I am going to say this once — and then I am going to say it a hundred more times. Of all the foreign cities I’ve been to, Budapest is my favorite.
While it has been on the top of my travel list for years, it wasn’t an original destination for this trip, which I was so bummed about. As luck should have it, some of our plans got scrambled last-minute so we did the logical thing and decided to take a 6+ hour train ride to Budapest — skipping our time in Switzerland.
Folks, I have made a lot of great decisions in my life, and this is the best decision I have ever made.
Despite having no time to research for Budapest, I had some amazing friends pull through with top-notch recommendations, making our too-short time in Budapest well spent.
What’s more romantic than indulging in a four-course meal outside wrapped in the warmest blanket you’ve ever encountered? NOTHING. It may be the entire bottle of wine we consumed at Menza speaking, but I remain firm in this belief. Partially due to luck, and partially because of climate change, the weather in Budapest was warm enough where I didn’t have to wear two pairs of pants. While waiting for a table inside, we were both so warm under the blanket and heater that we decided to eat outside, and it was perfect. (And romantic!)
We ordered a Transylvanian wine, Recas – La Putere fekete leányka, which was a dry red wine that gave some of my favorite Italian reds a run for their money. I know nothing about Hungarian red wines, aside from the fact that they are wonderful, but I’m determined to hunt a few bottles down from a wine shop and become an expert. To start, we had a pumpkin soup with caramelized pumpkin seeds, followed by a dish called Potato Dish, which was essentially scalloped potatoes topped with a scotch egg, and a tagliatelle with house-made ricotta, mushrooms, and sun-dried tomatoes. If I am ever sentenced to death, I would like this to be my last meal.
Staying true to ourselves, we ordered two desserts, a traditional Hungarian honey cream cake and the Hungarian take on apple strudel, both of which I would gladly eat for the rest of my life. The total for this extravagant meal was $30 each. We should have ordered more food.
Recommended by the guide from our walking tour, this is the restaurant where I decided I needed to invest in a Hungarian cookbook, because my taste buds were in love and so was I. I ordered the Házi friss lecsó kolbásszal, which was a Hungarian ratatouille with smoked sausage and my apologies to the French, but I love this ratatouille the most. I have never considered myself a sausage person, but I would gladly clog my arteries to eat those smoked sausages daily. Sarah ordered Kolozsvári töltött-káposzta, aka stuffed cabbages, and she kindly let me have a few bites before she inhaled it all. On the impossible chance the chef at this restaurant is reading this, we’d like to hire you as our personal chef.
Another excellent guide recommendation, we decided to eat here twice. Located on the Buda side, this was the perfect place to sit down after spending the morning on a walking tour when we were feeling the consequences of the boat party. This restaurant offers a sampling of traditional Hungarian items for an incredible price. The first time we ordered the Buda menu, which came with Goulash soup —the best soup in all the world, fight me — paprika chicken with butter dumplings, and somló sponge cake. The second time we ordered a cheese plate, which had cheeses my mouth had never tasted but loved all the same, goulash soup, and a beef red wine stew with butter dumplings. For dessert, we ordered the sampler, which is all of the desserts because that’s how dessert should be served. Along with the somló sponge cake, the sampler came with a sour cherry strudel with elderflower sauce, and a Gundel pancake, which is similar to a crêpe. I must be a masochist writing about this meal because it is pure torture to talk about it and not relive it.
If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “I would really like a champagne cocktail served in the finest crystal I’ve ever seen,” then you would love getting a drink at Gresham Palace. Situated right across from the Chain Bridge on the Pest side, Gresham Palace is a now Four Seasons owned hotel that is way out of any regular 26-year-olds price range. It is, however, the perfect place to go for drinks when you want to feel financially more successful than you are, which is me always.
No less than two hours after we arrived at our hostel, another Wombat’s, were we on a boat drinking bottles of champagne. This sounds classy, but I assure you it was not. What can I say, I am capable of drinking champagne out of high-priced crystal or straight from the bottle – I contain multitudes.
Several hostel friends we crossed paths with in Munich and Salzburg told us to book this when our plans led us to Budapest. A recommendation and a guaranteed hangover — how did we get so lucky?
This boat party had everything I wanted: champagne, stunning city views, and an unbelievably cheap price — a $15 ticket comes with a bottle of champagne. It’s my belief that the true testament to a beautiful city is how it looks (& makes you feel!) at night, and Budapest was sparkling from the river.
It was dark the first day we arrived in Budapest so we opted for our free walking tour the next morning — with champagne still running through our system. Budapest has no shortage of free walking tours, we landed on our company based on their departure times, and we adored our guide. The tour started on the Pest side and ended at the Fisherman’s Bastion on the Buda side, giving us great views of Pest and the Parliament building we saw on our first night.
If someone were to pick out my top three interests, I guarantee they would mention my fascination with communism, fascism, and dictatorships in general. More than once my dad has mentioned that I’m probably on some government watch list because of my reading list. I don’t disagree.
Hungarian history is particularly tragic and this museum contains exhibits on the fascist and communist regimes that ruled over Hungary for most of the 20th-century — while also serving as a memorial to the victims of these regimes. The museum is housed in the former HQ of the secret police, and you are able to go into the cells where prisoners were detained. It is a captivating, thorough, and sometimes overwhelming look into this history.
We accidentally managed to arrive right when they opened and by the time we left, there was a line wrapped around the building so go early! It takes about 2 hours in total and we opted out of the audio-guide because most rooms have plenty of English explanations. The room organization felt a bit scattered at times, and I would love the opportunity to go back because I don’t feel I absorbed everything in one trip, but if you only go to one museum, make it this one.
St. Stephens Basilica
As the largest and highest church in Budapest, St. Stephen’s Basilica stands at 314 feet, which, by my scientific findings, is a superb height for panoramic views. For less than $1, you can go up to the very top and take in Budapest from 360 degrees.
Built in 1265, the Buda Castle was once home to the Hungarian Kings but has gone through a turbulent history, much like Hungary itself. The castle has been destroyed several times, once in 1686 during a siege by Christian forces and again during a bombing in WWII. You can get to the castle by walking up a steep hill (team Gluteus Maximus for life) or by taking a funicular up for $4. From the top, you can see all of Pest and wander around the castle grounds. There are a few separate exhibits inside, one art museum and one detailing the history of the castle. We needed a quick refuge from the wind so we choose the exhibit on the castle and while it was interesting, it was strangely organized and hard to follow a cohesive timeline.
Another thing you can’t miss in Budapest unless you make terrible decisions is a trip to one of the many thermal spa baths. Széchenyi is the most famous, being the largest outdoor one, but a friend recommended Gellert, which is decorated in Art Nouveau with mosaics, stained glass windows, and plenty of sculptures. If we had more time, we would have loved to see both but Gellert was wonderful. We spent our last afternoon here, and it was a much-needed luxury after walking over 8-miles daily for 2 weeks. My feet and skin thanked me while my bank account tried to calculate just what it would take to buy an apartment in Budapest so this could become a ritual.
If you ask for recommendations for Budapest, people are legally required to tell you to go to Szimpla Kert. After WWII, District VII (the old Jewish Quarter) was left to decay, and the abandoned buildings in the area became the home for an underground bar scene, giving birth to ruin bars. Each ruin bar has it’s own funky and unique personality bustling with dancing, food, hookah, and plenty of mismatched furniture to hang out on. Szimpla Kert is the oldest, and most famous, and boasts a large courtyard, a narrow spiral staircase that lends itself to some dangerous drunken mishaps, and plenty of eclectic furniture and good music to please any taste.
Where we stayed: Another Wombats! I cannot speak more highly of this hostel chain – our place in Budapest was in the perfect location!