A few words of advice: Budapest is a walkable and bikeable city, and most places featured below are accessible by both. Use the MOL Bubi app (Google Play; App Store) for the local bike share system. Public transportation is also convenient and wallet-friendly, especially the 72-hour travelcard for €14, which can be purchased through the BudapestGO app (Google Play; App Store). Here, you can find more information about getting around and into Budapest. Refer to this map for the places mentioned below.
1 p.m. Lunch, coffee, pastries in the outer part of District 8
Jump headlong into Budapest by having your first meal at Kívánság Étkezde before it shuts down for the weekend. This type of lunch-only, low-priced, unpretentious eateries were popular during the Communist era (1948-1989), but are currently nearing extinction. For good reason, some locals say, but Kívánság is an exception: owner Tibor Szabados and Józsi, the head-waiter, form a legendary duo and serve freshly made home-style Hungarian classics – főzelék, stuffed peppers, rántott hús – that draw locals from near and far.
After lunch, caffeinate yourself at Kastner Kommunity, a modern coffee shop with oversized windows ideal for observing the comings-and-goings of this dynamic neighborhood home to many ethnic minorities. Stroll back toward the city center via Vaj, known for its still steaming sourdough breads and pastries, such as the túró-filled batyu and the kakaós csiga (chocolate roll).
3 p.m. Palace Quarter, a surreal library, high-end thrift store
Budapest’s Palace Quarter consists of a cluster of ornate buildings behind the National Museum (Pollack Mihály tér) and along Reviczky, Ötpacsirta, and Horánszky streets. These were the winter palaces of the Hungarian aristocracy, located strategically near the museum, which functioned as the Upper Chamber of the Hungarian Parliament in the 19th century. The aristocracy is long gone – most fled the country from the Communists – but a few interiors have been preserved.
Such as that of the Wenckheim Palace, today part of the Szabó Ervin Library. For the €4 admission, you’ll be privy to a surreal scene: throngs of local students cramming for their exams inside the chandelier-studded former ballroom and wood-paneled cigar room (4th floor!).
Is it time for a drink? At Fecske, you can enjoy a cool lager beside students taking their study breaks of various lengths and with various amounts of alcohol (a bit older, and more self-consciously cool crowd flocks to the nearby Lumen Café). Those more into shopping can unearth some gems at Typo Showroom, a high-end thrift store tucked away on the corner of Horánszky and Krúdy Gyula utca.
6 p.m. Andrássy Avenue, Heroes’ Square, City Park
A stroll down Andrássy Avenue, the most famous boulevard in the city, will take you past fancy stores and striking Renaissance Revival buildings, including the Opera House. On a small side street in Paulay Ede hides The Garden Studio, a fun clothing store of local designers, with plenty of bright colors and playful prints.
Heroes’ Square, a landmark packed with statues of famous Hungarian statesmen, is flanked by the Museum of Fine Arts, home to paintings by El Greco, Velazquez, Rembrandt and many more old masters. The nearby City Park has recently become a pilgrimage site for fans of architecture with the opening of the House of Music – designed by Japanese starchitect Sou Fujimoto – and the spectacular roof garden of the Museum of Ethnography by Marcel Ferencz. Instead of walking, you could take the charming, historic Millenium Underground back to the city center from Heroes’ Square.
9 p.m. Dinner & drinks in District 7
Budapest’s Old Jewish Quarter, also known as the Party District, has become a victim of its own success, but you can still find treasures amid ruin bar copycats and rowdy bachelor party crews decked out in uniforms (the main danger zone is Gozsdu Udvar). Such as M, a small, cozy restaurant that defies categorization. The menu is a collection of dishes that Miklós Sulyok, the literary-minded owner, is partial to: grilled goat cheese salad with beets, sweetbread in a white tarragon-laced sauce, monkfish pasta. Pair them with the wallet-friendly Hungarian wines. (Be sure to book in advance.)
Szimpla Kert is the ruin bar that prompted the neighborhood’s revival, but if the line to get in isn't worth the wait, you could saunter over to Madách tér. There, crowds of fashionable locals fill the sidewalk outside Központ and Telep, two see-and-be-seen bars across from one another. Looking for a middle-aged crowd? Try Kisüzem or Fekete Kutya, both just a few blocks away.
10 a.m. Castle Hill, National Gallery, pastries
Fuel up on breakfast, there are plenty of options, then head to the Buda side. Don’t mind the fellow tourists you’ll have to share the Old Town with, and climb up to the Castle Hill so elegantly perched above the Danube. What used to be the Royal Palace today houses the National Gallery, with a sweeping permanent collection of local artworks.
Keep an eye out for Károly Ferenczy and the Impressionist Nagybánya art colony, the Art Nouveau paintings of József Rippl-Rónay, the colorful works of the Nyolcak, also known as the "Hungarian fauves," and to the hauntingly dark drawings of Lajos Vajda (this interview will help you prepare).
Not all locals are thrilled by all the construction works taking place in the Castle Hill: buildings destroyed by Allied bombs are now springing back to life as perfect replicas, instead of giving contemporary architecture a chance (example: the Royal Guard and Riding Halls).
Amble over to the picturesque Matthias Church and get your mandatory photo from the Fisherman’s Bastion out of the way. When the line isn’t too long, I usually drop in to Ruszwurm pastry shop for a krémes (custard cake embraced by puff pastry) or a hot chocolate; I suggest that you do, too. My favorite part of the hilltop starts here, with the quieter, winding residential streets that exude a medieval air and hide such treasures as the Tóth Árpád promenade and the quaint Úri utca.
12 p.m. Art gallery and lunch
Descend back to the city through Várfok utca, where you can take a peek inside a leading contemporary gallery, Várfok, whose roster of artists includes photographer Péter Korniss and Francois Gilot, a painter and onetime muse of Picasso. Down here is Széll Kálmán tér – “Moszkva tér” to locals who still use its Communist moniker – currently enjoying a renaissance thanks to places such as the hip Taiwanese-inflected 101 Bistro, your designated lunch spot, and next door to it, Nemdebár.
2 p.m. Parliament building and Art Nouveau architecture
Start the afternoon on Kossuth tér, outside the Hungarian Parliament building. Budapest came into its own with the creation of Austria-Hungary in 1867, when this Habsburg-controlled provincial town suddenly transformed into a capital, beside Vienna, of an immense empire (my interview with Habsburg-expert Steven Beller can help you make sense of this complicated place, which was both modern and antiquated for its time).
Along came skyrocketing economic growth, rapid urbanization, and the build-up of eye-catching architecture. The most ambitious was this bombastic Gothic Revival piece stretched along the Danube and containing 691 rooms. (They offer a 45-minute guided tour of the inside.) Behind the building, right on the riverbank, is the poignant "Shoes on the Danube" memorial to the Budapest victims of the Holocaust.
Kossuth tér’s hushed elegance ripples out to the nearby Liberty Square too, known for its strange amalgam of public sculpture, ranging from an obelisk raised to Soviet heroes to a lifesize statue of Ronald Reagan to a controversial WWII memorial. Here also hides Hungary’s most important Art Nouveau building, the Postatakerékpénztár, designed by architect Ödön Lechner.
Lechner concocted a local variant of Art Nouveau inspired by Hungarian folk art motifs and using the versatile, durable, and colorful glazed tiles made by one of the biggest Hungarian companies at the time, the Pécs-based Zsolnay (Pécs is one of the my favorite cities beside Budapest). You can get a better view of the building's striking roof from Nagysándor József utca, or with drink in hand at the rooftop bar of Hotel President, located right across from it.
4 p.m. More pastries and shopping
Hungarian pastry-making evolved from the French and Austrian traditions, but such inventive treats as the Dobos and the Esterházy torte are proof that it found its groove by the end of the 19th century. Touristy it may be, the cakes of the historic Cafe Gerbeaud on Vörösmarty tér are still a benchmark. If you have money to spare, drop in to Nanushka for women’s designer clothing and to Vass Cipő for high-end handmade men’s shoes (Vass closes at 4 p.m.).
6 p.m. Music concert at Müpa
Once the city of Liszt and Bartók, Budapest still has a thriving music scene with plenty of classical, contemporary, jazz, popular and world music concerts. There are several high-quality performance halls to choose from: Liszt Academy, The House of Music, Budapest Opera, just to name a few. If unsure, check out the event schedule of Müpa, which offers the widest array of options.
9 p.m. Dinner & drinks
For dinner, head to HILDA, a chic romantic restaurant hidden in a quiet pocket of the city center. Chef Renátó Kovács’s flavorful and beautifully crafted plates of goulash, fisherman’s soup, and inventive desserts show off the brightest side of new-wave Hungarian fare.
After dinner, walk over to Marlou, a hip wine bar with an assortment that leans toward young local producers (with 22 wine regions, Hungary is wine country). If craft beers are more your speed, consider Élesztő; for cocktails: Boutique Bar.
9 a.m. Thermal baths, breakfast
Start the day early, before the crowds reach Gellért, Budapest’s prettiest thermal bath (here’s more information on the main baths of the city). The highlights are the two Art Nouveau-decorated pools hidden deep inside, and the heated outdoor section overlooking the Buda Hills. Thermal baths can leave you drained of energy – but also feeling weightless, almost levitating – so breakfast and expertly made coffee at the nearby Kelet will be especially rewarding. On your way there, stop by the tiny bakery, Pékműhely, for some of the best breakfast pastries in the city.
12 p.m. Dohány Street Synagogue
Even if you aren’t Jewish, I recommend a visit to the Dohány Street Synagogue. This enormous temple, the biggest in Europe, harks back to the turn of the 20th century, when nearly a quarter of Budapest’s residents were Jewish. Today, the congregants number no more than a few dozen, as a reminder of the Holocaust and rising secularization (Budapest still has a sizable Jewish community; few are practicing, but Jewish culture is still palpable). The admission ticket provides access also to the Jewish Museum upstairs and the memorials ringing the building.
1:30 p.m. Farewell lunch
Crown your Budapest trip with a generous lunch at the nearby Gettó Gulyás. Besides the namesake goulash, their standout is the túrógombóc – soft cottage cheese dumplings blanketed in sour cream and powdered sugar. Don’t leave before trying a glass of Tokaji, the famous sweet wines of eastern Hungary made with a benign fungus and known as the “wine of kings.”
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