Warming Up to Budapest

The Hungarian Circus is an every day thing, with acrobats, lions, shiny costumes and wacky music. City Park, Budapest
The Hungarian Circus is an every day thing, with acrobats, lions, shiny costumes and wacky music. City Park, Budapest

Early on in our recent visit to Budapest, Tom mentioned he just wasn’t feeling it. We were walking down Vaci Street, the unimpressive, pedestrian-only shopping avenue in central Budapest. We’d just moved to an AirBnB for the week, and hardly knew the place. I was reminded of the young traveler who once told me she hated Venice. “It rained all three days I was there.”

It’s easy to rush to judgement about a city, to immediately love it or hate it. What’s trickier is to spend a little time letting the city talk back to you and reveal its heart. For visitors with a few days to spend in Budapest, here are some areas to walk with eyes and ears open to the local beat. These places just might change your thinking about Budapest.

Walking The Riverfront

The Danube River is the centerpiece of Budapest, the original division between the early settlements of Buda and Pest, the source of historic commerce and communication, and today the mesmerizing reflection of the city’s monuments. Views of the river, the bridges, and the banks change by the hour. Hardly a day passes that we don’t walk along the river to take another look and shoot more photos. Serious walkers can make the rounds crossing one bridge and returning on another. Or, from the riverfront, climb Gellert Hill to the Citadel, visit Margaret Island, head to shops in the Central Market Hall, or check out the famous Chain Bridge and the historic sites on either side. Remember, though, that pedestrians share the space with trams and cars, just steps above the distracting river traffic.

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Walking the bridges of Budapest. This view's looking downriver from the Margaret Island bridge.
Walking the bridges of Budapest. This view's looking downriver from the Margaret Island bridge.

Walking Buda

The most visited sites in Buda (the hillier, western side of the Danube) are visible from the river, and included on most tours of the city: Matthias Church, the Palace, and Fisherman’s Bastion. But take a walk through the small back streets in this oldest neighborhood, and you’ll discover quiet doorways, scenic overlooks, historic buildings, and some of the city’s sweetest coffee shops. If you are up for more, go down. Below street level is a network of caves, created by the same thermal springs that've made this a city of spas. Some are open for tours, others transformed into restaurants or cellars. Read about our Buda district tour with Context Travel if you like history with your walking.

Walking the Palace District

On the southeastern edge of the central district, behind the Hungarian National Museum, is the Palace District. It’s a great neighborhood to walk, outside of normal tourist routes yet full of history. The palatial homes were built after Budapest was named the ‘other’ capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1867. Some of these grand homes have been converted (a library, a school) and are open to visitors. This residential neighborhood with treelined streets adjoins a university area, and there are a variety of good and inexpensive places to eat. Take time, too, to walk along the Museum Street, peppered with a number of bookstores and antiquarian shops. On the south side of the Palace District, toward the river, is the Central Market Hall.

Paprika and peppers in the Central Market Hall
Paprika and peppers in the Central Market Hall

Another Market, Another Neighborhood

While we’re speaking of markets, we can recommend another smaller market in the central city. The Hold Street (or Downtown) Market is closer to Parliament and the embassy area, and my friend at the Kempinski Hotel tells me this is where she shops. The market’s second floor, with more than a dozen eateries, is a great place to grab lunch. I couldn’t resist buying a tin of goose liver pate as a gift for friends back home.

(If you travel to Budapest in December, you’ll find Christmas markets that rival those of any other city we’ve visited, based on tasty food and high quality hand-crafted good.)

Behind the Dohany Synagogue

Every time I visit this area of Budapest, I’m struck by a new and different facet. And whether it’s day or night, or if I’m alone or with friends, I’m generally somewhat lost. Be content to follow your nose here. Hidden alleys (the Gozsdu Court) are being revived into rows of restaurants and pubs. Large murals pop up where you least expect them. Public art and memorials to the Jewish ghetto which once stood here can be both jarring and peaceful. Tea shops, boutiques, good restaurants, and the odd ‘ruins’ style nightclub are pocketed here and there for all to discover. For walkers with an appetite for the unexpected, this is the place to wander.

A mural recognizing Hungarian Ernö Rubik's contribution to design and puzzling.
A mural recognizing Hungarian Ernö Rubik's contribution to design and puzzling.

This district is bordered by Kiraly and Rakozci streets, but we recommend meandering along Dohany Street and its offshoots. (Venture further on Rakoczi Street to reach the modern transit area around the old Budapest-Keleti rail station, an architectural hodgepodge from the 19th Century.)

The Length of Andrassy

You might say the real center of town is Elizabeth Square (with the obligatory Ferris wheel) adjoining Deák Ferenc Square (where all three Budapest Metro lines converge). Or, historically, that center might have been a couple blocks north at St. Stephen’s Basilica. Either way, it’s easy to walk northeast from here along Andrassy Street to see another wonderful section of Budapest. The broad, tree-lined avenue is good for window shopping, people watching, and getting your FitBit steps in.

budapest ferris wheel
The incongruous Ferris Wheel, or the incongruous fountain, central Budapest.

Even without reservations, you’ll likely be able to walk into the lobby of the magnificent opera house for a giant dose of marble beauty. A monument to native son Franz Liszt is further up the street where Andrassy intersects with a grassy boulevard lined with restaurants. Further still is the controversial House of Terror Museum, more of an experience than a traditional museum. For photography fans, don’t miss the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center just off Andrassy.

Along this corridor runs the historic Budapest subway line, the ‘underground’ versus the newer ‘metro’ lines. It’s the oldest subway line on Europe’s mainland (London’s underground is older), and shares visual details with the oldest Paris lines: wrought iron, ceramic tiles, and incredibly small platforms.

If you do the distance and dodge the traffic at Hero’s Square, you’ll end up in Budapest’s City Park, a 300-acre park encompassing a lake, the perennial circus, Széchenyi Thermal Baths, a zoo and botanical gardens, and The Castle, built for the Millennial Exhibition in 1897.

The National Theater (l) and the Ludwig Museum punctuate the classic Danube River scenery
The contemporary National Theater (l) and Ludwig Museum punctuate the classic Danube River scenery

A Modern Art Break

Hop the tram south to visit part of contemporary Budapest. Here, along the Danube, are both the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art and the National Theater. It is only fair, after admiring the history of Budapest and acknowledging Hungary’s artistic past, to see what’s new and on the horizon.

We’ve already earmarked other neighborhoods to walk when we return to Budapest. Now that we’ve changed our minds about Budapest, we know we haven’t even scratched the surface. Check out our recommendations (so far) on where to stay and eat in Budapest.

A bleak statue recalling Soviet times presses up against the Parliament building.
A bleak statue recalling Soviet times presses up against the Parliament building.

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12 thoughts on “Warming Up to Budapest”

  1. Budapest is one of my favorite cities although their horrible treatment of refugees has made me less keen on Hungary. But Budapest is full of great places to walk, tons of interesting history, some excellent restaurants and my personal favorite hotel The Aria Budapest. Plus it’s one of the few cities where I can take lots of photos that look great!

  2. Budapest is my favorite European city, hands down. But I didn’t take to it right away, either. Only until we began to appreciate more of its edgy context did I come to love it. Other places, like Vienna, are too perfect for me. Still others, too precious bordering on cute overload. I’ll take Budapest any old day: gritty, determined, battered but not beaten, bridging the Germanic with the Slav, more beautiful because of it all. I love the back streets on the Buda side, too. As you mention, very livable and great little coffee places.

    • That is so good to hear, Betsy. I think you captured it: Budapest is not all picture perfect, but so fascinating for all its variety. There are so many bold statements – both in contemporary ways (transit, boutiques, art, food) and in handling of old history and traditions. It will continue to hold my interest and call me back.

  3. We felt the same way when staying here 3 months last summer – took us a little while to feel Budapest. Prague jumps out at you and its disneyland, Budapest is deeper and requires some time. The people are fantastic. Go to the ruin bars and the thermal baths and with time you’ll end up loving the place.
    Frank (bbqboy)

  4. Thanks for the fabulous virtual tour of Budapest! Your pictures and narratives did a great job of talking me into planning a visit to this amazing city with so many layers and facets. From reading the comments it looks like we’ll want to plan a few weeks to explore the city, wander around and see its lspectacular architecture and museums as well as the grittier side. Can’t wait to visit!

  5. I would love to visit Budapest! This is a great guide for whenever we get there. It’s wonderful to stay long enough to go beyond the main tourist sights, and just enjoy the daily hum of a place.


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