Europe is a magical wonderland, filled with charming, historical cities waiting to be discovered. While most might add the bright lights of Paris, Rome, Berlin, Amsterdam or Barcelona to the itinerary of their next European adventure, there are plenty of less heralded destinations for those looking to wander down a road less traveled by. Hungary’s extraordinary capital, Budapest, is one such city, filled with historic sites, gothic architecture, exquisite culinary delights and a captivating culture ready to be explored.
The Danube River flows through the heart of Budapest, making for breathtaking views and splitting the city into two—the hilly and historic Buda and the trendy and bustling Pest. As you take in your surroundings on the famous Chain Bridge, which connects the two sides, you’ll feel the pulse of a city that has been a hub of civilisation since the Middle Ages, that has flourished in the face of adversity and seen far more than its fair share of historical events. Budapest is a city full of surprises, with richness and depth just waiting to be discovered, if only you know where to look.
First up, for the history enthusiasts amongst us, Budapest has no shortage of places to visit to delve into who and what has come before. While taking in the skyline, you’ll be able to spot the astounding neo-Gothic architecture of the Hungarian Parliament Building. Across the river lies Buda Castle, a former palace for Hungarian kings, originally built in 1265 and now housing the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum. The last century has been decisively difficult for Hungary, as they’ve suffered under both the fascist Nazi and then the communist Soviet regimes, only gaining their freedom from the latter in 1989 as the Soviet Union began to crumble. To learn more about this history, you must visit the House of Terror, a museum dedicated to the remembrance of these two horrific regimes and a memorial to the victims who were held captive, tortured and killed in that very building. Heroes Square, the largest and most iconic square in Budapest, is a short walk away from the museum and not to be missed. The Museum of Fine Arts and the Kunsthalle, two galleries with incredible collections sit on either side of Heroes Square and both are definitely worth the visit if you fancy combining your visit with some world class art. If you’d like to learn more about Hungarian history, don’t miss the Hungarian National Museum, which diligently documents this fascinating country’s past, from the earliest evidence of settlers in the Paleolithic age to the present day. The Dohány Street Synagogue is also a must see for your trip to Budapest. It’s the largest synagogue in Europe, an architectural masterpiece both inside and out, and also home to a Jewish Museum, a Jewish Cemetery and a Holocaust Memorial Park. Another incredibly touching memorial is Shoes on the Danube Bank, which features 60 pairs of iron shoes along the promenade of the Danube River’s east bank and pays tribute to the 3500 people who were ordered to remove their shoes before they were executed at the water’s edge in 1944. Budapest has a dark past and the city is filled with stark reminders; many buildings are still riddled with bullet holes from the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. These many historic sites make for a solemn visit but a necessary one, as it’s our duty to remember the horrors of the past, so that we can learn from them.
If you’re more of a foodie than a history buff, I can assure you that you’ll definitely leave Budapest feeling satisfied. Hungarian cuisine is rich, hearty and delicious with plenty of surprises, like lángos, a deep-fried dough covered in sour cream and a variety of toppings like garlic sauce, cheese and sausage. The first stop on your culinary adventure must be the Great Market Hall, a huge indoor market with three stories of food stalls and vendors selling salamis, pickles, fish, Tokaji wines and Hungarian paprika—sweeter than its counterparts due to Hungary’s unique climate and a spice that this nation is undoubtedly addicted to. The best spot for authentic Hungarian cuisine is definitely Hungarikum Bisztro, a restaurant with a homey feel and food that tastes like it was made by a Hungarian grandmother who has devoted herself to mouthwatering meals and fattening up her grandchildren. Come here after a busy day of sightseeing and eat Hungarian dumplings to your heart’s content, but definitely make sure to reserve a table. For more Hungarian fare, visit Macesz Bistro, a charming restaurant in the city’s trendy Jewish Quarter with a cozy, old-fashioned interior and a focus on authentic Jewish dishes. For something a little more modern, in both cuisine and atmosphere, check out nearby Mazel Tov, a Middle Eastern restaurant with cocktails, mezze plates and Mediterranean delights.
Budapest’s Jewish Quarter has no shortage of restaurants, dimly lit cocktail bars and bustling watering holes to while the night away. After dinner, visit Hotsy Totsy or Black Swan for cocktails or, if you prefer something a bit more lively, you cannot miss one of the city’s many ruin bars. What is a ruin bar? Well, simply put, ruin bars are bars that have cropped up inside abandoned and run down buildings, mostly within the Jewish Quarter, where so many buildings lay empty after World War II. Now, these spaces have a second life, as these labyrinthine ruins have become the go-to place for young Budapesters to dance and drink their night away. The most popular ruin bar is Szimpla Kert, with an outdoor courtyard, live music and 8 themed rooms, including a Shisha Bar, a Wine Bar and a chillout zone; it’s easy to spend all night here and easier still to get lost! For a more decadent affair, you absolutely must visit the New York Cafe (I traveled to Budapest just to go here) and enjoy a coffee and a cake in the world’s most beautiful cafe. I recommend you linger here, enjoy the live music and let this elegant and enchanting setting transport you to another world.
Last but not least, Budapest is considered to be the Spa Capital of the World, and so no trip is complete without at least one long, relaxing soak in the warm waters of one of the city’s many spas. You must visit the Szechenyi Spa Baths, one of the largest medicinal thermal spas in Europe, set inside the grounds of a sprawling palace. This place is magnificent and you could easily spend an entire day here. Inside there are 15 pools, all of different temperatures as well as different steam rooms and saunas. If you’re looking for somewhere a little less popular, try the Gellért Spa instead; it’s smaller but equally luxurious, and the perfect spot to relax after exploring.
Budapest is still a less popular destination than many of its European counterparts, but if you give it a chance you will surely be rewarded tenfold, and you won’t be bogged down by endless crowds of tourists. Whether it’s history, food, culture, debauchery or relaxation you’re looking for, this captivating city has something for you and will leave you longing for it, long after you’ve returned home.
Bryony Parker is a writer and artist currently living in São Paulo, Brazil and working on her Masters in International Affairs. You can find her at @par666ker on all social media.