20 Mar 3 Days in Budapest
We spent the second weekend in March in Budapest and were graced with miraculously beautiful, sunny days in the low 60s (15 Celsius) which we know is not the norm and we thank our lucky stars. Aidan worked remotely during the day on Monday and I came down with a ferocious cold, so our long weekend of activities could easily be tackled in two healthy, work-free days. That said, we got to do more coffee shopping, sleeping in, and aimless wandering than we normally do while traveling, and Budapest is not a bad spot for any of that. The city has a very soothing vibe. Everyone moves slower and walks into you less than in Dublin, none of the tourist attractions were painfully crowded, and it was the little things – delicious street snacks, walks in the park, and tram rides on Continental Europe’s oldest line – that made us fall in love.
We stayed in this bright, cozy loft on the Pest side that was right out of an IKEA catalog and the perfect location to walk everywhere.
Cost: $175 / person (not including flights or accommodations)
Reservations to make in advance:
Beer Spa – though they also had plenty of available slots the day we went.
Hungarikum Bistro – said to have fantastic traditional food and live music, and was all booked the weekend we visited.
What you must eat:
Lángos – not your local fair’s fried dough.
Goulash – traditionally in stew form, and many places also serve the deconstructed version with noodles and the delicious sauce over meat and veggies.
Toltott Kaposzta – pork-stuffed cabbage rolls topped with sour cream.
Chimney Cakes – made to order with all the wonders of the sugar world inside.
What you mustn’t drink:
Pálinka – and if you want to try it, godspeed. Don’t order the raspberry.
Saturday: Free Walking Tour, Rudas Baths, Gellert Hill, Ruin Bars
This was a great trip to kick off with a free walking tour because Budapest has such fascinating history, and such a unique culture as a result, all of which was perfectly summed up by a local in just two and a half hours. We packed a bag for the day with lots of water, bathing suits, and a towel, and joined the Original Free Walking Tour from Vörösmarty square at 10:30. We were led by the sweetest Hungarian gal, Barbie, around the main areas of Pest and across the Chain Bridge into Buda for a short climb up to the Fisherman’s Bastion. She left us there to explore, and although the Matthias Cathedral (like most of the city) had to be rebuilt, it is right out of a fairytale:
The surrounding towers, one of which inspired the Walt Disney logo, are incredible:
It’s free to traipse around the grounds and costs €1 to climb up into the Disney tower for views of the river and the magnificent Parliament building on the other side:
Hungarian Barbie recommended Ruszwurm, a confectionary set just below the Bastion, where we waited in a short, totally-worth-it line for “American coffees”, cheese and meat pastries, sour cherry strudel, and award-winning peanut butter and jelly cake. Yes. Aidan’s dream come true.
With the shared belief that bath bellies full of sweets are the new bikini bodies, we headed to the Rudas Baths. Most days are men-only at Rudas, but weekends are co-ed for the wellness baths, spa, and rooftop bath. There was still not co-ed access to the 16th-century octagonal bath – the one inside the dome you see in most pictures – which was a shame, but we still had plenty to choose from and an amazing Hungarian thermal bath experience. There are signs with instructions in the wellness area for optimum health benefits, including 2-3 rounds between hot and freezing cold baths, which was crazy invigorating and would be the ultimate hangover cure if you’re in need. There are saunas, a salt room, and the rooftop thermal bath with views overlooking the river is one of the coolest things we’ve ever done. The sweetest part: access to all of this costs around $20 per person. We were big fans of the ram fountains:
Our bath bellies dried off and re-sweatered, it was perfect timing to walk up Gellert Hill for sunset. It’s a 20-minute paved climb up the hill with views the whole way until you reach Budapest’s lady liberty, the only communist statue the city agreed to keep in place and not ship off to the communism graveyard because it’s so damn good looking. The statue’s black silhouette against a swirling sky was pretty dreamy at sunset.
We walked home to shower and change, then snagged the last open table at Kisharang Étkezde, a wonderful little local spot where we filled up on two rounds of beer/wine, Toltott Kaposzta (traditional pork-stuffed cabbage,) sausages, and goulash for the FT equivalent of $25. Nothing like Eastern Europe to make a grad student feel grand.
Then, it was our time to experience the raddest bar in all the land: Szimpla. If you’ve been to Meow Wolf, it’s like that in bar form. There was a queue to get in and it was beyond worth the wait. We spent most of our night in there, navigating themed rooms and the trippy courtyard with a vintage car parked in the middle. We ordered pálinka shots and the bartender brought us tequila shots. So we took those and tried again. Then we were successful and wished we’d stuck with tequila.
There are a handful of other ruin bars nearby (Doboz, Instant, Fogas Haz) but we spent most of the night in Szimpla, then made a few discoveries of our own on the way home like The Slang Pub. Szimpla also does great food and a farmer’s market on Sundays, so you could easily live in there.
Sunday: House of Terror, City Park & Vajdahunyad Castle, Beer Spa
After a lovely breakfast with excellent coffee at Zoska, we walked (or you can take the oldest metro line in Continental Europe) along Andrassy Avenue – lined with embassies and gorgeous houses – to the House of Terror. The museum is extremely well done and deeply affecting. Hungary has been through some s***, to say the least. Around half of the videos and wall text are in English and there are full-page documents in multiple languages to read there or collect for later. We’d allow 1.5 to 2 hours, and you could easily spend longer if you did all the reading on-site.
Continue walking along Andrassy to City Park, where you’ll be greeted by the impressive Heroe’s Square and a casual castle in the distance. It is Vajdahunyad Castle. Go to it. Stop only for pastries and mulled wine on your way.
[Humblebrag: Airbnb asked to feature this photo on their website! My sweet tooth and day drinking are paying off.]
I am spoiled enough to have seen a handful of castles and even lived in one for three months (shout out Emerson College Kasteel Well) so it is saying something that I found Vajdahunyad, smack dab in a public park, to be the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. If only we knew how to pronounce it…
We skipped the museum inside the castle and crossed the park to our Beer Spa appointment in the massive, yellow palace that is the Széchenyi Baths. You can buy a ticket for the thermal baths instead, or a combo package with the Beer Spa included, but we had already spent half a day thermal-bathing and thought the beer spa was the most unique. Plus, it’s actually a better deal: €25/person for 45 minutes lounging in hops, drinking unlimited beer. As in, you have your own tap, so pour as much as you’d like. Ahhh…
We took our beloved metro back along Andrassy to shower, change, and feast. If you snagged a reservation at Hungarikum Bistro, it must be fabulous because it was booked all weekend when we tried to walk in. We made our own glorious discovery: Hummusbar.
We walked along the Danube to see it all lit up at night, and found a dock right off the street that delivers this insane view of Parliament:
We cashed it in early, but if you have more energy than we did, the ruin bars are always calling.
Monday: Opera House, Danube Tram Ride
Aidan had a work day and I woke up with a full-body feeling of death I assumed to be a pálinka hangover, but later realized was actual sickness. In case it was a hangover, we had a breakfast that surely would have cured it at Circusz:
At lunchtime, we hopped back on the metro to the Opera House but you can’t view the interior without a tour and performance, which are totally affordable and start at 2, 3 and 4 pm, we just didn’t have the time/life in my eyes. We walked back to the river and rode the above-ground tram along the Danube, which takes you right behind Parliament and is the perfect way to soak in the city before departing.
Then it was time to cry into one last lángos and kiss Budapest viszontlátásra.