We traveled to Budapest the last weekend of January 2013. The weather was cold and snowy, but there is really no better city to be in than Budapest during the winter. The natural hot springs that run throughout the city provide the perfect escape from the icy chill of winter.
The airport is newly renovated and comfortable. The city center is accessible by public transportation, which we found pretty easy to navigate. You can buy your tickets from one of the kiosks or shops in the airport. The first step is to take the #200E Bus to the #3 Metro (Blue Line). The bus drops travelers off at the start of the line so you don’t have to worry about which direction to take the train. Deák Ferenc tér is the only stop where all three metro lines converge. It’s also a great place to pick up a longer-term pass if you’ll be doing a lot of traveling on the trains and trams. We purchased 3-day passes with our credit card at Deák Ferenc tér and they more than paid for themselves by the end of stay. *Ticket control is strictly enforced and you will often be checked upon entry to the trains as well as exit.
We were able to find a great deal on an apartment rental through booking.com. We stayed at Dorottya Apartment and paid just 68€ for three nights. The apartment was well located, within walking distance of the city center, the chain bridge and the metro. It also had a kitchenette so we were able to cook some meals ourselves.It was the perfect launching off point to see as much of the city as we could in the limited time we had.
All About Buda
The Baths of Budapest: Budapest has an array of baths to choose from. I highly recommend doing a little research before you go especially if you are thinking about adding any spa treatments, as package prices do seem to vary. The two baths we visited on our trip were Rudas and Széchenyi. We had a good time at both, but they are very different.
Rudas was smaller and easier to access from our apartment. The 18 and 19 trams will drop you off less than a block from the bath. We chose Rudas because of the reviews we’d read about the descriptions of the dark, Turkish bath style pools. It was built back in 1550 under Ottoman rule and has an old-world feel with modern customer service.
When you enter you can opt to purchase access to only the hot baths, only the large lap pool or a combo pack that includes both. We purchased the combo pack. Your purchase includes access to the locker room and a wristband that gives you access to a locker and that you must scan to enter both the hot bath section and the pool. Rudas baths are located in an amazing room. The center pool is large and a comfortable, warm temperature. There are four smaller pools in the corners of the room that range in temperature from 28-42 degrees.
Rudas also has saunas of varying degrees and a plunge pool that feels deliciously refreshing after a sweat in the sauna. An important thing to note about Rudas is that women are permitted entry only on certain days. I copied their schedule directly from the website:
The thermal bath is open from 6:00 AM every day, and closes at 6:00 PM Monday through Wednesday, and at 8pm Thursday through Sunday. The steam bath section is open from 6am until 8pm every day. The tub bath section is open from 8am until 8pm on weekdays only. Night-bath hours are from 10pm until 4am on Fridays and Saturdays.
On Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays only gentlemen may access the bath, while Tuesday is a day for ladies. Saturdays and Sundays are open for both men and women, during which time bathing suits are compulsory.
We visited a second bath, Széchenyi, our last morning in the city. It was a bitter cold day and snow had started to fall and accumulate the night before. We were a little worried about visiting Széchenyi in the snow because the highlights of the bath are the large outdoor pools, but the falling snow made the experience even more magical. It was slightly painful to brave the short walk between the indoor baths and the outdoor pools, but the pain was well worth it. There are three outdoor pools, two of them thermal baths. One is famous for always having older Hungarian men soaking in the waters while playing chess. The other has a whirlpool feature that makes you feel slightly ridiculous, but is incredibly fun. I’m not sure how to describe it other than that it sucks you in and whirls you around in a circle. Check out this youtube video for a more visual explanation.
Széchenyi also has a number of indoor pools, a sauna and options for spa packages and access to a restaurant and lounge.
Cultural Must-Sees: In addition to the wonderful warmth of the baths we braved the cold to take in some of the cultural sites around Budapest. As everyone knows the city is divided into two parts, Buda and Pest, separated by the Danube. Most of the nightlife, dinning and shopping options are located on the east (Pest) side of the river, but you have to travel to the west side for amazing views of everything housed on east side. There are two main spots to take in this view- Castle Hill and Gellért Hill.
Both are a bit of hike to reach, but Castle Hill offers the option of a funicular. We chose to hike up the hill and then were easily able to find a bus (No. 16) down into the city center for the way down. One of the highlights of Castle Hill is the Fisherman’s Bastion, providing more stunning views of the city from beautifully decorated lookout towers.
Gellért Hill features the old Citadel, the Cave Church and Liberty Monument. We started our trek up the hill at the Gellért Hotel, but I believe you can reach the top via bus if you’re savvy. We decided to burn off the Hungarian beers and hike to the top. It’s important to remember proper shoes for this hike as many of the trails were covered in snow, ice and mud. I’m sure it’s a much nicer walk in the summer. The view from the top was fantastic. We were up there in the evening and the lights of the city were brightly lit. The Cave Church had a service going on so we only peeked in, and the Citadel was not open for visitors at that time of night.
The Great Market Hall (or Nagycsarnok in Hungarian) is a fantastic place to stop for souvenirs, groceries and a quick bite to eat. We visited the market our first morning in town and I was delighted to find Lángos. Lángos is a Hungarian dish of fried bread topped with sweet or savory toppings. I opted for the special that included honey, jam, powdered sugar and slices almonds. It was decadent and delicious! The Hall actually has three levels patrons can visit. We found that the first level housed mainly food booths- things like meats, produce and packaged spices. The second level housed merchandise, souvenirs and some booths selling hot food on site. The bottom level had some additional food options including a number of stalls selling fresh seafood and a traditional Euro grocery store. Note that the market is closed on Sundays and shuts down at 3:00pm on Saturdays. It’s easily accessible by the #2 tram line, but we just walked from our apartment.
The #2 tram line is a tourist attraction in itself. It runs along the east bank of the Duna River. It’s also on the list of NatGeo’s Top 10 Trolley Rides worldwide. The ride provides fantastic views of Castle Hill and Hill on the west side of the river and also takes you directly past the beautiful Budapest Parliament Building.
Places to Eat:
Antique Book Shop: After a long, cold morning of touristing we enjoyed a warm reprieve at the popular Antique book shop. The shop serves fancy-schmancy coffee drinks, Hungarian wine and delectable desserts and snacks. The café is set atop a two-story bookstore in an ornate, grandiose room. Piano music permeates the room as waiters dressed all in black scurry to fill incoming orders. It was the perfect place to spend an hour rehashing our morning and regaining feeling in our fingers and toes.
We recommend STEX for some traditional Hungarian cuisine. I ordered wild boar goulash with gnocchi and Dave opted for beef cheek with sheep’s cheese potatoes. The restaurant is large, with two levels and a numerous nooks and crannies. STEX offers and English menu and we didn’t have to make reservations ahead of time.
Pad Thai Wok Bar: Sometimes when you travel you just need a quick bite of something familiar. Pad Thai Wok bar is a modern example of upscale fast food. You choose your noodles, meats, sauces and add-ons and out comes a piping hot bowl of a scrumptious thai classic. Easy to access from our apartment and the city center.
The Winebar: When traveling you always have the chance of stumbling upon something truly memorable and unique and we were lucky to chance on a wine bar in Budapest that stands out as one of our favorite travel memories of all time. We first came upon the bar on Saturday night while looking for a place to have dinner. The bar only served small plates, but the cozy, inviting front room and the sounds of live jazz enticed us to take a closer look. The basement room was packed to the gills with Hungarians enjoying drinks and taking in the music. Our stomachs won over our desire to stay and see the show, but we vowed to come back the next night as the bar featured lived music each night. Sunday night was a bit quieter as everyone was seated in the small front room centered around a piano. At 9:00 on the dot an older gentleman and woman came in, sat down by the piano and for the next two hours we enjoyed some of the most beautiful and enthusiastic piano music. The wine was delicious, the setting cozy and the music invigorating. Something about the pianist was contagious and you couldn’t help but smile as he played.