budapest city guide
Last year, Joshua and I (and Lola!) were in Budapest for six months for Joshua's work. When we found out we were going there, we actually had to look on a map to see what country Budapest was in (Hungary by the way!). I've had a couple friends visit Budapest since then, and ask for suggestions. After some lengthy emails, I decided my time would be better spent publishing my recommendations. So here we go!
Hungary is located in Eastern Europe and borders seven other countries: Croatia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Serbia and Austria (and yes, it's in the EU). I read at a bookstore in Budapest, that all the countries surrounding Hungary understand each other, but no one understands the Hungarians--needless to say, it's a unique place. Budapest is the capital of Hungary and is bisected by the Danube River. On the west side of the river lies Buda and on the east lies Pest. On the Buda side you'll find Castle Hill, the Citidal and some of the famous thermal baths. On the Pest side is the city center including Parliament, Saint Stephen's Basilica, Váci útca (the main shopping street), the Jewish Quarter and most everything else.
Budapest is a relatively small city and easy to navigate. You can get many places by foot (if you like walking), and virtually everywhere by bike. There is also an efficient transportation system of buses, trams, boats (from spring to autumn), metro lines and more. Some of the metro stations are quite beautiful. My favorite is the yellow line, which runs underneath Andrássy útca (Hungarian word for street or avenue). There's also a great tram line (the no. 2) that goes along the Danube River. All transportation tickets can be used for any type of public transportation vehicle. One ticket, with validation, is good for a single trip (one way). Google maps works well in Budapest, and it will advise you on which type of transportation you should take and the specific line, depending on where you are going.
They don't have ride sharing services (when we arrived, they were just phasing out Uber and Lyft), so if you need to get somewhere by car you'll have to take a taxi (I don't recommend renting a car and driving yourself unless you are very brave and are traveling to the countryside). Although most taxi companies and drivers are equip to take credit card payments, they often put up a fuss if you don't pay them in cash. Be strong and firm if they advertise that they take credit card payments. But, either way you usually tip in cash. In my experience, City Taxi is the best company. They have an application in which you can order your taxi and sync your card to the app (similar to ride sharing applications).
Depending on how long you stay in Budapest, I would advise buying a block of 10 tickets if you plan to use public transport (about $10 USD for ten tickets or $1/ticket). It's a good idea to familiarize yourself with the validation system they use for pubic transportation. All tickets must be purchased and then validated by a machine just before getting on any sort of public transportation (minus the bus and tram line, the validation system is inside the vehicle). There are transportation inspectors who will fine you if your ticket is not properly validated. In my experience, the fine was about $36 USD, and you must pay cash right then and there. If you don't have cash, the inspector will take down your passport number and address. Don't get turned off by the system, other countries in Europe (i.e. Germany and Italy) use the same method of validating tickets. Public transportation is a great way to get around (and fun!), just ask someone for help if you have questions...someone will undoubtedly speak English. This site is a great resource for all your transportation questions (i.e. how to purchase tickets, validate, etc.).
I recommend walking around the city for the first day or two, and taking public transportation to supplement, just to get a lay of the land. Budapest has many hidden streets and little alleyways and courtyards that you may miss if you aren't exploring by foot. After a day or two or walking around, rent a bike for the remainder of you trip; biking is a great way to see the city and you can cover more ground.
Language and communication
Hungarian is said to be the most impenetrable language behind Mandarin. After six months of living there, I probably knew about 20-25 words at best, and I could only count to three (I just couldn't ever retain the word for the number four). It's good to know please (although please is not used in the same way here) and thank you (köszönöm), and yes (igen) and no (nem), but don't expect yourself to be conversing with the locals by the end of your trip. Luckily, many people in Budapest speak English, but not everyone. Some may speak English but not admit to it. Just know that you may not be able to communicate with everyone, and that's just part of the experience.
Currency & tipping
The currency in Budapest is the Hungarian Forint. Some places may take Euros, but they're usually tourist traps. Although there are places that take credit card or Pay Pass (a card-less payment via phone kinda like Apple Pay), many restaurants and shops will only take cash. Lesson learned, it's a good rule to always carry cash with you in this city, and Europe in general.
The standard for tipping in restaurants is between 10-15% of your bill. However, many restaurants charge a 12.5% service fee, so check with your waiter (a restaurant will usually indicate the service charge at the bottom of their menu). Tip your taxi driver between 5-10% (usually 100-200 forints for a 10 minute ride or less) and a bit more if they assist with your luggage. This website is a great resource for any questions you have regarding social etiquette, culture, etc.
Markets and shopping
I don't suggest going to Budapest for the shopping, as their sales tax is about 27%. But, if you are curious, the two best streets to shop are Váci útca, which is adjacent to the Danube River, and Andrássy útca. Váci útca is the shopping hub and can get quit crowded during the summer months. You'll see a lot of young adults, tourists, and will get an idea of the street fashion in Budapest. Andrássy is more upscale, with nicer restaurants and stores. It is the Rodeo Drive of Budapest so-to-speak, whereas Váci has more middle-of-the road shops like H&M, Zara, Bershka and other European fashion chains. There are several other malls around the city, but I wouldn't waste your time, there are a lot more interesting things to see and do.
Some of my favorite finds were pieces of clothing and household items made by local designers. If you're interested in local fashion, this website is a great resource. They provide a map of all the shops where you can find clothing, accessories and art made by locals.
Budapest has several market halls, one of the most famous is the Central Market Hall, or Nagy Vásárcsarnok, located at the south end of Váci útca. The market halls are essentially daily farmers' markets where you'll find countless fruit and vegetable stands, cured meat, tokaj, handmade clothing, spices and herbs, purses, hats and other Hungarian trinkets. There is usually a food court at the top of the market halls. I do recommend going to the Central Market Hall for the experience, and if you plan to cook and grocery shop. But during the summer it can get quite crowded, so do go early. There are several market halls around the city, farmers' markets and plenty of quaint little produce stands, but the Central Market is the largest and most popular.
One of Joshua and my favorite things to do (and I highly recommend this over the Central Market Hall) was to go to the Szimpla Farmers' Market , or Szimpla Kert. It's every Sunday from 9-2pm, located in an old ruin-turned pub/outdoor restaurant space. This too can get crowded in the summer months, so go earlier rather than later. There is usually live music and food and drinks so plan for an early lunch or breakfast. It's unique in that you get to meet the actual farmers who grow what they sell. There's tons of fresh cheeses, vegetables, fruits, honey, truffle salt, peppers and one of the only places where I found fresh peanut-butter (the best peanut-butter I've ever had!).
If you're looking for a specialty food item, that seems to be hard to find, Culinaris is your best bet. It's a very small grocery store with an incredible inventory and a great cheese selection. Anything that I missed from back home, I would find it there. Another great organic shop is BioABC. They have a well stocked bulk section and a ton of specialty foods (gluten-free alphabet pasta anyone?). However, their produce leaves something to be desired. Best to go to the the fresh produce stands or market halls for fruits and veggies.
In the winter time, starting in mid-November, the Christmas markets are set up around Váci útca and St. Stephen's Bascilia (my favorite one). The markets serve food, drinks, handmade trinkets, and mulled wine. If you do have the pleasure of going during this time (the least crowded time to travel Europe), it's fun to get a glass of mulled wine and walk around the market. They usually do an interesting and well-done Christmas video projected onto St. Stephen's Basilica.
Wild Flower Bar I just have to mention my favorite little flower shop in town. I spent many a afternoons discussing flower arrangements for my wedding, taking calligraphy classes and buying house plants for our temporary home. If you happen to walk by, it's a fun place to stumble upon. The owners are two wonderful girls who are very friendly and speak great English.
Budapest is known for its Turkish-style thermal baths. Some of the them date back to the Ottoman Empire and are over 400 years old. Even if you're a bit squeamish about public facilities or have a public pool phobia, it's worth it to see the architecture of some of these spas. It took about about three months before Joshua and I mustered up the courage to have our first thermal bath experience, and after that we went every weekend! We didn't visit every bath, but we had some great and not so good experiences. Here are our recommendations:
Rudas was definitely our favorite thermal bath experience and the place we kept on coming back to. It's just across the Elizabeth Bridge on the Buda side of town. Rudas has three areas: the wellness department, swimming pool and thermal baths. I recommend buying a ticket that allows access to the entire facility. The thermal bath area is the original part of the structure and you can just feel the history of the building (built circa 1500s). The wellness department is the new side of Rudas, and has a small rooftop deck and a very small heated pool with a view of the Danube River and Pest. If you're only interested in purchasing tickets to one side, the older side is more authentic and interesting.
Gellért Spa and Bath is probably one of the most well known thermal spas in Budapest. Joshua and I didn't like it as much as Rudas (it took 2nd place), but architecturally speaking, it was interesting. If going to the thermal baths turns out to be your thing, it's nice to change up the scenery. Gellért is beautiful inside, but can take some time to orient yourself. It's located on the Buda side, just south down the river from Rudas (about a 10 minute walk).
Other things to do and see
Castle Hill is located on the Buda side. You can use the Széchenyi (a.k.a. the Chain Bridge) to get there from Pest. Once you cross the bridge, choose to walk up to Castle Hill or take the funicular. Joshua and I would usually ride our bikes over the bridge, park them and walk up. The National Gallery is on top of Castle Hill and contains permanent and temporary art collections. It's also the former castle. When Joshua and I were in Budapest, we saw the (temporary) Picasso and Modigliani installment. It's definitely worth it to at least walk the grounds of the National Gallery, there are beautiful views of the Pest side and Parliament. You can choose to go to the museum, or just spend a few hours walking around Castle Hill, enjoying quaint old buildings, bookstores, Matthias Church and more.
The Citidal is also on the Buda side, just south of Castle Hill, on top of Gellért Hill. It's relatively mild hike to the top of the vista and there's a worthwhile view. Just cross the the Elizabeth or Liberty bridge to get there and begin your ascent.
Saint Stephen's Basilica is probably one of my favorite buildings in Budapest. I get chills just sitting here thinking about it. There is a pleasant little square in front of the Basilica where there are options for outdoor dining and drinks. One of my favorite things to do was to get a glass of wine at DiVino Wine Bar and sit outside and just basque in the beauty of the Basilica. I recommend climbing the stairs to the top [of the Basilica] and enjoying the 360 degree view.
The Parliament of Budapest is the most grandiose building in the city. You can see views of the structure from virtually anywhere. I never did a tour of the inside, but I've heard it's great. I use to bike past Parliament everyday on the way to the market--it never got old. It's located on the Pest side, in between the Chain Bridge and Margaret Bridge, just north on the Danube in the Leopold District.
The old Jewish Quarter has tons of bars, cafes, coffee shops, outdoor beer gardens (kerts) and restaurants. For us, the night life was a bit too college-y (all the hostels are here), but there are some great finds (re: Szimpla Kert market). One of the main attractions in this area is the Synagogue, which is the largest in Europe and the second largest in the world. I recommend walking around the old Jewish Quarter without an agenda, you'll find great things.
Margaret Island is in the North end of the city on the Danube River, situated between Buda and Pest. There is a lot of activity inside the park, especially during the summer months--pools, exercise groups and classes, concerts, festivals, bike rentals, cafes and more. Ride your bike here and explore!
City Park is fun to bike to as well, otherwise you can take the metro directly in. There is a lake in the middle of the park, and you can sit out at one of the restaurants and enjoy lunch or a drink. There is one thermal bath located in City Park, Széchenyi, it's basically the Budapest version of a Las Vegas pool party (not my cup of tea). If you have to choose, go to Margaret Island.
Coffee & tea
One of my favorite things about Budapest is their coffee. I couldn't believe how many specialty coffee shops there were scattered around the city. Here is a great map of all of them. When I was in Budapest, I saved all the locations in my Google Maps application. When I was traversing the city and in need of coffee, I would try out the nearest one (this is also when I became a coffee snob). Here are some of my favorites:
Kontakt This was probably the coffee shop that I went to most frequently. It was a short walk from our apartment, located in the Belváros (or inner city) neighborhood, and they were big fans of Lola (as was everyone in Budapest). It's in a little courtyard that you might miss if you aren't looking. You have to enter through two wooden doors that are shut when the shops inside are closed. They are super serious about their coffee here. They get fresh farm milk delivered to use in their flat whites, cappuccinos and lattes. If you get a pour over, just don't ask for cream or milk in your coffee (you won't get it); they drink their coffee strictly black here. The owner also runs the food place across the courtyard, Szimply Good Food--my favorite breakfast/brunch spotsin town (actually my favorite place for breakfast in the world thus far).
Espresso Embassy has great coffee and the employees all graduated from their in-house barista school. It's located in a nice area, close to Parliament in Leopold Town (Lipótváros). The inside of the shop has vaulted ceilings and a great ambiance. There's also an outside seating area. For some reason this coffee shop was an International hub, Joshua and I met people from all over the world here.
Madal (on Ferenciek tere.) is on my list because their coffee is great, they're very friendly and they were absolutely in love with Lola. They also have a great tea selection and some yummy energy bites and other gluten-free and vegan/non-vegan treats.
My Little Melbourne and My Little Brew Bar are located in the old Jewish Quarter. They have two separate store fronts, one for espresso drinks and one for pour overs. They also have a nice tea selection and some delicious treats. They have one of the best flat whites in town.
Fekete is located in the museum quarter, in the Central Inner City District (Belváros). This is another spot that you might miss if you aren't looking for it. It's right off the main drag, Múzeum krt., but in a cute little courtyard. The coffee is great here and I like the ambiance.
1000tea is just off Váci útca but don't be fooled, it's the most zen spot in town. I avoided going here for the longest time because of the busy location. However, when you get there, you walk through these very unassuming doors into a peaceful, quiet courtyard. They have a great selection of teas and food, although I've never had the food here. It's a nice place to relax and enjoy some afternoon tea.
The New York Cafe deserves a mention as it is famous and ornately beautiful inside. With that said, it is way overpriced and the food is subpar at best. The line is always long and the service slow. My recommendation would be to swing by and take a look at the interior and decide for yourself if you want to pay a price to sit and enjoy the scenery. Otherwise, soak in the view and move on to bigger and better things.
Just a note...Budapest is famous for its kave (coffeee) houses, and you can read all about that in any travel-guide book. I enjoyed the local places over the famed, historic ones. I just wanted to mention it so you don't miss out on anything!
The traditional Hungarian cuisine is meat and potatoes or variations of these things. I don't eat meat, so the recommendations below are semi-bias. However, most of these restaurants below serve meat, but there are also vegetarian (and sometimes vegan) options, so there's something for everyone. Some things to keep in mind are that Hungarians (and Europeans in general) are very serious about reservations, even if the restaurant is not crowded. Do plan the places you want to eat ahead of time, and make reservations in advance. Most restaurants will have a napi (daily) menu which features the special of the day. There are many options for dining around Budapest but these are my favorites:
Zeller Bistro is a MUUUUSSSSTTTT and my favorite spot for dinner in the city ! It is the quintessential farm-to-table cuisine, they literally grow their own food. The family has a farm outside the city where they raise animals, grow all the vegetables served in the restaurant, and even make their own wine (although I prefer the outside vintners they feature on their menu). Be sure to make a reservation ASAP as they are always booked.
Bottega di Brottolo Ok, I realize that this is Italian food in Hungary but I'm not really a big fan of Hungarian food as before mentioned. And, about 99% of the Italian restaurants in Budapest are owned by Italian chefs who moved to Hungary because his or her wife is Hungarian. When Joshua and I lived there, we knew the former chef, Alessandro. Eating at Bottega di Brottolo was like eating in Alessandro's home, I don't even think he had a menu--you would just show up and he'd cook whatever you liked. He use to let Lola run around the kitchen and forage for scraps. Alessandro taught Joshua and I how to make our own gluten-free pasta and focaccia bread. Unfortunately, Alessandro is no longer there and someone else has taken over. However, our very good friends Jack and Dora, who live in Budapest, tell us that the restaurant is still very good. It's located just off Váci útca, on a small, quiet street.
Fausto's is another great Italian restaurant and another story of how an Italian chef moved to Budapest to follow his Hungarian wife. There are two sides to the restaurant--one is more casual then the other. However, they are both very nice and have similar menus. I suggest going to the more "casual" side as it's still very fancy and just as delicious. There are vegetarian options and they also prepare gluten-free pasta.
Borkonya Wine Kitchen is another farm-to-table restaurant located near the Basilica in the Inner City District. They have a great wine list and sometimes they have vegetarian options, but I would check the menu as it changes seasonally.
KonyvBar has a rotating menu conceptualized from a different book every few weeks. If nothing looks appealing at the time you're there, they have a normal menu as well. The decor resembles a library (konyv means book in Hungarian) but it's well-done and not kitschy. Again the menu rotates with the season, so if you have food allergies or other needs make sure you check their menu in advance. It is located in the old Jewish Quarter.
Mazi Greek Kitchen has delicious, fresh food. The owner is Greek and makes everything homemade. It's close to Parliament in the Leopold District. The price is good, food is great, and the wine selection mediocre. Still, it's one of my favorite places for lunch or dinner and they have lots of vegetarian options.
Sao Food & Bar is owned by a Vietnamese family and the food is authentic, fresh and flavorful. It's located in the old Jewish Quarter.
Onyx is Budapest's first Michelin star restaurant. It's deliciousand very, very pricey. Make a reservation.
Szimply Food is my favorite breakfast place EVER. It's fresh and organic, and the menu changes every month. They have lot's of gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian and non-vegetarian options. It's a small space and tends to get very crowded on the weekend, so be prepared to wait about 20 minutes (totally worth it). There is a great coffee shop, Kontact (re: coffee), owned by the same person just across the courtyard (like 10 steps). You can get a coffee there and wait for a table. Jut mention that you know Lola (my dog) and they'll probably give you special treatment.
CsendesM is my favorite vegan lunch spot in Budapest. I literally ate here five days a week. Their weekend hours change in the summer, but they're usually open Monday-Friday and most Saturdays. Their daily (napi) menu changes every week, so there'sa different special every day. I usually order their daily special as you never know if you'll see it again. It's in a very cute area in the inner city, near Károlyi kert (park). Again, mention Lola's name and you'll at least get a smile. They also have a wine bar and non-vegan restaurant on the other side of the park, with outside seating that's park adjacent. It's a nice place to have a drink, lunch or light dinner.
Slow Foodiez is another great vegetarian/vegan cafe with lots of gluten-free options. It is a bit out of the city center, but not too far.
Ramenka has great ramen and is a good place to go if it's cold. They have gluten-free and vegetarian/vegan options. It's in the old Jewish Quarter just across the street from the Szimpla Kert (Sunday market).
DiVino (by St. Steven's Basilica) has the best view of the Basilica. Sit outside and enjoy a glass or two of wine (their cheese plate is mediocre but satisfies if you're hungry). In the winter there are outside heaters. The wine is good and the ambiance is perfect. I recommend coming here for happy hour or a night cap.
Innio Wine Bar is also very close to the Basilica and better (in general) than DiVino, but does not have a view. It is more pricey than your typical restaurant/bar in Budapest, but it is very good. You can go there for a delicious dinner (albeit L.A. prices in Hungary), or they have a solid cheese plate and extensive wine list.
Tasting Table is a wine shop with wine tastings, they also have cheese plates and other things to nosh on. Be sure to call or email make reservations for a tasting, they may not accommodate you if you show up unannounced. This is a nice, cozy place to go before dinner, as it closes at 8:00pm. It's located in the Józsefváros (or Josefstadt), adjacent to the Inner City District.
360 Bar Definitely recommend going here to watch the sunset. It is a bit bougy, but the view is worth it. Enter on Andrássy útca and take the elevator to the top. I believe there is a cover fee that amounts to a few dollars per person.
Where to stay
Budapest is split into different numbered districts. I recommend staying in one of the central districts on the Pest side (Districts V, VI, VII), so you're close to everything. The Buda side (Districts I & II) is beautiful and charming with its cobblestone streets and the entirety of Castle Hill. But, it's better to spend a day or two in this area rather than stay your entire trip. There are far less restaurants and options for things to do on this side of town.
When Joshua and I were in Budapest, we lived in the Inner City or Belváros neighborhood (District V). Although the area can get quite busy, it's situated on the river and is the most central neighborhood. There are plenty of luxury hotels here and some options for Airbnb apartments. The Four Seasons Hotel is the nicest hotel in the neighborhood and overlooks the river. One of our couple friends stayed at the Aria Hotel next to St. Stephen's Basilica and enjoyed it. It's a beautiful hotel and has a rooftop bar that has views of the Basilica. There is something for everyone in the Belváros neighborhood, you can go the touristy route or find charming cafes and restaurants by wandering off Váci útca and the main drag. Continuing north through District V is Leopold Town (Lipótváros), which is where Parliament is. I recommend staying closer the Basicilia or Belváros proper, as Leopold is not quite as central, although it's one of the nicest neighborhoods in town.
Elizabeth Town (Erzsébetváros), the historic Jewish Quarter (District VII) is always bustling with energy. There are tons of restaurants, street food, cafes, bars and garden pubs. Kazinczy útca is the main hub running through the old Jewish Quarter. It's a bit inland from the Danube River but is still walking distance to a lot of places, especially if you stay on the west side of this district. While it is very lively, it can get loud if you are trying to go to bed at a relatively decent hour. But if you're planning to join the weekend parties, there are some options for Airbnb's here. This area has gone through a major gentrification process, but still looks a bit seedy in some areas.
Theresa Town (Terézváros) District VI has the swankiest shopping street in town. As mentioned above, Andrássy utca is like the Rodeo drive of Budapest. Here you'll find the Opera House and lots of restaurants and nice shops. This area is elegant. It's also adjacent to the old Jewish Quarter and you can take the M1 metro line right to Váci útca street from here, so it is very central.
Here you can find more details regarding the different neighborhoods or districts in Budapest.
And another thing
Budapest is an interesting city with a rich history. It's a great place to start when exploring Eastern Europe. Depending on the length of your trip, I recommend spending 3-5 full days here and then tying in some other neighboring countries and cities such as Prague (6 hour train ride or short flight), Vienna (about a two hour train ride) and/or the coast of Croatia.
There are so many things that I have not included in this city guide, so please feel free to email me with any questions and I'll answer them as best I can.
Bon Voyage or should I say biztonságos utazás!