There’s that sudden gush of love you get when you look at somebody you’ve known since forever but for a split second realise again just how beautiful they are. Me, this happens every time I cross a bridge in Budapest.
This is a love story that goes back nearly a decade and has seen several splashes at stunning spas, drinks had at ruin bars, hikes through the Buda Hills, laps around Margaret Island, nights lost at the Jewish District’s buzzing bars, books read at century-old coffeehouses, boat trips on the Danube and sunsets seen from rooftop bars.
Here’s my guide to exploring Budapest like a local with one warning: with its abundance of history, incredible culture, unique charm and unbelievable beauty Budapest will make you fall head over heels for her – and this love lasts forever!
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One of the best things about Budapest… is that a river runs through it, separating the city’s two sides. Buda and Pest were formerly two independent towns and even today, each displays a different vibe and crowd; Buda is serene and relaxed, Pest is busy and buzzing. Budapest has many very different moods on a smaller scale too. There’s a hint of Vienna, Paris, London and Berlin in it, but it’s somehow still as unique as no other European capital.
When I meet friends for a drink… one of my favourite places in downtown is BB’z, a cool and laid-back bar that is central and popular yet still unpretentious. When I want to let loose, Toldi is my go-to hangout. It’s an art-house cinema with a café and bar in its spacious entrance hall that transforms into a party place come nightfall. Summer-only bar, Pontoon, has stunning views of the Buda side. The Chain Bridge and the Castle are my chill spots during the warmer months. Sitting on the terrace or by the mini pool of Akvárium Klub is also special, while Vittula is where I end up after-hours.
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When I want to get out of the city… I still stay in the city. One great thing about Budapest is that even when you want to get away from its buzz, you don’t actually have to go very far. A place to explore is Margaret Island, a huge car-free green oasis on the Danube (I mean, there’s an island in the middle of the city, how cool is that?!) When I long even further afield, a lengthy hike in the Buda Hills makes me feel like I’m no longer in Budapest but on top of it – thanks to the distant bird’s eye view of the city skyline you get from here. A walk up to Gül Baba’s Tomb and rose garden also distances me just enough. However, if I really need to leave Budapest behind, Europe’s biggest lake, Balaton, is about two hours away.
One tip for travellers… walk, walk, walk! – or ride, but please just get lost in town. Not just because Budapest is absolutely beautiful both naturally and architecturally – with quirky little details galore – but also because the city has a certain charm that is difficult to grasp. You need to immerse yourself in its stories, history and different vibes and meet its colourful characters to really experience Budapest. The city has many sides: quirky, romantic, random, bohemian, sophisticated, aristocratic, hippie – discover them. This is a safe and very walkable city so you have the luxury to just go with the flow and let yourself be wooed by Budapest.
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When I need to relax… I’m so lucky I just have to pick a thermal bath from the really impressive assortment. Budapest is Europe’s spa capital with a bathing culture dating back to Roman times. Széchenyi and Gellért Baths are both superstars, but so gorgeous they entice locals to return time and again as well. Rudas Bath has a rooftop hot tub with a panorama, and lesser-known Veli Bej is charming.
A typical weekend involves… a big leisurely breakfast at Cirkusz Café, Marty’s, Zoska or Fekete – or at least a kakaóscsiga (Hungarian cocoa roll) from Butter Brothers, Jacques Liszt or any bakery. Afterwards, I like to go for a ride or a big walk around town, and later for a picnic on the island or on the Római Shore playing board games. I’m always up for a movie at one of the laid-back art-house cinemas, or for an exhibition at one of Budapest’s great museums.
My go-to foodie spots… are Digó or Pizza Manufaktúra. My biggest love is pizza, so I never say no to a Neapolitean at the former or a Roman-style at the latter. When it comes to eating out, Mazel Tov, Dobrumba, Fricska, Kiosk, DSK and Menza are my rotating options. When I get tempted by something Hungarian I go to Gettó Gulyás, and when I want to go full fancy with the view, DNB Budapest is a great choice.
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My favorite place to see the sunset… is from somewhere high because Budapest is so unbelievably stunning from up above that even I can’t get enough of it. There are many really cool rooftop bars to choose from. I like 360Bar because it’s always buzzing and there’s often live music, and High Note Sky Bar because I always feel like I could touch the Basilica from the terrace if I stretched far enough. When I want to keep it cheap and I’m up for the half-hour uphill hike I climb up to Gellért Hill and the Citadella, if not, I find a seat somewhere on the Pest riverbank.
The best time to be in Budapest is… always! The warmer months see several festivals, like the world-famous Sziget Festival, or cool urban gatherings, (eg. when Liberty Bridge is closed for cars on summer weekends and turns into an impromptu picnic spot) while in winter enchanting Christmas markets, ice-rinks and a magical atmosphere take over. In the summer, everybody is always outside and it’s terrace time at bars, winter dresses up the city in snow and Christmas lights and the river in ice. If I really have to choose I’d say visit in summer (July and August are boiling hot though!).
One thing to avoid… is unregulated taxis. Budapest is generally safe, but always make sure the car you’re getting into belongs to an official company to avoid being ripped off. If you use public transport, don’t forget to not just buy but also validate your ticket. I know, so retro, but you can get fined.