The Hungarian capital offers two very different experiences in one city with Buda and Pest separated by the Danube River. The older and smaller Buda is an atmospheric warren of twisting streets that climb up towards Castle Hill, topped by Buda Castle (which, aside from some old ramparts, is more palace than castle and was long used by the Hapsburg monarchs when they were visiting one of their two capitals). Cross any of the bridges to Pest, including the landmark Széchenyi Chain Bridge, and you’ll arrive in the newer half of the city. Here you’ll find the vast City Park and the adjoining Heroes Square, the basilica of St. Stephen, and elegant 19th-century boulevards, foremost among them Andrássy Avenue.
It’s also on the Pest side that you’ll find the wedding-cake Houses of Parliament and the Jewish Quarter. The opulent Dohány Street Synagogue is one of the quarter’s, and the capital’s, most famous landmarks though among younger travelers the area is equally famous for its “ruin bars”—crumbling buildings that have been stabilized and where the party goes on late into the night.
What AFAR Recommends
- A good place to start a day in Budapest is alongside the shoppers at the Grand (or Central) Market Hall, where you can browse the produce and pastries in the soaring, late 19th-century building.
- Later, cross the landmark Széchenyi Chain Bridge and ascend up Castle Hill to Buda Castle. While it occasionally welcomed visiting Hapsburg monarchs, and it is possible to tour some of the lavish restored rooms, the building now hosts temporary art exhibitions.
- Back in Pest, St. Stephen’s Basilica is another late 19th-century wonder in the heart of the city center.
- Finally, a visit to one of Budapest’s thermal baths is a quintessential Hungarian experience. The Széchenyi Thermal Bath in City Park is in a stunning neo-Baroque building and you can follow a long soak with a stroll on the park’s shaded paths.
Budapest Neighborhoods to Explore
Buda: In older Buda, you’ll find Buda Castle, the 14th-century Matthias Church, and, next to it, the Fisherman’s Bastion with its sweeping views of the Danube and Pest. Otherwise the main draw of the area is its twisting medieval streets with gift shops and cafés.
Pest: Almost everything else that most travelers will want to explore is on the other side of the Danube, in newer Pest, most of which dates to the 19th century. That’s where you’ll find St. Stephen’s Basilica, the Parliament, City Park, and Heroes’ Square, most of the city’s museums, the Jewish Quarter, and more.
Jewish Quarter: The most famous landmark of the Jewish Quarter is the Dohány Street Synagogue (which may look familiar to New Yorkers—the Central Synagogue on Lexington Avenue is a near exact copy of it). The area is also known for its many evocative ruin bars—Szimpla Kert started the trend and is still going strong. Other popular ones include Mazel Tov, AnKert, and Instant.
Daytrips: Hungary is a small country making a detour beyond the capital easy. Mád and the town of Tokaj are two appealing options for oenophiles who want to sample the famous Tokaj wines. Lake Balaton is a popular summer getaway near Budapest, with a season that, with every passing year, extends earlier and later into spring and fall.
When to Visit Budapest
Autumn is perhaps the ideal time to visit Budapest, with both long sunny days that can feel like an extended summer as well as others when there is a welcome crispness. In July and August, the outdoor cafés and bars are buzzing, though visitors should expect some days that border on uncomfortably hot and humid. Winter and spring offer off-season values, and a warm bowl of goulash or a soak in hot thermal bath are arguably even more memorable if it is cold and gray outside.
Food and Drink
Goulash, the national dish, is on many menus, in both traditional and haute variations. Soups in general are beloved by Hungarians and you may find yourself starting more meals with them than you might at home. Any diner who loves foie gras and pâté can sample an astounding variety of them. Finally, a perhaps unexpected drink to seek out is lemonade, a Hungarian favorite. There is no reason to order a soda in Budapest when most restaurants will pour you a choice of signature housemade lemonades.
The famously difficult Magyar language makes it unlikely that most visitors will seek out theatrical offerings but Budapest has a number of clubs and more established music venues (Müpa Budapest, the Hungarian State Opera House) for a cultural evening out. Museums to include on your itinerary includes the Kunsthalle, Museum of Ethnography, and the Hungarian National Museum. The House of Terror, a museum, brings to life the darkest days of both the fascist Arrow Cross and the later Communist rule of the country.
Getting Around Budapest
While there are few flights direct to Budapest from the United States, it is easy to connect to it through Vienna and other European hubs. From the airport to the city center is a journey of 30 to 45 minutes, with a choice of public buses, somewhat faster private shuttles, taxis, and a train that ends at Nyugati station, in the heart of Pest.
Central Budapest is compact enough that you can explore much of it on foot, though there is also a limited though reliable subway network—it is Europe’s second oldest metro system (only London’s has been operating for longer). The bike share system is, for now at least, best avoided with too many visitors reporting problems, including difficulty getting their deposits returned. At the same time, a number of taxi companies have earned their unsavory reputations. If you require a car, ask your hotel or the restaurant you are dining at to recommend a trusted service.
Travelers from the United States and Canada can stay in Hungary for up to 90 days without a visa. There are no immunizations required or any special health precautions that most travelers need to worry about. The U.S. Embassy, and its U.S. Citizens Services office, are located near Parliament at Szabadság tér 12; tel: (36-1) 475-4164.
- Time Out Budapest is a good resource for events and new restaurant and bar openings.
- The Budapest Times is an English-language publication and website with both news and cultural coverage.
- The Yellow Zebra Bookstore, popular with both expats and visitors, stocks second-hand English-language books, and also has a café and bike rental which offers city tours.
Where to Stay, What to Eat, What to Do