The first thing people will tell you when you say you’re going to Budapest is how beautiful of a city it is. The skyline is a majestic mix of huge castle-like buildings (and one actual castle) and old-school European architecture, all divided by a river that runs through it from top to bottom.
Having been almost decimated by bombs in World War 2, and under communist regime until 1989, there is very little of the original city built in the 1300’s left intact. Much of it has been reconstructed to look like what was destroyed, and the long blocks of uniform buildings evoke a sense of being in St. Petersburg or Krakow.
What is, perhaps, most interesting is the polarity between the clean, newly constructed buildings standing side by side and the older ones that have turned black with age. The most beautiful discoveries for me were the old doors and the facades of buildings around the big windows that always had statues of faces coming out of them, as if they had been trapped there a thousand years ago.
Whenever I visit a new city, I’m a big fan of the “Hop On, Hop Off” bus tours that take you to all the famous landmarks and give you the history behind them. However, if you’d rather explore yourself, Budapest is very walkable and easy to navigate through the subway system, getting you from one end to the other for less than the price of a coffee.
Budapest is divided by districts, which stretch to either side of the Danube river. One side is the “Buda” side, and the other is “Pest.” I recommend taking one of the smaller boat tours that leave hourly from the port on the Buda side. Not only will you get to see all the best points of interest from the water, it also gives you a historical narrative of the city from a unique perspective.
Combing the city by foot you will notice the ratio of places to eat and drink is infinitely higher than places to shop, making the city a food lover’s paradise. We stayed in the old Jewish Quarter and agreed that we could have just spent the whole trip walking and eating around there. Hungarian food is typically quite heavy and not the greatest for hot summer days and nights — though we did manage to find our way around that, skipping the typical “goulash” and heavy meat dishes for more modern fusion takes on tradition.
Lucky for us (and our stomachs) Budapest is home to some very diverse cuisine, and also boasts tons of vegan and vegetarian restaurants from casual to high-end. We accidentally stumbled upon a quaint little vegetarian lunch spot called Edeni Vegan, long run by its owner, with all the menu options laid out in plate combos. (I ended up having one of the best veggie burgers of my life there!) After that we walked it off uphill to visit Buda Castle, one of Budapest’s best views and most spectacular points of interest. The National Gallery is also housed up there and we lucked out as there was a Frida Kahlo exhibit that had recently opened. We cooled off at the top with giant basil and mint lemonades — a total Budapest staple.
Budapest loves a café. They clearly take great pride in their coffee, and we found so many charming little hipster cafés with amazing offerings that we had to start pacing ourselves. The best part was that every café offered several alternative milk options. After a year of tiny Italian coffee with full milk, my friend and I nearly wept over our Coconut-Rice Milk Flat Whites on our first morning at My Little Melbourne, which boasted an array of juices, charcoal lemonade, and baked goods. Another great spot was Espresso Embassy. However, if chocolate is your drug of choice, you must try Aztek Choxolat. Along with great coffee, they serve amazing homemade hot chocolate any time of the year — because let’s face it, is there ever a wrong time for chocolate?
Our greatest food discoveries were all the amazing Middle Eastern restaurants found around the Jewish Quarter. After spending a few hours taking a tour of the great Synagogue (the largest in Europe) we set out to explore the quarter and all its hidden foodie gems — from the hip and higher-end Mazel Tov to the cozy Dorumba (which was so good we ended up going back for lunch… twice). The district is also dotted with plenty of modern wine bars like our personal fave, Doblo. After a glass (or two) there, we chose Macesz Bistro for dinner and were not dissapointed. We dined on various combos of foie gras, Hungarian-style fish and veggies, and a flawless red wine.
No trip to Budapest would be complete without a visit to one of the cities many “ruin” bars. These are collectives of space set up amongst the ruins of bombed out buildings that have been transformed into everything from dingy dive bars to charming outdoor gardens and co-working spaces. We hit up the more gardenesque ones for daytime lemonades and lazy hammock naps, and saved the more wild ones for nighttime explorations. Perhaps the most famous of them is the Szimpla Kert which has so much going on inside, you would need both a day and night visit just to fully explore it.
Finally, when you are full of food and drink and exhausted from walking, treat yourself to a dip in one of Budapest’s thermal baths, of which there are many to choose from. The Szechenyi is the most popular and even holds DJ rave-style parties in the summertime. I chose to hit up the more quiet and modern Rudas baths on the Pest side of the river for a bit more healing and less drum ‘n bass. My aching feet and tired body felt revived and tingly inside the pools, and after about two hours I was ready to hit the streets and find another great meal and some amazingly cheap and delicious Hungarian wine.
Budapest is the perfect stopover on a European vacation, with more to discover than expected and enough to satisfy all the senses!
Michelle Lipper spent the first half of her life immersed in the world of acting and entertainment in Canada and LA. Thus far, the second half has taken her all over the world in pursuit of healing, spiritual growth, and the meaning of home. She’s rode motorbikes through rainforests in Thailand and Bali, learned to meditate in India, became a kundalini yoga teacher, survived cancer, and adopted the world’s best rescue dog. She has found a way of using her voice in her writing to uniquely communicate and interpret what she has learned into our day-to-day realities. Michelle currently resides in Florence, Italy where she consumes vast quantities of carbohydrates whilst plotting her return to the entertainment industry and Los Angeles. You can follow all of her adventures on Instagram at @lipmich.