We booked a last minute trip to Budapest for a long weekend. Since the package included both airfare & hotel, the process was pretty quick and just left use to check out some travel books from the library. And of course I benefited from the notes of the same friend that I used on our Prague trip. [Budapest, Vienna, and Prague is an easy European city tour to make, with all cities linked by the train.]
Budapest is a modern cosmopolitan city. Once the second capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It does have historical buildings, but the street plan is organized and wide, and the city lacks the ‘cramped/medieval-y’ feel that other cities like Prague & York. So it is more like a small Paris or Munich.
What We Did:
We arrived in Budapest Thursday evening. Which allowed us to check in to the hotel and walk around Pest center, before dinner. Budapest was once two cities – Buda & Pest separated by the Danube River. It was a clear night (our only one of the trip) and the Buda Castle and the Parliament building are lit up at night. In fact, the Danube river through Budapest is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Danube River was so picturesque that the next morning we walked along it again to the Parliament building. However, a humid haze had set in, and would linger throughout our stay (not the best for picture taking). You can take a tour of the Parliament building, but at around $11 (cheaper if you can prove citizenship in an EU country), we decided not to. From there we walked over to, St Stephen’s Basilica (the first Hungarian King), which is a very pretty church and free to the public. The Basilica does house a relic to St. Stephen, his right hand. It is housed in the chapel behind the high alter. To actually see it you have to drop coins into a box and then the glass box the hand is housed in illuminates. The display is about six feet off the ground, so you can’t really see much (plus it is shriveled up). And anyone in the area when the coins are paid will be able to view it.
Following lunch we walked around the Jewish Quarter to the Hungarian National Museum. The museum is nice with all signs and descriptions in both Hungarian & English. The focus of the museum was on pre-History (early human communities) through the Austro-Hungarian Empire; and then a little on the 20th century.
Before heading back to our hotel for the afternoon we swung by the central market. Which is basically a large hall of individual food vendors, that when combined make up a full service grocery store.
Saturday was All Saint’s Day, a holiday in Hungary. Some museums were closed, but the bigger ones stay open. We hand a heads up on this and planned to spend it on Castle Hill & the Hungarian National Gallery, which were open. We took the subway over to the Buda side of the city; and walked south through Castle Hill. Fisherman’s Bastion is a great lookout spot over the Danube towards Pest.
That afternoon we spent at the Hungarian National Gallery, which houses an impressive collection of work by Hungarian artists. The National Gallery is in part of the old palace buildings and there is a dome that you can walk up to see the city.
Our flight on Sunday wasn’t until the evening, so we needed to make sure we stayed fairly busy since we would no longer have access to our hotel room. We walked over to the historic Gellert Hotel & Spa for brunch. Afterwards we took the subway to Hero’s Square and walked around City Park. There is a castle you can see from the outside as well as a flea market. Then we made our way back into the city, had a snack to tied us over from Brunch to dinner; pick up our bags at the hotel; and went to our favorite bar of the trip, Eleszto, to spend the rest of our time.
Getting Around Budapest:
We stayed at the Promenade City Hotel. It is a small hotel (six floors) on Vaci Utca, a pedestrianized street in the center of Pest. It is a touristy street selling much of the Budapest labeled ‘kitch’ that you find in most cities, but it is extremely convenient for walking the city. And walk the city we did; we think we averaged about 4 miles a day.
Now we did use some of the city’s public transport network. To get from the airport we took a city bus to a subway station, then into the city. I found the whole process to be very smooth and appreciated that there was public transport kiosk in the arrivals section of the airport. That way we could buy a book of 10 tickets on our credit card (we couldn’t find any ATMs that didn’t charge fees), so we didn’t have to purchase a ticket from the bus driver.
You validate your ticket by punching it in a machine as you get on. This is a common practice in many European cities, and it is technically on your honor to validate your ticket. However, there were always ticket inspectors on the subway while we were there. I don’t support riding with out a ticket, but I have done it when I haven’t been able to find a ticket vendor open. I appreciated that Budapest made it convenient to purchase tickets; there were ticket agents and machines in all the subway stations, and most tram stops had machines. Tickets can also be purchased in tobacco stores. The subway system will take you to most of the places you’ll want to see, even if it is a several block walk. The tram system is more extensive; and while we didn’t use it since we took in the sights on foot, looking at the routes on a map it seemed simple to me. Even the bus system (the mode of public transit I find the most difficult to master when visiting a city) looked like I could manage it if I needed to.
Eating & Drinking:
Budapest is a good value for money city, but things are not dirt cheap. What also complicates the pricing is the Hungarian currency: the forint. It is about 240 forints to the dollar, so for every 1,000 forints it was about $4.
Budapest has a strong cafe culture, if you need to a rest or snack during your day. Any guide book highlight ones in each neighborhood, they are so numerous that you should be able to find one with out assistance. Most afternoons included a stop at a cafe for treats before heading back to the hotel. If you’re going for cake, I recommend the Dobos cake, a Budapest specialty!
We ate well in Budapest. Since we were there over a weekend I did make reservations for dinner ahead of time for 8pm. Only at DiVino was it really helpful, because it is more of a wine bar and standing is common. Making reservations does take some of the spontaneity out of traveling, but if you are able to do the research ahead of time it does eliminate a decision you need to make at the end of a long day of sightseeing.
- DiVino Hugary has quite a strong wine culture & industry, even if you don’t hear about it much in the US, or even the UK. DiVino was a very nice (but not fancy) wine bar – all Hungarian – with a huge by the glass selection. So it gives you an opportunity to try. While you’ll have to use Google Chrome to translate the website, the servers spoke English well, and were more than willing to describe the wines to us. We were very impressed with the dry white wines from the Tokaj region.
- Central Kavehaz is a historical 19th century cafe that has been fully restored with wood paneling and a brass bar. I came across it in the guide book when it was talking about cafes, but also mentioned that they serve dinner. Think of the cuisine as upmarket Hungarian, but not super pricey. It was the biggest risk I took when making reservations, since the historical nature of the cafe, and polished English translation of their website, gives off ‘tourist-trap’ warnings. Hubs was the most skeptical, but he ended up eating crow for dinner (actually it was weiner schnitzel). Our meal was excellent and the restaurant is beautiful.
- Dionysos Taverna There isn’t a Greek restaurant where I live (there is a Turkish one, but my Yiayia gets very upset when you equate the two as the same). So one night we went to Dionysos Taverna for a meal. The restaurant is big, so it can accommodate groups. The food was quite good for a restaurant, but some of the dishes weren’t quite the level of family members (but what restaurant does). The only thing that bothered me a little, was that they sat us on the lower level, which I wouldn’t have thought twice about if we weren’t the only ones there. It was a little isolated, and I just felt that since I had made a reservation they should have been able to plan for our arrival. But I guess I should look on the bright side, it was my first private dining experience!
- Kadar Etkezde This restaurant was in the guidebook and only open at lunch time. So it makes a good stopping point after visiting St. Stephen’s Basilica or the Great Synagogue. They don’t have their own website, but are written up several places online. It is billed as a non-Kosher (meat & dairy are mixed, and there is pork on the menu) Jewish deli, but there are almost no sandwiches on the menu (just in case you’ve promised your husband a Ruben). I would classify it as home-style Hungarian cuisine. It was absolutely the best meal that we had in Budapest. I had the stuffed cabbage, and Hubs had the veal stew with spatzle. The interior is probably about 30 years old, but that is part of the charm and it is spotlessly clean. It was also the weirdest dining experience we had. Only about half the menu is in English, but the waitress is good about describing the dishes. You pay at the front, where you just tell the guy what you had. He also asked how many glasses of water you had and slices of bread (just saying basket is not a adequate enough). They must itemize the bill that way; but even our meal for the two of us came out to around $12.
- Hotel Gellert-Brunch Budapest is a big brunch town with most of the large hotels putting on a spread, and many of the cafe’s open. We opted to visit the historic Gellert Hotel & Spa, which is showing it’s age in spots. For around $25 there is an all you can eat & drink (they control access to the drinks). We found the food to be good, but more focused around traditional Hungarian dishes. If you are looking for an omelette station, you should probably try one of the international hotels in Pest.
Unique to Budapest’s nightlife, are the ruin pubs. These are bars in converted old warehouses, generally with some outdoor space to smoking (think dilapidated beer garden). Some are like pop-ups only springing up in the summer in open lots. Szimpla Kert, is by far the most famous of the ruin pubs. It is a large building, centrally located in the Jewish Quarter, with very creative ‘up-cycled’ decor in the outdoor section. But it wasn’t our favorite. The beer wasn’t great. (We are willing to overlook a lot in terms of service & ambiance for the sake of good food & drink, but not the other way around.) Also, even though we are only in our early 30s, we felt old. Our favorite was Eleszto, they have a great selection of Hungarian craft beers on tap and an urban decor – more minimalist, less kitsch. It is about two or three subway stops out of the city center, but worth it! It is where we spent the last two hours of our trip before going to the airport for our evening flight.
We really enjoyed our weekend in Budapest, we liked it more than our trip to Prague. Now, it may just be the time of year we went; but we didn’t find the city of sights crowded. The streets laid out in a logical manner. And we struct a the right balance between taking the history & culture of the city and relaxing with a glass or wine or a slice of cake! All in all, we were able to feel like we were on vacation, and not a trip.