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Brilliant city breaks in Budapest

The spirit of collaboration flows through the city of Budapest, highlighted by the fact that it was once the twin capital of the dual monarchy in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Indeed, Budapest actually came into existence by the partnership of two separate cities in 1873, Buda and Pest, split by the glassy green waters of the River Danube. This plurality has given the city eclectic art, architecture and atmosphere.

  • Location
  • Overview
  • Activities & Attractions
  • Eating out
  • Nightlife

 

A historic, cultural city of many sides

 

Budapest is easy to navigate whether you’re wandering on foot or experiencing the retro tiled design of the Millennium Underground Railway (it’s the oldest underground system in mainland Europe). Your journey should start in the historic heart of Buda, in the famed Castle Hill district. Rising above the river, the mint-topped domes of Buda Castle dominate the area, although the huge stone grey fortress of the Citadel offers just as breathtaking views of neighbouring Pest.

 

Crossing through leafy green spaces interspersed throughout Budapest, you’ll discover a city that’s unafraid to face up to its chequered past. This is the case whether you’re at the harrowing (but important) House of Terror or the slightly more amusing toppled communist statues littered at the Monument Park. Yet Budapest is also looking into the future, especially at its vibrantly modern gourmet restaurants, lively bars and chic boutique hotels. The Continental Hotel Zara provided by Jet2holidays is a perfect example of this new approach –with clean lines, tasteful neutral tones and sleek modern floorboards, it’s a fusion of Art Noveau design.

 

This explosion of international interest has made certain districts of the city a primetime for partying. Stag weekends in Budapest are becoming ever more popular as the nightlife areas offer cheap drinks and a warm welcome in unique surroundings. For example, the romkocsma pubs are set in ruined residential buildings for a real Bohemian vibe.

 

But whether you’re exploring the city sights or heading for bright nights, you’ll appreciate a serene soak in the many baths in the city. Budapest was built under natural thermal springs, something the Romans knew well when they conquered the Danube area. Today, you can submerge yourself under the warm waters at Széchenyi Spa whilst admiring the Art Noveau design of gilded Roman columns and ornate balconies. Absolute bliss!

 

“Budapest Castle - a lot to see in the city, it is a must visit destination.”

Grand buildings and cultural delights


Budapest’s prestigious history as one of the most prosperous cities in Central Europe has led it to make grand gestures of architecture on almost every corner. Nowhere is this more evident than in the city’s central hub, the Castle Hill district in the historic Buda on the western bank of the Danube. The entire area is a focal point for the most famous attractions in Budapest, including the unmistakable Buda Castle. Sitting upon the southern side of the hill, this huge fortress merges many different architectural styles as it was completely destroyed several times since its creation in 1420. Today, the castle has been restored to its former glory, with pristine orange and grey stonework rising to mint green domes and rooftops. The facade is particularly pretty, and features Roman-style columns and a colourful flowerbed, interspersed with huge statues. Inside is now just as grand, as despite being damaged by both the Nazis and the Soviets, photographs from the 19th century have ensured that the rooms are faithfully re-created and adorned with marble walls, gilded arches and shimmering chandeliers. The interior also houses the National Gallery, which displays a large collection of pieces by native Hungarian artists.


And continuing with the theme of incredibly ornate structures, the Fisherman’s Bastion is nearby too. Built in 1902 as a monument for fishermen who defended Budapest from attack, this chalk-white fortress has seven cone-shaped towers that look like they’ve been lifted directly from a fairy-tale. Wander along its hills and climb the towers for fabulous views across the glistening Danube and the intricate, soaring spires of the Parliament Building in Pest.


Although if you prefer open green spaces over stone grey cityscapes, you may also want to head to the Memento Park in the south of Buda. However, this is much more than just a standard park – it holds statues of famous figures from communism, such as Lenin, Stalin and Marx. Wandering around the towering bronze and stone statues is a sobering experience, providing a reminder of the dominance the Soviets once had over Hungary.


For a more relaxing walk amongst lush green landscapes, wander to Margaret Island in the middle of the Danube River. This largely uninhabited island consists almost entirely of parkland, and it has a number of interesting features such as a Japanese Garden and medieval ruins of old churches from the 12th and 13th centuries.


Conveniently, Margaret Island also acts as a gateway between the two sides of Budapest, so cross its bridges to the eastern bank of the more modern, flatter Pest. The most famous attraction here is the Parliament Building that you will have seen from looking out atop the Fisherman’s Bastion and the Citadella. If the intricate stone carvings of the facade seem inviting, you can arrange a guided tour of the inside, where you’ll even have the chance to see the glowing golden Hungarian Crown Jewels, which date back to the 9th century.


But Pest has plenty more to interest you, especially in its huge variety of museums, such as the House of Terror on the elegant Andrássy Avenue, focused on Hungary’s dramatic past being occupied by both the Nazis and the Soviets. As a stylish tree-lined boulevard, Andrássy Avenue was styled on the cosmopolitan chic of the Champs Elysées in Paris, and you’ll see a building befitting this approach at the Hungarian State Opera House. This Neo-Renaissance structure is incredibly grand inside, with vibrantly coloured dome surrounded by florid golden balconies.


However, if you’re just up for having fun during stag weekends in Budapest, you’ll find there’s more than enough to keep you busy in the city. One of the best activities is playing paintball amongst the tall trees of a forest once used as a soviet military base. Whilst you can also give go-karting a go at the Budapest track, or try quad-biking in the surrounding green spaces near the city. And if you want to relax after all that action, there are several spas in the city thanks to the natural thermal springs that bubble under the ground.  Built in 1918 in grand Art Noveau style, the Gellért Baths are rightly one of the most famous of these.


“Visit the spas, they're a unique experience and a must see. Very relaxing too.”


“Make sure to visit the fortress above Danube River - wonderful views over Budapest.”


“Make sure you spend some time on Margaret Island - an absolute treasure.”

Heart-warming Hungarian dishes


Hungarians are clearly proud of their cuisine, as you’ll find it very easy to find authentic restaurants serving national specialities. The Hungarians are famous for their extensive use of paprika, the bright red spice created from dried, ground peppers. Incredibly, paprika is so popular here it comes in a variety of grades from ‘Special Quality’ to ‘Noble Sweet’ and ‘Rose’. You’ll certainly taste paprika in Hungary’s most famous dish – goulash, a rich soupy stew made with vegetables, garlic and chunks of meat. Another highly-recommended paprika based dish is Paprikás, which has a gravy mixed with cream and paprika. As an oddity unique to Hungary, also look out for the huge variety of soups. They’re wonderfully heart-warming on cooler days, and you can even try fruit soups made from cherries and pears.


Within Budapest, there’s a brilliant choice of quality restaurants. You’ll note that a great majority of the restaurants are based on the more modern eastern bank of Pest. At the high-end (in both price and luxury), the Michelin-starred Onyx restaurant presents gourmet food in a pristine, minimalist fashion and you can even keep the menu! By comparison, Borkonyha offers more traditional, larger dishes and your budget will go a bit further too. If you fancy a break from sampling the Hungarian specialities, Italian restaurants are very well represented in the city, with some of the best being Comme Chez Soi  and Fausto’s.


But that’s not to say the western bank of Buda doesn’t have any restaurants at all. Certainly, the eateries on this side seem to aim for a more traditional side, befitting of the older architecture in this area. Sample wine soup, savoury pancakes or dobos, a sweet chocolate cake layered with caramel - all rustic home made treats to savour from classic restaurants.

Some of the best and most unusual bars in the world


Budapest gets rave reviews for its nightlife, and it’s not surprising since very cheap drinks, friendly locals and stunning locations all make a winning combination! The majority of bars are based in Pest, and whilst the area is not as historical as Buda, it’s still possible to have a uniquely Hungarian drinking experience here.  Whilst you’re wandering, look out for the wine bars known as borozó. They largely serve fragrant local wine known as Tokay, although a rich red wine called Bull’s Blood is very popular too. And even thought the wine is great quality, you’ll be bowled over by the amazingly cheap price, especially the further east you go, away from the city centre.

 

Plus, you simply must visit the romkocsma pubs that are found in districts 7 and 8 on the Pest bank. Combining a historical and drinking attraction in one, romkocsma is literally translated as ‘ruined pubs’, which is a very apt description. The pubs are set up in old abandoned residential buildings, and are purposely shabbily decorated with second-hand furniture and vibrant graffiti adorning the walls. Certainly an unusual experience, and a great way to mix with locals!

 

Stag weekends in Budapest are growing in popularity all the time, and are proving a strong alternative to weekends in Prague. With cheap beer and the super-strong palinka – a Hungarian fruit spirit, it’s easy to understand why stags are opting for the bright lights of Budapest. To match the demand, you’ll find that British-style pubs have not sprung up in certain parts of the city, such as Fat Mo’s Music Club and the John Bull Club. Both are very popular with English speakers, so you’ll have the opportunity to party with plenty of other groups on stag weekends too.

 

But if you’re just looking for an all-action night out, there are plenty of atmospheric bars and clubs. A38 in southern Buda has become something of an institution now, especially since it placed at number one of the Lonely Planet’s 100 Great Bars of the World list. Renovated from a 1968 Ukrainian stone hauler ship, the partying is spread across several different levels, with a very loud sound system keeping things exciting. Drinking outside is even more memorable as the ship actually sails along the River Danube while you’re onboard!

 

In fact, for a more sedate evening out a stroll along the River Danube at dusk is highly recommended. As night falls, Castle Hill and the Parliament Building are lit up spectacularly in a warm golden glow. And as you wander along the peaceful riverfront, you’ll notice that this glittering effect is amplified by the mirror-like dark water.

 

“Walk by the river Danube at night to see the lights of the city and especially the Parliament.”

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