we began our incredible european adventure in budapest, a city that will forever be special to all of us. we spent two-and-a-half days wandering streets, climbing hills, soaking in baths, traversing bridges, and stuffing ourselves with delicious food and drink.
below is our itinerary, where we stayed, and some of our tips, if you’d like more specifics.
what we did.
we had 2.5 days in budapest at the beginning of our trip and another afternoon and night at the end before we flew out. below are all the places we walked, ate, drank, visited, and shopped during our time.
katie and i arrived a little before we were able to check in to our airbnb, so we wandered along váci utca to find a coffee shop. we stumbled upon cafe frei which had coffee, hot chocolate, croissants, and maybe the best wallpaper i’ve ever seen.
budapest has a great selection of vegan restaurants, and one of the highest-rated ones was right around the corner from our airbnb, so we headed to napfényes once maggie arrived. maggie and katie both had vegetarian ghoulash, and i had the fried asian rice noodles. everything was delicious, and we cleaned our plates / bowls. pro tips: make a reservation; it was packed at 2pm on a sunday. they allow you to order a half portion of many of the main dishes for 3/4 of the price, which is what i did for my meal. i wish places in the states would offer this.
shoes on the danube memorial.
after lunch we decided to wander along the river to the shoes on the danube memorial. in december 1944 and january 1945, arrow cross militiamen marched 3,500 people – many of them jewish – from the budapest ghetto to the river, ordered them to remove their shoes, and shot them into the danube. the iron shoes erected along the riverside honor those who lost their lives in those months. it is a beautiful, somber sight to behold, particularly as the sun sets on the other side of the river.
st stephen’s basilica.
we needed to walk and process a little once we left the memorial, so we decided to wander in from the river and see where we wound up. we somehow found our way to the square in front of st stephen’s basilica, the largest church in hungary, which is beautiful. we opted to not go up to the top of the basilica since it was so close to sunset, but we were able to wander around the square for a bit and take a lot of photos of the exterior. pro tip: if you want to climb / ride to the top, do it early enough so that you’ll have sunlight when you get up there.
at this point we were ready for a drink and to sit for a bit, so we found the first place off the square that looked inviting: platz. we shared a few drinks and plotted out our next two days in budapest and rocked out on some slow jams.
katie found bestia before we left for our trip, and it was the perfect first night dinner. it was also right around the corner from platz, which was an added bonus. we got there early, so the restaurant was quiet, and we had great service since we were the only ones in there for most of our visit. we shared some delicious jalapeño poppers, and i had the mac-and-cheese which was awesome. we stuffed ourselves silly and then went home and succumbed to the jet lag. pro tip: make a reservation if you plan to go after 7pm.
great market hall.
also known as the central market, this building is a must-stop for anyone visiting budapest. the entire ground floor is a variety of food halls serving everything from meats to pastries to spices. upstairs is a variety of eateries as well as a ton of souvenir shops — most of them are your standard fare of t-shirts and magnets, but we found some cute handmade ornaments and i got a great stash of postcards on our wanderings. one of my favorite things was upstairs where there was a little exhibition about the history of the hall, which provided us with a lot of great context for the area. pro tip: visit on your first day to smell the smells and see what souvenirs they have on offer; return on your last day to get anything you’ve not found elsewhere.
gellért hill / citadella.
we were ready to tackle the buda side of the river on monday morning and decided to walk up gellért hill to the citadella. it was a steep climb with lots of steps, but luckily the weather was beautiful and we stopped along the way to admire the views and take lots of photos. at the top of the hill is the liberty statue which honors everyone who has given their lives for the independence, freedom, and prosperity of hungary. pro tips: if you are walking up the hill [you can also drive], walk up from the liberty bridge side by the cave church; the views are better on that side. and keep in mind that there are not really any food options at the top of the hill, so eat before you make that climb or pack some snacks. and make sure you have water.
as we exhaustedly wandered from the hill to the castle district, we stumbled upon the adorable prezent and had to stop in. prezent is full of beautiful, sustainably-made hungarian handicrafts ranging from books to headbands to porcelain animals, and we spent probably half an hour – if not longer – browsing through all the things and chatting with del, co-owner of the shop and co-designer of many of the products. she was so lovely, taking time to explain the origin of many of the local designs and telling us about the artists of many of the prints and notebooks. she also recommended our lunch spot, so she is high on our list of favorite people we met during our trip.
on del’s suggestion, we found our way to kelet café for lunch. it was a great place to rest our weary feet and refuel ourselves for the rest of the day. everything we tried was delicious, and it was great to eat in a place where we were likely the only foreigners. hats off to del for this suggestion. pro tips: they have a number of evening events as well, such as literary readings, that could be fun outings. be sure to make a reservation if you’re going in the evening.
castle district tour.
we definitely thought we were booking a tour of the inside of a palace, but it was actually a walking tour of the castle district. our guide was super informative and had kind of a dark sense of humor, so the three of us really liked her. we saw the holy trinity statue, matthias church, some original foundations of the city of buda, a few statues of people whose names i can’t remember, the changing of the guard outside a government building, a statue of matthias [where we learned about all of his affairs], and we wound up at fisherman’s bastion. we got a crash course in hungarian history and shared a lot of secret laughs with our tour guide. pro tips: this tour is free if you purchase the budapest city card [more on that below], or you can purchase it here as we did. we did the budget buda castle tour, which lasts anywhere from 1.5-2 hours depending on how fast everyone walks and how many questions people ask, but there are a number of options from which you can choose.
after we finished our tour we spent some time in fisherman’s bastion, so named for the fisherman’s guild that protected that portion of the castle walls. there are seven towers that represent the original seven magyar tribes, and from them you have a view over all of pest. we took advantage of the views and indulged ourselves in some “only child” photo shoots.
széchenyi thermal baths.
one of the most popular things to do in budapest is visit one of the many bath houses. there are plenty to choose from, and everyone you ask has a different suggestion; in the end we chose the széchenyi baths because they have a heated outdoor pool that was very attractive to us. we went around 6pm on monday evening, and the warm water felt so great on our exhausted muscles [we walked over 30,000 steps that day]. we stayed for about an hour and left feeling remarkably relaxed and ready for the evening ahead. pro tips: book ahead of time so you can skip the lines. we shared one changing cabin, but i suggest allowing everyone to get their own, so that it saves time when you are leaving. also, you can rent towels there, but they cost more than what the website says and they only accept cash. and check the closing times for the day you’re booking; most days it stays open until 10pm, but it closed at 8pm on the day we went.
christmas market / langos.
before we left ryan told me about this wonderful creation called langos, which is fried dough covered with garlic paste and sour cream and then whatever else you want. we decided it would be a perfect snack after the bath, so we stopped by the christmas market near our flat and shared one between the three of us, opting to add mozzarella to give it a little extra oomph. it was bigger than my head and ridiculously delicious.
street food karavan.
once we were showered and ready for our night on the town, we made our way to street food karavan, the outdoor food hall in the jewish quarter. there are tons of different food trucks to choose from as well as a full bar, and we loved chilling there and stuffing our faces. i imagine saturday evenings are probably filled to the brim, but on a random monday in november it was great.
our final stop for the night was next door at szimpla kert, the oldest and most famous of the ruin bars that are popular in the jewish quarter. in the early 2000s people began transforming abandoned buildings into pubs, decorating them with found furniture and providing a place for locals and tourists alike to drink and dance and debate life. because these bars are squatting in the buildings some get shut down or moved, but there are always plenty to choose from. szimpla was the original, opening in 2002, and boasts at least 5 different bars, lots of different kinds of music, and walls and walls covered in graffiti. as maggie noted, it’s difficult to picture a ruin bar until you actually see it for yourself, but it is so worth the experience of visiting. pro tip: it’s going to be busy any night, but on weekdays the locals clear out around 1am.
dohány street synagogue.
on our final day we slept in and then made our way over to the dohány street synagogue, the largest synagogue in europe and second-largest in the world. we learned about the history of the synagogue itself as well as the events in hungary that led to the roundup and eventual deportation of hungary’s jews. it’s a beautiful building, and our tour filled in a lot of gaps in our knowledge of the country, particularly regarding hungary’s jewish population.
we wrapped up our time in budapest with a late lunch at the lovely mazel tov, a restaurant by day and a ruin bar by night. the enclosed patio is so cozy, especially accompanied by string lights around all the trees and blankets thrown over each chair. our food was delicious, and it was the best way to close out our time in the city. pro tip: if you’re going in the evening or on a weekend, book your table in advance. if you’re going in the late afternoon on a tuesday, however, you’ll have plenty of tables to choose from.
the following monday.
faust wine cellar.
to celebrate our final evening together, we ventured down to the faust wine cellar in the basement of the hilton. located in an old dominican monastery, faust offers wine tastings as well as bottles for sale. we were not able to book a table ahead of time but went early in the hopes we might get lucky, and lucky we got. we arrived around 5.30pm, and they were able to seat us for a 5-round tasting. we tried 5 different wines from around hungary and then got to choose which we wanted as a bonus taste. i think we all agreed the rosé was our favorite, and we loved closing out our trip with this treat. it’s not cheap, but it is well worth a visit. pro tips: book this in advance if you can. if you’re unable to or you are lazy and forget like we did, go early so that you can squeeze in between other bookings. and remember this place is cash only, so come prepared; the closest atm is probably a 3-5 minute walk away. and finally, no photos allowed.
we struggled mightily to find a place to eat our final night. the first place we tried didn’t have great vegetarian options. the next place was very rude. the third place didn’t grab our attention. we finally decided to cab it over to the pest side and made our way to kiosk, which turned out to be one of the best decisions we made during the entire trip. it’s a beautiful building, there were movies playing silently on the wall, and the food was amazing. i think we all agreed katie’s risotto was the hit of the night, but it was super rich; i’d suggest sharing if you decide to get it.
for those of you who prefer to see it at a glance:
where we stayed.
for our initial 2.5 days we stayed in a lovely airbnb flat in pest. rita answered all of our questions ahead of time and allowed us to check in early to accommodate our morning arrival into budapest. the location was great — we were walking distance to pretty much everything, and when we weren’t we were in between two different metro lines that were easy to access. we had a spacious living area and two bedrooms, we had plenty of hot water, and it was a lovely home to come back to at the end of the day.
for our final night in budapest and of vacation, we treated ourselves to a stay at the hilton budapest. katie is a baller and had hilton points, so we were able to score a very nice deal on an executive room. the hilton is in a former dominican monastery, and with its location on castle hill provides great views of the parliament building across the river. with the room we also had access for two to the executive lounge, so katie and i were able to grab some breakfast before our flight on tuesday morning.
good things to know.
these are in no particular order, so bear with me.
currency. hungary uses the hungarian forint [huf], which remains one of the most confusing currencies i have ever come across. $1 is roughly 280 huf, so we were walking around with 5,000 forint notes and no concept of how much things were costing us. in general budapest was the cheapest of the cities we visited, but i still laugh thinking of that monopoly-like money.
cash v cards. in general europe can be a little hit-or-miss with accepting american cards, so we all elected to withdraw money when we arrived and use cash wherever possible. it helped us split bills more easily, and we were able to keep a little better track of how much we were spending. i think i spent around $200 in cash and charged an additional $50 at a maximum.
pest is the place to be. budapest is three different cities that have been unified: old buda, buda, and pest, with the danube river splitting buda and pest. buda is a little quieter but has more upscale hotels and restaurants because of the castle district. pest felt a little younger and hipper, and staying there provided better walking opportunities to the jewish quarter. we were very glad our initial stay had us in pest, as we felt it allowed us a better opportunity to see more of the city.
transportation. budapest is super walkable, and we only had to use public transportation a few times while we were there. we rode on the tram, metro, and bus, and all are very easy to navigate. pro tips: ticket machines are not in all metro stations or at all bus stops, so plan ahead and figure out how many tickets you might need [they are 350 huf each]. or you can buy a 24-hour pass if you think it will be worth it for you. the tickets don’t expire, you just validate them as you use them, so i suggest purchasing a few at a time to ensure you have them when you need them. we didn’t get checked, but make sure you validate your ticket either before you board the tram or metro or as soon as you get on the bus.
getting to and from the airport. there is a very easy airport shuttle that runs roughly every 20 minutes. it costs 900 huf and is a much cheaper way of getting to and from the airport than taking a taxi. pro tip: make sure you give yourself extra time to account for traffic or a full shuttle; when katie and i were leaving on tuesday morning, the bus didn’t allow any extra people on at the final stop because it was already too full.
tipping. we tipped anywhere from 10-15% on meals depending on the service. some places do include a service charge on the bill; when that happens there’s no need to include additional gratuity.
making reservations. we didn’t book tables anywhere, but we got lucky in that we visited in early november and often ate at odd times. i would suggest booking tables, especially if you are visiting in the summer or over a weekend, as places often filled up as we were leaving.
winter weather. we got very lucky and had gorgeous weather for most of our time in budapest. our initial three days were sunny with highs in the low 40s, but as we were walking everywhere we didn’t feel the cold. evenings were definitely chillier, and we bundled up more. pro tip: the key is layering. and also remembering that it starts getting dark at 4pm, so plan accordingly.
nighttime cruises on the danube. this is maybe the top thing we didn’t get a chance to do. our first night we had crazy jet lag, and we already planned to do the baths and szimpla on our second night. we thought about it for our last night, but the weather wasn’t great and we ultimately decided we wanted to take it a little easy. if we had one more night in budapest, this would have been tops on our list. i’ve heard great things about the night cruises, and i still hope to get to experience it at some point in my life.
budapest city card. as with most big cities, budapest offers a tourist card that allows you discounts and free entry to many of the museums and big sites that people want to see. we opted to not do the card and to explore on our own, and that proved to be the best decision for us. it would have saved us a little on our bath and our visit to the synagogue, but ultimately it didn’t feel worth the price.
what did we miss? a lot. you can’t see all of budapest in 3.5 days, and we had to skip the danube cruises, the terror museum, and a whole host of other things, but we are pretty pleased with how we spent our time.
so there you have it, all the things from our time in budapest!
ps — most pictures are mine, but a few are katie’s and maggie’s.