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Watching the Autumn rain fall outside my window while battling a cold, all I can think about is escaping to the warm thermal baths of Budapest. I’m convinced a quick dip in the steamy grand baths would immediately dissolve my cold and fix my winter blues. Budapest is the perfect weekend getaway from Vienna – so rather than wallow in my illness, I want to share my favourite spots for you to enjoy on your next trip.
Doesn’t that look like the perfect cure?
Where to Stay
Budget: Wombats Hostel is an unbeatable option. Centrally located in Deak Ferenc square, it’s reasonably priced, offers dorm and private rooms and only opened up 2 years ago so is very clean. I am a self-confessed sucker for the Wombat’s brand hostels – it must be because they are Austrian owned, my love of all things Austria apparently knows no bounds!
Luxury: Brody House Apartments. This place was ridiculous. I’m not a luxury traveller by habit, but my recent visit to Budapest was for a friend’s 30th birthday, so we splurged. Staying here will make you feel like a successful, edgy artist living a bohemian life, who is somehow able to afford a ‘rough luxe’ apartment with huge furniture, high roofs and the perfect central location. Not only is this place gorgeous, it has the comfiest pillows I’ve ever slept on.
What to See
The free walking tours are excellent, normally run by locals and well worth it to get an overview of the city. You’ll also get a nice historical background and an idea of the personality of Hungarians. As a history nerd and former tour guide I can’t resist a good walking tour. Because Budapest is quite spread out (literally spread across the Danube, there’s the ‘Buda’ side and the ‘Pest’ side, which were only united in 1873) there’s a lot still to see outside of the walking tours. My top picks are:
- Walk up Andrassy Ut to Heroes Square. Lazy guidebooks (or lazy tour guides *ahem*) will describe Andrassy Ut as ‘the Champs Elysees of the East’. Walking up this main street passes the Opera House, statues of famous poets, museums, dedications to Cosmonauts and ends up at the mighty Heroes Square. The oldest tram network on mainland Europe also runs below, its well worth ducking into a metro stop to check it out.
- House of Terror. You will pass this on your walk up Andrassy Ut. Keep an eye out for a building with little placards of faces on the outside walls. They are a dedication to victims of Nazism and Communism. This horrifying but fascinating museum houses the former headquarters and prison cells of the Nazi and Communist regimes that ruled over Hungary for decades. It manages to be moving, informative and chilling all at once. Brace yourself emotionally, but don’t miss it!
- Castle Hill Caves. The caverns under the castle district are a treasure trove of historical stories, spooky hidden cellars and catacomb creepiness. We explored here with my folks on a winter trip, uncovering a lot of great historical fun facts – including the ‘true story’ that Dracula (Vlad the Impaler) was a Hungarian king who was driven to his bloody ways by a broken heart. No wonder he became a Gothic pin-up.
- Memento Park. This is one place I have been dying to get to and never quite made it… yet. When Hungary kicked the Communists out for good in 1991, they had a lot of old Communist statues to get rid of. Luckily for lovers of kitschy historical stuff (me) instead of burning it, they gathered the statues and monuments together in this park just outside the city. Definitely a one-of-a-kind experience.
- Visit the Szechenyi baths. After all the historical stress and drama you just experienced, you’ll need somewhere to wind down. There’s plenty of bath houses in Budapest, ranging from the small local ones, to the grand touristy luxury baths in the Gellert Hotel, but Szechenyi is my pick for the architecture and mix of locals and confused tourists. Plus the location is great if you are trying to fit in a few sights along the way.
Relaxing doesn’t get more majestic
Where to Brunch
Because what is a holiday without some delicious brunch? Especially if you are travelling with a bunch of girlfriends, brunch is the perfect meal to catch up on life gossip while nursing your hangover from the night before.
Sitka Deliciously good coffee, with bare walls, funky lighting and personalised service from some pretty spunky waiters. This place oozed cool, and they had coffee down to a science. Literally, making coffee in beakers to get the temperatures and brewing right. I think it was the mystical ‘third wave coffee‘ technique, but for us it looked like the waiters were scientific coffee-genius gods. The breakfast selection was small, but effective on a seedy morning.
That’s coffee in a wine glass. So fancy.
A la Maison is full of dainty details, a good breakfast menu including eggs Benedict, and really lovely fun waiters. What is it with cute waiters in Budapest? Their menu included some actual Hungarian style dishes too which is a nice change from the other brunch cafe options.
Devoured at A la Maison
My Little Melbourne. How can I not recommend this place? A Melbourne style coffee bar in the middle of Europe, be still my beating heart. This is cute, small, with expertly made coffee, lovely staff and enough croissants, salads or healthy juices to start your day right. But mostly, my god, the coffee.
Great Market Hall If you want something more fresh and authentic, head to the Great Market Hall which is the largest and oldest market hall in Hungary. There’s a lot of tacky souvenir shops, but you can get some fresh local bites too. Just be sure they give you the correct change, it can get confusing with the currency!
Where to go for Drinks
Szimpla Kert. A bit overrun with tourists now, this place is one of the original ‘ruin bars’ of the old Jewish Quarter. Filled with wacky art installations, cool outdoor seating areas and an arty industrial feel.This place also feels a bit ‘Melbourne’ to me, like an alleyway bar where all your friends head to for Friday night drinks. It’s the original ruin bar, and worth a quick drink to know what all the fuss is about.
Entrance to the bar – from the Szimpla Kert Facebook fan page
Morrisons 2. This is a huge pub/club with 6 floors and loads of fun if you have a group of friends. All different kinds of music from retro, to hip hop to pop and dance plus a Karaoke area downstairs. Pretty good fun for some silly dancing, their open pub area upstairs is good if you just want to chill out.
Ruin Bars. It’s places like these that I long for in Vienna.
Budapest somehow feels like Vienna’s cooler, edgier, younger sister….
It’s the ruin bars that go a long way to creating that ‘cooler sibling’ atmosphere that Vienna lacks. A ruin bar is an abandoned building converted into a bar, where second hand furniture is scattered about and street artists are given free reign on the decor. The music is normally fun, but you can also just have a chill night perched on a couch chatting with friends. We were staying near Anker’t on our last trip but there’s many many more ruin bars to enjoy throughout the city.
Roofless ruin bar Ankert
Brody Studios. This is for when you’re feeling fancy. A members club and art bar run by the same guys who own the Brody Apartments, this is a lush, artistic, ruin bar with a private club feel. When we went it was mostly internationals there so not such a ‘local’ experience. They host lots of art exhibitions and events, the bartenders know their cocktails and you might even spot a celebrity or two dropping by. We were casually sharing cigarettes and bad puns with Billy Zane on our night out, which was exactly as ridiculous as it sounds!
Seasonal Fun Stuff
In summertime, Sziget Festival is a must-do. It’s a huge music festival on Margarit-Sziget Island, smack in the middle of the Danube, which carries on over 7 days and hosts massive international acts. When I went in 2011, we were only in town for 1 night, but were able to get an entry ticket for €40 and got to see Prince live! This year saw Kings of Leon, Martin Garrix, Avicii, Gramatik, Florence and the Machine, Ellie Goulding, The Script and heaps more playing. What I love about this festival was the chilled out, happy, low-key vibe. It was well organised, reasonably priced and so so much fun – if you can co-ordinate your weekend away when Sziget is on, you’ll love it!
In winter, Ice Skating at Vajdahunyad Castle (try saying that with a straight face) is like stepping into your very own fairytale. Every year they set up a public ice skating rink on the frozen lake out the front of the castle. You can hire a pair of skates yourself or just watch the locals from the bridge overlooking the castle.
I’m sure there’s a lot more to discover in this fascinating city, but if you only have a few short days, you can get a taste for Budapest from these few tips. Oh! Speaking of taste, don’t forget to try some traditional Hungarian Goulash soup. On a cold winters day the paprika spiced soup is the perfect remedy to warm you up from the inside out…in fact it might just be the perfect cure for me today.
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