J-n-O’s B-o-B

| July 17, 2009 9:37 am

As we prepare to depart Budapest (NEWSFLASH for those of you not in the know – details to come), we’re finally publishing our long-overdue list of Budapest favorites that made our almost two-year stint here fun, exciting, unique and/or memorable (in a good way). Along with our pictures of life here, we hope that this collection will trigger good memories for us and, ideally, serve as a decent “to do” list for tourists for centuries to come.

Luckily, you can sample pretty much the entire list in 4-5 days (even 3 if you really run around), which means we’ve overstayed in Budapest for 626 days and counting… so without further ado, we give you (in order of importance) Juan-n-Ognen’s Best-of-Budapest:

Baths
Parks/Open Spaces
Nightlife
Sightseeing
Horse Riding
Getting Around
Coffee Shops and Desserts
Food/Restaurants
Seasonal Activities
More Random Stuff
Other Budapest Guides 

The Baths

By far our favorite activity here and one of the truly unique things about Budapest. Sure, you can find fancy baths and spas all over the world, but we’ve yet to see (or even hear) of another place that has so many natural thermal springs in the middle of a big city that are beautiful (if sometimes in need of renovation) and so accessible and affordable on a regular basis to even the lower-middle class. Elitists need not apply. If you want a truly relaxing Budapest experience, come on over. Full details for all city baths here. Our recommendations (all in the city center):

  • Széchenyi: probably the best one for tourists, right in the middle of the city park with a great combination of indoor and outdoor pools, water temperature ranges and additional treatments… great architecture, too, and recently renovated. If you want a quick taste of Budapest baths, 1.5 hours here ought to do the trick (though you can easily spend a full day here).
  • Rudas: a classic Turkish bath for those seeking a mystical experience. The swimming pool area is not great but the thermal section is fantastic and very romantic when not overcrowded (which is becoming a real concern recently as they seem to have stopped enforcing the crowd limits – we hope they get back to it). It’s also open from 10pm until 4am Fri thru Sun nights so great for detoxing after a weekend night of partying.
  • Király: pretty much just like Rudas, except it clearly has not been renovated since at least the mid-1980s. But if you can get past the grime (which we think adds rather than detracts to the atmosphere) you’re in for a treat, as we’ve never seen more than 6 other people share the entire complex with us. It doesn’t have the range of water temperatures as some of the other baths, but it’s cheaper and the water quality is actually the best we’ve found. But you’ve got to go during the day and Sunday is the only co-ed day. Our favorite bath as of late.
  • Lukács: if you want to see the Magyars bathing, head on over to Lukács. Not touristy at all, which means the decorations and renovations are not as pretty as some other baths (and you might get in a fight with the staff who are clearly not used to speaking English and can be quite rude). But the setting is a wonderful little wooded courtyard by the river and you’re surrounded by locals who enjoy a wide mix of outdoor and indoor pools. Water quality is very good and they’ve recently reopened their wellness section (see if you can sneak into a water aerobics class like we did).
  • Palatinus: ok, so this place is more of a water park than a “bath,” but they do have some heated pools. Should not be at the top of your sightseeing list, but it’s a great way to spend a summer afternoon at the “beach” relaxing and mingling with the young local crowd (though older people can be sighted too). It seems the locals deem it low-class, but we recommend it to anyone under 35 (plus, who doesn’t like seeing trashy people in swimsuits?). And a very good setting right in the middle of Margit island.
  • Gellért: ah, this one is a tough call. It’s a very famous bath, regularly featured as the “best” one in lots of guidebooks, and quite nice really… but… it’s too expensive for what it is and doesn’t really offer anything that you can’t experience in a nicer setting at the other ones listed above. So we don’t really recommend it unless you live here, in which case it’s definitely worth at least one visit to see what all the hype is about.

back to top

Parks/Open Spaces

Lots of people say Budapest lacks green spaces (especially Pest) but that’s just not true. You can easily go to a number of big parks and open spaces with just a few minutes walk or a tram ride from anywhere in the center. In the heart of the city, Margit Island (great place but still somewhat overrated), City Park (very underrated) and the park atop Gellért Hill (great views and explore the areas behind the Citadel for a good picnic or nap spot) are worth a stroll or longer for anyone that comes when the weather is good.

Farther out, the Buda hills have lots of places to be explored. The most popular area is the 13km area around Janos Hegy (getting up by either the children’s railroad, cog-wheeled tram, or chairlift is part of the fun too, so don’t be impatient). The lookout tower is great and it’s fun to bike in the area, as well. We’ve heard the Nancsi Neni restaurant up there is great for a Sunday lunch, but unfortunately never had the opportunity to try it out.

In addition, the Danube banks on both sides of the river are filled with parks and it’s best to get to them by bike. Romai Part above Obuda is a nice little “beach” area where many locals hang out on summer weekends and enjoy fish and chips. Check it out, especially if you’re biking to Szentendre.

And on and on and on… the city is filled with lots of medium-sized (e.g. Erzsébet Ter in Pest or Millenaris in Buda) and small parks that offer sports courts, nice views, cute surroundings, playgrounds, and/or badly-needed shade. So if you say Budapest is not green you simply haven’t bothered moving your lazy butt more than 500 meters from any of the overly-touristy locations.

back to top

Nightlife

The nights may seem dead when you first get here, but they’re actually teeming with life if you know where to look. The Euro-style clubbing and American-style bar scenes are not really our thing, though they can readily be found. We mostly like to spend our nights hopping to 2 or 3 locales, chatting the night away with friends over a few drinks on a rickety table with mismatched chairs, and sometimes catching a live band to do some dancing.

The great thing about nightlife here is that cover charges and lines to get in are non-existent or minimal, the music is not distracting and stays where it belongs (in the background), live bands tend to be listenable and danceable, and drinks are very cheap (but stick to beer, wine, a refreshing “hazmester” in the summer, or the traditional palinka if you’re in the mood for something stronger… don’t order cocktails cause the bartenders aren’t professionals and have no clue what they’re doing). Although many of the places on the list below are grimy, look deserted from the outside and can be scary to go in at first, they are usually filled with people (and smoke, in winter) on any given evening. This is especially true in summer when it is not unusual to find them packed at 2am on a Tuesday. Summer is also fantastic because most locales have seasonal open-air sections, which provide a relaxing open-air culture throughout the city center that makes it very tempting to stay up late and call in sick tomorrow.

These are the places where we can be found most often on weekends:

  • The “Gardens”: the word “kert” means garden in Hungarian, but what it really refers to are the many nightlife spots sprinkled throughout the city center, particularly around the old Jewish neighborhood in the city’s 7th district. These “gardens” are really just run-down buildings or courtyards that have been converted into sprawling lounges, often with funky decorations, a vibrant atmosphere, and a variety of music (though rarely live). They are bigger than you think, so walk around. Check out Mumus (our recent favorite), Instant, Szimpla Kert (the “original” but quite touristy – go to the one on Kazinczy street), TreffOrt (seasonal – summer only), Kertem (also seasonal and located in the city park) or just discover one on your own while walking around (click here for a NON-exhaustive list).
  • The almost-kerts: these following places are also very much like the “kerts” but not actually “kerts” – who cares? We like them anyway. Check out Pótkulcs (never a cover charge and decent local bands), Kuplung (student dive bar), Sirály (check here tooa “library” of sorts but can get very smoky), or Lámpás (in a basement and smoky but good for winter).
  • Dance/Music spots: these places tend to host decent bands or DJs when you’re in more of a party mood. But (except for Millenaris) they’re also good spots to just kick back when you’re sick of the kerts: A38 (on a boat in the Danube – a must-see), Zöld Pardon (sprawling and a funny mix of people and music right across A38 so worth seeing), Corvintetö (above a supermarket – great rooftop scene in the summer), Millenáris (multiple very nice stages for concerts; no other night scene but worth going back to the complex in daytime), and last but certainly not least Gödör (the central hangout in town for all sorts of locals and tourists (from elderly folks to the local skater kids and everything in between) – an outdoor park above and huge club underground; tends to be packed from 6pm to 3am any day of the week and makes for great peoplewatching).
  • The Island: hot summer nights are best spent chilling out on Margit island. You don’t need to go anywhere in particular but if you want somewhere to sit and be served drinks, check out Holdudvar (sort of like a kert and also does fun outdoor movie screenings), Sarkert (right next door and a cheaper more laid-back feel) or Cha Cha Cha (for upbeat music and dancing).
  • Cafes: sometimes it’s fun to just kick back and enjoy the European café culture, which is best taken in at summer at any of the plentiful spots along Raday Street (though we don’t necessarily recommend any of the restaurants there).

back to top

Sightseeing

We won’t spend too much time on the standards here because you can get them in pretty much every guidebook or website about Budapest. Let’s just say the Chain Bridge, Castle Hill (and all associated sights), the main Synagogue, Parliament (exterior), St. Peter’s Basilica, Vaci Street (but don’t eat or drink there), Szabadsag Square, walking up Andrassy Street to Heroe’s Square (including the Opera) and the Grand Market (but try to go there before noon on a weekday) are all worth at least passing through and taking pictures of. And that should all take two days, tops. If you’re in a rush, you can do them all in a few hours on the affordable hop-on, hop-off bus tours that circle central Budapest.

Here are some additional attractions that can be just as fun as the ones above if you’re in a touristy mindset:

  • The Palace of Arts: a bit out of the way in southern Pest but worth going to. The building itself is quite nice architecturally and worth seeing at night along with the nearby National Theater. You can walk in and stroll around without a ticket even on nights when performances are going on, but you might as well buy a ticket to a show anyway (many world class performances come through at very affordable process)
  • The Opera House: you’re bound to run into it on any sightseeing itinerary, but take the time to actually go see a performance if you have the chance.
  • Day trip to Szentendre: this village is only 20km from the center of Budapest and well worth a visit by tourists. Our favorite way to get there is on the wonderful bikepath from downtown, but a boat ride on the Danube can be fun too. When there, be sure to load up on delightful cheap calories from the famous langos (fried dough) and crepes stand that’s in the middle of the super narrow alley leading directly uphill from across the main church in the village center (can’t miss it). If you like marzipan, check out the museum dedicated to this weird sweet.
  • Riding Tram No. 6: the number 4 and 6 trams circle around central Budapest. We recommend riding the full #6 route from Moszkva Tér to Móricz Zsigmond Körtér. The area around Móricz Zsigmond is quite an interesting and different one from Pest, so you might want to take a stroll from there to Gellért Hill.
  • Climbing Gellért Hill: it’s in every guidebook but we include it here because it seems overlooked by our visitors. At times, this can be more worthwhile than a visit to the Castle Hill.
  • Strolling across the southern sidewalk of the Margit Bridge late at night (preferably weeknight so its quiet): our favorite view of the City.
  • Muesums: everyone that knows us is aware that we’re not big on museums so we can’t make too many recommendations because we simply haven’t been to many. However, we enthusiastically endorse the cute, little Postal Museum both for its exhibits and splendidly renovated interior, as well as the V.A.M design house for showcasing the work of young Hungarian artists for free in a great setting. If you want modern dance and art, check out Trafó.
  • Noticing the architecture: don’t just run from major sight to major sight. The reason Budapest is so famous is that the center (and especially the 5th, 6th and 7th districts in Pest) are full of all sorts of architectural treasures. At first, a lot of them just seem run down and more or less the same. But if you take your time and really pay attention to the details, you’ll see there is a wide variety between many of the intricately ornate buildings, no matter what their state of repair. Plus, we think so many rundown buildings in the middle of a major city is sort of charming. It’s Europe at its finest (and a reason why Budapest has doubled as virtually every other important city on the continent in a bunch of major movies).
  • Of possible interest: we haven’t done any of the following but they all come highly recommended as only-in-Budapest attractions where you can apparently feel Hungary’s bizarre history: the Kerepesi cemetery with elaborate tombs for all the Magyars after whom the streets and squares are named, the antique Amusement Park, the similar Budapest Zoo next door (other than the monkey house, apparently not as depressing as you’d expect) and Gül Baba’s (a Turkish poet) tomb and rose garden. We might just have to check them out before we check out of here ourselves.

back to top

Horse Riding

This item would have been higher up on our “best of” list had we only discovered it sooner. It’s our fault, really, as Hungary has a solid historical reputation for strong horsemanship. Well, who knew it was still so accessible today even in the big capital city? A lot of people that are not us, apparently. Anyway, like the baths, pleasant horse riding can be enjoyed in many places across the World. But Budapest offers a fantastic combination of easily accessible (location and price-wise) horse riding possibilities for the average person. Heading out of central Budapest in any direction will take you to a number of riding schools both in the beautiful Buda hills and the flat parks and meadows of Pest. You might have to take public transport for an hour or so to get there, but it’s totally worth it – a private lesson (in English) on a healthy horse will cost you between $10 and $15 – dirt cheap compared to anything else we’ve seen! As mentioned, riding schools abound (non-exhaustive list here though not all instructors speak English) but we recommend Lolok in Pest (great for beginners) and Petneházy in Buda (fantastic setting but better for people that already know how to ride a bit), which are not included on that list but we’ve personally enjoyed.

back to top

Getting Around and Public Transport

While Google Maps has good coverage of Budapest, Útvonalterv is the best website we know for navigating you through town by foot, bike, public transit or car (English option, too). Budapest is, in many ways, a small town and one of the best features of living in the very center of town is that we can walk or bike pretty much anywhere (especially with the growing network of nice bikepaths).

It’s also nice to know there’s a great public transport network. The city’s transit operator, BKV, gets all sort of flack from many angles for being corrupt, busses and metros being old, and on and on. But you know what? If it’s not broke, why fix it? We judge the local metro, trams, busses and trolley busses not by their appearance or the backroom dealings of BKV but by the coverage area of the network, the frequency of service and delays, and the incidence of breakdowns. By that standard, it passes with flying colors. Plus, the system is not as crowded or smelly as in other capital cities.

back to top

Coffee shops and Desserts

Cakes, pastries and coffee are definitely the high points of Magyar cuisine. It’s been almost 100 years since the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but luckily the coffee-house culture does not seem to have changed much since. A “kávéház” (coffe house) or “cukrászda” (dessert place) is especially appealing in the middle of winter, when it is easy to forget the miserable weather by spending a whole afternoon on a comfortable sofa reading a book or browsing on a laptop over hot chocolate and a couple of slices of cake. Just like Vienna except way cheaper.

Of the many Magyar desserts, we recommend dobos torta and eszterházy torta (both classic cakes), rétes (Hungarian strudel – we like it as túrós (sweet curd cheese), díos (walnut), makos (poppyseed) or meggyes (sour cherry)), mákos guba (these two descriptions we’ve seen on restaurant menus seem apt: “dumps with poppy” or “mess of poppies”) and somlói galuska (a sponge cake that comes in many different varieties). Hungarians are also big on palacsinta (crepes) which tend to be mostly good.

Coffee shops and delicious desserts can be found all over town (unfortunately, so can coffee/dessert tourist traps) but we’d recommend these if you’re not brave enough to test some out on your own:

  • Dunapark: our favorite place to waste away an entire winter’s Sunday afternoon. Located next to a park along the Danube and good for hanging out with friends for hours. Serves great hot chocolate (basically liquid cake), which is especially pleasing while listening to the mellow pianist. The food is also decent for brunch.
  • Szamos Marcipán: a chain of small shops that mostly sells desserts to go. We don’t like marzipan in general but if you do, this is the place to go. Their “eszterházy torta” cake is pricey but delightful and we’ve heard great things about the hot chocolate in some of their locations, too.
  • Daubner Cukrászda: a bit out of the way from the usual tourist circuit but still only a 15 minute bus ride from the center. Locals widely consider it as one of the top cake and pastry shops in town (go beyond just desserts and try out some of the savory breads and pastries too).
  • Rétesház: a nice, touristy and safe choice to try rétes but don’t bother sitting down and just take it to go and eat in front of the nearby St. Stephen’s basilica. They make a particularly good oszibarack (apricot) rétes.
  • Nagyi Palacsintázója: a chain of crepes shops. The crepes aren’t actually that good but they are dirt cheap and all the locations are open 24-hours, which can be very handy at times. The locations near Moszkva Tér and Batthyány Tér are also somewhat charming.
  • Gerbaud: this is the most famous coffee/desserts place in town – extremely central and extremely touristy. We’re actually split on it as Juan views it as a classic tourist trap while Ognen thinks it still has some charm and the cakes taste good (despite the premium they charge).
  • Centrál: good for people-watching Hungarian celebrities and wannabes
  • Csirke-Fogó: this is actually Hungary’s equivalent of KFC but Ognen and his friend Chris love the refreshing, cheap and delicious “pudding balls” (you’ll know them when you see them) they serve more than the greasy fried chicken products.

back to top

Food/Restaurants

There’s a reason why “food” – which is normally central to our happiness and the recent focus of our travels – fell to the bottom of our “best of” list. Basically, there are way too many horrible restaurants in town (thankfully somewhat less since the financial crisis hit) and in 20 months here, no meal ever blew us away. That being said, we’ve had plenty of nice meals and Budapest has some perfectly decent restaurants, many of which offer nice value for your money. In general, when in Hungary, stick to pork and the big birds (duck, goose, turkey) as they don’t do beef or lamb so well. A Hungarian fisherman’s soup can be quite a nice surprise if done properly, as can the goose liver, which can be delightful both hot and cold (but stay away from all the other liver they’ll try to push on you). So we recommend the places below but keep your expectations low if you want to leave happy:

  • Cheap Hungarian: Frici Papa Kifozés (an old-school place serving hearty portions of all things Hungarian) and Kádár Étkezde (basically the same but with a fascinating non-kosher Jewish twist). If you can find a friend to sneak you in, you should definitely try the cafeteria atop the MOL corporate headquarters.
  • Moderate and good value Hungarian: Menza (classic tourist hot-spot but really quite nice), M  (interesting decour and constantly shifting menu), Borpiac (nice hot sandwiches and a huge selection of cheap wines; unfortunately they seem to have gotten rid of most of the hot dishes we liked), Trófea Grill (all you can eat and drink for around $20, sometimes less – pretty good, too; need we say more?), Pozsonyi Kisvendéglő (really nice and cheap neighborhood restaurant where locals go).
  • A bit more expensive (but not much) Hungarian/Fusion: Csalogány 26 (best service in town and delightful appetizers and desserts), Café Kör (imaginative and generally tasty – cash only), Klassz (can be hit or miss but the hits are solid), Gerlóczy (cute and classic but recently in real danger of falling quality), Fatal (super touristy but pretty tasty and giant portions), Déryné Bisztró (and here tooexpensive but fun decour and tasty).
  • Ethnic foods: Vapiano (cheap, fast Italian with great atmosphere and probably the best pasta in town), Balettcipő (serves a welcome variety of non-Hungarian dishes at good prices), Pirro (our favorite Indian joint), Momotaro Ramen (only Chinese place we frequent and even then it’s just for their steamed buns and ramen soups), Szeráj (a super popular Turkish self-service place – always a line and almost always tasty), Sir Wiliam’s Pub (the only place we’ve found good lamb – rest of the menu is not worth it), Arriba (only edible Mexican in town but that’s not saying much so only go if desperate for a burrito), New York Pizza (not quite the real thing but it’s the closest you’ll get to it here).

back to top

Seasonal Activities

Budapest also hosts some seasonal events or activities that we think are worth checking out if you happen to be here at the right time:

  • Ice skating on the big outdoor ring at City Park: usually open November – February and can be a real winter wonderland if the weather cooperates.
  • Széchenyi baths while its snowing: you have to be lucky to get this, as the snow rarely sticks in Pest, but it’s supposed to be an absolute thrill – too bad we were both very sick during the one week of real snow last winter and so missed out.
  • Art Night (the top of the site tells you the date of the upcoming one): this is quite a fun event that happens a few times a year where the many art galleries and antiques shops on Falk Miksa street stay open until midnight or later, serving wine and hosting live music. Feels very classy – be sure to explore around in the basements, as some of the galleries are way bigger than you can imagine at first sight.
  • Music festivals: there are way too many festivals in town, especially in the summer, so we recommend sticking with the classics – the spring festival in March for classical performances and Sziget for your big summer rock experience in August.
  • Downtown Festival (details should be posted on the site a few weeks before the event): once a year in early June a bunch of stages go up around the 5th district in town. It’s all free and the highlights are the events going on around Szabadság Tér, which hosts the best music followed by a “silent” party or outdoor movie screening where everyone gets nice wireless headphones to listen to the DJs spin and dance the night away.
  • Pálinka and Wine festivals: there are also lots of wine or pálinka (the national drink) festivals throughtout the spring and summer, especially around Deak Ter or the Castle. Sometimes expensive and overcrowded but worth checking out at least once. Hungarians love to celebrate their alcohol – we’ve also been to a Czech beer festival (rather narrow focus) and even saw a wine spritzer one recently.
  • Christmas market on Vörösmarty Tér: yeah, yeah, every European city seems to have one, but the Budapest one is worth checking out if you’re here during the holidays.

back to top

Other Random B-o-B’s

Here are some other Budapest “bests” that left a positive impression on us:

  • The public health system: say what you will about decrepit formerly socialist health systems but we’ve had no problems. At least for everyday medical issues, the public health care system (free for locals and generally cheap for foreigners) has an undeservedly bad reputation. Waiting times are not long, the doctors and nurses are competent, attentive and seem to know what they’re doing. Unless it’s something super major, we’d much rather go to a Hungarian public hospital than any local private clinic (not to mention American hospitals).
  • Magyar Posta: like health care, ditto with the Hungarian post. We’ve heard stories of packages being stolen but it’s never happened to us. Moreover, every letter we’ve sent to the States has arrived within a week, lines are quite short, post offices abound, and opening hours are super convenient. Take note, USPS.
  • Public safety: other than the large number of home robberies and the occasional right-wing riot, Budapest is a super safe city and we’ve never felt at risk for any violent crime.
  • Downtown beautification project: the 5th district has embarked on a pretty massive street repaving project which involves making most streets (all but the major ones) cobblestone and adding expanded sidewalks. We’re all for it… except we don’t understand why they insist on doing the heavy digging and construction work this year, like last, only from mid-June to mid-August (peak tourist season).
  • PDA: the “Hungarian mentality” and general sourness of the locals is well-documented, but when they’re in love, they show it. It seems that any spot is a great one for full-on making out. We’ve never been to another place where we’re constantly bumping into people with locked lips. And we’re not prudes, but sometimes it just makes you uncomfortable. On the other hand, it’s very cute to see 60 and 70 year olds regularly holding hands as they walk down the street. And, of course, you always do a kiss to greet people here. Surprisingly, all this affection happens less in the summer when the tourists are around (maybe it’s just too hot then).
  • Paternoster elevators: apparently there’s a handful of these crazy old elevators still in use in other countries in central and eastern Europe but Hungary is where we first encountered them and we just love them – and they are NOT dangerous! Juan was lucky to have one in the building where she worked and it proved a great attraction for some of our guests (for more, see the related Wikipedia page).

back to top

Other Guides

In case you somehow need more or better guides to Budapest in addition to this post (can’t imagine why), here are some sites we recommend:

  • The Hub: blog with nice nightlife recommendations; you can also see the author’s interesting blog on life in Budapest.
  • Chew.hu: the most interesting and useful restaurant guide in town – always a good read but their web design is bad and they should not be trusted for any Asian recommendations.
  • Caboodle: a nice directory service to find most places in town and the occasional interesting article
  • Funzine: they also put out a free English-language publication every two weeks (can be picked up from tourist office or some clubs and restaurants) which is a pretty good guide to events and nightlife.

back to top

5 Responses to “J-n-O’s B-o-B”

pawn shop guns wrote a comment on August 4, 2014

This is really interesting, You are a very skilled
blogger. I’ve joined your feed and look forward to seeking more of your wonderful post.

Also, I’ve shared your site in my social networks!

Pro Evolution Soccer 2016 download wrote a comment on September 9, 2015

Hi, I wish for to subscribe for this web site to get latest updates, thus where can i do it please help out.

DfvCaure wrote a comment on April 9, 2017

cialis evil

Richardsib wrote a comment on November 5, 2017

You have made your stand very effectively!!
canadianpharmaciesbnt.com
canadian pharmacy online canada

Millioner wrote a comment on August 4, 2019

Please click on Google AdSense ads:
My site http://kgzt.ru/
You click me and I click you

Care to comment?