Discover Budapest: The Insiders’ Guide to Eastern Europe’s Best-Kept Secret
Budapest is what Brooklyn wishes it could be: Between its artsy and irreverent ruin bars, omnipresent street art, and thriving culinary scene, the Hungarian capital feels like the creation of a hipster chef with a sleeve tattoo in Williamsburg. Just because Budapest isn’t necessarily the first place that comes to mind for a European getaway for Americans, it doesn’t mean that the rest of the world hasn’t caught on to its many charms. The city is famous (arguably notorious) throughout Europe as the go-to destination for bachelorette parties — or, as they’re called in London, hen parties. Yet despite the country’s popular wine regions, there’s more to Budapest than rosé all day.
The thriving city boasts a distinct cultural identity formed by many years of history. This heritage is apparent in the ornate architecture, unique language, and traditions that define urban life. Budapest is a lively blend of trendy and historic, old and new. So now is the time to visit — before the rest of America books their flight too.
Where to Stay
Gresham Palace, overlooking the Danube River at the foot of the Chain Bridge (the oldest on the Danube), takes Hollywood-style decadence to European Imperialist levels of splendor. It’s a pricier option, but worth it for the once-in-a-lifetime experience of living like royalty. For a little Wes Anderson style, stay at the Corinthia Hotel Budapest, which may look a little familiar — while there was no one inspiration for Anderson’s film The Grand Budapest Hotel, the lavish Corinthia has the most similar façade. (Of course, most buildings in Budapest — and across Eastern Europe, in fact — look like they could be part of one of his movie sets.)
But not to fear if you don’t want to splurge; there are also a plethora of affordable options both in and outside of Budapest. Anna Hotel Budapest is just a short subway ride from downtown, boasts a restaurant and bar, and is encircled by a moat (and where else are you going to find that unique amenity?).
Budapest actually joins two formerly separate cities on either side of the Danube River: Buda and Pest (Anna Hotel Budapest is in Buda and Gresham Palace is in Pest). So when choosing your accommodations, consider the vibe you’re after; Buda (on the castle side) is typically more family-friendly, and Pest, known for its party scene, tends to attract more young people. Overwhelmed by all the choices? STA Travel is a great resource for young travelers looking to maximize their money (and experiences) while abroad.
Or, if you’d rather spend your days and nights upon the water, book a room on the Danube Flow, U by Uniworld’s eight-day river cruise. If you want to start planning your trip for next summer, the cruise will then stop at the Sziget Festival, also known as the European version of Woodstock. One of the largest music festivals in the world, it’s held every August on Old Buda Island in the Danube River. But if you don’t want to wait until then, there’s still plenty of fun to be had on the river in the meantime: In addition to floating through Hungary, the cruise will also take you to Germany and Austria too in case you’ve grown bored of Budapest. But really, how could you ever want to leave?
What to Do
Bathtime in Hungary is very serious business. If you travel to Budapest and don’t swim in the indoor and outdoor pools of Szechenyi Baths, you may as well have never visited the country at all. First introduced by the Romans, thermal baths became an integral part of the city’s culture during Turkish rule.
The Ottoman Empire has long ceased to rule Hungary, but the baths have maintained their appeal with Hungarians for centuries. The locals’ unabashed love of daytime bath parties is truly something to behold — as is the body confidence exhibited by the many middle-aged men in Speedos. Hey, if they can flaunt it, so can you. Adventurous wellness seekers should try out the Beer Spa upstairs, where you can not only drink your favorite beverage but also soak in it.
But the city is much too interesting to waste your entire trip wrinkling away on a (bath time) bender. Boat to Margaret Island to pose in front of the legendary “Budapest” sign and, most importantly, catch a performance of the Musical Fountain. You haven’t really lived until you’ve heard the music from Frozen performed in Hungarian. Once you have, you’ll never be able to let it go. (#sorrrynotsorry)
Though the excitement for this up-and-coming city has increased in recent years, there’s more to Budapest than just trendiness — namely, a fascinating and colorful history. The leaders of the first Hungarian tribes drank each other’s blood in a blood oath when forming the country, and that is just the beginning.
Pay homage to these tribes at Heroes’ Square, the largest square in the city, before crossing the bridge to the imposing fortress of Vajdahunyad Castle, built over a hundred years ago to celebrate the one thousandth birthday of the Hungarian state.
The city’s architecture adheres to the “more is more” rule, which you’ll notice the moment you pull into the Budapest Keleti Train Station. You’ll be as equally astounded by the station’s stunning grand proportions as you’ll be by the seamlessness of international travel should you choose to travel by train (we highly recommend getting a Eurail pass).
Sign up for a Free Budapest Walking Tour for a succinct yet thorough summary of the country’s long, dramatic history. Your tour guide will also provide you with some much-needed logistical directions; unless you’re a natural linguist, you’ll want a local translator. Hungarian is much more difficult to pick up than Romance languages like French. Introducing myself in Budapest, I learned that I couldn’t even pronounce my own last name, Magyar, correctly. (And it means “Hungarian” in Hungarian!)
Travelers would be wise to learn a few key phrases before visiting. I recommend “szia” (pronounced “see ya”). The “aloha” of Hungarian, szia means hello and goodbye. Learn more of these helpful tidbits on one of the morning walking tours, departing from Pest daily at 10:30am. Szia there!
Where to Eat and Drink
The Jewish Quarter is the place to experience the excitement of a night out in Budapest. It’s hard to imagine now when weaving through the bustling evening crowds, but the busy cobblestone streets of District VII used to be a ghost town. Once the historic home of the city’s Jewish population, the neighborhood was evacuated during the Holocaust. The abandoned buildings were left to decay after World War II and the empty lots grew even more decrepit under the austerity of Communism.
Today, quirky cafés and busy markets line the once-barren streets and colorful bursts of street art enliven the facades of bombed-out buildings, with vivid murals painted over the past on every corner. The decaying urban lots have been transformed into what’s known as ruin bars. Though these buildings may look decrepit on the outside, they’ve been turned into decadent hipster paradises within. The whimsical décor is, again, right out of a Wes Anderson movie, with arcades, hammocks, string lights, hookahs, and overstuffed velvet armchairs.
Order a cocktail and relax in one of the hammocks in the tropical courtyard of Kőleves Kert before heading to the most famous ruin bar in the city, Szimpla Kert. The bar is popular for a reason: Walking inside is like being transported to the Eastern European incarnation of Mardi Gras (i.e., there are no rules). You know you’re in for a rowdy evening when signs taped to the building’s exterior say, “Be nice! Ignore street dealers!” and “Please behave!” Whether these messages are joking or sincere remains unclear.
When you’ve reached that point in the evening when a second dinner becomes not only enticing but mandatory, head next door to Sababa for some late-night Middle Eastern carbs. Order a gyro and chat with the friendly owner while watching the revelers coming in from the street in search of falafel. The music is just loud enough to make the scene at Sababa a more low-key alternative to the raucous shenanigans of Szimpla Kert.
If you want to venture out from the city, take a day trip to the wine regions around Lake Balaton to sample the increasingly popular Hungarian wine. Rosé lovers, rejoice: The country’s rosé industry is booming and slowly gaining international acclaim. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, try Palinka, a traditional fruit brandy that’s been unfavorably compared to moonshine by those with untrained palates. It was originally invented in Central Europe in the Middle Ages, and its staying power is on display at Szechenyi Baths every Saturday in the summertime; you’ll lose count of how often this drink is ordered poolside.
What’s your favorite city to visit in Europe? Let us know @BritandCo!
(Photos via Getty)