In the summer of 2019, en-route to the Transylvania region of Romania for a week-long volunteer trip, I stopped by the city of Budapest for two and a half days. Prior to this, I had been to the proximate cities of Prague and Vienna, but didn’t extend the trip to this city - a fact that I now deeply regret. Of the many European cities I’ve visited, Budapest was one of the most beautiful and dynamic - and in a rare turn of events, my time here was not enough.
The city was absolutely filled with things to do, see, and eat, best of all at a discount compared to its counterparts in western Europe.
Day 1: Matthias Church & Fisherman’s bastion, Szechenyi Thermal Baths, szimpla kert ruin bar, organ performance at St Stephen's Basilica
As my hotel was situated right next to Fisherman’s Bastion -- the area was naturally my first stop.
One of the most prominent structures in the Fisherman’s Bastion is Matthias Church.
According to records, the first church on the site was built in 1015, though the current structure was constructed in the second half of the 13th century.
The church itself was renamed after King Matthias in the 19th century, who added a south tower to the church.
The pulpit seen here is made of sandstone, the abaix-voix (the Gothic Revival structure directly above the pulpit) carved of oak, and status of the Good Shepard on the very top is made of linen. This pulpit was built when the church underwent a major reconstruction in the late 19th century, and its surfaces are covered with Neo-Romanesque paintings.
Outside the church is one of the grandest sites of Budapest- Fisherman’s Bastion. This ironic terrace was constructed between 1895 and 1902 in neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque style. Situated on the Buda hills of the city, the terrace also features gorgeous views of the Danube River and the rest of the metropolis down below.
There are seven towers - each one to represent a different tribe that settled in the area in 895. The towers are connected by pathways, and tickets must be purchased to access the second level of the terrace. Seen below, one of the main towers in the western section of the Bastion. Truly remarkable.
The statue at the center of the Bastion is of Stephen I of Hungary. Mounted on a horse, the statue was erected in 1906, with the pedestal beneath featuring segments of the King’s storied life.
The origins of the name Fisherman’s Bastion is a subject of debate. Some believe the name comes from the fact that this side of the city (Buda) was protected by a guild of fishermen in the Middle Ages.
Others, however, believe the name derives from the part of the city that is underneath today’s terrace, which the fisherman’s guild was responsible for defending. Regardless, it is no wonder that crowds from around the world are drawn to the site, day and night.
Szechenyi Thermal Baths
One of the things I loved most about Budapest was the bathing culture derived from the Roman and Turkish aspects of the city’s history. The abundance of natural hot springs led to many cavernous bathhouses being constructed during the aforementioned eras, many of them still standing today. Indeed, there are so many Budapest was deemed “the city of spas.” As a tourist, there is an overwhelming amount of indoor/outdoor spas & pools to choose from, though one of the most famous (and largest) remains the Szechenyi Thermal Baths.
One of the most interesting things I discovered was the prevalence of ‘whirlpools’ made of pathways in which patrons of the baths can walk in a circle. Once you enter the ‘path,’ or ‘circle,’ there will be a current pushing you to walk in one direction along with everyone else. This circular pathway can be seen below (while the very middle of the circular pool is used in a hot tub-like manner, where people congregate to sit and talk.
The baths are located in City Park, a little out of the way in relation to city center, and buildings constructed in Neo-Baroque style, designed by Győző Czigler.
I must say I had a fantastic time here - having really never been to such a large outdoor pool/bath combination, comprised purely of thermal springs, at that. You can see below that I’m not the only one - most baths open early, so try your best to go in the mornings, or prior to closing in the evenings. Otherwise, try to avoid weekend afternoons especially, where the water becomes a massively popular place for everyone to congregate.
A note on changing rooms - I suggest opting for the ‘cabin’ option at the baths. Though more expensive, it means you get your own lockable changing room for the duration of your stay, to change and store your things within. Also, keep in mind most baths don’t provide towels, but will rent them out, and the same goes for slippers. Plan ahead if you don’t want to pay extra for rentals!
The indoor pools of the baths were completed in the 1913, while the outdoor pools in 1927 - meaning: many parts of the indoor baths are over 100 years old.
Don’t be surprised as you venture into the indoor baths how prevalent it is for locals to partake in aqua-calisthenics. Seems like most baths offer this, along with pools of different temperatures, saunas, steam rooms, and other facilities.
Something fun I discovered here - beer spa. See those taps next to the tubs? You get unlimited refills from inside the tub (which is filled with ‘extracts’ of beer, ie. malt, hops, yeast) while you soak. Below is the receptionist, pouring me a sample straight from the tap.
Though I’ve never been one for beer, I must say it’s an interesting concept. The beer, sourced from a Czech brewery, was pretty good. See here for all the other benefits bathing in it can (purportedly) bring.
In the end I didn’t opt for a little R&R at the beer spa (which was a bit of a journey to find, somewhat tucked away on the second floor above an indoor bath house, amidst endless rows of changing rooms), but had an absolutely fantastic time at Szechenyi nonetheless. Definitely, definitely a must-do for first time visitors to the city, so long as one takes care to avoid peak hours.
old jewish quarter
SZIMPLA KERT was my next stop, the largest and most popular among the famed ‘ruin bars’ of Budapest. Located in District VII (aka the Old Jewish Quarter), the bars here are revamped from the ruins of abandoned buildings, storefronts, and apartments of the neighborhood, hence the name.
I was surprised to discover that Szimpla Kert isn’t one bar situated inside the ruin of a building, but instead many bars - each with their own seating/tables/menus/bartenders - located in the same massive space.
The main thoroughfare of Szimpla once you enter. To the left and right of this central path there are various individual bars.
Some of the bars inside the ruin are funnily decorated (ie. this one below had bathtubs). Though once a dilapidated ruin, today the bars are clearly ripe with creative + artistic energy.
At the end of the main thoroughfare, the ruin opens up into a vast, ceiling-less open space.
Again, there are more walkways/bridges allowing people walk across the space from above/over, and there are more bars on the second floor as well as more seating.
Leaving the bar behind, I continued along streets of the Jewish quarter. Seen below through the gates is the rear courtyard of the Dohány Street Synagogue, the largest of its kind in Europe and second largest in the world. The sculpture in the middle is meant to resemble a weeping willow, to commemorate some 400,000 Hungarian Jewish that were murdered by the Nazis during World War II. One wall of the synagogue itself is seen to the right of the photo below.
st. stephen’s basilica
Build in Neoclassical style and completed in 1905, the basilica is the third largest of its kind in Hungary. It is named after Stephen, the first King of Hungary, who ruled from 975-1038 and whose right hand is apparently housed in the reliquary of the church.
Adjacent to the basilica is Gelarto Rosa, a popular jaunt in Budapest doling out flower-shaped gelato.
Always freshly made on-premise, Gelarto Rosa is definitely worth a try if you are in the vicinity. And since its right next to the famed St. Stephen, you’ll more likely than not be in the area!
Working our way inwards, the flavors (layers of petals?) are hazelnut, raspberry, and basil lime. I made the amateur mistake of combining creamy flavors in the same cone as sorbet, so my rose didn’t taste as good as it looked. But regardless, a great sweet treat for a hot summer day - can you tell the edges were melting under the hot sun as I tried to capture the perfect picture?
organ concert at St. Stephen’s Basilica
St. Stephen’s Basilica also hosts regular concerts in the evenings. Luckily enough, one such concert was scheduled for the evening of my first day in the city.
Tickets for such events can be purchased online, and I’d highly suggest spending a few euros more to go for the Tier 1 tickets, which get you seating in the front portion of the basilica. Also - arrive early to sit by the aisle, as seats aren’t assigned in the pews.
As expected, the interior of the basilica is a reflection of opulence. Fun fact: did you know a cathedral is the principal church of a diocese, while basilica is the name given to certain churches granted special privileges by the pope?
A late dinner was procured by yours truly at the hotel. Though I typically avoid eating at hotels, preferring instead to seek out local fare, the dish on the left, designated as a ‘Hungarian charcuterie plate,’ wasn’t half bad.
Day 2: Breakfast at new york cafe, Danube promenade, hungarian parliament tour, early dinner at kispiac bistro, citadella, traditional folk performance
new york cafe
Frequently designated as one of the most beautiful cafes in the world, my one piece of advice prior to coming here is to make a reservation. The cafe’s gorgeous interior typically results in a Instagram feeding frenzy at most hours of the day; I’d suggest making reservations for a late breakfast or early lunch (post 11AM) to order from the main menu.
I sampled a selection of items from the breakfast menu. Left: cappuccino, served with a glass of water and a truffle.
Hungarian Sausages with Mustard and Horseradish
Strudel - though typically associated with Vienna, they are actually part of the heritage of both Austria and Hungary. Dating back to the 17th century, it’s likely the pastry, which can be sweet or savory, originates from Near Eastern pastries such as Baklava.
A quintessential stop for most visitors to Budapest, the Cafe boasts an unrivaled environment in which to enjoy some drinks, dessert, or a meal.
Don’t let its name fool you, I’ve certainly not seen cafes like this in New York! Reservations can be made via this link.
danube promenade &
szechenyi chain bridge
And no journey to the city is complete without a stroll along the Danube River Promenade. An optimal place to start is at at the Szechenyi Chain Bridge, connecting the two sides of the city since 1849, and a veritable modern marvel at the time of its construction.
I once heard that in Budapest, you can always tell whether you’re in Buda or Pest by whether you’re looking up, or down. Buda is the hillier side of the city, with Buda Castle and Fisherman’s Bastion situated in the rolling hills on one side of the Danube River (and seen in the video below, across the river). Strolling along the promenade in Pest, the flatter side of the city, expansive views reflect the massiveness of Budapest.
Of note here are the Shoes on the Danube Promenade, a somber sculptural installation of 60 pairs of 1940s-style shoes, created of iron. The monument was created in memory of the 20,000 Jewish victims that were shot along the Danube River during World War II.
The shoes are a reflection of the fact that victims were forced to remove their shoes prior to being executed, as shoes were valuable during the World War II era. Tragic and haunting, the monument is featured in this place of prominence so visitors are reminded of the horrors of human brutality that took place during WWII, and the suffering of those who were persecuted.
hungarian national parliament
Continuing along the promenade, the Hungarian National Parliament will come into view by the banks of the river.
These are some photos taken from Fisherman’s Bastion, across the Danube, that looks down to the entirety of the parliament building (in the background).
Next to the Parliament, I was too close to get a full shot of the entirety of the grand compound. But here it is again, through the columns of Fisherman’s Bastion.
One thing that is surely worthwhile to do while booking a trip to Budapest is to book a tour of inside the Parliament building. One of the grandest I have ever come across in my life, the vast building really represented to me the grandeur of the powerful Hungarian empire.
Construction began in 1896 during the 1000th year of Hungary’s founding, a few years after Budapest was formed by unifying the former separate cities of Buda, Obuda, and Pest. Seen below is the main staircase of the building, a truly awe-inspiring room to behold in person.
The parliament was completed in 1904, built in Gothic Revival, baroque, and renaissance style and consisting of 40 million bricks, 1/2 million precious stones, and 88 lbs, or 44 kgs, of gold (as evidenced by the ceiling in the video below).
As the building is constructed to be exactly symmetric along the middle, today half the building is open to tours, conveniently the exact same as the side used for government administration.
The two identical parliament halls (a smaller, side hallway seen here), is 268 meters (879 feet) long and has 10 courtyards, 13 elevators, 27 gates, 29 staircases and 691 rooms.
Many of these rooms, or rather, chambers (halls?) are very grade, with frescoes, painted ceilings, extravagant chandeliers and ornate columns.
A highlight of the tour is the majestic assembly hall of Hungary’s National Assembly.
Though not seen here (as photography was prohibited), the Parliament building is also home to the Holy Crown of Hungary. Closely guarded in the Central Hall, visit at the right time and you might be rewarded with the chance to see a small-scale changing of the guards protecting the crown.
Seen below, the exterior of the building is extensively detailed and almost completely done by hand. Though the building is often under renovation, I was fortunate enough to visit during a time where I was awarded with an unobstructed view of the the magnificent structure. Truly splendid indeed, and this isn’t even the best vantage point from which to view the Parliament (that would be on the banks of the Danube River, on the Buda side).
When searching up cafes serving authentic Hungarian cuisine in Budapest, Kispiac Bistro repeatedly came up - and popular opinion did not disappoint at this eatery. Truly delicious and well priced local fare to be found here.
Cold sour cherry soup (Meggyleves) - one of the more soups I’d ever sampled. Typically served cold and during summers, this thick, cold soup has a satisfying kick from being thickened with sour cream. Real marinated cherries can be found within the concoction, adding a delicious and chewy surprise to the soup.
Hortobágyi pancakes - a heavy, creamy pancake stuffed with minced meat, and a savory, thick sauce ladled over the top. With the addition of a drizzle of sour cream (common in Eastern European cuisine), this dish is extremely delicious and filling, and perhaps best shared, as eating the whole thing might put you to sleep…as I discovered about an hour after the meal.
Also known as the ‘Citadella,’ this fotress atop Gellert Hill was constructed in 1851 by the Austo-Hungarian Emperor and Hungarian King, Franz Joseph. Today, it is must-see for tourists, offering a panoramic view of the city and displays of weaponry and tanks used by the Red Army.
Within the Citadel area itself, there is also Budapest’s answer to the Statue of Liberty, literally bearing the same name. She was erected by the Communist government in the Soviet Era of Hungary. Though bearing the same name, the lady of the statue has a few key differences to those that we are more familiar with. Namely, she has a thicker build and holds up a palm leaf over her head.
Though not much to see at the Citadella, the site is definitely worth a visit for the panoramic view offered of the city.
hungarian folk performance
Located in the historic Duna Palota theater, Hungarian Folk Dance performances occur nearly every night, typically put on by the the Danube Folk Ensemble, the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble, or the Rajkó Folk Ensemble. All reputable dance troupes, the 90 minute performance was a great way to see some traditional Hungarian dress, music, and dancing that’s difficult to see in real life unless once ventures outside of the large cities.
A dance of particular interest to me (for obvious reasons) was the ‘wine’ dance. This seemed to involve the women putting what can best be described as beakers of wine (or rather, reddish liquid) on their heads and balancing them while dancing in a circle. Rather impressive. I believe it is meant to be a celebration of the wine season.
Day 3: Ruszwurm confectionery, Gellért Hill cave church, Gellért Thermal Baths, langos at Retró Lángos Büfé, late lunch at Zeller bistro, house of terror, buda castle & hungarian national gallery
Ruszwurm is frequently billed as the oldest confectionery in Hungary, though waiters will tell you they are the oldest in all of Europe. In operation since 1827, the currently store next to Fisherman’s Bastion still features the wooden paneling and shelves from the original store.
Regardless, the famed Cream pastry is a must try when in the Buda Castle district. A Hungarian classic originating from Ruszwurm and their most popular dessert today, this decadent cake features a custard like combination of cooked egg cream, vanilla, and egg white generously nestled between two thin layers of phyllo pastry.
Though somewhat sweet, definitely worth a try for anyone who is a fan of vanilla and cream, although it is a bit on the heavy side, so perhaps best shared between a couple or among friends. The confectionery itself is also a cafe with indoor and outdoor seating, so why not spend an hour sitting outside the shop, and watch as the throngs of tourists come and go from nearby Fisherman’s Bastion?
Gellért Hill cave church
An interesting but not-so-secret site I discovered perhaps off the most popular tourist tracks of Budapest is the Gellért Hill Cave Church located across the street from the famous Gellért Thermal Baths. As its name suggests, this is a church located inside of a cave, making for an interesting stop when one is in the area. As with most churches and religious buildings in the city, modest dress is required for entry, though apron-like covers are available to use at the entrance.
Run by the Pauline Monks, the entire order was arrested, detained, and persecuted by the Communist then-government on Easter Monday of 1951, and the cave church was sealed behind a 8 ft thick wall of concrete. It wasn’t until after 1989 and the fall of Communism in Hungary that the church was reopened and restored. Today the inside of the church is filled with chairs and offers regular weekly services to the devoted.
Gellért Thermal baths
My original plan was to only visit one of the many thermal baths in the city during my two and a half days here. However, that quickly changed after I saw how massive, gorgeous, and lively the baths are in Budapest. And so, on the morning of my last day in the city, I made a stop at another of the famed bath houses/complexes: Gellért Baths. And naturally, it was a delight.
Constructed between 1912 and 1918, today the complex boasts an expansive array of pools and baths both indoors and outdoors. Including, as seen in the video above, a wave pool which begins every quarter past the hour, and numerous spa and thermal bath treatment options. As with Széchenyi, go either in the morning (prior to 10/11 AM), or right before closing to avoid the crowds and have a chance of snagging a lounge chair.
Built completely in the Art Nouveau (Succession) style, the baths are just as beautiful in design as they are an excellent place for relaxation. Seen below the backdrop of a thermal pool in the indoor section of Gellért, featuring marble fountains sprouting magical healing waters for the enjoyment of all patrons.
Both the indoor and outdoor areas are sizable, however the indoor baths are especially intricate with some rooms only accessible by walking through others, or from doors in the locker area (which are also extremely abundant). Be sure to study the map of the baths extensively to avoid getting lost and/or missing any key rooms, such as the gorgeous indoor bath chamber below.
As with most bathhouses in Budapest, your entrance fee depends on whether you choose a locker to store your belongings, or a private ‘cabin’ changing room to use for the duration of your stay for a higher price. I always recommend the cabin for the extra private space!
Outdoor shower areas are commonly found throughout the baths as well. This one is particularly picturesque, and somehow, empty (!). Yet another perk of comingin the morning.
A must try in Budapest, Langos (pronounced lanGOSH) - essentially a fried, flattened piece of dough optionally topped with sour cream, cheese, onion, and sausage slices. Served in its most original form, it is rubbed only with butter and sprinkled with minced garlic. Typically, the dough is made with water or milk and flour, yeast, sugar and salt.
Arguably the most famous and popular among visitors to the city: Retró Lángos Büfé has been serving these up outside a Soviet era train station for more than a decade. Avoid going at meal times, as there’ll be a line and the space is small!
The name langos comes from the Hungarian word for flame, láng. Though langos was typically baked in a brick oven close to an open flame in the olden days, today almost all langos is fried.
Unable to go anywhere without frequenting the tried-and-true spots of my favorite traveler, the late Anthony Bourdain, I stopped at Zeller Bistro post Langos, as strange an idea as that may sound. (In my defense, they were around the corner from each other!)
And of course, Bourdain’s picks never fails to be top notch. Everything at the Bistro, from service, price, ambiance, to the food, was nothing short of excellent. Highly recommend a meal here when one is in town.
I started with an Arpad Irsai Spritz - a perfectly cool drink for a warm summer day. Feat. Muscat Grape Palinka (national liquor of Hungary), Eldersecco, Lime, Mint, and Soda.
Below is a cold leek soup recommended by my server. Perfectly chilled with just a hint of tang, the soup was also a favorite of mine.
Duck liver parfait served with sweet paprika caramel and spring onion - on the wrong end of the cholesterol spectrum but always a delight. This one was made less heavy by the crunchy sprigs of spring onion on top.
One thing I did not know about Hungarian cuisine prior to visiting (truthfully I knew very little aside from goulash…) was the country’s affinity for foie gras. Ubiquitous as an ingredient on the appetizer sections of most menus serving Hungarian fare, I’m wondering if it has to do with the nation being the largest exporter of the stuff in the world…
house of terror
With some time left before my early evening train to Romania, I decided to check out a few of the museums in the city. First up: House of Terror - which features exhibits related to the fascist and communist regimes in 20th-century Hungary. The building also serves as a memorial to the victims of these regimes, including those who were detained, tortured or killed in the building, which was formerly used by the Arrow Cross - a far right party modeled after the Nazis. Photography is not allowed inside, but the museum is definitely worth a stop to see the dark side of Hungary & Budapest’s early modern history.
Realizing that while I stayed in the Buda Castle district, I hadn’t actually gone to visit, I used my last hour for a power walk through the castle grounds (and nearly missed my train as a result). As with many spots in Buda, the grounds offered numerous vantage points to look onto the Pest side of the city below.
Though the very first castle was built on the grounds in the 13th century, much of the Baroque style construction seen today was constructed in the 18th century. Below is a photo of what is apparently the most photographed object on the grounds, the Matthias Fountain (Mátyás kútj). It depicts King Matthias leading a group of hunters and hounds. The stag depicted on the fountain was said to have been based off a real kill by poachers in 1896.
Today the main castle houses the Hungarian National Gallery, which houses some of the most precious works of art by grand-masters of an by-gone era.
Hungarian National Gallery
Cognizant of time, but a big fan of Dali, I opted for a brief stroll through the temporary surrealist exhibit taking place at the museum instead.
Below were some of my favorite works (I’ve only ever taken one art history course in my entire life and didn’t get an A, so I’ll spare you any attempt to characterize/comment on the masterpieces, and will just leave you with a name instead.
Overall, Budapest was one of my favorite European cities to visit, perhaps ever. Filled with things to do, see, eat at an especially moderate prices, it should be at the top of many lists. It’s on mine for sure - list of places I’d like to visit again. Till next time, Budapest!