Budapest is high on my list of favorite European cities. It is a city of contrasts with culture and quirky blended together. The Danube River flows right through the middle of the city, which is full of beautiful architecture while just a few blocks away old buildings are in need of repair. The city has had a violent past, yet today it's known for its thermal baths and their healing properties. After your first visit to Budapest, you may be vowing to return again soon.
Budapest was formed in 1873 from the merging of Buda and Pest, and is one of the great European capitals. Its history goes back to the Romans in the first century, so for most of its existence, Budapest was in two sections. Today it offers so many amazing attractions, among them the Parliament Building, the National Museum and Museum of Fine Arts, the former Royal Palace, Gellert Baths, and Matthias Coronation Church. It also offers some major yearly events, such as the Budapest Spring Festival in March, the Formula 1 Grand Prix in July, the International Wine Festival in September and the beautiful Christmas markets in December.
One way to plan your visit is to focus on one side of the city at a time. Spend a day on the Buda side, then spend the next day on the Pest side. The Buda side, with its Castle District, is hilly and green with open spaces. The Pest side is a bustling urban center, and both offer notable sights. Most tourists like to walk back and forth between the Buda side and the Pest side on the amazing bridges. The most famous bridge is the Chain Bridge, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
You can't visit this iconic city without planning a day in the Castle District, which covers a large section above the river on the Buda side of Budapest. The winding cobblestone streets lead past baroque houses, Habsburg monuments, and cafes. Here you will find Buda Castle, a palace razed and rebuilt six times over the centuries. The current castle, built in 1769, is home to the Hungarian National Gallery and the Castle Museum. The Sandor Palace, residence of the president of the republic, sits across from the castle, with guards in the style of Buckingham Palace. You can show up outside on the hour and witness the changing of the guard ceremony. My favorite part of the Castle District is Fisherman’s Bastion. When you wander through the bastion and its terraces, you will feel you are in a fairytale. It’s also a great place to view the Danube below and the Pest side of the city across the river.
Budapest is known for its natural mineral water springs. Hungary has more than 1,000 natural springs, and several of those are in Budapest. You will want to include a visit to at least one of the baths as part of your Budapest experience, so be sure to pack your swimsuit!
Even though it's an EU country, Hungary doesn’t use euros; its money is the forint. I recommend taking the equivalent of about $50 with you to Hungary. That way, without getting cash in a strange system, you can pay a taxi from the airport if you need to. However, for most expenses such as dining and shopping, you can use a credit card.
If you want a breathtaking view of the banks of both sides of Budapest, book an evening cruise on the Danube. Seeing the iconic Parliament lit up with a thousand points of light reflected in the water below is a bucket list item for sure.
Another thing first-time visitors will want to know about is the street food. The most popular street food is Langos, which is fried flatbread. There are many ways to serve it, but the delicious classic with sour cream and cheese is a great place to start. Hungarian Goulash is also standard fare in Hungary. You may be surprised to see that it is a soup and not a stew when you order. Paprika is the national spice and there are three types: sweet, smoked, and hot. Sweet is the most popular and you can purchase it everywhere.Unicum is the national drink, initially made for the emperor. Just shoot it down because if you sip it, you probably won't want a second sip. The best way to taste Hungarian foods is to visit the Central Market Hall. There is a lot to see here, so plan on staying a couple of hours! Food Tours also allow you to sample the local food and drink in small portions.
My suggestions is to take a city tour as soon as possible after arriving. The Hop On-Hop Off Bus allows great views of the city as you drive around. You'll receive a headset on the first bus you board, and there is a choice of languages. Follow your route with the map they give you as you travel around, and it will help you get to know the city.
Whether you want to shop, sight-see, eat, visit the thermal bath, experience the nightlife, or experience a festival, there are a lot of reasons to visit Budapest!