Travel: What to do in Budapest

Exploring Budapest

So today I’m taking you to the beautiful city of Budapest – the capital of Hungary and home to around two million people. It’s a sprawling and diverse city on the banks of the River Danube which was officially created in 1872 with the unification of three separate settlements – Buda, Pest and Old Buda.

I do love a good city break, there’s always so much to discover but there’s never enough time. So this is a taster (and it is just a taster) of what this amazing place has to offer and my favourite bits on my first visit.

We stayed on the Pest side of the river. It’s newer than the Buda side as it was severely bombed in World War II and it’s a lot flatter, perfect for endless meandering. And the views across to the hillier side of the river are quite stunning.

I travelled with my friend Jules and we visited in early December, ready for chilly days – around 0 degrees (that’s the maximum) – with our favourite bobble hats, scarves and the thickest of socks. We were prepared!

Bring it on Budapest!

Our main goal was to explore the Christmas markets. These markets are famous throughout Europe and I’d never experienced one until my recent river cruise through Germany and Austria (more of that later). They are truly magical with such a range of unique products to buy and warming food and drinks to keep you going. And fairy lights everywhere! Fairy lights truly do make life more beautiful. So that’s number one on my list of what to do in Budapest.

Visit the Christmas markets

Wrapped up warm and ready to shop

On our first afternoon we headed for St Stephens Basilica which is dedicated to Hungary’s first King, Stephen (!) and is surrounded by twinkling stalls.

Happiness is…fairy lights everywhere

The Hungarians love a hot drink – hooray! Plenty of delightful combos to taste – this stall sold hot blueberry punch which was particularly mouthwatering.

There’s a mind-blowing selection of hot drinks to keep you going.

The main market is in Vorosmarty Square, at the top of Fashion Street. The best thing about Budapest’s markets (which they actually call fairs) is that they showcase traditional Hungarian arts and crafts rather than selling the commercialised produce that too often appears everywhere. We were fascinated by the range on offer, some of which, sadly, was too heavy for us to bring home. Like these ceramic pots for roasting chickens (well, that’s what we decided they were for!).

Budapest: ceramics
The ceramics were beautiful and unique
Vorosmarty market shimmers at night

Visit the Jewish Quarter

We went everywhere on foot…my favourite way to explore. There’s so much to see along the way. The old Jewish Quarter (which became the ghetto during World War II) is buzzing with bars and restaurants, including the Gozsdu Udvar – a courtyard filled with restaurants and bars and a lively weekend market.

The twinkle welcomes you in to Gozsdu Udvar

The beautiful Dohany Street synagogue is the largest in Europe.

The majestic synagogue towers over the Jewish Quarter

Take a riverside amble

It’s great when a city has a river running through it – so much easier for finding your bearings. And there’s so much to see along the riverside like The Houses of Parliament. They were inspired by the English ones – there’s a definite likeness. Particularly beautiful shrouded in the early evening mist.

Parliament on a misty evening

Just down from Parliament is the incredibly moving sculpture, The Shoes on the Danube Bank. It honours the Jews who were killed during World War II. They were ordered to take off their shoes and were shot at the edge so their bodies fell into the water and were carried away. Despite being in the middle of bustling city life, an eerie quiet surrounded this incredible work of art. We loved it so much we had to go there twice.

The impactful sculpture in the atmospheric fog
Budapest: The Shoes on the Danube Bank
The Shoes on the Danube Bank with the Palace in the distance

Walk across the Chain Bridge

The Chain Bridge connects Buda with Pest and may pretty much look like any other bridge (if a grand one), but it’s significant because this 19th century suspension bridge was the first permanent one crossing the Danube in Budapest. Before its existence you’d have to catch the ferry across or travel to Vienna to find the nearest bridge. That’s quite some journey.

The Chain Bridge connects Buda and Pest

There are fabulous views as you amble across, particularly of the magnificent Royal Palace (AKA the Buda Castle).

Visit the Royal Palace via funicular

Okay, so I admit I didn’t actually do this but it’s first on my list for my next visit. The Palace has a history dating back to the 13th century and is home to the National Gallery, Castle Museum and National Library.

The grandeur of the Palace on top of the hill

The precipitous funicular looks like a particularly cool way to get there, soaring steeply upwards to the magnificent monument 150 feet above the city.

Try the local food

Well, obviously. This is my favourite part of travelling. We had our first lunch at Aurum Bistro where we tucked into hearty fare – delectable goose liver, pork and sausages. Hungary is the world’s second biggest producer of foie gras after France – it’s everywhere! And yummy.

Grilled goose liver in brioche with rocket

The country is also a big wine producer – which I didn’t realise – so we made sure to sample the local grapes as often as possible, starting with this delicious Merlot.

As part of our quest to learn as much as possible about Hungarian food we organised a food tour with foodtourbudapest.com Our lovely guide Nora, led us through the streets to fascinating places explaining so much about the Hungarian way of life and its people.

Like did you know the Rubik cube was invented by a Hungarian (Erno Rubik) – drove me mad that thing – as was the biro (by Chaszlo Biro). Famous escapologist Harry Houdini hailed from Hungary and Hungary has more noble prize winners per capita (mainly in physics and maths) than any other country in the world. They are a clever bunch. Just as well. Hungarian is considered by many to be the most difficult language to learn on the planet. Not that it’s a problem for visitors, everyone speaks perfect English.

The clever 3-D rendition of the Rubik cube which was invented here

And of course Nora made sure we also experienced the real flavour of Hungary through its food. At Korhely restaurant we tucked into a feast of Lángos (a type of tasty fried bread) and boar pörkölt (stew), Lecsó (stewed tomatoes, peppers and onions),  túrós csusza (noodles with curd cheese and sour cream, bacon) and Bull’s Blood from Eger. Don’t panic – Bull’s Blood is one of the wonderful local red wines and our favourite of the trip. All extremely satisfying.

The crunch of Lángos and beautifully rich boar pörkölt

Enjoy the cafe culture

Budapest has a truly unique cafe scene. During the time of the Austro-Hungarian empire there were over 400 coffee shops in the city and, open 24/7, they were the centre of intellectual life and frequented by journalists, actors, painters and musicians. In the communist times many were closed down as their leaders believed them to be the centre of underground rebellion. Luckily for us some have since been renovated and restored to their original splendour – and they really do define splendid.

Like Cafe Central (Central Kavehaz) with its high ceilings, gleaming woodwork and plush seating.

The enticing bar at Cafe Central
Classic Christmas pose outside Cafe Central

We enjoyed a traditional Gulyás soup. Yes it’s a goulash – which is more of a soup than a stew if you make it the authentic Hungarian way – well, that’s gotta be the best way to make it hasn’t it?

There is also an incredible cornucopia of tea and coffee places throughout the city. You’re not going to go thirsty in Budapest, no matter what your preferred tipple

Marvel at the Great Market Hall

Okay, more food-related exploration! This market made me want to move to Budapest and start cooking local recipes with all the amazing fresh ingredients.

Hungary is Paprika Land and around 1,000 tonnes of it are produced here every year. One of my best ingredients for cooking I was truly amazed at the shapes and forms they produce it in.

Paprika as far as the eye can see – heavenly

And the pickles! Hungarians do enjoy a good pickle and I don’t think I’ve ever seen them more beautifully presented.

The most beautiful pickles in the world

And then there’s the local liquor. This is Palinka – a kind of fruit brandy that’s amazingly tasty with a good alcoholic hit. We also tasted the unique Unicom – another liquor made using more than 40 herbs – it’s pleasantly bitter (yes, I discovered something can be pleasantly bitter). Both drinks are considered medicinally useful, I certainly felt better after sampling them!

The country grows an incredible range of vegetables, too. I was surprised at the wonderful displays.

Vibrant vegetables topped off with chilli

Shop in Fashion Street

Yes, there really is a place called Fashion Street. It has to be the coolest of the cool streets I’ve ever been to, lined with bars and hotels and shops selling all the world’s top brands. Beware – some serious credit card bashing could go on here. At night it was lit up in all its glory with stunning fashion-inspired Christmas lights. Quite simply breathtaking.

Designer heaven and more sparkle
Loving the fashion-inspired Christmas lights

Where to stay

We stayed at the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus which was on Fashion Street and only a few minutes walk to both Christmas markets. Our room was spacious and extremely comfortable and the service was impeccable.

For next time

Okay, before I get a barrage of messages (well, wouldn’t that be nice), telling me all the things I didn’t do in Budapest, I have a plan. Another visit. There’s so much more history and architecture to discover, the incredible geothermal springs under the city, more shopping and eating, the ruin bars and a trip on the wheel. And of course a cruise down the Danube.

Have you been to Budapest? What did you love about it? Where do you recommend I go on my next visit? I’d love to hear from you.

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