The Heart of Europe, Pearl of the Danube
It always feels great to return to a city you love so much before. This was about the right time to enjoy once again the stunning Budapest. And for sure it will not be the last and won’t pass many years either to step back in its pavements. It keeps impressing me as for the first time for its elegance and great planning of urbanism with so much to see and do everywhere and the amazing food.
It is really unbelievable the fate the city had for the past centuries. Destroyed many times, being the most recent the great destruction suffered during WWII, it has always recovered from the rubble, and thanks goodness it kept, retained, and rebuilt after the war most of the incredible Austro-Hungarian impressive constructions. Only Vienna (as the capital of the Empire than once was) can rival with such elegance and opulence, but Budapest does not come short. Both cities have always competed with each other in having the best and grandest of them.
This is therefore not a city you can visit in a short weekend time. It will need at least 3 full long days or otherwise you won’t be able to enjoy the countless sights and attractions. It is also a city that requires public transport in order to get to the different areas of the city as it’s quite a large city with very spread tourist sites. A 4 days city break would be ideal in this case.
A very important point here, although described later on in the sights to see, there are at least two of the places highly recommend to get inside, and to my point of view, a must!: the Parliament and the Opera. The Parliament is a little bit more tricky in the way you get tickets. Either you present yourself there and head to the ticket office (you will be escorted there), and if any tour available for the day left, they will tell you when, otherwise they can book you on the next available likely the following day. Or for a better, smoother planification, go online and pre-book it. Make sure you have with you the passport or European ID card as it is mandatory to have it in order to get inside. For the opera, there are more frequent tours, although you should get the ticket in the morning for the next available tour that might already be in the afternoon, or otherwise the following day. Remember that during the high season months there are thousands of people having the same idea and the tours sell-out quickly, so don’t get disappointed. Plan beforehand.
Another helpful tip is when you plan to go to Buda; comprising of Buda Castle, the Fisherman’s Bastion and the Royal Palace area. It is advisable you do these in the afternoon. If you do this in the morning, you will have the sun against you, and the beautiful view over Pest, the Parliament and the Danube won’t be as impressive as in the afternoon. We went there twice, one day in the morning, the following in the afternoon, and the difference was unparalleled. Not to mention that during the morning the hordes of tourists arrive there first thing, while in the afternoon they all disappear. Great to know this, it will save you from having to “fight” your way through the multitude while nothing beats the sunset from the Fisherman’s Bastion. Simply speechless.
Moving around the city is very pleasurable, and with all the streets so pretty and elegant, you will enjoy walking the most. Otherwise try to get any of the hundreds of trams. It is always way nicer to mover overground than underground by metro where you don’t get to see anything. Yet in any case, there is a metro line you must take in its full length or at least for some of the most important stops along its route. It is the second oldest metro line in the world, just after London, and it is the only metro line in the world to be listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site coupled with the avenue above the line. The stations are really beautiful and have retained most of the original fittings including the glazed tiles and wooden structures. Only the trains have changed for modern ones. The entire route runs under the unbeatable in elegance and opulence major avenue in the city, Andrassy Utca; where not only the finest mansions and buildings are, but also the world renown landmarks as the State Opera House, masterpiece on its own.
Coming to food subject, you are in paradise. Hungarian cuisine is incredibly tasty and good, and although the prices have gone up quite a lot in the lapse of time I was visiting the city for the first time to this one now, those are still very competitive and quality still as good as always. Of course there is not really need to mention here that as for any large city where thousands of tourist visit each day, there are tourist traps, therefore have a look at few places before making a decision on where to go. Why to over pay or get low quality at higher prices when sometimes next door is a great place!
Although there are plenty of restaurants anywhere in the city, there is one I can strongly recommend. Been there on my first visit to the city for lunch and dinner every day as we could not get enough nor tired. On my second visit I must be honest in saying the quality and choice decreased while prices increased, yet still managed to get us happy and not disappoint in any way. The name is Menzo, located almost by Oktogon. Google maps have it marked if you do a search, and anyone you ask will know it. The interior décor is absolutely retro, and their star dish is goulash.
For more information about Budapest check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Hungary’s currency is the Forint (HUF). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Budapest
- Buda – Castle Hill Without doubt, the major and most important area where to find many of the city icons. As the name of the city suggests, Budapest, it is in fact, two cities in one, Buda and Pest. Getting up here could be tiring if you plan to hike on foot, but there are two other easy and quick ways to access it. From the Chain Bridge, take the funicular directly up (900HUF single). Or from Szell Kalman Ter metro station (formerly known as Moszkva Tér), take the bus 16 or 16A which is right outside the metro entrance, on the street with the little hill up across the tram tracks which heads directly up Buda Hill. The main sights are:
-Royal Palace Destroyed 3 times in history, being the most recent one during WWII, it always frighted for survival and reconstruction, and although its current form is a bit more austere and perhaps of simpler lines, it never failed to disappoint and remains as a fine work of art on it’s own, and as such, included as part of the UNESCO listing of the city. The massive large construction composed of many inner courtyards, also named Buda Castle, has many monuments and fountains everywhere, gardens and viewing points over Pest. It currently houses the major museums in the city. The History Museum, Hungarian National Gallery and National Széchényi Library.
-Fisherman’s Bastion Probably attraction number one in the city, which together with other landmarks as the Chain Bridge down below and the Parliament in Pest across the Danube form part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site listing of the city. The best views in the city are without doubt from here, being most impressive in the afternoon and at sunset. Nothing can rival the “work of art” picture perfect of the Parliament, bridges and the Danube with the entire Pest.
-Matthias Church Located side by side with the Fisherman’s Bastion, was built in late Gothic style in the 14th century. Was known until the 19th century as the Church of the Virgin Mary, but this was renamed after the King Matthias. Scene of coronations and royal weddings. During the Ottoman rule it was transformed to the main mosque, regaining its original use after the Turks were pushed away, and therefore, restored over the following centuries to much of its original form.
-Streets around This area of the city retains its medieval layout with the oldest houses still standing, many of which perfectly reconstructed as the area suffered a lot during WWII.
-Funicular One of the oldest in the world constructed back when the city was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, links directly Buda Castle with the Chain Bridge down below on the banks of the Danube.
- Pest This is the other side of the city, across the Danube river, and where you find the elegant avenues such as Andrassy Utca, which together with the underground line running along it, is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site listing of Budapest. Large palaces, mansions and beautiful houses are all over this area, with many art-nouveau and art-deco constructions, parks and gardens.
-Andrassy Utca Without doubt, the most elegant avenue in the city, filled with hundreds of historical houses and the Opera House among others.
-Saint Stephen’s Basilica Located at the very beginning of the avenue. Named after the first king of Hungary, Stephen, it is believed his right hand is housed in the reliquary . Built in 1905 it is the most important church in Hungary. The dome, at 96 meters tall, it is the same height as the Parliament dome and represents the year Hungary was born, in 896.
-Hungarian State Opera House Described as one of the best in the world for its acoustics, design and history. Legend says Sisi loved to escape from Vienna to the hear the plays at what she considered a much better opera that the rival Vienna.
-Drechsler Palace Right opposite the Opera House, built in neo-renaissance style by the state railway company as an investment, was used for renting rooms and a grand 3 floor cafe. Thereafter, for 53 years was the home of the Hungarian Ballet until 2002 and ever since vacant and abandoned, awaiting the much needed restoration and back to use.
-Franz Liszt Square Where the house of musician Franz Liszt is, the Academy of Music, variete theatres and many cafes are located. It is one of the most bohemian parts in the city, and where you can find the restaurant Menza, listed above in the introduction to the city.
-Pest Broadway At the junction after passing the State Opera House is this intersection with Nagymező utca, where four theatres sit at its four corners.
-Oktogon One of the major intersections in the avenue. This beautiful square, as the name says, it’s an octagon where all the buildings at each side are of the same design and proportions.
-House of Terror Located after Oktogon on direction towards Hero’s Square, is a museum depicting exhibits related to the fascist and communist eras of the history of the city.
-Kodály Körönd Is the most impressive of the intersections in the avenue, once again with buildings equally designed in style and proportions, and gardens in between. here you can find the Memorial Museum of Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály.
-Ferenc Hopp East-Asian Art Museum Not far from the end of the avenue 3 streets before the Hero’s Square.
-Heroes’ Square Marking the end of the avenue with an impressive collection of buildings and monuments, including the Millennium Monument in the middle, and the Hall of Art and Museum of Fine Arts at each side with their imposing classical facades.
-Millennium Subway Is the first metro system built in the European continent, and second oldest in the world only after that in London. The original is Line 1, running almost in its entire length under Andrassy Utca, is also part of the UNESCO listing as a World Heritage Site. All the station along the avenue retain their original decoration with glazed tiles, metallic pillars and wood panelling.
-City Park Right at the end of Adrassy Utca is this beautiful large urban park where you can find hot string baths, two castles, many monuments and countless collection of trees and plants.
-Vajdahunyad Castle Like the entire park, the Andrassy Utca and the Millennium Subway; the castle was built in 1908 as part of the Millennial Exhibition that celebrated the 1000 anniversary of the Hungarian Conquest of the Carpathian Basin in 895. The construction style features the different parts of the Kingdom of Hungary, noticeable from Hunyad Castle in Transylvania, now Romania, back then, part of the Kingdom.
-Széchenyi Thermal Bath Opened in 1913 and designed in neo-baroque style is the largest Medicinal Bath in Europe
-Municipal Zoo Is the largest city zoo in Hungary.
-Grand Boulevard After Andrassy Utca it is the next landmark street in the city. The major thoroughfare in Boulevard by all means where the major transit hubs and nodes located.
-Nyugati Pályaudvar Train Station Built by the Eiffel Company in 1877 it is the most impressive of the three major train stations serving Budapest. Located at one of the major intersections at Grand Boulevard.
-Kaleti Train Station Not far from the Grand Boulevard, to the north of this. It serves as the main train station for intercity and international destinations.
-Comedy Theatre Constructed in 1896 home to the Hungarian drama.
-Grand Hotels as the Radisson Blu Béke Hotel, from 1913, Boscolo from 1894 and the Corinthia, from 1896.
-Museum of Applied Arts Is the 3rd oldest applied arts museum in the world, and the building itself is an art-nouveau masterpiece from 1896.
-Kossuth Lajos Square Probably the most known square in the city although not by its name but for being the site of the landmark building of Hungary, the Parliament.
-Hungarian Parliament Landmark of the city and well known icon across Europe and the world. One of the oldest legislative buildings in Europe, it is also the largest building in Hungary and still, the tallest in the city. Inaugurated in 1896 marking the 1000th anniversary of the country and completed in 1904 is a masterpiece of Gothic-revival with a renaissance dome. The building can perfectly be split in 2 as both wings and chambers are identical and symmetrical. Only one is used for political purposed while the other is used for guided tour visits. The main facade is that overlooking the Danube River, but the official entrance is at the square on the opposite side. On a guided tour you will visit the Grand Staircase, Assembly Hall and the highlight of the visit, the hexadecagonal Central Hall where the Holy Crown of Hungary is guarded and where you can see the changing of the guards every hour.
-Ethnographic Museum Designed by Alajos Hauszmann originally as the Ministry of Justice, lies directly opposite the Parliament.
-Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development Also located opposite the Parliament, grand classical style building.
-Chain Bridge Another of the world renown landmarks of the city. Destroyed by the Germans after they left the city right after WWII having survived intact both wars; it is beautifully restored to its original design. The views at both sides of the bridge are unique. At one end from Pest. you get the entire Buda Hill and Castle with the funicular, while at the other side in Buda, you get the view of Pest with the unrivalled view of the Parliament; and in both, of course, the Danube passing by.
-Elizabeth Bridge Is the next bridge after the Chain one. Nothing special for its design since it’s a normal austere road bridge, but from here you will get the best views of Buda Hill and Castle with the Chain Bridge specially at night.
-Liberty Bridge The next bridge after Elizabeth’s one is another iron icon of Budapest.
-Hotel Gellert and Spa Located on Buda end of the Liberty Bridge is a masterpiece in art-nouveau, and one of the most desirable hotels in the city and most beautiful thermal spa.
-Great Market Hall Right at the other end of the bridge, in Pest, is the largest and oldest indoor market in Budapest, built in 1897 in neo-Gothic style.
-Vaci Street Starting at one of the ends of the Market Hall is this famous pedestrian street full of shops and restaurants
-Great Synagogue Also known as the Dohány Street Synagogue, near the metro station Astoria. Is the largest in Europe and also one of the largest in the world. Built in 1859 in Moorish-revival.
From the airport you can either take the bus to the nearest underground station, or the train to the main train station. If you opt for the second option, you will still need to take a bus to the old airport terminal, the number 200E, where the train station is, meaning you will need to pay double, a ticket for the bus and a ticket for the train. The train heads towards Nyugati Pályaudvar train station and costs 365 HUF with frequencies up to 3 trains an hour. From this main train station you can interconnect to any public transport in the city with metro, trams or dozens of bus lines.
Coming overland is straightforward from within other Hungarian cities, and of course all the neighbouring countries being by train or long distance buses. Berlin, Munich, Prague, Salzburg, Vienna, Bratislava, Ljubljana, Zagreb, Belgrade, Timisoara, Bucharest, Krakow, Warsaw, Wroclaw… and everything in between.
Within the city you are never too far from a metro station or a tram stop, hence communications around are fast, reliable and cheap. You will need it at some point, distances can be big between areas and sights. Make sure you buy at least 10 tickets (3000 HUF) to avoid the long queues than if you would be buying them separately. You will save also 500 Forints by getting 10. A single ticket is 350 HUF on any transportation method.
On a good note, the entire system is getting an upgrade in the way tickets are being sold and used, and magnetic reusable loadable cards are being implemented at each station, where you can top them up whenever you need more credit on them, similar to the Oyster Cards in London or Octopus system in Hong Kong.
Like for any European capital city, you can find absolutely every international hotel chain, plus many local ones from large to small, luxurious to basic. But something very sure is the large amount of luxurious and grand properties in the city is hard to rival with many other important cities of the same size.
Prices tend to be quite high for most of the year, and finding a good deal is a bit harder than usual. But as always, it all depends on the level of comfort and facilities you are looking at the moment. You are after all in a city that is almost impossible to rival with any other the amount of thermal spas, and many luxurious properties are having opulent baths within. It comes at a price of course. A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, Hotels Click, LateRooms or Ebookers.
We stayed at the NH Hotel, in Vigszinhaz 3, 1137. A very central hotel really next door to the main train station (Nyugati Pályaudvar), and next to the Grand Boulevard connecting Buda and Pest, with metro and tram stops at the door step. The Parliament is not even 20 minutes on foot away. Totally recommended in every sense. Level of comfort, facilities, care of their stuff and value for money.