Budapest is indeed a lovely city, but you need to be out on the Danube in order to really see its beauty. We stayed at a wonderfully large AirBnB apartment that was centrally located. We were able to walk to most of the places that we wanted to see. In total, we spent about 2 1/2 days in Budapest.
What I Saw
Fat Policeman Statue – A humorous bronze statue of a policeman who enjoyed a few too many meals of hearty Hungarian cuisine. Rub his belly for good luck. He’s very popular with tourists.
St. Stephen’s Basilica – A beautiful Roman Catholic basilica that’s the largest church in Hungary. The architecture is glorious.
Shoes on the Danube – This is a memorial for the 3,500 people (800 Jews) who were murdered by being shot into the Danube by the Arrow Cross militiamen. The 60 pairs period-appropriate iron shoes represent a cross section of the victims. The memorial is located on the Pest side of the Danube. Many of the shoes were filled with flowers, candles, trinkets, and other gifts by people who came by to pay tribute.
Dinner cruise on the Danube River – My mother really really really really wanted a dinner cruise on the Danube. Well, actually she had no idea that she wanted it until I saw that it was an option and I knew she would really want this. The dinner cruise was one of the highlights of our vacation for my mother. It’s 2 1/2 hours and a four-course meal and included a free flute of champagne. Other drinks were extra.
The boat was large and we were seated next to the windows, so we had an unobstructed view of Budapest for the whole cruise. I really recommend doing a night cruise on the Danube because to see the city lit up at night was something special. The dinner cruise was scheduled right before sunset, but it’s not important to try to see the sunset because you miss most of it because of the high hills.
The cruise itself is not much were it not for the spectacular skyline of Buda and Pest. For 2.5 hours we circled endlessly up and down the Danube. Our dinner was quite delicious and we greatly enjoyed our food. They offered what I would call “new European” — not strictly traditional European cuisine, but modern versions with lots of influence of classical French cuisine. We left absolutely stuffed. The food was really good (except for the consomme that my father got. We discovered on this trip that we all hate consomme).
I wouldn’t say that you have to do a dinner cruise, even though I did enjoy myself, the shorter evening tour with champagne will do. I highly recommend going on a cruise at night to see Budapest at its best.
Szechenyi Thermal Bath – Hungary is famous for their thermal baths and in Budapest, Szechenyi is the most famous one because of its distinctive canary yellow buildings. It has indoor and outdoor pools, but you’re there for the outdoor pools. In the middle there’s a swimming pool that exclusively for swimming laps. There are two smaller, but still large, pools with warm thermal waters. One pool has lukewarm water and the other is the “hot” thermal, except if you’re Korean. If you’re Korean, you still think the “hot” thermal water is too cool because you like scalding hot water that is typically the temperature of water for cooking lobsters (not kidding about this).
Szechnenyi gets very crowded on weekends, afternoons, and evenings. In order to bypass some of the long lines, it’s recommended you buy your pass online. An online pass allows you entry any time between 9 am and 3 pm. And for an extra dollar, you can also get a dressing cabin instead of a locker. Get the cabin, it’s worth the extra dollar. Becuase of the warning, I bought the passes for my parents and me online. We arrived at around 8:45 am and we were forced to wait until 9 am to get in. At 8:45 am, there was no one in line and had we not bought our passes online, we could have bought them in person and gone right on in. My recommendation is that if you’re planning on visiting Szechnenyi early in the morning, there’s no need to get the passes ahead of time.
Because of the horror stories of how crowded Szechnenyi is on weekends, afternoons, and evenings, we went on a Monday morning. While we were there, it was very quiet, calm, and relaxing. There were a few other people there and we enjoyed having the place or less to ourselves. By the time we left in the late morning, more people arrived and the pools were more crowded, but not overly so. It was a different story in the changing areas where the crowd was starting to build up. Because of the small spaces and narrow halls, it gets crowded and loud FAST. My parents and I were relieved that we were leaving and escaping the noisiness.
If you are able, bring your own towels. They do have towels to rent, but the towels are small, thin, and cheap.
Vajdahunyad Castle – It’s a castle that not really a castle; a fantastic pastiche of various architectural styles of castle elements that was never used a castle (as in someone lived there), but instead was always used for exhibitions and festivals. It’s pretty to look at and right next to Szechnenyi. My parents and I walked around to look at it after our dip in the thermal waters. It’s not worth going to Vajdahunyad just for itself. Go there if you are also planning on going to Szechnenyi or if you’re going there for a concert. I heard it was an amazing venue and it looks like it.
Statue of Anonymous – A creepy-looking statue next to Vajdahunyad Castle that honors the unknown writer who chronicled the history of Hungary.
Chain Bridge – It’s a bridge that connects Buda and Pest, and is very popular with tourists. I woke up early to run on this bridge to avoid people. It’s impossible to run on the bridge otherwise.
Buda Hill Funicular – Who doesn’t love a funicular? It’s such a fun way to go up Buda Hill. After walking across Chain Bridge, you can walk over to the funicular. There’s a long line, but it moves fairly quickly. You can buy a ticket good for one ride, or buy a round-trip ticket. We chose to buy a single ride ticket and walk back down.
Buda Castle – Sadly because of all the looting by the Nazis and the Russians at the end of WWII, there was nothing left of the castle interior, so the castle is now a set of museums. The building is majestic, but really, you’re there at the castle for the spectacular views of Budapest. Being so high up, you get these grand sweeping views of the Danube River and Pest below you. We also got to see the changing of the guards (always fun for the kids) and for a small extra fee, you can pretend to be a soldier in the olden days and do some archery.
Castle Hill – If there’s one thing you can’t miss in Budapest, it’s the Castle Hill district in Buda. You can’t say you’ve been Budapest, unless you’ve been there; that’s how strongly I feel about this. Fisherman’s Bastion is a glorious terrace with straight out of fairy tale towers and incredible panoramic views. Our jaws dropped in surprise when we saw it. We just couldn’t believe that something this precious even existed. Of course, it was crowded and filled with tourists, but I found people to be considerate and good about sharing spaces so we could all get our photos and the requisite selfies. Castle Hill district is also filled with charming houses, cobblestone streets, cute cafes, and restaurants with outdoor patios. It’s a very good place to get lunch or dinner.
Fountain Show on Margaret Island – I found this to be an underrated and unknown gem in Budapest. If you’ve been to Las Vegas, you will have seen the Bellagio water fountain show. This is just like that on a smaller scale and smaller budget, but no less wonderful and charming. My mother and I just loved it. From March to October, there a full 8-song show at 6 pm and 9 pm. The website that I linked to is the one with the current info; there’s another website that’s more highly ranked with outdated info.
Margaret Island is a lovely wooded island in the middle of the Danube River. You can get there by walking over Margaret Bridge (north side only) or by public transit. The island itself has several cafes and restaurants with outdoor patios that make them a pleasant place to while away the afternoon or evening. There are other attractions, such as the Japanese garden. I think a lot of people miss this island and I don’t think you should, especially if you’re a runner because the running path around the island is great.
What I ate
Gulash soup – One of the things that my mother was insistent upon that we do on this trip was to eat gulash. She didn’t know what it was, but she heard about it, and therefore she wanted it (a trait that I share with my mother). I told her it was beef stew and yes, it was tasty, but nothing out of the ordinary. But my mother would not be deterred from her conviction that gulash must be Hungarian manna. Boy, was she disappointed when she had her first bite of gulash. Again, this had nothing to do with the soup itself. It was a fine good soup. The problem was with my mother’s expectation. From the way she heard people talk about it, she thought it was something special. Something she never had. Instead, it was another version of beef stew, although in the Hungarian version of gulash, it’s thinner and more like Campbell’s beef and barley soup without the barley (and tastier). My mother is not someone who is typically disappointed by life, but I think gulash will be one of the greatest disappointments of her life.
What I Missed
These were things I wanted to see, but we couldn’t for one reason or another.
House of Terror – Despite the fact that I’m a chicken (I’m scared by a lot of things in life), I have a fascination with museums dedicated to torture. This museum is highly rated and very interesting and sadly, we missed it because I completely didn’t check which days it was open and I scheduled it for the ONE day it’s closed – Monday. Don’t be a ninny like me, check when museums are open.
Central Market Hall – A wonderful market that sells fruits, vegetables, spices, and other things. It’s like a much larger version of St. Lawrence Market in Toronto. We just didn’t have time for this. I would have really loved to walk around, people watch, and to eat there.
Book Cafe – This is considered to be the most beautiful cafe in Budapest. It’s under renovation (with no word on when it will reopen), so we never saw it.
St. Stephen’s Day – If you have a choice on when you can visit Budapest, I think of the nicest times to visit Budapest would be in time for St. Stephen’s Day on August 20th. St. Stephen’s Day celebrates the founding of Hungary and there’s a huge celebration starting from Aug 18th that culminates with fireworks over Buda Castle and the Danube River on Aug 20th. Based upon the photos I’ve seen, it looks like one of the best fireworks show in the world.
What else to see in Hungary
Lake Heviz – It is the largest thermal lake in the world and situated 2 hours southwest of Budapest. It is AMAZING and we could have spent all day there. Becuase of its large size, the water isn’t hot, but a lovely pleasant temperature. There’s no initial shock of cold water as you go in. The lake is very deep, so either you need to swim, float, or have an inner tube to float with. We bought a three-hour pass, which I thought would be enough time, but I wish we could have been there all day. There were plenty of lounge chairs and clean grass to rest upon. There was a restaurant that sold food at a reasonable price, but many people brought their own lunches. Rentals for thin small towels are expensive, so bring your own if you can (rentals for towels and tubes are cash only). Despite the huge crowd of people, it never felt that bad because of how HUGE Lake Heviz is. It was deeply relaxing and one of the nicest experiences that we had on this trip. The spa has a parking lot, which is kinda pricy, so I recommend parking in the small lot just outside of the hotel. You can’t miss it because you go right past it on the way to the gated entrance of the hotel/spa. That lot is really cheap and not much farther away than where you would have parked inside the hotel grounds. Lake Heviz is a place that I really want to go back to one day.