It’s no secret we love Budapest. We knew we would going in and we were thrilled it met and exceeded our expectations. Now that we are back home we constantly find ourselves answering the questions “What was your favorite city” or “Most unexpected city I should know about?” with a resounding answer: Budapest!
Personally I fell in love with the depths of Hungarian history. Jamie was stunned by the architecture, we both were really. Equally, we absolutely needed the rest and recovery that only a Budapest thermal bath can provide. There is nothing like it after months of travel.
This is a longer article, I’ll start with an overview of our impressions of Budapest, followed by a to-do list of sites and experiences. Finally I unleash a long stream of Hungarian history I picked up from various museums, books and videos. Feel free to skip this part if you’re not a big history fan, although I would still encourage you to read it!
Either way I think you’ll enjoy our Budapest blog post, we hope that our passion for this magical city comes across as much as we intend it to.
Additionally I wanted to thank our friend Odett for amazing recommendations and tips for this huge city. We would not have had as great of an experience without your virtual guidance and knowledge of Hungary.
Shout out as well to my college friend Ashley who gave me some pronunciations, site seeing tips and overall help for the city! Knowing a little bit of the language really helps. It’s so awesome having friends that travel that you can lean on for some inside info.
Oh Budapest, we’ve been dying to meet you. Like a soulmate out there waiting to be found, Budapest was calling Jamie and I all along. We knew we would love it. Still, we held our breathes in anticipation of or arrival. What if it didn’t meet our expectations? What if we had been longing to come to a place that could never live up to our ideals of it?
The Hungarian capitol had been on our to-visit list for a few years now. We almost went here on our honeymoon in 2019 and both of us had done a significant amount of research on the city back then. The images and ideas of Budapest never left, even as we traversed the United States and Europe. The stunning architecture, the complex history, the thermal baths, the overall idea of being here drew us both in so deep.
We knew we loved Prague. In my mind Budapest and Prague are cousins to one another. Two distinct branches on an ancient oak tree, Hungary and the Czech Republic share an affinity that cuts across language and borders. Both sates suffered in distinct yet similar ways through the tumultuous twentieth century. Both were occupied by the Nazis and then the Soviets. Both were client states to the USSR and suffered a drain of physical and mental labor as they served as colonies for Moscow.
Both rebelled against the Communist sickle and both revolts were put down with force. Both can trace their history back to the medieval ages with stories full of knights and kingdoms. With such richness of culture and depth of history, even decades of extreme occupation could not erase their uniqueness.
Knowing just how much we appreciated Czech culture, architecture and food we knew we would love Hungarian culture just as much if not more. Turn out we were right, Budapest captivated us. We are both anxious to return here and spend even more time enjoying this wonderful city.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the Hungarian Parliament building, Országház, is the single most stunning functioning palace we have ever seen. The size and scope of the medieval revival architecture of the exterior is jaw-dropping. An actual medieval peasant transported in time would tell you this is the pinnacle of gothic construction. It’s spires and intricacies draw the eye in and capture your attention. The interplay of light and shadows that shift throughout the day as the natural light ebbs and flows creates a mirage of movement and the grandeur of grace.
At night the Parliament is lit up in extraordinary fashion. She shines like a gem of the Danube beckoning all to come appreciate gazing upon her. We visited this building several times on different days and at different times. We were in awe each time.
The striking neo-gothic style exterior is complimented by a neo-Baroque, incredibly opulent interior. Jamie and I were fortunate to take a tour through the Parliament at dusk.
Our group was shown the magnificent staircases and gold leafed walls. The deep red carpets and priceless works of art decorating the spacious rooms created an air of culture and an aura of reverence. On display is the Holy Crown of Hungary, however you are not permitted to photograph it.
For both of us, but for Jamie especially, the combination of a Gothic exterior and a Baroque interior is the ideal look of a European palace. There is something magical about a medieval spire and nothing matches the splendor of an opulent 18th Century decor.
In 1896 on the 1,000 year anniversary of Hungarian identity, the city of Budapest completed a castle and chateau complex that splendidly features the many styles of architecture that have made their mark on this ancient place. Called Vajdahunyad Castle, we thought this was one of the most beautiful parts of the city. It includes an interwoven style of medieval, renaissance and baroque buildings and is the perfect place to take in the richness of the Hungarian art forms. In 1904 the grand construction of Budapest, the Parliament Building, was completed. These beautiful architectural achievements, along with the Grand Market Hall, transformed the face of Budapest and wove her historic past with the present greatness of the city.
Our long-awaited visit to this wonderful city began with our check in to the Lavender Circus Hostel. We loved our room. So unique, a mixture of bohemian décor and cartoon-style sketches, we wish we could have stayed here longed. When (yes, when, not if!) you find yourself here in Budapest make sure to stay here. Not only was the location fantastic with the train station and plenty of public transit in walking distance, but we were also able to reach the Parliament and nearby Jewish Quarter by foot.
Our first true stop in Budapest was the Parliament Building on the Danube River. It is a striking combination of a Neo-Gothic exterior and Baroque interior, completed among a backdrop of pomp and flair that only the grandeur of a 1,000 year anniversary can provide.
We took our time wandering the grounds and peering at the other Parisian-looking buildings that lined the streets of Budapest. Turning in all directions every facade was beautiful. Jamie and I held hands and gazed upwards at the architectural wonders of the city, culminating in the Parliament.
Walking around the side we took photos from every angle. The sun was rapidly setting which provided us with the stunning transition from day to night, from natural light to the glorious night-time lighting that makes this building the true Pearl of the Danube.
Our next stop was the sobering Shoes on the Danube Bank monument. The metal shoes along the river bank honor the Jewish victims that were killed by Hungarian fascists aligned with the Nazis. Across the continent are hallowed monuments to a not so distant past. They serve to remind us of the horrors our grandparents and great grandparents went through and survived to create a modern tolerant Europe.
Waking up the next day we took the trolley across the Danube to the Buda side of the city. Buda is the hilly side that contains the castle while Pest is flat and has the rest of the city. Together they comprise the two major components of modern Budapest.
The Castle sits upon a large hill with several stops to make along the way. Fisherman’s Bastion is undeniably one of the most captivating views, both of the Bastion itself and of the city from the Bastion’s heights. The blindingly white walls wrap around the hills, providing security within and views overlooking Pest and the river. This curtain of well-crafted battlements provides a perfect backdrop for photo-shoots. We couldn’t help but explore the hidden portals, winding stairs and sweeping views this place has to offer.
Fisherman’s Bastion curtains Matthias Church which stands tall as a symbol of the high beauty that is Budapest. Although at this point in our trip I was tired of seeing cathedrals and churches, Jamie was insistent that we visit this one as well. I am so glad she wanted to see it rather than skipping it over as I would have. Matthias Church stood out with such a graceful exterior and a darker interior featuring lots of wood. One beneficial thing about going inside is this church allows you upstairs to tour more of the building and some clerical artifacts and stories as well.
By this time we were getting pretty hungry. I had taken over food research by this point, Jamie was planning and researching so much it proved much easier for me to handle food and drinks to take some off her plate, figuratively.
We made our way to a shockingly beautiful cafe with gorgeous décor. We were whisked inside immediately with impeccable service and seated in a wonderfully lively restaurant. Jamie ordered a delectable French onion soup while I had a special dish of Lecso, essentially Hungarian ratatouille. If you’re looking for a taste of European royalty while you visit Buda castle, stop by Deryne.
Buda Castle itself was undergoing some minor renovations but we could still tell how impressive it was. Once a true stone fortification it was rebuilt as an imperial palace in Austro-Hungarian times. It functions as a museum and cultural complex offering a deep view into Hungarian identity though art and history. I found the history museums to be magnificent and I draw much of my next section from exhibits here.
No visit to Budapest is complete without seeing Hero’s Square at the end of Andrassy Street. This is the main cultural center of the city, hosting several museums as well as the adjacent Vajdahunyad Castle and nearby Szechenyi Baths. We arrived in the Square just as a military ceremony of some kind was taking place. Soldiers marched in formation as the military band played their tunes.
We spotted Vajdahunyad Castle from across the way and headed in its direction. For whatever reason this place was not on our radar until we saw it in person. It is an absolutely wonderful collection of Hungarian architectural styles from the medieval era up to the modern one. We wandered around, necks craned up at the beauty, until we decided we had our fill.
Szechnyi Baths was up next. This is likely the most iconic bath in Budapest. The faded yellow outside, the famous outdoor spas, this is an ideal first Budapest bath experience. Pro tip. Bring your own towels. We did not and were forced to buy them there, at quite the mark up.
The baths themselves are wonderful. Room after room of heated pools, spas and frigid baths await. Each pool is a different temperature, some wildly warm and some wickedly cool. The outside area is what makes this bath stand out. There are massive pools with water jets, fountains and even a small lazy river of sorts to play around and relax in.
After months of travel across countless miles and dozens of cities we were so excited to let loose and give our muscles a much needed rest. I wish we had a waterproof phone to grab some pictures here, it was very photo-worthy.
We loved the bathing culture so much we ended up going the next day to Gellert Bath. This place contrasts with Szechnyi in that Gellert features aquatic blue interior pools rather than a larger outside experience. The blue and green tiles lining the ceilings plus the mostly inside experience made this one feel like we stepped back in time a bit more. It was indescribable how relaxing these places are. You can find everyone enjoying a soak here, from kids to the oldest people you will ever see, from couples to groups of friends all enjoying the pools. I would kill for something akin to this at home!
In a sobering change of tone we walked over to the nearby House of Terror. Not an escape room this is in fact a deeply reflective and moving tribute to the victims of extremism and the people still missing from Nazi and then Communist rule. Hungary is still reeling from decades of harsh rule where it was illegal to speak out against the government. Simply expressing yourself could be dangerous. There are thousands of people still missing, shipped into the dull horror of bureaucratic terror, never to be accounted for again.
It is disturbing to see the current Hungarian government again start to censor things such as LGBT representation. It is different but reminiscent of a dark past that lurks around the corner for non-vigilant democracies. After walking the streets some more, having a somber conversation we were in need of some rest.
That night however we finally embarked on our first Budapest nightlife journey. Budapest does not just exist in the past, as a royal example of old culture. It is a living, breathing city with vibrant young people to be found everywhere. There is new life springing up from the ruins of the old.
Literally. Ruin bars are some of the most unique places to grab a drink in all of Europe. Occupying abandoned buildings these squatter-entrepreneurs created unique places to grab a cheap cocktail and enjoy the urban decay and irony.
After some ruin bars and cheap gyros plates we hit up a great rooftop bar with dome-like igloos to drink in. These structures protected us from the wind and provided an intimate drinking environment with fantastic views of the city beneath us.
One more nightlife tip, you need to check out the ultra hip Budapest Jazz Club. Offering free jazz jams as well as paid concerts this is the spot for that swinging sound. Since spotting a jazz club in Salzburg I had been dying to see a performance. There aren’t many active jazz clubs in the US, very few outside of New Orleans really, so the possibility of hearing some live jazz jams intrigued me. A beautiful guitar player with impeccable tone led the way while a talented drummer and bass player provided the groove.
Budapest provided us with our first taste of Christmas Markets. The temporary wooden huts with everything from Christmas presents to spiced holiday drinks truly have such a unique charm to them. Jamie and I loved walking through the crowds, taking in the holiday smells and sampling the season’s flavors as we went. Salmon was smoked on cedar planks, mulled wine was brewed with oranges and cinnamon, it felt like a Christmas wonderland here.
The next morning we took a tram ride across town to the Central Market Hall. This massive structure reminded me of a train station, huge inside space with steel beams and braces holding up the impressive roof. It’s lower floor is filled with fruit stands and cured meat vendors, ripe oranges and pomegranates spilled over from abundant baskets. Delicately sliced ham and smokey sausages made my mouth water.
Upstairs are restaurants, or food stands at least, that serve traditional Hungarian food. I opted for a liver sausage and cabbage with sour cream. The liver was soft and rich, the tanginess of the cabbage was softened with the texture of the sour cream. It was honestly perfect, as weird as it may sound.
Our last day we decided to visit another bath, this one recommended by Odett. Rudas Baths has fantastic rooftop views, an outdoor jacuzzi and a whole collection of experiences in “Sauna World”. We hopped from one pool to the next, taking in each change of temperature and cleansing ourselves with splashes of freezing cold water between hot tubs. This spot felt younger and more alive than others, it is definitely the spa to go to if you want a more social experience or a youthful crowd.
Hungarian history is fascinating to me. Any nation that claims to stretch back over 1,000 years is going to have a complicated history of ups and downs. The peaks and valleys of Hungarian history encompass such a wide range of European experiences that it bears examining here.
Although the nation of Hungary traces its roots back to the year 896 CE with the invasion of the Magyar tribes from the East, the land itself had been occupied by people probably since humans existed. Celts lived here, forming the cities of Buda and Pest as fortified settlements along the Danube river. Following the expansion of the Roman Empire another city, Obuda, was constructed as a Roman fortification.
When Roman power contracted and waned in the years following 500 CE new groups of people moved towards this rich basin. Nomadic people from the East found these lands to be perfect for grazing their horses while raiding the remnants of the weakened Roman Empire and the small surrounding medieval kingdoms. Hungary’s name may derive from these people; the Huns.
The Magyars were another group Eastern nomads that settled here after conquering the region by 896 CE. This date is today taken as the founding of “Hungary”. Giving up their nomadic ways and adopting European culture the Magyars converted to Christianity by 1000 CE. The Hungarians had transformed from tent-dwelling, horse riding, raiding clans to a Christian medieval kingdom and a key fixture of “Europe” in about 100 years. This is a lesson for anyone who thinks immigration and outside influence on European culture is a net negative or somehow “dilutes” the “pure” cultures found here.
One reason why Western Europe (England, France, Spain and The Netherlands etc.) flourished during the Middle Ages whereas Eastern and Central Europe struggled was in part due to repeated invasions and mass influxes of people from the East, like the Huns and Magyars. Although these population movements may have been a struggle for medieval kingdoms and chiefs to adapt to, in the long run it formed a complex tapestry of culture, language and heritage that enabled Hungarians today to still claim a link to the past that stretches back well over 1,000 years.
Following historical patterns, Hungary was again invaded by quick and efficient horsemen from the East, the Mongols. The Mongol invasions in the late 1200’s CE devastated most of Central and Eastern Europe, and indeed most of the Middle East and China as well. Seemingly the only defense against such mobile horsemen was not to fight them, where slow heavily armed knights were slaughtered by the quick Mongol arrows and maneuvers, but to hide inside a stone castle and wait out the attack. The Mongolian invasions pushed Europeans to upgrade and expand their castles, to trade out wood for stone. We may never have had such an extensive amount of stunning old castles and fortifications to explore if not for these wars and the ever-present threat of a group like the Mongols re-appearing.
By the 1400’s CE Hungary rebounded and saw it’s most famous king, Matthias Corvinus, come to power. Matthias holds a special place in Hungarian lore, he was a righteous king who wandered the streets in peasants clothes to discover and remedy injustices among his subjects. He formed a professional group of mercenaries called the Black Army that defeated almost anyone they fought. He expanded on Buda Castle and made it a true medieval palace, not just a fortification. Hungary was flourishing again.
This made it an attractive target for another group of rapidly expanding people, the Ottoman Turks. The Ottomans exploded onto the European scene rather literally by using cannons and gunpowder to conquer Constantinople. This unstoppable army eventually grasped the pearl of the Danube in its clutches. Budapest became a provincial part of the Ottoman Empire in 1541 CE. Turkish occupation brought with it the now famous bathing culture. Budapest’s natural hot springs were built into formal bath houses. The tradition once heavily used by Romans had fallen out of disfavor in the medieval era, was now being reintroduced by the Turks.
The Ottoman armies were eventually defeated by a combination of European forces in 1686 CE. Austria merged with Hungary after retaking Budapest to form the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This empire stood as a bulwark against Ottoman expansion and also played a leading role in European royal court life. Vienna and Budapest became twin capitols in the newly formed empire ruled by the Hapsburg dynasty.
Under this new royal life Budapest was a cultural and regal center. Buda Castle was expanded and rebuilt into a Baroque palace, replacing the medieval stone castle. The coffee and cafe culture associated with Vienna and Paris thrived here as well. This was the age of Operas, Classical Music and Baroque constructions.
The late 1800’s was a transformative time for Budapest. Pest, Buda and Obuda had grown so much that they merged into one city in 1873. The Parliament building and Vajdahunyad Castle were built to commemorate the 1,000 year anniversary of Hungary. Budapest was one of the main cultural and political centers of all Europe, indeed of the world.
Unfortunately the 1900’s were not kind to Hungary. With the construction of the Parliament building and the memories of Hungary’s 1,000 year celebration still within living memory, the Austro-Hungarian Empire came to an inglorious end. The origins of World War 1, the dark questions of nationalism, the fall of the empire all came to toll the bell on the golden days of the Dual Monarchy.
Following World War 1 Hungary oscillated wildly between Communist and Fascist rule. By the outbreak of World War 2 Hungary sadly allied with Nazi Germany and was part of the Axis Powers. Invaded by the Soviet Union, Hungary was occupied by the USSR after the Great War. Again the nation drastically shifted from one political spectrum to the next overnight. The oppression, terror and violence of the Nazi regime was replaced by the oppression, terror and violence of the Communist one. Many people were arrested, tortured and killed for supporting the opposite side. Ironically many of the officials who were in power under the Nazis remained under Communist rule, showing theirs was not an ideological position but purely one of possessing political power.
Initially given some freedoms from direct Soviet rule, Hungary was militarily invaded again by the USSR in 1956 after a failed student revolution and pro democracy movement. Soviet troops and tanks killed many peaceful protesters and re-established an anti-democratic government loyal to Moscow.
Coming so soon on the heels of the World Wars and with Cold War rhetoric ramping up, many Hungarians expected the West to intervene and come to their aid during the Revolution.
This event clearly demonstrated to observers that the United States and Western Europe were in no position to question Soviet territories or roll back their conquests. There would be no armed conflict to save Budapest, Hungarians were on their own. The re-invasion of Hungary put to bed the open secret that Communist countries were willingly associated with the USSR, it revealed that the Soviet power rested on the barrel of a tank, not in the political will of the people it ruled.
The fall of the USSR beginning in 1989 set the stage for Hungarian freedom. Soviet tanks were removed, the occupying army was evacuated. After being ruled by extremists for about 75 years Budapest could once again determine its own future. The first free elections were held just one year before I was born, in 1990.
This recent re-emergence of Budapest, and indeed the whole Central and Eastern European region has been phenomenal. Many people of an older generation have written this area off, but this is a mistake. Budapest holds such a key position in European history and gives such a shining example of how to endure and outlast extremist rule while preserving and celebrating your own culture. The architecture here represents nearly every phase of European development. I think we here at home sometimes forget that Europe is not just London, Paris, and Rome.
Hungary is not perfect. Shortly before we visited the extremely right-wing government enacted a law prohibiting the representation of the LGBT community in the media during day time broadcasting. Passing laws trying to prevent whole groups of people from being seen is never a step in a good direction. There is much to criticize here and I try to never travel without knowing something about the political and economic situations of the places we visit.
To see Budapest, to experience its grand monuments and architecture, to walk through the shocking House of Terror that documents the Communist and Nazi crimes, to bath in a thermal spring and soak up not only the history and old culture but also the liveliness, the youthfulness and the exuberance that can felt here if you know where to look, this too needs to be your idea of Europe.
We had always dreamed of meeting Budapest and experiencing the unique blend of culture, history and art that makes this place special. It always felt like we would love Budapest. We were right. There is something magical in the air when we come here, it is hard to describe to someone who hasn’t visited. Sometimes people don’t “get it”. Trust us, you need to come here. To watch the sun set over the Danube, to admire the Parliament Building, to soak in the spas and tubs full of mineral water, Budapest is for us all!