The Best of Budapest: What I Liked Best About Budapest
Updated: Dec 8, 2019
Beautiful Budapest has a romantic and exotic reputation. It's a key stop on the vaunted Danube River, a hot European city break, and dubbed the "Paris of the East" and the "Pearl of the Danube." It's picturesquely divided in two by the Danube, with Buda on the west and Pest on the east. It has a sense of expansive grandeur.
Both sides of the city have different personalities and offer different cultural experiences. Buda is charming, classy, and quiet. It's filled with museums, castles, and elegant homes on cobbled streets. Pest is wilder and cosmopolitan, and where most of the tourist sites and ruin bars are located. Both are beautiful at night, illuminated by lights and cradled by the Danube.
I'm not sure Budapest deserves its lofty comparison to Paris, my very favorite big city. Or if it even rivals Vienna in beauty or elegance.
Nonetheless, Budapest beguiles in a different way, with a heady mixture of flamboyant late 19th century architecture, a hip restaurant scene, and steamy thermal baths. To really appreciate Budapest, I think you need adequate time to let its (sometimes hidden) charms percolate and go behind its concrete facades.
There were some things about Budapest that irked me. And I've written about them here. But there were plenty of things I loved, which deserve no less attention. Here is my "best of" Budapest list, consisting of my personal favorite sites and experiences in Budapest.
1. Best Boutique Hotel In Budapest: Aria Hotel Budpest
We stayed at the Aria Hotel Budapest in the New Leopold neighborhood of Pest. I admit this part of Budapest did feel a bit Parisian. And this adorable music-themed hotel was a highlight of my stay. It even seemed (relatively) affordable for a 5 star hotel. If you're wondering where to stay in Budapest for a luxury experience, this is it!
The Aria boasts killer views of St. Stephen's Basilica from its rooftop bar, the High Note SkyBar, fetchingly decorated with fairy lights. It's a short walking distance from many of Budapest's must see sites. With a soaring garden courtyard, fabulous rooms, and a swimming pool, it's one of Budapest's top hotels. Or at least my new favorite boutique escape.
2. Best Restaurants in Budapest: Liszt Restaurant, Onyx, Café Kör
By default almost, my husband and I feasted at the Liszt Restaurant in the Aria Hotel, just opened in May 2019. Jet lagged and unable to hunt for a great food spot, we stumbled into Liszt on a weeknight and nabbed a table. It was unexpectedly delicious. And who knew Liszt Restaurant is a new Budapest hot spot?
To compile a menu, the chef scoured historical cookbooks on traditional Hungarian cuisine. Not only a reference to the great composer, the word "Liszt" also means flour in Hungarian. Among the homemade breads on offer was a sourdough featuring grape seeds and skins.
There are two rooms. You can sit in the swishy crushed velvet bar area or squirrel yourself away in the elegant library area, which is what we did. I mean just look at that adorable eating space? It was blissfully quiet and private.
In fairness, I'll note that we were supposed to dine at Onyx on our first night in Budapest. But flight delays nixed our fancy plans, as can happen. Onyx is the hottest reservation in Budapest right now, under the direction of young chef Ádám Mészáros.
Onyx was Hungary's first restaurant to be awarded two Michelin stars. Book ahead. But you can only do so 30 days in advance.
On another night, we tried the cozy Café Kör, also quite delicious. The restaurant offers European fare and hearty Hungarian dishes of meat, stews, smoked sausage, and potatoes. It's a small place, so you'll need a reservation there too.
3. Best Museum In Budapest: Hungarian National Gallery
Located in the UNESCO-listed Buda Castle, the Hungarian National Gallery holds over 100,000 works of Hungarian art ranging from medieval stone carvings to dramatic canvases by 19th-century Romanticists like Károly Lotz. When I was there, there was a Surrealism Exhibit, with 100 works by Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, René Magritte, and Pablo Picasso.
There are tours in English. And you can even climb to the dome from the top floor for an unparalleled view of Pest. You need a special ticket for this because only 15 people are allowed in the dome at any given time.
4. Best Views In Budapest: Castle Hill in Buda or Gellért Hill
For perhaps the best view in Budapest, make the trip to Castle Hill on the Buda side of the Danube. There, amidst the warrens of medieval lanes, you'll find the Neo-Romanesque terrace known as Fisherman’s Bastion, built between 1895 and 1902. It consists of seven fairytale lookout towers, representing the seven Hungarian tribes who founded Budapest.
Fisherman's Bastion is free of charge, except for a small fee for the upper towers. It's worth it. The terrace is one of the best viewing points in Budapest. You have panoramic views across the Danube to the Pest side. The view of the Hungarian Parliament is breathtaking, especially at night.
To get there, you can take the funicular from Széchenyi Chain Bridge. Or, like us, you can just hoof it and work off some of that Hungarian Lángos (fried dough with sour cream and cheese). If you're hungry, stop at Corvin Cafe on the way down. To counterbalance the fried dough, I had a lovely goat cheese salad.
Another amazing viewpoint in Budapest is Gellért Hill. It takes more effort to climb than Castle Hill. But it's worth it. All of Budapest is before you. Atop the hill is the uplifting Liberty Statue, which celebrates Budapest's heroes who helped establish its independence.
5. Best Thermal Bath In Budapest: Gellért Thermal Bath
Hungarians say "if you poke a hole in the ground anywhere in Hungary, you'll find hot water." The Romans colonized Budapest partly because of the thermal springs. Budapest kept building baths and, by the 1920s, was known as a spa town.
Széchenyi Thermal Bath is the most elaborate. But also the most crowded. And it's crowded mostly with tourists, not locals. For this reason, if you're looking for a somewhat less touristy thermal bath in Budapest, I recommend Gellért Thermal Bath. It's near the Danube at the foot of Gellért Hill, which is another great spot for views and sports a spooky cave church.
Located in Hotel Gellért, this spa complex was built in the early 1900s and renovated in 2008. There are several indoor and outdoor pools, plunge pools, and saunas. The mosaic floors and stained glass windows are quite lovely. Go first thing in the morning or after 6:00 pm to dodge the crowds.
6. Best Sculpture In Budapest: "Shoes on the Danube"
On the Pest side of the Danube near Parliament, you'll find 60 pairs of iron shoes. "Shoes on the Danube" is a memorial to the people killed by Budapest’s Arrow Cross militiamen during WWII. It was created in 2005 by film director Can Togay and sculptor Gyula Pauer. It's haunting in its simplicity and, I think, an unmissable cultural site in Budapest.
In 1944-45, nearly 10,000 Jews were rounded up, ordered to remove their shoes, and shot so that their bodies would fall into Danube and float away. Their murderers kept their shoes, which were a valuable war time commodity. Now you see iron shoes in all shapes and sizes.
I also admit to loving the new Empress Sisi sculpture, created by Hungarian sculptor Mária Törley and just installed in 2018. Sisi's regal but casual, holding a book analyzing her rather angsty poetry.
Austrians and Hungarians are obsessed with the Empress Elizabeth, nicknamed, Sisi, the complex wife of Emperor Franz Joseph. Sisi was a frequent traveler. On her geographical cures, she fell in love with Hungarian culture.
In 1867, she helped broker a political compromise that led to the founding of the Austro-Hungarian empire. She even learned the exceedingly difficult Hungarian language, with its exceedingly looooong words. As Queen of Hungary, Sisi was revered. She's also got a Budapest bridge named after her and other sculptures around the city.
7. Best Architecture In Budapest: Parliament Building
With its majestic location on the east bank of the Danube River, Budapest's cream colored Parliament building is easily the most stunning piece of architecture in Budapest. Begun in 1885, it took 19 years to build. Its Neo-Gothic design is a forest of pinnacles and flying buttresses, topped by an egg shaped dome.
Not surprisingly, the glorious pile was inspired by London's Houses of Parliament. Not only is it the tallest structure in Budapest, it’s actually the largest in Hungary.
If you want to tour the interior -- and you should -- book a ticket online in advance. Tickets are often sold out. There are no signs, but the tourist center is on the right side of the Parliament building in the basement. The marble clad interior is striking. There are eye popping staircases, intricate ceilings, and gold everywhere.
On the 45 minute guided tour, you can admire the Main Staircase, the Dome Hall, and the Session Hall of the Upper House. Parliament also serves as the repository of the Hungarian crown jewels. The centerpiece is the Crown of St. Stephen, protected by two dour looking guards.
The holy crown belonged to King Stephen, the first king of Hungary, who longed to make Hungary a Christian kingdom. When Pope Sylvester II heard the good news, he gifted the holy crown to Stephen. It's considered a sacred symbol in Hungary.
8. Best Church In Budapest: Matthias Church in Buda
Most visitors would select St. Stephen's Basilica as their favorite Budapest church. And it's a commanding Gothic edifice, boasting both King Stephen's mummified hand and a tower view. But Matthias Church in Buda won my heart, with its tiled roof and colorful interior. It’s one of the most important churches in Hungary.
The church's real name is the Church of Our Lady of Buda. Matthias Church was originally built in the 11th century, though subsequently demolished. The current building was constructed in the 14th century and renovated in the 19th century.
Once inside, you’ll notice the vaulted ceilings and it unusually ornate and colorful decor. It was a mosque for a time, which explains its vibrant colors that aren’t the norm in European churches. And it has an Empress Sisi statue!
9. Best Castle In Budapest: Vajdahunyad Castle
The Dracula-like Vajdahunyad Castle is located on an artificial island in Budapest's City Park, marked at the entrance by Heroes' Square. You can walk through the impressive Gothic gates and stroll the castle grounds for free. There's a small fee to go inside.
Although the castle looks distinctively medieval, construction only started in 1896. Ignác Alpár was the architect. Along with the Millennium Monument in Heroes' Square, Vajdahunyad Castle was built to celebrate Hungary's 1,000th year as a free state.
In his design for the complex, Alpár created a collage of the singular architectural styles from Hungarian history. Thus, Vajdahunyad Castle has Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque elements. The adjacent Church of Jak has a beautiful Romanesque facade.
Perhaps the most striking section of the castle is the Gothic wing, modeled on Corvin Castle in Romania, which served as the historical home of János Hunyadi. He was the Hungarian noble from whom Vajdahunyad Castle derives its name. To add to the ambiance, there's a statue of Bela Lugosi on the grounds.
10. Best Palace In Budapest: Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace
Facing the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, Gresham Palace is one of the most beautiful Art Nouveau buildings in Budapest. Or anywhere really. It also boasts Budapest's most gorgeous interior with a dazzling mosaic floor, a Dale Chihuly chandelier, and a beautiful glass dome.
It's now owned by the Four Seasons and operates as a hotel. But tourists can wander into the lobby to explore without being shooed away. You can also have tea, cocktails, or dine there. Or stay there, if you're not at the Aria Hotel.
11. Best Bridge In Budapest: Liberty Bridge
Széchenyi Chain Bridge is the most iconic of Budapest's bridges, of course. And has the advantage of being pedestrianized. But my favorite bridge was the Liberty Bridge. At first glance, it appears to be a chain bridge. But it's actually a cantilever bridge with a pretty green Art Nouveau truss.
The Liberty Bridge, like the other bridges, was destroyed in WWI. It was promptly rebuilt in 1946. It's not pedestrianized though, so you have to admire it from afar. Some weekends in the summer, the bridge is closed to traffic and turned into a pop-up park with markets, music and food.
12. Best Synagogue In Budapest: Dohány Street Synagogue
The Great Synagogue is a gorgeous building, located in the Jewish Quarter (along with the ruin pubs) of the Erzsébetváros district. Built in a Moorish revival style in 1859, like you'd find at the Alhambra, Dohány is the largest synagogue in Europe.
At 140 feet, it's difficult to photograph. And, be forewarned, the synagogue is closed on Saturday. Behind the synagogue is the weeping willow memorial. It's leaves are inscribed with the names of 30,000 Holocaust victims. Upside down, the tree resembles a menorah.
There's a strict dress code for the synagogue. Men will have to don a small skullcap, given to you at the door. Women can't go inside with sleeveless tops, shorts, or skirts.
13. Best Hidden Gem In Budapest: Budapest Museum of Applied Arts
Dubbed the "Hungarian Gaudi," after Barcelona's Antoni Gaudi, Ödön Lechner was a prolific architect in Budapest. One of his most beautiful Art Nouveau buildings is the spectacularly ornate Budapest Museum of Applied Arts, built between 1893-96. Like Gaudi, Lechner used vivid colors, uneven lines, unusual forms, and terra cotta tiles.
The museum is currently closed until 2020 for renovations. But you can still admire the exterior. If you like Art Nouveau architecture, it might be worth taking a thematic tour Art Nouveau tour in Budapest.
14. Best Wine Bar In Budapest: DiVino Wine Bar
Many visitors (especially the backpacking youngsters) are hitting Budapest's vaunted ruin bars, which are all the rage in Budapest. But I settled for a quieter pleasure. Wine. I didn't know this before visiting, but Budapest is renowned for its wine.
Most of Hungary's wines are white. We sampled them at DiVino's Wine Bar near St. Stephens. You can also try Doblo Wine & Bar. Here's a comprehensive article discussing where to sample wine in Budapest and explaining the different varieties.
15. Best Coffee Shop In Budapest: Azték Choxolat
Like Vienna, Budapest is developing a decided coffee culture. Most tourists are queueing up for New York Cafe, with its splashy interior and overpriced menu. Though you can book ahead. It's very pretty; I peaked inside. But I had no interest in waiting in line.
If you want something more off the beaten path in Budapest, try Azték Choxolat. It's an adorable and cozy little cafe on a little side alley. It's speciality, as the name indicates, is its yummy hot chocolate. The cafe also serves a huge variety of coffees and pastries.
You may be wondering why I haven't mentioned Heroes' Square or the Central Market, two of Budapest's most popular attractions. It's because I didn't like them. You can read more about that in my "Beef with Budapest" article.
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