We made a last-minute decision to visit Budapest on a winter weekend in February, to enjoy some of the city sights without the crowds (or in some cases, entrance fees) of high season. (This strategy also works quite well for Paris.) Low season apparently began that weekend, if you use the “hop-on-hop-off” tourist bus schedule as a metric. This a brief overview of our 34 hours in Budapest.
For planning, we found Wikitravel helpful, as always. Note: where possible, links are affiliate links (i.e., we get a commission).
We stayed at the Hilton Budapest (Booking.com) in the Castle district, which was currently under renovation but perfectly servicable. The location is perfect for exploring the Castle district and its museums both during the day and again at night. For those who do not mind walking and stairs, we recommend the trek down to the Danube and across either (or both!) the Széchenyi Lánchid (Chain Bridge) or Erzsébet (Elisabeth) Bridge to Pest.
Our late-night scheduled arrival into Budapest made public transit options from the airport to our hotel inconvenient, so we pre-booked a private transfer through Airport Transfer Budapest (ATB). Despite our flight from London arriving 17 minutes early, and having provided our flight information in advance, the shuttle did not pick us up until after our reserved time. Aside from that hiccup, the transfer was uneventful and we were happy to not have to deal with transferring between the public night buses while tired. Note that ATB requires you to pay in cash and know in what currency you will pay at the time of booking.
At the Hilton, we received a decent standard room on the top (4th) floor. It was quiet, comfortable, and relaxing.
With our hotel located so conveniently nearby (and an overpriced hotel buffet option not appealing to me), we walked a few blocks to the famous 19th-century Budavar Ruszwurm Cukraszda, only to learn that they open at 10am during winter. That was no problem, as the sun was out and we happily spent the hour walking around the Castle District, Matthias Church, and Fisherman’s Bastion. Fortunately, returning promptly at 10am meant that there was no line and plenty of seating! We enjoyed a sour cherry strudel, an apple strudel, cheese scones, and coffee — all of which was delicious and efficiently served by the waitstaff.
Properly caffeinated, we spent the next few hours exploring the rest of the Castle grounds, enjoying the Budapest skyline, and slowly making our way along the Danube. Our sunny walk across the Elisabeth Bridge presented ample photo opportunities. We then continued along the Pest side toward the Parliament Building and square.
Passing by the Shoes on the Danube Bank was a somber moment, but it was very crowded here with tour groups. We lingered for a bit at the Chain Bridge, without crossing it, and then crossed the street to the picturesque Kossuth Lajos Square. At this point, we had just enough time before our Parliament tour for lunch. We stopped at the nearby Szamos Cafe for lunch: panini sandwiches made with simple, yet delicious, ingredients at an affordable price.
The Hungarian Parliament building (Országház) tour is so popular that some guides recommend skipping it. You will have to decide for yourself whether the cost of admission justifies the brief walking tour of this unusual building.
We had booked in advance, online. By the time we arrived, our tour and the next two English tours were sold out. The tour begins after a security and coat check when the group separates based on your language (our guide was fluent in English). They provide an earpiece so that you can easily hear the guide as you wind up a staircase and through the hallways. Highlights include the Grand Staircase with its 96 steps, and the Holy Crown in the central hall.
With time to continue exploring on foot before the next tour at Hospital in the Rock, we set out toward Liberty Square (Szabadság) toward St. Stephen’s Basilica. We unintentionally entered the square by the statue of Ronald Reagan, and I only noticed it out of the corner of my eye while admiring the serenity of the grassy areas in the evening sunlight. As mentioned in all the reviews of Liberty Square, we saw several citizen memorials near its southern edge. St. Stephen’s Basilica was impressive on its exterior, but others may find the interior equally noteworthy.
At this point, we had to walk back across the Chain Bridge and ascend to Castle Hill, only to then descend a bit on the other side toward Hospital in the Rock Nuclear Museum. Our timing was perfect in that we purchased a ticket for the English language guided tour shortly before it began.
Hospital in the Rock Nuclear Museum (Sziklakórház Múzeum) was interesting, yet… strange. The first half of the tour focused on the hospital, its patients, and the challenges faced by the staff and doctors — depicted by a seemingly endless army of wax actors and actresses. The second half shifted focus to the lasting affects of the Cold War and the age of nuclear weapons. They are constructing a new exhibit that highlights the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and we got to preview some of it. As a U.S. citizen, this is a difficult subject, and the only criticism I have of the presentation by our guide was his enthusiastic, at times, delivery of harrowing facts. We attributed this to the end-of-tour survey, which asks you to score your guide on enthusiasm, among other criteria.
Tonight’s dinner was at the well-reviewed Ramazuri Bistronomy, located a mere three blocks from the hotel, and across the street from Jamie Oliver’s Italian chain restaurant. To start, we ordered both the beef goulash soup and pancake hortobágyi style. The goulash was a nice mix of flavors, textures, and a hint of spice. The pancake was delicious and savory, filled with a paprika, meat stew. For the mains, I ordered the duck leg with braised cabbage and Sean ordered the lamb with pumpkin purée. Both were great, although I found the combination of the duck, cabbage, and potatoes to be surprisingly rich after enjoying the starters. We also enjoyed both of our Hungarian red wines, despite not really knowing what to expect from them. Sufficiently stuffed, we skipped dessert but ordered some palinka (Hungarian brandy) — one pear, one apricot — to satisfy our curiosity.
The New York Times has described palinka as “like a slap in the face;” I found it quite enjoyable – Sean.
After dinner, we wondered back to the Castle to view its ramparts fully illuminated against the night. Castle Hill transforms into a mystical place after dark, and we got to enjoy it with considerably smaller crowds than normal. Eventually, we made it back down to the riverside to marvel at the Parliament Building and Chain Bridge illuminated. From there, we walked along the river and back up the hill, passing through the Castle grounds on the way back to the hotel.
With an early 7:35am flight to London, we pre-booked a 5:15am airport transfer with airportshuttle.hu (booked online and prepaid). We found it ready for us 5 minutes early, just outside the hotel entrance. The airport experience at Budapest was uneventful with no lines at check-in, security, or passport control. I booked a window seat anticipating a glimpse of the city on our way out. The clouds had other plans, though (hence no departing photo to share).