My adventure to Hungary began like most others. Back in August, I asked my travel buddy, Michael, if he was up for a trip. He said yes, so I told him to choose a destination. He had his heart set on going to Budapest, so we started looking at plane tickets. They were pretty cheap for the beginning of September, which was only a few weeks away! #YOLO. We booked our tickets, found some great Airbnb options, and started planning.
Visiting Budapest was my first experience in Eastern Europe. Did you know that Buda and Pest were originally separate cities on opposite sides of the Danube River? They united about 150 years ago to form the “Pearl of the Danube”. Over on the Pest side of the city, our Airbnb was located near parliament buildings, cafes, ruin bars, and a riverside promenade. The area was buzzing and lively with young people. We spent most of our time in that area. The Buda side, on the other hand, had a feeling of settled wealth and sophistication. It was filled with medieval streets and houses, castles, thermal baths, and incredible views. The saying goes, “When Buda goes to sleep, Pest wakes up.” No matter your preferences while traveling, Budapest truly has something for everyone. Famous for its monuments and rich culture, the “Paris of the East” offers a variety of museums, galleries, flea markets, churches and synagogues, palaces, and historic buildings to explore.
Was there anything I didn’t particularly like about Budapest? Well, the food was pretty hard on my stomach. Traditional Hungarian cuisine is rich, heavy, and revolves around meat. Many dishes include dairy, are deep-fried, and are accompanied by dumplings, egg noodles, or bread. Since I have to avoid dairy, gluten, and red meat (due to longstanding health issues), this posed a slight problem. Luckily, I found a few vegan-friendly restaurants that I frequented for the duration of my trip. The downside, though, is that I don’t have a ton of food recommendations. If you have an iron stomach, you’ll definitely get to enjoy more of the traditional Hungarian dishes that I had to skip.
One more thing: The cost of living in Budapest is 52% lower than the cost of living in the United States. Pretty freakin' awesome. We used Airbnb to book our lodging, and for only $30 to $50 per night, we had a variety of modern, clean, gorgeous apartments to choose from. Even luxury hotels are affordable in Budapest, compared to luxury hotels in the United States. Food was also super inexpensive. You won’t have to stretch your budget to enjoy all the flavors that Hungary has to offer, that’s for sure. In fact, you’ll probably spend much less than you anticipated.
Napfényes Étterem és Cukrászda: Located in the heart of Budapest, this was my go-to restaurant during my trip. The majority of their ingredients are grown organically, and they cater specifically to vegetarians and vegans. Their menu is enormous, and everything we tried was incredible. The best part? It was extremely cheap. During our meals, we always ordered multiple dishes, and we never spent more than $30 total. I’m still dreaming of the raw chocolate cake slice we brought back to our Airbnb.
ZONA: Michael and I ate lunch here before exploring Fisherman’s Bastion. The polished atmosphere on the bank of the Danube was perfect, and our meal was heavenly. I can’t remember what kind of fish was served (pictured below), but it was exquisite. That was one thing I actually really enjoyed about Hungarian cuisine…the unique selection of fish. The chefs at ZONA pride themselves on using simple ingredients to achieve “natural flavor harmonies”…and they’re excellent at their craft.
Hummusbar: If you know me, you know I love hummus. When I saw there was a Hummusbar near our Airbnb, I was SO excited. The mission of Hummusbar revolves around freshly prepared, authentic, handmade food. There’s more than a dozen dishes to choose from, but I went with hummus mushrooms (which is literally just hummus topped with sautéed mushrooms and grilled onions). I also love masabacha, which is a spread made of hummus, boiled chickpeas, garlic, tahini, and lemon sauce.
KARAVÁN: Situated on Budapest’s chaotic Kazinczy Street, KARAVÁN is home to several food kiosks that house unique, mouthwatering meals. This cozy outdoor space offers nachos, sausages, french fries (with half a dozen flavorful dipping sauces), vegan burgers, deep-fried cheese, noodle dishes, soup, and more. They’re open quite late, which makes it the perfect stop for a midnight snack (especially after partying at Szimpla Kert…more on that later!).
Free! Gluten Free Bakery: The pastries at this place were AMAZING, and they were also soy and lactose-free. They had flaky croissants, bread, and cinnamon/chocolate pinwheels on display when we popped in for breakfast. I came back for lunch near the end of our trip and ordered a sandwich loaded with sun-dried tomatoes, hummus, and vegan cheese. YUM.
Michael ordered goulash soup at a random bar near our Airbnb, and it was delightful. Imagine a warm, hearty stew, seasoned with paprika and filled with meat, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, and onions…so, so good. Speaking of paprika, some of you might know it’s an extremely popular and commonly used spice in Hungary. They even have paprika potato chips at gas stations. Yes, we purchased more than one bag. Some brands were sweet, and others were spicy. It was fun trying different kinds.
Something else you have to eat in Budapest is kürtőskalács (chimney cake), a sweet, spiral-shaped pastry that originated in Transylvania. It’s basically dough covered in sugar that’s cooked in the oven until the sugar caramelizes. The finished product is crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. You can eat it plain, but cinnamon is a popular topping. Many street vendors sell this delicious creation.
Lastly, sour cherry is a popular flavor in Hungary, and it’s amazing. If you see sour cherry pie on a menu, order it. I found mine in a small cafe near the Parliament Building.
THINGS TO DO
Soak in a thermal bath. Budapest has many nicknames, one being “The City of Baths”. There’s a good reason for this! The city sits on a patchwork of 120+ natural warm springs, which are believed to contain healing minerals and properties. Because of this, bath culture in Budapest is wildly popular. Széchenyi is the largest thermal bath in Budapest. Built in 1913, Széchenyi contains almost 20 indoor and outdoor pools. You can also find saunas, steam rooms, and whirlpools inside the complex. Michael and I explored Széchenyi on our last day in Budapest, but there are several other thermal baths in Budapest to choose from. The water is warm and toasty, so you can visit year round.
Walk across the Chain Bridge. Connecting Buda and Pest is the Chain Bridge, a permanent crossing that was constructed over the Danube River in 1849. The Chain Bridge is one of the most popular landmarks in Budapest, and it’s truly a sight to behold. Both the view of the bridge and from the bridge is stunning, especially after sunset. If you plan to take a stroll across, make sure to leave some time for a walk around the Danube Promenade. There, you’ll find 60 pairs of iron shoes. This monument stands as a haunting tribute to the 20,000 Hungarian Jews who were brutally shot along the Danube River during World War II.
Explore Fisherman’s Bastion. If you’re curious about my favorite place in Budapest, this is it. Located on the bank of the Danube, this neo-Gothic/neo-Romanesque terrace was built to celebrate the 1,000th birthday of the Hungarian state. It truly looks like a fairytale castle, and the panoramic views of Pest and the Danube are spectacular. You can clearly see the Parliament Building in the distance, along with St. Stephen’s Basilica.
Party at a ruin bar. Have you ever heard of a ruin bar? If not, you’re in for a treat. Imagine transforming an unused outdoor space or a dilapidated building into a lively, stylish, quirky bar. Now, imagine sipping dirt cheap drinks and cocktails while gawking at the eclectic interior. Ruin bars are often seen with mismatched furniture, strange art, unique antiques, and colorful wall murals. They’re trendy and edgy, but they also have a relaxed, all-inclusive atmosphere. The most iconic ruin bar in Budapest is Szimpla Kert. It was originally an old factory, and now it’s an enormous open-air cinema/pub. They host concerts, theatre shows, farmers markets, and dozens of cultural events. This is a place you absolutely don’t want to miss.
Go on a road trip. Budapest’s location in Eastern Europe is perfect, especially if you rent a car. It’s only 2.5 hours from Vienna, Austria; 5.5 hours from Krakow, Poland; 3.5 hours from Zagreb, Croatia; and 5.5 hours from Prague. Your options are practically endless. Michael and I decided to drive to Slovenia in the middle of our trip, and it was an excellent decision. We spent one night outside Lake Bled and one night in Ljubljana. It was so nice to escape the big city for a few days and bask in the fresh mountain air. I considered writing a separate post about Slovenia, but I know my two day visit wouldn’t do the country justice. Suffice it to say, Lake Bled was arguably one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. I definitely plan to dedicate an entire week or two to Slovenia in the future.
Admire the scenery. If you want some jaw-dropping views of Budapest, you MUST visit Castle Hill and Gellért Hill. Both areas crown the banks of Buda overlooking the Danube River. Castle Hill, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is situated towards the West. This is where Fisherman’s Bastion can be found, along with Buda Castle, Matthias Church, and various other historic sites. Gellért Hill, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is situated towards the East. This is where you can find the Gellért Baths, the Liberty Statue, and the Citadella. If you want to see Budapest from the Danube River, consider booking a Legenda sightseeing cruise. They offer daytime, evening, and dinner cruises year-round, and their tours get fantastic reviews.
Visit Margaret Island. Right smack dab in the middle of the Danube River, Margaret Island is the green heart of Budapest. The majority of the island is a park. It’s a great location for a stroll or a picnic, but that’s not all there is to do. You can admire lilies in the Japanese Garden, soak in the Palatinus Baths, watch a musical fountain show, explore medieval ruins, climb to the top of the ancient water tower to capture a panoramic view of the area, or visit the petting zoo. If you want to get out of the city for a bit, Margaret Island is a great escape.
If you have any additional Budapest recommendations, comment below!