While my friend Jess was visiting me in October we decided to end her trip in style with a weekend getaway in Europe. She asked where I wanted to travel and my mind immediately went to Budapest, Hungary. It’s been on my must-see list for awhile now. Fortunately, Jess responded with a resounding yes. We found cheap flights on Norwegian Air (ironically) and even cheaper lodging on AirBnB, and Girls Budapest Getaway 2014 became a thing.
Budapest is a city of contrasts. Old and new, modern and ruins, cold weather and warm hearty food, and a peaceful modern democracy after a tumultuous Soviet past. Despite their dark history, the Hungarians we met were so welcoming to tourists and Americans. Friendly locals, an intriguing back story, plenty of tourist sights, delicious food, and affordable prices are a recipe for success on any weekend trip. Budapest ticked all the boxes.
We loved how we spent our few days in town. Feel free to copy our itinerary and bring us both along because we’ll happily return.
Day 1: Trabant Tour and Sightseeing
Recently I’ve become a big proponent of starting trips with a guided tour. Whether it’s a free walking tour or something more formal, I love learning about a new city from a local. I also don’t have much free time in chaotic London life to prep for trips by reading travel guides, so a tour guide is like having a personal tutor instead of cramming for a trip by scanning the cliff notes. Did you enjoy that academic metaphor? Let me bring it full circle – if you go to Budapest I highly recommend a Trabant tour with My Personal Budapest. We booked it after rave reviews from our friends who had recently been.
What’s a Trabant? It’s a Soviet-era car that was produced in East Germany. While the Volkswagen was West Germany’s car for the people, East Germany and the Soviet Bloc had the Trabant. Budapest was so deeply impacted by the Soviet-era that rolling around the city in this little car was as symbolic as it was educational.
In three hours we saw the sights of the Buda and Pest side of the city via Trabant and stopped at important landmarks and buildings for photos and history lessons with our enthusiastic local guide, Attila. In the photo above Attila is on the left and our driver is on the right. Our favorite stop was Fisherman’s Bastion on the Buda side. It was protected by the guild of fisherman during the Middle Ages, thus the name, and today makes an ideal spot for panoramic views.
Our drive also took us across the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, the first permanent bridge across the River Danube in Hungary that opened in 1849. I loved the lions guarding each side. Meow.
After all the sightseeing I was about to get hangry in Hungary. We asked Attila to drop us off at the Great Market Hall, pronto. Downstairs the regular market-goers purchase fresh produce and spices while upstairs vendors serve up dishes of hot goulash and langos (a Hungarian specialty). Y-U-M.
After lunch we got our second wind for sightseeing and set off by foot for St. Stephen’s Basilica. It’s dedicated to the holy king St. Stephen who was also the founder of the Hungarian state. I’ve seen a lot of churches in Europe, and let’s be honest – they all start to look alike after awhile. But the bold colors and ornate ceilings had me truly appreciating the chance to visit this one. Best of all, you can trek up the stairs to the top for the 360 degree panorama.
I won’t sugarcoat everything we saw in Budapest. I alluded to Hungary’s dark past and nothing showcases it more than the memorials and museums that serve as a reminder of those horrors. Shoes on the Danube is one that had us feeling reflective about humanity. The iron shoes are meant to represent the shoes of hundreds of Jews who were brought to the river’s edge and shot by firing squad between 1944-45.
We ended the day at House of Terror Museum. Opened in 2002 to commemorate victims of the Nazi and Soviet regimes, it’s housed in the former Hungarian Nazi headquarters. Our visit was incredibly somber and intense, but meaningful and worth the visit.
Afterwards we lightened the mood with a drink at a ruin bar, Szimpla Kert. Ruin bars evolved from historic buildings in disrepair. Rather than demolish them, local entrepreneurs converted them into bars and clubs. Eclectic decor, open air courtyards, and smokers prevail in ruin bars, but we enjoyed the unique experience.
Day 2: Spa with a Side of Politics
After our intense first day we decided to slow down and enjoy one of Budapest’s fifty thermal spring spas. We selected Gellért Spa because Attila pointed it out during our Trabant Tour. Budapest is sometimes known as “the city of healing waters” because of the many thermal spring baths that originate from historical Roman, Turkish, and Ottoman influence. File away that tidbit for your next pub quiz.
After a relaxing spa morning we headed towards Parliament. With almost 700 rooms and 29 grand staircases the tour is well worth the time and money to get an inside glimpse of this Gothic-style masterpiece and learn about Hungary’s political system.
Day 3: Brunch and an Island Park
For our last day in Budapest we had a few hours before heading to the airport and spent them at brunch and an island park in the middle of the River Danube. New York Café has been around since the early 20th century but was in disrepair after decades of neglect until its recent renovation and reopening in 2006. Ranked as the most beautiful cafe in the world, you’ll feel like royalty having your coffee and eggs below the gold-painted ceilings and marble arches.
To stretch our legs before the flight back to London we headed towards Margaret Island Park for a stroll. This park is smack dab between the Buda and Pest sides of the river and provided a serene setting to enjoy the fall colors and reflect on our wonderful trip.
Food & Drink:
Hungarian food is comfort food; think goulash, red meat, and potatoes. We lucked out on all of our food choices. Side note – dinner reservations are required for most places even on week nights.
- Menza for dinner. Visit the nearby ruin bars afterwards.
- The Great Market Hall is a good lunch stop.
- Frici Papa Kifozdeje serves up authentic Hungarian dishes with huge portions at reasonable prices.
- Aranyszarvas was our favorite meal in town. Located on the Buda side but easily accessible by bus.
- Our best travel win was purchasing the 72 hour transport pass at the airport before catching the 200E airport bus into the city center. Budapest is walkable but in the cold weather it was good to have access to the underground metro, city buses, and overground trams.
- Most tourists choose to stay on the Pest side of the river but there are lodging options on the Buda side as well. We really enjoyed this AirBnB spot which was perfect for 1-2 people.
- End of October was chilly but not unbearably cold if bundled up.
- If you want to enjoy a massage at one of the thermal baths, consider booking in advance. Széchenyi Bath is the biggest in town.
- Helpful planning tools: VisitBudapest.com and Rick Steve’s “Guide to the Best of Hungary”.
- Currency is the Hungarian forint (1 USD = approx 243 forints at time of this post).