Two cities for the price of one Buda and Pest make up the mesmerizing capital of Hungary. Think of it as dual personalities with old-world charm on one side and buzzing, modernity on the other. Bisected by the river, the city is surrounded by rolling hills and calming water, while below ground, hot springs said to have healing properties spread like veins, infusing the city with its magic. Here’s everything you must see, sip, and savor in Europe’s regal gem, the “Pearl of the Danube.”
Experience the Spa Culture
Budapest is hot…literally. Natural hot springs are sprinkled throughout the city and bubble right below the surface. Called the “City of Spas,” Budapest has more medicinal springs than any other capital in the world with more than 100 public pools to soak in year-round, but are especially amazing if you visit Budapest in winter. The Széchenyi Medicinal Bath is the most famous and the largest of its kind in Europe, while Gellért Thermal Bath is another one known the world-over. Most complexes have indoor and outdoor pools, saunas, and steam rooms you can access with a day pass, but if you’re in search of pampering, there are also massages and specialty treatments. While a necessarily cultural experience, it’s probably less sexy than you’re picturing with old men fascinatingly posting up to play chess for hours in the healing waters. Yes, they are as adorable (and wrinkly) as you’re imagining.
Cruise the Danube
The banks of the Danube are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the best way to take in the gorgeous Chain Bridge is by meandering the waterways. Keep an eye out for the Shoes on the Danube Bank, a poignant WWII memorial and art installation and pay your respects before continuing to revel. Numerous companies offer all-you-can-drink riverboat tours (or architectural cruises if that’s more your speed) but there are also convertible water buses to sightsee on land first or if you just feel like really being touristy (similar to those weird duck boats). Inland river cruising is a popular way to tour Europe so if you’d rather get just a taste of Budapest for a day or two as part of a bigger trip, there are multi-day cruises that can take you to Prague, Austria, the Netherlands, Germany, and beyond.
Take in the Architecture
When you think classic European capital, Budapest’s architecture is as gothic and medieval as they come and is especially impressive lit up at night. Keep an eye out for iconic landmarks like the Parliament (guided tours are available when not in session) and St. Stephen’s Basilica. The Old City offers walking tours, Segway tours, and my personal favorite way to explore, the hop-on, hop-off trolley. For my fellow tribemates, the Jewish Quarter is also definitely worth a wander, an old ghetto full of synagogues, street food, and shabby chic design.
Explore the Castle Complex
Set atop a hill towering over the city, the Buda Castle offers unequivocally the best views and a full panorama of the regal landscape. You could hike up to the castle, but the more fun way to arrive is by funicular. The best photos are from the Fisherman’s Bastion so be sure to scout around the overlook before proceeding inside to the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum. If you’re not a museum person, there are plenty of walking trails surrounding the hilly landscape and if you need to stretch your legs, head toward Normafa. Or head underground to tour the Labyrinth, a maze of caves and cellars that once served as a secret military shelter, hospital, and prison.
Drink in the Ruins
Ruin pubs have weirdly become a thing meaning its super trendy to drink in condemned buildings. Think of it as a European dive meets speakeasy that just so happens to have been left over from WWII. Mixed use, recycled spaces, the grungy, grittiness attracted both history buffs and hipsters alike. Szimpla Kert was the original, but they each have their own eclectic style and personality. Ruin pub tours are a popular nightlife attraction and a must-do Budapest experience. And you can always pair it with some cheap Budapest eats on a DIY food crawl.
While the movie The Grand Budapest Hotel was a fictionalized retreat, you can still live like royalty at the Aria Hotel Budapest. Part of the Library Hotel Collection in NYC, themed hotels can easily become kitsch city, but when tastefully done, offer an unparalleled, immersive travel experience. With incredible views from the rooftop garden and free wine and cheese receptions daily, the hotel is delightfully music-themed with a grand staircase designed to look like a piano. Each wing is a different genre with a full musical library curated to compliment your cultural education while providing a central base for explorations. As Plato said, “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything” so enjoy the soundtrack and enjoy the adventure.
Only have a weekend to explore? Check out this two-day Budapest itinerary.
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