Hi there, friends! Today, I’m excited to share my quick guide to Budapest, Hungary. Whitney and I flew there on New Years Day from London and enjoyed 36-hours in this gorgeous city. It was the first stop on our Eastern / Central European road trip. Before I give you the run down on what I recommend you do during your own 36-hour trip to Budapest [although I hope, for your sake, it’s longer because this city is full of amazing things to do and see] I thought I’d give you some insight into Budapest first.
Budapest is the capital of Hungary and is actually the accumulation of what used to be three separate cities: Buda, Pest, and Óbuda. They united in 1873 to create what would eventually be known as ‘one of the most beautiful cities in the world‘, according to Conde Nast Traveler. The Danube River splits the city into two halves, known as “Buda” and “Pest”. The “Buda” side is hilly and offers sweeping panoramas of the flatter “Pest” side, which is much easier to navigate with public transportation and is home to more bars, cafés and gourmet restaurants. The “Buda” side is buzzing during the day with tourists wanting to catch the views from Fisherman’s Bastian on Castle Hill. When night falls, the “Buda” side goes to sleep and the “Pest” side comes alive.
The amount of time we had really wasn’t enough to cover everything we would have liked to have done, but we think we covered QUITE a bit of ground so, without further adieu, here are some great ideas on what to do in Budapest with only 36 hours!
• STAY ON THE ‘PEST’ SIDE: Whitney and I stayed at Kempinski Hotel Cornivus Budapest on the ‘Pest’ side of Budapest, the flatter side of the city. This side is also much easier to navigate with public transportation and comes alive at night. We loved staying here because everything that we wanted to see was either a short walk or an affordable cab ride away. Their rooms were clean and comfortable and the staff was always friendly and attentive. We had a beautiful view of the Budapest Eye, a ferris wheel that lights up at night in Erzsébet Sqaure, and were just a stones throw away from the famous Chain Link Bridge. Not to mention, their large continental breakfast spread made Whit and I feel like queens. They had everything you could ever want for breakfast, guaranteeing a great start to both of the mornings in Budapest. They even gave us to go coffees on the morning we checked out to make sure we were caffeinated for our 5-hours drive through Hungary to Lake Bled, Slovenia. I also loved that the hotel offered high security by requiring you to enter your key to access the elevator. So, overall, I highly recommend Kempinski Hotel Cornivus Budapest and agree with the widely known Budapest travel recommendation to “visit Buda but stay in Pest”.
• EXPERIENCE THE FAMOUS HUNGARIAN THERMAL BATHS: The unique geological makeup that lies beneath the city of Budapest has afforded it the nickname “the City of Spas”. Below the Earth’s surface, there are natural hot springs that have been accessed and enjoyed by the Turks, the Romans and the Celts in the form of thermal baths. Although none of the baths that are currently operational date back to the time of the Romans or Celts, the long time tradition lives on through the newer ones, which aren’t exactly new but aren’t considered ancient either. The one Whitney and I went to, the Szechenyi Bath, located on the ‘Pest’ side, was built in 1913 with the expansion of the outdoor pools opening in 1927. This one is fueled by two large thermal springs below the surface and is the largest, most visited and most famous thermal bath in Budapest.
I’ll answer some questions you may have below:
– So, what’s it like?
Well, honestly … the one we went to was like a giant hot tub party … all it was missing was some fun music! It was crowded and loud so that definitely might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But, the great news is, thermal baths aren’t one size fits all! There are different cultures for different bath houses. I can imagine the locals in Budapest know which baths are going to be a little bit more enjoyable and quiet if they are going to unwind and relax after a long week as opposed to the ones that would be fun to catch-up with a group of friends you haven’t seen in a couple of weeks. Do some research on Google before you go to see if you can figure out what kind of bath might be the best fit for you as well as the person or group you’re going with and what kind of trip you’re looking to have in Budapest! I think it’s safe to say, because there are so many thermal baths [most of which are on the ‘Buda’ side, by the way] there is certainly a bath for everyone!
The one we went to, Szechenyi Bath, offers monthly to bi-monthly night spa parties, which could be so fun! Be sure to pay attention to which location it’s at to ensure you’re going to the venue you’re wanting!
– Why are they such a huge part of Hungarian culture? Why do they embrace them?
In the 19th and early 20th century, the Hungarians’ revived the interest in these ancient thermal baths due to a widespread interest in the natural healing effects of aqua therapy.
– What do you do with your belongings while you’re in the baths?
If you’ve brought valuables with you, as most people do, you can purchase a ticket with a locker included. They will give you a wristband once you’ve paid for your ticket that tells the people who work inside what ticket you purchased and they will direct you from there. It’s a very easy process.
Since Whit & I were there in the Winter, we wore out bathing suits under joggers and t-shirts, a sweatshirt and our big puffy down coats. With this in mind, we bought a ticket that included a changing cabin to change in and store our belongings. They’re about as big as a small dressing room so it’s the perfect size, although only one person can fit in at a time to change. However, be sure to go downstairs to get towels and a robe, if you also go in the Winter, before you get in line to get your changing cabin key so you have those for when you walk outside after you change.
– How much does it cost?
I can’t speak for other thermal bath houses but Szechenyi Bath was very affordable.
Unfortunately, for us, they don’t offer half day tickets so we had to buy a full day ticket with cabin usage which costs 6000 Hungarian Forint, which equals anywhere between $21-25, depending on the exchange rate. That doesn’t include the towel and robe cost, which I couldn’t find on their price sheet and don’t remember off hand as we paid in cash so I have no paper or digital record of the purchase. I did a little digging and there’s a blog that said a towel and robe is usually around 1200 Hungarian Forint that equates to about $5.00.
– Are they all outdoors like the one you went to?
No. If you do a quick search on top thermal baths in Budapest, you’ll find that they’re mostly one the ‘Buda’ side, for one thing, and they are all a bit different but mostly indoors.
** KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Historically, thermal bath houses would only allow certain sexes on certain days of the week. Now, it’s more common to see that both sexes are allowed no matter what day it is BUT there are still some that operate the way they used to, at least one to two days a week. So, definitely do some research on the bath house you’d like to check out and if they have such regulations / restrictions in place for the day you are going.
– Did you like the one you went to or is there another one you wished you had gone to instead?
Yes, I really enjoyed Szechenyi Bath. I highly recommend it especially for families or large groups of friends, especially if you’re kind of a loud bunch! Personally, I loved the open atmosphere and the romantic neo-Baroque architecture of the buildings surrounding the outdoor pools.
The only other thermal bath that I really wanted to check out if we had had more than one full day in Budapest was the Gellért Baths. It’s located in the Hotel Gellért on the Buda side and it looks absolutely stunning!
– Okay … let’s talk cleanliness.
I read online that Hungarians really value cleanliness and so I totally just took their word for it while I was there. I but, honestly, it’s really hard for me to speak to this as I was there for a grand total of about 40 minutes. We were only in Budapest for one day so we wanted to tick this off the list but didn’t have a ton of time to spare if I wanted to see more of the city. I do apologize I can’t reassure you here but I’m sure there are some other sites that may have more to say on this topic.
INTERESTING TID BIT BEFORE WE MOVE ON FROM THE THERMAL BATH CHAT >> There is a castle located just behind the Szechenyi Bath called Vajdahunyad Castle. It is rumored to be the inspiration behind Dracula’s castle in the 1897 horror tale, Dracula, by Irish author, Bram Stoker. There’s a similar rumor for a castle in Transylvania and both look pretty similar so, not quite sure which to believe but our taxi driver made mention of this so I thought I’d share because I thought it was interesting. I think it could be true being that there is evidence that Vlad the Impaler, a Romanian Prince, whose last name was Dracul, was imprisoned in the damp and soggy labyrinth that lies below the Buda Castle, on the Buda side. Even though he was released years later, there is a marker with ‘Dracula’ on it and is said to potentially be the resting place of Vlad the Impaler. In regard to the Vajdahunyad Castle, the Baroque architecture is stunning, albeit I’ve only seen it in photos, so be sure to check it out if you have time!
• WALK ACROSS THE SZECHENYI [CHAIN LINK] BRIDGE: This is the large suspension bridge that spans across the Danube River and, essentially, connects the very different ‘Buda’ and ‘Pest’ sides. It’s essentially the Brooklyn Bridge of Budapest and has walkways on either side of the bridge. The views from either side are stunning but, I think I prefer the side where you can see the gorgeous Parliament Building on the ‘Pest’ side and Fisherman’s Bastion on the ‘Buda’ side.
• EMBRACE THE CUISINE: The Hungarian cuisine is very hearty and is known for its traditional meat dishes. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you may struggle with the cuisine in Hungary, although soups and salads are on every menu. Be sure to try some of these traditional dishes like goulash, stuffed cabbage, strudels and chimney cakes [known in Hungary as Kürtőskalács]. Whit and I made a point to eat at some of the highly recommended restaurants given to us by you guys as well as the concierge at Kempinski Hotel Cornivus Budapest.
The restaurants we ate are listed below but, here are some photos from my favorite restaurant we ate at, Mazel Tov:
Here are the restaurants we ate at and can confidently recommend you will enjoy, as well:
– CAFE KOR: We ate here on our first night. Be sure to call ahead. Whit and I both indulged in the traditional Hungarian meat dish called ‘goulash’, which is a beef stew with beef and vegetables seasoned with paprika and other spices. It’s a heavy dish and typically served with potatoes so come hungry! We opted for a Hungarian beer on the menu, which I really enjoyed, especially because it was so cold outside. Everyone that worked there was so nice and attentive. Highly recommend!
– MAZEL TOV: This was my favorite restaurant we ate at! Mazel Tov is located in the Jewish Quarter of the city and offers its guests a variety of Israeli and Mediterranean inspired dishes that are perfect for vegans, vegetarians and carnivores alike. I loved the open air atmosphere and the staff was very friendly. Whit & I decided to share the Hummus Tahini Dish and adding five falafel balls and spicy shawarma, which is just chicken, and it’s served with warm pita bread. It was DELICIOUS. We thought we would just start with this but found that it filled us up quite nicely so we didn’t end up ordering anything else. Also, it’s worth mentioning …. this dish was only $10! So, between Whit and I, we paid $5 for our lunch! Hah! Not too shabby if you ask me!
– SPINOZA: This was one of the most highly recommended restaurants when I asked my followers on Instagram where we should eat in Budapest. We almost weren’t seated because they were pretty busy and normally require a call ahead. Whit and I put on the charm and the sweet owner sat us upstairs at a table that allows you to look down over the piano player and the main lobby. We kept joking about how we felt like we were Aurelia from Love, Actually waiting for Jamie to come propose, hah! Whit enjoyed another traditional Hungarian dish, stuffed cabbage with turkey meat and a bit of goose salami. She was a little nervous from what I remember but ended up loving this dish so don’t let it scare you! I enjoyed saffron risotto with grilled chicken. We were both so full but decided to top it off with an apple strudel with ice cream which, in retrospect, was a great decision because it was one of the best ones I’ve ever had!
• TAKE IN THE BEST VIEW IN THE CITY: After you cross over the famous chain link bridge from the ‘Pest’ side, you’ll be on the ‘Buda’ side and the brink of endless things to see and explore. With limited time on our hands and the sun setting quickly, Whit and I decided to catch the view from Fisherman’s Bastion, a mock bastion that was built in the 19th century for the Hungarian Millennium celebrations, after hearing that it’s quite the site and offers an unmatched view of the city. I believe you can walk up to Fisherman’s Bastion but, we decided to take the funicular, a cable car railroad that takes people up and down a large ascension. Once you get off, you’re officially at the top of Castle Hill. You’ll see a lot of people taking photos right as you get off the funicular and the view there isn’t bad but I’d say Fisherman’s Bastion is better so keep moving and head to the back of the funicular building. You’ll see Buda Castle, the 13th century Baroque palace of the Hungarian kings, on your left and you’ll want to head to your right. We used Google maps to lead the way so I’d suggest you do the same. You essentially head down this road that affords you a beautiful view of the homes and buildings below and the Danube River on your way over to Fisherman’s Bastion.
I couldn’t get over how beautiful Matthias Church was! A reader of mine reached out on Instagram and said the interior is even more stunning but, unfortunately, we didn’t have time to check it out! Be sure to tick that off the list when you go!
A few quick facts + thoughts about Fisherman’s Bastion:
– From the bottom, it’ll take you 10-15 minutes from from Szell Kalman Square. You can take either Gentle Hill Walk or Steep Hill Walk. I haven’t personally taken either so utilize Google or a friendly passer-by to help you find the entrance to these walks!
– Historically, bastion’s are built as a wall of defense, however, Fisherman’s Bastion was built as a viewing terrace for visitors with lookout towers and turrets.
– The oldest cafe in Budapest isn’t far from this spot. We didn’t stop in, unfortunately, just due to timing, but have heard great things. It’s called Ruszwurm.
– It was pretty cloudy the day we were there but we went around sunset. Bring a bottle of wine in your bag and a couple of coffee cups from your hotel to have your own happy hour while enjoying a beautiful sunset with a view in Budapest!
– There’s more to see and do on Castle Hill, like touring the Buda Castle and checking out the inside of Matthias Church, so don’t think this is all there is! We just wanted to tick off the things that Budapest is uniquely known for that might not take a ton of time. Tours on quick trips like this are things I personally like to steer away from but, if that’s your thing … just know that is an option! 🙂
– If you’re a blogger looking for a great place to shoot in Budapest, this is your spot! Get here early to get some stunning shots with no one around. It’s always busy so plan ahead!
• BEWARE OF THE TRICKY ATM’S: With that said, be careful when taking out money. Not only is the currency different but the way they display an amount of money is different. They use a decimal where we would use a comma. For example, upon arriving in Budapest, I went to get cash out of the ATM for the cab to the hotel. The ATM displayed 120.000 Hungarian Forint, which I thought was 120 Hungarian Forint. After doing the conversion, that equaled less than $1, which should have been a red flag but I didn’t know what else to do so I just committed to the choice. After arriving at the hotel, I got an alert from my bank via text that I authorized an ATM withdrawal of $460. After a little research, I realized that 120.000 Hungarian Forint was actually 120,000 Hungarian Forint, in the way WE display numbers. So, BE. CAREFUL! Hungary makes a lot of money off of naive tourists like myself upon arriving in their country because, think about it, you HAVE to spend that money before leaving the country. You can’t use it anywhere else! We made it work but I’m REALLY glad I didn’t take out more than that! We were only there for 36 hours so that’s kind of a lot of money to spend in that amount of time. * face palm *
• CHECK OUT THE MOST BEAUTIFUL CAFE IN THE WORLD: No, seriously. There is a cafe in Budapest that is deemed the ‘most beautiful cafe in the world’. It’s called New York Café and, all I can really say about it, is that it is actually very beautiful and there will likely be a line when you arrive so just know that ahead of time. Whitney and I stopped here after we ate lunch at Mazel Tov one day, just because it was close by, for a quick pop in to see what all the fuss is about. We didn’t have time for an afternoon pick-me-up but did think it was cool to see.
• GRAB A DRINK AT A RUIN BAR: Ruin bars have been all the rage in Budapest for about 10 years now and making a stop in to Szimpla Kert, the most famous ruin bar, was probably the number one things Whitney and I had to do based on readers’ suggestions on Instagram. Ruin bars are, essentially, bars that are built from the ruins of old buildings, stores, etc. in the old Jewish Quarter of the city. Szimpla Kert usually has quite a line outside of it but it actually moved really fast. It is an electric and almost strange mix of things used as decor that you truly have to see for yourself. There are multiple rooms and bars as well as an outdoor garden. Since we were there in the Winter it was mostly covered with heaters placed throughout but, in the warmer months, they can open the roof up to make part of it an open-air atmosphere. Whitney and I enjoyed some local beer and got to know two German gals who were there on holiday, as well. I didn’t grab any photos of the ruin bar so you’ll definitely have to see this place for yourself!
• SEE THE PARLIAMENT BUILDING AT NIGHT: This was something we had plans to do on an evening river cruise but there were some hiccups in that plan so it got botched. We did end up walking along the Danube toward the Parliament Building on the Buda side, but wish we had gotten a closer look. Regardless, it was absolutely stunning.
And that about wraps up all the things Whitney and I were able to do during our 36 hours in Budapest! Honestly, everything that we did I would recommend. In retrospect, there’s nothing I would have skipped. The only thing I wish I had gotten to see more of was the Parliament Building. I didn’t get to see it up close and, as lover of architecture, I really did want to see more of it because it’s absolutely beautiful!
After Budapest, we rented a car and drove to Lake Bled, Slovenia so stay tuned on what that beautiful place has in store soon! xo.