Despite CNN’s tendency these days to use its Facebook page mostly to share stories of extreme weight loss, I’ve yet to unlike them, and today that decision paid off when they linked me to a story about Condé Nast Traveler’s list of the world’s top 25 cities. To my great surprise, my personal favorites like Budapest, Krakow, and Prague prevailed over typical tourist choices like Paris. Let me tell you, that list was doing it right.
Reading the list reminded me that I still(!) haven’t posted anything about that 10-day Central/Eastern European odyssey I embarked on back in May, so today seemed like as good a day as ever to finally write my love letter to Budapest.
If (when) you visit Budapest, the first thing you should do when planning your itinerary is block out an afternoon to unwind at one of the city’s famous thermal baths. Most tourists do either Gellert or Széchenyi; I picked the latter. It’s breathtaking. It’s got 15(!) different “bath units” (pools at different temperatures, ranging from 28 to 38 degrees Celsius) and 10 saunas (including one that reaches 80 degrees Celsius, or 176 Fahrenheit — I could only stick it out in there for a minute and a half), and they also offer spa services like massage. I was in a treat yo’self mood and booked a day pass and 30-minute massage for 8200 HUF (about $37), but the day pass alone is well worth it at 4100 HUF (~$18).
Did I mention that it’s fed by two actual hot springs, is the largest facility of its kind in all of Europe, and has beautiful neo-Baroque architecture?
After your entire body’s gotten pruney from relaxing in the baths for a full afternoon, I’d recommend walking over to Gundel for dinner. I found it through my ridiculous obsession with the 1000 Places to See Before You Die book and it easily lived up to the hype. There was a live string quintet, which meant the place is easily the classiest restaurant I’ve ever been to.
What to order: I had escargot to start, followed by an entree of goat cheese topped with truffle-infused honey, and finally a Gundel crepe topped by flaming chocolate sauce. They lit it on fire in front of me. Best ever. I also had a glass of insanely delicious Tokaji dessert wine — for the love of all that is holy, buy a bottle of this stuff and take it home with you (best to check a grocery store rather than a souvenir shop, because both will have it and the latter will charge twice as much).
Tragically, I was only in Budapest for a few days and after dedicating most of a day to some spa time, I didn’t have as much time as I’d have liked to see the rest of the sights. The best way to see ’em all pretty efficiently is probably a nighttime cruise on the Danube river. I booked mine through BudapestRiverCruise.com — at the student rate, it was just €13.85 for a 10PM cruise plus two drinks, and it was 100% worth it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as breathtaking as the Hungarian Parliament at night.
I’d also recommend poking around Castle Hill (Varhegy) during the day. You get an incredible panoramic view of Pest and, of course, you’ll be right by Buda Castle. When you’re there, checking out Matthias Church is a must — of all the utterly gorgeous churches I saw in Europe, this one stood out. The whole of the Castle District is quite walkable, which makes it a great choice for sightseeing, but getting up to the top of the hill is a bit of a challenge. I opted to pay for the Castle Hill Funicular (Budavári Sikló), which was a cool experience but somewhat pricy. Another possibility I’ve heard of is bus 16, which is supposed to be much less expensive.
If you’ve been sold on a trip to Budapest and are looking for a place to stay, I’d enthusiastically recommend Astoria City Hostel. It’s a converted apartment in an old Art Deco-style building, which meant I fell in love immediately, and it’s literally right next to the Astoria stop on the M2 line of the metro — two stops away from Budapest Keleti station if you’re getting in on the train. Plus, you get a coupon for a discounted meal and a free beer at nearby Bali Caffe when you check in, and the staff are super helpful with things like booking your spa day. And seeing as it was only £10 a night when I went, it’s one of the best-value hostels I’ve stayed in.
There is so much more I could gush about, but this post is already probably well past the point of tl;dr. Takeaway point: Just… go to Budapest. Do it. It’s cheap to the point of a poor student like me being able to afford a lot of its more luxurious options, and it’s one of the most unique cities I’ve visited. If you’re anywhere in Europe, it’s kind of a crime to miss it.