While in college I studied abroad in Paris, and during the spring holiday the campus emptied out as students headed to Budapest. Why Budapest? Well, the city is fun, affordable, and filled with “ruin bars”—hip bars set up in dilapidated old ruins—as well as quirky Soviet-era landmarks and opulent Austro-Hungarian facades. I followed the bandwagon and bought a plane ticket…then a train ticket the next year, then another couple of flights. Hungary’s capital kept drawing me back.
Almost 20 years later, Budapest remains just as delightfully and elegantly offbeat, and I still visit the city—really, three intertwined cities on the banks of the Danube—any chance I get.
Bundle up if you come in January or February, but remember to pack a swim cap and robe for the thermal baths.
If you only have time for one thing, make it a walk up to Castle Hill, where you’ll encounter panoramic views overlooking the Parliament.
Spend your first day covering some of the main neighborhoods within trendy, gritty, and more touristy Pest (pronounced “Pesht”). Start with a Hungarian coffee and a visit to Booksellers, which boasts a solid foreign-language collection of Budapest-themed books. Head around the corner to climb the tower of St. Stephen’s Basilica for stunning city views.
Rise early to spend your second day exploring the hillier and more tranquil Buda side of the city. Start with a visit to serene Rose Hill, named after the Ottoman-era Sufi dervish known as Gul Baba (“Father of Roses”). Visit his tomb and a small museum, which provides helpful context on Budapest's Ottoman heritage. Then, walk along the waterfront toward Castle Hill, home of the iconic Fisherman’s Bastion, Buda Castle, and vast art collections within the Hungarian National Gallery.
After your sightseeing, take tram 19 four stops to the art nouveau-style Gellert Thermal Bath for a relaxing soak. If you still have the energy after dinner, end the night by hopping around some of the city’s famous ruin bars.
Venture farther afield today, starting in Obuda—once a separate town and now the oldest part of Buda. Walk around the quaint, narrow streets and visit the dry-sounding but excellent Hungarian Museum of Trade and Tourism, which offers a colorful snapshot of daily life during Soviet times. Afterwards, visit the nearby Roman ruins of Aquincum or take a taxi to Memento Park, an eerie, open-air graveyard of Communist statues.
Toast to your trip in style this evening with some of Hungary’s unique wine, paired with charcuterie. Alternatively, enjoy a glass while cruising down the Danube.