With nearly four miles of the city designated as a UNESCO World Heritage area, Budapest, the capital of Hungary, is a city steeped in history and beauty. Situated along both sides of the famous Danube River, the city was established in 1873 when the cities of Óbuda (“Old Buda”), Buda, and Pest unified. These days, people know Buda, on the west side of the Danube as the quieter, hillier, more family-friendly side, while Pest is gritty and urban, with something always going on.
While Budapest is fantastic to explore on foot, you can also hop on mainland Europe's oldest metro—also a designated UNESCO World Heritage site—to historic thermal baths, museums, and an array of international food choices including six Michelin-starred restaurants. While the fall of Communism brought international food and culture, Hungarian culture is alive and well.
Walking through history
From Romans to Ottomans to Habsburgs to Nazis to Soviets, Hungary has a long history of changing rulers, and this history is reflected in the architecture. There’s Baroque from the 17th and 18th centuries, 19th-century Art Nouveau and Moorish Revival, and 20th-century block-style Socialist Classicism from when the country was under Communist rule. Look closely and you might even find some bullet holes left from the 1956 revolution.
A favorite activity for both locals and tourists is simply walking through the open-air historical museum that is Budapest. While the Hungarian Parliament Building (inspired by the British building) might be the most famous, be sure to stop by the Neo-Renaissance Hungarian State Opera House and the Art Nouveau-style Royal Postal Savings Bank building topped with bold green and gold ceramic tiles.
Pickles, paprika, and pork, oh my!
Budapest boasts six Michelin-starred restaurants. While dishes from around the world are available across the city, Hungarian classics can be easily found.
There is, of course, Hungarian goulash. Contrary to what many Americans think, Hungarian goulash is more of a soup than a stew, made with beef, vegetables, and lots and lots of paprika. As one of the world’s top producers of paprika, Hungarians love the spice, adding multiple tablespoons to their goulash.
Pork reigns in Hungary due to the abundance of the curly-haired native Mangalica pig. Pickling is also a big deal in Hungary. Before modern refrigeration, Hungarians pickled as much as possible to make use of their crops during cold winters. Head to the basement of the historic Central Market Hall and you’ll find a dozen shops displaying jars filled with smiley faces, butterflies, and animals—their shapes assembled from pickled tomatoes, pimentos, and garlic.
Wine of kings, king of wines
Hungary’s history with wine likely pre-dates the Romans. With 22 wine areas spread throughout 6 large wine regions, the country is heaven for oenophiles and stands at 14th in the world for wine production. Not bad for a country the size of Indiana.
The wine industry was destroyed when the Soviets took control after World War II and, in typical Soviet fashion, designated vineyards to grow cheap, easy-to-grow grapes. Thirty years after the fall of Communism, Hungary’s wine industry is booming, with Budapest’s countless wine bars and restaurants offering lengthy wine menus.
Not a wine person? Try one of the unofficial national drinks of Hungary—pálinka or unicum. Pálinka, a strictly-regulated fruit brandy made from nearly any fruit found in Hungary, must have a minimum alcohol content of 37.5%. As for unicum, while a few different varieties have popped up in recent years, the original earthy digestif is made from a secret recipe and 40 herbs and spices from around the world.
Searching for Stalin
With an abundance of museums sharing art, history, music, design, and even pinball, there’s a museum for everyone. For those interested in 20th-century history, two stand out.
The building holding the House of Terror Museum was used by the Arrow Cross, the fascist political party and Nazi collaborators that came to power during World War II. Throughout the war, the building was used as headquarters for interrogations, torture, and executions. When Hungary came under Soviet control post-war, the Communist Secret Police used the building until the 1956 revolution for the same purposes. The exhibitions throughout four floors help visitors understand what life was like for the persecuted in 20th-century Hungary.
Lesser-known Memento Park sits on the outskirts of Budapest and answers the question, “How does a country remember history without honoring it?” Communist statues that had previously lined the city streets and were meant to remind all of the Soviets’ rule were moved here in 1993 after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Time to celebrate
When the weather gets warm, festivals abound, with none bigger than the August 20th celebration of St. Stephen’s Day. The entire city turns out to celebrate the founding of the country by King Stephen I in 1000 AD. Revelers enjoy free museums, folklore shows, parades—including the procession of the preserved right hand of St. Stephen—food and drinks, and an impressive fireworks display launched from bridges and barges along the Danube.
Just a few weeks later, crowds gather at Buda Castle for the Budapest Wine Festival. Wines from every region of Hungary are served up along with food options and stages hosting live music.
Hungarians swear to the medicinal qualities of their more than 1,300 thermal springs flowing across the country. With 123 of them in Budapest, there’s no shortage of places to soak.
Besides a good soak, each offers other unique experiences like a rooftop pool overlooking the Danube, a 500-year-old Turkish hammam (Rudas), a wave pool (Gellért), and Sparty, a nighttime spa party featuring lasers and electronic music (Szechenyi). Though the thermal waters are the main attraction, the architecture in each is truly impressive.
Fighting for LGBTQ+ equality
In the past few years, laws in Hungary have been enacted that discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community. While homosexuality is legal, there are now laws that ban gender transition, gay adoption, and sharing information about LGBTQ+ people in classes or media for children.
The LGBTQ+ community and its allies continue to fight for equality, and these laws aren’t necessarily supported by the majority of people in Budapest. As British expat Chris Clarke, a gay man, says, “Nothing’s changed [in daily life]. By introducing this law it’s somehow made the younger generation more accepting.”
The 2021 Budapest Pride March boasted an estimated 30,000 marchers followed by an all-night party in a park. Walk down the streets of Budapest and you’ll likely see same-sex couples holding hands. Some of those might be heading to one of the many gay-friendly establishments like Why Not Cafe & Bar for a bite to eat or to see their occasional drag show, or Gaby’s, known for its weekly drag bingo. Partiers may want to try Garçons or Alterego.
Getting there is half the fun
Budapest is a fantastic walking city but also has excellent public transportation. Sometimes using the transportation system is less about the destination and more about the journey.
Built in the late 1800s, the UNESCO-listed Metro Line 1 (M1) is the first underground train system constructed in Europe and the third oldest in the world.
Two great ways to enjoy the world-famous waterfront are available through the public transportation system. Tram #2, nicknamed “the Tourist Tram,” travels along the Pest waterfront offering a breathtaking view of Buda Castle and a close-up of the Parliament building. During warmer months, a boat service that runs up and down the Danube is available through the Budapest public transportation system.