Budapest's Downtown is a long and narrow strip running north to south along the Danube River, and a roughly half-hour walk from one end to the other. The area is a melting pot of local residents, tourists, and office workers. Downtown is where most of the must-see tourist sites are including the Hungarian Parliament Building, the shoes memorial on the Danube bank, Liberty Square, St Stephen’s Basilica, and Váci Street, and also where the city's most recognized, upscale restaurants concentrate. But this doesn't mean that Downtown has no hidden corners or affordable spots that merit attention.
The medieval city wall of Pest ran along the curving boulevard near the Great Market Hall (Vámház körút), the southern part of District 5 today. Although the wall was demolished in the 18th century to give way to the city's expansion, bits and pieces have survived. For instance, if you catch the concierge in the building at 36 Magyar Street in a good mood, he will let you take a glimpse at the wall's remains inside the building's staircase.
In the late 19th century large parts of the historic downtown were effectively razed and replaced by bigger, grander buildings that better symbolized the city's elevated status in the Austro Hungarian Empire. Képíró, Magyar, Vitkovics Mihály, and Semmelweis Streets, all peaceful side streets, however, have retained an air of small-city charm amid the busy avenues.
Károlyi-kert is a treasure in the form of a private-garden-turned-public-park in southern Downtown. The residential apartments overlooking the park are some of the most expensive and sought-after on the Pest side of Budapest. In the outdoor season, stop by at Csendes Társ, a laid-back café perched at the entrance of the park serving snacks and a range of Hungarian wines. If specialty coffee is more your speed, Madal and Mantra Specialty Coffee Bar are the best options nearby. The perfect lunch spot is on the other side of the park (behind the palace whose private garden Károlyi-kert once was): Belvárosi Disznótoros. The place is an Anthony Bourdain-approved food stall that serves traditional Hungarian staples. Like a local, go for the blood or liver sausage and pair it with a dollop of mustard and a generous slice of bread.
Múzeum körút has long been known for its antique bookstores. Although specialty coffee shops are starting to replace them at an alarming pace, several are still left. Most books here are in Hungarian, but they usually have small English sections too. Their main charm is that distinct antiques store atmosphere - a safe haven from the noisy dowtown street. I'm most taken with Weöres Sándor Antikvárium (27 Múzeum körút), a hole-in-the-wall space where you often have to crane your neck to find the witty shop assistant amid mountains of books.
This part of Downtown has a diverse group of bars to satisfy a yearning for a drink. Two of Budapest's best college bars, Mélypont and Ibolya, are near each other here (they're best during the academic year though). Head to Grinzingi if you enjoy a bit of time travel and bizarrely low prices. If whiskey is your poison of choice, go for Good Spirit Bar, a swanky whiskey bar with an extensive range of top-shelf varieties.
Your dreamy stroll will come to an abrupt end when you reach Kossuth Lajos Street, a crowded, six-lane thoroughfare piercing through Downtown. Not far from here is FUGA (Budapest Center of Architecture), an architecture bookstore that doubles as an exhibition venue. They sell books in both Hungarian and English and often host classical music performances too. FUGA's quiet, serene atmosphere makes it ideal for a break from the downtown buzz.
Around the corner from FUGA is a pretty, verdant plaza flanked by pre-war buildings that often reminds people of Paris (Gerlóczy Café is a good stop for coffee). For a distinctly hipster atmosphere, proceed to the Röser interior courtyard where bearded and tattoed baristas serve excellent specialty coffee at Kontakt under a strict no-milk-in-americano policy. Across the alley from Kontakt is Szimply, a hip breakfast-all-day spot run by the same owners.
Szervita Square, a small square just off the touristed Váci Street, is a special treat for architecture buffs. Surrounding the Madonna statue is a Baroque church (#6; built in 1732), a pre-modern (#5; 1911), a Renaissance Revival (#4; 1875), a Hungarian art nouveau (#3; 1906), a Viennese Art Nouveau (#2; 1908), and a Neoclassicist (#1; built in 1820) building. Also note the enormous mosaic atop the art nouveau building (its ground floor houses one of trendiest breakfast places in town, À la Maison Grand). As positive as the currently ongoing constructions are, they won’t make up for the missed opportunity when in 2008 the city blocked Zaha Hadid’s design plans.
The epicenter of Downtown is Deák/Elizabeth Square. This is where locals often meet before they hit the neighboring bars, or, during the summer months, simply stay out here with a bottle of wine. The odd-looking hole in the ground is where Budapest's National Theater was supposed to stand before politics interfered. The area is now home to one of the largest concert venues in the city, Akvárium Klub. The graciously understated, polished limestone facade of the Ritz Carlton Hotel flanks the park; the building used to be the headquarters of the Adriatic Insurance Company during the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Budapest's (in)famous shopping avenue, Váci Street, pierces through the heart of Downtown. Although its reputation has somewhat improved, it's still known for tourist-trap restaurants, tchotchke vendors, and overpriced folk art gift shops. Think of it as the La Rambla of Budapest. Both gastronomically and commercially, Budapest offers more than Váci Street so I recommend not to spend much time or money here.
Váci Street is home to Café Gerbeaud, an iconic café/pastry from 1858. Pop in to see its gilded interior complete with crystal chandeliers, marble-topped tables, and cherrywood paneling that evoke the city's rich coffee culture of the turn of the 20th century (in the side of the Gerbeaud building is Budapest's only two Michelin-starred restaurant, Onyx run by the same owners). But don't go searching for locals here. They've been long ago priced out of both Gerbeaud and the neighborhood in general. Right outside Gerbeaud is a subway stop of The Millennium Underground of Budapest, the first subway line on the European continent and currently a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Another overpriced but iconic venue is the café and bar of the Four Seasons Hotel (Kollázs Brasserie & Bar). The monumental art nouveau building from 1906 was built for the London-based Gresham Life Assurance Company. Be sure to enter through the main entrance from Széchenyi István Square to appreciate the glass-roofed, royal-looking lobby. If you enjoy similar high-end places, a couple of minutes from here is High Note Skybar, a rooftop bar offering sweeping views of the city.
Not surprisingly, Budapest’s fine dining restaurants concentrate near the Four Seasons Hotel. Borkonyha is a Michelin-starred bistro with a reasonably laid back atmosphere and an extensive Hungarian wine selection. Costes Downtown, also donning a Michelin star, is a more formal option with classic French fine dining fare. MAK Bistro brings a locavore approach to Hungarian fine dining with fish and vegetable heavy dishes, and a strong wine game.
Don't worry, there do exist more relaxed and cheaper restaurants too around here. Your best bet is the nearby Hold Street Market Hall, where leading Hungarian chefs serve wallet-friendly meals from food stalls. The best ones are Stand25 Bistro, Séf utcája, and Buja Disznó(K). The best sit-down restaurant for traditional Hungarian food is Café Kör. Downtown's undisputed mecca of specialty coffee is Espresso Embassy, a hipster wonderland.
Nádor Street has long been known as a dull, uneventful side street inside Budapest's tiny financial district. This reputation is due for a change as several restaurants have crept up here to meet the culinary needs of an increasing number of tourists, and international students from the nearby Central European University. Börze and HILDA are both instragram-ready, trendy places with above-average food offerings, including breakfast.
The area around the grand Liberty Square (Szabadság Tér) and the Parliament Building is a government and financial district. Politicians, finance people, and tourists run around these stately streets during the day; come nighttime, they get eerily deserted. North of the Parliament is Budapest's "antique row," dotted with art galleries and high-end antique stores along Falk Miksa Street.
District 5 offers a couple of reliable clubs for those looking to go dancing. Ötkert draws an international crowd, while Bob is swanky venue for moneyed, 35+ locals. To party with hip/alternative locals, visit Toldi, where a movie theater's entry hall transforms into an atmospheric club with electronic beats. For a real local experience, check out Hunnia, a grungy underground bar where middle-aged intellectuals wax nostalgic during live concerts.