Budapest, made up of the two former cities of Buda and Pest, is one of the most fascinating, beautiful places I’ve been to date. Its history is vibrant, dark, and complicated, with plenty of architectural reminders of wars and occupations. If there’s one thing Budapest has a monopoly on, it’s totally unique cultural phenomenon, the likes of which have tried to be copied but fail anywhere else.
Fun fact: Budapest is situated atop over 125 natural thermal springs, making it a bathhouse wonderland. We happened to be in Budapest in the frigid winter, which made the appeal of the hot pools that much higher. Budapest has a few bath house options, and we checked out the massive Széchenyi Baths and art nouveau-style Gellért Baths Széchenyi offers a touristy beer spa, much more Czech than Hungarian, and though it was tempting we chose to spend our day in the Buda-based Gellért Spa. My favorite attractions were the hottest thermal pool and the rooftop bath, which required a freezing dash to get to but was so worth it once we were submerged. Having forgotten to pack bathing suits, we splurged on some retro Hungarian swimsuits that seemed all too appropriate amongst the timeless decor.
Ruin bars, also called ruin pubs, are one of Budapest’s cultural claims to fame, and rightfully so. Housed in abandoned WWII bombed-out buildings, ruin bars are a mish-mosh of art, furniture, plants, and beverage service, of course. They’re huge, taking up entire buildings. Szimpla Kert is the oldest ruin bar and one of the most touristy (ruin bars used to be a rather underground operation, but word has definitely gotten out), but it’s absolutely worth paying a visit. With people filtering out of rooms and plenty of local drink options, the place feels like one giant party with cozy pockets in between. There are plenty of ruin bars to visit in Budapest’s old Jewish Quarter, some chicer than others. I’d recommend at least starting with Szimpla to get a feel for the phenomenon. Packed as it can get, there’s still something about the experience that feels rebellious and grungy.
By some miracle, Christmas markets were still up in Budapest even though we arrived on the 28th of December. Most markets go down the day after Christmas in Europe, a real travesty since they’re far superior to America’s (sorry Union Square Holiday Market. You tried, but you’re crowded and expensive and your gluhwein is non-alcoholic). Budapest’s markets were the best of our trip, full of so much glass and cinnamon cake, brimming with hot drink options, and even offering some crafts that didn’t look mass-produced. As lovely as I’m sure Central Europe is in the summer, Chrismas time is something out of a fairy tale.
Budapest’s history makes it a stellar candidate for a walking tour, where a local knowledgeable guide can answer your questions and point out Soviet vs. pre-Soviet architecture. If you take one, as we did, make sure you hit these next few sites:
Hősök tere features the Millenary Monument, the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The Shoes on the Danube Bank
A heartbreaking monument to the Jews shot into the river during an awful instance of Nazi violence. Jews were linked together in threes and the person in the middle was shot in the head, propelling the other two to drown and sink with them in the river.
This is THE castle in Budapest, home to former Hungarian kings with some of the best views overlooking the Danube.
The Opera House
Though nothing was playing when we visited, the architecture makes the building well worth a visit.
This Transylvanian-inspired castle, built in 1896, is an amalgamation of Romanesque, Gothic Renaissance, and Baroque architecture and looms over a lake that offers boating in the summer and skating in the winter.
St. Stephen’s Basilica and the Synagogue
Budapest has some stunning houses of worship, including the second largest synagogue in the world. Unfortunately the only photo I took of the synagogue was dark and blurry, so you’ll have to take my word for it.
The Museum of Terror
A wild look into Budapest’s decades of fascist occupation.
Starving as you’ll probably be after the tour, stop off at Getto Gulyas for a modern take on traditional Hungarian goulash, a convenient few blocks away from Szimpla.