Budapest was always on top of my Europe bucket-list. Planning it out with my best friend in 2014, we had chalked out everything from the flights to the accommodation, what to see, where to eat – everything. It was some rigorous pen-and-paper research (READ THESIS) and we took it very seriously. But then, life doesn’t always go as planned. Work took over, building a career and securing enough funds to travel became more important, and one after the other new priorities went up the list. One thing led to the other, I got married and she recently moved to another country. So the much-anticipated girls trip to Budapest did not happen.
Jumping a few years forward to October 2018; the travel itch returned and we decided to soothe it with an overseas trip that was easy on the budget and big on experiences. Deciding where to go was a major task! It was then that “he” (the man who switches between the roles of being a life partner and travel bud) mentioned Europe and instantly, the memories of Budapest-travel-research project came back rushing. And the rest is history.
Five months of thorough research, planning, and budgeting later, the much-awaited Euro Trip finally happened with Budapest as the highlight!
Here’s everything I want to tell you about it. (Please be patient with me. There is so much to share!)
A Brief Background
The city of statues and bridges, ballrooms and synagogues, wines and goulash, Budapest is a melting pot of cultures. The capital of Hungary, a country that has always been smack in the middle of the whirlwind, be it wars, trade, or invasions, Budapest has seen a lot of communities flourish under its skies. And that’s one reason why you can find everything from Turkish baths to Gothic cathedrals proudly standing in its soil.
After the end of communism in Hungary in 1989, Budapest left everyone awe-struck with its charm. It embraced everyone from everywhere with open arms and warm smiles.
Today, it is one of the most visited cities in Europe, the Paris of East, – and that for all the right reasons.
Nourished by the curvy Danube river, the Hungarian capital is split into two; Pest – the plain right bank and Buda – the hilly left bank. While the former is the administrative county, the latter is more residential and less touristy.
In addition to the hills, the river, and the plains, there are three beautiful islands on the Danube within Budapest. Of which, Margaret Island is a major tourist attraction and holds historical significance.
And that’s not all. Budapest is the only capital in the world that sits over 125 thermal springs. Formed by these springs, the city is known for its incredible cave system that was used for invasions and wars back in time.
Hills, plains, a beautiful river, caves, hot springs, and islands, all packed in Budapest’s 525 square kilometers of territory – I’ll call it an urban P A R A D I S E.
What to See
Budapest is perfect for everyone; any type of traveller or tourist, a history buff, an architecture geek, a party animal, a food lover or a nature enthusiast.
We started our trip with a free walking tour. Now, this is probably the best and the cheapest way to get acquainted with the city. There are a lot of travel agencies that run these walking tours led by an experienced guide in groups of 15 to 20 people. All tours leave from Budapest Eye on Erzsébet square. As the tour is free, you don’t have to pay anything except for a small tip at the end. Here’s the one we chose>> Free Budapest Walking Tour – The Original Walk.
The walk took us from the center of Pest to the main site in Buda. We covered the St. Stephen’s Basilica, Gresham Palace, Academy of Hungarian Sciences, Chain Bridge, Matthias Church, Fisherman’s Bastion, and Danube Promenade in three hours of time.
I like to travel slow. So, skipping an attraction only to feel the city more closely is something that comes naturally. And that was the idea behind this short 7-day trip to Budapest.
During the length of a full week, we got a chance to visit House of Terror, the Szcheneyi Bath, Heroes Square, Vajdahunyad Castle, Gellert Hill, Central Grand Market, Vaci Street, New York Cafe, Deak Square, Citadel, Dohany Synagogue, Keleti Train Station, and Shoes on the Danube.
There are a lot of other cathedrals and museums that you can check out if you have more time.
Being quite centric in terms of its location, you can do some great day trips from Budapest. We went to this small town of Tihany on the banks of Lake Balaton, which took us about two hours by train. The transport network throughout Hungary is quite adept so you can easily do a full-day trip if you leave early in the day.
The memories of Tihany are still fresh. We’ve tagged it as the best part of our trip to Budapest. (More deets to come later!)
Bath Culture in Budapest
Owing up the Turkish invasion of Hungary, the bath culture dates back to the 16th century. While the Turks left, this culture flourished. Today, you can find several traditional and urban bath houses in Budapest. Locals and tourists, alike, can be seen enjoying these historical treasures.
The most famous bath houses in Budapest are:
- Gellert Baths: Built in 1918, Gellert Baths are the most beautiful and are admired for the stunning Art Nouveau architecture. While the windows showcase stained glasses, the walls and floors are adorned with mosaic tiles. This famous bath house is on the Buda side of the city.
- Rudas Baths: Tracing its establishment back to 1500s, Rudas Bath is the oldest of its kind. The original Turkish dome and the octagonal pool is still intact here.
- Szechenyi Baths: This is the one that we went to. It is the largest bath house in Budapest with 18 pools set to different temperatures. In addition to outdoor pools, they have saunas and indoor thermal pools. We did see a lot of people opting for the special beer spa. On Saturdays, Szechenyi hosts a unique party called “Sparty” that starts in the evening and goes late into the night.
If you do not have a lot of days in Budapest, spending an evening at Szechenyi is sufficient to experience the bath culture. If you do have a lot of time, explore as many bath houses as you can. All these baths have various thermal pools at temperatures ranging between 70ºF to 106ºF.
Some other bath houses that you can try are Lukacs Bath, Kiraly Bath, and Irgalmasok Veli Bej
Where to Stay
I did some mind-numbing research to choose a place to stay. As Budapest is big on tourism there are a lot of hotels, hostels, BnBs, and homestays here.
Location really matters. The city is divided into 23 districts. It is always recommended to stay in the city center i.e. any of the districts V, VI or VII on the Pest side. If you would like to save some money and experience the city up close, you can choose the Buda side.
I chose an Airbnb accommodation after two months of hunting down almost every other travel site on the Internet. This studio apartment was in district VIII, which is just across the street from district VII. It was just behind Novotel hotel, so not far from all the action yet in a peaceful location.
What to Eat
When it comes to Hungarian cuisine, it consists of a variety of soups, meats, and cheese; most of which are not for the light-hearted. Some of our favourites along with the places where you can find them are as follows:
- Langos: This is basically what we call “bhatura“ in India. Langos is fried dough topped with sour cream and cheese. We found the best version at the Great Market Hall. They have several variations and you can choose your own toppings.
- Goulash: As a national dish of Hungary, this is something you must try. There are some restaurants where you can have the vegan version but typically it is made of chunks of meats and vegetables infused with a dash of paprika. Wondering where to get the best goulash in Budapest? Try Gettó Gulyás in the Jewish Quarter.
- Chicken Paprikash: This is a creamy chicken dish made in paprika sauce and sour cream, which is best served with dumplings or pasta. You should try this at the Great Market Hall and Paprika Étterem.
- Chimney Cakes: Known as street cakes, this is a winter treat to try in Budapest. Originally known as kürtőskalács is a pastry filled with cream. You can top these up with ice-cream, strawberry or chocolate. Grab one from the nearest stall while you take a stroll around the city. I loved the ones Hoppácska at Ráday Street.
- Rántott Sajt: Fried cheese, yummmm! (Still makes my mouth water.) It is just as simple as it sounds. Try this at Kis Kapucinus.
There are a lot of other dishes that you should sink your teeth into but don’t miss out the ones mentioned above.
Where to Eat
I’m listing out a few places that you should try in this beautiful city.
- Szimpla Kert: Szimpla is the most famous ruin bar that is a cafe by the day and pub by the night. Their special cherry brew is something you must try.
- Instant: The biggest run bar in Budapest has about 6 bars, 2 gardens, and 3 dance floors where you can party the night away.
- Karavan Budapest: Just next to Szimpla Kert, Karavan is a street food market where you can get delicious budget-friendly meals. You’ll find fried chicken, goulash, chimney cakes, soups, sandwiches, and burgers here.
- New York Cafe: World’s most beautiful cafe, this place is an architectural marvel. The cafe has lived through many eras and political systems. The chandeliers, murals, and aesthetics spell nothing but luxury. The apple pie, sponge cake, and hot chocolate were my favourites here. (The best hot chocolate I’ve had so far).
- For Sale Pub: Not just for the food, you should visit this unique pub for its brilliant concept. This Budapest bar allows the customers to leave their feedback on paper and sticks it to the walls, ceilings, and the floor. I loved the ambiance and the staff was great.
- Old Street Cafe and Restaurant: We came across this lovely restaurant on the last day of our stay. And it turned out the best place we ate at. Just opposite the Great Market Hall in the Fovam Ter, this place offers the best salads and pizzas along with a variety of mains.
If you have tried or will try any of these, do let me know your experience in the comments.
Budapest can be best explored on foot. However, like other European cities, Budapest has a brilliant public transport network, which comprises of trains, trams, subway, buses, and taxis. I would highly recommend you to use the trams and subways for the city exploration. If you are planning to go on day trips, buses and trains should be your pick.
About the taxis, honestly, I’m not a big fan. Chances of being ripped off are really high if you hail an unauthorized taxi on the road. The only time you should take a government authorized taxi is while transferring to and from the airport; that too if you have a lot of luggage. For those who like to travel light, there are special airport shuttles and bus services to the city.
The coolest part of public transport is the ticketing system. You’ll find these ticket vending machines near tram stations and subways. They are easy to operate as the machines accept both cash and card (in case you’re wondering). You can buy a single ticket, a block of 10 tickets, 24-hour travel card, 72-hour travel card or a 7-day travel card based on your requirements.
You can also buy the Budapest Card, which offers free entry to a number of tourist attractions, discounted entry, and free public transport. Get this from the nearest tourist information center or you can buy it online.
When to Go
Summer is always the peak season to visit any European city. However, I feel the onset of spring is a better time. With lesser crowds and pleasant weather, you can explore the city closely. Somewhere around the mid of March is when I would recommend planning your travels.
If you want to experience the festive side of Budapest, Easter and Christmas are good times to visit (only if you can bear the cold in December).
(Note: Always carry an umbrella, especially if you follow my lead and visit in the month of March. The weather is beautiful but unpredictable!)
Let’s Talk Budget
Hungary is cheaper than its Western counterparts. The currency, Hungarian Forint (HUF), is weaker than the Indian Rupee (INR). That makes it a strong candidate for your first budget-friendly Europe trip.
Let’s look at the numbers.
Airfare: A round-trip from New Delhi to Budapest will cost you about INR 35K per person. Use Skyscanner to check the cheapest dates and the airlines that offer the best deals. (Consider checking flights operated by Finnair and Qatar for an excellent experience at a reduced cost). You may come across a lot of cheaper flights by Aeroflot and Ukraine International Airlines as well.
Accommodation: Hostels are the cheapest. Hotels are expensive. Airbnbs land somewhere in between those two. The latter has always been my go-to. An Airbnb apartment for 6 nights in the districts VII or VIII will set you back by INR 18K-20K. If you look closely, you can find cheaper options.
Transport: If you are in Budapest for a week, the 7-day travel card will help you save a lot on the transport. It costs about INR 1.2K. For travelling outside the city, the fare varies. A round-trip to Tihany by train will cost you about INR 1.5K.
Food: There’s no fixed number that I can give you. It depends on how much of a food lover you are. On average, eating out at a fancy restaurant will cost you about INR 3.5K. If you choose to make your own breakfast, eat lunch at a nice restaurant, and finish off the dinner at McDonald’s (or a take-out) with wine or beer from TESCO, you can easily limit your food expenses to INR 2K per day.
Entry-fee for Tourist Attractions: While a lot of attractions in Budapest are free, you may have to shell out some entry fee for tourist attractions like Dohany Synagogue, House of Terror, and the thermal baths.
Shopping and Souvenirs
Cheese, paprika, wine, hand-crafted porcelain, herbal liqueur, Hungarian shirts, and fridge-magnets are really the only souvenirs that I would recommend you to buy from Hungary. The prices vary from very cheap to not worth the price. The shopping expenses are really your call to make. I feel you can easily get some small souvenirs for friends and family within a budget of INR 5K.
The crux is that 7-day trip to Budapest can easily be nailed in a budget of INR 70K. You can make it cheaper by choosing hostels over an Airbnb. Good hostels will always offer free breakfast, which again translates into more savings!
Budapest is mesmerizing. It’ll cast a solid spell on you, making you want to stay in the city forever. Everything from the architecture to the people, everything, is worth admiring. It is the kind of cities that you want to go back to again and again. This seven-day trip to Budapest was like an orientation session for me. Its trance worked so well that I will always have a tether bound to its streets, pulling me to return one day. And not just Budapest, the entire Hungarian region is full of beauty and magic waiting to be tapped into.
To sum it up, I would really like you to LISTEN TO THIS. This says everything that I wanted to if I have missed out anything!
If you have been to Budapest, please share your experiences in the comments below. For others, I will be happy to answer your questions, suggest places to eat and grab a beer, and craft your itineraries – you know where to reach me!