Story by Muriel Vega
My travel-themed Pinterest board for Hungary includes at least 18 photos of the Szechenyi Thermal Baths. I’ve been pinning the luxurious location from other people’s accounts for years in hopes that I would make it to Budapest to enjoy them one day. After coming across a $300 round-trip ticket, I packed my bags for the Eastern European city with little to no expectations.
The thermal baths ended up being just one of many things that I loved about Budapest.
The airport train, a journey to the city center of nearly 30 minutes, zig-zagged and hummed past walls sprayed with old graffiti and utilitarian architecture. You’ll see a mix of those gray buildings built during the Communist era (1949-1989), along with Baroque and Neo-Renaissance 19th century buildings, like the intricately designed Opera House.
One of the largest cities within the European Union, Hungary’s capital is split by the Danube River into two cities: Buda and Pest. The twin cities, comparable to Minneapolis/St.Paul, developed separately, only becoming one in 1873. When you visit the city, the Pest side offers nightlife and a variety of lodging, including hotels and Airbnb rentals, making it a better home base during a short stay. Consider building an itinerary around local flavors and affordable, award-winning dishes.
The Jewish Quarter is centrally located with easy access to the main tram lines. Attached to the neighborhood’s stunning Boscolo Budapest Hotel is the New York Cafe (newyorkcafe.hu), one of the main landmarks in Budapest. The restaurant offers an exquisite sample of Hungarian cuisine, including Beef Goulash, Fishermen Soup and Chicken Leg Paprikash-style, as well as a large dessert spread that pairs well with afternoon tea.
Following breakfast at the cafe, continue your day at the Szechenyi Thermal Baths (szechenyibath.hu), where early birds get to beat the crowd and truly enjoy the facilities. Pack a towel, flip flops and your swimming suit. The Neo-Baroque-style building stands in one of the biggest green parks in the city. The medicinal thermal indoor and outdoor pools are supplied by two nearby thermal springs.
On your way to the Hungarian Parliament Building (latogatokozpont.parlament.hu) and the surrounding landmarks near the Danube, get a bite at the Bigfish Seafood Bistro (thebigfish.hu).The restaurant allows you to select the fresh fish of your choice, pay the weight, and add select sides like soup or a large pot of mussels. It’s a great place to mix-and-match local seafood and enjoy local wine while people-watching.
Earn Instagram points by heading to the St. Stephen’s Basilica (en.bazilika.biz) and photographing the panoramic view of Budapest from the top during sunset. Take the stairs — they’re faster.
Following a long day of sightseeing, finish your afternoon at Massolit Books & Cafe (facebook.com/MassolitBudapest) in the Jewish Quarter. The small cafe greets you with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves full of half-priced books of both Hungarian and international authors, including volumes difficult to find in Eastern Europe. At the small counter, often decorated with a punning sign like “Soup of the Day: Coffee,” you can order a latte and the delightful carrot cake.
After a few hours back at home base, dress up for a Michelin-starred dinner at Borkonyha (borkonyha.hu/en), meaning “wine kitchen.” For the full experience, ask for the tasting menu that includes four to five plates and pair it with the recommended local wine. Hungary has a long history as a wine producer, with nearly 100 varieties and 22 wine-growing regions. The exquisite meal will remain under $300 for a couple, thanks to the exchange rate with the dollar.
Finish your night at one of the city’s “ruin bars,” unused buildings and outdoor spaces that are used for pop-up bars. They range from trendy, club bars to more relaxed after-dinner hangouts. Élesztő (elesztohaz.hu), a ruin pub with 17 different Hungarian craft beers, is housed in an outside space that corrals together a restaurant, a theatre, a hostel and more.
Before leaving the city, stroll down Váci Street, Budapest’s famous pedestrian-only street, and visit the Great Market Hall (budapestmarkethall.com), one of the largest indoor markets in the city. Before shopping, fuel up with a Lángos, a local fried-dough treat topped with sour cream, garlic and cheese.
The great market’s stalls feature rows of spices, including Hungarian-produced paprika, a must-buy item for a Budapest souvenir. The red, powdered pepper is used across the board in local homes as well as the most expensive restaurants. Available in spicy, smoked and sweet, the paprika allows you to take Budapest’s signature flavor back home for whenever you feel nostalgic for the twin cities by the Danube.
Before you start your visit, be sure to build a restaurant wishlist. Budapest prioritizes reservations even for small cafes and bistros.
Muriel Vega is an Atlanta-based writer and editor who has written for The Bitter Southerner, Creative Loafing and The Washington Post.