Budapest is a city unlike any I’ve been to before. It has a strong and welcoming character, and it thrives as one of Eastern Europe’s greatest capitals. The city is parted into two sides – Buda and Pest, respectively – by the Danube river. From Castle Hill to the Jewish Quarter, the city is full of rich history and culture and tradition. The Parliament Building keeps watch over the Hungarian capital from the riverbank, and the spires of castles and cathedrals evoke the charm of eras past.
The truth is, a weekend isn’t enough to do Budapest justice. There is so much to see and do here. On a quick city break, I jetted off to Hungary after work one Friday and found that a rushed two days only offered a taste of what this city has to offer. I’m already itching to go back. But with that said, I felt I had enough time to see the highlights. The following itinerary is based on what I fit into what can only be described as a whirlwind weekend. And I mean that in the best possible sense.
|| Visit the Hungarian Parliament
When Queen took a Danube boat cruise while filming Hungarian Rhapsody: Queen Live in Budapest, Freddie Mercury famously quipped, “The House of Parliament, is it for sale?” I am right there with you Freddie Mercury – although you were probably a little closer to affording it than I will ever be.
Hungary is a parliamentary republic. The Hungarian Parliament building was inaugurated on the 1000th anniversary of Hungary in 1896 and completed in 1902. This behemothic building and its ornate neo-Gothic architecture stands out along the Danube. It is the world’s third largest Parliament building, standing at 96 m (315 ft) tall with 691 rooms.
Visitors can explore the Parliament building when the National Assembly is not in session. This includes the opportunity to see the main entrance hall, one of the lobbies, the old House of Lords, and the Hungarian Crown Jewels.
|| Shop for Paprika in Central Market
There are several market halls throughout the city, but none as grand as Central Market. Here you’ll find vendors and stalls selling everything from spices to grilled sausages to chimney cakes. Be sure to pick up some sweet and spicy Hungarian paprika!
|| Visit the Dohany Great Synagogue
Standing at the heart of the Jewish Quarter is the Dohany Street Synagogue – the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world (the first is the Temple Emanu-El in New York). It was built in 1959, and its architecture was heavily influenced by Oriental-Byzantine (Moorish) design. The synagogue also houses the Hungarian Jewish Museum, and the Holocaust Tree of Life Memorial stands in the north gardens.
|| Celebrate the Arts at the Hungarian State Opera House
Whether you’re a fan of opera and ballet or simply architecture, the Hungarian State Opera House is a sight to behold. It opened in 1884 during the height of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It is a stunning example of Neo-Renaissance architecture, with a marbled entrance hall and 1,200 red velvet seats. Visitors can tour the opera daily at 3 and 4 PM, where you’ll be treated to a small concert. Or you can check out the opera’s schedule for a night out with the full experience.
|| Visit St. Stephen’s Basilica
St. Stephen’s Basilica (or rather, Budapest Cathedral) is the largest church in the city. For the best panoramic view of Budapest, climb to the top of the cupola. It stands at 96 m tall, and if that sounds familiar, it’s because the Hungarian Parliament stands at the same height. The number 96 has a symbolic value to Hungary, as it was in 896 that the Magyars first came to the area. The Parliament and the Basilica stand at the same height as a representation of the equality of church and state. In fact, there is even a law that prohibits the construction of a building that’s any taller! That’s why you won’t see any skyscrapers in Budapest.
It took over 50 years to build the cathedral due to the dome collapsing. Due to this, design began in the neo-classical style and finished in the neo-renaissance style. The mummified right hand of St. Stephen is displayed in a glass case to the left of the alter.
|| See the Shoes on the Danube
If you stroll along the Danube from the Hungarian Parliament towards the Széchenyi Link Bridge, you may notice several pairs of shoes lining the river. These statues are a memorial for the Jewish Hungarian victims of the Holocaust. Many were lined up on the banks, ordered to take their shoes off, and were shot into the Danube. This beautiful memorial serves as a sobering reminder that beyond the ruin bars and Turkish baths, cities have complex people and culture. And as visitors we are obliged to pay our respects to their histories.
|| Cross Over the Széchenyi Bridge
The Széchenyi Chain Bridge is most famously known crossing in the Hungarian capital, and the first permanent bridge to connect Buda and Pest sides of the city. The stone suspension bridge spans the Danube, with lions protecting either end. The bridge is 375 m long and 16 m wide.
|| Ride the Funicular up Castle Hill
On the Buda side of the Széchenyi Chain Bridge is Castle Hill, where you’ll find some of the city’s best landmarks and views. Save yourself a hike to the top by opting for the funicular that runs up and down every ten minutes!
The Buda Castle Quarter is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the top is the Royal Palace (Királyi Palota), as well as several museums like the Hungarian National Gallery. Cars have been banned on Castle Hill, so stroll along the quiet medieval cobblestone streets and admire the Baroque houses.
|| Explore Fisherman’s Bastion and St. Matthias Church
The true gem of Castle Hill (and perhaps Budapest itself) is Fisherman’s Bastion. It dates back to the turn of the twentieth century, built in the neo-Gothic style as a viewing platform for panoramic views of the city. It was named after the medieval fisherman that defended this stretch of castle wall, and the seven turrets represent the seven Hungarian Magyar tribes that founded the city in 896. And even if it never served as a fortification itself, this bastion has a touch of magic in its architecture. Overlooking the Danube and the Hungarian Parliament, you’ll find the best view over the city from here.
Sitting next to Fisherman’s Bastion is St. Matthias Church, a stunning and unique cathedral that once saw the coronation of Hungarian Kings. It was even once a mosque for the Ottoman Turks, though today it is a Catholic church. Originally the site of the 11th century Church of our Lady , the current cathedral dates back to 1242 when it was rebuilt. What stands out most of this cathedral isn’t the detailed Gothic architecture, but rather the eye-catching teal and orange tiles that pattern the roof.
|| Dine at New York Palace Grand Café
There are many historical grand cafés scattered throughout the city, and the most famous is the New York Café. Noted as ‘the most beautiful café in the world’, this sophisticated dining experience will transport you back to the turn of the century, offering the charm of the Belle Époque. The opulent décor is as rich as the history of this coffee house that once catered to influential writers and socialites.
|| Pub Crawl Through The Ruin Bars
Budapest offers one of the most unique and lively nightlife scenes in Europe. The ruin bars are not to miss! These buildings, scattered through the Jewish Quarter, were once destroyed by bombings and left to decay after WWII. But within the last decade or so, the trend has been to minimally renovate the spaces (when I say minimally, picture crumbling walls covered in eclectic art and no roof) into cafes and bars.
Szimpla Kert is the mecca of the ruin bars. Its opening began a trend that quickly evolved into the city’s coolest underground scene. Fogas Ház is another eclectic space with a large courtyard and great dance floor. Instant is the largest of the ruin bars – a wild labyrinth with six rooms, two gardens, and seven stages. Go on a pub crawl through them all and you’ll likely end up here. Ellàtò Kert is less kitschy as the others, instead capturing the feel of a Mexican taco stand. I know, I know – tacos in Hungary? But guys, the answer is always yes when tacos are involved. Corvin Club is housed in an abandoned department store – you’ll find film screenings on the roof and concerts downstairs. The list of ruin bars continues, but these are some of the best if you’re limited on time!
|| Soak in a Turkish Thermal Bath
They don’t call it ‘spa city’ for nothing. Another of Budapest’s highlights is its abundance of Turkish baths. They make for a great cure after a night at the ruin bars! May or may not be speaking from experience… but I digress. I spent the morning soaking in the steaming blue waters at the famous Széchenyi Baths located in the City Park. On Saturday nights, you can even come at night for the (s)party, which is quite literally a rave in the thermal baths. Rudas Baths are also highly recommended, with six thermal baths including a rooftop pool overlooking the city. There are also the stunning halls and pools of the Gellért Baths.
|| Dine at Mozel Tov
Although it technically identifies as one of Budapest’s famous ruin bars, Mozel Tov offers less kitsch and more sophistication. With exposed brick walls and a glass roof adorned with strings of lights, the space feels open and light. In the back, it opens into a patio where trees grow between tables. The cuisine is Middle Eastern, and the menu very affordable! I ordered a delicious falafel sandwich, side of tabbouleh salad, and a glass of Tokaji wine – all for the equivalent of €10.
|| Eat and Shop Along Gosdzu Udvar
I stumbled across this courtyard by pure happenstance, but I’m glad I did! Located in the heart of the Jewish Quarter, this arcade stretches through the courtyards of seven buildings and is lined with trendy restaurants, bars, and cafes. On Sundays, the way fills with vendors as an open-air market brings the place to life. I didn’t have the chance to eat here, I simply admired the vendors – but every single place looked so good that I’m sure you can’t go wrong!
|| What To Eat and Drink
A large part of the charm of Eastern Europe is the food. A trip to Budapest is wasted if you don’t step out of your comfort zone to try something new! Goulash is a traditional Hungarian dish, a stew of meat and vegetables seasoned with paprika. My personal favorite are kürtőskalács, or chimney cakes – made from sweet dough wrapped around a spit and rolled in the likes of sugar, cinnamon, chocolate, walnuts, and more.
The Tokaj region is famous for its eponymous wine. And while we’re on the subject of spirits, Pálinka is a traditional fruit brandy that’s a little reminiscent of rocket fuel in my opinion, but worth trying! Unicum is a bitter herbal liqueur, often drunk as an aperitif or even a dessert.
What’s your favorite thing to do in Budapest?