Seeking the perfect summer city break that’s not too far away, not too expensive and absolutely beautiful? Then Hungary’s capital, Budapest, should be at the top of your list.
The city used to be ignored by British tourists in favour of the usual hotspots Amsterdam and Prague, but in the last few years Budapest has thankfully been receiving the recognition it deserves.
Dripping in history and packed full of brilliant bars and restaurants – that remain shockingly affordable – it’s become a favourite destination for families, singles and you may even catch a few hen and stag groups when you’re out and about.
Although it’s a popular destination during the winter months, we love it for a summer break because the high temperatures and greenery make it perfect for sunshine strolling.
Although there’s heaps to do and see, it’s perfect for a short break, so we’ve picked out the very best of what Budapest has to offer.
Where to stay:
There are two sides of the city divided by the River Danube: Buda and Pest. Buda is the hilly side featuring much of the city’s historical relics, while Pest is the more metropolitan half, home to all the big high-streets, night-life and restaurants.
With this in mind, we recommend staying in Pest – but don’t worry, Buda is easily accessible by foot or by car over one of the bridges, including the Chain Bridge. Just a stone’s throw away is the , a luxurious hotel channelling the flamboyant style of 19th century Hungary, complete with fabulous views of the river Danube. Although there are plenty of spas in the city to choose from (more on that later), you’ll find a gorgeous indoor spa in this hotel for rest and relaxation after a long day of sight-seeing.
Then there’s the more centrally located , a recently refurbished hotel, on one of Budapest’s bustling main streets. Even if you don’t stay here, we definitely recommend a visit: its walls are covered in Hungarian art, and the food in the hotel restaurant is delicious. Serving traditional dishes like goulash, alongside innovative creations like pork served with syringes of melted chocolate, the hotel oozes with artistic spirit.
If you’re after a cheap 'n' cheerful option for a quick stopover, the is brilliant. Situated in the famous Jewish quarter, a short walk from the bars, clubs and main shopping streets, this block of simple (yet very spacious) apartments also has its own swimming pool and gym, so you can work out with the locals.
What to do:
Budapest is best-known for its thermal baths, with a few different watery landmarks spread around the city. But the very best is without doubt the Szechenyi Baths. Located in City Park, it’s the largest medicinal bath in Europe, with hot water supplied by two thermal springs. The whole complex consists of various indoor pools, as well as three outdoor pools (a swimming pool for lengths, adventure pool and thermal sitting pool). While the clear blue water might look refreshing and cooling, some of the pools heat up to 38 °C – which is perfect if you’re taking a winter trip, but can be quite a shock during the summer months. There’s plenty of room to sunbathe around the baths, though, and the surrounding area is also steeped in history: in the same park you’ll find Heroes Square and Vaj Castle. If you’re heading to Budapest in winter, though, the lake in City Park becomes a stunning open-air ice rink. And if you fancy diverting off the beaten track, there are more spas on the Buda side of the city: Gellert and Rudas are very traditional and less packed-out with tourists.
Religion plays a key role in Budapest’s history. Before World War II, 23% of the city’s population was Jewish, explaining the prominence of Budapest’s Jewish quarter. Visit the Great Synagogue – the second-largest synagogue in the world – to see the city’s moving and stunning memorial of the 600,000 Jewish Hungarian lives lost during the Holocaust. The synagogue itself is also a sight to behold, as is St. Stephen’s Basilica, another of the city’s stunning religious sites. We recommend buying tickets for the lookout tower; be warned, there are a LOT of stairs, but the panoramic views of Budapest are totally worth it.
For a picture-perfect insight into Hungarian history, head over to Buda and hop on the furnicular up to Buda Castle. The castle is home to a stunning collection of Hungarian art, while nearby Fisherman’s Bastion – a turreted fortress – provides beautiful views over the River Danube, including the Hungarian Parliament Building over in Pest.
Budapest certainly doesn't shy away from the devastating history of its city. The House of Terror – a very cleverly done museum – is dedicated to highlighting the atrocities that occurred under Nazi and then Soviet rule. On the Pest side of the River Danube, there’s also a moving memorial – consisting of a line of shoes right on the river bank – to honour the people killed by the fascist Arrow Cross in Budapest during World War II.
Where to eat:
Budapest is absolutely brimming with delicious – and affordable – places to eat. For brunch, try Stika for all the variations of Eggs Benedict you could dream of (Instagram perfection). But be warned: there will be a long queue for the highly coveted outdoor area. Or, try Szimply, for more authentic Hungarian breakfast options, including some vegan dishes.
For lunch, there’s a brilliant chain in Budapest called , serving – as the name suggests – the very best hummus. They also serve Middle Eastern classics like falafel and shawarma, and the best part is that you can easily get filled up on a fiver. It’s also worth trying the famously beautiful (just a stone’s throw away from the Nemzeti) for a more sophisticated lunch accompanied by classical music.
My favourite dinner spot was in the Jewish quarter, and is a gorgeous restaurant called . Again, the menu features delicious Middle Eastern cuisine (amazingly this is quite a big part of Hungarian popular culture) but the location itself is the best part. Most of the restaurant is outside, surrounded in greenery and covered in twinkly fairy lights. They also play live music in the evenings – when I was there it was a singer covering all the latest chart-toppers on an acoustic guitar. Another great option is , a Michelin-starred restaurant where meals cost around a tenner. You can’t really get better than that.
How to spend the evening:
If you’re up for a drink and a dance, the ruin bars – also based in the Jewish quarter in Pest – are the place to be. You’ll never visit anywhere quite like them; the most popular one, Szimpla Kert is an indoor/outdoor drinking house, full of strange and marvellous trinkets and covered in fairy lights. Not reserved solely for students and stags, there are plenty of quieter areas to enjoy a G&T.
For a calmer evening drink, head down to the River Danube and book yourself onto one of its famous river cruises. Although you can also do these during the day, it’s lovely seeing both sides of the city lit up in the dark, and is the perfect place for a glass of rose at the end of a long day.