For Paragraph Breaks

By Felicity, World Traveler

Like many first-time visitors, it was the disarming riverfront view of Buda that hooked me. From a sunset stroll along the Danube, which cuts the capital in two, I saw Castle Hill, Gellért Hill, and the Fisherman’s bastion, each perpetually posing atop Buda’s rolling geography. Buda and Pest, separate cities until they were officially married in 1873, are strikingly different in character: Buda’s leafy and languid Yin to Pest’s vibrant and pulsing Yang.

Interior of luxury hotel suite that's open to tropical exterior

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Being partly of Hungarian ancestry and a generally curious person, I’d planned a stopover of just a few days in the Hungarian capital. Four years later, I’m still here. The city is at once truly European, with grand architecture and a sophisticated cultural life, while also being youthful and vibrant. It’s a city undergoing reinvention after the many traumas of the last century, and is the perfect mix of old world, retro charm, and a dynamic, irrepressible energy.

Bars of raw dark chocolate

Now that your curiosity is piqued, what should you do here? As with any European city, it’s best to start with a coffee. Head to Espresso Embassy, with its vaulted ceilings and friendly service, for a cup from one of their award-winning baristas. If you’re feeling peckish, grab a kakaós csiga—like a cinnamon roll but with chocolate—for a classic Hungarian breakfast.

Kayaks and standup paddle boards on a tropical beach

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Budapest is a walking city, and there’s no better place to begin your explorations than the 5th district, the heart of Pest, which forms a semicircle against the river. These streets are steeped in history and strewn with architectural gems; be sure to admire one of the finest examples of Hungarian Art Nouveau in the city—the former Royal Postal Savings Bank and current National Bank of Hungary—located on Hold utca. Take it slow in this neighborhood, appreciating the stunningly intricate iron gates of the entrances, and the nature-inspired artistry of the facades.

dark brown cocoa beans spread out on a table

After all that appreciating, you’ll no doubt be hungry. Pop into the nearby Belvárosi Piac (also on Hold utca), one of a network of covered food markets throughout the city. Try a fresh pogácsa, the Hungarian take on scones, from one of the keen and chatty vendors. From here, swing by the majestic Parliament building; it’s a bit large for a modest Central European country, but built in an era when the Kingdom of Hungary stretched from the Adriatic to present-day Romania.

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Backtrack up a different street and hit Cafe Kör for lunch. I lean towards the roasted duck leg with mashed potatoes and purple cabbage, but you really can’t go wrong with the rotating menu of classic Hungarian dishes. And since Hungary is a land of soups, be sure not to miss their vegetable soup of the day.
Work that duck off by heading across Erzsébet Bridge and up Gellert Hill, where you’ll find one of the best views of the city. It’s particularly great at sunset, when locals and visitors alike flock there to admire Budapest in all its glory. The walled area at the top is known as the Citadella; after the failed revolution of 1848, it was built by the Habsburgs to keep watch over the restless Hungarians.

A tropical white sandy beach with forest behind

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As evening falls, head to Pest’s up-and-coming 8th district for drinks. Long considered the sketchiest of the inner-city districts, it’s rapidly transforming into one of the area’s most dynamic. Once there, let the welcoming and knowledgeable staff at Cintanyeros guide you through the wide world of Hungarian wines. Somewhat neglected during the communist era in favor of mass production, Hungarian wine is back in a big way; try a dry white Furmint from the Tokaj region in northeastern Hungary, or a red from the volcanic plains of the Villány region.

For dinner, there’s no better way to experience Hungary’s rich cuisine than at Rosenstein’s, also in the 8th district. Tucked away on a street near Keleti railway station, the food is classic Hungarian-Jewish and an absolute treat. The menu is extensive, and has something for everyone (except, perhaps, vegetarians). If you’re asking me, I say go with the grilled foie gras slices with fried onion rings and the matzo ball soup. Round it out with a shot of Pálinka, a Hungarian brandy made from peaches, plums, or whatever fruit happened to be on hand during its production.

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Have a sweet tooth? Then Budapest is your city. For exquisite multilayered cakes and flaky pastries oozing finely whipped cream, head to Daubner, an institution that’s been spiking Magyar blood sugar since 1901. Rétes, the Hungarian version of strudel, is a little easier on the waistline, and can best be sampled at the charming Házi rétesbolt on Pozsonyi ut. Try the heavenly combination of chocolate, sour cherry, and túró, a kind of mild cheese common to Hungarian cuisine.

Orange and yellow cacao pods broken open

Later in the evening, you’ll discover that Budapest’s nightlife is truly legendary. For contemporary dance and theater, check out the happenings at Trafó, a wellspring of modern Hungarian creativity. If it’s drinks and dancing you’re after, head for A38, a floating music venue that’s retired from its previous career as a Ukrainian stone-hauling vessel on the Danube; now it hosts multiple international and local musical acts every night of the week.

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For a casual, quieter, and truly authentic Hungarian evening, there’s no better place to while away the hours than Potkulcs, a somewhat hidden bar with a casual vibe in the 6th district. Divided into several areas, and often featuring live music, the atmosphere is charmingly retro and their outdoor courtyard is the perfect spot to joke, drink, discuss, and complain (a favorite Hungarian past time). In the cooler months, another great option is Lámpás, a basement bar in the heart of the 7th district.

Woman with snorkel underwater looking at coral reefsImage: Shutterstock

I wish you had more time! But with this guide you can certainly get a feel for what Budapest is all about.

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