What an unexpected treat Budapest was! Having heard great things about Budapest throughout our travels, I was excited to see for myself what it was all about. First of all, the city has the perfect blend of old and new, without one outshining the other. This lends itself the gorgeous architecture, quaint shops, and any trendy spot a hipster could imagine. Budapest does not try to be any one thing, instead, it is everything to everyone and welcomes locals and travelers alike to explore its beauty.
We knew Budapest was a popular destination so when we were booking our accommodations and there was virtually nothing available, we were a little concerned. Upon further research though, we realized there was a music festival going on at the same time we were planning on being there. This is not just any music festival, it is one of Europe’s largest music festivals that takes place on an island on the Danube. So we figured if we can’t beat the crowd, join them! We did just that and bought a day pass for the world-renowned Sziget Festival.
Buda & Pest
A little tidbit I didn’t know before arriving in the city was that modern Budapest is actually the historical amalgamation of three separate cities: Buda, Pest, and (smaller and more distant) Óbuda. Today, it is still common for Buda and Pest to be referenced as separate areas, Buda being west of the Danube river while Pest covers the area east of the river. Also important, the correct pronunciation of the capital city is (boo-dah-pesht) which I have been saying wrong my whole life (oops).
Budapest is the economic, historic, and cultural capital of Hungary with a population of 2 million. There are approximately 2.7 million visitors annually, so you can imagine the amount of tourism money flowing through the city. Locals are very proud to show off the beautiful capital and of its contribution to European culture.
Beauty All Around
Devin did an amazing job finding an Airbnb in the center of the city, the perfect location. As we stepped outside of our apartment building there was a Ferris wheel (the Budapest Eye), an outdoor park with a wading pool, and the best restaurant street in the city. There is a really well connected public transportation system in Budapest, but with our location, we could explore everything on foot.
Just a couple of blocks from our apartment was the chain bridge that crosses the Danube river which I took full advantage on my morning runs. Biking is a very popular mode of transportation around the city so there are plenty of biking/running paths on the riverfront. With such easy accessibility, there was no excuse to not get my cardio in while in Budapest.
A Few of the Highlights
With so many different and interesting places to see around the city, I will cover the highlights of our time in Budapest. We were in Budapest for one week, with one full day dedicated to the music festival, so we tried to pack in as much as we could. We did attempt to join the free walking tour (as we usually do in a new city) but since it was the busiest week in the city (music fest) there were way too many people for our liking. So we decided to make our own walking tour and explore the top sights and even take some time to enjoy the unexpected gems we stumbled upon along the way.
Gellért Hill is a 235 m (771 ft) high hill overlooking the Danube and offers some of the best panoramas of Budapest. From this vantage point, you can easily see the lay of the land and easily distinguish the hilly Buda side from the flat Pest side. We walked up the steep hill to the top but you can also take tours/transportation which is how most tourists visit Gellért Hill.
At the top of the hill is the Citadel (Citadella) a fortress built by the Habsburgs after 1849, has been a military checkpoint, prison, and anti-aircraft missile launch pad. Today, there is an open-air display of a small collection of Red Army weaponry, most of them from the Second World War.
Budapest’s Liberty or Freedom Statue is a monument on Gellért Hill that commemorates those who sacrificed their lives for the independence, freedom, and prosperity of Hungary. The 14 m tall bronze statue stands atop a 26 m pedestal and can be seen from all parts of the city. The statue was erected during the Communist era and since Liberty had already become a symbol of the city, she was not removed, unlike other Communist icons.
Central Market Hall
In every city we visit, I always try and visit the local markets and what better place than Budapest’s largest indoor market, Central Market Hall (Vasarcsarnok in Hungarian). Originally built in 1897, the beautifully constructed market suffered severe damage in WWII but was perfectly restored in the 1990s.
This indoor market is huge and has three floors filled with goods for locals and tourists alike. You can get all sorts of goods at Central Market Hall: fruits, vegetables, dairy products, fantastic salamis, pickles, fresh fish, Hungarian paprika, Tokaj wines, various souvenirs, and even home-style meals, or Hungarian snacks like Langos at the upper floor food stands and eateries.
Since we visited at the beginning of our “self-guided walking tour” we only bought a couple of items but we definitely could have gone crazy with all the delicious Hungarian specialties! The Central Market Hall was a fun, bustling stop that you can’t miss in Budapest.
Buda Castle and Castle Hill
Although we didn’t tour any specific buildings in Budapest, we admired the beautiful architecture from the outside. One of the most impressive areas in Budapest is the Buda Castle and the Castle Hill area. The 200-room 18th Century castle towering over the Danube. The photos speak for themselves, this is truly one of the most spectacular structures in Buda. You can reach the top of the hill with the restored historic Castle Funicular Railway, which departs from the Buda end of the Chain Bridge.
Parliament of Hungary
A very beautiful area of Budapest contains the Parliament Building, Museum of Ethnography and the Ministry of Agriculture on the Buda side of the Danube. The parliament building is the third largest parliament in the world, boasting 691 rooms and 20 km of stairs.
A very intriguing phenomenon in Budapest is the concept of ruin bars or pubs. It all started in 2001 with a bunch of young guys looking for cheap places to drink, thus ruin bars were born. Abandoned buildings and unused outdoor spaces have been transformed into welcoming, weird and fun places to hang out. Today these ruin bars are so much more than just cool places to drink, they can transform into farmers markets, flea markets, art galleries, film screenings, and live music.
Sziget Music Festival – The Island of Freedom
Sziget is one of the largest music and cultural festivals in Europe and happened to be going on during our week in Budapest so we decided to get a day pass and see what it was all about. The much anticipated day finally arrived and we were ready to spend the day on Óbudai-Sziget, which translates to “Old-Buda Island”. The week-long festival brings over 500,000 attendees and has over 1,000 performances all taking place on the island on the Danube.
We started our day off having a nice hearty brunch and 0.5L of beer to wash it down. At around noon we headed over to the festival having no idea what to expect and it completely blew any expectations out of the water! The sheer volume of people was insane but with our chip activated wristbands which contained our visa and our passport data, it was completely organized. Getting drinks and food was as easy as holding your wrist against the computer monitor, which may have been a little too easy based on the number of beers flowing.
The day we attended was scorching hot, it was about 33C / 92F which was only exacerbated as we cooked on the dusty stage floor. There were hoses constantly being sprayed in an attempt to contain the dust and cool down the crowds but there was no escaping the sweaty, dust-covered film that covered our entire bodies. Take a look at the photos and see for yourself how dirty we got, and this was only a few hours in.
There was so much to see and do on the island, between the riverside beach yoga, able-bodied obstacle course, camping, food trucks, karaoke, TEDtalks, Cirque du Sziget, performing arts shows, the list goes on and on. That is all there is to do outside of the music itself, which is, of course, the highlight of the festival with dozens of headliners throughout the week. We wanted to see Dua Lipa so we ended up being on the island for almost 12 hours, which meant a lot of drinks and a hell of a good time! Dua Lipa’s concert alone brought 70,000 fans to the main stage and we were lucky enough to be in the first 1/3 of the crowd, dancing and singing along to her amazing performance.
Attending the Sziget Festival was one of the coolest experiences I have ever had and I would love to go back! There was so much love, joy, and respect shown during the festival, it is hard not to look back and smile. Every time I hear Dua Lipa from now on I will always be reminded of a very special day on our travels.
Goodbye for now
However long you plan to stay in beautiful Budapest is not long enough. We had a full week in the city and it was not nearly enough time to see or do everything we wanted. We barely scratched the surface and I already want to go back and explore every nook and cranny of the city.
One major attraction we didn’t have time for was the famous thermal baths. We really wanted to spend a few hours soaking in the natural spring waters beneath the city, but unfortunately, there was not enough time. Instead of rushing to check this off the list, we decided to leave it as a major excuse to come back to this incredible city.