way to spend your day, the more relaxed way.
Also, Margit Sziget hosts various Festivals, Concerts and Carnivals over the course their annual Summer Festival season. Located just to the north of the island is the man-made Óbudai Island. This is the actual location for the famous Sziget Festival, (not Margit Sziget), which has developed into the pre-eminent music festival in Europe. Held in August, it hosts over 1000 performances during its one week period. If it’s relaxation or partying you’re after, these Islands of Budapest have it all.
7: Hősök Tere – Heroes Square
If you’re looking for a place to immerse yourself in the history of Hungary and see larger than life-like statues of its founders and heroes, then Hősök Tere, or Heroes Square is the place to be. The famous Square is located at the outbound end of Andrássy Út (Avenue) near City Park (Városliget), and also hosts The Museum of Fine Arts and The Műcsarnok (Palace of Art). Here in the Square’s centre-point stand the statues of The Seven Chieftains of The Magyars, who unified their tribes into a confederation under the legendary Árpád. Behind these Magyar tribesmen stand, in a semicircular arc, the various Kings and National Leaders who ruled Hungary at significant times in its history. Here you can also view The Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier.
You can spend a simple afternoon wandering through the Square, visiting the museums, which house the works of some of the greatest masters and walk through the beautiful City Park that stands behind the statues. The park is also home to the famous Szechenyi Thermal Baths and the Vajdahunyad Castle that is worth your while to visit. This is a place that is often used by film-makers who are depicting Paris either during World War II or during the 1870s.
You definitely won’t be starved for entertainment or fun, as both reside in this charming district of the city. I liked this place mainly because of its variety, and grandeur. If I was entirely truthful though, it is mainly because of its proximity to the Octogon Bistro (see #3), which is only a ten minute walk or two stops via a No.1 Metro ride up the beautiful Andrássy Avenue. We almost always finished a visit to Heroes Square with a visit to the Bistro, as it mostly coincided with our free tours of Budapest that we enthusiastically and lovingly gave to the people who came to visit us while we lived there.
8: Chain Bridge and Danube Promenade
Budapest is famous for its numerous bridges that are often described as architectural wonders for their diversity and beauty. My very favourite spans across the Danube River, uniting the western Buda and the eastern Pest sides of Budapest: The Chain Bridge (Lánc Híd). Inspired by Count Szécsényi István, it was the first permanent bridge across the Danube. At the time of its construction in 1840, it was regarded as one of the modern world’s engineering wonders. While living there, I loved taking a leisurely stroll along its walkway and pausing to watch from this great vantage point the Danube River and its sheer flowing energy with the capacity to carry almost anything down its stream. The bridge is illuminated at twilight in a glittering array of colours and presents a fairytale style magical experience. Also don’t forget to check out the exquisite lion statues that guard each side of the bridge. If you look close enough, perhaps you can figure out what seems to be missing from the tremendous sculptures.
While you’re there, don’t miss out on a walk down the Danube Promenade. Ignore the touristy traps here, as this is the expensive end of town, with its five-star hotels and average but overpriced restaurants. You will want to come for the view beside the river, which looks down towards the Fisherman’s Bastion at one end and up to Gellért Hill at the other. It is what I like to call the opposing view of Gellért Hill. I always enjoyed the scenery that seemed to wash away the noise of the hectic streets just inches away. The Banks of The Danube are named as a UNESCO World Heritage Sight, and you can easily see why.
9: Gelati & Co. (Unfortunately Now Closed)
Váci Utca ( Vaci Street) in parts, is a bit of a tourist trap. Overpriced trinkets and souvenir shops line the cobblestone streets leading in to it, while many high-end boutiques try to sell you only the best, like the world famous Hungarian “Herend” Porcelain. Apart from Vörösmarty Square, at its northern most end, which in summer hosts a line of stalls with every type of food, local and traditional handcrafts and produce you can buy, it is mainly an attraction for tourists wanting to be separated from their money. However, at its southern most end, after you have crossed over from the Elisabeth Bridge and left behind all the eateries, nestled away in Szarka Street, a little side street off Vaci Utca, you will find one of Budapest’s best kept secrets, which I am sure it won’t be for too long.
Here lies the quaint store where heaven and earth meld into one: Gelati and Co. The store opened only in 2014 in late August. The owner, an Italian himself, decided to recruit the best Gelato maker in Italy, at least that’s what he said, to bring a little piece of their Italian heritage to Budapest. Let me tell you, he was not wrong! I have eaten litres of gelato from Italy and around the world. While most samples were spectacular, none compared to Gelati and Co and nothing else in Budapest has matched it since. Szarka Utca (Street) is in the 5th District just off Váci Utca.
We happened upon this treasure by surprise and a strategically well located promoter standing on the corner of Vaci Utca, beckoning us to come down this little dark street and try the gelato. It sounded a little suspect, and we had just eaten a gelato in the touristy area of Vaci Utca and said ‘next time.’ He didn’t stop hounding us until we gave in. Of course, for me this really doesn’t take much hounding, but what we had, set a new bar of excellence. Offering both creamy and fruit based gelato, you can see that they have fully respected the star ingredient of each flavour as it explodes into prominence on your taste buds with every taste. We declared this place an absolute winner. This care and authenticity kept us coming back for more and kept me continuously ordering the velvety chili-chocolate and rich-red raspberry.
The only place that compares to this, which is something you should also check out if you are on a global gelato tour, is Vulcano Gelateria in Rye, Victoria, Australia. In any case, it seems I have become lost in a swirl of gelato. At Gelati and Co, the staff speak Italian, Hungarian, and English and always have a smile waiting for anyone who walks through their colourful door. The fare is reasonably priced for its tremendous quality and it is simply delicious. If you are in Budapest, you cannot miss out on this tucked away gem of a gelateria.
10: Fisherman’s Bastion
No visit to Budapest is complete without visiting the Fisherman’s Bastion. There is an easy way to get there and a hard way. The easy way is the bus. We always take the hard way. Despite the grueling climb up numerous 100 year old staircases from the riverside below, you get to imagine what it would have been to live here in the old city on the Buda side and it will all be worth it when you catch your first glimpse of the breathtaking views that can be seen from the neo-gothic and neo-romanesque balconies. The seven turrets represent the seven Magyar tribes that settled in The Carpathian Basin in 896. Entry to the actual balconies and some turrets are free, but if you wish to enter the St Michael Chapel and the rest of the towers you will be required to pay a fee of 700 Hungarian Forint ($3.50 USD) which goes to upkeep this magnificent monument. The Bastion area is open 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, so you can either view a dramatic sunset or a dazzling sunrise if you wish. Check the website for the upper tower opening times. While you are here, it is definitely worthwhile to check out the Matthias Church and The Buda Castle located below the Bastion.
11: Andrássy Út & Alexandra Book Store (No longer trading as of March 2017)
The elegant Andrássy Avenue is one of Budapest’s major cultural hubs hosting a wide range of traditional restaurants, cute cafés, fashionable boutiques, award-winning architecture, museums and exhibition halls, as well as the spectacular Hungarian State Opera House. Needless to say, you could easily spend hours maybe even a day or two walking the sophisticated avenue, losing yourself amidst the country’s culture, history and new consumerism. My favourite out of all of these, however, with a hidden treasure treat is The Alexandra Bookstore. It is a quiet haven in the middle of the busy avenue. With over 4 levels of books and stationery, I am sure any fellow book lover will agree with me that this is a place you should not miss while in Budapest. Take the opportunity to immerse yourself in the Hungarian written language and learn a few words yourself. However, if this ancient language does not appeal to you, you will be happy to find plenty of other books to browse in English, French and Spanish just to name a few. With little book nooks at every corner, you can curl up on a soft beanbag or on one of the many strategically placed stools and read in peace.
If you’re feeling a little lack of energy, make your way over to the 2nd level, where the timelessly elegant Lotz Hall is situated with its sumptuous Café. Serving decadent cakes and refreshing beverages, you can enjoy a light meal or snack with your friend the book, all while being entertained by mellowing live piano music. Once a grand ballroom, the hall bears its name after the late 19th century artist Lotz Károly, the creator of its ceiling frescos. His German Romantic and Italian Renaissance style of works adorn the walls and ceilings of most of Budapest’s iconic landmarks, including Parliament House, The State Opera House, St Stephen’s Basilica and The Hungarian National Museum, just to name a few.
Alexandra Book Stores are a chain store and can be found all over Budapest, but once you step inside Andrássy Street’s own charming Alexandra at nr.39, I’m sure you’ll agree with me, that this one is the pick of the bunch! They are open everday from 10am to 10pm.
12: Központi Vásárcsarnok – Central Market Hall
Located at the Pest end of the Szabadság Híd (Liberty Bridge), The Központi Vásárcsarnok (Central Market Hall) is a treasure trove of fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, fish, sweets, cakes, spices, spirits and all around culinary delights. The Hall is not only famous for the mouthwatering food on sale but also for its incredible architecture. Built towards the end of the 18th Century, it was considered at the time, one of the most modern markets in the world and today it has not lost its classical charm. Walk through the numerous rows of the colourful, attractively arranged produce and souvenirs.
The true spirit of Hungarian flavours come alive in this magnificent building and stretch for three whole levels. Not only can you purchase appetising cuisine here, but also delightful Hungarian folk keepsakes, including pure-white, hand-embroidered table-cloths and clothes decorated with exquisite hand-sewn embroidery. You can also find and purchase traditional Hungarian spices, including the rich-red King of all Paprika powders, pickles, and for all the meat eaters, the famous Hungarian Sausages and Salamis.
I would also recommend trying a true Hungarian sweet here, originating from the Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire, called the Rétes or Strudel. Many people think that they can make a strudel but the traditional Hungarian – Austrian method of making this, is the real deal and you can get it here at this market. I can’t be more precise, so I’ll leave this as a bit of an adventure for you in saying that somewhere in the middle of the hall is a small shop that sells them freshly made. Try the sour cherry apple, sour cherry cheese, sour cherry walnut, plain apple, or walnut strudel. You simply can’t go wrong as the pastry crumbles, and then melts in your mouth. While there are other markets throughout Budapest that present far greater value for money, the Central Market Hall is a delightful place to spend a short or long period of time wandering through the aisles that emanate the true culinary soul of Hungary.
If you have more time to explore, here is a link to some of Budapest’s best markets.
13: Hike Around The Buda Hills – Fenyőgyöngye (Pearl of Pine) – Szépvölgy (Beautiful Valley)
This next one is for those of you who like adventure, aren’t afraid of physically exerting yourselves and who love a spectacular house-made lemonade to quench the thirst at the end of what is approximately an 11 km 2.5 – 3 hour round trip hike. To get there is a bit of an adventure too, but worth the trip.
From Deák Ferenc Tér take the #9 bus to Kolosy Tér in the direction of Óbuda. When you get off the bus, cross the road and walk approximately 100 meters back in the direction you came from until you get to the first intersection. Turn right onto Szépvölgyi Út/Street. Walk about 150 metres up the road and you will see the bus terminus. From here, ride the #65 / #65A for 10 minutes to the end stop and you are there. The journey from the city to the start of the hike generally takes about 45 minutes with connections.
Once you get off the bus at Fenyőgyöngye, you have the opportunity to go in either direction as it is a loop track. If you are not up for the full 11km, and you just want to do a little walking for a good view, then I would suggest that you start immediately at the hill directly behind the bus stop, which is across road that the bus came up on.
There is a path with five poles marking the track’s beginning and a big board with a map on it. Start walking following the direction markers that I believe are green. After about one and a half kilometres of ascending, you will arrive at the Árpád lookout, like the one pictured here.
You should be able to get some great snaps looking down and to the north of the city. Otherwise, like us, you can choose to go the other way round, starting by following the Hármashatárhegyi Út. This takes you along a road and after about 1.9km of hiking up a gradual but steadily increasing hill, you reach the “ORFK” Tower. This gives you an equally spectacular view of the city, albeit from a slightly different angle looking down on Margaret Island and along the Danube. Families come and picnic up here on weekends.
If you follow the track, it takes you along the Triple Border Mountain Road (Hármashatárhegyi Út) and eventually takes you down into the valley below. It is a well-marked path, so it is hard to get lost, but on your way down, there are a couple of steep parts.
In the valley below is an airport called the Hármashatár Airport. It is a little light-aircraft airfield, and on some Sundays you will get the local glider club launching their gliders from a cable pulled mechanism, launching them, hurtling rapidly into the air. We had a great picnic here on the grass and out from our backpacks came the falafels and hummus we had made at home, along with our home-made pitas, and some freshly cut tomatoes and cucumbers with our trusty swiss army knife (which is actually seven years older than me.)
This valley links up with the track again and eventually takes you back to where you got off the #65 bus, and also where, at the Fenyőgyöngye Restaurant, a jug of the most refreshing, multi-citrus, thirst quenching drink that you could hope for on a spring or summer’s day, awaits you. Early spring is a beautiful time to hike this as there are so many flowers in bloom. All in all, this is a really great way to “see” the city, without having to spend time in the city.
Enjoy Budapest! We did!
And if you enjoyed these things, check out this link from our friends at The Crazy Tourist who have compiled a list of 25 Best Things To Do in Budapest .
If you’re traveling to Hungary for the first time, you might want to research your accommodation options thoroughly. Our friends at Stag Kiss Budapest might just have the advice you need: How to Choose Accommodations in Budapest