The most important thing you need to know about Hungary's bustling capital city, Budapest? It's actually pronounced Boo-dah-pesht, not Boo-dah-pest. This common misconception tends to drive Hungarians nuts, so if you just remember this one rule, you're already well on your way to charming the locals.
Another interesting fact is that Budapest is actually comprised of two cities: Buda (the area west of the Danube River and home to the beautiful Castle Hill) and Pest (the super hip area located to the east of the Danube). In 1873, these two cities came together to form the Budapest we know today.
So why should you go to Budapest? Because it's a vibrant and youthful city with lots to explore and a currency exchange rate that will make you drool! That being said, trying to figure out what to do while you're there can be a bit overwhelming, so I've put together a list of some of my favorites to get you started. Ready? Let's go!
What to See
When you think of Budapest, chances are you also think of the famous Szechenyi Thermal Baths. They make up the largest spa complex in Europe and are a must for any adventurous visitor. There are several indoor pools available for use, but the main event is outside, where in the colder months the steam from the thermal pools creates an almost spooky atmospheric effect. Here you'll find a comical mix of rotund Hungarian men in barely-there speedos playing chess, and beautiful young travelers looking for a good time (you can buy alcohol at the Baths and most Saturdays play host to club nights complete with DJs and a laser show).
Word of advice: if you're at all OCD like myself, bring flip flops or shower shoes with you.
On the southern tip of Budapest's Castle Hill is Buda Castle where you'll find the Hungarian National Gallery, the Budapest History Museum and the National Széchényi Library. All of these are certainly worth a look, though in my humble opinion, the real star of Castle Hill is Fisherman's Bastion.
Fisherman's Bastion was built between 1845-1902 and is comprised of seven turrets, one for each of the Hungarian tribes that founded the present day country in 895. It gets its name from the guild of fishermen who protected the structure during the Middle Ages. It's also said to bear a strong resemblance to the Walt Disney film logo. Eat your heart out, Mickey Mouse.
Not quite convinced yet? It's also free to visit and provides some of Budapest's best views.
Note: To get to the top of Castle Hill, you've got two options...
Shoes on the Danube Memorial
A very powerful and touching memorial located on the Pest side of the Danube River, dedicated to those killed during World War II.
Where to Relax
Keen to unwind and take advantage of Budapest's amazing exchange rate, I've booked a massage at the Mandala Day Spa. There are a wealth of spas to choose from in the city, but my extensive research tells me this is one of the best. An hour-long Swedish massage here will only set you back 13500 HUF ($50/ £30), which includes refreshments (in my case that means copious amounts of mulled wine and cookies, but there's also fruit and tea available for the more health-conscious) and free use of the spa's jacuzzi and sauna room. After an hour with my Hungarian masseur (who might just be the strongest lady ever), I'm feeling flimsy and fabulous. This is pampering at its finest, without even breaking the bank.
Where to Eat
After all of this pampering and exploration, you probably will have worked up quite the appetite. Luckily, Budapest is undergoing a culinary revolution and there are plenty of options to choose from. Gone are the days of goulash, goulash and more goulash (not that I have anything against goulash!). Even better? There's a winning option for you no matter what your budget:
Keen to treat yourself to a first class meal? Check out one of Budapest's four Michelin-starred restaurants.
The first restaurant in Budapest to get a Michelin star was Costes in 2010. Soon after, Borkonyha, Tanti, and Onyx all nabbed a star of their own. As Costes is already booked up, my taller half and I decide to give Onyx a try. Let me tell you, it does not disappoint. The bread basket alone contains 10+ different varieties, from squid ink to beer bread. To be honest, they could have just called it a day here and I would have been a satisfied customer, but to my delight, the goods just keep on coming:
A Nice Meal that Won't Break the Bank
What's that you say? You spent all your money on airfare and don't have the cash to splash out on a Michelin-starred meal? Don't you worry! The remedy is clear: Zeller Bistro.
Following a friend's recommendation, for our second night in town we've reserved a table at Zeller Bistro (which is also one of the top-rated Budapest restaurants on TripAdvisor). Upon arrival, we're given a glass of complimentary elderflower champagne and then escorted to our table. The first thing I notice are the crayons lying on top of the white paper tablecloth. I'm a big supporter of pre-dinner coloring, so they're already winning.
When my taller half asks our waiter which red wine he would recommend, he disappears for a moment only to reemerge with four different bottles of red wine. He lets us try a sample of each, and then informs us of the price of all of the bottles (I for one really appreciated this, as a lot of places would simply try to dupe you into buying the most expensive bottle). Wine selected, we dig into our delicious food. Let the record show that my truffle risotto is the stuff dreams are made of.
To top off what is already a fantastic meal (did I mention the truffle risotto?), our check arrives along with two complimentary mini-cupcakes. Zeller Bistro, I salute you.
Something Cheap and Tasty
Not one for sit-down meals? Look no further than the city's many market stalls. In the winter months, Budapest plays host to some of the best Christmas Markets in Europe. Full disclosure: this was my main reason for wanting to visit Budapest. Nothing makes me happier than drinking a glass of mulled wine under a canopy of twinkly Christmas lights. For dessert, I recommend trying the Chimney Cake, a local specialty.
Where to Drink
It would be a crime (yes, I said it) to visit Budapest without checking out one of their infamous Ruin Bars. The Hungarians have taken a bunch of derelict buildings and turned them into some of Europe's funkiest bars. Full of mismatched furniture and wacky decor, navigating the maze of random rooms can be like falling down a very trippy rabbit hole. On our visit we've chosen to visit Szimpla Kert, one of the original ruin bars. As I take a seat on top of an old pommel horse, mulled wine in hand, I know it's going to be a good night.
Faust Wine Cellar: Located in the historic depths of Buda Castle (though the entrance is via the slightly-less-exotic Hilton Hotel) is the Faust Wine Cellar, where you can sample some top Hungarian wines whilst pretending to be an ancient knight recently returned home from battle. Word of warning: make sure you book in advance.
Book Cafe - Lotz Terem: Not a big drinker? Don't worry, I've got you covered. Pay a visit to the grand Book Cafe, located on the top floor of the Alexandra Bookstore. Don't let the modern entrance fool you, this is a sight to be seen, with stunning chandeliers and a fresco-style ceiling.
And now, dear reader, it's time for you to head down the rabbit hole and see for yourself what one of Europe's coolest cities has to offer.