Visiting Hungary for the first time was another dream fulfilled for me. I’ve been wanting to visit Hungary since I was quite young as that where my grandparents on my Mother’s side are originally from. They fled the country in 1956 to Switzerland where my Aunt and Mother were born before coming to Canada in 1960. I really had no expectations, other than to wander the sights of Budapest, see and experience the city where my Grandmother (Nagymama) once lived, eat some amazing cakes, enjoy some much needed Hungarian comfort food and visit a few quaint wineries.
Budapest stole my heart. It’s actually now one of my top favourite places I’ve visited. It’s no wonder that this city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I honestly believe that Budapest is the most beautiful city I’ve seen at night. Definitely make sure that you wander the Danube River’s edge from the “Pest” side looking over to the “Buda” side of the river, also don’t miss taking a cruise along the Danube River at night, it’s a magical experience.
Arriving into Budapest
When I arrived into Budapest at Ferenc Liszt Airport, there were a couple planes that had arrived at the same time, so getting through customs took a little longer than expected as they didn’t have many passport control officers working. Once through EU customs, I picked up my bags and headed out and looked for my name on a sign for my private transfer. I chose to book a private transfer instead of dealing with a taxi this trip for ease, and it was much appreciated after the very long travel day I had (never take the cheapest option with three layovers, it’s not worth losing your sanity haha). The driver I had was very nice and before you knew it I was at my hotel for this visit, The Continental Hotel Budapest.
Where to Stay
The Continental Hotel Budapest (mid range/luxury accommodations) – I chose The Continental Hotel Budapest for my trip due to it’s location within the Jewish Quarter and a rooftop pool with a stunning view over the city. The top floor also has an amazing wellness area which includes an indoor pool, hot tub, saunas and steam rooms. The building that the hotel is located in was originally a bath (Hungaria Furdo), which the moment you step into the lobby, the architecture shows a glimpse into the hotel’s past as a bathhouse. It’s a medium size hotel with 272 rooms. When I arrived, my room wasn’t quite ready, so I left my luggage with the concierge, went out and walked a couple blocks to the New York Cafe and caught the hop on hop off from there. Some room rates do include breakfast, which is a great buffet spread with multiple hot and cold options.
Hilton Budapest (luxury accommodations) – The next time I visit Budapest, this is a strong contender for the next hotel I stay at. It’s perched on the Buda Hill, located beside the Matthias Church, near the stunning Fisherman’s Bastion. The views from some of these hotel rooms overlooks the beautiful Danube River with the Parliament across the river, a stunning view at night. This hotel is also built into the remnants of an 13th century monastery (very neat views from a courtyard from inside the hotel) and boasts Faust Wine Cellar located in the ruins of the monastery, truly a hidden gem!
Corinthia Hotel Budapest (luxury accommodations) – Formerly known as the “Grand Royal Hotel”, the five star rated Corinthia Hotel Budapest is one of the landmark historical hotels, with a gorgeous spa area (Royal Spa) and indoor pool. The lobby is stunning and opulent.
Boat Hotel Fortuna (basic/mid range accommodations) – For something a little different, you can book a stay on a former river boat. Accommodations are quite basic, however you can’t beat the location, floating on the Danube River. It’s located very near to Margitszigeti (Margaret Island), past the Parliament Building on the Pest side.
Four Seasons Gresham Palace Hotel (luxury accommodations) – Another strong contender for the next time I visit Budapest. This hotel was once a palace and had amazing views of the “Chain Bridge”, Buda Castle and the Danube River. Hotel rooms are impeccably designed and of course with the advantage of the amazing service that the Four Seasons brand brings. This was one of the most stunning lobbies I’ve seen, the chandelier is incredible. One of my favourite restaurants is also located at this hotel, Kollazs (see my review in “where to eat” below). Other amenities at this hotel include an indoor infinity edge pool on the top floor, state of the art gym, sauna and relaxation area. It’s located at the start of the pedestrian area in front of the St. Stephen’s Basilica, which is lined with great shops and restaurants, perfect for an evening stroll and take in the romantic beauty that this city offers.
Sofitel Budapest Chain Bridge (mid range/luxury accommodations) – I sell this hotel quite a bit to clients looking for a great middle ground hotel between ultra luxury and mid range. With unobstructed views of Buda Castle, the Danube River and Chain Bridge, splurge for a “room with a view” here and you won’t be disappointed.
The Ritz Carleton Budapest (luxury accommodations) – Located in the historical centre on the Pest side, The Ritz Carleton Budapest is another amazing ultra luxurious option in Budapest. Rooms are traditional with a modern, contemporary flair, along with the impeccable service that Ritz Carleton in known for. A few blocks away from the Danube River, Gerbeaud Cuzraszda (Cafe) and the St. Stephen’s Basilica.
Aria Hotel Budapest by Library Hotel Collection (luxury accommodations) – Gorgeous rooftop patio area, the High Note Roof Bar is something to check out even if you don’t stay here, I had a wonderful cocktail up here at sunset with a stunning view. Located right near the St. Stephen’s Basilica and the pedestrianized area. Great amenities when staying at this property which include a complementary breakfast, afternoon wine and cheese, pool, fitness centre, steam bath, sauna and whirlpool.
Getting Around Budapest
Getting around Budapest is so easy. It’s such a walkable city and the transit systems here are great and efficient. If you’re here for multiple days like I was you’ve got a few options. You can buy a transit pass, which is great value, just be sure to validate your ticket (stamp your tickets in one of the machines when you start using it or you can be subjected to some pretty hefty fines, the transit police do watch tourists carefully here, so please be aware of this, I came across so many complaints online). Click here to visit a blog I used when planning my trip, it explains the transit system in Budapest so well.
I used the metro (the underground subway system) a few times myself, so easy to get to places like the Szechenyi Baths, Szell Kalman (station on the Buda side, transfer here to a “Castle Bus” which will take you up the hill into the Buda Castle area). An interesting fact about the iconic “Line 1”, it was completed in 1896, which makes it the oldest electrified underground railway system in continental Europe.
Another favourite way to see Budapest is also a hop on hop off bus. I did a 48 hour hop on hop off with two river cruises included (a day cruise and a night cruise). Honestly, you need to cruise the Danube River at night, so whether you do it by a river cruise ship that you are taking from Budapest or by a tour boat, it’s a must see. As I mentioned before, Budapest is probably the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen at night.
Taxis aren’t highly recommended, I’ve heard plenty of scams and tourists being ripped off, so I just avoided them. I arranged a private transfer from the airport to my hotel, which I love doing after a long flight.
Where to Eat in Budapest
Hungarian food is the ultimate comfort food. From Langos (a fried dough served with sour cream and cheese), Chicken Paprikash, Goulash to some of the most amazing cakes and pastries you’ve ever had. Here are some of the restaurants I’ve personally tried. These places to eat are in no particular order, I’ve linked the websites if they have one.
Vintage Garden – One of the most prettiest cafes I’ve seen in a long time. I found this cafe on Instagram (no surprise here), and fell in love. In person, it didn’t disappoint. This place will get busy, especially for brunch. Make a reservation or go right when it opens to make sure you get a table. The menu is very reasonable for the setting, I had the french toast, a coffee melange and a glass of sparkling Hungaria Rose.
Nagycsarnok (Great Market Hall) – The Great Market Hall is one of the historical markets in central Budapest. Located on the Pest side of the Danube River, it was first built in 1897. It’s honestly a great place to grab some lunch (grab a Langos from upstairs at the last food stall on the west side) and buy some souvenirs, locally made goods and wines. I did a bit of shopping here on the first day I arrived, it’s a great place to explore.
Ruszwurm Cukraszda – Located in the historic Buda Castle area and near the Matthias Church, I highly recommend this historic Cukraszda (Bakery/Cafe), especially on a beautiful day in the summer. It’s a very popular spot with limited seating, but it’s well worth the wait for some of the best cakes and baked treats you will ever have. Ruszwurm Cukraszda was founded in 1827 and a favourite of the Empress Elisabeth of Austria (known to the locals as Sissi). She actually took baked goods from this bakery to her home in Vienna when she was leaving Budapest and would even have items shipped to her, this is actually the rumoured start of the traditional Dobos Torta, a cake with a caramel “crust” on top to preserve the freshness of the cake. I tried and loved the Dobos Torta, the Ruzswurm Kremes (Cream Cake) and a Rose froccs (rose wine with sparking water). I came here a couple times during my stay as the prices were so reasonable and the cakes were so delicious.
Terv Presszo – Located about a block from the main pedestrianized streets near St. Stephen’s Basilica, Terv Presszo is a great mid range option for a home cooked Hungarian meal. I had the Chicken Paprikas here with Nokedli (a Hungarian Dumpling) and it was really good, paired with a glass of local Rose wine. The atmosphere is quite funky but speaks to the experience. All the dishes are quite generous in regards to portion size, the desserts are massive! Highly recommend this place as I visited here with a friend from Budapest.
Gelarto Rosa – Again, found this gem on Instagram and so glad I did. They do many different flavours of gelato and even have some pretty interesting flavours including vegan ones. The best part, they form your ice cream cone into a rose by forming petals. You can build in a few different flavours and it’s amazing gelato! Located right near the St. Stephen’s Basilica, it’s a must try. Be prepared that in the summer the lines can get long and make sure you have cash (Hungarian Forint).
Kek Rozsa Etterem (Blue Rose Restaurant) – A very “local” and simple restaurant located in the Jewish Quarter of Budapest. I had the Beef Goulash with herb potatoes with a local red wine from Villanyi. Good meal for the price, portions again are quite substantial.
Cat Cafe – Pay a set fee, enjoy cake, a drink and socialize with some cute cats.
DiVino Borbar – Wine bar near St. Stephen’s Basilica with a great location with seating in the square. More than 140 wines served with a great selection of wines from local wineries, including a selection of wines from local vintners who are under the age of 35.
Gerbeaud Cuzraszda (Cafe) – Founded in 1858, this is a must. I have a personal connection to this cafe as I have family members who have served at this Budapest staple. Try the Gerbeaud Cake (Zserbo Szelet) a layered cake with apricot jam, walnuts and chocolate. Also try the Gerbeaud Coffee (black coffee with apricot sauce, apricot liqueur, hot chocolate, vanilla foam and walnut linzer sprinkles) or the Sissi Coffee (black coffee, Grand Marnier liqueur, cinnamon, clove, cardamon, honey and whipped cream).
Kollazs – Located in the Four Seasons Gresham Palace Hotel, this stunning restaurant and bar is a must visit when you’re visiting Budapest. Atmosphere is a nod to the traditional but the comfort, coziness and glamour of an upscale brasserie. Menu here is Hungarian and French, with food looking like art (and tastes amazing) but affordable. Bar favourites was the “Hendrick’s and Me” cocktail, with notes of rose, aloe vera, bergamot and elderflower. For lunch they do have a 3 course meal for 3800 HUF (about $16 CAD per person) or a 4 course option for 4300 HUF (about $19 CAD per person). I highly recommend the Chicken Paprikash! Dinner menu is just as decadent (came here twice in my 5 days in Budapest), I had the Foie Gras Terrine to start and the Beef Bourguignon. All the desserts are amazing, so be sure to save room for dessert here, you won’t regret it!
Tigris – Located a block from the Four Seasons Gresham Palace Hotel, this restaurant is listed in the prestigious Michelin Guide and it didn’t disappoint. By far the best meal I had in Budapest, I went here for my “birthday dinner”. The Foie Gras Specialities menu was both delightful and exciting to the palate, along with my main course of Duck Breast with Sweet Potato, Mangalica Bacon and Brussels Sprouts with Paprika. The Dobos Torta was also lovely and the local wines the sommelier recommended were on point. They offer a 5+1 course meal as well, which looked amazing, something I’ll try next time!
Faust Wine Cellar – Located within the cave ruins of the monastery beneath the Hilton Budapest, this is a stunning and intimate restaurant. Try local wines from Hungary along with Palinka tastings (a traditional fruit brandy) paired with an incredible meal.
Barack & Szilva – A very cute bistro owned by a husband and wife, serving traditional Hungarian food. This was located about a block from the Continental Hotel Budapest, and came highly recommended by a foodie friend. The “Chef’s Offer” is an amazing dinner options for the price which includes local wine pairings from 14,600 HUF (about $64 CAD per person). A great restaurant, I’ll definitely be back to this one, it’s a favourite for sure! They even have a patio which is great for the summer evenings.
Szimpla Kert – Even if you don’t drink, Szimpla Kert is an experience. I went on my own to check it out during an afternoon and it’s very different. This is one of the first “ruin bars” to pop up in Budapest. It’s definitely an experience, very eclectic and funky vibes are felt throughout the old warehouse-turned-bar/club.
Karavan – A few doors down from Szimpla Kert, located inside the remnants of a bombed out warehouse sits a collection of food trucks serving up all types of cuisine. Open from 11:30am onwards (feeding those on a hunt for late night munchies after a visit to Szimpla, etc). It’s a cute concept and did grab a Langos from one of the trucks here.
Things to Do and See in Budapest
There are honestly so many things to do and see in Budapest (and surrounding areas), I was here for five full days/six nights and was unable to do everything I wanted. I’ve highlighted some of the most popular things to do and see and linked some of my favourite tours.
Hungarian Baths in Budapest
Budapest is fairly unique in regards to being one of the very few cities in the world that is rich with thermal waters. It’s obviously known as the “city of spas” and the level of baths are both beautiful and impressive. Here is my guide to the five most popular baths in Budapest:
Szechenyi Thermal Baths – Located in the City Park in Budapest (on the Pest side, at the end of Andrassy Avenue), this bath was opened in 1913 and is a stunning complex. They’ve kept it up in pretty good condition considering the age and the usage levels. Most people think the baths open at 9am, however they do actually open at 6am. I was there at opening (6am) and pretty well had all the pools to myself. Once 9:30am/10am hit, it definitely got more busy with all the tourists pouring in. I paid for a ticket that included a locker, you can also pay an upgrade and use a “cabin” (a lockable, private change room). Make sure you bring sandals/flip flops (these are mandatory in most baths you’ll visit in Hungary) and a towel (you can rent towels, I just brought my travel towel, some hotels will actually provide you with “bath” towels to take as well). This place can be like a maze, so take a map when buying your ticket (tip: take a photo of it on your phone, so you don’t have to walk around with a soggy map). Szechenyi Baths is the largest thermal bath complex in Budapest, it has 3 outdoor pools (the lap pool you do need to wear a bathing/swim cap, again something that is a necessity when visiting the baths, the hot pools didn’t require them) and 15 indoor pools with various saunas and steam rooms, some with aromatherapy. They also have a cafe onsite which also serves alcohol. You can also upgrade your visit and include a massage treatment as well. A fun, unique experience which they also offer here is the Beer Spa, yes, a Beer Spa. I spent the morning here until around 11:00am, trying all the different pools (there is a sulphur element in some of them) but I can honestly say I slept so well the night after visiting and my skin was so soft. This is a strong favourite and can’t wait until I return!
Kiraly Thermal Baths – Besides the fact that my family shares this as their last name, Kiraly (meaning “King”), this Thermal Bath is a small Turkish bath that were built in 1565. Whilst being one of the smaller Thermal Baths in Budapest, this place is a gem. It has a total of 4 pools ranging in temperatures from 26C to 40C. The lighting in the main bath is almost cathedral like with the coloured block glass in the dome letting light filter through. Definitely a Thermal Bath to check out.
Rudas Thermal Baths – The Rudas Thermal Baths are located on the Buda side under the Citadel, along the banks of the Danube River. Also built in the 16th century during the Turkish occupation, the traditional pool is still operational but it does operate as a gender specific bath on certain days (The vapor bath section is open each day from 6am until 8pm, on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday gentlemen are welcome, and on Tuesdays ladies can enjoy the vapor bath; on Saturday and Sunday groups are welcome, during which time bathing suits are compulsory). Double check these days and times by calling the Bath directly. A very unique aspect to this bath is the rooftop bath with unobstructed views of the Danube River.
Gellert Thermal Baths – Part of the Gellert Hotel on the Buda side, Gellert Thermal Baths opened in 1918 and has 5 indoor thermal baths, 1 indoor pool with an Art Nouveau Hall, a few outdoor pools including a wave pool in the summer months and a few more thermal baths. Again, make sure you bring your towel, sandals and swimming cap, these are definitely essentials when visiting the Thermal Baths in Budapest.
Palatinus Thermal Baths – Located on Margit-sziget (Margaret Island), within the park, it’s a beautiful setting. These were actually the first Thermal Baths in Budapest where you could bathe outdoors. These baths have 10 different pools including giant slides and a wave pool in the summer. Great place for families visiting Budapest as Margit-sziget (Margaret Island) is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon. Take a bike ride around the island from one of the bike rental stands and enjoy the beautiful gardens as you enjoy this oasis in the center of Budapest.
Castle District (Buda)
A beautiful district on the Buda side (West side) of the Danube River which includes Buda Hill and where the Buda Castle is located. There are a few ways to get to the top. If you start at the Chain Bridge, you will see a funicular that can take you to the top, the lines during the summer can be quite long and the ride up isn’t cheap. If you walk along the road (Lanchid Road) to the Castle Gardens, you’ll find a free escalator that will take you up to a quieter area of Buda Castle. The other option is to take a left at the funicular and walk up Hunyadi Janos Avenue up to Fisherman’s Bastion then walk over to the Castle from there. You can also take the metro to Szell Kalman, station on the Buda side, transfer here to a “Castle Bus” which will take you up the hill into the Buda Castle area.
The Buda Castle District is so beautiful and really a great place to wander. I actually did an Urban Adventures tour called the “Total Budapest Discovery Tour” which is a blend of their “Buda Castle Explorer” and a local tour on the Pest side in the afternoon ending at a Cuzraszda for coffee and cake.
The Royal Palace (Buda Castle) is now the Hungarian National Gallery, I was able to explore the outside of Buda Castle, however did not have time this last trip to explore the inside of the now gallery.
Head over to Pest from Buda using the popular Szechenyi “Chain” Bridge, then take a stroll up the Danube River bank to the Parliament building. Along the way, pay your respects at the memorial called “Shoes on the Danube Bank”. In World War II, 3,500 people, including 800 Jewish people were lined up along the banks of the Danube River at this spot, ordered to take off their shoes, then were unfortunately shot into the river. It’s a very powerful, sculptural memorial.
Once at the Parliament if you do decide to go in Hungary’s largest building built in 1902, don’t miss taking a peek at the Crown of St. Stephen. Once you’ve had a history lesson there, go back to the center of Pest and explore the St. Stephen’s Basilica. The Basilica was completed in 1905, the views from the top of the dome are stunning and can be reached there by a lift and stairs, which offers an amazing view of the city.
There are other points of interest such as the Great Synagogue (which is the largest Synagogue outside of New York City), House of Terror (my Grandfather was unfortunately interrogated in this building), the Budapest Opera House, Heroes Square and City Park.
What ever you choose to do in Budapest, there are so many interesting things to do and see, even if it’s just to sit outside, order a coffee or a glass of wine with a cake at a Cukraszda and watch the world go by.
Wine Regions Near Budapest
Budapest has some amazing wine regions located very close by which can make great half day or full day trips outside the city. I did an afternoon tour to Etyek, about a 45 minute drive outside the city and visited three unique wineries. Etyek is a climate where white and rose wines thrive. The vineyards in the Etyek-Buda region are graced with rolling hills layered with natural limestone and rich soils. Long ago, a family from the Champagne region of France settled here because the Etyek-Buda area closely resembled “home”. After the Turks were expelled in the 18th century, German wine growers were also invited to settle in this area which makes for a vibrant and eclectic history of the wineries. There were at one point over 1000 wineries in the Etkey-Buda region alone, now there are approximately 125 wineries operating, some of which are run by vintners under the age of 35.
I honestly LOVED visiting Budapest. I hope you found this guide to be helpful with some useful recommendations. If you’re looking for help planning your next vacation to Budapest, I’d love to help you out and be your personal travel advisor. Please click here to connect with me.
Until next time! Safe travels friends xoxo