I have always dodged the question ‘Which is your favourite?’ when it comes to travel, preferring to enjoy each place for its own merits. But whenever someone mentions that they are travelling to Budapest I find it difficult to hide my envy, or to hold back from proclaiming it possibly the most beautiful city I have ever been lucky enough to explore.
Budapest is European grandeur at its best, with some of the most elegant buildings, particularly along the banks of the Danube river, you will ever see. Add to that the cheap, tasty food, cosy cafes and ruin pubs where you can enjoy various flavours of the extremely potent Palinka liquor, and a culture that says you should definitely spend hours at a bath house doing nothing but swimming and watching elderly men play chess.
Here are six things I did on my first visit to Budapest, with the help of recommendations from Hungarian friends.
1.Walked to Gellert Hill
One of the main recommendations from the locals was to take in the view from Gellert Hill, which stands toward the southern end of the city centre by Szabadság bridge. From there you can see across the entire city, with unimpeded views of both the Buda and Pest sides of the Danube stretching away to one side, and the entire, flat Pest side visible directly in front of the lookout.
You can also enjoy spectacular views from Buda Castle itself and the nearby Fisherman’s Bastion, but Gellert Hill is the only place where these landmarks add their elegance and grandeur to a vista that includes Hungarian Parliament, St Stephen’s Cathedral and the picturesque bridges linking one side of the city to the other.
2. Bought mézes puszedli at Központi Vásárcsarnok
Központi Vásárcsarnok, which translates directly to central market hall, is home to all sorts of food – whether you are searching for fresh produce; spices; every form of Hungary’s favourite vegetable, paprika, you can think of; baked goods; or ready-to-eat items like melt-in-your-mouth Lángos. There are also plenty of souvenir stalls where you can add to your haul of gifts for those waiting at home.
At the bakeries, I found mézes puszedli, which I needed approximately one second to decide were a worthwhile purchase. These delicious treats are best described as a kind of soft honey-ginger biscuit or cookie coated in crunchy royal icing. A bag cost me the equivalent of about 50 Euro cents, and served as the perfect sustenance for my long days exploring the city on foot.
3.Visited Szechenyi Baths
I travelled to Budapest already well aware of Hungary’s thermal spring culture, which stems from the fact that the country is home to more than 1,000 hot springs. The culture has been developing over 2,000 years, and today several baths stand in recognition of that history. Staff at my hostel advised me that two of the most beautiful to visit are Szechenyi and Gellert, though Szechenyi tends to be favoured by a younger crowd.
I opted for Szechenyi, which sits in the picturesque City Park behind Heroes’ Square, and can be reached by metro – though I chose to walk back along the main avenue Andrassy ut, which is also worth a look. Pastel yellow buildings surround three outdoor pools at different temperatures, where people swim, sit and chat, or play – and watch others play – chess. Inside the buildings are numerous rooms and baths, which make it easy to spend several hours here.
4. Explored Castle Hill
No visit to Budapest is complete without a stroll around Castle Hill, where the spectacular Buda Castle stands most prominent, overlooking the Danube and the Chain Bridge (Széchenyi lánchíd) alongside the Fisherman’s Bastion. Behind these architectural masterpieces are wide cobble-stoned streets and squares, souvenir shops and cafes, and multiple museums.
You can walk up to Castle Hill or take the funicular railway. If you walk, be sure to explore the area at the base of Castle Hill, where you will find some less grand though equally beautiful buildings and detail such as tiled mosaic ceilings.
5. St Stephen’s mummified hand in St Stephen’s Basilica
The Holy Right Hand of St Stephen, King of Hungary, is both a gruesome sight and wonder to behold. The hand, which once belonged to Hungary’s first king, King Stephen (1000-1038), sits inside a dark glass case inside a small room off to one side in St Stephen’s Basilica. The mummified hand allegedly has miraculous properties, and has been moved (and stolen) various times throughout history in an attempt to protect it.
6.Night cruise on the Danube
After I spent the first few days in Budapest alone, my grandmother arrived in town to begin a European adventure of her own. I might not have chosen to do a cruise on the river if I had been alone, due mainly to my student status at the time that meant I favoured activities that allowed me to spend very little or zero money – but the cruise was extremely enjoyable, thanks to the spectacular views offered along the river at night.
Hungarians have perfected the art of flattering lighting that ensures buildings appear their very best as night falls. In fact, it is difficult to decide whether or not the architecture is more striking on a perfect sunny day or in the evening. Walking along the river bank offers one perspective, but a river cruise is the only way to enjoy the view from various angles.
Courtney Gahan is a serial expat, traveller and freelance writer who has bartered with Moroccan marketeers, seen the sun rise at Angkor Wat and elbowed her way through crowds on NYE in NYC