Budapest, Hungary—take two. My train rolled into this magical city, known locally as “Budapesht,” for the second time in 15 years. The Hungarian capital, divided by the Danube river into the districts of Buda and Pest, was as picturesque as I remembered it from decades ago, although the city itself had undergone major changes since my initial visit. Back then, I remembered a quality of darkness—both in spirit and physical appearance. Buildings were stained black. The city was a bit rough around the edges—a little bit seedy you could say—and there was a certain heaviness of spirit in the air. It was also winter, with fleeting hours of daylight and a frigid bite in the air. The impression was very much one of recovery from the aftermath of soviet occupation.
This time around things were totally different. It was baking hot, with a heavy summer haze of heat hanging over the city. Ice cream vendors lined busy squares. The Danube river sparkled with lights from boat cruises carrying revelers. The city had been spruced up. Budapest is still an architectural gem, and as always, the city’s regal monuments were just as glorious as I remembered. On the Buda side of the river, the Royal Palace and regal buildings of Castle Hill were all lit up majestically in the evenings. On the Pest side, fancy hotels lined the river and the centerpiece of it all was still the Chain Bridge, guarded by giant stone lions on both ends. The iconic Parliament building rose up at the river’s edge in all its gothic splendor.
Costs (Then and Now)
15 years ago when I was backpacking through Europe, three of us rented a big private apartment from someone who approached us in the train station, for around $10 USD total. It was a bargain, the US dollar was strong, and food and everything else was dirt cheap. You could live like a king in Eastern Europe in the ’90’s. Well, sadly those days are long gone—there’s not a place left in Europe where the US dollar is strong at the moment. $0.35 margaritas, $8 ballets, and $5 multi-course gourmet feasts in Eastern European restaurants are now only the stuff of legends.
Still, Budapest is cheaper than much of Europe, due primarily to the use of the Hungarian Forint rather than the Euro, and you can live very well here for a lot less than in neighboring European countries. Although there are no longer swarms of locals waiting at the train station offering up cheap accommodations, the boutique hotel market has been booming.
Sleeping in Budapest
Staying in Pest
We found the perfect hotel in the city center: Bohem Art Hotel. Centrally located in the heart of Pest, Boheme has a modern Scandinavian design flare to it with lots of artistic touches throughout the rooms, colorful mood lighting, plus a huge and delicious champagne buffet breakfast that is not to be missed.
Staying in Buda
Lanchid 19 was our next pick, and it had amazing river views. The hotel was filled with sleek design touches like glass floors and giant light bulb lamps. But the best part about it was that our room had a full wall of windows that overlooked the Danube and Pest. Perched right at the foot of the Chain Bridge on the Buda side of the Danube river, it had to be one of the best views in the city. There is nothing like watching the lights on the Chain Bridge turn off late at night, then waking up to that spectacular view all over again.
Seeing the Sights
When in Budapest, you can’t miss out on the spas. Budapest lies on a geological fault with about 120 thermal springs that feed this spa center. A soak in Budapest’s famous mineral waters is simply essential. Gyógyfürdő , or thermal baths range stylistically from Turkish to Art Nouveau to modern. One of the largest public spas is Széchenyi, which has outdoor pools, indoor medicinal baths, mud baths, and saunas. It’s also one of the only mixed male and female spas. The sauna was so fiery hot it felt like I was burning my upper lip every time I breathed in, which just made the post-sauna dunk in ice cold water all the more mandatory.
Besides hitting the spas, a few more quintessential Budapest experiences include wandering the winding streets of ritzy Castle Hill, taking in a ballet or opera, and visiting a couple of Budapest’s museums.
On Várhegy, or Castle Hill, you can take in grand panoramas of the entire city that are unbeatable as you perch in architecturally stunning lookout spots, like Fishermen’s Bastion, a white stone castle-like structure with numerous conical turrets. It’s not necessary to pay to go inside, as the views are just as good from the exterior public lookout spots. There are also a handful of museums up here as well, our favorite being the Hungarian National Gallery. Also be sure to check out the colorful tile roof of the neo-Gothic Matthias Church on Castle Hill. You can take a bus, a funicular, or (our pick) skip the lines and walk up to the top of the steep hill where you’ll be rewarded immediately with sweeping vistas.
Museum Spotlight: House of Terror (aka Terror Háza)
If you can only hit one museum in Budapest I highly recommend the House of Terror Museum. This dramatic museum is filled with striking exhibits that document both the Nazi and Soviet reigns of terror in Hungary. The exhibitions are powerfully done and quite emotional. When you first walk in, you’ll encounter a sleek black marble fountain dripping from beneath a tank. You enter the exhibit on the top floor and slowly work your way downwards into the basement. The first room is filled with pulsating music and TV screens on both sides of the room blasting black and white video footage, once side documenting the Nazi reign, the other the Soviet reign. You then follow a circuit through recreations of command offices, interrogation rooms, and finally, prison cells down in the basement. Although much of this is a recreation, the museum is housed on the actual sight where the heads of both regimes were based and where terrible things once happened. By the time you reach the basement, you really do feel dizzy from all the echoes of suffering.
Budapest’s parliament building looks spectacular both day and night, perched on the Danube river. Encompassing a mix of architectural styles ranging from neo-Gothic to neo-Romanesque to neo-baroque, everything somehow all works together to create a work of art that is harmonious, distinct, and a timeless icon of the city. Parliament is arguably most romantic at night when the lights reflect into the Danube and cast a perfect upside-down illumination. Designed by Imre Steindl, the iconic building was finished in 1902 and houses roughly 700 sumptuous rooms, although you’ll have to brave long lines and guided tours to see just a tiny fraction of the interior, along with the country’s most important icon: the coronation regalia, made up of a ceremonial sword, crown, orb, and scepter.
Budapest is a dynamic and historically fascinating city. One of the best things here are all the architectural details in the buildings, from sculptures holding up balconies to faces over doors and carved into walls between windows. Budapest is also the perfect gateway to dynamic neighboring cities like Vienna, Zagreb, Prague, Krakow, or Bratislava.