Being two cities in one makes Budapest twice as good and equal to many of Europe’s more famous travel choices. The combination of stunning riverside views on either side of the Danube, gorgeous thermal baths, quirky ruin bars and some great restaurants make for a perfect weekend destination.
This was my annual trip with the girls and after an easy flight and quick cab ride from the airport our first impression of the Pest side of the city was Brody House. Our home from home for the next few days in Budapest, but not like any home we’d ever known.
An eclectic boutique hotel, it was built in the 19th century and retains all of its original character and style but at the same time is super comfortable and strewn with modern art. It was once home to the Hungarian prime minister when parliament was next door, but latterly was shared by a group of artists. The 11 rooms are named for and feature the work of artists who lived in them, or have collaborated with the hotel’s founders. Mine was huge with a gorgeous throne like sofa.
As soon as we arrived we knew we’d love it. As well as the wonderful bedrooms there’s a series of social rooms to hang out in. One has tea, coffee and water always available and two have honour bars where you help yourself and jot down what you’ve had on a notepad. Tables are scattered throughout the rooms, so it’s where we had breakfast too, in front of large windows overlooking the leafy grounds of the Hungarian National Museum.
To be honest I could write a whole blog post just about Brody House, but I’ll stop there and let you discover it for yourself when you visit Budapest. The only caveat is that the rooms and social area are up two flights of a sweeping staircase and there’s no lift. So if you have a large heavy case you might make slow progress, but I promise it will be worth it.
With a late afternoon arrival we’d had a good breakfast at the airport but missed lunch. So in need of a snack we headed straight out to the Jewish Quarter and Budapest’s most famous ruin bar, Szimpla Kert. It’s less than 10 minutes walk from Brody House so we were perfectly located in a nice quiet area but a short hop to the lively bar and restaurant scene.
Ruin bars emerged in Budapest in the early 2000’s when some clever folk started taking over abandoned buildings and turning them into little known about pop up bars. Fast forward a few years and they started to get more popular and permanent. Now they’re a firm fixture on the Budapest tourist trail.
Szimpla Kert is pretty much the granddaddy of them all and is a vast place filled with all sorts of indoor and outdoor nooks and crannies strung with pretty lights and bric a brac. We found a table and ordered some drinks and what turned out to be some surprisingly good veggie platters. The wine was Hungarian and really nice and set the tone for the trip – there’s no reason to drink anything but local wine when it’s that good. It was also very cheap, which is another great reason to visit Budapest. It’s the first time in years I’ve come home from a city break with spare cash!
And being inexpensive doesn’t mean the quality isn’t good, as we discovered later that evening when we had dinner at Barack and Szilva. The ‘Peach and Pear’ is a bistro style restaurant a few streets over from Szimpla Kert that serves provincial Hungarian food. Everything was delicious and unlike many Hungarian restaurants they have good fish and veggie options. My salmon, catfish and perch brochette was a great choice.
After dinner we headed to the Workshop, a bar and restaurant that is part of the Brodyland ’empire’ in Budapest. It’s a members club about 15 minutes walk from the hotel and as guests we were given passes and a voucher for a complimentary bottle of wine – one for each of our three rooms! It’s a really cool place and once we’d tried out some free wine we of course moved on to some excellent cocktails from the well stocked bar.
The next morning after a leisurely breakfast we decided to tick off some of Budapest’s main sights. Fortunately they are mostly close together and it was only a 20 minute stroll to our first stop, the Basilica of St Stephen. The neoclassical Catholic cathedral sits in a large square and has two bell towers either side of a 96m high dome.
It’s interior is quite dark but there are some stunning golden mosaics on the inside of the dome. The cathedral also houses the nation’s most revered relic – the mummified hand of St Stephen, also known as the Holy Dexter. It’s in a cabinet that you can light up by putting money in a slot and you really can see the hand. A bit creepy to be honest!
A short walk from here is Szabadsag Ter (Liberty Square). The site used to be a huge barracks where Hungarians were imprisoned and executed during the Habsburg rule. Now it’s lined with impressive buildings like the Stock Exchange, National Bank and the US Embassy. It’s also home to monuments which have varied over the years depending on the regime in charge.
The most recent, and probably the most controversial, is the German occupation memorial which shows the archangel Gabriel (symbolising Hungary) being menaced by a Germanic eagle. The Government says it stands for all victims of the occupation, but Jewish groups think it’s about absolving Hungary of responsibility for the Holocaust. As a result there are stacks of photos and messages from families of people killed during that time.
At the other end of the square is the Soviet Army Memorial commemorating the liberation of Budapest from the Nazis. Just behind it is a 2m high statue of former US President Ronald Reagan, erected in recognition of his role in ending the Cold War. People were queuing to have their photo taken with it but we weren’t tempted!
Then comes what must be Budapest’s most impressive building, the Hungarian Parliament. What a stunner. It stretches for 268m along the banks of the Danube river, has a 96m high dome and features highly decorative finials and statues of Hungarian rulers. It’s possible to do a guided tour of the inside, but when I checked a week before we went all of the English tours were booked for the three days we were there. So I’d suggest you book early.
The other impressive sight here is what is on the other side of the river. Directly across from the Parliament building is the Var (Castle Hill), a mile-long plateau in twin city Buda, arguably the older and more dignified sibling of Pest.
We walked along the embankment to visit the Shoes on the Danube sculpture, a memorial to Hungarian Jews shot and thrown into the river by the fascist Arrow Cross Party in 1944. It’s a simple but effective display of cast iron shoes and boots looking discarded on the banks of the river.
A bit further along you start to spot some of the river cruise ships that ply their trade along the Danube and then you reach Szechenyi Chain Bridge. It’s probably the prettiest of Budapest’s many bridges and after crossing it you’re right opposite the Siklo funicular railway which takes you up the hill to the Royal Palace.
The palace is huge and home to the Hungarian National Gallery, four floors of local art from the 11th century to present day. Also here is the Castle Museum and the national library. I’m not much for museums on a short trip, so we just admired the outside of the building and the views back across to Pest.
Instead we walked along to take a look at the stunning Matthias Church and explore Fisherman’s Bastion. The latter looks Gothic with a series of white turrets. It was named after the fishermen who defended this stretch of the castle wall and built as a viewing platform. It does indeed offer fab views, particularly of the Parliament building opposite. You can pay to go to a higher level, but it was hard to see how the views would be any better than from the lower one.
Finding lunch was a bit of a challenge around here because it’s Budapest’s tourist central. Most of the restaurants only offer full meals but we eventually found a friendly cafe, not far from the church, called Tarnok with really nice soup and salads.
On a street just behind here is the Buda Castle Labyrinth, a 1200m network of caves and tunnels which are 16m under the Castle District. They were originally built as cellars and served as bomb shelters too. Now the labyrinth has a random collection of exhibitions from waxwork opera singers to Dracula. It’s good fun wandering around, getting lost and if you’re brave venturing into the part that is in complete darkness. And I mean totally pitch black. We ended up holding onto each other and the walls to find our way through it and back to the light!
After a relaxed period of recovery in the honesty bar at Brody House our Saturday night dinner was at an Italian restaurant. We figured that when in Budapest its not essential to eat Hungarian all the time and it was a great choice. Il Terzo Cerchio is also in the Jewish Quarter in Dohany utca and has a vaulted brick lined ceiling, a great atmosphere and really good food. Our table was on a platform overlooking the restaurant so was our own private space but still in the heart of the action.
On Sunday the relaxation continued with a visit to one of Budapest’s famous thermal baths. There are lots of them to choose from but we decided to go to Szechenyi Baths in City Park. By all accounts the hot-water spring was discovered while a well was being drilled in the late 19th century and I’d guess its one of the biggest baths in Budapest with 15 indoor pools and three outdoor.
We decided to spend all of our time outdoors as it was a dry and mostly sunny day and the baths were so gorgeous. One end has a pool that is 38 degrees C and feels so good on the limbs when you slide in. The pool at the other end is a bit cooler but has a fun lazy river feature. It really pulls you around – it took me two attempts and friend’s help to get out! In the middle of the two is as pool for swimming lengths, but we left that to more energetic souls, we were very happy to just hang out in the warm soothing waters.
The pricing can be a bit confusing as there are signs advertising lots of different packages. But if you go to the cashier’s desk they’ll sell you the basic entry which was just under 6000Ft (around £15). That gets you a wristband with an electronic fob that you can use for a locker. You just look for an open one and use the fob to lock it. You can hire everything you need for your visit, but we took our own swimsuits and flip flops and just hired towels which were 4,000Ft, but you got 2,000Ft back when you returned it. It was the most expensive thing we did in a very cheap city, but well worth it.
After our visit we walked through the park to the exit by Heroes Square. This has a huge Millenary Monument, a 36m high pillar with a golden Archangel Gabriel on top. The collonades behind it feature leaders if Hungary. We also realised it had been the venue for a Bryan Adams concert the night before as the seating was still being taken down.
A few minutes walk from here alongside the park’s lake is the Varosliget Cafe where we headed for lunch. There are tables outside but the money shot was inside as tables overlook the lake and Vajdahunyard Castle. It was modelled on a Transylvanian fortress but looked more like a fairytale castle to me. Oh and the food at the cafe was very good too including some delicious cakes and desserts.
Heroes Square is at one end of Andrassy ut, a lovely tree-lined boulevard with some gorgeous buildings either side, including some that are now in use as foreign embassies. It was a real contrast to the narrow streets of the Jewish Quarter that we’d been spending a lot of time in and perfect for a slow stroll admiring the architecture.
Andrassy ut is also worth a visit to pop into the 360 Bar, a rooftop venue with great views of the city. We went in for a cocktail and stayed for two. The drinks were great and the views of Budapest’s rooftops irresistible.
Our last dinner of the trip was at another great restaurant in the Jewish Quarter – Koleves on Kazinczy utca. We discovered that quite a lot of places close on Sunday evening so this was a great find. An excellent and really interesting Jewish inspired menu with good veggie options.
Afterward we went to Anker’t, one of the ruin bars that opens on Sundays. It’s in a courtyard surrounded, of course, by ruined buildings and has very cool lighting and decor. It felt a bit more sophisticated and appealing for an older crowd than some of the other ruin bars that attract vast numbers of the partygoers we’d seen out and about over the previous two nights.
Our last stop of the evening was Doblo, an excellent brick-lined and cosy wine bar. It’s lit by candles and has some quirky decor (including the lamp in the photo below) as well as a large selection of Hungarian wines to taste.
Monday was our last day but with a late flight we made the most of it. After a sad farewell to our rooms at Brody House we stored the luggage and headed to the Market Hall, about 10 minutes walk south which was a direction we hadn’t ventured into before.
The Nagycsarnok is Budapest’s largest market and a great place to pick up foodie souvenirs like paprika, goose liver (foie gras) and Tokaji wine. On the upper level are lots stalls selling non-food items, so its a good option for finding gifts to take home.
From here we walked to the riverbank to pick up the No 2 tram. It’s an excellent tram to ride as it runs along the Pest embankment past Parliament, offering great views either side of the river. We got off at Jászai Mari Square just before Margaret Island and walked across the bridge and onto the island that lies in the middle of the Danube.
There are a fair few sights to see on the island including the ruins of a church, monastery and convent, an open air theatre and of course a thermal baths. They are mostly at the other end of the 2.5km island and there’s a range of bikes and other wheeled vehicles for hire to get there. But as we didn’t have loads of time we decided to just stick to the main attraction at the bridge end – the Margaret Island Musical Fountain.
On the hour from 10am to 10pm, the fountain dances, spraying water up high in sync with a variety of musical tracks. There are fixed seats so it’s a really nice place to sit, relax and watch the show.
Back on the Pest side of the river we jumped onto the No 2 tram again as far as the Vigado ter stop and went to a restaurant called Kiosk for a late lunch. It’s a cool place inside, but we opted for the large terrace to enjoy our last meal of the long weekend sitting alfresco in the Budapest sunshine. I had their homemade vegetarian Gnocchi with forest mushrooms which was really good.
For dessert we walked five minutes to Gerbeaud, the most famous and probably the grandest cafe and cake shop in Budapest. It was the perfect place to end our trip with tea and a fab selection of delicious cakes before heading to the airport.
Budapest more than lived up to expectations and I left feeling like there’s plenty to go back for. Those two cities in one definitely offer double the fun and great value for money.
Click on an image below to scroll through more photos in the gallery and visit the Europe section of my blog for other great city break ideas.