With picturesque scenery, rich history, and great nightlife, Budapest ticks a lot of boxes for weekend breakers. The capital of Hungary is formed by what was formerly two cities: Buda and Pest. The two parts of the city are divided by the River Danube, with the Buda side known for its hills and winding roads, as well as the castle district. The Pest area is more urbanised, home to the city’s nightlife and attractions such as St Stephen’s Basilica, Heroes’ Square and the second largest synagogue in the world.
Hungary’s heritage is certainly varied, and this is reflected in its capital. It was conquered by the Magyars from the Ural Mountains, followed by the Romans and then the Ottaman Empire. The country lost 72% of its territory after World War I, picked the wrong side during World War II, and was finally run by communists until 1989.
From the Turkish baths dotted across Budapest to the many museums, there are many opportunities to explore this history throughout the city.
Budapest attracts all kinds of tourists – and there is no shortage of things to see and do. Here are some tips to make the most of your visit.
If you visit Budapest, one of the first things people will ask is: “Did you go to the baths?”
Due to warm spring waters running under the city, Budapest is home to a network of thermal baths, with traditional Turkish baths dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries, and they are a must-see during your time in the city. However, difficulties can arise when choosing one to visit.
Truth be told, after looking at reviews of the main baths on Tripadvisor, you might be inclined to give them a miss due to complaints about cleanliness and queues. Despite the odd negative review, many people go to the main baths – Szechenyi, Gellert, Rudas and Kiraly – without any issues. But remember to bring flip flops.
Due to apprehensive travel companions, we visited a quieter bath, Veli-bej, which is thought to be one of the oldest Ottoman baths in Budapest – and we loved it.
It offers a large octagonal, hot-water thermal pool, and four smaller thermal pools with different temperatures, a swimming pool, and a Jacuzzi. We didn’t encounter any queues, the pools were impeccably clean and we left feeling completely relaxed. Admission is 2,800 HUF for three hours, which is around €9.
On our first day in Budapest we availed of one of the city’s free walking tours. When we say free, it’s not really free. Yes, you don’t have to pay upfront – however, it is customary to tip. The amount depends on how happy you were with the tour.
A wide range of walks are available, with some focusing on Hungary’s communist era and Jewish past – a full list with times can be viewed on www.triptobudapest.hu. We opted for the “original” walk, which starts from the Pest side of the city and ends at Buda, taking in sites such as St Stephen’s Basilica, the chain bridge and the Royal Palace.
Entrance to attractions is not included. However, the tour guides – many of whom are students – should offer plenty of tips and advice on everything, from places to visit to restaurants. You don’t need to book in advance, unless you’re travelling with a group of eight or more.
On our second day, we took a Segway tour around the city. You will see Segways virtually everywhere, but we pre-booked with Yellow Zebra Bike and Segway Tours. After getting over the fear of crashing or falling off (which is virtually impossible) you have will have tremendous fun zipping around the streets, and private tours are tailor made depending on what you have already seen.
For something completely different, the Irish Farmers Journal’s Peter Varley recommends a tour of Budapest’s caves. The city boasts a myriad of caves underneath its buildings and streets, and caving is popular among tourists – though not for the claustrophobic.
If you want to venture away from the busy Pest side of the city, head for the hills. The Buda hills are home to one unusual attraction: Gyermekvasút, or the children’s railway. A relic from Hungary’s communist past, the train is operated by children aged 10 to 14 – thankfully, with the supervision of adults.
It was established in 1948 and, during communist times, run by the “pioneer” section of the party – the idea being that the children could learn how to work as a team while the party could spot potential talent. It remained open after the fall of communism, with children now working two shifts during the school year.
It took a long and hilly walk and one ride on the cog wheel train (also recommended) to get there, but it’s a fun trip and you can also avail of some excellent chimney cake – a Hungarian delicacy – while you’re there.
We disembarked from the children’s train at the Janoshegy stop to take a chairlift – another remnant from Communist times – down the hills. The chairlift is slow-moving and the views were impressive, but this isn’t for anyone terrified of heights. CL
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Ruin bars: Budapest’s ruin bars were once abandoned buildings, and are now filled with anything and everything, from old furniture to rock memorabilia. You won’t see anything like it anywhere else. Szimpla Kert (pictured) is the original ruin bar – located in the Jewish quarter, it’s the biggest and most popular. Try Hungarian palinka when you’re there.
Hospital under the rock: If you want to get a taste for Budapest history, this unique museum is a great place to visit. Located near the castle district, it’s a secret hospital that was established during WWII and then expanded into a nuclear bunker during communist times.
St Stephen’s Basilica: This church is stunning, and also offers amazing views of Budapest from the basilica.
Eat lots of cake:
Budapest is renowned for its sweet treats. We recommend a visit to Ruszwurm Cukrászda, which is also located near the castle district. Try the iced tea as well as the cakes.
travelling right >>
Travel card: With a good train, tram and bus network, Budapest is very easy to navigate. Invest in a travel card – one valid for 72 hours costs HUF4150 or around €13.50.
Flights: Ryanair and Aer Lingus operate direct flights from Dublin to Budapest.