Local's Guide to Budapest
Hungary has a special place in my heart. Both my grandparents on my mother's side were born and raised there. They met in Canada after leaving Europe during WWII. My grandfather installed transmission wires during the war for the Hungarian army. This was a dangerous task as opposing forces would try to bomb the transmissions so the Allies' armies couldn't communicate with each other. My grandmother escaped Hungary on the top of a train when the Russian and German front was in her town. It's safe to say they both have interesting tales to tell about their years in war torn Europe. Their customs, food and culture has been instilled in me through my mother who grew up within a Hungarian community in Montreal attending Hungarian formal balls dancing the Waltz, helping my grandmother cook meals every night, and attending a Hungarian church. Having been to Budapest a couple times, I can attest that it's truly the "Paris of the east". Budapest is now having it's moment, and I don't think that "moment" is ending anytime soon.
H i s t o r i c a l S i t e s
Buda Castle: Historical, baroque castle and palace of Hungarian kings. I’ve stumbled upon Palinka (moonshine) festivals in the courtyard so make sure to check out what events are going on while you’re visiting! It’s a beautiful setting as it sits on top of a hill that overlooks all of Budapest.
Széchenyi Chain Bridge: At night, walk across this bridge with a bottle of wine and choose a spot to relax and enjoy twinkly views of both sides of the Danube.
Hungarian Parliament: Situated right on the banks of the Danube, the massive Gothic building is best viewed from across the river.
Halaszbastya (Fisherman's Bastion) & Matthias Tempolom: Located Right next to each other on the Buda side of the Danube, these historic buildings are pillars of Hungarian culture.
Margit-sziget (Margaret Island): Between Buda and Pest, this island offers walking trails, fountains, and promenades for locals and tourists to explore.
Szent István-bazilika (St. Stephen's Basilica): A Roman Catholic church named after the first King of Hungary.
Hospital in the Rock Nuclear Bunker Museum: This museum tours through a hospital built in caves in preparation for WWII. It provided emergency care for civilians and soldiers throughout the war.
Dohány Street Synagogue (Great Synagogue)
For a great spa day head to the infamous Gellert Hotel and Baths. They have indoor and outdoor pools, all range from hot to cold and they even have a wave pool. It's a historic, art nouveau hotel on the Buda side bank of the Danube. It's believed that the water has healing qualities, so make sure to take a dip in more than one pool to soak it all in.
If you’re craving some traditional Hungarian shopping, stop by the Great Market Hall (Nagy Vasar Csarnok). Along with more touristy stalls, the last time I was visiting I met two polish men who convinced me to buy a hand made shearling coat for a steal! I’ts always worth checking out what’s in the market, since you can stumble upon some great finds. Another recommendation is to splurge on a hand embroidered top. Hungarians are known for their hand embroidery, which is normally expensive due to the intricacy of patterns and the time it takes to sew. My grandmother used to embroider table cloths when I was younger so I have seen how tedious the process can be. You can also find cheaper machine made versions with the similar patterns for more affordable prices around the city.
I’m a big fan of public art so I have to recommend one of my favorite memorials. The public art display, Shoes on the Danube Bank, a permanent memorial for the Jewish citizens persecuted in WWII. Sculptor Gyula Pauer re-created 60 pairs of period appropriate shoes that leaves you feeling a sense of loss and empathy towards family member of the ones murdered. It particularly addresses the story of a group of Jewish men, women and children were told to take their shoes off before they were shot and fell into the river.
If you're looking for a good run, Margaret island (Margit-sziget) is the perfect spot to get a short 3 miler out of the way. It's an island in the middle of the Danube and consists of mainly a large park.
R u i n B a r s
One of my favorite activities in Budapest is hopping between ruin bars. The concept of a ruin bar was created about a decade ago when one of Budapest's many abandoned buildings was converted into a low key bar and club using reclaimed chairs and tables. These ruin bars are unique buildings that are filled with left-behind articles and furniture. A lot of them don’t have any cohesive design, everything is mismatched, found and then used. The buildings were left to decay after WWII and most ruin bars originally existed under the radar, and looked like normal homes or buildings, blending into the city...until you walk into the quirky interior. Now there are some more established ones that have a bit more upscale vibes. This concept is unique to Budapest and I recommend visiting a few, or many! Here are some of my cousin and I's favorite spots to have a drink:
The best for partying are Fogashaz and Instant.
The most international crowds hang out at Szimpla Kert.
For a great outdoor environment check out Koleves Kert and Durer Kert.
A few more upscale options are Puder and Szatyor.
Great for dates or just a good hang out is Csendes.
Another time in Budapest during my most recent trip, my mom, sister and I attended the Fozdefeszt beer fest (also in the courtyard of the Buda castle). As I sat at a picnic table in the middle of a European castle, eating local cuisine and drinking a locally brewed beer, I had a moment where I truly fell in love with Budapest. Tons of locals attended the festival and everyone was there to party and have a good time. Getting to visit where my family came from while enjoying local Hungarian food my grandmother used to make and partying with locals made me feel so at home. It’s definitely a city I will keep coming back to.
f a v o r i t e E A T S
Kehli Mama has the best stuffed cabbage my mother has ever had and that's saying a lot since my grandmother's is notorious. It's a bit out of the way, extremely old and definitely worth the trek for the delicious Hungarian food and live gypsy music.
Ruszwurm Cukraszda is one of the best pastry shops in Budapest and I would personally recommend "cremes". It's family run and boasts a 200 year-old wooden counter. Everything is fresh and homemade.
Cafe Kor is an excellent choice for local cuisine and located right next to the basilica. We have recommended it to many people who have come back with great reviews and rave about the ambiance and quality of food!
21 Magyr is higher end and has quite a chic interior. It's located in Buda castle and offers a modern take on traditional dishes with a superb selection of Hungarian wine.
Csalogany is unassuming from the outside and prepares some of Budapest's best authentic food that boasts a seasonally changing menu.
Lotz Terem (Book Cafe)- Beautiful cafe attached to a bookstore, art gallery, and department store. The cafe is located in a ballroom on the second floor and is exactly where you imagine having coffee in a romanticized version of Europe from years past.
Comme Chez Soi has great Italian cuisine (if you need a break from Hungarian food) and is located in the heart of the city.
There is a small stall normally posted up in square Vorosmarty Ter. They serve the best langos I have ever tasted, no joke. (Langos is a fried dough, normally topped with garlic and salt but has evolved and is now served with a wide variety of topping...great to have with a local beer!). The stall is not always in one location but if you ask the women in the surrounding booths, they could probably help you find them!