Kati used to travel to Budapest when she was young. Traveling with her mother and grandmother, they would go to sightsee, shop and just enjoy the day out. Back then they would fly, but now with highways, you can get from Berlin to Budapest in less than 8 hours. And you can always stop in Prague along the way. Separated by the Danube River in the middle of the city, Budapest is the amalgamation of two cities; Buda and Pest. The country is one of Europe’s oldest cities and capitals with the first settlement of the city dating as far as being inhabited by Celtic tribes. During the first-century AD Roman fortifications were built in the area and as such, it became an important center of commerce. In the 13th-century the area was conquered by the Mongols, then by the Ottomans, and finally by the Austro-Hungarians. With so many empires and people claiming Budapest as their own, the cultural makeup of the city is of Europe’s most unique with influences of all three empires still leaving their mark on the capital.
Budapest is a unique place with a unique language and culture that is not really found elsewhere on the continent. While not as burgeoning as a tourist destination as places like Paris or London, Budapest offers a youthful atmosphere, world-class nightlife, and gorgeous scenic architecture that will make you feel like you’re living in a fairytale. Budapest also offers a cheaper cost of living which tourists will definitely love in comparison to Western European capitals. So stroll the banks of the Danube in either Buda or Pest, and check out some of these great things to do in the Hungarian Capital.
Indulge your sweet tooth at the Budapest Chocolate Museum
While located a little on the outskirts of the city, the Budapest Chocolate Museum is like taking a trip to see Hungarian Willy Wonka. As it turns out, it’s not only the Swiss and Belgians that are masters of chocolate making and that Hungary also has a rich history of making chocolate. The Budapest Chocolate Museum is a pretty fun spot to learn and eat about Hungarian chocolate. Take a culinary tour of the history of chocolate, have a tasting lesson, and even make your own chocolate treats or dip some marzipan in their massive chocolate fountain. The Budapest Chocolate Museum also has a collection of several Hungarian paintings all depicting the essential – chocolate.
Admire the iconic St. Stephen’s Basilica
For the traveler on a budget looking to get a dose of culture, head to the beautiful St. Stephen’s Basilica. The church is arguably the jewel in the crown of Budapest. The church is named after the first king of Hungary who ruled from 975 to 1038AD. The church is one of the most important in the entire country seating up to almost 9,000 people and housing an interior with lavish and intricate painting and murals adorning the walls and ceiling. Guests can even take a walk up the dome and get an amazing view of the city or visit the reliquary where allegedly the right hand of St Stephen can be seen. Classic music and organ concerts often take place here so you can always take a show (that sometimes even spills out onto the street). If you’re going to visit keep in mind that it is still a place of worship so dress a little modestly.
Explore Buda Castle
The absolutely massive castle complex is one of the country’s greatest examples of Baroque architecture. Completed in 1265 the castle is the historic home of Hungarian Kings and royalty. The castle is currently listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site and although it was mostly destroyed during WWII the castle was rebuilt and now houses several things to check out like the Hungarian National Gallery and The Budapest History Museum. The complex is massive and one can spend an entire day here checking out the various museums, shops, restaurants, and even hotels on site.
Grab a drink at Szimpla Kert
Although the bar only opened in 2001 the concept of Szimpla Kert is one that you can find in various other places throughout the city. Szimpla Kert is among the most popular of the “ruin bars” which are a cultural phenomenon of turning unconventional hangout spots like ruined buildings and empty spaces into weird and eclectic bars and nightclubs. Szimpla Kert is one of Budapest’s first “ruin bars” and it is a maze of rooms filled with kitschy decor, weird memorabilia, and cheap drinks. Szimpla Kert moved around the city before it found its permanent home in the Jewish Quarter in 2004 and now the space functions as a farmers market during the day and a bar at night as well as hosting live music nights and film screenings.
Check Out the Weird open-air Museum of Memento Park
In the 1950s, Hungary was one of the first countries to revolt against the Soviet regime and since the end of WWII, the country was under the thumb of the Soviets. During their time in charge of the country, they erected tons of statues depicting things from Russian Soldiers from World War Two to leaders like Stalin and Lenin. When the wall came down in 1989, suddenly the country found itself with a bunch of statues that Hungarians felt did not really represent them. So the government decided to save the statues rather than destroy them and so Memento Park was born.
Located just a few minutes outside the city center Memento Park serves as an open-air museum that houses over 40 statues from the communist era. While many don’t necessarily look back at the era fondly, Hungarians do still see it as a part of their history and so the park aims to take a neutral approach to the statues neither honoring them nor making a mockery of them. One of the more interesting statues is Stalin’s giant boots. In October 1956 the people of Budapest tore down a statue of Stalin leaving only his boots behind, which now sit in the park.
Take in the Views at Fisherman’s Bastion
A striking structure of the Budapest skyline sits right on the Danube and is a historic part of the city. Fisherman’s Bastion is built in a neo-Romanesque style and was built between 1895 and 1902 to celebrate the thousandth birthday of the Hungarian State. The building comprises seven spires representing the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars who founded Hungary in 895BC. The original purpose of the structure was to protect the Buda Castle located nearby from an enemy attack as Fisherman’s Bastion overlooks the river and is on high ground so the defenders could see enemies coming from a distance. The legend goes that it was a guild of fishermen who protected the bastion thus the building was named after them.
Learn some History in the House of Terror
Andrássy is one of the city’s most glamorous with its ornate building facades and embassies lining the avenue. But in the past, if you were being told that you were being taken to number 60, Andrássy Avenue you probably wouldn’t be very happy about it. The site is the location of the former interrogation center of the old fascist and then communist regimes of Hungary. The museum opened in February 2002 and spans four floors of exhibits and first-hand accounts of the terror Hungarians have had to live through during a large part of the 20th century.
Before the museum, the building underwent a full renovation project and while most renovations make buildings look nicer, this one made the museum look as grim as possible aiming to provide a multi-sensory experience with a local composer providing background noise for an elevated morose feel to the whole place. The basement is the former interrogation area of the fascist Arrow Cross Party which also has been restored to its former horrifying past.
Spend a Day or Night at the Szechenyi Spa Baths
Budapest is home to a few amazing spas and thermal baths which offer a little more than your typical sauna or thermal pool. The Szechenyi Spa Baths are one of the more popular for two reasons. Their day spa and their night “spa”. What sets the Szechenyi Spa Baths from another run-of-the-mill thermal spa is the gorgeous neo-baroque style of the entire complex. The complex was built in 1913 and currently stands as one of Europe’s largest and with its amazing decor and design, you’ll feel like you’re bathing in the palace of a king. The spa houses three large outdoor pools, ten indoor plunge pools, steam rooms, saunas, and massage rooms. If you’re looking to be pampered and to soothe your muscles then heading to Szechenyi Spa Baths during the day is a great way to relax.
During the weekend nights, however, Szechenyi Spa Baths take a page out of the Roman book of partying and becomes a nightclub. Known as the “Sparty” (an amalgamation of “spa” and “party”) the sparty brings in DJs and light shows to the spa so you can party in the thermal baths and get a little wet and wild. Alcohol is served and there’s a little more of an “anything goes” mentality.
Join the Party at Red Ruin
Keeping on with the trend of Budapest’s “ruin bars” comes the kitschy and punny Red Ruin. While the city both pays respect to its past in the Eastern Bloc it also isn’t afraid of poking fun of it. The theme of Red Ruin is “communism” but you’ll see as soon as you enter that the bar pokes fun at it with murals of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin wearing party hats and drinking claiming to “join the communist party”. The bar is entirely covered in weird pop-art and puns as well as red neon lighting. The drinks are appropriately priced and the basement offers even more repurposed and subverted “communist” propaganda. Red Ruin is popular with locals and tourists and is one of the best “ruin bars” around.
Indulge in some Langosh
So maybe you’ve just got back from the Sparty or you’ve had a few too many drinks at the ruin bars and now you need to soak up some of the alcohol. Well, nothing quite satisfies like langosh. The traditional Hungarian snack can be found in many places throughout Eastern Europe as well as places like Greece and Turkey. Langosh is essentially deep-fried flatbread slathered in a variety of topping from cream cheese and garlic to tomato sauce and herbs. It can be eaten as a savory snack or even as a dessert. Best consumed in the wee hours of the morning after stumbling out of a bar, served by a streetside vendor.
Get some Sun on Margaret Island
Get out of the city and sit in the sunshine and explore the little slice of heaven known as Margaret Island. The island is a little parkland sitting in the middle of the Danube River. The island is full of flowers and has a Japanese garden as well as a rose garden and waterfall. Grab a book or have a picnic in the grass or simply just rest under a tree. There is even a small petting zoo for kids as well as a couple of cafes if you’re looking for a snack or grab a coffee. The island has a little bridge connecting the island to both Buda and Pest.
Budapest is one of Eastern Europe’s great capital cities. The city has all the flair and fun of many other European capitals and is a perfect spot for travelers who aren’t trying to break the bank. From gorgeous architectural marvels to some world-class nightlife, Budapest should be your next European destination.
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