When it comes to food, drinks, and art, leafy and residential Buda is hardly comparable to the bustling Pest. In fact, until recently, it was difficult to find any neighborhood there that would even remotely resemble the lively parts of Pest on the other side of the Danube. Many locals don't mind this at all, preferring Buda's quiet streets to the tourist-packed Party District.
But over the last decade or so, art galleries, cafés, and bars have been springing up in the area around Bartók Béla Boulevard in District 11, also known as Újbuda. The transformation of the neighborhood is the result of systematic urban planning and local zoning laws that attract cultural institutions to the neighborhood with below-market rents.
The most scenic way to reach Bartók Béla Boulevard from Pest is through Liberty Bridge. Those with extra energy can hike all the way up to the Liberty Statue perched atop Gellért Hill with sweeping 360 views of Budapest. Take Verejték Street, setting off by the side of the faded-yet-grand Gellért Hotel (with the Gellért Thermal Bath, a tourist favorite, in the side of the building) and work your way up on this quieter side of Gellért Hill.
About halfway through the climb, after a short but steep ascend, your reward will be an expansive meadow offering pretty vistas and some quirky statues. The one that always gets me is the bronze “Budapest girl,” who snubs Buda by fixing her intense gaze toward the Pest side. A little further uphill is the cute "Girl with a young foal." Both of these artworks are playful and refreshingly non-dogmatic for their time and political environment in 1965.
Back on Bartók Béla Boulevard, start your journey by visiting the Contemporary Architecture Center and see if they have any temporary exhibits of interest. Across the street from it are two well-known contemporary art galleries, Godot and Faur Zsófi Galéria. They both represent leading Hungarian painters and photographers.
Some of the most delicious pastries in Budapest come from Pékműhely 2, so be sure to visit this shoe-sized place with a nondescript entry (#15/b). While you can't go wrong with anything here, I enjoy most the kakós csiga (chocolate-filled roll) and túrós táska (pastry filled with sweet cottage cheese and flavored with ginger for a slight kick).
Two of the best places for coffee, drinks, or snacks are Kelet Café and Béla. Kelet was one of the first places to spur Buda’s nascent rebirth. Books line the walls of this cozy space which usually fills to capacity with a mixed group of locals. Béla, a few doors down from Kelet, is a slightly more hip and similarly popular bar. Also nearby is La Nube, a tapas bar run by a Hungarian-Spanish couple that will transport you to a Madrid side street.
Parallel to Bartók toward the river lies the imposing campus of the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, stretching along the Danube's bank. With over 20,000 students and an acclaimed reputation, it's one of Hungary's most important academic institutions. It's worth roaming its leafy campus and visiting at least three of its notable buildings. The most recognizable is the enormous central "K" building (1909), designed by Alajos Hauszmann, the university's own professor (the best view is actually from the Pest side). Try also to get a sneak peek at the library's impressive Gothic Revival reading room ("Kö" building). Finally, architecture buffs might enjoy seeing a socialist realist building ("R"), which was the communist state-imposed architeture style of the mid-1950s. (See a full list of Budapest's best buildings.)
After you've discovered the campus, try Stoczek canteen for a stereotypical cafeteria lunch surrounded by students and academic staff. Across the campus are two adorable "mom and pop" designer stores run by local artists. Fiók for Graphics sells cute stationery, while Repertory specializes in jewelry and clothing.
For drinks, head back to Bartók Béla Boulevard, which has several good options. Szatyor is the most popular bar in the neighborhood. It looks like the ruin bars in the Jewish Quarter but it's a bit more upscale in terms of food options, interior, and the crowd, too. Gdansk Bookstore Café attracts the city's Polish community and bohemian intellectuals from nearby. Craft beer fans should settle in to KEG Sörművház for hop-forward IPAs made by local breweries. At Tinta Art Café, many nights of the week you can find resident DJs spinning electronic tracks (see their schedule).
For obvious reasons, penniless students from the Budapest University of Technology prefer the dirt-cheap, and perhaps a bit seedy drinking joints off Bartók Béla Boulevard. Two that I can safely recommend and I also enjoy are Borpatika and Libella. They're bizarrely cheap, and in addition to students, they also draw retired neighborhood regulars with a fondness for alcohol.
Not far from Bartók on the Danube River docks the impossibly cool A38. It's a repurposed Ukrainian stone-carrier ship from 1968 and today one of the main concert venues of the city. They have live shows almost every night of the week - be sure to check their schedule, you might find something of interest.