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Looking for suggestions on how to experience Budapest?

We’ve spent lots of time in Budapest during our nomadic travels and can confirm that it is one of Europe’s great cities. Situated on the Danube River in central Europe, it lies at an ancient crossroads of tribal migration and trade and has been influenced by various cultures over the centuries. Today the capital of Hungary and the ninth-largest city in the EU, Budapest is scenic, elegant, and loaded with monuments from a long, rich history. Turkish influence remains from over 150 years of Ottoman rule, evident in its architecture, baths, and coffee houses, and it blends with elegant architecture from its reign as co-capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The best way of experiencing Budapest is to dive right in. Here are our recommendations on sights, tours and food.

Experiencing Budapest - Széchenyi Thermal Bath
Széchenyi Thermal Bath

Recommended Sights: Getting Started

We typically begin a visit to a new city with a free walking tour.  These are usually really fun, casual, and a great way to get the lay of the land as well as a first look at the sights. Although free, the guides make their money on tips, so be sure to reward them if they do a great job.

Trip to Budapest Free Walking Tours

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Walking around gives you a chance to take in all the amazing architecture, from Gothic and Renaissance, to Baroque, Classical, and Art Nouveau. Fortunately, most of the city escaped devastation during the world wars so you will be able to enjoy buildings and monuments from a thousand years of history.

Some sights you can see while walking: Heroes Square, lovely Vajdahunyad Castle (nestled in a lake), Szechenyi Baths, the controversial new Holocaust memorial, St Stephen’s Basilica (with its Turkish tile roof), the Ronald Reagan statue, the Opera (“second best acoustics in the world”), the Parliament, Fisherman’s Bastion, and the Royal Palace. The sights are scattered on both sides of the Danube and linked by eight magnificent bridges, the most famous of which is the Chain Bridge (Széchenyi Lánchíd). Much of central Budapest is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Experiencing Budapest - Hungarian State Opera
Hungarian State Opera House

Sights Worth a Closer Look

  • House of Terror.  Opened in 2002, this museum documents Hungary’s two most evil regimes of the 20th century – first the Nazi-aligned Arrow Cross during WWII, followed by the Soviet-aligned regime after the war.  It’s a very well-done museum, located in the same building where they kept and tortured prisoners.
  • The Széchenyi Baths is the largest thermal bath in Europe. Its water is supplied by two hot springs.  It’s very popular and quite beautiful.  The Gellért Spa is also famous – we’ve not been but it’s also popular.
  • Shoes on the Danube Bank (FREE) – A poignant memorial opened in 2005, dedicated to the 3,500 people, mostly Jews, who were shot into the Danube during the fascist Arrow Cross terror during WWII.
  • Dohány Street Synagogue (also known as The Great Synagogue) is the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world.  Quite beautiful.
  • Hospital in the Rock, a hospital created in the caverns under Buda Castle in Budapest in the 1930s, in preparation for the Second World War. It was used as an emergency hospital during the siege of 1944-45 and again during the 1956 uprising.  After that, it was repurposed as a nuclear bunker and air raid shelter.  The museum opened in 2008.
  • Ruin Bars – These are vacant, run-down post-communist buildings that were taken over and turned into edgy bars.  They are a bit more gentrified these days but still pretty kitschy and fun.  Szimpla Kert is the most famous but there are many.
  • Parliament – The beautiful neo-Gothic parliament building for which Budapest is famous conducts a brief 45-minute tour in English but you need to sign up online before you go because they fill up.

Hungarian Food

Budapest is known for rich heavy dishes with paprika and sour cream.  Most have meat but there are also a lot of vegetable dishes.  We always look for food tours – it’s a fun way to get the lay of the culinary land.  We can personally recommend the Fat Boy Foodie Walk – Máté (or Szusza) is awesome but you will do some serious eating, so beware. 

Great Market Hall Budapest (also called Central Market Hall) is a huge indoor market built in 1897. The largest in the city, it has over 180 stalls selling local produce, fresh fruits and vegetables, and upstairs, Hungarian food and a range of Hungarian arts and crafts.

Notable Hungarian specialties:

  • Kürtőskalács – a chimney cake where the dough is cooked on a spit in a spiral, then rolled in cinnamon and sugar.  Delicious!  Our favorite shop is Molnar but they are everywhere. (You will see chimney cakes all around central Europe; sometimes they will be filled or dipped in chocolate or covered with other stuff. The ones here are pure and authentic.)
  • Lángos – a deep-fried flatbread with sour cream and cheese and other toppings.
  • Gulyás (goulash) – a warm, hearty stew made with beef, onions, potatoes, and a liberal spicing of paprika, topped with a dollop of sour cream.
  • Chicken Paprikás
  • Sausages – Téliszalámi, which is Winter Salami made from mangalitsa pork (“the Kobe beef of pork”), plus a million others.
  • Paprika – the spice most closely associated with Hungarian cuisine comes in varieties ranging from sweet to hot.
  • Egri Bikavér (“Bull’s Blood”) – a dry red wine from Eger
  • Tokaji Aszu – sweet white wine, graded by level of sugar (the higher the puttonyos, the sweeter).

☠️ Proceed with caution…

  • Unicum – a bitter digestif – 40% alcohol but good for digestion (“it’s medicinal”).
  • Pálinka – 40% alcohol plum brandy.  We tried both the classic and the sweetened versions.  Very strong!
Kürtőskalács (chimney cake)

Recommended Restaurants

Dinner (Definitely Get a Reservation)

  • Két Szerecsen – So good we’ve eaten here three times and found it really delicious.  I started with a pálinka szilva – Hungarian plum brandy.  It was 40% alcohol, SO STRONG I couldn’t actually finish it.  I’ll stick to red wine from here on out.  We tried some of the Hungarian tapas – they were good but the salmon with dill was my favorite.  I had a light delicious quinoa salad with avocado, spinach and tomato, and Mark had gulash soup.  Then we had the same entrée: chicken paprikás, which was hearty and delicious.  Paprika, dumplings and sour cream, and chicken legs so tender the meat just slides off the bone.  For dessert we had “floating islands” with berries and cream that tasted like a milkshake.  Also, the chocolate soufflé with chili-infused cherries.  Mmmmm.

  • Café Kör, one of our favorite places here, another three-peat, features Hungarian specialties and fresh local produce. I started out with some eggplant hummus and nicely toasted bread.  Mark had an excellent Greek salad with huge chunks of creamy feta. My entrée was the cauliflower special. 
  • Aszú Étterem.  Started with Hortobagy palascintas (of course), then Mark had a chicken dish. I asked the waiter what he recommended and it was the duck.  Normally I would not order duck, but the few times I have, it has never disappointed.  This was no exception, it was phenomenal.  The duck itself was very tender, but the best part were the vegetables – sunchokes, beets, potatoes – and a savory sauce that was delicious.  One of my best meals here, and so unexpected!  Two glasses of Bikavér and a glass of tokaji aszu to finish.
  • Bock Bisztró, a cute place with corks under the glass table tops.  A nice glass or two of red wine and Hungarian Lecsó to start – a sausage, tomato, onion and pepper stew that I wasn’t sure I would like, it wasn’t what I expected, but it was so incredibly tasty.   Hortobagy palascintas (delicious savory crepes) for the entrée.  Mark had a fried chicken entrée with peas in cream that was also really good.  Tokaji aszu to finish. Of course!
  • Hungarikum Bisztró.  This is a super-cute traditional Hungarian restaurant; we have eaten here twice.  My daughter and I started with my all-time Hungarian fave, palascintas Hortobagy.  SO creamy and delicious.  My entree was mushrooms and dumplings with sour cream – good but not as good as the crepes.  Red wine and a glass of tokaji aszu to finish.
  • Macesz Bistro – a Jewish restaurant in the Jewish quarter.  It was really good!  First there was an amuse-bouche of cream of asparagus soup, which was rich and creamy.  So good.  Then I started with a Jewish-style egg – like an egg salad, very good.  Our daughter had latkes and Mark had the matzo ball soup, which had great flavor.  For our entrees, our daughter had a fish dish, Mark had beef bourguignon, and I had a house specialty, “Ludaskása” – thigh of goose, goose liver, vegetable risotto.  Rich and delicious!
Palascintas Hortobagy at Hungarikum Bisztró

Cheap Eats

  • Bors GasztroBár – great for lunch.  Grilled baguette sandwiches.  Mark and I had the “Barack Obama” – BBQ sauce, confit pork, apricot and American grilled cheese.  It was delicious! 
  • Karavan – this is a casual court of food trucks with a variety of offerings – langos, gulash soup in a bread bowl, burgers, beer and wine, and at Paneer, a burger with a patty of fried cheese!
  • Pad Thai Wok Bar – sort of like a Thai “Chipotle” – mix and match ingredients, build your own pad thai.  They also had tom kha soup and sticky mango rice – all of it was fresh and delicious!
  • Rosa Gelarto for delicious gelato made in the shape of a rose with gourmet flavors like chili chocolate, lemon basil, summer corn and strawberry elderflower – it is near St Stephen’s Basilica; look for the line.
  • Meatology.  This is where we discovered BelleVue Kriek, a cherry lambic from Belgium.  On draft!  I had two and they went down smooth and easy.  But as the name implies, meat is their game. They have really good burgers and I’ve had local meat dishes there like pork shanks – delicious!  Last time I took the waitress’s suggestion and got the special – curry pork cheeks with dumplings and root vegetables – and it was unreal. SO delicious.

  • Tuning Bar & Burger.  They were amazing!  Some of our favorite burgers ever.  I had the Texas Hot Burger with Grey Cattle, bacon, BBQ sauce, jalapenos, and srichacha aioli and a lovely glass of pinot.  The next year it was the Ranch Burger, still real good and you can watch your patties cook on the “grill cam.”

  • TöLTő  – Gourmet sausage dogs – delicious Hungarian sausages with a bunch of different toppings – make a great little snackAs tasty as they are beautiful!
Gourmet sausage dogs from TöLTő

Breakfast, Brunch and Lunch

  • Cirkusz – We ate here several times – great for breakfast or brunch.  Our daughter had eggs benedict, Mark had granola with fresh fruit and yogurt, and I had a Bloody Mary and the Turkish eggs.  And some lovely cappuccinos!  Mmmmm…
  • À la Maison – I had a Bloody Mary and a delicious bacon eggs benedict.  Very nice.
  • Il Terzo Cerchio (The Third Circle, a reference to Dante’s “Inferno”), a cozy pizza place with stone walls and wood-fired oven.  We shared a fresh, delicious salad to start, and the pizzas were also tasty.  Great ambiance!
  • More Brunch Places – Here is a list of the Top 15 brunch places in Budapest – don’t miss this list!

Coffee Houses

  • Auguszt Cukrászda, a well-known traditional café.  Mark and I each chose the Augustz cream cake – SO good. 
  • Művész Kávéház, a café built in 1898.  We had cake and coffee – I had the Dobos Torte – a Hungarian classic, it was ok, but Mark’s apple and cinnamon strudel was the best. The fruit tarte is also delicious.

Experiencing Budapest is Interesting and Delicious

A visit to Budapest hits you from all sides – scenic and beautiful, with astounding architecture, a heavy dose of rich history and an even heavier dose of rich delicious food. This primer will guide you so you can make the most of your visit.