After a glorious summer of weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and other family and friend celebrations, Matt and I decided autumn is our time to travel just the two of us. First up, a long September weekend in Budapest, Hungary. Matt had been before on a stag do (but does that count?) and I have wanted to go for ages after seeing photos of the Hungarian Parliament building on Pinterest.
For planning our weekend Matt and I mainly used two blogs that we found — Off-beat Budapest and The Common Wanderer. These were really useful for planning our trip and knowing which things to book in advance. We were too late to book the houses of parliament tour unfortunately, even two weeks ahead of time, but we managed to book all the restaurants we wanted to try. This is a booking city, so take heed!
Thursday – Getting to Budapest
The flight to Budapest from Luton was about two and half hours, and once we got there we ordered a taxi through the Bolt app. I was surprised to see that Bolt is the main taxi company in Budapest. Not only that but they have their own cars, bright yellow with big Bolt logos on the top.
Arriving in Budapest – Dinner at M
Once we’d dropped our bags off at our Airbnb we were back out for dinner. We were staying right on Oktogon so we were super close to Liszt Ferenc tér, a lovely green boulevard with a whole string of brightly lit restaurants. Our booking was at M Restaurant, a tiny traditional hungarian eatery with strong bohemian vibes. The walls and ceilings are covered in brown paper and drawings — even the tables come with brown paper and colouring pencils so you can cover yours in designs while you wait to be fed.
We dove headfirst into the traditional menu, with Hungarian charcuterie and bone marrow for our starter. I wasn’t a huge fan, but Matt really enjoyed it, saying it was like meaty butter. Luckily it didn’t go to waste as the restaurant dog got to finish it off. For mains Matt had chicken paprikash (Paprikás Csirke) and I thoroughly enjoyed beef rib which fell off the bone. Both our meals came with “strap” which is a lot like gnocchi, mine coated in ewe cheese which was creamy and delicious.
Friday – Buda, Parliament & St. Stephen’s Basilica
New York Cafe
Before we started our sightseeing for the day, we made tracks for the most famous cafe in Budapest. New York Cafe has been serving rich hot chocolate to Hungarian bourgeoisie for over 125 years. These days it regularly has a line of tourists waiting to be seated, although if you arrive before 11am you’re more likely to get in faster.
Honest opinion, if you can get in and out without spending money, do it. Otherwise, the service is not great, so expect to be sitting around for a while before anyone talks to you. And be prepared to shell out — two coffees and the smallest cookie in the world (you can’t even see it in the photo but it’s hiding behind Matt’s glass of water) set us back €24. Worth it for the gold sprinkled on the foam? Probs not.
Fisherman’s Bastion & Castle
This has to be the best view in Budapest, and was one of my absolute highlights of our trip. In lots of ways it reminded me of the Sacré-Cœur in Paris, with its white stone and hilltop vantage-point. If you can’t face the climb to reach it, there is a funicular up from Clark Ádám tér, or there are some very peaceful shaded steps up from Batthyány tér (where there’s a handy metro station).
I did some research to find out where the name comes from, and it seems the Guild of Fisherman, who sold their wares at the fish market outside Matthias Church, were responsible for defending this section of the old city walls in the Middle Ages.
The current Fisherman’s Bastion with its neo-romanesque terraces is about 140m long, designed by architect Frigyes Schulek in the late 19th century with seven stone towers to symbolise the seven chieftains who founded Hungary in 895.
You don’t need a ticket to explore the bastion or enjoy its views, but a lot of it is taken up by Panorama Cafe (which has good views but bad reviews) and Halászbástya Restaurant.
The Roman Catholic Church of the Assumption of the Buda Castle (yes that’s its full name) in the late Gothic style was built in the 14th century and was the location of two Hungarian kings being crowned. I was keen to go inside but unfortunately our summery outfits weren’t concealing enough — a warning for you reader, bring another layer to cover yourself.
Another monument with a panoramic view over Budapest, Buda Castle is worth seeing just to walk around the outside. The massive palace complex we see today was built in the late 18th century, and now houses the National Gallery and Historical Museum. If you walk to the far edge you can see St Stephen’s Tower which is the only surviving section of the original 14th century castle.
When we were visiting a lot of the palace and surrounding buildings were hidden behind scaffolding as the area is undergoing a big restoration project. I would love to go back and see the restored monastery, rondella and other historical buildings.
Lovas út, Buda
After we’d explored the streets around Buda Castle and Matthias Church, we steered our footsteps towards our lunch destination, which took us down Lovas út. This tree-lined lane runs the length of Castle Hill and gives an amazing view over the wealthy western hills of Buda.
This is a great route to take on a hot summer’s day as the shaded road is lined with benches and water fountains so you can rest and recuperate when needed.
Lunch at 101 Bistro
This area of Buda feels much less touristy thanks to the modernised Széll Kálmán tér, which helpfully has a metro station for getting back across the river. We had a table booked at 101 Bistro, where we ordered from their lunch menu and tucked into massive pork belly bao buns with “shoe lace” szechuan fries, soy eggs and kimchi.
Hungarian Parliament Building
After lunch we caught the metro back over the river (10 minutes of travel vs the 45 it would take to walk) to see the Parliament Building. We were gutted not to be able to see inside, but unfortunately you can only get in with a guided tour and we were too late to book one. Luckily the outside is spectacular enough on its own, and we did a full loop to absorb it from every angle.
With its big dome I was reminded of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, but apparently the architect was more inspired by the London houses of parliament, hence the neo-gothic style. It might look old, but it was only completed in 1904!
Fun fact: Its highest point is 96m, to commemorate the conquest of the Kingdom of Hungary in 896. Inside there are 10 courtyards, 13 lifts, 27 gates, 29 staircases and 691 rooms (including more than 200 offices).
Shoes on the Danube Bank
On the Pest side of the Danube promenade you’ll find this sculpture by Gyula Pauer, conceived by film director Can Togay. The Shoes on the Danube Bank is a memorial erected on 16 April 2005 to honour the Jews who were massacred by the Arrow Cross Party fascist Hungarian militia during the Second World War. They were ordered to take off their shoes (shoes were valuable and could be stolen and resold by the militia after the massacre), and were shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried away. The memorial represents their shoes left behind on the bank.
St. Stephen’s Basilica
If you’re a fan of first King of Hungary St Stephen, then you’re in for a treat. Buy a ticket from the office on the south side of Szent István tér, and you can get inside the largest church in Budapest and see the guy’s actual mummified right hand.
Szabadság tér or Liberty Square can be found between St Stephen’s Basilica and the Parliament Building, and holds all sorts of interesting monuments including a Ronald Reagan statue.
One you can’t miss as you enter is the The Memorial for Victims of the German Occupation which portrays Hungary as an angel being attacked by Germany in the form of an eagle. This was controversial when it was first proposed and remains so to this day, as the symbolism obscures Hungary’s willing participation in the Holocaust. In front of it you’ll see a counter-monument created in 2014 that includes photos of Hungarians who were sent to Auschwitz, as well as suitcases, coins and other mementos commemorating the victims.
Postal Savings Bank
Just on the other side of the American Embassy you’ll find this astonishing building. These days it houses the Hungarian Treasury, but it was built in 1901 as the headquarters of the Postal Savings Bank. It is one of the best examples of the Hungarian szecesszió style, covered in tiles from the Zsolnay Porcelain Factory and Hungarian folk art motifs and symbols of nature, most notably the large ceramic beehives which represent productivity.
Intermezzo Roof Terrace
Want to get the best view of the Postal Savings Bank? Head into Hotel President and ask at the lobby for access to the roof terrace. They’ll give you a keycard which activates the lift up to the top floor, where you’ll find Intermezzo. We arrived exactly as it opened at 4pm so it was nice and quiet, but all the tables had little reserved signs on for later that evening. Understandable, I bet the nighttime view of the city is even better.
Dinner at Kőleves Vendéglő
This restaurant was recommended by all the local blogs, so we knew we had to try it. Kőleves Vendéglő is very popular in the summer as it has an outdoor bar, but the inside has a great vibe too, especially if you want to avoid all the drunk tourists this district has to deal with.
My steak with sweet potato fries was perfectly seasoned and deliciously tender, while Matt had his first taste of goose which he deemed moist like chicken thigh but rich like duck. Sounds like a thumbs up to me!
Drinks at MITICO
Afterwards we went just two blocks up to MITICO, which is part of Hotel Mika. Online it looks like a brunch joint, but at night it turns into a tropical themed jazz bar which serves excellent cocktails.
Saturday – City Park & Andrássy Avenue
Saturday Market at Hunyadi Square
Wanting to get a taste of the local neighbourhood, we popped into Hunyadi tér for the Saturday morning market. It was lively and bustling with fruit and veg stalls as well as homemade sauces, soaps, candles… you know the sort. After strolling around we headed to Cube Coffee Bar for our morning caffeine fix before continuing our walk up Andrássy.
Hősök tere is maybe the most famous square in Budapest, framed by the Millenium Monument with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the middle, and bookended by the Museum of Fine Arts (Szépművészeti Múzeum) and the Hall of Contemporary Art (Műcsarnok). It sits at the end of Andrássy and acts as the entrance to City Park. There’s apparently always something going on here, and the day we visited there seemed to be some sort of mass youth netball championship.
Budapest City Park
The 302-acre Városliget is another of Hungary’s World Heritage Sites. In its life it’s been farmland, a private forest, and then finally one of the first public parks in the world. Inside you’ll find Vajdahunyad Castle, Széchenyi thermal baths, Budapest Zoo, a bunch of restaurants, a circus, the House of Music and the Museum of Ethnography.
If this castle doesn’t feel quite real, it’s because it isn’t. Not in a historical sense anyway — nobody has ever lived here. In fact, it was originally built out of cardboard and wood for the Millennial Exhibition of 1896, celebrating a thousand years of Hungary. Different parts of the castle commemorate other famous Hungarian castles, and as a result it’s a mishmash of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architectural styles. It was so popular that a decade later they rebuilt it from stone and brick, making it a more permanent feature of City Park, and today it houses the Museum of Hungarian Agriculture, the largest of its kind in Europe.
Széchenyi Thermal Bath
The largest medicinal bath in Europe, Széchenyi gyógyfürdő was built in the early 1900s and was immediately incredibly popular. The three outdoor and fifteen indoor pools are fed by two thermal springs, and you can have as casual or indulgent a visit as you like, with spa treatments, steam rooms, saunas, and even huge parties with DJs at night.
If you’re visiting on one of the hottest days of the year like us, you might want to give the Széchenyi Thermal Baths a miss. The pools range between 18 and 38°C, and soaking in the rich thermal water famously makes you quite lightheaded and dehydrated. It’s still worth seeing the impressive Neo-Baroque entrance and surrounding walls though, even if you’re not paying to go inside.
House of Music Hungary
Magyar Zene Háza is a very new addition to the park, only opening in 2022. Designed by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto who was chosen from 170 submissions, you can clearly see how the roof is meant to imitate a natural canopy of trees, with light filtering through the holes.
Inside this incredible building you’ll find a cafe, bar, and bistro, as well as a permanent exhibition about the history of music from the development of the human voice to modern trends. If you’re planning a trip to Budapest, see if you can book yourself a concert at this totally unique venue.
Budapest Museum of Ethnography
Another new building (opening in 2020), Néprajzi Múzeum was one of Matt’s top highlights of our trip. Designed by Hungarian architect Marcel Ferencz, the two “wings” of the museum scoop up into the air, away from a monument to 1956 at the centre. One of the wings is open to the public and houses the exhibitions, shop and restaurant, the other is private and hosts the museum archives, offices and research facilities.
Not only does the roof of the two wings contribute to the park’s green space and biodiversity, you can also climb it to get a view over the surrounding buildings. The fact that 60% of the building itself is underground isn’t just cool, it also makes it way more energy efficient.
At the north west corner of the museum, keep an eye out for one of Mykhailo Kolodko’s miniature sculptures. A guerilla sculptor, Kolodko leaves these tiny bronze statues all over Budapest — you can even use them to create your own tour of the city by following one of the many maps tagging the locations of his art.
This particular sculpture, titled “Among Us” was installed on 23rd October 2022. The date is important as it commemorates the 1956 revolution against the Soviet regime.
During the revolution, the people of Budapest tore down the statue of Stalin, which used to be in the square where the museum now stands. Stalin’s boots, the only part of the statue that remained, became symbol of the communist regime in Hungary. A symbol of something stubborn that, according to the Ukrainian-Hungarian artist, has now come back to the world, with a different name.
The two boots represent the past (Stalin), and the current oppression in Ukraine. The mini boots have the bones sticking out: a reference to a popular video game “Among Us”, as well as a symbol for the need to cut the system that led to the current war. The boots are on a skateboard, because the new Museum of Ethnography is shaped like a skate ramp.
Lunch at Retek Bistro
After our morning at City Park we took the metro back into the centre for our lunch booking at Retek Bistro. Now this place really is special. Petra and Joci, manager and chef, have created the perfect marriage of traditional Hungarian and modern trends, designed to make visitors from all around the world fall in love with the recipes their grandmothers made. You can see the influence of this in the decor of the restaurant which has china plates, old cooking pans and black and white family photos all over the walls.
So what did we eat? Matt had goulash stew for his starter and chicken paprikash for main, and I had a chicken paprikash for starter and meatballs with mash potato and pickles for main. This was definitely the best paprikash we had on our trip, absolutely swimming in creamy but rich sauce.
My favourite part of this restaurant, aside from the delicious food and the charming decor, was that the menus included the full recipes of traditional Hungarian dishes like goulash and meatballs. The whole thing was just so well considered and they’ve clearly put so much love and care into every detail.
After lunch we took the scenic route along the Pest side of the Danube river towards our dessert destination, hugging the tracks of the number 2 tram. There are two famous statues on this neck of the riverside. The artist statue on the Teatralna Square is another Kolodko! This time full size, it commemorates Hungarian artist Ignác Roskovics, depicted painting the Szechenyi Chain Bridge.
The Little Princess statue was originally sculpted by László Marton in 1972. Inspired by the sculptor’s daughter, she wears a newspaper crown and a dressing gown as royal robes, in honour of all the children who play in Vigadó tér park and garden. Legend has it that rubbing her knees brings you good luck. Let’s not examine that too deeply.
Time to sample Budapest’s famous cake, Dobos torte, in Budapest’s famous cafe, Café Gerbeaud. Opened in 1858, there’s a reason this cafe feels (and tastes) distinctly Parisian. Emil Gerbeaud studied in France and even imported the cafe tables from Paris, bringing an elaborate Rococo style.
Our verdict of Dobos torte? Meh, it’s OK. The chocolate mousse layers are delicious, the sponge is a bit tough for my liking (I personally would prefer light and fluffy), and the caramel layer on the top looks very fancy but you need a chisel to get through it.
Hungarian State Opera House
Continuing our elaborate architecture style for the afternoon, next we briefly stuck our heads inside the Magyar Állami Operaház as we made our way back up Andrássy. If you’re looking for a more upmarket concert than the House of Music, definitely check out their schedule while you’re planning your trip. Otherwise, you can just stroll around the halls like us and admire those amazing ceilings.
Drinks at an Irish pub
After a hot day of walking we quickly popped home to shower and change for the evening before heading back out to catch the rugby at a nearby pub. Becketts was very welcoming, and gradually got busier as Matt shouted at the screen and I definitely paid attention.
Drinks at Hotsy Totsy
With about an hour before our dinner booking we explored the area, looking for another drink spot before our meal. Hotsy Totsy had been recommended for upmarket cocktails, so we stepped down into the trendy basement bar and managed to nab one of the last free tables. A bar tender dressed in a denim apron with leather straps handed us a pack of cards, which turned out to be the drinks menu. If you’re looking for something a bit different then definitely try this place out!
Dinner at Dobrumba
The peak of our evening – maybe the whole trip? – was dinner at Dobrumba. Boy oh boy we really overdid it. Make sure you come here (although expect quite slow service) and make sure you order the pomegranate chicken liver, which after one bite I tipsily declared the best thing I’d ever eaten. Other unmissable dishes include the tapenade (one for anchovy lovers), the mutabal (one for aubergine lovers), and of course the hummus. We washed it down with negroni sbagliato (with prosecco in it, oh stunning) and then I basically wasn’t hungry again for the rest of the holiday.
Sunday – 7th District & River Cruise
For our last full day we were looking forward to the river cruise we had booked. But before that we planned to do a thorough exploration of our neighbourhood, the 7th district, otherwise known as the Jewish quarter. We chose the medium of graffiti as a sort of rough treasure hunt around the area, starting with today’s coffee stop at Dorado Cafe. It was absolutely packed with locals, and as it was a very hot day we decided to go with iced lattes.
Graffiti tour of the 7th District
We followed this street map here to find all the murals in our area. My favourite was Motivation is a wonderland which you can find in a car park on Kerész street 27. It’s huge so you definitely won’t miss it, and we’d walked past it a few times already on our trip without going in to investigate. Created with spray and plastic paint, Spanish graffiti and mural artist Dan Ferrer was inspired by the effects demotivation can have on a child, keeping them boxed in, compared to motivation which can make you grow to a giant, just like Alice in Wonderland.
Dohány Street Synagogue
We couldn’t go inside the Dohány Street Synagogue on our visit unfortunately, as it was closed for Rosh Hashanah weekend (Jewish New Year). We made do with admiring the facade from the square in front, especially the intricately carved windows.
Built in the 1850s and seating 3,000 people, Dohány Street Synagogue is the largest synagogue in the whole of Europe. Fun fact: Dohány means tobacco in Hungarian, a loan word from Ottoman Turkish دخان (duhân), itself borrowed from Arabic دخان (duḫḫān).
Sunday Market at Szimpla Kert
The pioneer of ruin bars, and the largest and most popular of them, Szimpla Kert is a must-visit. We did take a peek on Saturday night but it was so full there was a queue halfway down Kazinczy. So instead we popped along on Sunday morning when the space is taken over by a farmers market.
The building of Szimpla Kert was originally a warehouse and factory, taken over by the local community in the early noughties and turned into the space you see today. It hosts film screenings, live music, art shows, the Kazinczy Living Library, the Szimpla Farmers’ Market, and the Szimpla Bringa bicycle flea market among lots of other things, as well as being a restaurant and bar.
We walked all around it, admiring the walls absolutely covered in scribbles and graffiti. There were plants everywhere, bunting made of lampshades, flags, disco balls, doors that lead nowhere, unplumbed bathtubs, art carved into the floorboards… it’s chaos in the best way.
Feeling like I wanted to engage in it somehow, we decided to grab a quick drink before lunch, and we settled at one of the tables on the top floor and people watched for a while.
Lunch at Mazel Tov
Another ruin bar — this one stylish in a whole different way — Mazel Tov is deliberate, sophisticated and civilised. Going to book a table two weeks before, Sunday lunch was the only meal they had availability for, and I’m so glad we managed to nab a spot. The food was delicious and I only wish I had been hungrier, because honestly after Dobrumba I was basically full for the rest of the weekend.
We went back and forth over whether or not to do the Terror House, but it was so close to our airbnb, we decided that we had to. The building itself was used by the Arrow Cross Party under the Nazis and then the State Protection Authority under the Soviet Union as a base to interrogate and imprison enemies of the state. Today it serves as a museum and a memorial to the victims of both regimes who suffered and died within its walls.
The striking exterior of the building (the painted walls, the black blade frame, and the granite footpath) separate the museum from the other buildings on Andrássy Avenue, and cast an ominous shadow when the sun shines.
Budapest river cruise
After an afternoon at the Terror House we took a break at the airbnb for a little while, then got ready for our last evening out in Budapest. And what a way to say goodbye to this beautiful city than with a sunset cruise along the river Danube. We used Get Your Guide to book ours, choosing Legenda City Cruises for the positive reviews.
Starting at 6.30 was the perfect time to watch the sun set behind Buda Castle with a drink in hand (included in our ticket price). There was an audioguide too which took us through the main sights on the riverbank. It actually made me want to stay longer to hit some of these that we’d missed — especially Gellért Thermal Bath, Bálna shopping centre and Budapest University of Technology and Economics which were all in the most gorgeous buildings.
But of course the most striking sight was the Hungarian Parliament Building, lit up brightly against the glowing evening sky and reflecting on the water.
Dinner at Két Szerecsen
That evening we wanted something low-key and not too expensive so we headed to Két Szerecsen which was helpfully on our route back from the river. After our meal Matt shocked me to my core by declaring his breaded chicken some of the best he’d ever eaten! Matt has high chicken standards so this means a lot.
Afterwards we had a relaxed night in the flat, watching the new PIXAR film on the smart TV before doing some packing. We had a very civilised flight time the next morning so we didn’t need to wake up too early, and the Bolt taxi back to the airport was just as reliable as the one we’d taken at the start of our trip.
Where we stayed in Budapest
We couldn’t recommend this airbnb enough if you’re thinking of a trip to Budapest. The location was super convenient, the check in was effortless, and the place was very comfy, especially the massive bed. Perhaps the most valuable aspect in the September heat was the aircon in every room.
I have absolutely gushed about this trip to anyone who will listen ever since we got back. It could very well be one of my favourite European city breaks. It reminded us both repeatedly of Paris with its boulevards and apartment buildings, but more relaxed and of course much cheaper. If you’re looking for a fun city to spend a few days exploring, don’t look back!