The capital city of Hungary, Budapest is a fascinating city. It's perched right on the border between Western and Eastern Europe and with that comes a complicated history. Until the late 1980s Hungry was communist, not moving to a democratic government until 1989. There is also a heavy influence from ancient Roman and Turkish occupation that has led to an interesting mix of architecture, culture, and historic spots to visit.
Budapest is actually a combination of two historic cities Buda and Pest (no, this is not a joke). The two cities were separated by the Danube river and were combined in 1873. Buda is the hilly area west of the river which is home to Castle Hill, elaborate medieval buildings, and upscale neighbourhoods. Pest, located on the eastern side, is where you will find the major sights, nightlife, restaurants, markets, and places to stay.
The city is divided into 23 districts, most of the major sights are located in Central Buda and Central Pest.
Though the country is a member of the European Union, they don't use the Euro but the Hungarian forint (HUF). Find the current exchange rates here, but this is where they were at when this post was written:
1 CAD = 219 HUF
1 USD = 293 HUF
1 EUR = 310 HUF
1 GBP = 358 HUF
1 AUD = 223 HUF
The city is extremely walkable, you can get to most sights by foot — especially if you stay central. It also has an easy-to-navigate metro system.
What To Do
The fairy-tale towers of this castle overlook an artificial lake that is used for boating in the summer, and in the winter is transformed into one of the most impressive outdoor skating rinks in Europe!
The structure itself is made up of two Transylvanian castles (medieval Hungary included the country of Transylvania — now Romania) and a Renaissance courtyard where regular concerts are held in the summer.
It's free to visit, beautiful, and definitely worth wondering through. It is also perched on the edge of a public park that is the perfect place to enjoy a picnic or rest your feet after a day of exploring!
In Central Europe, coffee houses are the social club, home, and haven for journalists, writers, lawyers, and everyone in between. Oozing charm, this is one of the best spots to spend an afternoon people watching and soaking up local culture while sipping on a frothy cappuccino or a cold beer.
St. Stephen's Basilica
I love visiting churches in Europe (though I am not religious), because they are usually perfectly preserved examples of the city's history of art and architecture.
The stunning St. Stephen's Basilica does not disappoint.
Located in a huge square in Pest, the church took over 50 years to build and has a dome that is 96 m high (approx. 315ft)! The interior of the colossal basilica features frescos, carvings, and chapels in impeccable condition that are absolutely beautiful.
It is free to visit the church, but if you want to check out the treasury or dome, there is a small fee.
There is no better spot to find authentic souvenirs and food than at a local market, and Budapest boasts a plethora of them including some large covered markets. Beautiful fabrics, wooly hats, and delicious treats can be found in abundance.
If you only make it to one, the Nagycsarnok or Great Market, is so big you could get lost in it! The first floor is packed with traditional food, and the top floor is where you will find folk costumes, dolls, scarves, embroidery, hunting knives, and more!
The former headquarters of the country's dreaded secret police, this eerie looking building is a disturbing monument to those who suffered the terror that afflicted the country during and after World War II.
The photos plastered on the wall showing the faces of former prisoners (pictured) is incredibly moving, and prepare yourself before you visit the underground torture chambers, they are pretty graphic.
A full price ticket is 2000 HUF.
Not much remains of this historic quarter that was hit hard during WWII. It is home to a holocaust museum located in the Great Synagogue, but my favourite part of my visit to this quarter was located behind the synagogue.
A stunning Holocaust Memorial sculpture (pictured above) in the shape of a weeping willow was funded by actor Tony Curtis and is dedicated to those who perished in the death camps.
There are two famous thermal spas to visit in the city.
Located in Buda, the most famous is the Gallert Baths with majestic domes, Turkish tiles, and beautiful Art Nouveau architecture that you can enjoy while soaking in the warm waters (both indoors and outdoors) and relaxing in the stunning saunas. It is like soaking in a bit of history!
Admission is 5300 HUF on weekdays and 5500 HUF on weekends.
The Szechenyi Baths were built in 1908 and are located in Pest in the City Park. There is a giant outdoor pool that is open year-round and feels like you are a guest at some opulent hotel, as well as indoors thermal baths, saunas, and massage areas.
Admission is dependent on the time of year and time of day you are visiting. They can be pre-bought online. Visit the website for details.
There are three major art museums that I would recommend.
First up, the Szepmuveszeti Museum, or Museum of Fine Arts, is packed full of art from all over the world, including a large collection of pieces by the painter El Greco, a selection of Egyptian art and artifacts, and some incredible classical sculpture.
NOTE: The Museum of Fine Arts Budapest is closed for renovation of the building until the spring of 2018. A selection of 50-60 artworks from the Museum’s collections will be on show in the Hungarian National Gallery (in Buda Castle, building C). The artworks of the collections can be browsed on the gallery's website in the meantime.
Across the street is the Muczarnok, a huge contemporary art gallery that displays works by both national and international artists. Admission is 400 HUF.
The building housing the Museum of Applied Arts is absolutely incredible. It is a prime example of the Hungarian Art Nouveau movement (built between 1893 and 1896) with its elaborate tilled roofs and sweeping lobby (pictured above). Exabitions include furniture, architecture, treasures, and more. Admission for all exhibits is 3,500 HUF.
I know that visiting a cemetery might seem strange, but like the famous cemeteries in other parts of Europe, this one is a mix between park and sculpture gallery. There are approximately 3,000 gravestones and mausoleums, and there are free maps at the entrance to help you navigate. It's a great way to escape the hustle and bustle of the city.
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