budapest, hungary // a weekend guide

As part of our class, we spent four days in Budapest studying gentrification and the built environment to provide a contrast to our main research sites in Vienna.  We were also given ample time for sightseeing!

Special thanks to my dad for coming along on this weekend adventure and for being a great recommender of museums, his colleague for providing some incredibly helpful tips on what to see and where to stay, and my group for giving this post some first-hand knowledge of the nightlife scene!

Disclaimer: I’ve added links to various helpful webpages for the things I mention during this post.  None of these are affiliate links and all opinions are my own.

where to stay:

We stayed at the Hotel Benczúr, located less than 5 minutes from a main metro line and about 15 minutes walk from the main center of Buda.  It was very reasonably priced and situated in a residential area, making for a quiet night’s sleep!  If you’re looking for a higher-end accommodation, I also personally received positive reviews about the following hotels: the Ritz-Carlton, the Lánchíd 19 Hotel, the Sofitel, the Four Seasons, and the Hilton.

Budapest is actually made up of two cities: Buda and Pest, with the Danube separating the two.  Sites like the Buda Castle, Matthias Church, and the Hospital in the Rock are on the Buda side, while most of the main shopping and dining areas, as well as the Parliament building (as pictured in the header image), are located on the Pest side.  There are multiple bridges running across the Danube so getting from one side to another isn’t too challenging, but given that as a whole there’s more to do on the Pest side, I recommend staying there so you’re closer to the middle of all the action.

what to do:

Tour guide Jenn is back, y’all, and here are all the places I or people in my group went!  For this trip, I didn’t do nearly as much research on must-see sites as I did for Prague. While I still got to see all the main sites and things I wanted to see, I definitely recommend doing some research and making at least a vague itinerary before you go–it’ll make for a much less stressful experience.  Plus, you won’t accidentally get to one of the main sites 15 minutes after it closes  🙂

P.S. Unlike my guide for Prague, these sites are listed in no particular order!

_JGF1242Terror Museum | The House of Terror, or Terror Museum, is a haunting, beautiful, and
humbling museum tribute to the victims of the Nazi and Soviet regimes in Hungary.  The building that now houses the museum was once the headquarters and offices of the various party leaders and secret police organizations that terrorized the population.  The museum itself spans four levels, with the basement being a look into the torture chambers that once held thousands of dissenters.  It’s certainly a tough museum to see–you may tear up more than a few times–but it’s a history that needs to told and learned.  In what seems like such a divided world, the museum serves as a reminder of not only how far we’ve come as a world, but also the importance of learning from the past, lest we repeat it.

Great Market Hall | The Great Market Hall is the largest and busiest of Budapest’s market halls.  It’s a great place to buy food and souvenirs or simply people watch.  Beware of the hours of operation, however–we got there at 3:15pm.  Turns out it closes at 3pm.  Oops.

Shoes on the Danube Bank | This is a simple and tragically beautiful memorial to the Jewish people killed by the Arrow Cross party during the Second World War.  The people–young and old alike–were forced to take off their shoes and stand on the edge of the river, so that when they were shot their bodies would fall in and be swept away with the current.

Buda Castle | One of the most iconic sites of Budapest, Buda Castle dominates the view of Buda from the other side of the river.  The castle has served various purposes over the course of its history and is still being rebuilt from its destruction during World War II.

Matthias Church | Another iconic site in Buda.  We walked past it on the way to and from the Hospital in the Rock (see below) but didn’t go in.  I love cathdrals as much as the next person (and maybe more), but after living and studying in Europe for nearly a month, there is perhaps a limit to how many cathedrals I can see and remember?

Hospital in the Rock Museum | This is sort of off-the-beaten-path that most tourists take but I highly, highly recommend it if you’re in the Buda castle area.  Due to geological changes during the Ice Age (we’re going way back, folks) there is a cave system that exists under Buda Castle.
During World War II, portions of these caves were transformed into a hospital, called Hospital in the Rock (literally because it’s in a rock–very creative, I know).  The hospital was used to treat injured soldiers during the intense bombings and siege of the city.  The hospital was again used during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and was (sort of, as explained on the tour) transformed into a nuclear bunker during the height of the Cold War.  On the tour of the hospital, you’re taken through the cave system and see the hospital set up as it was during its operation, furniture and all.  Interestingly, upon its transformation into a museum, hundreds of wax figures were commissioned, giving visitors a much more real sense of how the hospital functioned.

My favorite part?  The fact that it’s 15° C (59° F) inside the caves so they provide visitors with thick woolen coats to wear during the duration of the tour.  I wore a tank top.  Being from Minnesota has its perks, y’all.

Parliament | While not that close to many other sites (it’s farther up the Danube on the Pest side of the river) the Hungarian Parliament Building is truly a stunning example of net-gothic architecture.  If you have the chance, definitely make the trek (you can take one of the metro lines right there) and see it.  You can also take a scenic river walk along the Danube if you don’t want to take public transportation!


Szechenyi Baths & Sparty | The Szechenyi Baths are open during the day as well, and are a great place to relax and unwind after a long day of sightseeing.  On Saturday nights, however, the baths turn into a club hosting a “spa party”–a sparty, for short.  Most of my group attended one while we were there, and gave it positive reviews, as can be seen below:

“The party was full of exceedingly drunk men and they swarmed like crows over buzzards around the women who were attending the party.  There were a lot of dudes.  It was overwhelming.”

“If you’re a dude, go with two or three other dudes so you can join in on the leeching.”

“If you’re a girl, don’t go alone.  It’s fun to go in a group!”

“A man continually dabbed over and over as he frantically looked around to see if anyone was watching.  No one was.”

“They had alcoholic popsicles.”

“It’s an opportunity you should take if you’re in the city because it’s not one you’re going to find elsewhere.  If you’re iffy, definitely go; if nothing else, you’ll have great stories in the morning!”

“It was lit.” (This statement was echoed by multiple people)

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TRAP | Y’all.  This was So. Much. Fun.  There’s four different rooms in Budapest operated by the same company, and we partook in the “Secret of the Tomb” experience.  In all of the rooms, you race against the clock to find hidden clues and solve puzzles to make your way out of a locked chamber (It sounds a lot scarier than it really is).  The maximum number of people allowed in a room at a time is five, so since there were seven of us we split into two groups and raced each other.  I’m very humbled and proud to announce that my team did in fact win by 10 minutes.  It may be the greatest accomplishment of my life thus far.  We also befriended the woman who ran it, so while my group was inside the room, the other group watched us on the hidden cameras struggle excel tremendously and were able to offer hints when we got stuck.

Ruin Bars | Because much of Budapest was bombed over the course of the Second World War, many buildings were left in ruins.  Over time, some of these buildings were taken over and turned into bars.  These incredibly unique environments are today frequented by locals and tourists alike.  The following were personally recommended to us: InstantSzimpla Kert, and Fogas Ház.

what to eat:

In Budapest I was on a strict diet of ice cream every twelve hours.  I don’t know if that’s necessarily something I want to admit to the world, but here I am.  Like many other large European cities, Budapest has many ice cream shops scattered throughout the city.  Our favorite was a soft-serve place right by the Oktogon metro stop, but I also received a recommendation for Rose Gelato right by St. Stephen’s Basilica.

As a group, we dined after our day of research at Puli, located on Andrassy Street (one of the main streets in Pest).  It served a lot of traditional Hungarian food, like Paprika Chicken with Noodles, along with salads and lighter fare.  I really enjoyed the dinner as well as the great conversations with our professor!

A side note: noodles do not look like what you think they look like and this can be a surprise the first time you order them.  They’re more like dumplings with a consistency very similar to spätzle (because they’re made a very similar way).  Don’t be put off by this–they’re delicious!

We also made multiple stops at a vegan restaurant, Kozmosz, located just off of Andrassy Street.  Yes, I ate vegan food.  No, I did not hate it.  Yes, I’m just as shocked as you are.  No, I did not eat anything green (Europe hasn’t changed me too much, people).

My dad and I also ate at the Deák St. Kitchen, the restaurant attached to the Ritz-Carlton.  For all my Minnesotans out there, it has a very North Loop-esque feel to it and the food was delicious!

I also received recommendations for Ket Szur, Dionysos, and Menza.

tips & tricks:

Like I mentioned earlier, many areas of Budapest were damaged or destroyed during bombing raids in World War II and again during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.  Because of this, a lot of the major sites are relatively “new,” especially by European standards!  Matthias Church, for example, was almost completely renovated in the 1950s; the same goes for Buda Castle (parts of which still haven’t been renovated!).

Unlike Vienna, where I’ve had to show my metro pass only once in almost four weeks, ticket checkers abound in the Budapest metro system.  They’ll often stand at the top or bottom of escalators and ask to see your pass, so be sure you a.) have one, b.) have a validated one, and c.) have it handy so you don’t have to rifle through your pockets or purse and cause a traffic jam!

Like in Prague (and much of Europe), student discounts abound.  Don’t hesitate to ask about them at different museums and sights–anywhere chance you have to save money on a trip to Europe, you should take.  Speaking as a student whose wallet is significantly lighter after this trip.

On the subject of money, Budapest is a pretty cheap city compared to many others in Europe! The exchange rate, like Prague, is hard to figure out (300 Hungarian Forint is about 1 Euro) but once you start to get a handle on it you’ll realize that you can get ice cream for less than a euro, into museums for just a few euros, and meals are rarely (except perhaps at the really fancy restaurants) more than about ten euros.  It’s fantastic.

As always, if you have any other questions or suggestions feel free to leave them in the comments below.

Happy travels!

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