Top 10 Things to do in Budapest
Our Winter trip to Budapest
Budapest had been on my radar for some time so when we decided to celebrate Mr P’s birthday in December with a short break in Europe, Budapest seemed the ideal place.
This Hungarian capital has fast become a go to destination for travellers seeking a budget European destination. And I can definitely see why.
Hungary’s elegant capital city is rich in stunning historical sights, hot thermal springs, and to our surprise veggie friendly restaurants (Mr P complains that many Europeans think “vegetarian” simply means “no red meat”!).
There is so much to see in this vibrant city, that three nights is simply not enough. But the best thing about not having enough time is the opportunity to return one day. If you’re planning your holidays for 2019 and fancy a short Xmas break to Budapest, here is my top ten of things to do in Budapest.
1 – Experience the Christmas Market in Vorosmarty Square
Vorosmarty Square lies in the heart of Pest and is also the starting point of its most famous shopping street, Vaci Utca. Upon entering the square my eyes lit up with excitement at the Christmas Market. (Who doesn’t love a Christmas market?). It was made even more magical when it started snowing! Although as the temperature dropped my toes began to freeze and not even mulled wine could warm me up!
The Christmas market here is the oldest and richest in Budapest. Not having experienced many Christmas markets, for me the market looked like the perfect picture postcard, from the magnificent Xmas tree in the centre, to the many delicious food stalls serving authentic Hungarian classics, such as the Chimney cake, to the cottage like wooden stalls selling beautiful handcrafted gifts. Aside from the mulled wine, a local Christmas drink, Krampampuli is certainly worth a try.
2 – Relax at the Gellert Baths
Visiting Budapest could not be complete without a trip to one of the many thermal spring spas. Two of the most elegant and famous baths are the Gellert and the Szechenyi. We chose to visit the Gellert, simply because it was walking distance from our hotel. Many of the baths are located on the Buda side, including Gellert, however the ones on the pest side are more common with the locals.
To avoid the rush, we head out after breakfast and had pre booked the tickets through the concierge at our hotel. You are given wristbands, which you then have to use to tap into a system that assigns you a cabin. We paid 5700 Hungarian forint for a cabin, which you can then lock to store your valuables. I would suggest taking your own towels and flip-flops to avoid queuing.
The Gellert had both indoor and outdoor pools, with the temperature of some of these healing waters reaching 40 degrees. Its so delicately beautiful inside, you feel like you’re swimming inside a cathedral.
3 – Eat cake at Gerbaud Café
Located in Vorosmarty Square, Gerbaud is Budapest’s most famous coffee house. It serves exquisite cakes, has an opulent interior and immaculate service. We sampled the Hungarian classics on one plate: Gerbaud slice, Esterhazy cake and Dobos cake. Yummylicious.
4 – Eat & Drink the Classics
Goulash is a traditional Hungarian food – hearty and warm – perfect for those cold wintery nights. Many restaurants also serve a good vegetarian option.
A really popular street food is the langos – its basically deep fried bread with a dollop of sour cream in the middle and topped with whatever you’ve chosen. I have to admit that it looked better than it tasted, which in my opinion was slightly bland. It reminded me of something you would eat after a night out (instead of a donor kebab).
Another Hungarian street snack is the famous chimney cake. Oh my! Warning: not good for your diet. At about 1000 calories, its best described as a large donut tube that can be topped with sugar, cinnamon, chocolate or hazelnuts.
The Hungarians have an obsession with paprika, walnuts and poppy seeds. All the tourist shops will have on display an array of paprika souvneirs. Walnuts and poppy seeds are believed to be good luck and prosperous (especially in the coming year).
The local Hungarian drink is Palinka – it’s a fruit brandy with approx. 40% alcohol content – I had a teeny tiny shot whilst talking to a waiter in a café, and let me tell you, its not for the faint hearted! But as the Hungarians say, Palinka in small amounts is medicine, in large amounts a remedy!
5 – Join a free Walking Tour
I personally love walking tours as they give you a different perspective on the city and depending on the tour guide you can gain an insight to myths and legends, and the history behind some of the architecture.
Free Budapest walking tours operate throughout the day, but we opted for the evening walk, starting from the lion fountain in Vorosmarty Square. There’s no need to book, you just turn up and as long as there are enough people, you’re good to go.
I was impressed with the knowledge of our tour guide, and her wit and charm made the bitterly cold evening worth the 2-hour walk. (note: the guides obviously rely on tips)
6 – Take in the view at Fisherman’s Bastion
If you cross the Chain Bridge from the pest side you will end up in the castle district of Buda. Here you will find the finest galleries, museums and cathedrals, including the Matyas Church.
The fantastical Neo-Romanesque conical towers of Fisherman’s Bastion is like something from a Disney movie. We stayed here most of the day on the viewing terrace, waiting for the sun to set and the city to light up. The view with the changing sky was spectacular and worth waiting for. You get a sweeping view of the pest side, including the grand Hungarian Houses of Parliament, the third largest parliament building in the world.
7 – Pay your respects at Shoes on the Danube
The Danube itself is worth a quick mention, being the second longest river in Europe, and having parts of its banks listed as a world heritage UNESCO site.
At some point you will find yourself wandering along the banks of the Danube, and whilst the views are spectacular, I urge you to stop at this moving memorial, that honours the Jewish people that were killed during World War II.
They were ordered to remove their shoes, and were shot at the edge of the water, so their bodies fell straight into the river and were left to be washed away. The shoes, made of iron, represent the shoes that were left behind on the banks.
8 – Wander around The Jewish Quarter
Once a ghetto, today the Jewish quarter is a thriving community full of culture, including Europe’s largest synagogue, the Great synagogue.
Wandering around, you’ll find funky shops and a variety of restaurants. Remember to look up and you’ll find giant murals on the side of old buildings.
The Jewish quarter is heaving with ruin bars. These are derelict buildings that have been turned into indoor and outdoor bars, using recycled materials.
9 – Soak in the experience of Szimpla Kert
A not to be missed ruin bar, Szimpla Kert took my breath away! It’s bizarre and quirky with a maze of different rooms, each with its own music and ambience. The amazing use of unwanted goods, the eclectic music and cheap drinks make this a fun and unforgettable experience. You’re guaranteed a night out like no other when you visit this fabulously crazy ruin bar. And you can leave your mark by writing on the walls!
10 – Shop at Central Market Hall
Our hotel was conveniently located just a few minutes walk from this magnificent building. It’s the oldest and largest indoor market in Budapest, and here you will find anything from cow’s stomach to poppy cake!
In my opinion this has to be one the cleanest, well organised markets I have ever been to. Word of warning though, you may get ripped off very easily being a tourist so if you like something, shop around first.
We stayed at the Bohem Art Hotel, one block north of the Danube, on the Pest side. It was an absolute gem of a find at the price we paid. The breakfast here was amazing and location worked perfectly for us. If you book directly with the hotel, they offer an airport pick up complimentary and also include the city tax.