Throughout Hungary, the vestiges of Ottoman and communist rules can be found on the same block. Castles stand staunchly and thermal baths pool beside concrete Soviet monuments, overlooking the graves of 20th-century writers and medieval poets. Döner kebabs, bockwurst, and cheeses are peddled side by side, while Budapest locals frequent Turkish bathhouses.
But Hungary’s real draw may be the freewheeling youth and a relentless drive toward the modern. Streets are packed with hip hangouts and their patrons exude a vehemently chill attitude, making this city one of the best student urban destinations in Europe. And even though the locals might be too cool for school, they do appreciate a tenacity to learn about their culture. So make the effort and immerse yourself in all that is Hungary, with endless plates of goulash, sleepless nights at ruin pubs, and countless cups of coffee with some newfound friends.
Perhaps the single most underrated city in Europe, Budapest is a town for lovers and dreamers. It’s a place where the grocery store clerk will chat you up even if he can’t understand a word you’re saying, a land where ruins become late-night bastions for beer-swilling hipsters, where people flock to museums until three in the morning, and where every building has its own character, name, and color. Nowhere else can you play chess with half-naked old men in the warm waters of a Turkish bath. You might be hard-pressed to find a picture comparable to one taken at sunset from Fisherman’s Bastion on the top of the Gothic Parliament, whose dangerously honed spires melt under the fairy tale-blue hue of the sky.
A walk on Margaret Island makes you feel as if you’ve stumbled upon a rainforest oasis, while a stroll down Andrássy út, with its tree-lined walkway of purple and yellow flowers, leads you to one of the most towering monuments in Europe: the Millennial Monument, around which people once stood with candles in their hands to form a giant, blazing peace sign.
In the years since Hungary entered the European Union and money began to flow into the once severely impoverished nation, Budapest has become a city under constant repair and reconstruction; the result is a city of juxtaposition. Modern, newly erected buildings stand alongside ancient, 18th-century structures whose crumbling façades become endearing rather than appalling. Perhaps what makes the city most remarkable is that rather than concealing the scars and scabs left by its bloody history, Budapest bears them to the world like the proud warrior that it is.
Belváros, District V
Belváros holds the best and worst of what Budapest has to offer. Wide streets packed with tourist traps like Váci utca merge and intertwine with back alleys filled with crowded pubs and dimly lit restaurants to which locals possessively slink. Every city has its Belváros, where “insert city name here” is emblazoned on bags blowing from metal hooks on street carts; unlike every other city, though, Budapest’s tourist trap district is just as popular with locals as it is with visitors.
From Erzsébet tér, the northern city park filled with Tony Hawk wannabes and teens in ripped black everything, to the southern terminus of Grand Market Hall (a testament to capitalism if there ever was one), to the western shimmering border of the Danube, Belváros is a laid-back district of over-priced real estate with a heart to fill it. After a night of partying in Erzsébetváros or antiquing in Lipótváros, Belváros quietly stands with wide boulevards and hushed coffeehouses, welcoming those whose aim is the aesthetic.
Lipotvaros, District V and XIII
Lipótváros includes parts of District V and XIII, beginning after Arany János utca, adjacent to Belváros, and continuing along the river past Margit Island. This neighborhood boasts the majestic Parliament Building, with its Gothic spires overlooking the island, as well as the hand of God (or at least St. Stephen’s mummified one) in St. Stephen’s Basilica near the south. Between these two competing landmarks lies the ironically-named Liberty Square, nestled between the locked-and-guarded American embassy and Budapest’s Wall Street. Lipótváros also extends into Budapest’s former factory district. While not much attracts the average tourist past Margit Bridge, the more adventurous will find a few hidden treasures nestled between the towering residential complexes.
Erzsebetvaros, District VII
After hearing that the largest synagogue in the world lies in New York City, you’d probably think that the second-largest place of worship for the Jewish people would be in Israel. Nope. It’s in the center of Pest, in domed and towered splendor, heralding the western entrance to the city’s Jewish district: Erzsébetváros. Just south of the bourgeoisie’s domain, Terézváros, this district is carpeted in kosher delis, Torah education centers, and two of the city’s most famous theaters: Madrach and Magyar Szinhaz. However, the district’s rich, Semitic cultural tradition isn’t what brings most young travelers to its newly renovated streets. No, the big draw is the thread of ruin pubs stitched betweenAndrassy utca and Rakoczi utca, including Szimpla Kert, rated by £Lonely Planet users as the third best bar in the world.
Terezvaros, District VI
Perhaps the busiest district in Budapest, Terézváros is home to an international train station, corporate offices, giant supermarkets, import stores, and the most globally diverse selection of dining opportunities you’ll find in the city. The district’s main draw is Andrássy út, which runs north to south from Heroes’ Square to the State Opera House. The area near Andrássy út intersecting Hajós utca boasts some of the city’s coolest new ruin pubs, while Liszt Ferenc tér, a few blocks from the Oktogon (a surprisingly descriptive cognate), offers outstanding budget eateries, from Hungarian canteen-style joints to fancier sit-down places. As in most cases, a busier environment means more commotion, and while there’s no reason to fret on an average day, heed the area around the train station and the Oktogon for pickpockets, peddlers, and obnoxious drunks—even during daylight hours.
Jozsefvaros, District VIII
Bordering the fancy Belváros district to the west and just south of Erzsébetváros, the Józsefváros district has never been known for its glam or historical edification. Rather, up until a few years ago, it was known for its homeless population, prostitution, and dicey sex shops. Ever since the installation of public cameras, Józsefváros has metamorphosed into a district that now has some of the city’s friendliest parks and squares, a fantastic artist community, the Budapest film school, and the gorgeous National Museum building. Take a stroll down the northern boundary of Rakoczi út or enjoy the west side of Muzeum körut for a dose of new charm. You will also be hard-pressed to find a young local who doesn’t recommend this area for its underground nightlife.
Ferencvaros, District IX
Similar to Józsefváros, Ferencváros is an up-and-coming district with newly renovated Baroque buildings and winding cobblestone streets. The past few years of city rehabilitation projects have left the inner half-circle of the district (the area contained between Ferenc körút and the Danube) looking freshly polished, albeit a bit empty. As the renovated areas became prettier, they also became more expensive, forcing previous dwellers to move to communities outside of the boulevard, where dilapidated buildings and streets with homeless people are still the norm. The main attraction for tourists in this part of town is Ráday utca, a small pedestrian street lined with restaurants and bars. While it can be an enjoyable place to dine in the evening hours, strict district codes that force establishments to close their doors at midnight leave the nightlife seekers at a bit of a loss.
The Varosliget City Park
After walking through Budapest’s seemingly endless matrix of Neo-Baroque, Neo-Classical, and Art Nouveau architecture, the Városliget will quench your thirst for greenery. Located in the northeastern corner of the urban sprawl, you can bathe yourself in history in Heroes’ Square (located at the entrance of the park) or in art at one of the two national museums flanking the plaza; you can also literally bathe in one of the most famous spa complexes in Europe, smack dab in the middle of the park.
If you’re awash with cash, there are plenty of high-falutin’ restaurants that have poured attention upon popes, queens, and pop stars; if the money flow has dried up, you can still stop by Kertem, a somewhat hidden outdoor pub in the southern corner. But if you are thirsting for serenity, merely let the sun swish through the trees like water through your fingers, and enjoy the scenery of the park for free.
Varhegy, Central Buda, and the Vizivaros
These three adjacent districts are Buda’s most attractive neighborhoods and include Castle Hill, the famous Chain Bridge, and some of the city’s most authentic Hungarian restaurants. It’s easy to spend a whole day perusing the cobblestone streets of Castle Hill, marveling at the views, and learning about Hungarian art at the National Gallery. For the adventurous traveler, we recommend taking a bus from Margit Bridge, which winds through the Buda hills and behind the castle, for some unofficial sightseeing among the palatial abodes of the wealthy Rózsadomb neighborhood.
Gellért Hegy: Gellért Hill
As you cross Erzsébet Hid from Pest into Buda, you’ll appreciate just how hard Gellért Hegy would be to besiege. Composed of dramatically jutting volcanic rock and carpeted in dense forest, the hill is Budapest’s one-stop-totally-free-shop for snapping city-wide shots. Climb up spidery paths from Hotel Gellért on the south side (and stop at the cave churches on the way up), or approach from the north for a more gradual sloping climb past a waterfall and statue to the hill’s namesake, St. Gellért. Once you reach the top, the Citadella and Liberty Monument will greet you in stark military splendor, flanked by the Greek gods Marathon and Hercules. You’ll wish you had those gods’ strength after the arduous climb.
Margit-Sziget Margaret Island
Named after a girl sent to a convent, Margaret Island is both beatified and beautiful. With a thick, woodsy scent enveloped by the quiet swish of the Danube, this 2km long island is the locals’ version of the Városliget and is conveniently located smack-dab between Buda and Pest. In the morning, you can join the quiet padding of runners’ feet on the springy 5km trail that loops around the island or soak in the palatial Palatinus baths on the western side. In the afternoon, stop by the ruins and the Musical Fountain to the north, then repose in a grassy field while watching Hungarian youth play any number of games.
It’s a cliché reserved for advertisements to state that “X has something for everyone.” But Budapest actually does.
Belváros: University Church
University Square is accented by the glowing orange Baroque architecture of University Church, built in 1725. Pauline monks spent 17 years constructing and then perfecting every nook and cranny of the church while hiding valuable goblets and costumes in the cupboards lining the interior. This somewhat-secret chapel is located between rows of tall buildings and several streets up from the main downtown tourist area, but its darkish Roman Catholic symbolism is worth a visit. Contemplate life in one of the pews, but don’t take it too easy—the backs have a jutting piece of wood on the top to keep you at attention.
Lipótváros: Országház (Parliament) Government Building
“The motherland does not have a house,” lamented Hungarian poet Mihály Vörösmarty in 1846. Built in response to the growing sense of Hungarian nationalism during the period, this palatial Gothic revival building looks more like a set from The Lord of the Rings than a seat of government. Interestingly enough, during Communist times, a red star was placed on top of the building to make it slightly higher than the top of St. Stephen’s Basilica, but the star was removed after the change to democracy. Take a guided tour to gaze admiringly upon a symbol of another dead political regime: the original Holy Crown of Hungary.
Lipótváros: Saint Stephen’s Basilica (Szent István Baziliká ) Church
Completed in 1905 after 50 years of construction, this towering monument and its majestic cupola smile on Budapest’s Wall Street. The red-green marble and gilded interior attracts both local worshippers and gaping tourists who come to see the Panorama Tower—the highest 360-degree view of the city. After you take in the glorious view, go down to the church and notice that the statue of Jesus at the front altar looks more like St. Stephen than the Nazarene. Not surprisingly, the basilica’s most prized treasure is the eponymous saint’s mummified right hand, and Roman Catholicism’s long history of relic-worship hasn’t changed much: a 200Ft donation will illuminate the relic for two minutes.
Erzsébetváros: Gozsdu Udvar Walkway
If it wasn’t for the continual, meandering stream of people emanating from a normal-looking apartment complex, you’d walk right past this 200m-long secret passageway of bars, cafes, and shops. Mere capitalism, however, isn’t the only thing to be savored under the breezy archways—live music and comedy shows create an equally cool ambience during the summer.
Erzsébetváros: Synagogue and Jewish Museum
The largest synagogue in Europe and the second-largest in the world, Pest’s Great Synagogue (Zsinagóga) was built in 1859 and heavily damaged during WWII when the Nazis used it as a radio base during the Siege of Budapest. Today it stands as the gloriously desert-rose colored, onion-domed place of worship guarding the city’s Jewish district. The post-war reconstruction isn’t the only beautiful thing about the synagogue—an enormous metal weeping willow called the Tree of Life stands in the courtyard as a stunning Holocaust memorial. Next door, the Jewish Museum (Zsidó Múzeum), built at the birthplace of Zionist Theodor Herzel, displays Budapest’s most prominent Jewish artifacts.
Terézváros: Andrássy út Boulevard
Budapest’s Champs-Élysées, Andrássy út extends from Erzsébet tér northeast to Heroes’ Square (Hősök tér) and the Városliget. Once the headquarters for the Nazi and Communist regimes, this street now stands as tribute to the arts, with the Hungarian State Opera House and statues waxing rhapsodic to national hero, Franz Liszt. While the M1 line runs directly under the boulevard, it would be a shame to skip the 30min. walk above ground, which takes you past rows of UNESCO-preserved buildings as well as a litany of excellent dining options and even fancier fashion establishments.
Terézváros: Eiffel Ter Grassy Knoll
No assassinations have occurred around this brand-spanking new nook next to the train station, although you might still see a few budding tourists/Zapruders snapping shots of the fountains and beautiful, velvety greenery. Recently transformed from a parking lot to a grassy knoll for reading and lounging, the area is enhanced by its location between the dramatic architecture of the Nyugati rail station and an equally dramatic, modern office building that rents ground floor spaces out to cafes and bars. A terrace also hosts nightlife activities.
Terézváros: Nyugati Palyaudvar Railway Station
This railway station is smaller than its eastern cousin, though it has the advantage of being in a neighborhood you’ll actually want to visit. The building was designed and built by the Eiffel Co., though it turned out notably less phallic than the company’s Parisian masterpiece. If you’re itching to explore the rest of the country and region, this station is the hub for several intra-Hungary train routes as well as a few toward Austria, but if you’re planning on staying put, the station itself is a beautiful, Baroque construction connected to the most lavish McDonald’s you’ll ever see.
The Városliget: Hősök Tere (Heroes’ Square) Monument
Spanning the space of a stadium, Heroes’ Square is a flat construction of white stone that can get super hot on a summer’s day. However, surrounding this bizarre field marauding tourist groups are some of Budapest’s greatest landmarks. The Millennium Monument commemorates both the supernatural and the human: the pillar in its center is topped by the Archangel Gabriel, while the base is surrounded by the seven chieftains said to be the leaders of the Magyar tribes that settled the Carpathian Basin. On the left side of the square stands the Museum of Fine Arts, and on the right stands the Palace of Art (quite flattering that art is considered so heroic, no?).
The Városliget: Széchenyi Fürdő (Széchenyi Bath & Spa)
Tourists and locals flock to this sprawling bath complex in droves in order to relax in the swimming pool, take the cure (the water contains a cocktail of minerals that would make a Long Island Iced Tea jealous), or shock their systems by jumping in and out of thermal baths. With chess matches between grizzled elders and young up-and-comers scattered amid the bath’s startlingly gorgeous neo-Baroque visage, Széchenyi is the perfect place to rest your body and your eyes alike.
Varhegy, Central Buda, and Vizivaros: Royal Palace Museum
After being occupied by the Ottomans, crusaded by the Christians, and rented by the Revolutionaries, you’d think that the royal residence would have been allowed a reprieve after rehabilitation in the late 19th century. But after the Nazis came (and went), you can imagine what the Communists thought of the Royal Palace’s lavishness. Despite its trying past, today the palace serves as the holder of all things Hungarian as the site of the National Gallery, the National History Museum (which includes a rather moving collection of artists’ portraits of the palace), and even a public library. However, for those not interested in the castle’s more dusty legacies, the flowering courtyards, fountains, and positively panoramic views of Pest provide ample value for no cost at all.
Varhegy, Central Buda, and Vizivaros: Halászbástya (Fisherman’s Bastion) Monument
It is said that a man called Jesus Christ of Nazareth once provided fish for 5000 people; since then, the outcropping of a castle wall called Fisherman’s Bastion has provided photos for a lot more than 5000 tourists. While bastions were originally built to give castle defenders more visibility to shoot at the advancing hordes, this one has about as much defensive capability as the Magic Kingdom’s Cinderella Castle—and looks just like it, too. But you’re not here to preserve your empire—just your money—so make the climb at sunset or nightfall to gaze down upon the river without paying the daytime fee. Then again, you might just see some falconry if you pass by under the scourge of the sun.
Varhegy, Central Buda, and Vizivaros: Matthias Church (Mátyás Templom)
Electric blue, neon orange, and earthy brown wouldn’t intuitively make for the most aesthetic color palette, but the diamond-shaped tiles on the roof of continuously-photographed Matthias Church exceed expectations. After a brief stint as a mosque during the 16th and 17th centuries (during which the interior was gutted and white-washed), the church suffered further during its reconstruction at the hands of an ambitious nobody.
We say nobody because history rarely rewards failure, and it wasn’t until the 19th century that Frigyes Schulek procured some ancient plans and rebuilt the church in Neo-Gothic style in the flash of a tourist’s camera (23 years, more specifically, but that’s pretty remarkable for a church). Teeter up the spiral staircase to visit The Museum of Ecclesiastical Art if you think relic precedes angelic; if you believe all that glitters is not gold, go outside and take a photograph (the park directly south of the church is slightly elevated and an excellent spot to snap a shot).
Varhegy, Central Buda, and Vizivaros: Széchenyi Chain Bridge (Széchenyi Lánchíd)
After waking up in Budapest, don’t take Erzsébet or Margit híd and let Budapest’s first bridge over the Danube be the sight that got away. You’ve probably already seen the city’s famous bridge, as Katy Perry used Széchenyi as a triumphant runway for her music video for “Firework,” but it wasn’t that long ago that a less inspirational kind of explosion destroyed the bridge when the Axis powers retreated after WWII. Rebuilt soon after, it now connects the heart of Belváros to the belly of Buda. On the Buda side, stop by the Zero Kilometer Stone from whence all Hungarian highways are measured.
Varhegy, Central Buda, and Vizivaros: Magyar Nemzeti Galéria (Hungarian National Gallery) Museum
The halls of Buda Castle now house the world’s largest collection of Hungarian fine art. Spread across three floors and divided by historical period, the permanent collection traces the development of Hungarian painting and sculpture from the Gothic period to the second half of the 20th century. The collections of painters like Gyárfás Jenő and Károly Lotz are some of the museum’s best, but for those who crave a more modern take, look for pieces by Impressionist Béla Czóbel in the 20th-century galleries, including his 1922 work, In the Atelier.
Gellért Hegy: Liberty Monument (Szabadság Szobor)
Budapest has a complicated history with the term “liberty,” as the city intimately knows that “liberators” can easily morph into freshly-molded tyrants. Its most famous tribute to freedom, however, guards the city with the intimidating advantage of a palm frond (okay, and a frightfully defensible fortress—the Citadella). Overlooking Buda and Pest, this green Lady Liberty will take your breath away, mostly because of the insanely steep ascent required to gaze upon her visage. Then again, you’re free to take the bus, but that’s going to cost you 320Ft. (Also, there’s no such thing as a free lunch: the food options on top of thehill are devotees of the free market, you know.)
Gellért Hegy: Hotel Gellért and Gellért Baths
At the foot of Gellért Hill lies one of the mementos that the Turkish occupation left behind: thermal baths. This isn’t just your standard Jean-Paul Marat bathtub—Hotel Gellért’s Art Nouveau halls contain baths at varying degrees of steaming, baths separated by gender, a swimming pool, several Sahara-level saunas, and even a wave pool and sun terrace outside. While the hotel itself is probably beyond most students’ budgets, the bath’s richly tiled and statued interior is the perfect after party following a sweaty climb up the hill.
Outer Buda: Memento Park (Szoborpark) Monument
While in the rest of the former Soviet republics people were happily dismantling and demolishing the symbols of their hated regimes, the monument-loving people of Budapest decided it might be worthwhile to keep theirs around, even if they didn’t want them anywhere near the city itself. Forty of these statues now reside a 25min. bus ride away in Memento Park as a testament to a bygone political and artistic period. At the gates to the park, you can see an authentic replica of the infamous Stalin statue that was torn down so thoroughly during the 1956 revolution that only the dictator’s boots were left behind; the remains of the statue became a symbol of the revolution. An indoor exhibit shows unnerving clips from old secret police training videos. If you pay attention, you may even learn a thing or two about how to hide secret messages in crushed soda cans.
Though it may be hard to imagine now, there was once a time when this island was used for something besides outdoor drinking and sunbathing (in fact, its medieval name was Island of the Rabbits). More seriously, however, Margaret Island was the place to be cloistered in Budapest. King Béla IV built the convent in the 13th century and sent his daughter, Margaret, there as a thank you gift to God for helping him beat the Mongols. Motivation aside, her seclusion at least guaranteed her a kind of immortality when the island was renamed after her death (something Béla never achieved). Today, you can still see the ruins of the Franciscan priory as well as the Dominican convent, and Princess Margaret is buried at the site of the old nave. To the north of the ruins, you can take a look around St. Michael, a charming little chapel that holds the oldest bell in all of Hungary. If poetry is your thing, try a verse or two near the nearby Promenade of Hungarian Artists, a collection of busts of famous Hungarian artists, writers, and poets.
Margit-Sziget: Palatinus Strandfürdő (Palatinus Baths)
When these baths opened in 1921, the city’s residents were all at once madly, clumsily, shamelessly, and agonizingly in love. You don’t have to be an artist or a madman to appreciate the sprawling complex with enormous fountains, waterslides, and jets across three large pools, all fed by the thermal springs underground. If quiet and simple soaking is what your mind and body needs, go in the early afternoon on a week day. If raucous splashing and the cry of youth are what you crave, go on the weekend in this kingdom by the sea (well, river).
Óbuda: Pál-völgyi and Mátyáshegy Caves
Budapest is famous for its thermal baths, but few people realize that the heated water that eats up entire afternoons has also spent hundreds of thousands of years eating through the limestone hills beneath the city. One result: the second longest of Hungary’s cave systems, the Pál-völgyi and Mátyás Caves, which offer the unskilled numerous spelunking opportunities. The walking tours (no climbing involved) are informative and interesting without asking you to do anything more stressful than make your way up a short ladder. Those looking for something a little more challenging should consider taking one of the 2½-3hr. tours that will have you crawling through the Sandwich of Death.