Budapest, Hungary is a place I’ve always wanted to see, but it wasn’t until recently that I had the chance to explore this beautiful city in the heart of Central and Eastern Europe. We began our European Christmas markets tour in Budapest, but we didn’t limit our sightseeing to only the Christmas markets. We made sure to see as much of the city as we could in the three days we were there.
Because my history classes in school didn’t touch on much of Central and Eastern European history, I had no idea of the tumultuous and fractured past of this country. Parts of Hungary and Budapest specifically, have been a part of different empires throughout history because the land is so centrally located, and therefore it has been metaphorically yanked back and forth and ripped apart on a number of occasions. Budapest was once a part of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, and although Hungary wasn’t officially a part of the Soviet Union, the government strings at the time were controlled by the USSR. The city of Budapest is made up of what was once 2 separate cities “Buda” and “Pest,” split down the middle by the Danube River, and these areas of the city are still referred to as such – though it is considered one city now.
- Parliament Building: This was one of my favorite parts of Budapest. It is one of Europe’s oldest legislative buildings, and it’s location on the shores of the Danube give it an incredibly powerful and impressive presence in the skyline. You can tour the inside, and from what I understand, it’s best to get your tickets online ahead of time (which is what we did). You can print them at home, and once you’re there, you don’t have to worry about purchasing tickets or not being able to get in because all of the tours are full. Tours, which are about an hour long, are provided in various languages, and each language has their own time and assigned group. The only catch is that you must be there in time for your tour to start. We nearly missed our tour because we were running a bit behind schedule, and we literally had to run to make it on time. Once you arrive at the visitor’s center, even with a ticket, you still have to go through security, but it’s a relatively simple process. While on your tour, you get to see the main hall, the assembly hall, and even the Holy Crown of Hungary. If you have a chance to cross the river into Buda, it’s worth seeing the Parliament building in all its splendor from the other side of the river.
- Self-Guided Walking Tour: As with most of our European travels, we venture into the city with the advice of the guidebook author Rick Steves. He always has a self-guided walking tour that allows you to explore the highlights, notice and understand some of the statues around the city, pop into museums and churches you want to see, and he takes you off the beaten path to see some of the less touristy areas of a city. By doing this, we always put in a lot of miles walking the streets, so this isn’t always for the faint of heart. His Pest walking tour (he has a separate one for Buda) took us through the massive open area in front of the Parliament building in which there are a number of interesting statues including one of Ferenc II Rakoczi on a horse, the Hungarian poet Attila Jozsef, the Hungarian politician Imre Nagy positioned so as to keep a watchful eye on the Hungarian government, and “Shoes on the Danube” – a moving memorial to the Hungarian Jews murdered on the banks of the Danube.
- St. Stephen’s Basilica: This basilica was a stone’s throw from the place we stayed (we could see its dome from our patio), and it was conveniently the location of one of the many Christmas markets we visited on our trip. This Roman Catholic Basilica is named for Hungary’s first king, Stephen, and the interior of the basilica is impressive with it’s many varying colors of marble columns and ornate altar pieces.
- Matthias Church & Fisherman’s Bastion: This Roman Catholic Church was one of the few locations we had time to visit in Buda, but it was well worth the trip across the river. We got there via an easy trip by public transportation, and the church as well as the Fisherman’s Bastion on the same grounds provided a beautiful (albeit cold) way to spend an afternoon.
- Chain Bridge: This suspension bridge over the Danube River links the 2 parts of Budapest – Buda and Pest, and though I expected the name of the bridge to be derived from a bunch of chains hanging on the bridge similar to bridges that have tons of locks hanging on them (I’m not sure why I thought that), it actually gets its name from the chain links from which the bridge is constructed. It’s a beautiful bridge, and it was considered an engineering marvel in its day. It’s worth a quick walking trip over the bridge, if you have a chance.
- Central Market Hall: This giant warehouse turned indoor market is the home of tons of meat, produce, and trinket stands, as well as my favorite grocery store in the States – Aldi. We decided to spend some time wandering through the stalls as it gave us an opportunity to do some souvenir shopping while taking a quick respite from the cold. On the ground floor, you can find all manner of food – from meat and produce to stalls selling the paprika Hungary is famous for (from my understanding, it’s a key ingredient in Hungarian goulash). You can climb the stairs to the second floor to find any kind of Budapest or Hungary souvenir. Classy or kitschy, you name it, it was there. There were shops selling chess boards, Christmas ornaments, aprons, hats, shot glasses, scarves, bags, etc. If you’re looking for a particular souvenir, this is a good place to look.
We ate a number of meals at the Christmas markets because let’s face it, who can resist delicious fried bread (lángos), sausage, and mulled wine? But we had a few meals at actual restaurants, too. Here are a couple of our favorites:
- Ildikó Konyhája: This restaurant in Buda was recommended by one of our Hungarian friends who also lives at KAUST. She told us it is one of her favorite restaurants in Budapest, so we couldn’t pass it up! It was delicious, and I highly recommend it if you’re looking for a decently-priced restaurant with traditional Hungarian food.
- Non-Hungarian Food: Next to our apartment was a trendy little restaurant that had three parts – a little coffee shop only open in the mornings, an Italian restaurant open in the evenings, and a burger restaurant also open in the evenings. We actually ended up eating at all three places, and we went back to this place for breakfast every morning, I think. It is certainly not a place to get traditional Hungarian food, but the prices were great, and the food was spectacular.
Where We Stayed
There were 5 of us traveling together, so we wanted to find accommodations in each city which would provide us with the most cost effective way to stay in comfortable locations and in the same place when possible. In Budapest, we stayed in an apartment-style hotel which meant we could stay in one apartment for a great price. The apartments were called 7seasons Apartments, and what made this incredibly helpful was the fact that unlike some apartments you rent from places like Airbnb, this had a front desk that was staffed 24/7 much like a hotel would. We didn’t realize how helpful this would be until my mother-in-law’s luggage got delayed from their flight. We didn’t have to sit around waiting for it to be delivered, and the staff of the 7seasons called to check on its status on a regular basis. Everyone was really helpful, the apartment was incredibly nice and modern, it was in a great location, and they even have a shuttle to and from the airport and train stations (for a comparable price to a taxi) which was really nice when we arrived in Budapest. It gave us a peace of mind not to have to track down a taxi. We would certainly recommend this place to anyone going to Budapest.
To see more photos from our time in Budapest, visit our Amazon album. Have you been to Budapest? What was your favorite part?