A city of of two halves: Budapest is split by the river Danube. Both sides offer visitors much to explore and discover. As one of the biggest cities in the European Union, Budapest became unified in 1873 when Buda and Óbuda on the west bank and Pest on the east bank coupled.
Traveling with my partner, Richard, we had high expectations for our long weekend away in the Hungarian capital and quickly learned the city did not disappoint. Its range of architecture and plentiful thermal spas presented a rich historical culture. While delving into this intriguing history there were also plenty of opportunities to see the modern side of this fascinating city.
The city is split in half by the river Danube and we were looking forward to seeing what both sides had to offer.
Buda & Pest and a Trip Down the Danube
Arriving in Budapest midday on a Friday we had no idea how much we could pack into our four days. Opting to take the local bus from the airport, rather than the more convenient taxis, we were quickly immersed in the city’s culture. After a few minutes battle with the ticket machine we purchased two single tickets to Kőbánya-Kispest (Bus 200E). On arrival we took the metro into the city center.
Our first port of call was to head to the riverside. The views from the Pest side of the Danube, across to the west bank, showed all that the Buda side of the city had to offer in its full splendor. From the spectacular Freedom Statue perched on Gellért Hill, the classical silhouette of Buda Castle, to the wondrous views of the Fisherman’s Bastion, there were plenty of photo opportunities as we wandered along the riverside.
With so much to offer across the water it would have been easy to have missed the sites closer to us on the Pest bank but nothing could distract from the magnificent Hungarian Parliament Building. At 268m long, including 10 courtyards, 29 staircases and 691 rooms this is truly a spectacle of construction.
A walk along the river was an impressive introduction to the city.
We had booked ourselves into the Hotel President for three nights, just a short walk from the Hungarian State Opera House. After sauntering along the Danube and stopping for a well earn beer we checked in and took advantage of the Hotel’s pool and sauna. We had booked a river site-seeing cruise when we arrived, so after relaxing in the spa, we were well rested and looking forward to jumping on board.
Read reviews for Hotel President in Budapest, Hungary on TripAdvisor
We had chosen to dismiss the more extravagant river cruises offering dinner or live music, for a more casual affair and we were so glad we did. Despite a rather cheesy Americanized commentary we enjoyed a brief history of the city and an introduction to its sites and many striking bridges.
After disembarking we were eager to try out the local food and wine options. Knowing very well that we would pay the premium price for the stunning view, we plumped for one drink on a river boat bar overlooking the castle. It was worth the price, which in fact was not so far above the average UK price and were treated to live music.
Following this we wandered back through the city streets until we stumbled upon a small traditional Hungarian restaurant. Filling ourselves with Goulash and washing it down with some very palatable Hungarian red wine, we returned to our hotel room just after midnight feeling very contented with our first day of exploring.
After taking advantage of the breakfast available in the hotel we headed out with an ambitious plan for our first full day. We planned to walk past the Parliament building, cross the river at Margaret Bridge and explore the entire Buda side of the city.
Passing various eye-catching churches, all of which offered diverse designs, we heading to the Gothic tower of the Mathias Church and the Fishermen’s Bastion. With some tough competition, the Fishermen’s Bastion became my favorite structure. There was something almost magical about its construction that made it feel like it was part of a fantasy film. There’s no doubt that the stunning views from its many arches contributed greatly to this sensation.
After discovering the delights of Mathias Church, including the display of a mummified foot, we meandered towards the Castle of Buda. While taking a few side streets and getting somewhat lost we found Dracula’s Labyrinth. This was not something we had read about while researching what to do and see in Budapest but for me it was an unexpected treat. After paying the entrance fee of a few pounds we entered the Labyrinth and immediately wondered if we had made a mistake. The first few dark and gloomy pathways led to some sad and somewhat creepy looking wax works that had seen better days. But continuing deeper into the Labyrinth it was clear that the value of this experience was not the displays but the venue itself. As we ventured further, through pitch-black caves we found ourselves lost within the Labyrinth; ominous light and operatic music adding to the atmosphere of how it would have felt to be imprisoned here in years gone by.
After a few wrong turns and countless times retracing our steps, we escaped the Labyrinth and continued on our journey towards Buda Castle.
Buda Castle had much to offer beyond its remarkable architecture; museums, cafes, gardens and the inevitable gift shop. If that wasn’t enough, just around the corner, there is The Hospital in the Rock. This is the hospital built into the caverns under the castle in the 1930s in preparation for World War II. With panoramic views from Castle Hill there is no shortage of awe-inspiring scenery. For those less inclined to walk up to Buda Castle there is the Castle Hill Funicular, which is an experience in itself having first opened in 1870.
On our way down from the Castle, having heard about it on the river cruise the night before, we stopped at the Cave Church, located inside Gellért Hill. This was a small church carved into the walls of a cave which still holds regular services. Asides from a rather stern looking nun, who seemed to dislike the tourists wandering around her place of worship, it was lovely to explore this hidden gem.
Having heard that the views from the Liberty Statue were best appreciated at night, we opted to wander on the Pest side of the river, to wait until darkness. Here we participated in a tourist trap I had always wanted to try: the Ice Bar. After buying a ticket and layering up with thermal capes and gloves we headed inside where everything from the walls and chairs, to the bar and glasses were made from ice. Though expectedly expensive, it was a fun experience and something I’m glad I tried once, but would admit I’d never do again.
When darkness had fallen over the city we headed pasted the famous Gellért Bath, up Gellért Hill to the Statue of Liberty and the Citadel. Though tired from walking over 10 miles during the day we hiked to the top and the sights were worth the effort. Looking down at the city and down the river and its numerous illuminated bridges we were in awe of how far we had ventured that day and all that was still left to explore.
After a memorable meal at a local Italian restaurant (and yet more local red wine!) we were determined to experience a Ruin Bar we had heard about. Opting for one of the more well known bars we arrived at Szimpla Kert. As the name suggested, the bar was a rundown building filled with junk that turned a ruin into a bar. I was surprised with how big the bar was and enjoyed investigating all the different rooms and seeing tourists and locals alike enjoying a drink and music. Sitting on an old school bench with an old bath tub opposite us there was no shortage of interesting items adorning the walls and floors of the various rooms.
We couldn’t leave Budapest without visiting the thermal baths and after a busy previous day Sunday morning we booked into Széchenyi Thermal Baths. There were many baths to choose from but we chose one of the biggest that offered many outdoor and indoor options in case the weather didn’t hold out for us. Luckily, we arrived in bright sunshine and quickly immersed ourselves in the warm water. We should also mention that we chose this bath as we knew that some Baths did not allow males and females to bath together. Changing facilities were still strictly separated but both males and females could enjoy the vast array of baths together. We were visiting out of season but the Baths were busy and we recommend to book in advance and avoid the queues.
We spent a few hours in the baths, switching between the indoor and outdoor pools and taking advantage of the many saunas. We then left feeling relaxed and meandered towards Hero’s square.
Standing in the square, peering up at the horses in all their glory, there was something inspiring about it. We breathed in the history and continued on our way through City Park towards our next destination.
This was a destination I was not enthralled about visiting and was less than enthusiastic. I felt strange as a tourist visiting a cemetery but I can now appreciate why it was on so many “must-see” lists. Travelling about 2km from downtown we reached the Cemetery which was founded back in 1847. Many notable people have been buried here, from statesmen to actors and their interesting lives are reflected in the many extravagant memorials and tombs. The statues protecting the men and women buried here are fascinating and it is definitely worth a visit. Being a peaceful hub in the center of the city gives it an eerie atmosphere and you could well imagine a horror film being made in its surroundings during the darker hours.
After this, with aching feet, we hopped on the metro back into the city center. With rain now pouring down we were unwavering in our plan to visit the Pin Ball Museum. For just HUF 2500 you gain entry to 400 square meters of constant fun! With 130 machines all set to “free play” you can play to your hearts delight on everything from 19th century flipper machines to the latest state-of-the-art pinball tables.
Being our last night, we decided to see what the night life had to offer two young-ish travelers and we weren’t disappointed! With the plan to head back to the area of Szimpla Kert where we had seen many intriguing bars the previous night we headed in that direction. Or so we thought!
Instead we found ourselves on the mile-long Király Street. It’s was buzzing with activity and seemed to offer an array of bars and restaurants all under cover from the imminent downpour. Aside from an unfortunate time spent trapped in a toilet cubicle (don’t ask!), we had a brilliant time here. The bars were busy, with tourists from all over the world enjoying their evening and the staff were friendly. After a satisfying meal of Tapas (the chocolate-chilli rabbit was incredible) and many cocktails we stumbled home, admittedly, a little worse for wear!
On our final day and not wanting to miss out on the chance to squeeze some more into our trip we checked out and headed to the Great Market Hall. This is the oldest and largest indoor market in Budapest and it was a treasure trove of food, gifts, trinkets and surprises. Spending our last few Forint on a few gifts and sampling some rather tasty salamis, it was the end of our trip and time to head home.
Budapest offered all you could want and more. A city packed with culture; nightlife; and everything in between. Feeling content with all that we had seen and done in such a wonderful place we left feeling that we had only just scratched the surface of all it had to present.
A version of this article originally appeared on the Independent Traveler.
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