Spending New Year’s Eve in Budapest is hard to rival, especially when you’re with your best friend. While this city hadn’t always been at the top of my travel list, after spending several days here it’s hard not to fall in love (not to mention it’s incredibly affordable). After years under communist rule, Budapest may still have a little more edge and roughness than its western European counterparts, but I found that only added to this beautiful city’s charm.
The Danube river divides the Hungarian capital into its two sides, Buda and Pest. Since an 1873 merger Budapest has become one city with two distinct personalities. Built on a series of hills, you’ll find royal palaces, bath houses, and sweeping panoramic views throughout Buda. In contrast, lively and prairie-flat Pest is bustling with an array of art nouveau buildings, hip restaurants, cafes and bars. Ideally, you would want to stay at least three or four nights, but here’s my two day itinerary for Budapest.
Christmas Markets by the Basilica
If you happen to find yourself in Budapest during the months of November and December the Christmas markets are an obvious visit. You’ll find beautifully handcrafted items, local Hungarian delicacies and all the gluweïn your heart desires. I opted to try some goulash paired with sour cream-covered nokedli (spätzle like dumplings) served on top of a crispy potato pancake.
Free Walking Tour
I highly recommend fitting one of the walking tours into your first day. It’s an engaging way to learn more about the city and its history from a local. I went with the “Free Budapest Walk” at 2:30 p.m. It lasts around three hours but covers the Danube promenade, Buda Castle, Matthias church, Royal Palace, St. Stephens Basilica, and Fishermen’s Bastion among other prominent sites. Besides giving me a better feel for the city, it helped me decide what places I wanted to go back and revisit. It’s also the perfect time to ask for restaurant and bar recommendations (don’t forget to bring cash to tip your guide at the end).
I stumbled upon the restaurant Vakvarju as it was located in the same neighborhood as the Wombats hostel we were staying at. It has a casually refined vibe to it and they offer an assortment of classic Hungarian dishes. We started with a bottle of wine and tasted several of Budapest’s signature Palinka drinks. Palinka is a super strong alcoholic beverage distilled exclusively from fruits grown in Hungary; after two sips you can already feel it’s effects. For drinks, an appetizer, three main dishes and three desserts, we ended up spending around 70 euros.
Experience the Nightlife
Budapest’s nightlife is full of soul and cheap drinks. The city is known for their Ruin Pubs (exactly what they sound like) built in the old Jewish quarter and abandoned after World War II. Each bar has its own unique vibe and often has random pop-up art and music shows.
Some of the most popular pubs include IF (Instant & Fogasház), Szimpla Kert, and Kuplung. We decided to try out IF (note: originally Instant & Fogasház were two different bars but as of 2017 they combined into one giant complex). It’s definitely more of a club-like scene filled with 15 different rooms and 8 dance floors. The line was quite long as it was New Year’s Eve but definitely worth the wait to explore the never-ending labyrinth. If you’re feeling the after- drinking munchies be sure to try lángos, because how can you say no to fried dough topped with an assortment of delicious ingredients?!
Test out the Thermal Baths
I’ve discovered the best cure to a hangover is going to a bath house. For centuries Budapest has been known for their thermal baths as there is an abundance of natural warm spring waters under the city. There are many spas to choose from and which one you visit depends on what you’re looking for. Consider these options:
Széchenyi is one of the largest and most popular complexes, featuring 15 indoor thermal baths and three outdoor swimming pools.
The art nouveau Gellért Baths boasts the most beautiful indoor swimming pools in the city.
Established in the 16th century, the recently renovated Rudas Baths is the most popular medieval Turkish bath.
While there may not be scientific evidence to back up the claims of thermal springs having healing powers, there is definitely something magical about soaking in these waters. We chose to go to the Géllert Baths and I wasn’t disappointed. Consisting of five mixed temperature thermal baths, several outdoor pools, saunas and (slightly freezing) immersion pools it’s easy to spend several hours here.
Keep in mind: Avoid the lines and buy your tickets online (most range from 20-25 euros without massage and extra amenity packages). Check the website for whatever spa you go to because the opening and closing times vary and some baths still have female- and male-only days. Bring your own bathing suit and towel unless you want to rent one for a fee and consider bringing flip-flops.
Hike up Géllert Hill
Conveniently located near the Géllert baths is the historic Géllert hill. It only takes about 20 minutes to hike and offers some of the best panoramic views of the city. One of the only remaining communist icons, Budapest’s Statue of Liberty remains intact at the top of the hill.
Relax at a Café
Cafés play an important role in the city’s everyday life, and there are an overwhelming amount of places to choose from. Often described as the most beautiful café in Budapest is the famous New York Café, located inside the New York Palace Boscolo Hotel. If I had more time I would have made a stop, but instead I went to the First Strudel House of Pest. It’s a rather unusual café and restaurant combo with a passion for preserving and preparing the Hungarian Strudel. Fillings for the delicious pastry include cabbage, rhubarb, sour cherry and cottage cheese.
Dinner and Drinks Round Two
On a mission to try a restaurant our tour guide had recommended we were bummed to get there and find out it was closed for the evening. After walking aimlessly for several blocks we came across Csarnok Vendeglo. The menu is extensive, our server was friendly and the ambiance was casual. Like most Hungarian food, the dishes were hearty and involved an obscene amount of meat and potatoes (definitely not a complaint). For two appetizers, three entrees, one dessert and a bottle of wine our total was close to 60 euros.
Last Night Out
Despite having to wake up at the crack of dawn to catch a bus to Krakow the next day the executive decision was made to go to the original ruin bar Szimpla Kert. The line was extremely long, but we discovered the time passes quickly when you already have a drink (or two) in hand. Once inside, it’s a complete sensory overload from a combination of the trippy art and music. In some areas the walls are literally crumbling, while in other places there’s a table made from an open-top car, a bathtub lounge and hanging computer monitors displaying psychedelic patterns.
Other Tips, Information and Advice for Budapest
Download a conversion app. I made the mistake of pulling out way too much cash. On the low end you can get by with spending 20 – 50 euros a day which is about 6,200 – 15,500 Hungarian Forint (HUF).
Explore Buda but stay in Pest.
Budapest is a relatively walkable city. I only really used the public transportation to get into the city when I first arrived, and out of the city to get to the bus station. They do have a network of subways, trams and buses and they sell unlimited day passes for 1,650 HUF.
Paprika is a national treasure. Must try foods: goulash, paprikàs csirke (chicken paprikash), lángos, kolbász sausage, töltött káposzta (stuffed cabbage rolls) and chimney cake.
If I had an extra day I would have booked a tour and tasting for the Great Market Hall and visited The House of Terror museum.
Hungarian is a complicated language and for native English speakers the pronunciation is incredibly difficult. Some essential phrases:
Szia (see-yaw) Hello
Koszonom (keu-seu-neum) Thank you
Nem beszélek magyarul (nem bes-el-ek ma-ja-rule) I don’t speak Hungarian
Kérek egy pàlinkát / sört / bort (care-ek edge pah-link-cat / shirt / bore-t) One pàlinka / beer / wine please
Egészségedre (ag-esh-sheg-ad-reh) Cheers
Csókolj Meg (choc-ohly mag) Kiss me
Until the next city!