So, you want to visit Budapest. Or maybe you've heard about its lure but aren't quite convinced yet. Well, let me put your doubts aside. If I don't have you convinced by the end of this article that you should book a ticket to Budapest today, then I've done my Hungarian friends an injury and I should just quit this writing gig while I'm ahead.
1. The Architecture
Hungarian Parliament Building
There are so many intricate architectural styles in the city that build Budapest into a unique collective but I find the Hungarian Parliament building, built in a Gothic revival style, to be one of my favorite.
Would you believe the interior of the parliament building was built with about 88 pounds (40kg) of solid gold? Way to be badass, Hungary.
Hungarians also wanted this majestic symbol of the city to remain unobstructed by view and so there's a law that no other building can be built taller than 96 meters (about 315 feet). The only other building in Budapest that matches its height is St. Stephen's Basilica. To give you some visual comparison of this city's skyline, the Empire State Building in New York City stands at 1,250 feet (381m) - around 4x its size.
But hey, what is it they say, it isn't about size?
2. That Famous Bridge
Did you know Budapest was once two cities - Buda and Pest, respectively - only to be united by this bridge in 1849? It was the first bridge to span across the Danube River connecting Buda on the west and Pest on the east. With its lion adorned entrance and great views the city I recommend taking a walk across this meaningful symbol once during the day and once at night when the city lights up.
On the Buda (west) side of the bridge you'll be close to Buda Castle and on the Pest (east) side you'll find the Gresham Palace and the Danube Promenade. Wondering which side of the city is the best? Ask any local and you'll be sure to begin a very heated discussion.
PoP insider tip: The correct pronunciation of Budapest is making the "s" sound more like a "sh" so: Buda-pesht.
3. Castles & Cathedrals
I'm a big sucker for castles. I can't get enough of the history living and breathing within every stone. And so I could not avoid becoming an avid admirer of the towering Royal Palace in Buda. Dating back to the 13th century, its built directly into the hillside of Buda and overlooks the city, giving you a full view of the river, its multiple bridges, and the parliament building. The castle itself now holds the Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest History Museum and the National Library. You can reach it by furuncular or simply following the walking paths. We hoofed it, as that always seems to be the best way to me to really explore an area and see the little nooks and crannies you might otherwise miss.
St. Stephen's Basilica
This Neoclassical structure was built in honor of Hungary’s first king, St. Stephen, who converted the first nomadic Hungarian tribes to Christianity. In fact, you are able to see his mummified right hand (The Holy Right Hand) in a small chapel off to the side of the main altar. (It's not like that's creepy at all, guys.)
History also tells us it took 5 decades and 3 architects to finish the basilica as there were several unfortunate events that delayed progress including the death of the first two architects and the collapsing of the dome.
Best part: it won't cost you a penny to get inside Budapest's largest church (unless you want to pay for a guided tour).
PoP insider tip: You'll want to take full advantage of making your way up the cupola to see the panoramic city views!
In front of the basilica you'll happen across a bronze statue of a policeman with a protruding tummy that's been polished bright by many visitor's shameless rubs (mine included). There are a few rumors surrounding the tradition of rubbing his tummy. Some say you'll be lucky in love (or in the sack) or just plain lucky! I'll take all three.
4. The Market
Budapest Great Market Hall
If you like markets (and I sure do) you absolutely must visit the Great Market Hall on the Pest side (east) of the city. This market I find to be truly unique, not just from the architecture on the outside, but from the fact that locals enjoy shopping at the market as much as the tourists do. You'll find everything from small local treasures, trinkets, and do-dads (great for bringing home souvies to the fam and friends), to local goods like paprika and fresh hanging meats and cheeses. There are also a few restaurants and several quick stop food stalls on the upper level perfect for grabbing some Hungarian grub. Take heart, the market is enormous with 3 different levels, I recommend having a game plan if you get separated from your group (like we didn't), as it may take a miracle to find each other again amongst all the paprika and embroidery!
PoP insider tip: The market is also a great place to start your shopping day as there are lots of places within walking distance. Váci Street is a popular pedestrian shopping street as well as Vörösmarty Square which has lots of cafes and restaurants.
5. Healing Thermal Baths
Széchenyi Thermal Baths
This had to be my absolute favorite experience I had in Budapest.
The natural hot springs unearthed beneath this gorgeous Neo-Baroque, Neo-Renaissance palace - I'll use that term freely because of the grandeur of the building - is a wealth of healing minerals. It's a favorite among locals and tourists to visit these therapeutic, medicinal baths. And this is not the only thermal bath in Budapest; there happen to be several. There are still even Turkish baths standing from the 16th century. However, Széchenyi, and Gellért (to name another) baths were built in the early 20th century, making them over 100 years old today.
There over 20 pools, including both indoor/outdoor thermal pools, cooling pools, and swimming pools all ranging in temperature. They also have saunas as well as a full service spa that offers massages, mud treatments, manicures, and even fish pedicures. (Yes, the one where the little fish nip at your feet!) Don't fret if you forget your swimmers, you can rent some there.
I believe no trip to Budapest is complete without visiting one of these baths I've mentioned and experiencing it for yourself. It doesn't matter what time of year you visit either - we went in the dead of winter just after New Years. Granted, it was FREEZING around the outdoor pools, but running through the cold January air and then submerging yourself in the hot water was half the fun!
PoP insider tip: Apparently they even have spa parties at the thermal baths in the evening. Sparty Time! (I swear, a Sparty is really what they call it!)
6. Scrumptious Sweets
In the hub of Budapest in Vörösmarty Square sits this 150 year old gem. I don't know what goes together better than chocolate, confectionary and coffee. Oh and ice cream! The inside feels like a step back in time with its grand chandeliers, arched ceilings and intricate woodwork. It's definitely worth a stop to indulge in some sweet treats from these artisans. I mean, after 150 years and still standing, they have to be doing something right, right?!
Also in the square were loads of treats on carts and stands, even in the dead of winter. Anything from artisan chocolates, marzipan bonbons, macaroons, chewy candies and so on.
P.s. Don't you just love the word "Bonbons"?
7. The Insanely Fun Nightlife
You should definitely be starting your night out with some Pálinka - the traditional Hungarian spirit that will put you in quite the right spirit - before heading out the door for a night on the town!
It's a fruit based spirit (rather than a grain) so it has many natural flavor varietals such as apricot, apple, cherry, pear, plum, and grape, to name a few. And every region of Hungary is said to be known for their own speciality of Pálinka, so if you're traveling around Hungary be sure to ask for that region's speciality. The recipes for Pálinka are protected by law according to the region, that's how important the spirit and purity of the tradition is to Hungarians! In 2002 it was made a Hungaricum, meaning a high quality speciality of the country, like paprika or goulash.
I will delve further into exactly what places should be on your hit list for your night out in another post, for now you can watch a compelling video of me butchering the Hungarian language.
PoP insider tip: To properly drink Pálinka & shout out a good cheers in Hungarian is to say "Egészségére" - Yeah, try saying that five times fast. Or actually, just once. I clearly couldn't.
You should make a point to look up some of these other sights to see during your time in Budapest:
Millennium Underground (M1)*
The M1 is the oldest metro line in Budapest, and having been constructed in 1894 it's the second oldest in Europe, the first being the London underground! It's still functioning today and runs under Andrassy ut to City Park.
WWII/Holocaust Memorial Liberty Square**
The monument in Liberty Square depicts Hungary as the archangel Gabriel being attacked by a German imperial eagle. Just before the monument, Hungarian Holocaust survivors have placed family memorabilia including letters, pictures, documents, and personal items in tribute to their memory and to serve as a present day reminder of the millions of lives destroyed during that hideous era of humankind.