When planning a February city-break in this pandemic world, we needed to do our research on every possible location and its entry requirements. We knew we’d love to travel somewhere in Eastern Europe, but so many locations were closed off to foreigners or very difficult to get in to. One location I’ve always wanted to visit was Hungary and by January, we found out it was very easy to get into (we just had to all be vaccinated, done x3!).
So off to Budapest we went, for February half-term break!
To start, I’ll say we flew RyanAir there, our first time with them. We’d heard the horrid stories and avoided them for 2.5 years, but they were the only direct flight to Hungary from Bristol so we tried it. I just wanted to take this paragraph and say, we regretted it and they were nothing but crap service from beginning to end. It wasn’t even just about the flight or the seats, but service and kindness is free and you can tell so much about a company by how they treat their customers. We will never fly with RyanAir again.
Alas, we made it to Budapest. By the time we got in to the city and our hotel, night was falling but we soon learned that Budapest really shines at night!
The view of Buda Castle from the end of our street – the first sight we saw after checking in to our hotel
We were starving and very excited to dig in to some Hungarian food. (For some background, my mom’s family was all Hungarian and I grew up eating a lot of Hungarian food). We walked a couple blocks and found this very touristy restaurant:
And I got to have one of my favourite childhood dishes, chicken paprikas:
(It was delicious)
Once I had the paprikas, only a few hours into being in Hungary, I was satisfied and complete and ready to go home! Haha! That was really all I wanted and needed out of my trip to Hungary. Just kidding!
We then went down the street and had some classic chimney cakes for dessert (a type of warm, sweet, baked dough in a hollow cylindrical form) and walked to the large St. Stephen’s Basilica. The Basilica, like most of Budapest is more stunning lit up at night.
(note: It’s not to say these beautiful places aren’t stunning in daylight as well, but just that Budapest really knows how to light their buildings and show them off at night- they just take your breath away.)
The next day, after a good rest in our hotel (D8 Hotel Budapest, a fantastic mid-range hotel in a superb Pest location), we got out early to head over to the Great Budapest Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe and second largest in the world. Here, we learned a lot about the history, persecution, and demise of many Hungarian Jews. Did you know that 1 in 3 of the victims at Auschwitz were Hungarian Jews? Almost 600,000 Hungarians died in the Holocaust.
The garden there had some beautiful memorials to the Hungarian Jews lost in the Holocaust. One such was a metal weeping willow that each leaf was inscribed with a name of someone who was murdered in the Holocaust. The effect was stunning and yet so somber.
It was so poignant to us to be there and listening to these horror stories of murders, mass graves, and deportations just as war was starting to break out in the country right next to us at the time, Ukraine. We promised for 80 years that we would never forget, and yet here we stood, next to it again.
After the synagogue tours, we were ready for something to fill our bellies and our backpacks! We went to the large, central market hall of Budapest.
I bought about a kilo of paprika. Every half-Hungarian girl needs multiple varieties in her kitchen for cooking, and this stuff is GOOD!
After filling our bellies with Hungarian street food and buying (what felt like) everything we saw, we went to St. Stephen’s Basilica. We saw it the night before but this time we went inside and toured. We’re used to seeing some very old cathedrals in Europe, so it was interesting to see this relatively newer one, completed in 1905.
The basilica also famously houses the “incorruptible” right hand of St. Stephen I of Hungary… to see it, you put a coin in a machine and the reliquary will light up for 2 minutes, much like a peep show- oh the irony.
Eric and I also decided to pay the little extra ticket price to take the elevator up to the top of the dome for the view. Sophie wouldn’t even consider it.
St. Stephen’s is 96m high, the exact same height as the famous parliament buildings. Wikipedia is telling me that when it was built, this was intentional as a way to symbolise that worldly and spiritual thinking have the same importance.
So, we went to the top. It’s mostly all by 2 small, consecutive elevators – I do not suggest you do this if there are many tourists because the elevators can only fit about 4-6 people at a time and would take forever if there was any kind of lineup. There are also about 45 mandatory stairs along with the elevators so beware that this is not a perfectly accessible attraction (they did kindly warn me ahead of time, though).
Once we were outside on the dome itself it was damn windy, I was incredibly scared of the height, but the view really was gorgeous. I still would not do it again – though Eric would without hesitation.
In my opinion, fear of heights is natural self preservation
Later on in the evening after our dinner (of more tasty Hungarian food), we decided to get sky-high yet again. Because Budapest is more beautiful all lit up at night, we wanted to take this touristy ferris wheel at night, not in the day.
This time, Sophie came with us even though she was nervous and not sure she wanted to. She didn’t like the idea of being so high up and just dangling in a little metal box. I’m not really sure I blame her.
However, once we got going, the views were beautiful and we had a nice time. Sophie eventually got comfortable in our little pod and maybe even enjoyed it by the last rotation. It actually was a fun ride and a lovely end to our day.
The view of St. Stephen’s and the dome we had just been on.
On day 2 we hopped into a cab and drove across the Danube for the first time to visit the Buda side of the river.
The Buda side of the river is much more residential, and much more hilly. Actually, pretty much one great big hill – almost a cliff, or small escarpment. The Buda Castle is built right on top of this cliff and the cab has to take some switch-back roads to get up to it. Once you’re up at the top though, we were quite impressed and pleased to find this pretty, quiet, little village. It almost reminded me of a type of removed little tourist village like Whistler Village or something. It felt entirely different to the streets of Pest only a few miles away. Like the rest of Budapest, there were hardly any tourists anywhere and no line-ups. We walked around the grounds of Buda Castle for a little while and took some photos. We didn’t want to go in because frankly, after a few years in Europe, we’ve seen a LOT of castles and it starts to get repetitive. We find when you’ve only got a few days for a city break, unless there’s something you specifically want to see in a castle or location, there’s just no point in touring it for the sake of touring it. They are start melting into each other in our minds and memories, isn’t that horrible!?
Sophie took a picture of Eric and me in front of Buda Castle
There were also great views of the Pest side of the city:
We then walked around into the small clifftop village area (it’s called Castle District). First, one needs to walk past the presidential palace and there, there are ceremonial armed guards out front who do a little ceremonial march between their posts every 15 minutes or so. It’s very kitschy and fun to watch, but they also look like 17- or 18-year-old boys who look super bored with the job of walking back and forth in front of the door, and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them and hope they got paid decently enough. At least they wore warm coats.
In the village, I needed to rest my legs so we stopped for a coffee and cake in what we assumed would be a very over-the-top tourist joint (it was right on the biggest corner and the first place we saw, impossible to miss). However, we went in and it had the sweetest vibes and most delectable looking cakes. We got gourmet coffees and drinks, and artisanal cakes, for about the cheapest prices and best service we’d yet had in Budapest (we had been noticing in some places that they would seat us, give us menus, and then not come back for 20+ minutes…).
After a rest we walked onward to the Fisherman’s Bastion. It is so named because apparently it used to form the walls of a castle and underneath here was where the fishermen lived… I don’t know. Internet/Wikipedia history is sketchy and even when we were in Budapest, the history was sort of obscure. We were told some fishermen lived under it once and it used to be part of a castle. What really matters now is that it is a beautiful location and overlooking the Danube and Pest, it was sooooo Insta worthy.
Right there at Fisherman’s Bastion is the very beautiful Matthias Church, with the coloured mosaic tile rooftop. We were there on a very sunny day and it just shone wonderfully.
They bragged that we could buy some of the ceramic roof tiles in the church gift shop if we wanted to. Then we saw actual large (20-24″) individual tiles. It was so random! Like, why would I want to buy a single brown roofing tile here? Anyway, this was a gorgeous church, both inside and out.
While we were in Castle District, we wanted to go see Hospital In The Rock, a nuclear bunker museum in the cliff under Buda Castle built in WWII. We got there and tried to buy tickets – It was about 2:05pm and the next tickets weren’t until 3pm. We didn’t realise that they were only guided tours, no self-guided visits. We didn’t want to wait so we left and didn’t get to see this gem. Oh well.
Instead, we turned around and visited the next best thing in the Castle District – The Houdini Museum. The House of Houdini is also only guided tours, but they are like every 20 minutes and were due to start one soon. Here, we had a tour of their small museum and learned all about the life and times of one Erik Weisz, born in Budapest in 1874 (Houdini was his stage name).
Eric in a replica of Houdini’s escape safe
After the tour, where we not only learned a lot but got to see some original handcuffs and memorabilia, we got to see a small close-up magic show. The guy was pretty good and we were often left amazed, jaws agape.
Later that evening brought us some special plans. We had booked a Danube river cruise with dinner and traditional Hungarian singing and dancing. We decided specifically on an evening cruise to enjoy the sights all lit up.
The food was really so-so (there was no kitchen on the boat, so it was just re-heated food) but we expected that from the reviews. The entertainment was great fun and excellent. But the views? They were 5 stars the whole way. The boat went up and down the same stretch of the river about 2 times each direction, so you had plenty of opportunity to get photos and views.
Sophie taking in the view of the Parliament building
The parliament in all its glory
(I don’t have any still photos of the entertainment, apparently I only took video clips to put on Instagram.)
Early on day 3 we went to what I was most looking forward to in the entire trip (next to the paprikas!)- the thermal baths!
Hungary is famous for its natural hot spring baths and there are about 67 in the entire country, and 5 in Budapest. We went to the Széchenyi thermal bath which is the largest medicinal bath in Europe. The bath is 109 years old, and according to its Wikipedia page, it is supplied by two hot springs that are 77°C and 74°C (the temperature in the pool the day we visited was 28°C). The components of this specific thermal water that make it medicinal are sulfate, magnesium, calcium, bicarbonate, and a significant amount of metaboric acid and floride.
Visiting the baths was important and special to me because of some family history: My great-grandfather (whom I never met) used to travel back to Hungary from Canada right into the 1960s and ’70s just to visit the baths because they were the only thing that would alleviate his arthritis pain. My mother then visited the baths in 2013 when she and my dad toured Hungary – they also visited where her father was born and my great-grandmother’s hometown, etc. So I felt that Sophie and I getting to visit Hungarian thermal baths was just two more generations of our family now getting sort of a Hungarian baptism!
We loved that the air outside was 9°C and the water was so warm, it made the experience so enjoyable. If this was July and it was 30° out, we sure wouldn’t be enjoying the water much. But just like all of our trip, we were so happy to have visited in February.
(I’ll point out here too, that most all traditional Hungarian food is very rich and hearty, warm food. Think stews and such – the kind of food that feels great to come in from the cold and eat to warm up. We loved eating this in February but wouldn’t want to be devouring it in July).
We left the baths after about an hour and a half. There were big signs saying it was advised you shouldn’t stay in them over 20 minutes and I also knew that due to my MS, I shouldn’t stay in hot water too long either. I really wanted to, as I always do in hot tubs, but I knew I’d regret it later. We had arrived just after 10am and there were some people there but no lines at all and no congestion. Leaving just before noon and we could see a small line just starting, and many more people in the changing areas – still nothing I would call a real crowd (probably a tiny fraction compared to their high capacity), but just know that morning is the best time to come.
After leaving the baths we decided to head over to the parliament area in the daytime. I did take photos of the beautiful, imposing parliament building but not very good ones. The building was so large and we were just too close to it (and couldn’t get further away due to already being right on the riverbank). Nothing could compare to the photos we took the night before on the river cruise, anyway.
However, there on the bank of the Danube, is a very sad and beautiful memorial to Hungarian Jews called ‘Shoes on the Danube Bank’.
These shoes are actually statues in memorial of the Jews who were lined up on the banks of the river, told to remove their shoes and were shot in the backs, to fall into the river and let the water carry the bodies away. Shoes were valuable, you see, and the murderers wanted to keep them and not waste them.
The shoes looked incredibly real, like they had been left there yesterday and are just waiting for their owners to come back and claim them. They are all the 1940s style. You can see incredible detail in them, stitching and wrinkles or cracking leather. It is a really beautiful memorial and shouldn’t be missed, if you’re in Budapest.
After this memorial, I was really physically beat. I think the hot baths combined with the activity of the past few days was catching up with me and I really needed rest. I went back to the hotel and sent Eric to the House of Terror without me. Sophie, being a 13-year-old girl, decided to come with me and be lazy in the hotel room.
The House of Terror is a museum dedicated to chronicling the fascist and communist regimes in Hungary of the 20th century. Ironically, you can’t take any photos in it…
At last, for our final evening in Budapest, we had made reservations at a tiny restaurant, Retek Bistro, just around the corner from our hotel that we had passed on our very first walkabout in the city. It looked adorable, smelled delicious, and had like 4.8-star rating on Google! It was very small and you can only get in with reservations so luckily we were able to make a reservation online.
The little restaurant had the ambience of being in a Hungarian grandmother’s kitchen. The service was really wonderful (they brought over free appetisers before our meal and pálinka [Hungarian schnapps] to end the meal) and the food was out of this world. We knew that Hungarians liked to put sour cream on absolutely everything, which we weren’t particularly enamoured with; but at this place, it was strong garlic sour cream. This was like a whole new world for us and we now wanted garlic sour cream on everything!
Our flight home was early the next morning. This was a lovely, merry way to end our city-break in Budapest. Our bellies were stuffed full of good food and we were so happy to be in and to have experienced Budapest and Hungarian culture.