Wednesday, April 24, 2013


Glorious interior of The Great Synangogue

Budapest is an absolute gem. If you need proof, the city itself along with specific places in it - Andrássy Avenue, Castle Hill, and the Danube River - are all on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.  It is easily one of my favorite cities in Eastern Europe and is reminiscint of what Prague was when it first hit the travel scene:  slightly off the radar, achingly beautiful, and very inexpensive.  


The order in which the sites are listed is how I was able to see everything. For people used to driving vs walking, this tour will probably exhaust you, but it is totally doable! If you're up for the challenge, here goes: One full day was spent seeing the Buda side and Memento Park (along with breakfast at Ruszwurm, lunch at Gellert Hotel, and dinner at Onyx). Another full day for the Pest side (brunch at Gundel and dinner at Menza). The morning of the last half day was reserved for Parliament (lunch at Great Market Hall and dessert at Molnar's).

BUDA SIDE:  Head up to to Castle Hill via the Chain Bridge/Széchenyi lánchíd (best enjoyed early to have it to yourself or late to see it lit up) and see Mattias Church from the outside (amazing roof), Fisherman’s Bastion (great views of Pest and the Danube), Magdalene Tower (remains of a church that was bombed during WWII), Royal Wine Cellars (Hungarian wine tasting…try the Tokaj which is similar to Moscato), and stroll around the Royal Palace.  If you have time, check out the Liberty Statue and Citadel on Gellert Hill.  Sink into the palatial indoor pool at Gellert Baths.

View of the Royal Palace from Pest

The beautiful rooftop of Mattias Church

MEMENTO PARK:  Statue park of Communist monuments and statues. Definitely make an effort to see this.  It’s a bit out of the way, but easy to get to if you’re already on the Buda side (you’ll need to take a tram, then a bus...about 50 minutes total).  Honestly, I found the whole thing so ironic (that money was spent to keep these relics), but that's the beauty of freedom.  And it really is a very well designed space.  Kudos to the architect.

Communist statues and monuments at Memento Park

PEST SIDE:  Take a guided tour of Parliament. It would be wise to purchase tickets when it opens at 8am to have first dibs on choosing the time (English tours are at 10:00, 12:00, 13:00, 13:45, and 15:00).  If you show up at noon hoping to join the 1pm tour, chances are high that it will be sold out. Note that there are no tours during Parliamentary sessions (normally on Mondays, Tuesdays, and sometimes Wednesdays).  

View of Parliament and the Danube from Buda


Afterwards, go see the largest synagogue in Europe (The Great Synanoguge aka Dohány Street Synagogue) then head to Andrássy Avenue for the Hungarian State Opera House. It was built to rival Vienna’s, but I found it to be much nicer.  The guided tour provides interesting information (especially if you have been to the Vienna State Opera). This place has the opposite ticket purchasing policy than Parliament.  They only sell tickets 30 minutes before the start of the next tour, i.e. you can’t go at 10am and buy tickets for a 4pm tour.  Make your way to the House of Terror and enjoy the last stretch of Andrássy before you reach Heroes’ Square/Hősök tere (best viewed at sunset-bordering-night fall).

Exterior of The Great Synangoge
Auditorium of the Hungarian State Opera House
Mandatory shoe covers for the guided tour of the Hungarian State Opera House

Striking exterior of the House of Terror

Heroes' Square: stoic by day and breathtaking by night

Finish up your day at Szechenyi Baths (open every day from 6am-10pm).  Towels have to be rented and they resemble paper mâché so make sure you bring your own. Flip flips are also a must (the floors are grainy and dirty around the locker rooms and the outdoor baths can be dangerously slippery). If you have time, check out St. Stephen’s Basilica (the interior is beautiful).  Avoid Vaci Utca with all your might (with the exception of going for kurtoskalacs...see below).  I took a midnight stroll past this infamous street and found it way too touristy to warrant a daytime visit.   

Outdoor pool at Szechenyi Baths


After scouring food blogs, news articles, and travel books, these were the restaurants that made the final cut on my trip to Budapest.  

ONYX RESTAURANT: One of two Michelin star restaurants in Budapest (Costes is the other one). It's much cheaper than what you would pay for a star anywhere else.  You will see all the usual suspects here - foam, technical skill, unusual ingredient pairings.  Go with the Hungarian Evolution tasting menu (21,900 HUF/95 USD for a 6 course meal + cheese plate in 2012).  The bread was killer.
Opening Hours: Tuesday to Friday 12pm-2pm and 6:30pm-11pm. Saturday dinner only.  Closed on Sunday and Monday.
Address: Vörösmarty tér 7-8, Budapest

Carb heaven at Onyx.  Try them all!

MENZA: This place came highly recommended, but it was hit or miss. My food was good, but B's food was...meh. Be smart about what you order by observing what others are eating. The restaurant was filled with locals and that's always a good sign.
Opening Hours: Daily 10am-12am
Address: Liszt Ferenc tér 2, Budapest

GUNDEL RESTAURANT: A solid choice for brunch. Recommended by every travel guide and blog. It's right by Heroes Square and Szechenyi Baths. The food display was a feast for the eyes. Service was great too. A bit expensive by Budapest standards (6,400 HUF or 28 USD), but it gets bonus points for the killer dessert spread. Opening Hours: Sunday brunch 11:30am-3pm and 6:30pm-11pm. Monday to Saturday 12pm-4pm and 6:30pm-11pm.
Address: Gundel Károly út 4, Budapest
Sugar rush at Gundel's Sunday Brunch 
RUSZWURM CUKRÁSZDA: Cute, cute, cute. This place has character. The ladies that work here are adorable. When ordering the cakes, don't put all your eggs in one basket, as looks can be deceiving. Order a variety and share. This is a great place to take a break after seeing Fisherman's Bastion, Mattias Church, etc.
Opening hours: Spring to Fall 9am-8pm. Winter 10am-7pm.
Address: Szentháromság St 7, Budapest

GREAT MARKET HALL: Come here for real (and cheap) Hungarian food. The food court is on the top level to the right. Paprika was sprinkled on everything. If you find a booth that serves a long log of stuffed cabbage - buy it immediately. It was delicious. I had my heart set on trying the famous street food, lángos, but it didn't live up to my expectations (it's fried! with sugar! how can it not be good?!). I tried the sweet version though so maybe savory is the way to go? This is also a great place for souvenirs.Opening hours: Tuesday to Friday 6am-6pm. Monday 6am to 5pm. Saturday 6am-3pm. Closed on Sunday.
Address: Vámház körút 1-3, Budapest

Beef goulasch, stuffed cabbage, and langos from Great Market Hall
MOLNAR'S KURTOSKALACS: Also known as Chimney Cake. It's like a thin, yeasty pretzel baked on a spit over an open fire and finished with sweet spices and nuts.  Hands down my favorite Eastern European street food!  Eat it every chance you get as they are sold everywhere.
Opening hours: Daily 9am-10pm
Address: Vaci Ucta 31, Budapest

Fresh Kürtőskalács!  Yum.
GERBEAUD CAFE:  The most famous cafe in Budapest. I tried going, but it was closed.  Same owners as Onyx.
Hours: Daily 9am-9pm
Address: Vörösmarty tér 7-9, Budapest


HOW TO GET TO THE CITY: Public transportation from the airport to the city is complicated.  Your best best is either pre-booking your airport transfer (usually a minibus/van) with the airline you’re flying (we flew Wizz Air and were able to arrange it through them) or pay for a legal taxi (Főtaxi  is the official airport taxi company).  With the taxi option, queue at the official taxi stand, get a quote, and pay when you get to your destination.  It should cost between 22-28 euros. Whatever you do, don't just hop into a random (and unregulated) taxi.

WALK AROUND: One of the highlights of the city is the city itself. Take your time and enjoy the small streets, facades, and colorful rooftops.  Chat up some locals, make some new friends.

VALIDATE YOUR TICKETS: If you take public transportation, make sure you validate your tickets once on the actual bus/train/tram or prepare to pay a fine (if caught).

SZECHENYI VS. GELLERT: If you only have time for one bath, I recommend Szechenyi (where you can see half naked Hungarian men playing chess in the outdoor pools).  All the pools are co-ed. 

BATH HOUSE ESSENTIALS:  Bathing suit, flip flops, towel, change of clothes (or at least clean underwear), and toiletries. If you've been to a public bath house anywhere else in the world, the etiquette is pretty much the same.  If you haven't, here's a quick rundown of how it works.

Pay for entry. Head to the female or male changing room. Find your locker. Put on bathing suit. Shower with shampoo and soap (your body needs to be clean before entering the shared public pools).  Wander around (to the pools/sauna/steam room/massage area/etc...the order here is not important). Shower again (or at least rinse off all the minerals) before leaving.  Return key.

BASIC HUNGARIAN: Hello=Szervusz (SER-voos). Please=Kérem (KEY-rem). Thank you=Köszönöm (KØ-sø-nøm). Yes=Igen (EE-gen). No=Nem (nem). Goodbye=Viszontlátásra (VEE-sont-la-tash-rå). Do you speak English=Beszél angolul (BE-seyl ÅN-go-loul).  
I don't understand=Nem értem (nem EYR-tem).


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