I promise, life as an expat is not all Oktoberfest and vacations. I spend most of my days waiting for the bus in the sleet, navigating life living under the same roof as two seventy year old Germans, and deciding whether or not I actually need to wear a bra out of the house, when I wear a puffy coat all day. But when I’m walking the dog in wintry mix, vacation planning is what pulls me through the winter blues.
Budapest was one of our planned destinations that I was most excited about. I did loads of research, and built this trip up in my mind so much that I was concerned it was going to be a let down. Other than my Budapest daydreams involving me tan, in cutoff shorts and Birkenstock’s, it was truly everything I imagined and more!
I actually planned on posting our Prague trip first, since we went to Prague before Budapest, but we loved Budapest so much that we convinced my sister-in-law and her husband to go, so I wanted to get this posted to hopefully help them in their planning.
What really drew me to Budapest was how unique it is from other major European cities. It’s eclectic, with it’s grand cafes and ornate thermal baths, but has the grit of a city that survived German and Soviet occupation for 45 years.
Two excellent resources I used in planning our travel to Budapest was the Extra Pack of Peanuts travel podcast on Budapest and the Offbeat Budapest site. Both sites had excellent suggestions for things to do, and of course, food!
WHERE TO STAY
Budapest has two very distinct sides separated by the Danube River: Buda on the West and Pest on the East. Buda is more hilly and green, and bit more settled down, and Pest is where the majority of the bars and restaurants are.
We stayed on the Buda side, although we found ourselves doing a lot of walking or cabbing it to the Pest side. So if I could do it again, I would stay on the Pest side, close to the Jewish quarter (because Israeli food). But on the Buda side, there’s the Buda Castle and several thermal baths, so you really can’t go wrong.
THINGS TO DO
Budapest was actually much larger, and had so much more to do than I imagined. We spent a week there, and could have spent even longer because there really is so much to see and do.
One of the most memorable things we did in Budapest was the thermal baths! I promise, there is no better way of risking a flesh eating bacteria, and I actually regret not visiting others while we were there.
Budapest is known for it’s thermal baths, which the Ottomans began to build back in the 16th Century. There are quite a few, but we went to the Szechenyi Thermal Baths, which is Budapest’s most well-known. Get there early because it gets busy as the day goes on!
Not only are there outside baths, but there are dozens of inside baths and saunas, where you can warm up and then take a dunk into one of the cold baths. There’s even a sauna that smells like honey, which was my favorite. And unlike Deutschland, you get to keep your swimsuit on for this experience. German pools and saunas may have to be a topic for another blog post!
This was such a great time and I regret not getting to visit the Gellert and Rudas thermal baths.
Probably the most iconic image of Budapest is the elaborate Parliament Building over the Danube River. Head over to the Buda side of town and walk along the Danube to get a really fantastic view at night.
You can tour the interior of the building, which has a modest 691 rooms! But definitely walk around the outside both during the day and the night for the fantastic architecture and lighting.
My favorite day in Budapest was the day we walked Castle Hill. Really, we walked pretty much the entire Buda side of the city! There is a trail that takes you up through the hills to the Buda Castle. It’s steep and strenuous, but so worth the views from the top! Throughout the walk, there are multiples vantage points to look out over Budapest and take some amazing photos. Plus, it was a beautiful day, and I saw the sun for the first time in probably a month!
Once you’ve trekked to the top, you must stop by Ruszwurm, which is a Budapest landmark. The confectionary has been around since 1827 and is famous for their Ruszwurm Crème pastry, and having tried it, I can understand why it’s so legendary. Just be prepared to wait in a line! Their desserts are not a secret.
If you ate your Hungarian Wheaties that morning, keep going to see Gellert Hill and Citadella. Pro tip: end your walk by relaxing at Gellert or Rudas Thermal Baths, both right in the area, and a perfect way to end the day.
Ruins pubs are an iconic part of Budapest, and a must-see if you’re visiting. There are a number of ruins pubs in Budpast, but Szimpla Kert is the most well-known.
Ruins pubs began in the early 2000’s by taking old dilapidated buildings in the Jewish Quarter, that had been deserted when thousands of Jews were deported during WWII, and decking them out with an eclectic mix of junk. They are now probably the biggest attraction in Budapest.
Since we are early birds, we decided to go to Szimpla Kert at 11:00 am and there was a great little farmers market downstairs with different types of cheeses, meats, jams, and of course, paprika!
Christmas markets in Budapest run through New Year’s Day and they are literally all over town! Since we have seen quite a few German Christmas markets, it was fun to see the more eastern European flair in Budapest – lots of fur, spices, and the best food of all Christmas markets we’ve been to! Hungarians know how to eat.
I honestly can’t remember how, but we accidentally stumbled upon the Museum of Fine Art in Budapest. There was a Van Gogh exhibit while were there, so we went in to see if we could get tickets, but the line was out the door.
However, even if you’re not interested, or don’t want to see the exhibits, it’s worth going just to see the incredible statues out front!
One of the most popular museums in Budapest is the House of Terror. The museum is at 60 Andrassy Blvd., which was used by the Soviets during the fascist and communist regimes, to detain, interogate, torture, and kill anyone perceived as a threat to their agenda. The House of Terror is both educational and a memorial to those who were tortured or killed in the building.
If I’m honest, this is something I wouldn’t do again. Andy and I both find history really interesting, and it’s incredibily moving how much Hungary has gone through and what an incredible city Budapest is, despite being under Soviet power until 1991. However, in each room of the museum, you could only hear audio in Hungarian, or read these leaflets in English, which were really long! So by the end of the museum, we were exhausted from reading, and kind of wished we would have just bought a book on the history of fascist and communist regimes in Hungary.
WHERE TO EAT
Budapest has had such a mix of cultural influences, it has incredible food! Unlike what I’ve experienced in Germany, Budapest is with the times when it comes to offering gluten free, vegetarian, non-dairy, etc., which was a treat.
Like most places in Europe, if you want to eat at a good restaurant, you have to plan in advance and make reservations! And the number one reservation to make is at Mazel Tov in the Jewish Quarter. It’s Israeli food heaven, with with hummus plates, falafel, schwarma – it’s making me hungry just thinking about it! Plus the ambiance is so cool with the strung lights and greenery, it’s a must!
First Craft Beer & BBQ was another favorite stop. Being from Texas, we were suspicious of a BBQ joint in Hungary, but the food was pretty good! Not Texas barbeque, but great to get your barbeque fix in Europe. What they do really well is beer! Thanks to German beer purity laws, we really miss our IPAs, and First Craft knows how to make a good IPA. Jonas Brew House is another great spot for craft beer, right on the river, but I think First Craft wins for best IPA.
Several other recommendations are Hadik Café for a great lunch spot in a really cool, young neighborhood. Also, HILDA for a nice dinner. I got a fish dish that was not good, but Andy’s dish (some kind of meatloaf and potatoes, I think) was so good that it made up for my poor selection. I should know now to stop trying to eat fish in landlocked countries.
If you’re on the Buda side, we had a fantastic New Year’s Eve meal at Franco Kitchen, a really cute restaurant in the neighborhood where we were staying. The food was delicious, service was good, and they were playing great music.
And of course, you must make a stop by Hold Street Market. It’s an indoor food market with tons of different vendors selling meats, cheeses, and other goods, but they also have booths with prepared food from sushi to eggs benedict. We opted for a really popular joint that was serving huge schnitzel (because we don’t get enough schnitzel, apparently), and it was so big we shared it along with a cheap, light Hungarian beer.
Budapest also has some amazing street food. Langos are these puffy circles of dough that they top with goulash or some type of salad, and is an absolute must if you’re in Budapest! Chimney Cakes, which are these doughy pastries they bake around a cylinder, are extremely popular, although we passed while were there.
One of my biggest regrets was not getting a reservation at one of the grand cafes – either New York Cafe or Café Gerbeaud. The grand cafes look like a scene from Grand Hotel, with their tall, detailed ceilings and chandeliers. I think we may have to plan another trip back just to go to one of the Grand Cafes.
We absolutely loved Budapest – the culture, the people, the food, and I can’t wait to plan a trip back, maybe in the spring!