Budapest is perhaps the most stunningly beautiful, yet overlooked city in Europe. It's grand and majestic but almost in a demure way, waiting politely and patiently to be discovered. And when you do discover Budapest you'll fall in love with the city like we did. There is so much history and tradition here, yet the city feels very modern and romantic too. It's a first-class music destination boasting one of the premier opera houses in Europe and its local wine, Tokaji is world renown. Its traditional Hungarian dishes are ever popular but Budapest's restaurant scene has been upping its game to include more sophisticated and internationally-inspired menus and it hasn't gone unnoticed. The city currently has four Michelin-rated restaurants.
The city has two sides divided by the Danube River - Buda and Pest. Buda is the hilly and historic castle district and Pest is the more bustling business area. There are 23 districts laid out and numbered very much like Paris' arrondissements in a widening circular fashion. Budapest is very walkable but we did take Bus #105 which was a great way to get an overview of the city. The route connects Hero's Square on the Pest side to the Buda side of the city and travels along elegant Andrassy Boulevard before crossing the Chain Bridge into Buda. Andrassy Boulevard is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is lined with neo-Renaissance mansions once owned by the city's most wealthy families and the impressive Hungarian State Opera House. Today, those historic mansions are occupied by business offices, cafes, luxury boutiques, theaters and restaurants.
We fell in love with Budapest at first sight and will definitely be going back to see more but here's a list of the not-to-be-missed sites we did visit.
Climb to the top of St. Stephen's Basilica
It's worth the small fee to walk up the 364 steps to the observation deck of St. Stephen's Basilica and take in the panoramic view.
Take a Bath
Pamper yourself with a day at Szechenyi Baths where you can relax in medicinal natural hot springs in 18 pools or book a massage and other spa treatments. Save yourself time and money by researching discounts, booking online before you go and bringing your own robe and slippers. I'm sure your hotel won't mind if you borrow the ones from the closet just be sure to return them.
Walk Across the Chain Bridge
The most famous of Budapest's eight bridges, the Chain Bridge was the first permanent stone bridge connecting Buda and Pest and is considered one of the city's most iconic structures. At the end of World War II, the retreating German troops blew up all of Budapest's bridges but the pillars of the Chain Bridge remained intact and so it was decided to rebuild it in the spring of 1947. It was finally completed in the fall of 1949.
Take a Tour of Parliament
Located on the bank of the Danube River, the Hungarian Parliament is one of Europe's oldest and largest buildings. The Changing of the Guard takes place at 12 noon and is free. Tours of Parliament are available and we suggest booking online so you can skip the queue at the ticket office.
Explore the Buda Castle Quarter
The Buda Castle Quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and encompasses the historical Gothic castle and palace complex of former Hungarian kings in Budapest. Today, you will find two museums within the Royal Palace - the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum. On Buda Hill you'll also find Matthias Church, Gellert Bath, Fishermen's Bastion as well as panoramic views of the Danube, Chain Bridge and the Pest side of the city.
Ride the Funicular up Buda Hill
There's an easy footpath with switchbacks you can walk up to the top of Castle Hill but taking the nostalgic funicular is a fun, three-minute ride.
Dine in a bistro with Traditional Gypsy Music
Be sure to make a reservation to land a table at the restaurant you desire or ask your hotel concierge for help or suggestions. We dined at Rezkakas Bistro, a casually elegant restaurant in the 5th district serving traditional Hungarian dishes and international cuisine.
Visit the Jewish Museum
The Great Synagogue is the largest in Europe and the second largest in the world. Located in the 7th district on Dohany Street, it bordered the Budapest Ghetto during the Holocaust. The complex includes the Synagogue, the Heroes' Temple, the graveyard, the Memorial and the Jewish Museum.
Take a Stroll Along Kiraly Street and Visit a Ruin Pub in the 7th district
Kiraly Street is Budapest's lively "design street" with boutiques, home decor and furniture stores, art galleries, cafes and even one of the city's popular "ruin pubs" - Kuplung. Ruin pubs are old warehouses and abandoned buildings which were turned into rustic drinking places in the early 2000's by clever young men seeking places for cheap drinks. The bars tend to have rough interiors, mismatched furniture and are decorated with a hodgepodge of found objects. Kuplung means "clutch" and is housed in a former car repair shop. There are several ruin pubs in the 7th district including the original one, Simple Kert, which was our favorite.
See the Shoes on the Bank of the Danube River
The "Shoes on the Danube" is a moving reminder of the Jews and others killed between 1944 and 1945. The 60 pairs of rusty period shoes represent the men, women and children rounded up by Arrow Cross militiamen and shot by a firing squad at close range so their bodies would fall into the river. The "Shoes" can be found in front of the Parliament building along the river bank.
Get a Budapest card
The Budapest Card gives you free public transportation as well as free or discounted admission to dozens of museums, attractions, theaters, exhibitions, sights, restaurants, theme parks and tours. Budapest is a very walkable city but it was nice to be able to jump on the metro or a bus anywhere in the city at anytime.
Live in the Lap of Luxury
We splurged a little on our trip to Budapest because we were celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary but we found the 5-star hotels and highly-rated restaurants (Budapest has four Michelin-rated restaurants in the city) quite reasonable compared to other European capital cities.