After a few relaxing days in Vienna, we took the short hour-and-a-half train ride to Budapest – the last stop on our three-week Europe adventure. It turned out to be such a fun city to visit as our final destination. More so than anywhere else, it combined enchanting history and architecture with a modern, lively atmosphere.
In this guide:
Why I Chose Budapest
My boyfriend had a friend living in Budapest who we wanted to visit, so it quickly became one of our “must” cities in the planning phase. I was intrigued by the fact that it wasn’t a city I was familiar with or knew many people who visited. I had plenty to learn, do, and see! To balance out the expense of our entire trip, it was also helpful that it, like Prague, is very cheap! The local currency is the Hungarian Forint (HUF).
When We Went
We were in Budapest from September 29th – October 2nd, which meant that the cooler morning/night temperatures had kicked in for fall but the afternoons were still warm in the sun. The approximate temperature was in the 50s and 60s, but felt closer to the 70s in the sun. The crowds had dwindled down from summer, too. We didn’t have any problems making reservations or showing up to most popular tourist spots at peak times – a relief for our last destination.
What To Pack
I found Budapest to be a fairly casual city in terms of how people were dressed. Unless you have specific reservations for a fancy restaurant or special occasion, you can leave your dressier items at home. Similar to Prague, I would absolutely recommend comfortable, thick soled shoes and a light jacket to take you from cool mornings to warm afternoons back to cool evenings. Being farther south in Europe, the sun was strong at peak hours! See everything I packed for my trip and how I packed it in a carry-on only.
Getting Around Budapest
While we definitely got our steps in around Budapest, we found it necessary to take the metro system or a yellow cab on multiple occasions. For example, we took the Budapest Metro to our Airbnb from the train station upon arrival and to the thermal baths. Whereas we took a yellow cab home at night from a wine tasting on the Buda side and to the airport at the end of our stay. There was no Uber available. For more information on taking the train from Vienna to Budapest, visit my Vienna city guide!
The metro ticketing system was a little confusing to figure out especially for connecting trips like ours to the thermal baths. You’ll get two paper tickets (labeled one and two). You need to punch your number one paper ticket, hop on to the first train, then punch your number two ticket before hopping on to your second train that you’re connecting to. They are strict about metro tickets in Budapest, unlike Vienna where no one ever checked them! Make sure to give yourself the extra time and patience to do it correctly, or, don’t be afraid to ask a metro employee.
For our first cab ride, the driver tried to refuse our credit cards even though it is against the law for them to do so and is stated on a sign in the cab itself. It was our last night in the city and we didn’t have enough cash (in the local currency) for the entire ride, so credit card was our only option. It was frustrating and a little scary how relentless he was. We were fortunate that there were plenty of people around given the central location of our Airbnb. Finally, he took out the credit card machine he had hidden in his glove compartment and the card went through no problem! I wanted to share this lesson to confirm when you get in a cab that the driver will accept your credit card. And of course, it’s helpful to have some of the local currency on hand, just in case. To catch a cab, we suggest going in front of a hotel where they tend to either line up or will be dropping someone off.
We navigated from place to place using Google Maps on our phones. Fortunately, I found the service to be generally reliable in Budapest on my T-Mobile ONE Plus international plan, which boosts your data plan for an extra $15/month while traveling abroad. I highly recommend it! The only thing you get charged extra for is calls (by the minute), which I did not use. Texts and data are unlimited, and you can add or delete the plan as it is on a month-to month basis.
We were pleasantly surprised and very relieved by how easy it was to get around without speaking or being able to read the rather tricky Hungarian language. Everyone spoke proficient English! Some restaurants also offered English menus, but otherwise we used Google Translate. I am still trying to master “cheers” in Hungarian, which is “Egészségére.” Say that five times fast! Or once, I’ll still be impressed.
Where We Stayed
As you will see in my other European city guides, we always stayed in rental apartments booked through Airbnb. I found the prices to be far more reasonable than hotels with equally central locations and comfortable amenities. This was especially true in Prague and Budapest. When converted to the U.S. Dollar, prices were less than $100/night!
Our friend living in Budapest who we were visiting was kind enough to put together this awesome map to help us figure out the best areas to stay in the city. We ended up booking this modern Airbnb that was at the border of the purple and blue boxes on the map next to St. Stephen’s Basilica and Liberty Square Park. It was the perfect location for us being a very short walk to main attractions and some of the best restaurants in the city, while not feeling too crowded.
The Airbnb has a well-deserved 230+ 5-star reviews, and is hosted by Krisztian, an Airbnb Superhost. The apartment was beautiful, spacious, and bright as it overlooks an inner courtyard. There was one large outdoor, covered staircase for the building, and the apartment is located on the third floor – a lot of steps! His listing says second floor because in Europe, it goes Ground Floor, 1st Floor, 2nd Floor, whereas in the States, the ground floor is the first floor. The self check-in and self check-out process was very easy and quick.
Where We Ate
The restaurants in Budapest offered various cuisines, typical of any large city. We enjoyed trying the local Hungarian cuisine, as well as modern takes on an array of international cuisines we know and love. To view all of the mentioned places on a map, along with a summary of our experience there, scroll to the bottom of this post!
Börze • Kávéház • Étterem
This stylish mid-century grand cafe, conveniently located a few minutes walk away from our Airbnb, served one of our favorite Hungarian dishes. The Hortobágy pancakes with foraged vegetables had the most incredible sweet paprika sauce that I’m still drooling over! The pancakes are filled with minced meat, onions and spices, then baked. To balance the paprika, the dish traditionally is served with a sour cream sauce. It is at the top of my list of dishes to re-create at home!
We also ordered the cheese and charcuterie board, which is something I like to order when I travel. There’s an endless variety out there so it’s interesting to see how restaurants around the world select and present their boards.
Located in the middle of the Jewish Quarter is this urban garden turned Mediterranean restaurant. I read that it is the upscale version of a Ruin Pub, and I completely agree. That said, it’s still casual! I’ve gone into more detail on what constitutes as a ruin pub below.
Mazel Tov is worth going to for a mid-afternoon snack or an evening drink to enjoy the picturesque atmosphere, but I would otherwise pass. Sadly, the service was awfully inattentive to our table and those around us. We could hear tables around us complaining about the service, as we too felt abandoned. Never a good sign! We also didn’t find the food to be anything special or exciting.
This cheerful homey bistro was my favorite all-around restaurant in Budapest. We were greeted with a complimentary welcome drink upon arrival, and given miniature cupcakes upon departure. We sat in the open, candlelit dining room alongside the large covered courtyard with live music. The food was fresh and flavorful given they source the best ingredients from domestic farmers and producers. We enjoyed wine from small Hungarian wineries, TWO of their duck dishes, and the paprika peppers stuffed with lamb.
A spontaneous FourSquare find was this tiny soup and sandwich shop with a counter to order at and two standing hi-top tables outside on the street. Leves translates to soup. It was cold outside, and their homemade soups hit the spot! They were high quality and authentic for such a fast food/street food vibe. Sometimes, like in this case, the extremely high ratings speak for themselves!
Rarely do I go to the same restaurant twice, but in this case we did. Once for brunch, and once for late night drinks. HILDA is located in a historic building near St. Stephen’s Basilica (and our Airbnb) that’s been renovated with bright accents, modern light fixtures, and stylish furniture. It’s a comfortable, cool, and energetic space great for any time of day. For brunch, I had the French breakfast with a croissant sandwich, duck liver terrine, caramelized onion, and cheese. It was tasty but not extraordinary. More exciting however were the pálinka spirits we ordered at night. They offered three flavors – pear, apricot, and plum. We ordered all three! Plum was my least favorite, but the pear and apricot were delicious. It’s a traditional fruit brandy in Central Europe that was first created in the Middle Ages.
I can’t talk about food in Hungary without mentioning the Hungarian street food specialty of Lángos! It’s a deep-fried dough with various topping options, but the most popular is cheese or cheese with ham. It’s extremely unhealthy and dangerously delicious. It makes for the perfect late night snack between ruin pubs. There are plenty of shops all over the city that serve it, including one too conveniently located across from our Airbnb.
Where We Drank
After grabbing a bite at Borze, we were anxious to see the Chain Bridge and get some fresh air. We walked over to this nearby urban beach hideaway located at the north pillar of the bridge. It was an awesome hangout spot that you wouldn’t expect in such a historic city. It had multiple bars, seating in sand next to the water or up on a deck, and order-at-the-counter food. Ed. Note: Porta-potties only!
Szimpla Kert is undoubtedly Budapest’s most popular nightlife spot that inspired many other ruin pubs around the city. In fact, it was the first! Ruin pubs are bars that were created in the ruins of abandoned buildings in the old Jewish Quarter after World War II left the neighborhood in decay. They all have their own character, but tend to be most known for having cheap drinks, a funky vibe, mismatched flea market furniture, and eccentric art. There’s no design or order to them; pure randomness. I can only relate it to what we consider a “dive bar” in the U.S.
To be honest, I didn’t expect to like Szimpla Kert at all. Therefore I was pleasantly surprised when I stayed for hours and wanted to go back! There was music, food, a huge courtyard, Christmas lights, a piano, couches, wooden hi-top tables, cozy alcoves, a wine bar, games, a craft beer room upstairs with a wraparound balcony overlooking the courtyard, and a huge variety of people. The place is gigantic, so there is no need to worry about it being too busy. There were families, teenagers, old couples and Bachelor parties all at the same time. It’s definitely a tourist destination, but the locals love it too. It’s grungy but somehow in a cool way, not a dirty or creepy way. If you make your way into one ruin pub during your visit to Budapest, I would go to Szimpla Kert!
Rumpus Tiki Bar
This Hawaiian-style tiki bar was an unexpected find in downtown Budapest, especially as someone from Florida. It’s probably the only place in the whole country you can find tropical cocktails! The bar was busy, with a loud and lively atmosphere and extravagant cocktail presentations. They have a guide on the menu to help you decide on your cocktail, and you can also select your alcohol strength. Choose wisely!
Faust Wine Cellar
For our final night of the trip, we booked a dreamy Hungarian wine tasting at this hidden cellar beneath Buda Castle. With only five tables and two tasting times available five days a week, it is suggested to book at least one month in advance. The owner Gabor was a one-man show – he emailed me back to confirm our reservation, was our server, and is the one who travels around the country to these wineries he showcases. He was an incredibly knowledgable, passionate, and sweet man, who we absolutely adored by the end of our fabulous tasting. This experience is cash only, however all the prices for the different tastings are listed on the website. We were happy with our choice of the “recommendations by the sommelier” tasting of six wines, which also comes with water and savory scones. During the tasting, he told us stories about the wines – how they were made, the history of the winery, and what region it’s from.
The underground wine cellar is accessed through the Hilton hotel. The stairs leading down to the cellar are from the remains of a 13th century Dominican Cloister and end at a huge labyrinth system underneath Castle Hill, carved in the middle ages as an escape route. The candlelit tasting room, as a result, feels very secluded but in a romantic, historical way.
Translating to Gozsdu Courtyard, this complex consists of seven buildings and a passage formed by six interconnected courtyards. In simple terms, it’s a pedestrian-only lined block with restaurants, bars, clubs, and shops on each side. We went to Spiler for a drink, and later returned to hop around the nightlife scene. It felt a little commercial/touristy, but I do think it’s worth going to for the convenience, to meet people, or if you’re traveling with a group. Something for everyone!
A couple other bars we went to were London Stone Pub and Kardarka Bar. There was nothing wrong with either one, but I’m not sure as a visitor I would go out of my way for them. London Stone Pub is a very small, local British pub with a surprisingly wide selection of beer. I was torn what beer to choose and had a local bar regular help me like he worked there. “I don’t work here but I’ve had all of these beers if you need help.” So nice! Kadarka Bar is a wine bar with an extensive selection, but unfortunately when we went in the late afternoon there was almost no one there and therefore no atmosphere.
What We Did
If you go to Budapest, you have to see the Hungarian Parliament building. It is nothing short of spectacular, from the intensely detailed architecture to the way it lights up at night. We found that going on a Sunday morning was a perfect time to visit before all the tourists arrived. I am still blown away that I captured photos of the parliament without people in it. Never happens! For reference, it was about 10am when we took our stroll around. The first tour didn’t start until we were leaving.
Beyond the Parliament building is the Danube River on one side, and Kossuth Lajos Square on the other. We walked a couple blocks up to Culinaris, a local gourmet shop! They had a variety of artisan shelf products, meats and cheeses, prepared foods, and delicacies. It reminded me of my parents gourmet store in Palm Beach, and couldn’t wait to tell them about it. A slice of home across the world!
Széchenyi Chain Bridge
This famous bridge was the first permanent stone suspension bridge to connect Buda and Pest, the western and eastern sides of Budapest, over the Danube River. It reminds me a lot of the Charles Bridge in Prague. Not in regards to the bridge design itself but how it connects two very different areas of the city – one historically wealthy side with castles in the hills, and one side that is much more flat in terrain with nightlife, restaurants, bars and the working class. A great way to see the Chain Bridge is to walk over it on your way to and/or from Buda Castle. Otherwise, you’ll capture a great view and easy access to one side of the bridge at Pontoon mentioned above. As I mention below, you might also want to consider a river cruise as a way to learn more about the bridge and marvel in it’s beauty.
Széchenyi Thermal Bath
A “must do” on my itinerary for Budapest was visiting one of the thermal baths. After researching the most popular options – Széchenyi, Gellert, and Rudas – Széchenyi was our top choice and did not disappoint! I found this YouTube video helpful in deciding. We took the M1 metro to the Széchenyi Fürdő stop, which was very easy and conveniently brings you near the front entrance of the bath. The entrance to the bath costs $15-$20/person depending on the day of the week if you book a cabin, which I recommend to store your belongings and use as a private changing area. The lock system is through a waterproof bracelet you wear – easy and worry-free! We brought our bathing suits and a towel, but noticed some people also brought flip flops or robes to wear. It would’ve been nice to have but it wasn’t necessary. If you wish you brought something or forgot it, you can buy/rent it there.
The Széchenyi Bath in Budapest is the largest medicinal bath in Europe. Its water is supplied by two thermal springs with a temperature of 165°F – 170 °F. It’s housed in a stunning, bright yellow Neo-Baroque building with vivid blue waters and a total of 21 pools, both indoors and outdoors, as well as saunas. Surprisingly, the baths are open year-round (even the outdoor ones)! It was in the low 60s when we were there on a cloudy, grey day in early October, so it was definitely chilly. The fun part was “running” (don’t actually run because you can slip and fall) between all the baths, many of which were at different temperatures. There was one freezing tub inside that made for hilarious people watching as people attempted to accomplish the polar plunge. All of the other baths are like hot tubs and make your skin super soft! It’s a unique, unforgettable experience that was also very relaxing. I highly recommend it! I would plan to spend at least two hours there, and wouldn’t overthink the best time to visit. The complex is huge so even though there were a lot of people there, it never felt crowded.
St. Stephen’s Basilica
On the same block as our Airbnb is the largest church in Budapest, St. Stephen’s Roman Catholic Basilica. An interesting fact about the basilica is that the dome is the exact same height (96 meters) as the Budapest Parliament Building, which symbolized the balance between church and state in Hungary. In present day, building regulations stipulate that no other structure in Budapest can be taller than 96 meters.
The basilica was absolutely gorgeous inside, as they always are in Europe! The detail and architecture blows me away every time. They offer musical concerts, which you can find on their website, and also allow you to go up to the top of the dome for a scenic lookout. We didn’t do either of these, but it’s worth checking out if you’re interested.
Great Market Hall
Also known as the Central Market Hall, this restored neogothic market built in 1897 is definitely great in size. More so than anywhere else we went in Budapest, it was very crowded. We walked the halls to find mostly paprika products, meat counters, bakeries and produce. They have a very small food court upstairs, but I wouldn’t plan on eating there or being able to find somewhere to sit. We opted for soup instead at Leves nearby.
This historical castle and palace complex of the Hungarian kings in Budapest is now home to the Hungarian National Gallery and Budapest History Museum. To get to the top of Castle Hill, you can either take the funiculars, which are funny-looking historical cable cars, or you can walk up the steps. The ride takes a few minutes and costs less than $5 per person, but you’ll likely have to wait in line. Instead, we hiked up (to make up for the food & drinks consumed above)! The views of the city were magical, so we took a breather from time-to-time to snap pictures. Once we made it to the top, we walked around the complex to the other side where we found AN ESCALATOR! The funny part was that the escalator only goes up, so you have to take the stairs down. Of course! Therefore, if you don’t want to wait in line for the funicular but don’t want to walk up either, go to the far end of the castle district to the escalator (left after crossing the Chain Bridge).
Built in the 19th century to serve as a lookout tower for the best panoramic views in Budapest is to this day still a fantastic place for photos. It’s an interesting design that almost makes me think of Disney, though it was actually inspired by the architectural style of the early medieval times. It is free to visit and open 24/7 for your strolling pleasure.
This Roman Catholic church is located in front of the Fisherman’s Bastion at the heart of Buda’s Castle District. The church was used as a coronation church by Hungarian kings for centuries. I always admire the historical beauty of traditional Gothic churches, and especially loved the brightly colored tile roofs and how it lit up at night (after our wine tasting)!
Other Places To Consider
With any trip, it’s nearly impossible to make it to everywhere on your list. Based on my extensive research, I wanted to include some other places to consider for your trip. If you go, I’d love to know what you thought…for next time!
- Ket Szerecsen – This cafe looked like a cute spot for coffee/breakfast in the morning or tapas in the afternoon. They have two floors of seatings as well as outside tables.
- Bors Gasztrobar – A highly-rated soup and sandwich cafe with daily specials and to-go counter service. Rated #2 on TripAdvisor!
- Zoo Cafe – If you’re looking for a funny experience, check out this animal cafe where you can order a coffee and the server will bring over some crazy pets for you to hold while you are there. Look it up – you’ll see the pictures!
- Grand Cafes – New York Cafe is self-proclaimed to be the “most beautiful cafe in the world,” so you can expect a line to get in if you haven’t made reservations! I’ve read that they have lovely live music on the balcony, in addition to serving a full menu for all times of day. It seemed a bit overpriced, so I would suggest checking it out for a meat and cheese board or dessert. Cafe Gerbeaud is another high-ceilinged dining room with chandeliers, serving coffee, cakes & Hungarian bistro dishes. It is located very close to the Airbnb, whereas New York Cafe is closer to Szimpla Kert.
- Vintage Garden – This French restaurant is known for its fresh flowers all around, offering a romantic bistro vibe for dates and special occasions.
- Padron – An authentic, family-run Spanish tapas restaurant with top-notch wines and high-quality ingredients.
- Balna Terasz – One of the few riverfront restaurants with a panoramic view, it sounds like the perfect place to unwind at the end of a nice day in the city. They have covered indoor seating as well, but I would save it for a time when you can enjoy the fresh air.
- Kiosk Budapest – This restaurant/bar also has a large terrace paired with a view of the Danube and deck chairs to enjoy a cocktail.
- Deryne Bisztro – This two-story brasserie with a garden, in-house bakery and pianist playing daily serves Hungarian/French dishes and sounds like a cozy spot to enjoy with friends or family.
- Villa Bagatelle – This beautifully refurbished villa in the Buda Hills is home to Villa Bagatelle, where the ground floor is home to Brót Bakery and its fresh artisan breads and pastries. The bistro is found one floor above, focusing on quick, light and seasonal dishes.
- Upscale Restaurants – Borkonyha – This mirror-lined, smart dining room serves contemporary cuisine with a specialty in fois gras dishes and over 200 Hungarian wines. It came recommended to me but we ran out of time and had to cancel our reservation. Costes Downtown was awarded with Michelin Star in 2016 March, shortly after opening. The open-kitchen restaurant offers a special Chef’s Table experience, or a seat in the more relaxed dining room serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.
- Rooftop Bars – High Note Sky Bar is a rooftop bar and restaurant on top of the Aria Hotel next to the dome of St. Stephen’s Basilica, offering sweeping views of the Chain Bridge and Parliament. 360 Bar has 360-degree views of the city’s skyline, seasonal menus, and live music. Follow them on social for special events, such as their tables in the igloo garden available for booking now! Leo Rooftop Bar is the latest addition to the city’s rooftop bars with a prime location at the Buda end of the Chain Bridge in Hotel Clark.
- Noir Chocobar – A chocolate cafe that goes as far as specializing in chocolate alcoholic beverages, if you fancy an extra sweet nightcap.
- Ruszwurm Cukraszda – A family-run cafe with 200-year-old cherry-wood counter, serving homemade cakes, strudel & coffee; the oldest cafe in Budapest! Expect a line.
- Margaret Island – In the Danube River, between Buda and Pest, Margaret Island is a tranquil getaway within the city. There is a park, pedestrian walkways along the water, a small zoo, and a musical fountain with a coordinating light show every hour after dusk. The island also has attractions such as jogging tracks, swimming pools, and pop-up bars and restaurants with live music in the summer.
- Danube River Cruise – A popular way to see the city’s most beautiful landmarks is via a river cruise. There are various companies that offer these tours, some with live music and some serving dinner. If you care more about the experience and less about your iPhone pictures, I’d suggest going at night. The way these historical buildings light up at night is a sight you won’t forget, no blurry picture necessary.
I hope you found this Budapest travel guide useful for planning your upcoming trip!