#1 - Where east meets west: Geographically and culturally, Budapest is at the border of Western and Eastern Europe. Over the centuries, Budapest was subjugated by Ottoman Turks, the Austrian Habsburg Empire, and the Soviet Union, and each of these powers left distinctive marks on the city. Not only on how it looks, but also its inhabitants. Are you looking for a clean, disciplined, orderly, well-functioning city? Or an exciting, unpredictable, loud, gritty urban center with an edge? You will find them both here.
#2 - Naturally beautiful: By all objective measures, Budapest is shockingly pretty. Divided by the Danube River, Buda sits majestically on top of hilly greeneries that were once the eastern bastion of the Roman Empire. The hot-springs-rich Gellért Hill and the medieval Castle District, parts of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites, graciously look down at the flatlands of Pest, which is boiling with energy. In-between is Margaret Island, a leafy weekend hangout for locals.
#3 - Unique local population: Flanked by Germanic and Slavic populations in most neighboring countries, Hungarians are an outlier with a unique language and Asiatic ancestry. The local population today is of course a breed of all sorts, bearing Germanic, Slavic, Turkish, Romanian, and Jewish cultural and ethnic marks adopted over the centuries. Hungarians can seem to shut themselves down from talking to visitors, more so than locals in other countries. Perhaps this is due to the unique Hungarian language that renders it difficult to communicate with non-Hungarians.
#4 - Unhurried lifestyle: The slower, laid-back, relaxed lifestyle that characterizes Balkan cities like Belgrade has left a welcome mark in Budapest too (part of it also stems from communism, when the absence of economic incentives created an unrushed pace to life). This is best enjoyed during the warm weather months - come summertime, a specific energy absorbs Budapest. Cafés and restaurants take over sidewalks and the nightlife buzz, often enhanced by live music, lasts into the wee hours.
#5 - Monumental architecture: Few cities in Europe have the grand, consistent, systematically-designed architecture of Budapest. Most of these former mansions, palaces, and apartment buildings were erected during Budapest’s golden era of Empire-building (1867-1918). They encapsulate the leading architectural styles of the era from historicism to art nouveau, art deco, and early modernism. Buildings were left to decay during communism, but the elaborate details behind the sooty, gritty façades lend a bizarre war-torn elegance to them.
#6 - Rich Jewish heritage: Around the turn of the 20th century more than 200 thousand Jews lived in Budapest (23% of the city’s population). The tragic events of the holocaust brought a sad ending to Jewish life in Hungary, but Budapest Jews left an enormous impact on the capital's industrial, cultural, and urban development (Europe's largest synagogue is in Budapest). Many of the country’s best-known scientists and artists were Hungarian Jews, including Eugene Wigner, Robert Capa, Andre Kertesz, Marcel Breuer, and László Moholy-Nagy. Unfortunately for Hungary, plenty of them left the country and never returned when anti-Semitism was on the rise.
#7 - Thriving food scene: Since 2010 or so, there has been a restaurant boom in Budapest. New ingredients, inventive recipes, and international dishes are entering the mainstream that was previously dominated by carbs- and meat-heavy Hungarian staples like beef stew. Four Michelin-starred restaurants in Budapest (more than in Prague and Warsaw) are proof of this development. But those looking to taste Hungarian food, be it traditional or with a modern twist, have plenty to choose from too.
#8 - Interesting museums: The city has a fascinating offering of fine art, and Budapest-specific thematic museums. One can just as easily find famous paintings by the international masters of pop art (Ludwig Museum) as learn about a famous Hungarian liquor producing family business that caught the attention of the Habsburg Emperor (Zwack Unicum Museum). Two poignantly moving museums (House of Terror and the Holocaust Memorial Center) portray the darkest periods of Hungary’s recent history.
#9 - Margaret Island: Few cities can boast of an island, let alone a car-free and green one, in the center of their towns. Budapest's 2.8km long (1.7 mile) Margaret Island is a gift of nature. This small piece of land enclosed by the Danube river was home to various monastic orders during medieval times, later the Ottomans set up a harem here, and in the 19th century members of the royal Habsburg family used it as a private resort. The island was finally opened to the public in 1908, and today it's a popular destination among locals for picnics and taking long strolls/bike rides through scenic parks, massive sycamore trees, and medieval ruins. The 5.3 km (3.3 mile) running track stretching around the island is packed with locals on weekends.
#10 - Diverse nightlife: Probably you've already read about the ruin bar scene of Budapest. Aside from being a genius idea, ruin bars are fun, cool places (just watch out for the ruin bar copycats). But what makes nightlife unique in Budapest is the depth and breadth of options. Within a less than 1 mile radius, hardcore punk, electronic, indie, hip-hop, and popular music fans alike can find bars and clubs catering to their particular tastes.
#11 - Cheap: Budapest is cheap. In most other cities tourists would need to shell out way more for the quality of food, drinks, and accommodation offered here. Prices are certainly on the rise, much to the frustration of the local population (average after-tax annual salary is only c. EUR10,000), but for foreigners they are still a bargain.
#12 - Clean & Safe: Compared to most European capitals, Budapest is safe and clean. When walking around downtown districts, even at night, you don't need to worry about looking behind your shoulder. The outer parts of districts 6-9 (beyond the Grand Boulevard) are generally poorer and become eerily quiet at night, but those too are safe. As for cleanliness, the formula is simple enough: plenty of sidewalk trash cans and garbage collectors make Budapest’s streets litter-free.
#13 - Excellent Public Transportation: One of the heritages of over four decades of communism is that people come to expect the state to act as a surrogate mother. When it came transportation, since few people had cars at the time, locals relied on buses, trams, trolleys, and subways, which cost close to nothing. To this day, Budapest has exceptional public transport coverage across the city. And it's still cheap too.
Visitors to Budapest usually don’t venture past the tourist sites of Gellért and the Castle Hill in Buda, and the center of downtown in Pest (District 5). This is a shame because Budapest has more to offer than impeccably-renovated old buildings, “traditional goulash”-oriented restaurants, and souvenir shops.
Similar to other big cities, some parts of Budapest have been radically transformed due to the inflow of mass tourism. Many formerly residential neighborhoods have lost their original functions and inhabitants. Today visitors mostly go to Váci, Király, Zrínyi, and Október 6. Streets, and Szent István and Vörösmarty Squares, areas filled with stores and dining establishments that cater to their tastes. Generally the service sector in these locations consists of reputable providers, however, they tend to be overpriced and rarely frequented by ordinary Hungarians. It's worth venturing out into the wider city for a more authentic view of everyday life. Read on to learn more about lesser known neighborhoods, some of which are filled with hidden treasures.
Historically Budapest was two cities, Buda and Pest, divided by the Danube river until their unification in 1873 (the union also included Óbuda, a small Danubian village just north of Buda). The hilly Buda is regarded as peaceful, residential, and prosperous, whereas Pest is thought of as the side of the city that never sleeps. With a large working class, gritty, shabby-chic streets, a vibrant cultural scene, and pulsating nightlife, Pest teems with energy. Recently Pest has begun to be associated with international symbols of luxury. For example The Ritz-Carlton, the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace, a branch of Nobu, the high-end Japanese restaurant, several Michelin-starred restaurants, and a shopping district with high-end boutiques on Andrássy Avenue.
District 5 (Downtown, all District 5 map info): A melting pot of local residents, tourists, and government employees, Downtown has it all. Aside from the must-see tourist sites, the best parts here are the peaceful side streets tucked away within the heart of this buzzing city. Take a walk down Vitkovics Mihály, Semmelweis, Magyar, and Képíró Streets, which retain an air of charm and serenity. Károlyi-kert is the ultimate treasure, a private-garden-turned-public-park in the heart of it all. Kontakt, Fahéj, Csendes Társ (note: only open April to October), and Zoska are all inviting places to stop by for coffee or drinks along this route.
The northern part of Downtown, the area around Szabadság Tér (Liberty Square) and the Parliament, is a government and financial district. Politicians, finance people, and tourists run around these stately streets during the day (try Farger café). Come nighttime, they get eerily deserted.
District 6 (Terézváros, all District 6 map info): An awe-inspiring UNESCO World Heritage boulevard (Andrássy) pierces through a largely working class neighborhood here. The side streets further away from Andrássy comprise an underdeveloped neighborhood, where the unkempt condition of the otherwise grand housing stock illustrates the level of decay most buildings in Budapest reached at the end of the communist period.
For the best experience, take a walk down the stately Andrássy Avenue towards Hősök tere (Heroes’ Square) and Városliget (City Park), which passes the Opera House, the House of Terror, and terminates near Széchenyi Thermal Bath. After you've explored the last section of Andrássy with villas on both sides of the street (today many are home to foreign embassies), venture out to Benczúr and Bajza Streets. Here you can breathe in the neighborhood's serene grandiosity, which was home to the nouveau riche at the turn of the 20th century.
Make sure to pass by Epreskert, an exotic artists' colony from the 19th century. This mysterious park functions as a training ground for students at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts, as indicated by countless half-finished statues laying around the lawn (check at the entrance, Epreskert is open to the public during art exhibitions). Café Zsivágó, Pótkulcs, and Pántlika (from April to September) are good options for drinks along the way, as is La Perle Noire for an elaborate lunch.
District 7 (Erzsébetváros): The inner part of District 7 is also known as the Jewish Quarter because an increasing number of Jews migrated to Budapest and settled here since the 18th century. In 1867 Jews gained civic and legal equality in Hungary, sooner than in most neighboring countries. In 1944 the Nazis and Hungarian fascists turned the area into a ghetto and sent many of the inhabitants to concentration camps. A period of deterioration and hardscrabble life followed during communism - residents moved out en masse to better neighborhoods, leaving the housing stock in decay.
Today, these same streets and dilapidated buildings are home to revitalized Hungarian culture: bristling with art galleries, shops, bars (including the world famous ruin bar, Szimpla Kert), cafés, and restaurants. This region of District 7 has become an epicenter of nighttime activity, particularly the area in and around Gozsdu Udvar, a passage teeming with popular bars and restaurants. The outer part of District 7 beyond the Nagykörút (Grand Boulevard) is the polar opposite of the Jewish Quarter - a sleepy working class neighborhood.
District 8 (Józsefváros, all District 8 map info): As locals escape the increasingly boisterous nightlife of the Jewish Quarter in District 7, Józsefváros is becoming the new-cool part of Pest. The area closest to downtown, around the National Museum, is known as the Palace District, because in the 19th century the wealthy nobility from the countryside, attracted by the increasingly buoyant political life in Pest, built extravagant mansions here. Of these buildings, three of the most impressive are directly behind the National Museum. Additionally, it’s worth taking a walk down Bródy Sándor, Horánszky, and Múzeum Streets as well to enjoy the architecture.
Both the café inside the Szabó Ervin Library and Építészpince offer a unique chance to go inside these marvelous buildings. A favorite café here is the charming Bisztrónyúl. For lunch, try Al Dente's authentic Italian food, or Fecske for a quick bite to eat. For evening activities, Padron, a cute family-run Spanish tapas place, is unlikely to disappoint, followed by drinks at Lumen, a popular bar for local artists.
The Nagykörút (Grand Boulevard) divides the inner city from outer Pest. While many guide books focus on destinations within the inner city, it’s well worth venturing into the wider outer city to see where the majority of residents live.
The outer part of District 8, known to some as the Harlem of Budapest, is inhabited by an eclectic group of people, including many low-income residents. The area in and around Népszínház Street in particular has been for decades the home of immigrants and various ethnic minorities, including the Roma, Turks, Arabs, and Africans. Its chaotic, lively (and littered) streets, diverse local population, and small businesses that cater to the local population (including a Persian and a Turkish grocery store, and a Nigerian barber shop) offer an unexpected glimpse of the colorful Budapest which even some locals are unaware of. The best places for coffee around here are Műterem Kávézó and Csiga Café. For drinks, try Kék Ló, Hintaló Iszoda, or Macska. If you're in the mood for more rebellious types, make your way to Auróra, Gólya, or Zsiga bár.
District 9 (Ferencváros, all District 9 map info): Although at first glance it doesn't have the lively atmosphere of District 7 or the grand architecture of District 8, it would be a mistake to dismiss Ferencváros off the cuff. The area is a strange blend of college students, office workers, and elderly working-class residents. The best kept secret here is the spacious promenade running along the Danube with sweeping views of the river and the Buda hills, which are particularly beautiful at sunset.
Take a stroll from the Great Market Hall all the way to Ludwig Museum, the city's main outlet for contemporary international and Hungarian artworks. You will pass by the CET Building, a giant cultural and commercial space consisting of a set of gracefully restored warehouses and a whale-shaped steel-and-glass modern wing inserted in-between. Further down you will note the modern office buildings at the side of the promenade with international companies' logos adorning their shiny facades: these are the engines behind the district's transformation.
Two museums are worth taking a detour for. The Holocaust Memorial Center is a most informative and deeply moving exhibit on Jewish life and the holocaust in Hungary. Opened in 2004 and attached to an old synagogue, the memorial is a distinctively 21st century interactive venue. The Zwack Museum portrays the tumultuous history of the nation's most famous liquor maker, producing their famous herb-infused digestiv since 1790. Don't leave Ferencváros before popping in to Jedermann, the all-purpose jazz-infused bistro, and Élesztő, a lively beerpub serving 21 types of Hungarian craft beers.
District 13 (Újlipótváros, all Újlipótváros map info): The near side of District 13 is the best kept secret in Budapest. It is generally under the radar among tourists, despite being one of the most unique parts of Budapest, a kind of city within the city. Architecturally this neighborhood is strikingly different from the rest of the city’s mainly late 19th century revivalist constructions, instead featuring rows of modernist buildings. The houses surrounding Szent István Park, the epicenter of Újlipótváros, are considered to be the crown jewels of modernist Hungarian architecture, and with views onto the Danube, they command correspondingly steep price tags.
The local population is mainly comprised of middle class intellectuals and young families who bring a spirit of liveliness to the streets. The center of activity is along Pozsonyi út, which is filled with neighborhood restaurants and cafés. When you're in Újlipótváros, have a breakfast/coffee at Sarki fűszeres or Kino Cafe Mozi, and for lunch, check out Tera Magyar Konyhája or Oriental Soup House.
District 14 (Herminamező, Istvánmező, all District 14 map info): Some of Pest's most stunning villas are located in the peaceful, green sections surrounding the City Park. Just a subway line from the city center (take the Millennium Underground/M1 to Mexikói út), the serene environment seems a world away from the buzz of Deák Square. The cool air and quiet elegance attracted the wealthy bourgeois and aristocracy in the late 19th century to escape downtown's heat waves and find refuge in stately renaissance revival and art nouveau buildings.
Besides residential homes, several charity institutes, like the National Institute for Blinds, are also here. Many were designed by the most prominent architects of the time (see Béla Lajta's building that now houses the school for children with disabilities at Mexikói út 60). The prettiest are Amerikai, Mexikói, and Hermina Roads, as well as Jávor, Stefánia, and Izsó Streets.
During the good weather months Pántlika Bistro is a reliable, all-purpose outdoor beer garden, as is Dürer Kert, with a younger crowd and grittier surrounding.
Similar to other urban centers, Budapest is experiencing gentrification, albeit at a slower pace because the vast majority of citizens own their apartment residencies. What follows is that neighborhoods take much longer to transform, unlike in cities where renting is more prevalent. Nonetheless, an increasing number of young, middle-class professionals have been attracted to the buzz of the Jewish Quarter and to the fading grandeur of the inner parts of District 8.
There isn’t any one neighborhood in Budapest that's categorically fancy or elite. This is because of large-scale forced reshuffling of people during communism into, out of, and within Budapest. To this day most downtown neighborhoods have a mixed local community where lower-income and wealthy people often live in the same building. Nonetheless, Buda, with its greenery and residential neighborhoods (particularly some parts of District 2 and District 12), is considered an elite area, and sections of Downtown (District 5) and Andrássy Avenue in Pest are also prestigious.
Traditional Hungarian cuisine tends to be dominated by soup and meat. This is a reflection of the country’s nomadic past (goulash means herdsman, named after the people who used to eat it) and close history with its neighbors. Hungarian food is based on the French culinary traditions with Austrian (schnitzel), Ottoman/Balkan (stuffed cabbage), and Transylvanian (kürtőskalács) influences.
Bear in mind, as you screen for seafood on the menu, that Hungary is a landlocked country. It does not mean that you can't find outstanding grilled shrimp cocktails these days, but dishes with freshwater fish, like common carp, catfish, or perch, are more prevalent.
If you'd like to try the best of traditional, old-school Hungarian cooking, then Café Kör, Menza, or Belvárosi Disznótoros is your spot.
Over the last five years nothing short of a gastronomical revolution has been initiated in Hungary, particularly in Budapest. Although we still love goulash and chicken paprikash, healthier food and smaller portions are becoming more widespread. "New-wave" restaurants generally blend traditional flavors with contemporary international culinary techniques, using fresh local ingredients which were once impossible to find but are now more readily available. To experience the best of modern Hungarian cuisine, try Borkonyha, Olimpia, or Zeller Bistro.
4 Michelin-starred restaurants operate in Budapest (more than in each of Prague and Warsaw). If you fancy such a decorated establishment, the ones in Budapest will likely be among the most wallet-friendly options. My favorites are Borkonyha and Costes Downtown because of the relatively laid-back atmosphere, but the other two (Costes and Onyx) each offer their own unique gastronomic experience as well. Additionally, Budapest has 3 restaurants with Bib Gourmands, a Michelin award provided for exceptional food at moderate prices: Petrus, Laci! Konyha!, and Fricska Gastropub.
As for Gault Millau, in 2017 they rated a total of 15 restaurants in Budapest with 15 points or above.
Italians have their osterias, the French their brasseries. In Hungary, no-frills eateries whose main purpose is to fill your stomach with familiar flavors at affordable prices are called "étkezde". They belong to a bygone communist era, and many trendy people avoid them like the plague. Nevertheless, a few of the best étkezde have managed to survive amid a stampede of new restaurant openings.
To evoke the experience of dining in socialist Hungary, Kádár Étkezde, Városház Snack, and Öcsi étkezde each retain the atmosphere and general food offerings of that epoch. If you'd like to continue along this theme with drinks, visit Bambi Eszpresszó, or, for adventure seekers, go to Wichmann or Villányi Borozó.
The international food scene in Budapest is dominated by cheap, low-quality gyro joints. The expansion of these self-service/take-out type of eateries across the city appears to be unstoppable, but you will do yourself a favor by not visiting any of these (the notable exception being Gyros Kerkyra).
On the higher end of the international food scene, there's a growing group of restaurants which work to meet the standards of serious gastronomes. Italian places are most prevalent (my favorites are Pomo D'oro, Al Dente, and Krizia), followed by Japanese (Komachi), Vietnamese (Dang Muoi, Hanoi Pho), Thai (Tom Yum, Bangkok Thai), Slavic/Balkan (Montenegrói Gurman, PolaPola), Spanish (Padron), and Indian (Indigo, Shalimar) flavors.
The Chinese gastro scene is deceiving because the city is full of uninviting but economical buffet-style Chinese restaurants. These places offer prix fixe lunches of questionable sanitary conditions for the equivalent of €2. Ironically, the food at these places is often adjusted to meet local preferences by adding hot paprika to the flavoring. There do exist, however, exceptional Chinese restaurants located in unexpected parts of the city, including Wang Mester Kínai Konyhája, and Taiwan Étterem.
Just recently there was a conspicuous absence of unpretentious cafés, restaurants, and bars with inviting interiors and quality food in Budapest. In the past 5-10 years this has begun to change. A number of new places have opened to fill this void, and many of which you can find reviewed on this site. While they're a positive and welcome change, I often wish their aesthetics would have more character and reflect our local environment rather than resembling places in other parts of the world. My favorites that stand out as truly authentic and unique to Budapest include Jedermann, Kisüzem, Café Kör, Belvárosi Disznótoros, and Brody Studios.
Food trucks and carts have steadily begun to emerge on the streets of Budapest. Being clean, using quality ingredients, and taking their time to prepare the food, they tend to be a bit more upscale than one may have previously experienced, but aren't meaningfully cheaper than regular restaurants.
The upper deck of the Hold Street market hall features a plethora of options for a tasty lunch. I recommend particularly Séf utcája and Buja Disznó(k). These eateries are run in a self-service manner by some of the notable chefs in Budapest (e.g. Lajos Bíró). Additionally, the market hall itself, a recently renovated 19th century steel structure erected during the "glorious days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire", is worth a visit.
For those unable to rid themselves of the urge to visit a fast food chain while here, make sure it's the McDonald's located inside the stately 19th century train station built by the Eiffel Company - yepp, the same Eiffel who built the tower. Little of the marble pilasters, oversized windows, and ornate ceiling decorations will evoke the experience that's normally associated with cheeseburgers and french fries.
In parallel with a burgeoning food culture, Hungarian wine-making has experienced a revival in the post-communist era (since the 1990s). Despite its relatively small geographic size, globally Hungary ranks as the 15th largest wine producer, with 22 unique wine regions. Sweet wines from the Tokaj region are the most well known outside of the country, possibly you are already familiar with them. Tokaji wines can boast about several high-profile fans over the centuries, including Louis XIV and Thomas Jefferson (Tokaji Aszu was the most expensive wine Jefferson ever bought). However, there are a host of high-quality alternatives to Tokaji, in both red and white varieties.
At Kadarka Bar and DiVino, wine bars in central Budapest, you can sample over 140 types of Hungarian wine.
Besides Tokaj, the southern Villány wine region is the most popular within the country, followed by Eger. Fine wines are also produced at smaller vineyards in Szekszárd, Badacsony and the Northern Balaton region. If you want to try something local, Furmint and Hárslevelű (white), and Kadarka (red) are made from grapes indigenous to Hungary.
In restaurants, bottles of Hungarian wine in the range of €13-17 (HUF4,000-5,000) are unlikely to leave you disappointed, and most wines above €17 are considered high quality vintages.
Wine may hold a special place within the heart of Hungarians, but several fledgling microbreweries are working to give it a run for its title by producing craft beers that may change local preferences. Élesztő and Jónás Craft Beer House, brewpubs located in District 9, are both inviting place to sample (largely Hungarian) craft beers served on draft.
If you're looking for something of a stronger vein, give Unicum a try. Typically drunk as a digestif or apéritif, Unicum is a herbal liquor made from a secret formula containing more than forty types of herbs. Initially prepared for the Habsburg Emperor in an effort to aid his digestive problems, the company was created in 1790. Presently the company is again owned by ancestors of the original founders (the Zwack family) after a tumultuous ownership history during communism. There is a Zwack Museum and the Unicum production plant in Budapest if you are interested in visiting. You can read more about the family’s fascinating history here.
The other national drink in Hungary (aside from Unicum) is pálinka. A fruit brandy made from plum, apricot, pear, or cherry, pálinka production dates back to the Middle Ages. First time users beware, this concoction can knock you off your feet before you know it, particularly home-made varieties.
In Hungary it's customary to eat breakfast within the warmth of the family home. However, this tradition has been eroded by increasing number of foreigners and tourists. These days in Budapest you can find several options for a croque-monsieur to start your day. Here is a list of casual, no-frills cafés with outstanding breakfast. If you're looking for a trendier venue, try one of these.
Prix fixe lunches are available in many restaurants (on weekdays) at a reasonable price, usually ranging between €5-7. Before choosing à la carte, it's worth inquiring about a set meal.
Free water and free refills are unknown concepts in Budapest (and in greater Hungary). In restaurants you should specifically ask your server for tap water (to which the likely reaction is annoyance), otherwise they will serve you and charge for bottled water.
Please mentally prepare yourself for potentially disappointing customer service in Budapest. Waitstaff with an attitude is a general Eastern European phenomenon and, while things have somewhat improved, Hungary is a severe case.
As for tipping, 10% is the standard and expected in Hungarian restaurants and bars, with up to 20% for exceptional service. Please note that lately some places have begun to add an automatic service charge (in the range of 10-15%) to the bill.
A word to the wise: as many cafés, restaurants, and bars are cash-only establishments, it’s generally a good idea to carry money with you.
Ruin bars in Budapest
Central to Budapest culture, romkocsma (trans. ruin bars) is now a commonplace phenomenon with a robust presence within the city’s nightlife. Any visitor to Budapest should get familiar with the “ruin bar” concept. Ruin bars first emerged in the early 2000’s as places offering dirt cheap drinks inside the open-air courtyards of pre-war dilapidated buildings. They are primarily found within the historical Jewish Quarter (inner part of District 7), as this area was a fertile ground of abandonment and desolation, lingering from the 1944 Nazi forceful removal of Hungarian Jews and subsequent decline of the neighborhood.
As the romkocsma phenomenon gradually grew in popularity, individual owners responded by filling their spaces with second-hand furniture to accommodate an increasing number of guests. This resulted in a family of eclectic interiors, where nothing matches but everything belongs. Although ruin bars have both detractors and potential downsides (for example increased noise levels and littering are sources of frustration for people who live in close proximity), they have carved out a highly successful niche within Budapest. Alternatively, ruin bars can benefit neighborhoods by putting old, often unused buildings back to use and revitalizing neighborhoods with an influx of young people.
Szimpla Kert was a pioneer of Budapest’s ruin bar scene as we know it today. Opened in 2004 by a group of college students, it’s founding philosophy remains constant: to provide an open space of freedom for anyone and everyone to enjoy. Today Szimpla Kert hardly resembles the modest bar of its infancy, now it's one of Budapest’s key tourist attractions and draws large crowds of visitors. During peak hours, the crowd consists almost entirely of tourists, nonetheless it's worth a visit. Szimpla Kert is exemplary of Budapest’s nascent rebirth - entrepreneurship by local citizens, re-use of existing abandoned infrastructure, and creation of open spaces to foster local community and economic opportunity alike.
One note of caution: don’t be the one who is fooled by ruin bar copycats. As with any naturally occurring alternative scene, sanitized, less gritty options have steadily flowered as the charm of ruin bars spreads deeper into to the mainstream culture. Trust your instincts: if the ruined look and mixed furniture aesthetic feels too perfect, you'll know that it's time to move on.
Airbnb has a plethora of lodging options in Budapest. Attractive deals abound on all end of the spectrum, but it's particularly convenient for finding relatively cheap, centrally located accommodation. To pick the neighborhood that best fits your needs, see an overview here. For less price sensitive visitors who prefer the comforts of a hotel, there're plenty, almost too many, to choose from. Historical grandiosity, contemporary design, panoramic vista, fine dining, and rooftop pool are just some of the features available. Below is a selection of hotels that offer the best value for money in their respective categories.
Gresham Palace Four Seasons (Széchenyi István tér 5-6, 1051; from 350 euros): Hands down the most glamorous hotel in the city, standing tall in a category of its own. The building, a grand art nouveau construction from the glory days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is a straight-line extension of the venerable Chain Bridge, which means that the front-facing rooms have sweeping views of the Castle Hill and the Danube. Inside, there're plenty of details to marvel at. The royal-looking lobby with multicolored Zsolnay tiles, a glass-roofed arcade, and elaborate stained-glass windows in stately staircases. The celebrity-studded guest list often includes A-list Hollywood actors in town for shooting. Kollázs, the brasserie and cocktail bar on the ground floor, is an appropriate match to the hotel.
Hotel Rum (Királyi Pál u. 4, 1053; from 120 euros): This 38-room chic boutique hotel is what happens when gifted interior designers obtain a generous budget. The 19th century building of Hotel Rum nestles on a surprisingly quaint downtown square next to the stately law school that breeds the Hungarian political elite. The meticulous interior is a far cry from the 19th century, showing instead an amalgamation of contemporary international styles. The moment of truth will come here when the rooftop bar with a panoramic vista opens in summer 2017. All this for little over 100 euros a night.
The Ritz-Carlton, Budapest (Erzsébet tér 9, 1051; from 300 euros): Built in 1913, the polished limestone covered building graciously looking over the city’s main square is unique even within Budapest’s rich architectural traditions by bearing art nouveau, art deco and early modernist marks. Sparing no expense, the building was meticulously refurbished inside and out in 2016. The result is a breathtaking combination of “old-world” monumentality and a luxurious, but not tacky contemporary design with grey and pale blue highlights. Inspired by the op-art works of Hungarian-French Victor Vasarely, each room is decorated with Hungarian contemporary paintings. Long list of amenities include an indoor rooftop swimming pool beneath a glittering glass roof, a bistro-type restaurants serving a range of Hungarian staples (Deák St. Kitchen), and a champagne bar.
Kempinski Hotel Corvinus Budapest (Erzsébet tér 7, 1051; from 200 euros): The sum of the parts makes this 316-room luxury hotel in the heart of downtown the right pick. The distinctive post-modern building from 1992 evokes strong feelings on both ends of the spectrum, but there's little debate about the stunning street-views from the spa and the all-around first-class service so rare in Hungary. Cherry on top is the full-blown gastro scenery on the ground floor: a Nobu (the only one in Hungary), a laid-back bistro with Hungarian staples (ÉS Bisztró), and a snug "Living Room" café await deep-pocketed guests.
Iberostar (Október 6. u. 26, 1051; from 190 euros): The 2009 reconstruction of this building was the last project of Péter Reimholz, one of Hungary's influential architects. The result is an eye-catching copper-clad extension atop the 19th century white stucco facade. Inside is a Spanish-designed 50-room boutique hotel that comes with five-stars and the most spacious rooms you will find in the city. Halfway between the Parliament and St. Stephen's Basilica, it's located right along the main tourist paths. For the best experience, ask for a room overlooking the imposing Liberty Square and soak yourself in the dim-lit, mosaic-tiled hot tub in the spa room.
Casati Budapest Hotel (Paulay Ede u. 31, 1061; from 130 euros): It's tough to beat the location of this 25-room boutique hotel on the borderland between the boisterous District 7 dotted with ruin bars, and the upscale Andrássy Avenue and the Opera House, both just a stone's throw away. Inside, the carefully refurbished 18th century building with an ivy-covered courtyard mingles with contemporary design. The Hungarian artwork adorning each of the rooms is more hit than miss. For a nightcap, visit the Shanghai-themed cocktail bar, Tuk Tuk, on the ground floor.
Bohem Art Hotel (Molnár u. 35, 1056; from 140 euros): Central location and peaceful serenity rarely go hand in hand. Yet this is the case in this downtown 60-room boutique hotel, sitting on a narrow side street exactly a block away from both the bank of the Danube and the Great Market Hall. Museum-worthy contemporary paintings by local artists set the tone of the rooms, and hammer home the bohemian flair perhaps a bit too didactically. Rooms are tiny, the breakfast is royal and generous.
You will not find in Budapest the monumental fine art museums with all-encompassing international collections like the MoMA in New York, or the British Museum in London (the Museum of Fine Arts comes closest, but it is currently closed for renovation until 2018). What Budapest does have, however, is a rich, and impossibly turbulent history, which makes for a wealth of museum-worthy materials. Just consider the city’s past 150 years or so that included a national revolution, a golden era of empire-building, a holocaust, and over four decades of communism (and another revolution in 1956).
For visual arts, the National Gallery is the home to the finest Hungarian paintings and sculpture since the birth of the nation. Ludwig Museum owns a renowned collection of contemporary international art, and, although closed until 2018, the Museum of Fine Arts has first class paintings of the Italian, Dutch, German, and English old masters. See which one strikes your fancy.
The thematic, specialty museums listed below capture various segments of Budapest’s colorful past, whether it is about a famous liquor producing family business that first caught the attention of a Habsburg Emperor and is still a thriving business today (Zwack Museum), or the deeply moving exhibit on the communist past (House of Terror).
As often is the case, temporary exhibits can be the most exciting ones, so make sure to be on the lookout for them.
In 2013 the government approved a highly ambitious, over €500 million museum-relocation project (Liget Projekt), which is going to fundamentally alter Budapest’s cultural landscape. By 2020, the City Park will become a “museum quarter”. New buildings will house each of the National Gallery, the Museum of Ethnography, and the House of Hungarian Music, as well as other smaller projects. Overall, it is a welcome development as some of these institutions have not had the proper platforms their rich collections would otherwise deserve, but the move has also sparked fierce public debate about the loss of precious green space.
All public museums are open Tuesday through Sunday, normally from 10 AM until 6 PM, and closed on Monday. Labels on exhibits are generally in both Hungarian and English (the Hungarian-only exhibits are pointed out below). Additionally, English audio guides are available at the House of Terror and the Hungarian National Gallery. Museum admission ranges from the equivalent of a few euros to up to c. 7 euros.
There's always room for improvement. Painfully absent are permanent exhibits in Budapest about such internationally well-known and accomplished Hungarians as Ferenc Puskás, Marcel Breuer, László Moholy-Nagy, André Kertész, and Ernő Rubik. There is a Béla Bartók museum/memorial house, but in its current form it doesn't do justice to the genius of Bartók (too little information, few labels, no samples of music, etc.).
House of Terror (location; 10 AM to 6 PM; closed on Monday): One of the most highly attended museums in the city is not a happy one. This Budapest landmark is dedicated to remembering the brutalities committed by the Hungarian fascist and the subsequent Soviet-led communist regimes. Oddly, both the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party and later the Communist Secret Police used this very same building on Andrássy Avenue for detention, interrogation, and torture. Old newsreels, interviews with survivors, and carefully curated objects from the time portray the cruelty of these systems. The tiny prison cells and the gallows in the basement are particularly poignant reminders of the country’s tainted past.
Ludwig Museum (location; 10 AM to 8 PM; closed on Monday): The scenic way to reach the city's main outlet for modern international and Hungarian artworks is through the promenade that stretches from the Great Market Hall along the Danube. Three floors and over 35,000-square-foot of exhibition space are dedicated to contemporary art in a stunning limestone-covered building. The most well-known is the Pop Art collection with works of international heavyweights (e.g. Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol). But lesser-known Eastern European/Hungarian artists from the era receive equal floor space, enabling visitors to see parallels and differences between the artistic approaches at the time.
Holocaust Memorial Center (location; 10 AM to 6 PM; closed on Monday): A most informative and deeply moving exhibit on Jewish life and the holocaust in Hungary. The venue consists of a beautifully restored synagogue from 1924 (second largest in Budapest) and a memorial garden with a wall of victims, and a tower of lost communities that lists all towns where Jews have ceased to exist as a result of the deportations. The museum inside is a distinctively 21st century interactive venue. Through newsreels, photos, and objects, visitors can follow the gradual disenfranchisement of Hungarian Jews that culminated in the killing of 450 thousand people. If there is one museum you wish to visit to learn about the Hungarian holocaust, this should be it.
Zwack Unicum Museum (location; 10 AM to 5 PM; closed on Sunday): Initially prepared for the Habsburg Emperor in an effort to aid his digestive problems, Unicum is a herbal liquor made from a secret formula containing more than forty types of herbs. The exhibit begins with a short video portraying the tumultuous history of Hungary's most famous liquor maker, followed by a guided tour to the plant where visitors can learn about the ingredients and the production process. The highlight is the tasting in the cellar, where, amid enormous wine barrels (one from 1937), visitors can sip these royal concoctions. Those who like the distinctively complex taste of Unicum can fuel up at the gift shop at the entrance. A guided tour is included in the admission ticket.
Hungarian National Gallery (location; 10 AM to 6 PM; closed on Monday): Located inside the Royal Palace in the Castle District, it is an enormous collection of mainly Hungarian artworks from about 1000 A.D. to the present. From Gothic winged altars to 20th century paintings and sculpture, the museum features works of the country’s best known artists such as Mihály Munkácsy, József Rippl-Rónay, and János Vaszary. As you look at the works of art, the river bank and the Pest skyline provide a splendid backdrop. The cupola is also worth a visit for the 360 views. Until the renovation of the Museum of Fine Arts is completed in 2018, some of its best works, by the likes of Raphael, El Greco, and Rodin, are displayed here.
Goldberger Textile Collection (location; 10 AM to 6 PM; closed on Monday): An interactive, highly informative, and ultimately heartbreaking exhibit about the Goldberger family’s thriving textile manufacturing business, one of the biggest in Central Europe before WWII. The exhibit traces the stages of development from a one-man shop to a vertically integrated conglomerate to which even the Habsburg Emperor, Franz Joseph paid a personal visit. Besides family history, visitors can learn about blue-dyeing, roller printing, and screen printing techniques, trying their hand at making pattern designs, or figuring out the right ingredients of blue dye.
Museum of Applied Arts (location; 10 AM to 6 PM; closed on Monday): The ornate building with green-and-yellow ceramic roof tiles is a Budapest landmark and itself a stunning piece of art. It was designed by Ödön Lechner, the pioneer of the Hungarian art nouveau movement also known as the “Gaudi of Hungary”. The permanent collection ranges from Han dynasty-era ceramics to 19th century Tiffany stained glass and a Mies van der Rohe tubular steel chair. One can stumble upon excellent temporary collections too, like the recent exhibit on Marcel Breuer’s furniture designs and the works of Breuer’s Hungarian contemporaries. Make sure to check online before you go as the museum is scheduled to shut down for major renovation works.
Miksa Róth Memorial House (location; 2 PM to 6 PM; closed on Monday): Name a famous Budapest building and chances are that its grand stained glass windows were made at Miksa Róth’s renowned atelier (e.g. Parliament, Gresham Palace/Four Seasons Hotel). The museum features 60 or so splendid works of stained glass, and over a dozen elaborate glass mosaics. A lifelong explorer of new techniques, Roth’s development from eclecticism to art nouveau/jugendstil and finally art deco are nicely traceable. The memorial house is in a slightly sketchy neighborhood near Keleti train station, which means that the contrast will be even sharper as you enter the serene turn-of-the century building packed with jewel-like artworks. The lady in charge of the museum speaks English and is happy to navigate guests through the small exhibit. Art nouveau fans and adventure seekers should not miss it.
Mai Manó House (location; 11 AM to 7 PM; open every day): This elaborately adorned building from 1894 just off Andrássy Avenue used to be the studio of Manó Mai, a royal court photographer during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After arbitrary tenants during communism (including the Hungarian Auto Club), the building is once again dedicated to its original function - photography. The temporary-only exhibits show the best of contemporary Hungarian works, although artists and themes are wide-ranging. Make sure to visit the second floor which retains a turn-of-the-century feel with the original stained glass windows, wood paneling, and Mai’s former studio with sweeping views onto Nagymező Street. Also, it is worth popping in to the bookstore on the mezzanine and the cute café on the ground floor. For more photos, visit the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center just down the street.
Kiscelli Museum (location; 10 AM to 6 PM; closed on Monday): You will need to climb a steep hill to reach the baroque edifice of a former Trinitarian monastery and church from the 18th century. This mysterious space is an unlikely venue for a museum but that is part of the charm. The permanent exhibition on Budapest’s history will be of limited enjoyment for foreigners due to the lack of English translations (plenty of old objects, photographs, and maps though), but the collection of 19th and 20th century Hungarian paintings by some of the city’s best-known artists (e.g. Rippl-Rónai, Ödön Márffy) should more than compensate. A most bizarre temporary exhibition space is inside the former church, today a gutted, bare-bones, exposed brick structure looking impossibly cool. Make sure to pop in there as well.
Roman ruins: In the 1st century AD, the Romans extended Pannonia province all the way to the Danube in order for the river to serve as the eastern border of the Empire. In 106 AD Emperor Trajan made Aquincum, situated in the northern part of today's Buda (Óbuda), the capital of eastern Pannonia (Pannonia Inferior). In its heyday, Aquincum was a notable city with 40,000 or so inhabitants. The best preserved ruin of this ancient town is the Aquincum Military Amphitheater (location here), a giant 13 thousand capacity complex used for gladiator combats and chariot races. It’s about 25 minutes from downtown Pest by public transport. But you don’t even need to leave downtown to find the underground remains of the Contra-Aquincum (location here), a Roman defense fortification from the 2nd century AD, built to strengthen the Empire’s border. You can see more ancient ruins and learn about the history of this region under the Romans at the Aquincum Museum (location here).
Historical housing stock in the Castle District: The castle area in Buda has had a tumultuous history with innumerable sieges led by Tartars, Ottomans, Habsbugs, and Allied Forces over the centuries. This left few of the original buildings from the 13th century intact, but roaming around these narrow historical streets is an experience in and of itself (location here). Today’s street layouts were formed over 600 years ago, and plenty of buildings still stand on the original medieval structures (look for the landmark protection plaques on the sides of the buildings). The brutal siege to reconquer Buda from the Ottomans in 1686 reduced the castle area to ruins. Subsequent reconstructions lent a baroque facade to most residential buildings that, despite the enormous damage during WWII, remain marvels to behold.
National Museum: The imposing Greek Revival building of the National Museum (location here), completed in 1847 by Mihály Pollack, exudes a feeling of order and calm despite its massive size. The Corinthian columned temple portico and tall doors at the top of broad exterior steps convey the authority of the building that houses an exhaustive history, art, and archeology collection of Hungary. The surrounding garden is currently in a sad state of neglect, but is due for a revival this year.
The city fabric of Pest built during the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Along with Vienna, in 1867 Budapest became the “co-headquarters” of one of Europe’s great powers, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For the subsequent 50 years (the "golden years of Budapest") the city experienced an unprecedented level of urban and infrastructural development. The Grand Boulevard, Andrássy Avenue, as well as the eye-catchingly consistent revival architecture throughout the city are all the result of systematic city planning during this period.
Miklós Ybl was the best-known and most prolific architect of the time but his finest hour was The Hungarian State Opera House (location here), one of the best examples of renaissance revival architecture, the dominating style of the era. Completed in 1884, the richly-decorated building includes statues of Hungary’s well-known composers (Franz Liszt and Ferenc Erkel), marble columns in the vaulted lobby, and a 1,261 capacity hall with a giant bronze chandelier weighing over 3 tons. The building is considered one of the finest opera houses in the world.
Awe inspiring classical elements are on display at the richly adorned 145m long monumental building of the former Budapest Stock and Commodity Exchange that dominates the stately Liberty Square (Szabadság tér). At the time of its completion in 1907 this gigantic building was one of the largest stock exchanges in Europe. The trading floors with 18m high ceilings were on the two sides of the symmetrical building. Not in need of such a detestable capitalist institution, the communist regime expediently shut down the stock exchange in 1948, which has been in a sad state of disrepair since the Hungarian National Television moved out in 2007. Plans for a gut renovation periodically emerge, but construction works are painfully slow to commence.
The largest building in Hungary, the House of Parliament (location here), is a turn-of-the-century giant Gothic Revival complex stretching imposingly along the Danube river. After 17 years of construction, the seat of the Hungarian national assembly was finally completed in 1902 with 691 rooms, a total of 20km length of staircases, and a 96m tall dome. The rich iconography on the beautifully restored Hungarian limestone façade depicts the coat of arms of major cities and counties of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Parts of the building are open for visitors, including the hall that once housed the Upper House.
Hungarian Art Nouveau: Ödön Lechner, the “Gaudi of Hungary”, was a pioneer architect who founded Hungary's unique style of Art Nouveau. His buildings using motifs taken from Hungarian folk art are found across Budapest. One of Lechner's masterpieces is the Postal Savings Bank (location here) from 1902, nestled on a quite side street at Liberty Square next to the American embassy. His fluid shapes, rich ceramic decoration, bright green tilework supplied by the renowned Zsolnay porcelain maker, and curvilinear wrought-iron entrances gave birth to a new architectural style in Hungary. Check out also the building of the Museum of Applied Arts (location here) and that of the Geological Museum (location here) to marvel at more of Lechner’s genius.
Another important, though lesser known figure of Hungarian art nouveau architecture was Béla Lajta. A student of Lechner, he took his master's national style into new, often visionary directions. The Parisiana (1908, location) and the Rózsavölgyi house (1912, location) bear distinct Art Deco and early modernist characteristics, well ahead of the widespread popularity of these styles.
Modernism: Following WWI, modernist architecture left a distinctive mark on the architectural landscape of Budapest. In fact, several well-known figures of the Bauhaus school were Hungarians (Marcel Breuer, László Moholy-Nagy), although many of them later migrated to the United States.
The highest concentration of modernist buildings can be found along Pozsonyi út in Újlipótváros (location here), with the most lavish under Pozsonyi út 38. But fans of this style should certainly go see the residential homes along Napraforgó Street in Buda, where concrete constructions, modular structures, and flat roofs dominate the street view (location here). This row of modernist buildings was the result of a progressive government decree in the 1930s that commissioned architects to build affordable housing in the leading style of the day.
My favorite building of this era is the residential home designed in 1932 by Farkas Molnár, a graduate of Bauhaus, which radiates a sense of luxurious minimalism (the building is nestled in the side of a hill and difficult to approach, the best view is from the memorial at Apor Vilmost Square).
Contemporary: For architecture buffs interested in contemporary constructions, I've three specific recommendations. Bear in mind that many downtown neighborhoods or buildings are under landmark protection, so architects need to walk a fine line between preserving the old (be it the fabric of a street or the facade of a building) and creating something that meets the expectations of the 21st century.
The recently completed building of the prestigious Central European University (location here) did exactly this. The playfully indented facade, elliptical concrete staircase, steep glass-steel roof planes, as well as the quality and richness of details are marvels to behold. The building, with a café on the ground floor, is open for all to see.
The harmonious combination of old and new is on display at the CET Building located along the Danube river. The building complex is a cultural and commercial space consisting of a set of gracefully restored warehouses and a whale-shaped steel-and-glass modern wing inserted in-between.
The new metro line #4 appears to be a commercial failure. Completed way over time and budget, it does not generate nearly the passenger traffic it was projected to. However, the design of the stations are at the forefront of contemporary Hungarian architecture. A crisscross system of exposed concrete beams, playful lighting solutions, and a creative use of natural light lend a distinctively 21st century feel to these spacious platforms. The gracefully minimalist design along with the disability-inclusive infrastructure stand in wild contrast to the city’s otherwise outdated socialist-era subway stations (at the Kálvin tér station you can compare and contrast the two). The Fővám tér and Szent Gellért tér stations (see location), adorned with colorful mosaics, won the highly prestigious Architizer A+ Award in 2014.
Being entrepreneurial and educated, Jews have played an important role in Budapest’s economic and cultural development over the centuries, particularly starting in the 1800s. They were drawn to Hungary by civil equality (gained in 1867), and Budapest’s appeal as a welcoming metropolis full of opportunities. By 1910, 23.1% of Budapest’s population was Jewish.
Most of the over 200 thousand Budapest Jews belonged to the progressive and assimilated “Neolog” faction (orthodox Jews mainly lived in the Hungarian countryside). They were the backbone of Budapest’s middle class society. Besides commerce, where over 60% of Budapest’s merchants were Jewish in 1910, Jews were overrepresented in medicine (59% of doctors) and law (61% of lawyers). Also, many Jewish businessmen founded industrial companies that laid the foundations of modern capitalist corporate culture, unknown in Hungary before.
Jews were punching above their weight in arts and sciences too. Ironically, many became internationally well-known because they left the increasingly anti-Semitic Hungary in the 1930s. These include John von Neumann, Marcel Breuer, László Moholy Nagy, Robert Capa, and Andre Kertész, just to name a few.
With an estimated population of 80 thousand today, Budapest is still home to by far the largest Jewish community in Central and Eastern Europe. Jews live in all parts of the city, but the former Jewish Quarter in District 7 and Újlipótváros in District 13, the latter for the well-to-do, have the highest Jewish populations.
Today, the streets and dilapidated buildings of the former Jewish Quarter in District 7 are home to revitalized Hungarian culture: bristling with art galleries, shops, and cafés. This area has become an epicenter of nighttime activity, particularly in and around Gozsdu Udvar, a passage teeming with popular bars and restaurants. Perhaps the most bizarre evidence of this transformation is that the city’s only Jewish ritual bath (mikveh) is located immediately next to Szimpla, the world famous ruin bar.
Industrial conglomerates built by Budapest Jews before WWII
Budapest Jews founded many of the largest industrial companies that operated in Hungary before WWII. These firms were among the first to introduce large-scale manufacturing practices. They employed thousands of locals, used state-of-the-art equipment, and developed by capturing export markets outside of Hungary. During the holocaust, most of the founding families were killed or fled the country. Then communists nationalized the companies, which subsequently lost their competitive edges and couldn't survive in a free market environment (except for Zwack, which moved its production to Italy during that time). The enormous production plants and warehouses, however, are still standing in many parts of Budapest today as a painful reminder of their former glory.
Zwack Unicum Plant/Museum (location; 10 AM to 5 PM; closed on Sunday; HUF 2,000 admission): Unicum, a herbal liquor made from a secret formula containing more than forty types of herbs, is a national drink in Hungary. It was initially prepared for the Habsburg Emperor in an effort to aid his digestive problems. Much has happened between the company’s founding in the 1840s and today, but, against the odds, Zwack today is still a thriving business, ran by the founding Zwack family. To see their production plant, taste their concoctions, and learn about the company’s impossible history, visit the Zwack Unicum Museum just south of the city center. Petrus, an outstanding French-Hungarian restuarant is just a quick walk away from the Zwack plant.
Remains of Goldberger Textile Factory / Goldberger Textile Collection (location; 10 AM to 6 PM; closed on Monday; HUF 1,400 admission): Founded in 1784 in Óbuda (northern part of today’s Buda) as a blue-dyeing one-man shop, by the 1930s the Goldberger family’s textile manufacturing business became a vertically integrated behemoth employing close to 3,000 people. The company no longer exists today, but its legacy is deeply ingrained in the neighborhood – amid towering socialist-era apartment blocks, the 19th century Goldberger warehouses graciously weave through the streets and facilitate the neighborhood’s revival. The Goldberger Textile Collection, one of best museums in Budapest, traces the company’s and its founding family’s history. Not far from the museum is Kéhly Vendéglő, a well known, traditional Hungarian restaurant.
Remains of Weiss Manfréd Factory in Csepel (location; open every day; free admission): WM Factory, named after founder Manfréd Weiss, was the largest industrial company in Hungary. It employed 30 thousand people at its peak during WWI. They manufactured all sorts of military equipment, even airplanes, on an enormous 10 sqkm (1,000 ha) plant with 216 buildings on Csepel island, just south of Budapest. WM was a pioneer in granting social benefits to employees including pension plans, paid vacation, and on-site kindergarten. The company no longer exists today, but despite its current state of disrepair, it’s a special experience to roam around the sprawl of abandoned warehouses, some of which were taken over by small repair shops, others by graffiti artists. One thing is unchanged - the Danube still provides a beautiful backdrop. (A visit to the socialist-era grungy bar next to the entry gate can make this trip of time travel even more bizarre.)
Key Jewish Religious Sites in Budapest
After 1868 Hungarian Jews split into 3 factions, because they held different views on religious reforms and the desired level of assimilation into local Hungarian society. Most Budapest Jews belonged to "Neolog" progressives, they generally spoke Hungarian, were more secular, and favored integration, but all three communities left beautiful, and often artistically important marks on the city (like the tombstones by Béla Lajta in the Salgótarjani Street Jewish Cemetery.
Today 19 synagogues operate across Budapest (36 in Hungary) with a small, few thousand member congregation in total. In 15 minutes, one can walk the "synagogue triangle" in District 7, that is, visit the three main synagogues of the former Jewish Quarter. Despite a shrinking community, the Neolog Dohány Street Synagogue still gets packed during the main Jewish holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).
Dohány Street “Neolog” Synagogue (location; opening hours vary; closed on Saturday; HUF 4,000 admission): This enormous building, the largest synagogue in Europe today, looks eerily similar to a Christian church because it was commissioned by the assimilated (Neolog) faction of the local Jewish community. Its towers, pulpits, organ, and lack of mechitza (lattice separating women from men) would be non-starters in any orthodox synagogue. The congregation today has about 300 active members. A plaque on the front façade shows where once stood the house where Theodor Herzl, the father of Israel, was born. The colonnade connecting Heroes’ Temple and the Central Synagogue encloses the Garden of Remembrance, now a mass grave for Jews murdered by Hungarians fascists in 1944. In the weeping willow memorial, the names of holocaust victims have been delicately inscribed on every leaf. Behind the willow tree is the symbolic tomb of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews during the holocaust.
Kazinczy Street Orthodox Synagogue (location; opening hours vary; closed on Saturday; HUF 1,000 admission): The impressive art nouveau synagogue from 1913 dominates the winding Kazinczy Street, which has long been the home to the orthodox Jewish community of Budapest (and more recently to Budapest nightlife). The interior has pale-blue walls, stained glass windows, and benches adorned with Hungarian art nouveau motifs. Enter through 35 Dob or 29-31 Kazinczy Street to see all the facilities attached to the fortress-like edifice, which include a glatt kosher restaurant (Hannah), a prayer room, and an ornate wrought iron canopy (chuppah) under which a Jewish couple stand during their wedding ceremony. Today, the congregation has only about 70 members.
Rumbach Street “Status quo ante” Synagogue (location; closed for renovation works): Don't miss this unobtrusive, yet grand synagogue from 1872 designed by renowned Viennese architect Otto Wagner. Its members consisted of the “status quo ante” faction of Budapest Jews, who favored some religious reforms but were put off by the less traditional design of the Dohány Street Synagogue nearby. Islamic ornaments dominate both the exterior, with minaret-like towers, and the interior, where the dome is held by eight slender Moorish style Alhambra columns. The building is currently shut down for much-needed renovations works. Take a look at the Tablets of Stone at the top of the façade.
Salgótarjani Street Jewish Cemetery (location; 8 AM to 4 PM; closed on Saturday; free admission): Opened in 1874, it’s the oldest existing Jewish cemetery in Budapest (mostly for Neolog Jews, but there’re some orthodox graves as well). This is where many of the Jewish industrial and political elite was buried before WWII, as indicated by the fancy marble and granite mausoleums designed by leading architects at the time, particularly Béla Lajta. Most tombs are partially collapsed, abandoned, and overgrown by ivy and creeper as family members died during the holocaust or fled from Hungary. This state of semi-wilderness is a reminder not only of how transient human life is, but also how the holocaust erased something that had been essential part of Budapest life.
Budapest University of Jewish Studies (location; opening hours vary, call +36 1 318 7049, extension 110 to schedule a visit; €10 admission): In 1877 the assimilated (Neolog) section of Budapest Jews opened a Rabbinical Seminary with the aim to educate a secularly-inclined clergy. The institute was the only rabbinical seminary in communist Europe. Today 180 students are enrolled, with an academic staff of 80. Departments range from rabbinic to Jewish studies, and social work. Besides the charming synagogue inside the building, the university has one of the world's most complete libraries on Jewish topics. Guided tours can be arranged through the university.
Mikveh at Kazinczy Street (location; advance registration necessary to use the bath at +36 20 961 5419): Budapest’s only Jewish ritual bath (mikveh) is located right next to Szimpla, the world famous ruin bar. To meet strict religious requirements, the bath uses only “natural water” from rainwater collected on the roof, and spring water through wells drilled in the garden. The bath, built in 1928, was nicely refurbished in 2004. The renovation work was supervised by a New York-based Hasidic mikveh specialist who commuted every week between New York and Budapest.
Budapest Holocaust Memorials
There’re several possible explanations why anti-Semitism began to rise in Hungary following WWI. Hungary lost two thirds of its territories after the war and became a predominantly Hungarian country, instead of the multiethnic society it previously was (in 1910 only 54% of the population was Hungarian with meaningful German, Romanian, Slovakian, and Romanian minorities). This meant that post-WWI, the government no longer had to rely politically on Hungarian Jews to tilt the ethnic scale towards a Hungarian majority.
Furthermore, the inflow of Hungarians who now fell outside the borders of the mother country increased the competition for jobs, and created enmity towards Jews, who were overrepresented in traditionally middle class positions (law, medicine, etc.). The numerus clausus of 1920, which limited the proportion of Jews in higher education, was followed by three more anti-Semitic laws between 1938 and 1941. These restricted Jewish representation in white collar jobs and ultimately stripped them of basic human rights (banned intermarriages and even sexual intercourse between Jewish men and Christian women).
Events turned truly tragic after March 1944, when the German army occupied Hungary. The local Hungarian gendarmerie willingly executed the orders of the pro-German government and deported 437 thousand Jews from the Hungarian countryside to concentration camps, mostly to Auschwitz.
Jews of Budapest were crowded into “starred houses” and soon after the Hungarian fascist party formed government in October 1944, most were herded into a ghetto set up in the Jewish Quarter of District 7. Raids, mass executions were regular until the Soviet troops liberated the Budapest ghetto in January 1945. Overall, about 500 thousand Jews died during the holocaust in Hungary. Thousands of survivors left the country immediately after the war, or during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.
Holocaust Memorial Center (location; 10 AM to 6 PM; closed on Monday; HUF 4,000 admission): A most informative and deeply moving exhibit on the holocaust in Hungary. The venue consists of a beautifully restored synagogue from 1924 (second largest in Budapest), a memorial garden with a wall of victims, and a tower of lost communities that lists all towns where Jews have ceased to exist as a result of the deportations. The museum inside is a distinctively 21st century interactive venue - through newsreels, photos, and objects, visitors can follow the gradual disenfranchisement of Hungarian Jews that culminated in the killing of 500 thousand people.
Shoes on the Danube Bank (location; accessible at all times, no admission fee): The memorial from 2005 consists of 60 pairs of cast iron shoes placed along the bank of the Danube. It’s to the memory of Budapest Jews who were killed here by members of the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross Party. They ordered victims to remove their shoes before shooting them dead. Their bodies would fall into the river and drift away. The memorial has shoes of all sizes, including children’s shoes, setting off a cascade of emotions.
Emanuel Tree (location; opening hours vary; closed on Saturday; HUF 4,000 admission): American actor Tony Curtis, whose father, Emanuel, was a Hungarian Jew, funded the weeping willow memorial, located behind the Dohány Street Synagogue. The names of 30 thousand holocaust victims have been delicately inscribed in the tree's leaves. Upside down, it resembles a menorah. Behind the willow tree is the symbolic tombstone of Raul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews from concentration camps.
Holocaust Memorial at the Faculty of Arts of the Eötvös Loránd University (location; accessible during the day, no admission fee): The subtle memorial form 2014 consists of a 1 cm (0.4 inches) wide and 280 meters (919 feet) long narrow bronze strip running along the walls of the university, commemorating its students and teachers who died during the holocaust.
Remains of the ghetto walls at 15 Király Street (location; located in the courtyard of a private apartment building, no admission fee): Towards the end of WWII, most Budapest Jews were herded into a ghetto which ran along today’s Király-Kertész-Dohány-Rumbach streets in the Jewish Quarter of District 7. Several thousands of the 70 thousand people crowded into here died before the Soviet army liberated the ghetto (some of the deceased were buried in the garden of the Dohány Street Synagogue). A section of the ghetto’s wall at 15 Király Street was rebuilt to serve as a constant reminder. It's located inside the courtyard of a private apartment building, so it might take a few minutes before a resident comes or goes and opens the door.
Carl Lutz Memorial (location; accessible at all times, no admission fee):
Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz saved over 60 thousand Hungarian Jews during the holocaust. From 1942 as vice-consul at the Swiss embassy of Budapest, he issued protective documents, and set up over 70 “protected houses” across the city for which he claimed diplomatic immunity. The bronze memorial honoring Lutz shows an angel descending to help a fallen victim. The caption reads “Whoever saves a life is considered as if he has saved an entire world”.
Budapest Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) (thousands spread across Budapest):
Similar to many other European cities, thousands of Stolpersteine have been placed across Budapest since 2007. These cobblestone-sized cubes show the names of Jews and other victims of the Nazis. They are placed at the entrances of buildings where they lived. The person’s name, date of birth, deportation, and death are engraved into the brass plate.
Jewish Restaurants, Pastry Shop, Butcher Shop
The places below are not considered the best, or trendiest spots in Budapest. What makes them unique is a decades-long history, and a dedication to maintaining Jewish traditions (they're all kosher except for Rosenstein), thereby making the city's food scene a more interesting, colorful one.
Kosher butcher shop and grocery store (location; 8 AM to 4 PM Monday to Thursday, closes at 1PM Friday; closed on weekends): In the building of the orthodox Jewish Congregation lie these two tiny storefronts that sell kosher meat, wine, and various Middle Eastern spices. Attached to the butcher shop is the actual butchery where meat is prepared under a kosher supervisor (mashgiach). Don’t expect supermarket-level assortment, although the spicy salami is exceptional, but it’s worth popping in to these little nooks to appreciate the atmosphere as orthodox Jews pop in and out.
Frőhlich Pastry Shop (location; 9 AM to 6 PM Monday to Thursday, closes at 2PM Friday; closed on Saturday): Who would've guessed that Budapest’s only kosher pastry shop is right in the heart of the former Jewish Quarter? Normally flódni is the way to go, which is a classic Hungarian Jewish cake with layers of earthly goods packed onto one other, like walnut, poppy seeds, apple, and plum jam filling. To please all appetities, Frőhlich, which set up shop in 1953, also makes popular Hungarian cakes like Esterházy, Dobos, krémes, and various strudels.
Most of the sites in Budapest are within walking distance. Don’t give in to the mental barrier that the other side of the Danube is too far. The bridges are shorter than you think (the Chain Bridge is only 375m/1,230 ft) and walking is the most efficient way to explore a city.
If not walking, using BUBI, the bike-sharing system of Budapest is one of the quickest ways of getting around in Pest (hilly Buda is a different story). The network consists of a total of 112 docking stations and 1,300 bicycles, and provides an amazing coverage of the inner sections of Pest.
You will have to quickly register by providing your phone number and email address to purchase tickets at one of the main docking stations (dots filled with red) for a 1 day (HUF500 or ~€1.7), 3 day (HUF1,000 or ~€3.2), or weekly ticket (HUF2,000 or ~€6.5). The system will charge you a fully-refundable security deposit of HUF25,000 (~€80) that's automatically released after your ticket expires. Up to 4 bikes can be rented with one user ID. The bikes are free to use for 30 minutes at a time, after which additional fares apply. With plenty of docking stations scattered around the city, you shouldn’t need to exceed the 30 minute limit unless by conscious choice.
If not walking or biking, public transportation is the way to go. Budapest has a particularly good coverage by public transportation, including buses, trolleys, and trams (subways too, but then you don’t see as much of the city). For directions and schedules you can rely on a most loyal friend: Google Maps.
Several public transportation lines in Budapest provide a unique sightseeing tour for merely the cost of a fare. On trem #2, you'll have plenty of opportunities to marvel at the Parliament and the Castle District, a UNESCO World Heritage site, from along the bank of the Danube. For the full experience, get on at the Jászai Mari tér station and take the tram to Fővám tér. If you're also interested in seeing the new Millennium City Center with the National Theatre and Müpa, the home of the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art, take tram #2 all the way to Közvágóhíd.
Trams #4 and #6 travel mainly along the Grand Boulevard, the dividing line between inner and outer Pest, with a bunch of sites along the way. To see the best bits, take your journey from Széll Kálmán tér in Buda to Boráros tér in Pest.
The Millennium Underground of Budapest began to operate in 1896, which made it the first subway line on the European continent (today it's also a UNESCO World Heritage Site). It runs mainly along Andrássy Avenue and passes several key points of attraction such as the Opera House, the House of Terror Museum (Vörösmarty utca stop), Heroes’ Square, and Széchenyi Thermal Bath. Hop on at any of the stations along Andrássy Avenue for a few stops to experience this charming piece of living history. You can learn more about the Millennium Underground here.
Bus #16, or the Castle Bus, will take you from Deák Ferenc tér in Pest up to the historic Castle District in Buda through the Chain Bridge, the first permanent bridge connecting the two sides of the Danube in the city. Get off the bus at Dísz tér and you're ready to roam the streets of the historical old town.
A trip on bus #105 offers a different, but similarly unique experience as it crosses through the pristine inner city to terminate on one end in the mostly working class neighborhood in Angyalföld, and the peaceful Buda hills on the other. Take #105 from Deák Ferenc tér to Gyöngyösi utca for Angyalföld, and to Apor Vilmos tér for the Buda side.
Cab prices are regulated across all taxi operators in Budapest. The fare consists of a base fee of HUF450 (~€1.5) plus a distance-based charge (HUF280/km, or ~€0.9), irrespective of the time of day. Be wary of unlicensed cabs to avoid being overcharged, although now they're less common in Budapest. Licensed cabs are yellow, and can be recognized by the corporate logos on both sides of the front doors, as well as by the official prices displayed on the outside of one of the rear doors.
All cabs are required by law to accept credit cards. In theory you should feel free to hail any yellow cab off the streets without being overcharged, but it’s safer to call one from a reputable company, such as City Taxi (+36 1 211 1111) or Főtaxi (+36 1 222 2222), and tell them in advance if you'll be paying with card. The driver will identify you by the name the car was called for before letting you in (there are no additional charges for calling a cab).
Thanks to the pressure the taxi driver lobby exerted on the government, Uber was banned in Hungary in 2016.
Good to know
Indeed there is a (thermal) bathing culture in Hungary, as you can read in any guide book about Budapest. Ever since the Romans brought in bathing customs to the city, which was further boosted by the Ottomans in the 16th and 17th century, locals like to indulge themselves in the mineral rich hot springs gushing from the earth beneath. You can’t go wrong with any of the baths operating in the city. Tourists tend to be found in greater numbers at either of Széchenyi, Gellért, or Rudas baths, because of their impressive buildings but they're also more expensive. You can find more locals and lower prices in Lukács, Király, or Veli Bej baths, and for a real local experience, visit Dandár bath. Rudas and Király are unique in that one can still bathe under the original Ottoman dome, built centuries ago.
The nationalization of residential buildings in Hungary began during communism in 1952. After the fall of the system in 1989, people had the option to buy (back) their homes from the state at highly favorable prices. As a result, most people today own their apartments in Hungary, in fact, the proportion of privately owned apartments is above 90%.
The inside of Budapest's large pre-war buildings isn't usually quite as impressive as you might imagine. During communism they were haphazardly parceled up by the state in order to accommodate people who were moved in to Budapest from the countryside. Dysfunctional layouts bedevil residents to this day.
During summer months Budapest can feel deserted on the weekends. This is because the local population moves out en masse to Lake Balaton, a popular summer destination 1-2 hours’ drive from Budapest.
Public water fountains in Budapest are few and far between. However, thanks to a creative idea by a group of locals of turning ordinary hydrants into drinking fountains without compromising their original function, you'll have plenty of opportunities in the summer months to quench your thirst as you roam the city.
In the name of the local population in Budapest I kindly invite visitors to please be respectful of our city. The increasing prevalence of stag-party tourism has begun to affect us. It isn't pleasant to have to listen to “beer-bikes” blasting music as they cross through residential streets, nor to experience loud and rowdy visitors who leave behind empty bottles and trash. We love having visitors and a good time but please remember this is our home and treat it with the care you show your own.