Hungary is a really cool country and there are tons of reasons to visit. The capital city of Budapest is a thriving metropolis of approximately 2 million people. Hungary itself has a population of 10 million, so 20% of Hungarians live in Budapest and it’s easy to see why.
Hungary struggled with occupation and a quest for independence for most of its existence. From the Habsburgs to Hitler, The Ottomans and most recently the Soviet Union, Hungary has fought outsiders for control of her own homeland and today it’s proud of the struggles it has overcome to become a modern EU democracy.
Before moving to Europe from the United States was even on our radar, Mike and I mapped out a European vacation that included 3 days in Budapest. For this reason, I had conducted a lot of google searches on what to do while visiting. Moving to Europe meant that my research could include first hand accounts from other travelers who have experienced the Hungarian capital in all of its glory. Tack on the fact that Mike worked with a Budapest native and the agenda for this trip quickly filled with plans. When we travel we always leave room for spontaneity, and that was no different this time around. Here are our highlights and recommendations from this fun, exciting and oh so affordable city.
1. The Ruin Bars:
In the effervescent Jewish Quarter of Budapest lie the “romkert” or the ruin bars. These bars have to be on your Budapest bucket list! We checked out Szimpla Kert and it is a truly unique drinking experience where you can mingle with locals and travelers alike. The aroma of lit hookah and the sounds of sing-a-long pop remixes will engulf you as youtraipse through this marvelous space. The pre-war walls are literally crumbling and you can see where the courtyard was once an abandoned, weed-filled lot.
Wandering the grounds you’ll find walls decorated with Christmas lights and repurposed props that were at one time dumped in this formerly abandoned space. Gum ball machines filled with colored marbles, garden gnomes nailed to the ceiling and a bath tub converted into a couch are among the reused items you’ll encounter in this eclectic and gritty hipster paradise. The bohemian decor, cheap drinks and friendly clientele make it a must-do!
2. The Great Synagogue & Dohany Street:
Budapest is home to Dohany Street Synagogue, the largest in Europe. Architecturally stunning, this building is worth checking out. When you approach, you’ll see signs saying “FREE TOURS,” however it is NOT free to enter the synagogue, the sign should actually read “tour included with entrance fee.” There is a dress code to enter and it is more strict for females, although they have items you can rent or purchase to conform. The Hungarian Jewish Museum is in the same building.
We opted to take in only the exterior beauty of the synagogue and spent brunch dining al fresco on tree-lined Dohany Street. There are plenty of savory and sweet options with several cuisines from which to choose. We highly recommend grabbing brunch on this bustling street with a beautiful backdrop. Best of all, these menus won’t set you back more than $10 for an entree and drinks were between $2-$5. Whether you are moved to enter the temple or not, you can’t miss the beauty of The Great Synagogue on Dohany.
3. Erzsébet Square and the Budapest Eye:
While in Budapest, you’ll probably end up at Erzsébet Square because it’s literally in the middle of everything. Each major subway line connects in this lovely piece of real estate and the city comes alive at this convenient meeting point. Boasting beautiful fountains, lush landscaping, the sounds of live music and the smells of pop-up street food you can find a little bit of everything in Erzsébet. While there are many food and drink options in the square itself, you can also take advantage of Europe’s humane public drinking laws. Pick up a bottle of wine and a baguette to enjoy a picnic in the grass. Cap off your time here with a ride on the Budapest Eye. This iconic ferris wheel is a great way to take in the city and from 65 meters high, only Saint Stephen’s Basilica is taller. For under $10 you can enjoy 3 trips around and spend 8-10 minutes on top of the world!
4. The House of Terror Museum:
It’s impossible to visit Budapest without taking note of Hungary’s tortured past under fascist and Soviet rule. Besides the somber memorials and the physical impact these periods of strife have left on the city, there exists a heavy weight on the collective conscience of the Hungarian people. This feeling is palpable in every facet of life in Budapest. To get a better understanding of this, visit The House of Terror Museum, a permanent exhibition that details Hungary’s relationships to Nazis Germany and the Soviet Union.
The museum is on the site of the former ÁVH headquarters, a group of secret police similar to the Russian KGB. The building itself is part of the history it seeks to explain and the most chilling portion of the tour is the basement which still bears the prison cells of those terrorized by the Hungarian Communist regime. The firsthand accounts of the citizens who lived through this period were truly haunting. I left with a much deeper understand of the people and a newfound admiration for their resilience and modern outlook. With a convenient audio tour guide in English and German and translated plaques throughout, it is very easy to navigate the grounds and better your understanding of 20th century life for those in Budapest. The ticket cost is approximately $7.50 and the audio guide will set you back another $5.50.
5. The Thermal Baths:
Hungary is a nation blessed with many thermal hot springs. Budapest itself is laid out over a cross stitch of over 1,000 natural spring water sources. This makes the city a prime location to enjoy a thermal bath and spa. There are several to choose from and some of them dating back to the Medieval Ottoman occupation. Mike and I visited Széchenyi Thermal Bath and we were not disappointed.
It is a co-ed bath with 13 spas and pools ranging in temperatures from polar plunge to downright scolding. Mixed in, there are saunas and aromatherapy rooms with areas for massage and other spa options. Most importantly there is a bar with snack and drink options and on Saturday nights you can visit Széchenyi for the SPArty. While not as quaint and relaxing, on SPArty Saturdays the main pools are occupied by house DJs and a younger party crowd. Our favorite pool had a circular chamber with powerful jets to create a whirlpool effect spinning you around the thermal-heated mineral water. It was a grown up version of the lazy river! Prices were reasonable at just over $20 for the day pass. SPArty events cost about $60. A few tips, along with your bathing suit, bring a pair of sandals and your own towel to avoid renting one. They were inexpensive, but inconveniently located in the facility.
Second, if you ride the metro to the spa, depart the train one station early so that you can spend some time at Heroes Square. Take in the stunning monuments dedicated to Hungarian culture and historical leaders. The square also hosts events and music. When we visited, Mike and I were lucky enough to catch some traditional costumed dancers performing for a lively crowd.
6. Walk the Danube River:
The Danube is awesome! If you’re a geography nerd like us, you’ll appreciate the fact that 4 European capitals are located on the Danube and know that it’s one of the great rivers of the world. On both sides there are excellent walking paths. We started along the Pest side which gave us a stunning view of Buda Castle from across the Danube. From our origin point below The Chain Bridge we had drinks at one of the quaint river deck restaurants. They can be tricky to get to because of the roadway and train tracks, but once you navigate your way to the riverfront you’ll have a nice selection of reasonably priced watering holes.
After our liquid motivation, we trekked towards the Chain Bridge and crossed the mighty currents of the Danube. We took our time breathing in the sights and were immersed in beauty from the lion sculptures of the bridge to the ornate Hungarian Parliament building which quickly came into view on the Pest side. This portion of the day was unplanned, but I am so happy we decided to walk the bridge because the views were spectacular. After circling back to the Pest side of the bridge, we continued up the river walk to Shoes on the Danube, a somber memorial dedicated to victims of an execution that took place on the river bank.
During World War II, 3,500 citizens of Budapest were shot into the river by fascist members of the Arrow Cross. Those mostly Jewish citizens are honored with a moving tribute on the banks of the Danube. The memorial is only steps from Hungarian Parliament, a marvel with beautiful angles and a great photo op. On the opposite side of the building there are cool water features including a mist garden during the summer months.