Cafés, City Walks, and a Whole Lot of Fascinating History
Budapest is a beautiful city with lots of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, grand cafés and of course it’s famous for thermal hot springs and ruin pubs. But what makes Budapest fascinating? To me, it’s the two regimes of terror that the people in Budapest and Hungary endured in the not so distant past – first the Arrow Cross (Nazi-occupied Hungary’s version of the Gestapo) and then the AVO/AVH (communist Hungary’s secret police).
Top Experiences in Budapest
- The Terror Museum
- Széchenyi Thermal Baths and Swimming Pools
- Holokauszt Emlékközpont – Holocaust Memorial Center (Páva St. 39)
- Danube tour boat at night
- Hospital in the Rocks
Worst things about Budapest
- The Great Market Hall was an impressive building, but crowded with tourists.
Hello (Szia) Budapest!
What better way to start your first afternoon in Budapest than relaxing in an historic coffee house? Our first stop was Book Café (Lotz Hall) on the historic shopping street Andrássy Street. It can be hard to spot from the street, through the Alexandra bookstore and up the escalator to the second floor. Enjoy your coffee and cake in a simply stunning interior accompanied by a classical pianist!
The Lotz Hall was named after Károly Lotz, who painted the murals inside the Book café, as well as those of the Budapest Opera House, Parliament, National Museum, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and many more. The Lotz Hall was restored to it’s dazzling glory and the entire building (the Párizsi Nagyáruház) has been a protected monument since 1967.
Language Tip: One word you’re sure to remember how to pronounce in the tongue-twisting Hungarian language is an informal word you can use interchangeably for Hi or Bye – Szia is pronounced Seeya, like in See Ya later…but it’s an informal word – that means use it only with people you are on first name basis with!
The best way to get oriented to a city is a walking tour, and if you can catch the Free Budapest Walking Tour Original Walk in the morning you’ll be perfectly positioned at the end to explore the sites on Castle Hill, the Buda side of Budapest.
Tip: After the walking tour, don’t go into Matthias Church just yet, instead take a break and walk down the street to Ruszwurm, Budapest’s oldest café and one of Europe’s oldest pastry shops. The specialty cake is their Kreme, but we loved the Chocolate Torte too.
Hospital in the Rock
The fascinating Hospital in the Rock is down the hill from Ruszwurm Café. Tunnels were carved out under Buda Hill and completely equipped and used as an emergency hospital in WWII and the 1956 Revolution, and as a nuclear fallout shelter during the Cold War. Part of the tunnels were used as a command center by the Nazis in the siege of Budapest in WWII. A terrific guided tour even if you don’t get as much time as you’d like to look at all the exhibits.
Tip: Tours are on the hour every hour when they’re open. Time your café break so you can make the tour without a long wait.
Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion
On the walking tour you’ll learn all about why this church is called Matthias Church instead of its prior names Saint Stephens (there’s a statue of St. Stephen outside) or The Church of Mary, it’s original name. This historic church is one of the oldest buildings in Buda and has seen a lot of history – from it’s middle age beginnings, to the coronations and weddings of Hungarians kings, to a mosque in the Turkish occupation of Buda, and a camp by Germans and Soviets in 1944-45. The church was badly damaged in WWII but today it’s worth a look inside to see the beautifully restored interior.
So why is it called Matthias Church? The church isn’t named for Saint Matthew, it’s named for King Matthias Corvinus, a legendary figure in Hungarian history who had the church remodeled and expanded in the 15th century and added the bell tower. The King was married here too…twice! – giving the church it’s name and and ever after one of the best wedding venues in Hungary.
Terrific panoramic views from neo-Romanesque Fisherman’s Bastion, a view terrace that takes its name from the fishermen that guarded this section of the castle rampart in the middle ages.
Tip: There is a combination ticket for both the Matthias Church and The Fisherman’s Bastion. The Fisherman’s Bastion is directly behind Matthias Church and is nothing more than a lovely short walkway with views across the Danube to Pest. If you don’t want to spring for the extra to walk there you really get the same views from the free walkway below – or an even better view from the café on one of the Bastion’s towers.
There’s more to do on Castle Hill but we had plenty of other sights to see in Budapest and despite the length of our stays, we never made it back up here.
The Great Synagogue
The Dohány Street Synagogue (The Great Synagogue) was high on our list of first sights. It’s big – the largest in Europe and second largest in the world. The tour is well worth it; the synagogue interesting and impressive; and outside, the mass graves of Jewish people who were murdered here in the Ghetto in 1945 and the Willow Tree with names of murdered Hungarian Jews on the leaves is sad and very moving.
Tip: Check the Dohány Street Synagogue website for opening hours and plan your visit for one of the English language tour times.
Heroes Square, City Park, and Shoes on the Danube
Saturday was a great day for a walk up tree-lined Andrassy Avenue (a World Heritage Site!) to Heroes Square and City Park, admiring the buildings along the way. We couldn’t have timed it better – there was a festival going on with Fire and Police exhibits, trucks, games, concerts, and rides. Lots of activity and of course FOOD!
One treat you must try in Budapest is kürtőskalács (Funnel Cake) – a tasty sweet dough treat roasted on a spit over coals and sprinkled with the traditional cinnamon or something else. My favorite was walnut. Yumm.
Meandering all over the tree filled park with the locals was a great break. But walking for the day wasn’t over – we wandered back down to the Danube for a close up look at the Parliament…and the moving Shoes on the Danube memorial.
The memorial honors the Jews who were murdered by the Arrow Cross, the Nazi puppet power in Budapest in WWII. The people were lined up and forced to take off their valuable shoes and shot to drop dead into the Danube.
Tip: You’ll have a much greater appreciation of some of the history if you get a chance to read (or listen to) a wonderful book about Raoul Wallenberg “The Envoy” by Alex Kershaw. The garden in the Great Synagogue in Budapest is dedicated to him.
Tip: All the way up to City Park and back down to the Danube is quite a distance. If you don’t want that much exertion you can hop on the metro at the Park near the baths or Heroes Square and take it down to Deak Ter for 700 forints (about $2.50).
An afternoon at the Széchenyi Baths
A couple of years ago when I first looked into visiting Budapest, I thought going to a public bath was kind of, well… yucky. Trust me, it’s not! We spent a lot of time there, in and out of every pool they offered, except the lap pool – that’s for people who are serious about laps. My favorites were the aromatherapy steam rooms, lavender and menthol. A lot of fun and a uniquely Budapest experience.
There are 2 entrances, the main fancy entrance faces City Park. We went to the entrance on the opposite side, facing the zoo.
Tip: You can share a changing cabin, pay for 1 changing cabin and pay for 1 regular entry (no cabin, no locker). Each of you gets a waterproof bracelet to access the baths, and one of you will have the bracelet that opens the changing cabin.
The House of Terror
If you only have time for one museum in Budapest, make it the House of Terror (Terrorhaza)! The building was the headquarters of BOTH terror regimes in Budapest – the Arrow Cross (Nazi-occupied Hungary’s version of the Gestapo) and the AVO/AVH (Communist Hungary’s Secret Police).
Chilling and compelling history, you’ll appreciate the resilience of the Hungarian people that endured these two regimes of terror in the not so distant past.
Tip: If they are out of English language audioguides, don’t worry – there are pages to pick up at each room that describes what’s going on in the exhibit.
Tip: The Rick Steves’ Budapest guide has an excellent self-guided tour you can read while you walk around.
Great Break: Have a coffee and cake at one of the sidewalk tables at the iconic Művész Kávéház near the Opera House. Great sandwiches too!
Gellert Hill, Church in the Rock, and more walks around the Danube
A great walk for views over Budapest is up to Gellert Hill. It may look far but took only about 20 minutes to walk from the apartment near Deak Ter up to the top. A walk back down the other side toward Liberty Bridge brings you to the Church in the Rock for a quick and interesting visit.
Tip: The top of Gellert Hill is THE photo op spot. We were taking a break on some benches near some local men who were hanging around. Eventually we saw the men set up a shell game, that’s where an object is hidden under 3 cups, the cups are moved around quickly and the observer bets which “shell” the object is under. One of the guys pretended to be a passerby observing and betting. Sure enough, a couple of tourists were sucked in and lost some money.
There was a lot we still wanted to do in Budapest but we were really relaxed about that because…we knew we would be back. And soon too, our plans were for a country break road trip to Eger, Tarcal, and Tiszafured and then back to Budapest for 3 more nights.
First stop: 3 nights in Eger: A Fortress, Wine Caves, and a Terrific Cave Tour
Next: 2 nights in Tarcal: Country Break Hungarian Style – 2 Nights in an Outstanding Spa Hotel
Last 3 nights of the country break: 3 Nights in Tiszafüred – Relaxing Lake Tisza and the Puszta
Rental Car: A 4 door Suzuki Swift from the Avis downtown location near St. Istvan’s, just a short walk from the apartment with our luggage. The Swift was a nice little car, but the boot space was tiny – it would only hold our 2 rolling carry-ons. The big laptop bags went on the back seat. Good thing we were driving from destination to destination!
The car return to the same location was easy and only took a few minutes. Terrific and friendly service with no surprises.
Tip: Avis cars include the e-matrica (electronic e-sticker/vignette) required to drive on motorways.
Back to Budapest
Tour Boat Ride on the Danube
The first night we were back in Budapest we finally made it to take a Danube cruise at night. Seeing the magnificent buildings lit up is not to be missed! We took the Legenda tour boat and sat on the outside. Get in line early to get the best seat.
Tip: Go to the Legenda tour boat dock and ask for the Rick Steves’ discount and go early in the day to reserve your time, they fill up.
Tip: Don’t forget your warm clothes in early May!
Holocaust Memorial Center
Not to be confused with the Dohány Street Synagogue and its memorials and museums, this wonderful museum and research center is on Páva Street, 39. It seems out of the way to many people but it’s really not far, and well worth the walk. You can spend hours here. There are interactive exhibits, family stories, movies and lots more. One of the best in Europe.
Great Eats: Suelto Bistro – Our first dinner on our first night in Budapest was at Suelto, I was in the mood for a salad and what a DELICIOUS salad it was – Duck breast salad with fresh fruits and raspberry vinegar. Another winner was the not-a-crumb left Beef Cheeks stew with potato dumplings. All accompanied by a nice Hungarian wine. We had dinner here again a few nights later, this time outside to enjoy the lovely evening. Our last dinner in Budapest was a repeat of our first. Terrific food, prices and wait staff.
Tip: Tipping: If paying cash for your meal at a restaurant, don’t pay and say “Thank You” if you expect to get any cash back. “Thank You” along with your cash payment means keep the change. Wait for the change back, leave what you want for a tip and THEN say köszönöm (Thank you)!
We had 2 different apartments in Budapest, both close to the Deák Ter metro, a perfectly central location for walking everywhere and also where the 3 metro lines intersect. After our first Budapest apartment, we picked up a rental car and headed east for a long country break road trip. Eventually we were headed to Vienna, but Budapest is the hub in Hungary and it was easiest to pick up and return the car in Budapest and take the train to Vienna from there. This trip was all about easy! Our second apartment was after our relaxing break in the Hungarian countryside.
8 nights in a terrific 2 bedroom/2 bath apartment with everything you could want – stylish, spotless, spacious, QUIET, location, view and terrific host. Having some English language channels on TV was a bonus for our nights in, plus CNN and BBC for news as well as connecting our laptop through the HDMI port for watching our own movies. Fast flawless WIFI too. Quiet, yet right in the center and steps away from the Deak Ferenc metro where you can get to all 3 lines. But we usually ended up just walking – everywhere we wanted to go was only about 15-20 minutes away on foot, even to the top of Gellert Hill!
3 more nights in Budapest in a beautiful apartment 5 minutes walk from Deák Ferenc tér. Great Stay in an elegant apartment with lots of class, spotless and sparkling – our 3 nights in the apartment was way too short. We relaxed in the living room with the large TV that had English language news channels like BBC International and RT (Russian TV English – really interesting!) and Al Jezeera English. WIFI was fast and flawless. Loved having 2 full bathrooms for the 2 of us, and the kitchen had everything we needed. Loved ending the day out on the balcony with the view to the colorful dome of the University Library down the street. Terrific host!
Arriving in Budapest
After a 3.25 hour nonstop flight on Ryanair from Madrid, getting to the center from the airport was easy and reasonable. With the official taxi service in a kiosk outside arrivals, just walk out of the terminal to the Taxi kiosk and tell them where you’re going. You get a slip of paper with the price. Hop in the cab you are directed to and off you go. The cab driver’s GPS is networked so he already has your destination, you don’t have to tell him a thing! Our ride to Szomory Dezső Ter was 6,960ft, just round up to 7,000ft and it’s about $25.00.
Tip: There are lots of people inside trying to get you to take THEIR taxi service. Just ignore and go to the official kiosk outside.
Tip: Keep things simple and have your destination address written down to hand to the Taxi kiosk agent.
Szia (“seeya” – Bye!) Budapest!
Train from Budapest to Vienna
Budapest is the hub in Hungary and it was easiest to pick up and return the car in Budapest after our break in the countryside and take the train to Vienna from there. This trip was all about easy!
The highspeed Railjet from Budapest to Vienna is comfortable and fast. Seats are automatically reserved for you and there’s no need to pay for first class.
Travel: Train from Budapest to Vienna – 2.5 hours to Vienna Wien Hbf (Hauptbahnhof – the main train station). Budapest-Keleti station. Metro M2 (Red) from Deák Ferenc tér to Keleti. 5 minute walk from apartment to Deák Ferenc metro.
Tip: If you know when you’re going to travel you can get reduced fare 13€ tickets in advance. If you buy at the last minute the reduced fare may be sold out, but the fare is still reasonable at €19 per ticket. Reduced fare available about 90 days in advance.