Lately, it seems that more and more of my friends and acquaintances are visiting Budapest. Why this is happening when I’m not there, I don’t know. I love playing tour guide! Regardless, I’ve been asked multiple times for tips and favourite things in the city. After living there for almost 2 years, here are some of my favourite things to do in the city, some touristy, and others not.
1. Head to a thermal bath to soak in history and relax.
Budapest is built on top of natural springs and thermal waters. With so many different baths, a week in Budapest could easily turn into one huge spa adventure. Spa culture is pretty big in Hungary I’ve found from experience. They believe in the healing powers of the waters for any sort of aliment that you may have. Speaking to Hungarians, you’ll hear them say that they’re going to the “wellness” centre which is Hungrish for going to the spa and/or swimming pool. For a “tourist attraction,” you’d be surprised at how many locals there are in the pools with you!
2. Take in a cheap opera or ballet (or two) at the Opera house.
With the cheapest tickets at 500 HUF each, there is no excuse. Spring for the 1200 HUF tickets and your view is even better. You can feel classy without breaking the bank. Or if you’re like me, and actually enjoy the opera and ballet, you can see a variety of shows at the Opera house at an affordable price.
3. Get high up
With the rolling hills of Buda and intricate streets of Pest, there are plenty of great views if you get high up. If you’re looking for a bit of exercise, take a walk up Gellert Hill. You’ll be rewarded with spectacular views. Go in the evening and watch the sunset. Alternatively, you can climb up the bell towers of St. Stephen’s Basilica and see all of Pest before you.
Some of my best memories of Budapest involve sitting out in late at the night at Akvarium (previously Godor) just off of Erzsebét tér sharing a bottle of wine or having some beers with friends. The bar itself is underground, but the seating area is outside. In the hot summers, this is the perfect place to be at night.
5. Explore the central market hall
Eat your way around the Central Market Hall. It’s three levels filled with the sights, sounds and smells of fresh fruits, vegetables and Hungarian foods. Pick up a picnic lunch on the main floor to be enjoyed atop Gellert Hill or at Margit Island (see #8), or head upstairs to try your hand at the food stalls.
Feeling more adventurous? You can go to the market at Lehel ter for a similar experience, but less English and virtually no tourists.
6. Ruin bars (enough said!)
Budapest is famous for its ruin bars – old apartment buildings refurbished into hip and vibrant bars full of quirky decorations. Typically, these places are hidden behind questionable looking doors and you’re not too sure where you headed, but those are the best ones. Szimpla is the most famous, having being selected #3 on Lonely Planet’s 100 best bars in the world (another Budapest establishment, A38, is #1), and is a favourite with hostels. But if you’re looking for an experience with less tourists (re: cheaper) head to my other favourites: Fogas Haz, or Instant. But there are plenty around, so explore!
7. Ice Skating!
With all this talk of summer activities, here is one for the winter – ice skating in City Park (Varosliget). This man-made pool is turned into an outdoor skating rink once the temperature dips below zero. Its great fun to be whizzing around in the great outdoors. Just don’t expect a Zamboni to come around the bend to smooth the ice or comfortable skates if you’re renting.
8. Enjoy the great outdoors on Margit island
A tranquil island park right in the centre of a busy city, Margit Island is an escape. Pack a picnic lunch, go to the petting zoo or explore the ruins on the island. There is a running track along the outside of the island. At night, the island turns into a bit of a club, bringing out many party goers. Watch out for hedgehogs that like to roam at night!
9. Cooking & Eating!
I spent a lot of time cooking and eating and learning about Hungarian cuisine. Luckily I had a few Hungarian friends who loved to cook so I learned the basics of many Hungarian dishes. But when not in the kitchen I would explore the different markets and restaurants of Budapest, trying different foods. Like langós, a deep fried dough smothered in sour cream and cheese (great after a couple of beers). Or bacon wrapped chicken liver from a butcher shop (surprisingly good despite the liver). Or having a cold fruit soup as an appetizer.
10. Walk along Andrassy utca, or the Danube. Or anywhere really.
Budapest is a very walkable city. If you look at the Pest side on a map, it looks like the spokes of a wheel. If you’re anywhere within in the inner circle, then everything is walking distance. Andrássy út, one of the spokes, runs from the centre of Budapest, Deak Ferenc ter, to Hero’s Square. It is a large, tree-lined avenue filled with shops and world embassies, and famous buildings like the Opera House. The buildings and the intricate architecture on each is amazing. Alternatively, a walk along the Danube is great, especially with an ice cream cone in hand.
Have you been to Budapest? What were your favourite things?
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