Thirty-something years ago I took my first trip to Europe and began my adventure in Vienna. As I wandered the city streets and soaked up the European vibe, I kept noticing signs “Budapest – that way” or “Budapest – turn here”. I actually don’t remember exactly what the signs said, but I just knew that Budapest was nearby. And I was intrigued. Just the name of the city sounded interesting. But my travel plans took me in the opposite direction toward Paris. Ever since that first trip to Vienna, I’ve wondered about this mysterious land known as Budapest. So finally, thirty-something years later, I booked my flight from Nice to spend three days in Budapest before my house sit in Vienna.
First, where the heck is it? Budapest is located in central Europe – right here:
Budapest History & the Best of Buda and Pest
Buda + Pest + Obuda
Although this area has a very long and interesting history, the city of Budapest was formed fairly recently in 1873 by the merger of three cities: Buda + Pest + Obuda = Budapest. The Danube River separates Buda from Pest with each side having its own unique personality.
Buda is the hillier side with an interesting Old Town on top of the hill near Buda Castle and the stunning Matthias Church. Across the river, Pest is the flatter side where the majority the tourist sights are located.
Budapest is home to the largest population of Jewish people outside of Israel and Jewish culture is evident throughout the city and especially in the Jewish Quarter. The Jews first settled in the area in the 12th century as merchants and shop owners and endured many turbulent times, especially during WWII when 600,000 people were executed. The largest Jewish synagogue in Europe is located in Budapest, the Dohany Street Synagogue, on the Pest side of the river.
I stayed on the Pest side in a budget “boutique” hostel, in a continuing effort to embrace my inner budget traveler. On the other hand, my friend Dean (who just happened to be in Budapest at the same time) stayed in a much more luxurious hotel on the Buda side with a view of the Parliament Building.
Our views (and budgets) were vastly different but it was so much fun to explore this amazing city with an old friend!
Best of Pest
Budapest Jewish Quarter
The Jewish Quarter free walking tour was one of the highlights of my time in Budapest. This is one thing you really must do in order to really understand the heart and soul of the city. I honestly started to write an article JUST about the Jewish Quarter but I struggled to find the words to describe it. It’s one of those “you really had to be there” situations. Just do it!
Our tour guide was a perky 20-something woman named Reta who had a passion for Jewish history and for the city of Budapest. She brought the past to life with her stories of the history of the Jewish people in Budapest and the suffering they endured during World War II. It was enlightening and heartbreaking and so worth spending a few hours to step back into the past and really understand the city.
Free Jewish Quarter walking tours depart twice a day from the statue near St. Stephen’s Basilica. Check their website for updated tour times and other details.
Quirky Ruin Bars
Budapest is becoming famous for its quirky and interesting Ruin Bars located in the Jewish Quarter. The old, crumbling, abandoned buildings have been transformed into unique pubs and draw huge crowds nightly.
I stumbled into one of these ruin bars one evening and ordered a cold beer. The atmosphere was an interesting blend of old and new, with the crumbling bricks surrounding the open-air courtyard where the modern pub now stands. It felt like there could be ghosts lurking in the dark corners of the courtyard watching me savor my cold beer.
Organized Ruin Bar Tours are available for 13EUR per person. Another option is to create your own pub crawl. Use Google Maps to explore the best Ruin Bars in Budapest on your own, like I did one night with my friends, Dean and Mike!
Somber Shoes on the Danube Bank
Set along the banks of the Danube River is a very somber memorial to the many Jewish people who were executed during WWII. I walked by The Shoes on my first day in Budapest and took a few photos but I didn’t fully understand it – until I did the Jewish Quarter walking tour.
After finishing the tour, I walked back to memorial again and sat there imagining the horror the Jewish people must have felt.
Sixty pairs of shoes were sculpted out of iron and are scattered along the banks of the Danube. The shoes represent the Jews from the Budapest ghetto who were ordered to take off their shoes before being executed and tossed into the river.
This somber memorial is a place you really need to visit to understand Budapest’s Jewish history.
Relaxing Thermal Spas
Budapest, known as “the City of Baths”, is famous for the thermal spas believed to have healing qualities. The city has many health spa resorts as well as thermal baths where you can spend a relaxing day. The most famous of these is Szechenyi Baths, one of the largest public baths in Europe. This is a massive place with 21 pools and is very popular with tourists as well as locals.
My friends, Dean and Mike, spent a relaxing day at Szechenyi and weren’t exactly raving about it at dinner that night. I guess it’s a cultural experience and something I’ll make time for next time I’m in Budapest.
The Blue-ish Danube
Sadly, unlike the famous song, the Danube isn’t actually blue. But the river still is a beautiful place to linger, especially at night with the city lights reflecting off the water. That’s when Budapest is at its finest!
On my first day, I discovered a perfect spot (my “happy place”) to hang out along the banks of the river – a bar called The Pontoon. It’s located on the Pest side very near the iconic Chain Bridge. This is a very rustic, simple place with white plastic chairs scattered along the riverbank allowing great views of the passing riverboats.
The Pontoon serves cheap beer, simple snack foods, and stunning views of the Danube River, the Chain Bridge, and Buda Castle on the Pest side. There is also live music on the weekends.
Another great way to experience the Danube is on one of the many river cruises available. They depart at all times of the day and provide amazing views of the city from the river. Or a much cheaper option is to jump on a taxi boat and just go for a ride!
Stunning Parliament Building
The Parliament Building is one of the most recognized buildings in Budapest and is a real work of art. This massive structure is the third largest parliament building in Europe. If you’re into photography, this is one incredibly photogenic building. It’s got so many angles and looks very different from day to night.
Tours are available but sell out quickly so book well ahead of time! Check tour times, prices, and make an online booking right here.
St. Stephen’s Basilica and The Right Hand
Located on the Pest side of the river, St. Stephen’s Basilica is a huge Catholic church dedicated to Hungary’s first king (1000 – 1038). This massive church can hold up to 8,500 people and also houses the mummified right hand of St. Stephen. (Seriously.) The Holy Right Hand (Szent Jobb) is believed to be capable of performing miracles and has a long and traumatic history. Every year on August 20th they celebrate the legend of the right hand during the Holy Right Hand Procession.
Bars and restaurants line the cobblestone streets around St. Stephen’s Basilica. This is a great area to people-watch over a cup of coffee. Walking tours meet near the statue in front of the church.
Best of Buda
On the Buda side of the river, high on a hill, stand Buda Castle and St. Matthias Church. It’s well worth taking a day to explore the Buda side of the city and wander through the quaint Old Town.
The massive Buda Castle complex dates back to the middle ages but the current Baroque building was completed in the mid-1700s. Once home to Hungarian royalty, it now houses The Budapest History Museum and The National Gallery.
The castle courtyard is open to the public 24/7. Check here for museum hours and entrance fees.
St. Matthias Church
Dating back to the 13th century, this massive Gothic church dominates the hilltop on the Buda side of the river. The church has a long and interesting history and was once the site of a mosque after the Turks captured Buda in 1541. The church was pillaged during the battle with the Turks and, according to local legend, was instrumental in ending the Turkish occupation.
…during the bombardment of Budapest by a European alliance, a wall of the church collapsed, revealing a sculpture of the Madonna to the praying Turks. Demoralized, they capitulated the following day.”
More recently, St. Matthias Church was used as the coronation site for many of the Hungarian kings.
Tours are available daily and tickets can be purchased at the booths just outside the church.
For the best view of the city, head to Fisherman’s Bastion. Located right next to St. Matthias Church, this structure resembles something you might see at Disneyland. There is great historical significance in every detail of the design with the seven turrets representing the seven original tribes of Hungary.
This fairy tale structure was built in the early 1900s on the site of an old rampart from the Middle Ages. The rampart was also the site of a local fish market back in medieval times. Now, hordes of tourists gather here taking selfies with the stunning view of The Danube River and the Pest side in the distance.
Here’s how to spend three perfect days in Budapest:
Day One: Coffee. Jewish Quarter Walking Tour. Shoes on the Danube. Parliament Building. Cold beer at The Pontoon. Dinner along the Danube.
Day Two: Coffee. Buda Castle, Matthias Church, Fisherman’s Bastion. Cold beer at The Pontoon. Dinner cruise on the Danube.
Day Three: Coffee. St. Stephen’s Basilica. Opera House. Hop on a boat taxi and explore. Cold beer at The Pontoon. Ruin Bar Pub Crawl.
Budapest makes a great travel destination in combination with the nearby popular cities of Vienna, Bratislava, and Prague. Many airlines fly directly into Budapest with local no-frills carrier Wow Airlines offering the cheapest flights.
I stayed on the Pest side highly recommend it. My hostel, The Aventura Boutique Hostel, is located very near the tramline and walking distance to most of the Pest sights.
My rich friend Dean stayed at the Art Hotel on the Buda side with stunning views of the Parliament Building.
Compare Prices for Budapest Hotels right here
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Photo Credits (my tablet with photos was stolen shortly after this trip!)
St. Stephen’s Basilica from Unsplash