In this Budapest city guide, Rhian Colley shares why the city’s glorious location, eclectic mix of architecture and inviting thermal baths make it a terrific place for a pre- or post-river cruise stay.
Budapest’s grand setting, spread across the majestic Danube river, and spectacular architecture make it one of the most intriguing and captivating cities in Europe. Its two sides, Buda and Pest, along with Óbuda, merged in 1873 to form the Hungarian capital, but the area’s rich history stretches back much further.
The Celts and Romans were among the first to settle on the land where Budapest stands today, and by the end of the 9th century, it had been taken by the Hungarian people. Buda and Pest began to develop in the 12th century and, 300 years later, Buda flourished as a hub of European Renaissance. This ended, however, when Budapest fell under Ottoman, then Habsburg rule and it would take until the late 19th century for the city to prosper again.
After the Second World War, Hungary descended under the Iron Curtain, where it remained until 1989. Three decades later, Budapest has been transformed, with Buda and Pest offering distinct experiences; the former is home to medieval quarters and royal palaces while the latter is livelier and more cosmopolitan.
Budapest’s most iconic landmark, the Hungarian Parliament Building, is located on the banks of the Danube. A brilliant blend of architectural styles, including neo-Gothic, neo-Romanesque and
neo-Baroque, the attraction can be taken in from the river and looks spectacular lit up at night. Guided tours around the North Wing are available, too.
A short walk from here is the neo-classical St Stephen’s Basilica, decorated inside with lavish gold and intricate paintings. Another top sight is also nearby by the cathedral: the magnificent Széchenyi Chain Bridge which stretches across to Buda.
The biggest draw on this side of the river is UNESCO-listed Castle Hill. Towering 170m above the Danube, it’s here where the city’s most important medieval monuments are found, such as the Royal Palace and Matthias Church, as well as the decorative neo-Gothic Fisherman’s Bastion.
One of the best ways to reach the winding cobblestone streets and leafy promenades of Castle Hill is to board the 1870-built funicular railway. Or those feeling more active can hike up to the top where the sweeping views across Budapest make the steep climb well worth the effort.
Arguably the most moving memorial in the city is the Shoes on the Danube Bank. Standing just in front of the Parliament Building are 60 pairs of iron shoes, commemorating the Hungarian Jewish victims who were shot into the river by the Arrow Cross militiamen during the Second World War.
The city is very well-connected by public transport, and if you purchase a Budapest Card from one of the tourist information centres (there’s one at the airport), you can get free access to the local buses and metro system.
Also included with the card is free or discounted entry to a number of attractions, including the Széchenyi Thermal Baths – one of the biggest natural hot springs in Europe. With 15 indoor thermal pools and three outdoor pools, the baths make for a relaxing experience right in the centre of the city.
Eating and drinking
Spicy, rich and deliciously flavoursome, Hungary’s cuisine is often a surprising discovery for many travellers to the country and, fortunately, Budapest is home to a fantastic array of restaurants.
New York Palace Café (newyorkcafe.hu) is worth a visit for its beautiful Italian Renaissance-style décor alone, but the food is great too. Sample a traditional Hungarian dish such as goulash or schnitzel amid elaborate frescos and glittering chandeliers which have been restored to their original 1894 glory.
An ideal eatery for a laidback lunch or dinner is Bistro Fine (bistrofine.hu). Serving up a Hungarian international fusion, one of the menu’s highlights is the Mákosguba – a traditional desert made from sweet white bread, mascarpone and poppy seed oil.
If drinks are called for after dinner, District VII, or Erzsébetváros, is the place to go. Rich in Jewish history, the area has a modern, edgy feel with a huge choice of ruin bars – drinking joints built in the ruins of abandoned buildings. It’s the perfect chance to sample some local wine – Hungary is fast-becoming recognised as a top-quality wine producer – or for something stronger, try a shot of Pálinka, a Hungarian fruit brandy.
Where to stay
Merging Art Deco elegance with modern features, Corinthia Hotel Budapest is a five-star retreat in the heart of Pest. Spacious rooms boast French Renaissance-inspired décor and guests can make use of the Royal Spa, which boasts refurbished 1930s fixtures as well as a swimming pool, sauna, steam bath and Jacuzzi.
There is a variety of restaurants, too, including fine dining eatery Caviar & Bull, Bock Bistro, which fuses Hungarian-inspired dishes with Spanish tapas, and the Brasserie and Atrium, open all day from breakfast to dinner.
Cruise lines that call in Budapest include:
Avalon Waterways, Emerald Waterways, Scenic, Titan, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection and Viking.