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A Weekend in Budapest

Updated: Dec 15, 2021

(Oct 28 - Nov 1, 2021)

Budapest has been on both Nick and my bucket lists for a long time! The city is filled with incredibly beautiful architecture, elegant boulevards, gritty "ruin pubs" and has a fascinating and complex political history. In fact, the "history" itself was my favorite part of the trip - learning about and physically seeing the rich and turbulent culture of the city (and country). Budapest has a dynamic blend of Western and Eastern European culture - and that's something it has had for a very long time. During the 20th century, Hungary spent nearly five decades under communist rule, but the societal and cultural divisions in the region date back the country's very beginning. Budapest has continuously passed between different powers and ethnic groups over its ~1200 year history: first settled by the Huns (or is it Magyars?) then The Celts, Romans, Turks, Germans, Slavs, Jews and Romani people. The current Hungarian politics are just as fascinating, circling a lot around Hungarian identity and national pride.

Fun fact: Budapest isn't one city but actually two: "Buda" and "Pest" are split by the Danube river running between them. The city of Buda sits on a hill on the west side of the Danube and has stately architecture from Hungary's glory days while Pest is located on the flat land on the other side of the river- it is known as the more lively/industrial side and serves as the commercial town center.

*I apologize for any mistakes and for definitely over-simplifying the rich and diverse history of the area - my credentials include: excerpts of Lonely Planet (read to me by Nick), Rick Steve's radio/podcast (listened to while walking), and Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown (watched on the flight over).

Anyway, back to our usual broadcasting: We left Amsterdam on a flight Thursday evening after dinner arriving in Budapest around 10 pm. On the flight over we watched an episode of Anthony Bourdain's show "Parts Unknown" set in Budapest. This is something we've recently gotten in the habit of doing and is a really fun way to start the vacation. (You just need to remember to download pre-flight!) The airport cab line was ridiculously long so we used "Bolt," an app Nick had from his time in Uzbekistan, to call us a cab (basically the Estonian version of Uber - and worth a download if you travel to Eastern Europe). We were staying at the Ritz Carlton in the heart of Pest but arrived late and immediately went to bed.

Friday morning, I left Nick to work at the hotel and ventured out into the city. I plugged in my earphones and queued up Rick Steves’ app/radio show on Budapest - in which he discusses the city with two local tour guides. I walked from our hotel past St Stephen's Basilica, down Andrássy boulevard to the Hungarian State Opera House then down to The Hungarian Parliament Building on the Danube. All along the walk the boulevard and streets are filled with grandiose buildings. Even though the podcast I was listening to didn't directly correspond with what I was seeing (like a guided tour) it was nonetheless fascinating! They discussed how most of the grand buildings, squares and memorials were built during the Austro-Hungarian "Golden Age" at the end of the 19th century. The construction boom happened for two interesting reasons; first, Budapest was declared the Capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (along with Vienna); second, in celebration of the city’s millennial, in 1896: it was the 1,000th anniversary of the Magyars settling the area! The Parliament Building, Opera House, Central Market, and subway were all built at that time.

I continued my walk on the other side of The Parliament building along the Danube promenade. The banks of the Danube are listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site- I would highly recommend taking in the beautiful view of Buda- especially with it framed by the river and its many beautiful bridges. Along the bank, south of the Parliament building there is a memorial sculpture titled "Shoes on the Danube Bank" (photo at top)- erected to honor the Jews who were shot into the Danube by the fascists (the Arrow Cross Party) during WWII. The art is harrowing as it is not just your imagination but the visualization of the hundreds of people who were ordered to take off their shoes, and were shot at the river edge so their bodies fell into the water and were carried away.

I walked over to meet Nick at the Cafe New York (thank you Mr. Bourdain!) The cafe oozes Habsburg nostalgia - it is opulently decorated with red-velvet chairs, gold leafed ceilings and heavily decorated columns. A string quartet and organ player alternate tunes in the restaurant - that day they were playing lots of my dad's favorites by Andrew Lloyd Webber - evoking a little nostalgia of my own. The food was definitely surpassed by the setting and entertainment but overall fun to enjoy this relic and glimpse into the past world of Budapest.

After lunch the two of us walked over to see the Dohány Street Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe.

Nick had to go back to work and I headed over to the House of Terror museum. When this museum was first recommended to me, I wrote it off rather quickly assuming it was some sort of gory torture museum - thankfully I was wrong and while it is just as terrifying it was completely captivating. The museum is in a building that once served as headquarters, prison and yes torture cell to both the fascist, "Arrow Cross Party" and then the communist "AVH". The AVH party was a "secret police" similar to and under the larger authority of the Soviet Union's KGB, and they held control of Hungary for the majority of the 20th century. The museum is well done and highly informative (100% invest in the headset as the museum's signage is in Hungarian and the information is what makes this museum so captivating). It is filled with Soviet and Nazi propaganda and the basement of the museum is utterly spine-chilling as you walk through cold damp cement cells - where hundreds of people were interrogated, beaten and held in conditions meant to break their will to survive. What I found to be most haunting was how relatively recent much of the history was and how little I knew about it.

After regrouping with Nick back at the hotel we headed over to the Jewish quarter to check out the original "ruin-pub" Szimpla Kert. Ruin pubs are exactly what their name describes - pubs built in (or in between) ruined buildings and lots. After WW2 many buildings in Budapest (especially in the Jewish quarter) were destroyed and abandoned, but years later squatters turned them into secret underground bars (definitely not secret anymore). We continued walking through the Jewish quarter which has a lot of energetic night life with food trucks and bars trailing through. We reached our dinner spot Barack & Szilva with a good appetite, which was good because this was my favorite meal in Budapest! We drank a Hungarian Cabernet Sauvignon from Villany and tried their goulash, Hungarian foie gras and paprika chicken. The food and service were fantastic! After dinner we stopped at another ruin pub that seemed to continue underground in connected basements for an entire city block! Most of the ruin pubs are in relatively close walking distance from each other and all have different vibes.

Saturday morning we woke up and walked over the Elizabeth bridge to Buda to check out the Gellért Baths. Budapest is known for its natural thermal spring baths, dating all the way back to the Roman times. The Gellért facility was built in 1918 and while it is showing its age, it is a masterpiece of art nouveau architecture. I will also admit the cleanliness left me a bit wanting, but the elegant decay of the setting was enchanting and I was consumed with thoughts of the faded glory of the bygone place and time.

*A piece of advice - be sure to bring a bathing suit, towel and flip flops (we had to buy flip flops and a towel at a 600%

markup - heavily challenging Nick's

normally ever-positive mood)

From the Gellért Baths we walked back over the bridge to the Great Market Hall to get lunch. The market is a huge indoor structure built at the end of the 19th century, the bottom of the market still sells a good amount of produce, meat, and fish. However the upstairs is a bit of a tourist trap filled with overpriced souvenirs and crowds. We waited in a long line (of presumably other Rick Steve's listeners) for a "lángos" which is a deep fried flatbread traditionally served with sour cream, cheese, and garlic, and stuffed cabbage.

We switched hotels and went to go check in and regroup at the Marriott Hotel Budapest. The hotel is perfectly located on the bank of the Danube between the Elizabeth and Chain bridges and our room had spectacular views of Buda Castle across the river. Our indulgent lunch choices and mid-day baths left us no choice but to succumb to a quick nap before walking back over to Buda and up Gellért Hill for sunset. The views over the city were beautiful and as the sunlight faded away and the city lights began to sparkle I understood why Budapest is sometimes referred to as the Paris of the East.

We had some time before dinner and went to check out Kisüzem. One of my favorite things about Europe are the bar/cafes where you can play chess and sip tea or drink beer and booze with a crowd. Kisüzem, is the epitome of this vibe, it has a cozy atmosphere filled with locals, sells affordable Hungarian wine and beer and even has art for sale hanging on the brick walls.

On our way to dinner we walked past the beautifully lit St Stephen’s Basilica, and nearly next door to Café Kör. Café Kör, serves utterly classic Hungarian dishes in a cozy environment with a home cooked feel. It was the perfect setting to relax in on a brisk fall night, and soothed us so much so that after dinner we decided to head back to the hotel and watch a movie in bed. We decided on The Grand Budapest Hotel, which aside from the name has no historical or even Hungarian ties (it takes place in a fictional land). However, it fit the theme of a faded era of elegance that was unraveling in the setting around us and causing my imagination to run wild - the movie even has a scene set in an aged thermal bath!

Sunday morning we woke up and had to fight for breakfast at the very crowded hotel buffet; but once we had our coffee we were ready to get back outside and explore. The day was absolutely beautiful, 60 degrees with a clear blue sky! We walked back over the Danube to Castle Hill to explore the array of attractions in the Castle Quarter. The Castle Quarter sits on the hilly west side of the Danube and is crowned by Buda Castle. The entire district is packed with historic sites, 14th century architecture on charming windy roads, and splendid vistas over Budapest. As we meandered around the area the difference between Buda and Pest become undeniable and I began to understand the friendly rivalry that exists between the respective residents (not that I can pick a favorite!)

Our first stop was Buda Castle (The Royal Palace) which has been fully destroyed and rebuilt several time. The current structure in fact was never occupied by the Royal family at all. An action movie was being filmed in the courtyard and we had some fun watching a SWAT team surrounded in smoke shoot and set up equipment to flip cars! We then walked over to Matthias Church and Fisherman's Bastion. A monument dedicated to a guild of fishermen who defended the city in the Middle Ages. The monument has amazing views over the Danube to Pest and the Parliament building.

We continued walking all around the Castle Quarter and over to Margaret Island. Margaret Island is in middle of the Danube with a huge beautifully landscaped park that was filled with yellowing-leafed trees. Here we lounged in the grass and soaked up the sun while I listened to my audio book (a historical fiction novel set between Paris and Budapest during WW2). As the sun started to set and the cold set in we walked over to the Pest river bank and past the Parliament building and the Shoes on the Danube once more. We then had some time to kill before dinner and decided to get massages at Erawan Thai Massage - was great 10 out of 10 - would recommend for any weary traveler.

Feeling very relaxed we headed to have our last dinner in Budapest at Mazel Tov. Set in sort of an "upscale ruin pub" in a very trendy "room" (more like a roof between two buildings) with plenty of plants and trendy people. The restaurant serves delicious Israeli and other Mediterranean dishes. (FYI We got there early but would definitely recommend a reservation if not as there was a long line as early as 6:30pm!) We finished dinner early and headed home to catch some sleep before our 4AM alarms!

Tips (we learned the hard way)

  • If you have an early flight - pre-arrange a car the night before. We didn't as we had seen hundred of cabs all over the city and really regretted it. We lucked out in the end but had a lot of had a lot of trouble finding one around 5am

  • Download "Bolt" taxi app

  • Bring your own flip flops and towel to the bath house

TV Shows, Books & Movies

  • Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown (season 5/episode 6) Obviously a great introduction to the food and culture of Budapest and also covers the world wars, soviet occupation and Hungarian revolution. - approx. 45 mins

  • The Invisible Bridge - Historical fiction love story of a young Hungarian Jewish man who goes to Paris to study architecture proceeding and during WW2. The book is set between France and Hungary.

  • Freedoms Fury - Documentary film about the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the 1956 Olympic water polo match between Hungary and the Soviet Union and all the intense political implications the game had at the time. - approx. 1.5 hrs

  • Rick Steves Audio Europe™ Travel App - Phone app with walking tours and "radio show" podcasts with local tour guides etc.


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