Before visiting Budapest, I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know much about the city, other than that it’s Hungary’s capital. My volleyball club is located in Veszprem, which is only about an hour and a half train ride from the city. Shortly after we got settled in Veszprem, my American teammate and I planned an impromptu weekend visit and both of us were blown away by everything there was to see.
After Berlin, Budapest is the second-largest city in Central Europe and is the ninth-largest city in Europe. Prior to 1872, the cities of Buda, Pest, and O’buda (Old Buda), were separate entities, with the Buda and Pest sides divided by the Danube river. Yet, as numerous bridges were built to connect the two sides, the three townships were merged into one large city.
At the time Budapest was formed, Hungary was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was three times the size that it is today. Now, Budapest’s size dwarfs other cities in Hungary, with one-in-five Hungarians hailing from the capital.
Budapest offers a little bit of something for everyone – whether you’re looking for historical churches, impressive monuments, or picturesque city views.
We stayed on the Pest side of the city, so one of the first places we went to visit was St. Stephen’s Basilica. Since the apex of the dome stands at 314 ft (96 m) tall, St. Stephen’s is visible from almost anywhere in the city. It’s worth checking out both up close and from Buda’s riverbank.
The Basilica is the largest church in Budapest and was built in honor of Hungary’s first king, St. Stephen. In terms of European churches, it’s relatively new and construction was completed in 1905. Unfortunately, the church took over half a century to build because part of the dome collapsed in 1868.
You’re able to climb to the top of the Basilica most days of the week, but be sure to arrive early in the morning. Visits to the top of the tower open most days at 10 am, but I’d recommend arriving earlier than that so you can get in line. This is something we’ve bookmarked for a future trip because the line was so long when we arrived at the Basilica on Saturday morning. Even without climbing to the top of the basilica though, it was a sight to behold.
Nestled on the edge of the Danube, the Hungarian Parliament building is a dominating facet of Pest’s riverfront. Construction began in 1885 and was completed in 1902. Since the country was a part of the Astria-Hungary Empire at the time, the government wanted the building to reflect the empire’s grandeur. Even now, the structure is the third largest Parliament building in the world.
We’d arrived in Budapest around mid-afternoon, so we didn’t have a chance to view the Parliament building until the evening when we had a night boat ride scheduled. If you’re looking for unique views of the city, and want to learn some Budapest history, I’d highly recommend doing this. (The tour was only $18, it was an hour long, and it included free champagne. In my mind, that’s pretty hard to beat.)
On Sunday, we headed to Buda Castle. First built in the 13th century, the castle has been plundered and repaired numerous times as its ownership changed hands.
Our initial plan was to walk to the castle from the Pest side by taking the Chain Bridge, but the bridge is currently under construction and is closed even to pedestrians. However, our mistake caused us to find a ferry right next to bridge. For the equivalent of $1.64, we were able to take a five-minute ride from one side of the river to the other, placing us right at the base of Castle Hill. On any given day, this could one of the quicker ways for a tourist to reach the bank’s opposite side, but we happened to accidentally be in Budapest on the day that the Pope was visiting, so we made every effort possible to avoid street traffic and busy public transport.
This area was by far my favorite historic structure that we visited in Budapest. A 10-minute walk from Buda Castle, the Fisherman’s Bastion gives you a viewpoint of the whole city while being surrounded by pristine white stone towers.
The Bastion’s construction began in 1895, to commemorate Hungary’s 1000th birthday. Thoughtfully, the Bastion has seven main turrets to symbolize the seven Magyar chiefs who led their tribes to settle in the Hungarian region in 895. Despite its name, the Bastion was never used for defensive purposes and, instead, was a gift to the city with the sole intention of it being a viewing location. The Bastion also has numerous statues that pay homage to Hungary’s past leaders.
Although no one is entirely sure how the area received its name, many believe that the fishermen who lived in the village of Watertown at the base of the hill influenced the bastion’s name, either from trading their wares on the hill or from defending the castle hill area from invaders.
We arrived around mid-afternoon and the place was crowded with tourists. It made taking pictures far more difficult, so I’d recommend getting there early in the morning if you want a clearer view of the city or if you don’t want to feel rushed while you line up your next shot.
Located at the front courtyard of Fisherman’s Bastion is St. Matthias Church. During Budapest’s many sieges, the church was damaged, and the reconstruction of St. Mattias happened in conjunction with Fisherman’s.
Although I love visiting old European churches and learning about their history, the truth is that after you see enough of them, they can all kind of start to feel as if they’re blending together. However, St. Matthias is one-of-a-kind due to its bright colored singles and the contrast they offer against the church’s cream exterior.
If you’re looking for some traditional Hungarian fare, Korehly is a top spot. With a cute courtyard patio in a cobblestone square, you can people-watch while you’re enjoy your meal.
I opted to get a Hungarian stew that I’d gladly eat again. The menu was also English- & allergy-friendly. Each dish had an English description under its title along with numbers to mark what allergens the dish contained.
On our walk to St. Stephen’s after our lunch at Korhely, we stumbled across Naspolya Nassolda, a completely gluten-free bakery. It doesn’t exactly take much to convince me to try out gf pastries whenever I can find them, so Morgan and I bought several. (I’m not gonna lie, I would have been content to stay there on the log and drink coffee for most of the afternoon if we didn’t have other things to do.)
Would it even be a successful weekend in a new city without finding a unique coffee spot? (My answer is absolutely not). If the coffee spot happens to serve amazing brunch options as well, even better.
Cirkus was the perfect place for a Sunday brunch before another packed day of sightseeing. Voted one of the Top 25 Brunch Places in the World by TripAdvisor this year, Cirkus offers a wide variety of delicious brunch and coffee options. Since I spent six months studying in the UK two years ago, I’m a sucker for a traditional English breakfast. Cirkus also had some of the best gluten-free bread I’ve ever eaten (they make it in-house!)
With it’s unique restaurants, historic landmarks, and beautiful skyline, Budapest has easily become one of my new favorite European cities. It’s a spot I feel fortunate to live near since I have a lot of exploring left to do there.