A few months ago, a friend of mine was unexpectedly landed with a spare ticket to Budapest and I joked that I could join her on her romantic break to Europe instead.
I had really wanted to visit Budapest for a while – it’s one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, and even better, it’s super cheap to visit.
The joke eventually turned into reality, although unsurprisingly, Ryanair doesn’t let you transfer a flight ticket into someone else’s name without a hefty fee. In fact, the fee was even more than booking a NEW flight, and although we discussed dressing up as her ex and acquiring his passport for the flight, I had to shell out for a new ticket instead. Now there’s a good first impression, well done Ryanair! 😉
Cut to December, and we’re off to Stansted airport at silly o’clock. I’d never been to Stansted before, nor had I flown with the aviation great known as Ryanair. I hadn’t been to Budapest either, so this was a trip full of new experiences!
I can’t say I’m bothered about ever going to Stansted again, or flying Ryanair.
But I absolutely LOVED Budapest.
Within a day, it sky-rocketed to being one of my favourite European cities – up there with Rome and Prague. Although I was actually underwhelmed by some of the more famous landmarks such as Chain Bridge and Buda Castle, other places like the Parliament building, Fishermen’s Bastion and the Szechenyi baths MORE than made up for them.
And the interesting bars certainly helped, too!
I had read about the Szimpla ruin bar before we went, and when we found it was right across from our apartment, I was very keen to find out what the hype was all about. Scruffy on both the outside and the inside, it has an unbeatable atmosphere and lots of little rooms and bars to choose from. I totally recommend it!
Our first hour in Budapest was spent in a super cute café on our street (which we discovered later is owned by the same people as the ruin bar) while we waited to be able to check in; our first evening exploring the city centre and Christmas markets on the Pest side.
Fancy another European city break? Hitting Two Of Europe’s “Big Cities”: Barcelona & Rome
Christmas markets & Budapest at night
The Christmas markets weren’t massive like other European cities, but it was an enjoyable wander and we went to treat ourselves to the obligatory cup of mulled wine. I ended up discovering “jagertee” instead, a concoction of black spiced tea with rum!! Interesting mix.
It was a great way to discover some of the city centre too, and we stumbled across St Stephen’s Basilica which I don’t believe we ever got back to during the day.
Night cruise on the Danube
We also decided to splurge on a superb night-time cruise down the Danube river. Cost: just £12 each – with drinks and views like this:
Budapest is a fantastic city to experience at night, so I’m glad we decided to do something to really make the most of it.
I was a bit worried the cruise was just going to feel touristy with bad food and tacky, inauthentic musicians playing – one reason I often don’t book things like this – but the whole evening was brilliant, including the musicians!
Being tourists on a bus tour
Our second day was spent on a hop on/hop off bus tour, which is something I rarely do, but I think it’s a perfect way to see everything in a city like this, where although a lot of the city centre is walkable, many of the main attractions are spread out.
We spent most of the tour on the Buda side of the city after taking the funicular up – I absolutely adored the castle district with St. Matthias church and its fairy tale-like borders of the Fishermen’s Bastion.
I loved the roof on the church, and in fact I enjoyed this area more than Buda castle itself.
After watching the changing of the guard at Buda Castle, we headed up to Gellert Hill; somewhere we probably wouldn’t have gone to if we weren’t on the buses. The views over the city are phenomenal, and there was a sense of peace by the Liberty statue.
As the sun went down, we found ourselves at the impressive and bustling Central Market, perfect for locals and tourists alike with groceries downstairs and souvenir shops and beautiful craft stalls upstairs. We stocked up on a few goodies to cook a meal back in our apartment.
Across the road from here is a “foodie” street packed with restaurants – and the famed but very touristy Ice Bar. It’s not cheap for Budapest so we didn’t bother buying alcohol, but we went in for the experience! It’s one of those silly things you kind of have to do once. [Update: not so much any more now that they’re EVERYWHERE! Back then, there weren’t many of these so it felt like a bit of a novelty!]
I am classy.
Afterwards, we found a buffet place that looked great called Trofea Grill. (we went to this one, but there are two others and one has even better reviews) We walked in to find it was packed with suited and booted people getting ready to leave; assuming it was a private function, we carried on down the road, but nothing quite tickled our fancy, so by chance we walked back – to find it closed, the crowds gone. Quickly, people began to join us, but none of us were really sure what was going on. I chatted to one group who had a reservation for 9pm. It must be opening again then.
More crowds gathered; clearly this was a popular place. When it eventually opened, we piled in and were told that without a reservation, we probably wouldn’t be able to eat here. We had just waited half an hour to be told THAT! The manager told us that as there were only two of us (sadly one of the lovely groups we got chatting to was instantly turned away), we could wait and see if anyone doesn’t turn up.
Amazingly, some people didn’t. We got seats!! And boy, could we see why this was such a busy place. The food was DELICIOUS. The atmosphere was great, the staff friendly and quick. At 7,500HUF each, it wasn’t cheap – especially by Budapest standards – but all food and drink was included for the next 3 hours, and we ended up with a whole bottle of champagne on our table. We ate Hungarian dishes, we ate grilled steaks, I tried shark, we had delicious salads and goulash soup and traditional cakes. It was SO GOOD.
Have I whet your appetite for a European adventure? Check out my post on nearby Bratislava here!
A wander around the Parliament building
I can’t believe it took us so long to properly check out my favourite building in Budapest – the absolutely stunning Parliament building!
I loved seeing the building from all angles and at all times of day, but I couldn’t wait to see it up close.
You can also do tours of the building, which I’d actually quite like to do one day as it looks just as stunning inside. We didn’t have time on this trip before heading to our next activity though.
On the way, we also stopped by the Danube shoe memorial – a unique but heart-wrenching tribute to the thousands of Jews who were lined up and shot into the river in WWII.
The shoes are memorialised as they had to take off their shoes before they were shot. A very sobering tribute.
Caving underneath Budapest
And now it was time for something a little different.
We went caving underneath the city!
This was a great little find and our tour guide was fantastic. After our walk along the river to the Parliament building, we caught a bus out to the caves with the rest of the group and soon found ourselves climbing down a 10 metre ladder… followed by this:
It looks tough – and it was in places – but no one on the tour had ever been caving before and our guide was brilliant at helping us through any parts we struggled with. I 100% recommend the tour as something different to do here!
If we had time, we would have gone to the bath spas to soak off our muscles, but unfortunately opening hours are limited during the winter so we weren’t able to do that. In the summer, it would be ideal!
Instead, we cooked a meal with some meat, cheese & pasta that we had bought at the market hall, before going out to Szimpla ruin bar for some more drinks & cocktails.
Szimpla Kert ruin bar
There are lots of ruin bars around Budapest built in old derelict warehouses and run-down buildings, but Szimpla Kert is the most famous and happened to be right across from our apartment, so we had no excuse to miss it!
Unfortunately I don’t have many photos of the ruin bar – as you can see, it looks like nothing from the outside!
Also looks ruined (clue is in the name) – but cool as hell!
I loved it as there’s so much to look at and so many rooms to explore – even an outdoor courtyard at the back. In fact, there’s so much to explore that I’ve found out since that there’s a Trabant you can sit in – and I do not remember seeing it! I may look drunk in that photo (I wasn’t, actually) but definitely not THAT drunk!
Drinks weren’t actually as cheap as I was expecting which may be an indication of how touristy these ruin bars have become, although we didn’t actually go out for drinks anywhere else, so I don’t have anything to compare it to.
Szimpla Kert is definitely the most iconic of all of them, but I love the look of UdvarRom and Szatyor Bar, too. Instant looks a bit more clubby, and is one of the more popular ones – and to be fair, it does look awesome as well!
We finally made it to Szechenyi baths on our last day, and it was totally worth it! It’s not the cheapest thing you can do in Budapest – and so what? (We paid just under 5,000HUF – around £11 – each, but we shared a “cabin”, which is just a little changing room cubicle that you can keep your belongings in.)
Spa baths are an absolute must-do in Budapest, and we had been trying to decide between the indoor but very glamorous looking Gellert Spa, or the Szechenyi baths. Not to downplay the feel of Szechenyi though – they’re set in a palace!
I’m glad we chose Szechenyi too, as there are 15 indoor baths on top of the three outdoor ones. It felt very scenic, especially when the sun started to go down.
On the way to the baths, we also stopped at Heroes Square, which we hadn’t made it to on the bus tour as it’s away from everything else.
In the evening, we went for a great meal on the restaurant street (Vaci ucta) – drawn in by the pretty pink fairy lights adorning the family-run café restaurant called Cafe Europa, the girl advertising the place was super friendly too. It was also the cheapest place we’d seen on the street, yet the food was great and the service was perfect. If there’s one thing I can say about Budapest, it’s that the people are wonderfully welcoming.
The highlight, though, was my friend’s dessert! It was basically a pancake with 62% rum poured on and set fire to!
Read about another beautiful nearby European city: A Day Wandering Beautiful Vienna
I honestly adored Budapest. The buildings are stunning, the people are friendly and the atmosphere is really laid back. The ruin bars make the nightlife totally unique, and it’s one of the most photogenic cities I’ve visited.
I feel like we did quite a lot of typically tourist things (the bus tour, the ice bar…) but we also packed in a whole load of unique things like the caving and the ruin bars, and cooking our own meals with local produce from the market. It was a really good mix.
I already have my heart set on going back! Even though we did pretty much everything I wanted to see and do, I’d love to explore more of the ruin bars and go back to Fishermen’s Bastion. Maybe check out the Gellert spa baths to compare them to Szechenyi? (It would be rude not to.)
In fact, out of all the European cities I’d love to return to, Budapest is top of the list.
Are there any cities you’d love to return to?
While you’re here, check out some of my other European city break posts:
⭐ 24 Hours In Lisbon: Falling In Love With Portugal’s Capital
⭐ Sofia: A City Of Colour And Contrast
⭐ A Romantic Mother/Daughter Break To… Venice?!
⭐ A Day Trip To The German Christmas Markets
⭐ I Didn’t Expect Bratislava To Be So Pretty
⭐ A Day Wandering Beautiful Vienna
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