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.