Romance, ruins and rebellion: why Budapest is one of Europe’s greatest cities

At once romantic and wild, highbrow and gritty, Budapest has an energy and a vibe that drags you in 

Budapest is all things to all people. Grand boulevards give the feeling of Paris, elegant theatres and townhouses recall Vienna, the Parliament building facing the river seems to echo London. But it’s a combination of all these elements added to a charm all of its own that makes Budapest unique. At once romantic and wild, highbrow and gritty, it has an energy and a vibe that drags you in and won’t let you go until you’re utterly in love. So come on, let’s explore!

I’m here for a couple of days. What are the Top 5 things to do?

1. Get up high

The view over the Chain Bridge and the Buda part of the city — Shutterstock Romance, ruins and rebellion: why Budapest is one of Europe’s greatest cities
The view over the Chain Bridge and the Pest part of the city — Shutterstock

Budapest, as you may well know, was originally two cities: Buda, on the west bank of the Danube, and Pest, on the east. They both have very distinct characters, but they’re both fabulous places to explore, and both have places from which you can get magnificent views of the other. It’s a good first thing to do in order to get your bearings of this wonderful city.

Beginning at Szabadság híd (Liberty Bridge), cross from Buda into Pest and head up the steep, winding pathways of Gellért hill towards the Citadella. You’ll be greeted by a gigantic statue (Szabadság-szobor, or Liberty Statue), and magnificent views up the Danube to the north.

Still in Buda, but slightly further up the river, is Buda Castle, home to the Hungarian National Art Gallery. It’s also close the site of one of the city’s most famous landmarks, Fisherman’s Bastion (Halászbástya).

This romanticised dollop of faux-medieval architecture was in fact built at the end of the 19th century, which is why it feels almost unreal in its fairy-tale qualities. It’s also home to the wonderfully colourful Mátyás-templom, or Church of St. Matthias, which is not to be missed.

The Buda Castle is also home to the site of one of the city’s most famous landmarks, Fisherman’s Bastion — Shutterstock Romance, ruins and rebellion: why Budapest is one of Europe’s greatest cities
Buda Castle is also close to one of the city’s most famous landmarks, Fisherman’s Bastion — Shutterstock

Pest, being flatter, is not as good as Buda for sweeping vistas, but head to the neoclassical thump of St. Stephen’s Basilica (Szent István-bazilika). Once you’re over the sheer size of it (it’s not subtle, but my word it’s impressive), climb up the dome and get outside to see the hustle and bustle of Budapest below.

While you’re there, don’t forget to visit Hungary’s greatest sacred treasure: the mummified right hand (Szent Jobb) of St. Stephen himself, housed in an anteroom towards the right-hand side (of course) of the basilica.

2. Go for a stroll

Walking around is one of the easiest way how to explore Budapest’s impressive and unique architecture — V_E / Shutterstock.com Romance, ruins and rebellion: why Budapest is one of Europe’s greatest cities
Walking around is one of the easiest ways how to explore Budapest’s impressive and unique architecture — V_E / Shutterstock.com

For such a large city, the centre of Budapest is surprisingly walkable. There’s the Metro and a good tram network to get you to the outer edges of town, but generally you won’t need public transport that much.

A good way to soak the fin de siècle grandeur of the city is to take a walk from Erzsébet tér or the aforementioned Saint Stephen’s Basilica (they’re virtually next to each other) north-east up Andrássy út. This grand avenue was included by Unesco as a World Cultural Heritage Property, and you can immediately see why.

Neo-renaissance mansions and houses, with gorgeous frontages and interiors compete for space with stores selling some of the most luxurious brands in the world. The State Opera House is here too, as are a number of cafes and restaurants that urge you to stop for a coffee of a spot of brunch.

The Hungarian State Opera House is a neo-Renaissance opera house located in central Budapest, on Andrássy út — Shutterstock Romance, ruins and rebellion: why Budapest is one of Europe’s greatest cities
The Hungarian State Opera House is a neo-renaissance building located in central Budapest, on Andrássy út — Shutterstock

At the top of the street, you come to Hősök tere with its statues of Hungarian national heroes, and beyond that, Városliget, the City Park (of which we’ll see more presently). It’s quite a walk, though, so the best way to get back is to hop on Metro line 1, heading back in the direction you came. As Metros go, it’s quite unusual, as we’re about to see…

3. Learn about the history

Line 1 is the oldest udnerground system in continental Europe — Yulia Grigoryeva / Shutterstock Romance, ruins and rebellion: why Budapest is one of Europe’s greatest cities
Budapest’s Metro Line 1 is the oldest underground line in continental Europe — Yulia Grigoryeva / Shutterstock

The Metro was the first in continental Europe, opening in 1896 (which, not coincidentally, was the year of Budapest celebrating a millennium since the Magyars first settled in the region). This quirky, narrow-gauge line zips people along just a few steps below Andrássy út. Get off at Vörösmarty utca to learn of the more recent, much darker side of Hungary’s history.

The Terror Háza is a grimly fascinating look into life under the brief fascist and longer communist regimes that held power in Hungary in the mid-20th century.

Beginning at the top of the building (the former headquarters of the ÁVH, the Hungarian secret police) and working your way down, you’re exposed to background history, propaganda, show trials and, eventually, the cells where people were tortured and murdered. It might not be for the faint-hearted, but it’s a brilliantly done, essential piece of education.

The Terror Háza is a grimly fascinating look into life under the brief fascist and longer communist regimes — Sergio Delle Vedove / Shutterstock Romance, ruins and rebellion: why Budapest is one of Europe’s greatest cities
The Terror Háza is a grimly fascinating look into life under the brief fascist and longer communist regimes — Sergio Delle Vedove / Shutterstock

More light-hearted is the Metro Museum, slightly hidden in the Deák Ferenc tér Metro station (it’s pretty small, but nice if you like that sort of thing), or the Hungarian Electrotechnical Museum, a fabulous collection of things that whizz, whirr and buzz, interesting curios and eccentric old appliances. Even Thomas Edison himself visited it on his honeymoon! If you’d like to be as thrilled as I’m sure the new Mrs. Edison was, you can find it at Kazinczy u. 21.

Nearby, you can also find the mighty Dohány Street Synagogue, the largest in Europe. This whole area is the old Jewish Quarter, now mixing its narrow medieval streets and old synagogues with street art, bars and quirky shops. 

4. Take a dip

Széchenyi offers the classic image of Budapest’s baths — Izabela23 / Shutterstock Romance, ruins and rebellion: why Budapest is one of Europe’s greatest cities
Széchenyi offers the classic image of Budapest’s baths — Izabela23 / Shutterstock

One of the most famous things about Budapest is its thermal baths, and if you come to visit, it’s something you simply have to do. You’ve got a good selection as well, catering to all tastes and budgets, so make sure you bring your swimming costume!

The classic image of a Budapest bath is that of Széchenyi, the steamy outdoor baths that are a major feature of the Városliget park. You can opt for just a dip in the outdoor areas, or go for the full spa treatment. With 18 different pools, 10 saunas and steam rooms, and palatial style, it’s one of the largest bath complexes in Europe. 

Pleasingly, despite its popularity with tourists, locals still take the healthsome waters and you can regularly see everyone, from mildly hassled parents trying to keep their kids from running off, to old men playing chess as if they’re the only people there. However, if you’re looking for a bit more action, from May to September it hosts regular Bath Parties: basically, a nightclub in the outdoor pools.

A more stately and considered approach to bathing happens at the Gellért spa. Grander and less crowded than the Széchenyi baths, this is less of a tourist attraction, and more a way to genuinely indulge yourself. Different types of massage treatments, aroma therapies, mud baths, head and foot massages, pedicures… you name it, you can wallow in it.

Finally, for the truly historic option, try the Rudas baths. A Turkish bath founded in the 16th century, it stands out for its very late night opening times on Fridays and Saturdays (it reopens after the regular day’s bathing at 10pm and continues until 4am). However, an odd relic at the Rudas is that men and women can only bathe separately, and only on set days. Weekends, though, are for both sexes.

5. Discover the ruins

A ruin bar is basically a bar in a ruin. Simple. Or Szimpla, in this case — GranTotufo / Shutterstock Romance, ruins and rebellion: why Budapest is one of Europe’s greatest cities
A ruin bar is basically a bar in a ruin. Simple. Or Szimpla, in this case — GranTotufo / Shutterstock

You’ve earned yourself a drink after all of that! Luckily, Budapest has no shortage of cool and interesting places to go when the evening comes. Naturally, there are some superb restaurants and cafes (more of which in the next section), but we’re going to concentrate on one specific aspect of Budapest nightlife which you won’t want to miss: ruin bars.

So what is a ruin bar? Well, it’s basically a bar in a ruin. Simple. Or Szimpla, in this case. The original ruin bar, located on Kertész u., was opened in 2002, followed by a larger version — also called Szimpla — on nearby Kazinczy u. two years later.

The roots of the idea stemmed from the fact that in the early 2000s, Budapest’s VII district (extending north-east from the Jewish Quarter between Király u. and Rákóczi út) had been left to crumbling abandon, so why not take a chance and open a place serving cheap drinks to the young and creative of the city? The idea caught on and there are now scores of ruin bars in that district, each based on a similar idea.

From the outside there will be few clues as to what’s inside, maybe just a small wooden sign above what looks like the entrance to a normal house. But go inside and there may well be second-hand furniture, art by local graffiti artists or sculptors, possibly a courtyard for performance, and an eclectic mix of people. Ruin bars exist in old houses, abandoned factories, basically anywhere with a decent space that can be used to serve drinks and have an amazing time.

Okay, great! What about a longer stay?

Find the best places to eat

The love of paprika makes Hungarian cuisine slightly spicier — Shutterstock Romance, ruins and rebellion: why Budapest is one of Europe’s greatest cities
The love of paprika makes Hungarian cuisine slightly spicier — Shutterstock

In any large, cultured European city, you’d expect to find some wonderful eateries, and naturally Budapest is no different. Compared to other countries in Central Europe, Hungarian cuisine tends to be slightly spicier, with their famous love of paprika coming to the fore, but you’ll find so much more than just traditional food.

Located at Liszt Ferenc tér 2 among the slew of restaurants near the Oktagon Metro station, Menza has been serving contemporary twists on Hungarian cuisine for a number of years now. Decked out in decor that’s a nod to the 1970s, it’s a great choice if you want something classy and delicious but without spending silly amounts of money. Borbíróság on Csarnok tér 5 is a similar idea, but with more of a wine bar feel.

In the Jewish Quarter at Akácfa u. 47, Mazel Tov is a great choice if you like the ruin bar aesthetic but feel like zingy, refreshing food rather than 3am clubbing. Padron, located in the Palace Quarter is a tiny, family-run tapas restaurant; KHAN, slightly outside the centre at Ipoly u. 3 serves trendy pan-Asian cuisine; and KNRDY at Október 6. u. 15 is an industrial-looking steakhouse that does top quality cuts of beef imported from the US.

All aboard!

For a journey with a difference, head up into the green hills north-west of Buda and take a trip on the Gyermekvasút, or Children’s Railway. As its name implies (but your own common sense might initially think is a mad idea) it’s a railway run by children.

Gyermekvasút is a railway run by children only — Wikimedia Commons Romance, ruins and rebellion: why Budapest is one of Europe’s greatest cities
Gyermekvasút is a railway run by children only — Wikimedia Commons

It began life around 70 years ago as a way for budding young Pioneers (a sort of Soviet version of the Scouts) to learn about trains as a grounding for a possible career working for the state railway (and as a way to occasionally get days off school!).

Now purely an attraction, it’s still run by kids, some as young as 10, who sell and check tickets, give PA announcements, signal when it’s safe for the train to pull away, and salute as it arrives and leaves each station, each and every one of them dressed smartly in their blue and white uniform topped with a red cap.

Even if the novelty of a railway run by kids wasn’t enough, the train journey itself is delightful, winding its way through the woods and over the hills, stopping at eight stations along the way. You can either ride the 45-minute route in one go, or get off and go hiking in the hills for a couple of hours before getting the train back again. Either way, it’s worth taking the time to make the trip out of the city for this fun, quirky way to spend a good part of a day.

Oh, and the train is driven by an adult.

Island life

Margaret island is basically a giant park that serves as a nice respite from big city life — Shutterstock Romance, ruins and rebellion: why Budapest is one of Europe’s greatest cities
Margaret island is basically a giant park that serves as a nice respite from big city life — Shutterstock

Margit-sziget (Margaret Island) is a large island in the middle of the Danube accessible by either Margit híd at its southern tip or Árpád híd to the north. Even though it’s technically right in the centre of the city, being an island it’s neither Buda or Pest, and is basically a giant park that serves as a nice respite from big city life.

You can explore the island either on foot, or by renting rollerblades or bicycles. Get lost in the network or pathways between the trees and stumble upon some of the island’s features. These include a Japanese Garden, István Kiss’ Centenary Monument to the unification of Buda and Pest in 1873, a huge musical fountain whose water jets dance and light up to a wide selection of famous pieces of music, playgrounds, a water park, and even the ruins of a 13th century priory.

Just north of Margit-sziget lies Óbudai-sziget, home to the Sziget festival, one of Europe’s largest festivals. Every summer, thousands of music lovers descend on Budapest for this week-long celebration of music and culture, with over 1,000 acts performing over the course of the festival. It generally takes place in the middle of August and is now widely acknowledged as one of the best music festivals in the world.

Statues and stories

The Memento Park is home to sculptures of Lenin, Marx, Engels and the like — Heracles Kritikos / Shutterstock Romance, ruins and rebellion: why Budapest is one of Europe’s greatest cities
The Memento Park features sculptures of Lenin, Marx, Engels and the like — Heracles Kritikos / Shutterstock

It’s a little bit out of the way, but Memento Park on the outskirts of the city (buses 101B or 101E from Kelenföld vasútállomás heading to Budatétény vasútállomás (Campona), get off at Memento Park) is worth the trip for a vision of the power of Communism that manages to be both terrifying and mildly kitsch at the same time.

When the regime fell, a plan was made to collect and exhibit a number of statues that had been erected during the Communist era. These include sculptures of Lenin, Marx, Engels and the like, as well as more generic pieces with crushingly patriotic names like the Monument to the Martyrs of the Counter-Revolution. Many of these are enormous, impressive, and designed to make you stop in your tracks.

To discover more, head to the barracks-theatre to watch a documentary based on the methods used by the secret police called The Life of an Agent. Editing footage taken from films used between 1958 and 1988 to instruct and train agents on how to enforce the law, filmmaker Gábor Zsigmond Papp has created a montage that gives an almost surreal insight into this brutal and ruthless organisation.

As the park’s architect Ákos Eleőd says: “These statues are a part of the history of Hungary. Dictatorships chip away at and plaster over their past in order to get rid of all memories of previous ages. Democracy is the only regime that is prepared to accept that our past with all the dead ends is still ours; we should get to know it, analyse it and think about it.” A sobering yet comforting thought to leave you with as you take the bus back into the city.

Get on the water

From a boat ride, you can see the mighty Parliament building, a neo-Gothic pile vaguely based on the BritishHouses of Parliament — Shutterstock Romance, ruins and rebellion: why Budapest is one of Europe’s greatest cities
From a boat ride, you can see the mighty Parliament building, a neo-Gothic pile vaguely based on the British Houses of Parliament — Shutterstock

One fabulous way to see Budapest is by boat. Walking around the city, you’ll see sightseeing boats sliding up and down the Danube all day long, but wait until the evening and take the chance to see the city in all its glory from a different angle.

A number of companies offer evening tours, and most offer a number of different variations on the theme. Some include dinner, some a couple of glasses of wine or beer. Some tours are longer than others, and start times vary from 7pm to 10pm, with a couple of companies operating “party boat” tours leaving at 11pm.

Whichever suits you best, you’ll sail under the graceful bridges of the city and past the hills of Buda with its twinkling lights and historic monuments. On the other side of the river, the bustling sound of Pest drifts over the water as you see the mighty Parliament building, a neo-Gothic pile vaguely based on the British Houses of Parliament and the largest building in Hungary.

Once you’re off the boat and have your land legs back, it’s time for a stroll back into the city to walk off the food and drink and find more adventures.

Cool! But what’s good if I want to go a bit further afield?

There are a number of fantastic day trips from Budapest, and if you’re here for a while longer it makes a great base from which to explore more of Hungary.

The Valley of the Beautiful Women is home to around 200 wine cellars, each producing a number of varieties — Shutterastock Romance, ruins and rebellion: why Budapest is one of Europe’s greatest cities
The Valley of the Beautiful Women is home to around 200 wine cellars, each producing a number of varieties — Shutterstock

A popular day trip is visiting the town of Eger, around two hours north-east of Budapest by train. It’s a picturesque little town known for its beautiful architecture, quaint cobbled streets and castle. The main reason that people come here, however, is to sample a little of the local speciality: namely, wine.

The Valley of the Beautiful Women (Szépasszony-völgy Hétvége) is home to around 200 wine cellars, each producing a number of varieties including muscatel and merlot, but the most famous (and the one you’ll see most) is the local speciality Egri Bikavér, or Bull’s Blood. The Valley of the Beautiful Women is roughly a 20-minute walk from Eger, but luckily you can get there (and most importantly back again!) by taking a road train or a taxi.

Another easy day trip is to the area known as the Danube Bend, around 35 km north of the capital. The town of Vác is a pretty baroque place dominated by the Assumption Cathedral and streets of merchant houses. Head along the river to the medieval fortress of Visegrád and further still to Esztergom and its mighty basilica.

Visegrád is a mediaeval fortress north from the capital — Shutterstock

Keszthely, at the far end of Lake Balaton, is worth a night of your time, an elegant town that serves as a base for holidaymakers. Lake Balaton itself is Central Europe’s largest freshwater lake, 80 km long and a wonderful place for a spot of swimming, sailing, fishing, or simply lying on one of the many beaches soaking up the sun.

On top of all of this, once a year motorsport fans descend on Budapest for the Hungarian Grand Prix. Formula One has been coming to Hungary since 1986 when it became the first race to be held behind the Iron Curtain, and it’s gone from strength to strength ever since. The race is held at the Hungaroring, which is actually near the village of Mogyoród, but free buses run from the centre of Budapest out to the circuit, meaning that the city is the perfect place to stay.

So that’s Budapest

We love Budapest. It has an appeal that’s almost too difficult to put into words (although we’ve tried!). The only way to really know it is to visit for yourself. So come and discover a city that, once experienced, will stay with you forever.