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My Budapest Checklist - What to Do, See, Taste and Experience Whilst in Budapest - Part 1

Budapest has become one of Europe’s gems - it’s an easily accessible country to many tourists annually thanks to its spot in the middle of the continent and its very affordable prices. Attracting tourists via plane, train and of course, river cruises down the Danube, Budapest has gone from being somewhat unknown, or at least relegated to its older ways, to all of a sudden being featured on the top cities to visit in Europe lists, especially for parties! Hosting one of the world’s biggest music festivals, Sziget, and known for the insane Szechenyi bath parties, as well as a great bar scene, Budapest has become extremely popular with young travellers, and older! Budapest now has something really for everyone. 

I have been lucky to visit 5 times so far (2005, 2012, 2015, 2018 and 2019) and each trip has been really quite different, allowing me opportunities to see more each time and extend my knowledge of this great city and its history more and more. 

Firstly, a bit of background. Budapest is split into two sections - Buda and Pest - and is divided by the river, the Danube. Throughout its history it has been occupied, controlled, invaded or ruled by many different parties and the architecture, culture and even food does represent this. In my opinion, the most obvious lasting impact that is still noticeable today is that of WWII and the resulting Communist era in Hungary that only truly came to an end in 1989. 

So, here you have my Budapest Checklist - what to do, see, taste and experience whilst in Budapest so that if it’s your first time to the city, you know exactly what to plan, and if you’re a returnee like myself, hopefully this list has something new for you too! 

**Note: I love Budapest so much that this blog became longer than I anticipated so to make it an easier read, I have divided it into two sections. Make sure to read Part 2 as well for your full guide to this great city!**

This is my favourite spot in the city because it is so totally unique in its architecture and the views from there of the Danube and Parliament are just absolutely breathtaking. In my opinion, you cannot spend too much time up here because every little nook and cranny offers a totally different perspective on this same amazing vista. 

If you’re into photography or if you’re looking for Budapest’s most instagrammable spots, this should be at the top of your list.

If you’re just wanting a nice place to take in a magical view, there is a restaurant in the Bastion where you can have a meal or, as we did, just have a drink and enjoy the stunning setting. 

Visit Heroes' Square and the Paper Castle turned to Stone

One of the most regal like structures in Budapest, Heroes' Square is truly an amazing site! 

The iconic statue complex features Seven chieftains of the Magyars and other important Hungarian National leaders as well as the Hungarian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Sitting at the end of the absolutely stunning Andrassy Utca, Hero’s Square feels grand, it feels regal and as such, it is no surprise that it often plays host to important political events and has been the background of some major moments of Hungarian history...and a Michael Jackson film clip. 

In this square you will also find The Museum of Fine Arts and the Palace of Art, two of the major art galleries in Budapest. 

Right behind Hero’s Square is another really interesting site worth visiting whilst in the area, Vajdahunyad Vára (or Castle). This building is home to the Hungarian Museum and Library of Agriculture and it is set in a beautiful park that you will undoubtedly want to stroll in or maybe even paddle boat around the lake on. 

What I love about this building is the history of its architecture. The castle was designed to celebrate the State of Hungary’s 1000th birthday and was built as a temporary fixture with planks of wood and flimsy cardboard. It was designed as 21 different buildings including a church and a Dracula castle. The public loved the sculpture and eventually it was rebuilt with stone and sturdier materials to make sure that it would withstand the tests of time. SO COOL!! 

Take a Tour of the Parliament

Tours of the magnificent Parliament house are available in multiple languages every hour daily but it is advised to book in advance of your trip to ensure that you get a ticket as this tour does book out. Within the parliament, you will also see Hungarian treasures including the King’s Crown and some of their most prized architecture. For my money, my honest opinion is that it is the outside that is most magnificent and whilst the tour is interesting and definitely worthwhile if you have the time, if you are short on time in Budapest and the weather is nice enough to spend more time enjoying the majestic structure from the outside, personally I would. I found the interior of the building very interesting and valued seeing the crown and the parliamentary chambers of today, however, I did find that the language barrier was significant even on the English tour and that my guide seemed very unwilling to answer questions, particularly questions relating to WWII and any damage that may have been done to the building. It seemed as though there was a script that our guide was not to stray from but it made for a slightly awkward tour. I’m very glad to have been inside and would highly recommend it to anyone who has the time to do the tour but would say go in with this expectation so that your tour guide can only wow you. 

Note: You will need to take your passport with you on the tour.

Enjoy the Art at the Castle Galleries and Museums

The Castle district on the Buda side is filled with works of art and other priceless Hungarian possessions that should definitely be seen and experienced. Unfortunately my luck has been that my last 3 trips have seen events or renovations taking place that have prohibited me from visiting so I cannot speak to the modern exhibitions but I’m told that they are well worth a visit. 

Whilst you’re up in this area, we had lunch at a great place called TwentyOne which I would definitely recommend. The atmosphere was great, decor very nice and the food was lovely. 

Take a Dip at the Szechenyi Baths 

I LOVE the baths in Hungary mainly for their atmosphere more than anything else. Szechenyi are some of the largest and most famous - here you have many pools, all at different temperatures but many very warm or very cold, that you spend time in to heal your body. I love that in amongst this are domino games, people having a beer with their friends, families playing, etc. It seems like such a community spot and I always enjoy heading in! You can find these styles of baths all around Budapest. 

Try an Ishler at Szamos

There are so many cakes that you can try at this famous cake shop but these little almond biscuits, filled with jam and covered with chocolate are hands down my favourite. You’ll hear of lots of people telling you to go to Gundel or Gerbo for cakes but to be honest, they’re all tourists there now. Head to Szamoc for the true local favourites. 

Cruise Down The Danube

This is one of my favourite ‘touristy’ things to do in Budapest because there is truly no better view than from the Danube - it is spectacular and in my opinion, one of the most beautiful European cities you can experience from the water. This is largely due to the parliament of course which is just breathtaking from every angle, but is contributed to by the beautifully restored bridges, the castle area and the drastic difference in land structure between hilly Buda and flat Pest. 

There are SO many companies that offer cruises down the Danube - some with meals or drinks included too, etc. If you are considering doing something like a Hop Off Hop On Tour (below) my advice would be to choose one that includes the cruise because it’s the same price and you save yourself paying for this as well - just a little Budapest touring hack. Whichever tour you choose to take, I’ve never been to Budapest without cruising the Danube (sometimes multiple times in a single trip) and don’t think I ever will. 

Personal opinion: take the cruise in the late afternoon so that you can experience sunset on board just before you get off the boat (don’t want to be stuck doing half the cruise in the dark...there’s nothing to see) - sunset over the parliament and castle are both gorgeous and this is a great place to see them both. 

Eat Langos at Nagy Csarnck Market

Firstly, what is Langos? Langos is a Hungarian speciality that is essentially just a deep fried dough usually served with garlic (like a garlic butter type sauce). It’s been around in Hungary since the Turkish occupation but then became known as more of a ‘peasant food.’ Today you’ll find it on the menus even of the top hotel restaurants because it is just so delicious! 

Langos is a must when you’re in Hungary and to be honest, the more traditional you can go (ie. away from tourist hubs) the better the Langos will be EXCEPT for the Nagy Csarnck market which is a massive food market which I would definitely recommend going to. Here you’ll be able to try typical Hungarian foods, salamis including donkey salami (apparently special to the region but not so special to me hehe) and lots of paprika. It’s also a good place to get souvenirs if you’re in the market for some. I haven’t personally had the Langos here but when walking through the market I noticed that this is the place to get ‘loaded’ Langos if you will. My personal preference is to eat it just with garlic toppings, though the prosciutto and rocket topped Langos at the Kempinski is seriously delicious! I’m sure that the Nagy Csarnck market loaded Langos options are awesome! I’ll be trying them out next time. 

Tour the Largest Synagogue in Europe and See the Holocaust Memorial

The Dohany synagogue is a very impressive building for many reasons, not the least of which is that it managed to survive Nazi occupation of Budapest. Throughout the Holocaust, much of the Jewish population of Hungary, as well as Jewish buildings, artefacts, businesses and more were destroyed. The synagogue suffered great damage from pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Bombings and air raids, but, due to its being used as a base for German Radio and a stable during WWII, it managed to survive being and was completely restored between 1991 and 1998. Over the years, further restorations and improvements have continued on the building and grounds, which stand at the border of what was the Jewish Ghetto during the Holocaust and, importantly, on the site of the house where Theodore Herzl was born, to continue to make the building more and more impressive. 

It’s a very unique synagogue. It is designed and styled after the Spanish Alhambra and Islamic structures from North Africa. It features elements within the hall more common in places of worship like churches, for example, the pulpits. Irrespective of your religion, this is an interesting building to visit and learn the history of. 

For me, the courtyard out back is the must see as it features the Raoul Wallenberg memorial, a memorial to the Righteous Among the Nations and in the middle, the large memorial tree which is one of the most haunting but important things to see in Budapest. A large willow tree made of iron branches with individual leaves each engraved with the name of someone murdered in the Holocaust takes most of the courtyard. It is beautiful, poignant and very tasteful. I would definitely recommend seeing this as a way to best understand the enormity of the impact of Holocaust on Budapest. 

Eat at a 100 Year Old Restaurant

Szazeves Etterem (literally translates to 100 Year Old Restaurant) is a restaurant that, you guessed it, has been around for a long time! Serving lots of traditional food in a cute but old-school Hungo setting, complete with live musicians roaming around the restaurant, this restaurant makes my list for anyone who wants one night at an ‘oldie but goodie’ kind of place. Located at the bottom of vaci utca, it is easy to get to as well. The food is not MINDBLOWING but I definitely enjoyed the evening as a whole and would recommend. 

**Note: I love Budapest so much that this blog became longer than I anticipated so to make it an easier read, I have divided it into two sections. Make sure to read Part 2 as well for your full guide to this great city!**

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