In all honesty, I’m not the most unbiased person in the world when it comes to Budapest, the capital city of Hungary; my Mom’s side of the family is Hungarian and I am also the proud holder of a Hungarian passport. So proud, in fact, that I often declare Budapest to be the most impressive city in all of Europe.
I’m not entirely unqualified to make this claim, either. I lived in Europe for many years, and called a few of its cities, including rival Vienna, home. Also- I never technically lived in Budapest, either. I made its (ugly) stepsister, Miskolc, my home, but that’s really a story for another day.
So here’s the thing: Budapest certainly isn’t undiscovered. You WON’T be the only Yankee in town. But the city is changing and evolving in ways that are so unbelievably exciting, and it still blows my mind that people still opt to travel to cities like Vienna and Prague over Budapest.
Not that it’s a competition, or anything.
But let me tell you why Budapest is best, and why it needs to be your next European city break trip:
It’s historical and beautiful
Of course, I have to kick off with the fact that Budapest is beautiful. It has everything you expect from a European capital (and so much more): incredible architecture, castles, churches and synagogues like whoa, vistas to take your breath away, regal boulevards and charming side streets. The best part is, it’s all pretty walkable, in about a weekend’s worth of time, you can hit all the top sights. Aside from the usual stops, like the Parliament, Fisherman’s Bastion, Heroes Square and Andrassy Avenue, I recommend you check out Momento Park, the place in town where all the old Soviet statues were taken to. It’s strange and weird and totally worth it.
Craft wine, beer, palinka
Hungary is home to some of Europe’s oldest wineries, and though taking a trip out to the wineries is definitely a worthwhile experience in and of itself, you can taste all the wines, and then some, in Budapest. Especially of interest are the wines you won’t find anywhere else, like Egri Bicaver, a bold red, Furmint, a refreshing fruity and rich white and Tokaj Aszu, the original sweet dessert wine (ice wine). The craft beer scene is also really burgeoning, with bars focusing solely on craft brews from all over the country (try Szimpla Kert and Jónás Craft Beer House). And of course, the palinka! Palinka is essentially Hungarian for schnapps, and as you’ll learn from a visit to Hungary, locals are very passionate about it–ask for your server’s recommendation wherever you go.
It’s still relatively cheap
I mean, it’s not as cheap as SE Asia or anything, but compared to say London or Paris, a visit to Budapest still comes at a bargain. Many of the city’s top sights are completely free of charge to visit, food is generally reasonably priced and there’s a whole slew of beautiful modern hotels (like Lavender Circus) and centrally located airbnbs to choose from.
Quirky and interesting nightlife in ruin pubs
Budapest most certainly pioneered the concept of ruin pubs (Romkocsma, in Hungarian), or formerly doomed buildings—old cinemas, car parks and apartment buildings — that have been turned into quirky, strangely trendy bars and hangouts. It’s kind of like Eastern Europe meets Brooklyn, or something like that. You can’t come to Budapest and not visit a ruin pub; they’ve become modern local institutions. I like Fogas Ház (a former dentist’s office, now a ruin pub, artist studio and bike shop), Instant (huge; a former apartment building) and Mazel Tov (in the former Jewish neighborhood with a beautiful courtyard).
It’s Europe, but it’s not
Hungarians absolutely consider themselves Europeans, as they should, because geographically they are. But years of history on the wrong side of the iron curtain and ancient ancestors from the Ural mountains of Mongolia mean that Hungarians are just a bit different. To me, it’s as if someone took the charm of European life and mixed it with the spice of Middle Eastern and Asian life; that’s what you’ll get in Hungary and Budapest.
Great coffee, too
The coffee culture in Budapest goes way back to the 16th century, and really flourished in the 1800s, when the city’s intelligentsia would meet over a cup in one of the city’s regal cafes to talk life and politics. If you want to experience the old world charm of some of Budapest’s oldest cafes, head to Gerbeaud, Central Kávéház or New York Kávéház. For more of the modern feel, check out Espresso Embassy, for its unusual industrial design, or Coffee Shop 64, mostly for its very high quality brews.
Thermal baths for days
Hungary is home to over 1,000 natural hot springs, which the Romans capitalized on during their time in the area, and then the Turkish expanded on even more- I would go so far as to say you haven’t visited Budapest and Hungary if you haven’t spent time in one of its thermal baths. Part history lesson, part cultural excursion (no matter how well you prepare, I’m sure something will have you laughing), this is definitely the best way to experience modern and historical Budapest. Szechenyi and Gellert are the most picturesque but also touristy, Kiraly is one of the oldest (16th century) and Rudas has the best views of the river.
Hungarians are really awesome people
Seriously though–Hungarians have a certain raw-ness to them that may at first be tough for an outsider to swallow (they won’t hold back telling you that you’ve gained weight, for example, and if you ask them how their day is going, don’t expect the requisite “great!” in response–nope, in Hungary, they’ll tell you like it is). The flip side of this of course, is a genuine humanity that’s really hard to find these days, and an overall good-feeling. Young people are, generally speaking, good English speakers, so you won’t run into communication issues, either.
The best flea markets and thrift stores
As you’ll soon notice in Budapest, the city has a style that’s very much its own, and the flea markets and thrift stores here make for a really fun time treasure hunting. As far as markets go, Ecseri Market should be your first stop, though admittedly you have to be in the right mood, and it can be very hit or miss. The Gozsdu Weekend Market is a bit more curated and located in one the city’s most trend-setting neighborhoods. For stores, check out Szputnyik for a mix of modern and vintage or Retrock for vintage with a some selection of goods from modern, local designers.
THE BEST food in all of Europe
Hungarian food is really quite different from other European cuisines, mostly because the signature ingredient, paprika, makes its way into nearly every dish. And though traditionally, Hungary’s food is pork-forward (back when I lived in Hungary and would tell waiters I don’t eat meat or cheese, they would frown and then offer me chicken), thankfully, things are changing. 827 Speciality Kitchen serves a vegan buffet with variants on classic Hungarian foods, Great Bistro has the best smoothies, juices and coffees with nut milk. Napfenyes Restaurant and Pastry Shop is a must-stop for pastries and Tökmag Vegan Street Food is also delicious. Just a note- Hungarians refer to being a vegetarian as being “vega,” which can be confusing because it sounds like vegan but certainly doesn’t mean it! Make sure to clarify that you’re “vega” and you also don’t eat dairy.
Expert tip: stay longer and venture further afield
Rural Hungary is also a real treat that’s definitely worth your time and extending your trip. The Tokaj region is like Hungary’s own version of Tuscany, with castles, hikes, wine cellars and (of course) delicious wines. Balaton, Europe’s largest and brightest colored lake, is also surrounded by vineyards, charming small towns and great getaways. If you’re a biker, the bike route around the lake will take you about 2 days, but it’s a really lovely one.
Have you been to Budapest? Or are you now planning on adding it to your list?
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Photo: Irina Vishnevskaya; 827 Kitchen