Budapest is probably my favorite city that I’ve explored (but it’s so hard to choose). It has everything that you could as for, from suds in pints to suds in Roman bathhouses. It also has my favorite night life in all of Europe, although that’s always a hot topic for debate and relies too much on personal preference for what a great night entails. I will tell you this — If Budapest is a place you’ve overlooked as I once had, change your mind now. Buy a ticket (or cash in some points) as soon as possible before this gem is overtaken and overrun. Budapest (and Hungary in general) is a place that has yet to catch up with current pricing and because of that, its a place many travelers are adding to their upcoming plans.
But besides simply being a very affordable destination, Budapest has sights and experiences to offer that can rival any great European city. The people here are also incredible friendly and great hosts. In fact, stumbling around one of the famous “ruin pubs” you’re bound to meet all kinds of people that are friendly and excited to hear outside perspectives. Because Hungarian is not a widely spoken language, you might find quite a few English speaking locals, and certainly a fair number of travelers from around Europe to share the experience with. The culture and vibe of Budapest is something that cannot be rushed. There are some many interesting places to see that I’d give this city a minimum of three days to see. Especially since one of those mornings might be spent recovering from a night on the town — Or perhaps at a bathhouse party (kind of like a rave, but more genuine). That sounds fun, right?
In: If you’re flying in to Budapest, you’ll probably arrive at Budapest Franz Liszt International Airport and the city center is reached by taking bus 200E to the nearest metro train station “Kőbánya-Kispest” and from there taking that line to connect with the majority of Budapest’s local lines. Budapest Keliti is most likely the train station that you’ll arrive at if coming into Budapest by rail, however, the Nyugati and Deli stations also handle some of the international travel. All of these arrival points are going to have an information booth with English speaking attendants that can help you get to where you’re going.
Around: The transportation system isn’t confusing except for the fact that the stations are in Hungarian and the pronunciation on the loud speaker can be confusing to those of us from outside. I’d look towards the signs on the station platforms when referencing with your city metro map (free at most information booths). There are also buses that can take you around, and one specifically that I’d recommend – Budapest’s Hop On Hop Off Bus (a lot of major European cities have some form of this). This bus will take you between most of the city’s sights and it works just as it sounds. You purchase a one, two, or three day ticket and can just hop on at any of their set stops (outside tourists sights and major connections) and take the bus to where ever you’re looking at next.
Stay? Ideally in Budapest, you’re going to want to be centrally located. I’d also recommend staying on the Pest side if you intend to go out to the ruin pubs as most of them are in the Old Jewish Quarter. I stayed at Art Botique Hostel which I don’t believe is still around. Shame as it was great! However, staying anywhere near the Budapest Opera or vicinity on the Pest side is probably better for the young and hip traveler.
WHAT TO DO?
The Ruin Pubs:
Ruin Pubs are something that is unique to Budapest (although places have tried to mimic their success). To describe a ruin pub is difficult as they each offer different things but I suppose you could start with the common things that they share: A location that was abandoned until it was invaded by this pop-up bar, a love for weird art (that hangs and usually decorates everywhere), and drinking. Many of these places also offer food but that definitely varies. Some ruin pubs have a more “club-like” atmosphere, while others are more hipster. The original and probably most popular among travelers is Szimpla Kert and it’s the first one that I ever ventured into, with the guidance of a very generous local-ish friend. The drinks at these establishments are usually pretty cheap and usually there is some form of live music, whether that means a band or DJ. Overall, you can’t really go wrong with choosing a few to hop between.
Visit a Roman Bath:
Budapest is famous for this and is probably the second “Have to go or I’ll drag you back” thing to experience in Budapest. The most popular and easiest to use is Szechenyi.Here, you’ll find a mix of locals an tourists and neither really minds the other. I mean, these places are somewhere to relax, right? You’ll also need to devote at least a half day to going here as it’s all part of the culture. It’s something that cannot be rushed.
As you enter Szechenyi, you will pay for tickets and towels at the front desk. You should also get a locker as you’ll need to store your things here. These are accessed by a wrist band that the desk will provide that works magnetically. Once you have your things, head towards the changing rooms. In case you were worried, you will wear a swim suit at this bathhouse (there are some that have separate men and women’s bathing times). At the lockers, you can change and then be on your way into the baths, just be sure to shower first! The pools are not chlorinated, but contain high levels of minerals that are create for the skin and also keep things sanitary. For those more daring and looking for a unique night out (besides ruin pubs) try out the Szechenyi Bath Parties which take place seasonally and on Saturday nights.
See Buda Castle:
Buda Castle is the historical castle/palace that sits up above in Buda and overlooks the city. There are amazing views from up top and lots of photo opportunities. I’d recommend giving yourself also a half day up here as there are parks near by to explore. Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion are also up here and are both incredible, especially the church!
Go to the Opera:
The Budapest Opera is incredible. Also, English subtitles are available for certain showings though are not necessary. If you’ve never experienced the Opera, this is a great place to do so as the tickets are far cheaper than other European cities, but the performances are on par. I saw a Hungarian Version of Madame Butterfly and it was one incredible night. Be aware that the dress here is formal. Slacks, button ups and nice shoes for men and a cocktail dress for the ladies is the minimum I’d say.
Take a River Cruise on the Danube:
These are really nice as the whole waterfront is lit up at night and everything really stands out from the bridges to the castle. I highly recommend it and tickets really aren’t too expensive, even though you’re paying tourist prices. Make sure to arrive early if you haven’t purchased tickets online as the cues can be long and you don’t want to miss the boat.
Explore Both Sides of the City:
Both the cities of Buda and Pest have stark differences and things to offer that the other hasn’t. Buda is a little more laid back, and a bit more scenic, however Pest is were most of the museums and bars reside. You can easily walk between both sides on one of the many bridges. Or you could take it easy and ride the subway beneath. That works too.
Take a walk around and through Vajdahunyad Castle:
This is a great place to stop by and explore before or after the Szechenyi Bathhouse. It’s in the same park (which should also be taken in) and overall is a nice send off from your bath house afternoon.
Try the Hungarian Food:
A place I’d recommend is Menza for Hungarian cuisine. It was recommended by a friend so I will recommend to you. I certainly loved it.
THINGS TO KNOW:
- The Hungarians are great hosts, be sure to get to know them while in Budapest. Striking up conversation at a Ruin Pub isn’t a bad idea as long as you’re not interrupting. Look for smaller groups.
- Dreher is the main beer that I found everywhere. It tastes pretty standard as far as European lagers go, nothing special however the prices of a little over 1 USD or Euro for a glass was pretty great. Supposedly the Bock version is better?
- Most everything in Budapest was cheap, that said, electronics and clothing seemed pretty on par for the rest of Europe. I wouldn’t go on any shopping binges here.
- Avoid Taxis. They are notorious for ripping you off and lots of “drivers” will come into the train stations to try to recruit passengers. Just say no. The Metro is very efficient here.
- If you’re mainly going between tourist attractions, I would use the hop-on hop-off bus route for the bulk of your transportation mostly out of convenience. When you need to commute across town, paying for individual metro rides is going to be cheap enough that you don’t need the day pass.