We’ve maybe left it a touch late, but pre-Brexit we’ve vowed to visit more of Europe.
It’s a bit of a tradition that we go away for Harry’s birthday – Rome last year, Vegas the year before that – this year, we landed on Budapest.
We booked a flight & hotel package through British Airways, £393 for 3 nights & return flights for 2.
We’ve said this before, but we find that we usually don’t need more than a few days to see a city. Budapest is no exception.
We opted for a 3-night stay and found this just about right.
Budapest, in general, is very cheap. The cost of living for locals relative to income is quite high, but if you’re lucky enough to be visiting from a country where the currency is strong, you’ll find that your money goes a long way.
We got around largely on-foot, our favourite way to get a good feel for a place.
If you’re planning to use cabs (which you’ll likely want to from the airport and what not), have some cash on you for ease. As with most tourist destinations, the vast majority of drivers speak English (for which we’re very fortunate!) But, we did have a cabby who didn’t – and when his card machine didn’t work, Harry wound up belting it down the road to find a cash machine 5 minutes before our dinner reservation. With 0 idea where to find said cash machine.
Moral of the story: don’t presume everybody speaks perfect English, and carry cash just in case.
Hotel Palazzo Zichy Hotel inc. boozy breakfast.
Our hotel was in the Palace District, within easy walking distance of pretty much everywhere.
We’d rate the breakfast buffet a 7.5/10 – not the best, definitely not the worst, but they do provide bottomless sparkling wine with breakfast daily which serves to sweeten the deal. Budapest isn’t really the kind of place for day time drinking though, so we only partook in one glass on the first day. If you’re on a hen or stag do, however, that’s pre-drinks sorted.
The hotel also offers free tea, coffee and bottled water in the lobby daily, which saves a few pennies and is, as such, always a bonus.
We let them know that we were celebrating Harry’s birthday and come the big day, we came back to a mini bottle of fizz along with some strawberries & chocolates. Nice touch!
Things to do
The spas are Budapest’s obvious selling point. It’s a favourite past-time of the locals, to while away a few hours soaking in the city’s thermal baths.
You have a few options – we went with the most popular, Szechenyi (£15 entry including locker/changing room).
It’s spacious, so in the likely event it’s busy you’ll not literally be rubbing shoulders with like-minded tourists. We spent a couple of hours happily soaking, followed by a massage in the on-site spa.
Our advice on the massage front – don’t bother. Though not expensive by UK standards (£40 p/person for entry & massage) it was distinctly average. You’d do better (and likely pay less) to hunt out another option if you’re dead-set on getting a treatment in Budapest.
A fool-proof way of getting a feel for a place is the markets. We almost always hunt them out then visiting a city – if nothing else, you’ll find authentic local cuisine prepared and sold at their market places, and likely be rubbing shoulders with the locals which is how we like to experience a destination.
Budapest’s largest market is Great Central Market Hall – a great spot for people watching and picking up a supply of authentic Hungarian Paprika as a souvenir.
House of Terror Museum (£8 entry p/person)
Budapest has a very rich culture and a hugely turbulent history.
The House of Terror is admittedly a fairly ‘heavy’ exhibition – a monument to those who were held, tortured and killed in the building, it paints a very moving picture of what life was like for Hungarians during the communist and fascist regimes the country endured in the early 20th Century.
Really worth a visit if you want to understand the scarily recent history that has shaped Budapest as it is today.
Some of the oldest in Europe, the cable cars connect The Budapest Chain Bridge with Castle Hill.
It’s pretty cheap (£5 p/person return) and a little more cultured than hopping in a taxi to take you to the top of the hill.
The cables are old, so happily they creep pretty slowly up the short climb. Perfect, plenty of time to lap up the views over the Danube River en route to the top, where you’ll find Buda Castle, Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion.
You’ll find plenty of choice spots for architecture appreciation, viewpoints and general shutterbugging. We spent pretty much our whole first day wandering pretty aimlessly, cameras in-hand.
Once you’ve seen the Buda Castle it’s just a 10-minute hop-skip-and-jump to Fisherman’s Bastion. The building itself is pretty awe-inspiring, but it’s also a great spot for sprawling views over the city.
Especially if you’re lucky enough to be in town on a day as beautiful as this.
Second to the spas, Budapest’s ruin bars are ‘the thing’ to do in Budapest.
We were a little sceptical – not to sound too snobby (lol) but we generally don’t love touristy bars. The Brits Abroad vibe isn’t really our thing.
But, when in Rome – so again, we went for the most iconic Ruin Bar, Szimpla Kert.
We actually liked it a lot more than we expected! Clue’s in the name – it’s literally a bar (several, actually) that’s been set up in the ruins of an abandoned pre-war building. So, it’s rough around the edges but actually pretty atmospheric and the cocktails are a steal (£5 p/cocktail).
There’s a big tourist drinking culture in Budapest – the city is a choice spot for stag and hen dos, but you’ll be tripping over bars that are on the more sophisticated side if you’re not after a party scene (the ruin bars are great for that come nightfall).
High Note Sky Bar at the Aria Hotel (£8-12 p/drink)
This place is on the fancier side – fairly expensive by Budapest standards, but still reasonable by UK standards, particularly given the quality of the cocktails and the view from the garden.
The rooftop is decorated beautifully with fairy lights, Christmas trees and little huts to escape the cold (it was February but still festive – we were here for it).
An instagrammer’s dream.
You’ll be treated to a close-up of St Stephen’s Basilica, in case you didn’t catch it whilst you were mooching during the day.
As well as 360 views over the entire city, which is a must-see by night, cocktail in-hand.
Boutiq Bar (£5 p/cocktail)
If you’re at all into your cocktails, you’ll appreciate this place.
Anywhere you can get an extensive cocktail menu at £5 a pop is OK with us.
Throw in friendly, skilled barmen who chatter happily as they work, and complimentary popcorn…
Doblo Wine Bar (£3 p/glass)
This is a quieter joint that Boutiq – very sophisticated, a great place for slow sipping and chatting leisurely through the night.
Exposed brick walls, live music, (good live music, crucially) and cheap wine (…again, good wine, crucially).
We were pretty stuffed when we stopped by post-dinner but the charcuterie boards we saw being ferried around looked killer.
Speaking of dinner!
We mentioned that Budapest represents frankly incredible value for money – we ate some truly exceptional meals here, made all-the-better by the price tag.
We had breakfast included with our hotel stay and snacked our way around the city by day, but we did manage 2 outstanding dinners during our stay.
Zeller Bistro: £60 for drink on arrival, shared starter & dessert, 2 mains & 4 cocktails.
First up, Zeller. We’ve recommended this place to pretty much everybody who’s asked after decent dinner spots in Budapest.
Start with the terrine – truly lick-the-plate incredible stuff.
We plumped for a steak & the duck breast for main – the latter was especially memorable. The meat was cooked to perfection.
Think fine-dining BUT without the poncy portion sizes.
Or the gut-wrenching price tag.
For £30 p/head – drinks and tip included – we left full, extremely happy campers.
KOLLÁZS at Four Seasons: £95 pp “8-course blind date with Chef & Sommelier”
We mentioned we were in town for Harry’s birthday – we decided to celebrate with a swanky meal at Kollazs. Located in the opulent Four Seasons hotel, it’s worth getting there a little early to have a poke around the hotel first if you can spare the time. It’s a pretty gorgeous setting.
Not *quite* gorgeous enough to keep us from dinner, though. Onto the grub!
Full disclosure: we’ve overpaid for fancy meals before, in London especially.
It ‘s not that they’ve not been special and impressive – only that we struggle to justify paying hundreds of pounds for exceptionally small portions and a meal that’s over in a couple of hours… no matter how remarkable the food.
We’ve paid less for holidays.
BUT…we do really enjoy the experience of exceptional food that we frankly are not up to preparing ourselves.
So, when we figured that we could enjoy fine dining with wine pairing, feel very fancy for a whole evening, but pay £95pp… well, we were there.
For reference – the same thing in London cost us £260 EACH once. Yikes.
The food was near-perfection, the whole evening a total pleasure and so worth the wedge – again, something we rarely feel when leaving fine-dining experiences.
The service we received from the resident sommelier was nothing short of faultless – vastly knowledgeable, attentive, the wines for each course carefully selected to pair perfectly with the beautifully prepared and presented courses.
We were a little caught off-guard by the savage Palinka we were served to round off the evening.
Paint-stripper, don’t do it.
Palinka notwithstanding, the evening we spent at Kollazs was honestly stunning – the perfect setting for a special occasion. We’d definitely visit this place again.
There are a few quintessentially Hungarian dishes that you’ll find to keep you ticking over between meals. Some more worth-it than others, but none of them expensive so you may as well give them a whirl if you want to tick all of the boxes.
Flodni / Jewish cake (Noah’s Patisserie Café, £2-3 p/cake)
You’ll find this at a few little bakeries dotted around the city – this is a ‘worth it’ snackette.
Essentially it tastes like Christmas – layers of dough sandwiched with plum jam, walnut, apple and poppyseed, all savouring of cinnamon, cloves, orange zest and red wine.
Delicious, and mercifully small. We both agreed that we could happily hoover up a sizeable slab of this stuff.
Chimney Cake (Molnars, £2.50 p/cake)
It’s the go-to Hungarian street food: Crisp exterior, soft (think white bread) on the inside. We got ours dusted with cinnamon sugar though you could go coconut, nuts or chocolate.
It was good, perfectly pleasant… but not mind-blowing. We preferred the Jewish cake!
Goulash (Getto Gulyas, £3 p/bowl)
You can’t visit Budapest, or Hungary really, without sampling a piping hot bowl of goulash.
It’ll only set you back 3 bob, so why not, really.
Verdict: it’s meaty and richly spiced with paprika. Hearty, and it’ll definitely warm your cockles.
Bors (£2-2.50 p/sandwich)
Ok so maybe this isn’t a Hungarian speciality per-se, but it is a bloody good sandwich that you’ll find just down the way from Szimpla Kert if you’ve a hankering for a sarnie.
Served hot, the baguette is chewy in the centre and wonderfully crisp around the edges, stuffed with piping hot, salty meat, layered with flavoursome sauce and oozing cheese.
On the trashy side, and absolutely worth it.
Budapest is a fascinating city.
It feels a little different to a lot of Western Europe’s large cities – there’s still a lingering feel of the soviet influence but mostly the city feels like one big celebration of Hungarian culture. Unsurprising given the country’s fairly recent history.
The place is a little rough around the edges – almost under construction, but there’s a pretty endless supply of impressive architecture and and a lot of beauty dotted around the city.
Take comfy shoes, you’ll want to explore Budapest’s nooks and crannies mostly on foot.
Above all, savour the fact that you’ll feel like you’re getting an absolute steal everywhere you go – not necessarily ‘the norm’ on a city break!