Bursting with history, picturesque beauty and a quirky spirit to rival any European hotspot, Budapest is a must-do destination for anyone in search of a characterful city break.
The Hungarian capital’s eclectic mix of baroque, neoclassical and art nouveau styles will impress any architecture buff, while its array of natural spas and Turkish baths offers a beguiling way to rest and relax. That said, Budapest is also something of a party town, where venues pop up in abandoned buildings, drinkers spill out on to pavements and there’s deliciously tempting street food wherever you turn.
Flowing through the city’s heart is the River Danube, dividing the city in two – hilly Buda on the west bank and bustling Pest to the east. Linked by the famous Chain Bridge, each side offers something different, but whether your idea of holiday heaven is dancing until sunrise, soaking up Habsburg history on a guided tour or treating your tastebuds in the city’s evocative market halls, it’s never been easier to fall in love with Hungary’s fabulous capital.
Szechenyi Spa Baths
Budapest’s famous indoor/outdoor baths are an attraction like no other in the world. Luxury spa treatments, saunas and massages are the order of the day round the warm, blue waters of this stunning outdoor pool complex. But if it’s a night-time rave you’re after, head to Szechenyi after dark for one of its famous ‘sparties’, featuring unlimited alcohol, live electronic music and an anything-goes atmosphere. Need we say more?
This great piazza at the end of Andrassy Avenue is famed for its commanding statues of the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars, the warriors who are believed to have led the Hungarian people from central Asia to the lands they occupy today. The site also hosts the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, as well as Budapest’s most popular art museums, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Mucsarnok. If time allows, come back at night to see these mighty monuments glistening in the moonlight.
Rising from the banks of the Danube, this 691-room building is a showpiece of the gothic revival style, with its ornate statues, lofty pinnacles and gilded staircases. Younger than it looks (it dates from 1902), this majestic setting still makes an excellent place to learn about Hungary’s colourful and turbulent history on a guided tour – though these are very popular, so we recommend buying tickets in advance to avoid a wasted trip.
Bars and restaurants
A Michelin-starred restaurant offering meat-focused cuisine and more than 200 wines, Borkonyha is a jewel in Budapest’s foodie crown. Chef Akos Sarkozi’s approach to Hungarian cuisine is contemporary, but whether it’s lettuce soup with scallops, foie gras with apple and celeriac, or quail with pearl barley and cranberries, his simple yet flavourful combinations are invariably delicious. Dinner here won’t be the cheapest meal of your holiday, but it’s hard not to come away impressed.
Look elsewhere if it’s traditional Hungarian fare you’re after – but for stylishly presented small plates, charcuterie, pasta and a mammoth cheese selection, this Italian restaurant is outstanding. Pick at crunchy but tender arancini rice balls to start, before tucking into a hearty portion of duck pasta. Ridiculously moreish and surprisingly good value, this is excellent food served in a cosy but colourful ambience.
Stylish, spacious and highly Instagrammable, this giant courtyard-cum-cultural space is lined with lush trees and plants, draped in twinkling lights and topped with a glass roof. Tucked away in the lively Jewish district, Mazel Tov is a star of Budapest’s burgeoning nightlife scene and most definitely worth the hype. Peckish? Try the Mediterranean/Hungarian fusion plates (we strongly recommend the melt-in-the-mouth shawarma sandwich).
Budapest’s landmark watering hole, Szimpla Kert is a big hit with locals and visitors alike. At the epicentre of the city’s nightlife from the moment it opened in 2002, this converted factory is now a buzzing cafe bar and performance space, decorated with bric-a-brac and graffiti art. Fancy catching a film in the open-air courtyard while knocking back an expertly crafted aperitif? You’re in the right place.
What to expect
When to go
Most tourists visit Budapest in summer, during the music and theatre festival season. But the city arguably looks its best in spring and early autumn (particularly lovely in the Buda hills) so the smart tip is to travel then and avoid the crowds.
Budapest is cold in winter, with snow and freezing temperatures common. Summers can be hot, with almost Mediterranean temperatures and plenty of sunshine – so whenever you travel, make sure you bring the appropriate clothing.
Hold a British passport? Under current EU rules, you don’t need a visa to enter Hungary if you’re planning to stay fewer than 90 days. Brexit could change this – though it’s thought unlikely – so do check before you travel.
The local currency is the Hungarian forint, which is easily withdrawn from plentiful ATMs across the city. Credit or debit cards are also no problem, with Visa, MasterCard and American Express all widely accepted.
Best local tips
“Budapest is best enjoyed on foot. Drop by the locals’ favourite fast food shop, Frici Papa, for chicken paprika, finished off with a shot of palinka brandy for the full Hungarian experience.” Devon Brown, travel writer.
“I recommend downloading the app Bolt instead of using taxis on the street. It works just like Uber, so you find out the cost upfront and you can pay with cash or by card.” Starr Varga, local blogger.
“Head to Rosenstein Restaurant, which serves the best Hungarian-Jewish food in Budapest. Expect deliciously quirky pies, enjoyed by a crowd of loyal patrons and travellers too.” Eva Kisgyorgy, student.
The product of a proud, centuries-old tradition in northeastern Hungary, this deliciously rich, honey-coloured pudding wine is a favourite of royalty, the rich and famous (be warned – it’s powerfully alcoholic, too).
This rich red spice isn’t exclusive to Hungary, but nowhere else is it produced in so many subtle varieties or used to such brilliant effect. Grab a pouch in one of the city’s market halls and take the true flavour of Budapest home with you.
No one would call it the height of fashion, but Hungarians still enjoy donning their national garb for folk-dancing events throughout the year. Give your own wardrobe a splash of colour on Vaci Street, home of countless boutiques.
Get on Board
Viking’s 10-night ‘Passage to Eastern Europe’ cruise from Bucharest to Budapest via Veliko Tarnovo and Vidin (Bulgaria), Golubac and Belgrade (Serbia), Osijek (Croatia) and Kalocsa (Hungary), departing 5 May 2020, from £3,145. vikingcruises.co.uk
Tauck’s 11-night ‘The Blue Danube’ cruise from Budapest to Prague via Bratislava (Slovakia); Vienna, Wachau Valley, Durnstein, Salzburg and Engelhartszell (Austria) and Vilshofen (Germany), departing 6 April 2020, from £4,090. tauck.co.uk