Thermal Baths, Goulash, and Hungarian Wine: A 4-Day Weekend in Budapest

Where east meets west, that’s where Buda meets Pest. Seriously. The once-separate twin cities Buda and Pest lie on either side of the Danube River, right about where rugged eastern Europe collides with the shinier western countries. Buda is on the left bank, Pest on the right, the same way you’d read the city name: Buda-Pest.

 

 

A visit to Budapest feels like a marriage of old and new: Renaissance, Gothic, and Baroque architecture surround Turkish thermal baths, and a youthful pep in the city is owed to its bustling financial and technology sectors.

It’s perfect for an extended stay, too. Humbling historic tours lead to hours of soaking in the famous public baths, with comforting and hearty Hungarian meals (and wine!) at each interval. It shines in summer, it warms in winter, and it’s affordable yet, by comparison to Paris, London, Munich, and Florences. To ensure a fulfilling visit—and a fairly relaxing one at that—here’s what to do in Budapest over a long weekend.

Where to Stay

Continental Hotel Budapest
Continental Hotel Budapest Gabor Erdelyi and Attila Korbely / Continental Hotel Budapest

The saying goes “visit Buda, stay in Pest.” You’ll get a feel for Budapest’s “city center” in Pest, plus it puts you among the best restaurants, bars, cafes, and nightlife, or at least a short walk to it all. So, some hotels to consider:

Hotel Rum: Three stars (though it’s a four in every sense). Hotel Rum’s a design hotel with an unmatched location just minutes from the Danube and Pest’s top sites. You may not need public transit at all during your stay if you plant yourself here. They have a killer breakfast, lunch, and brunch, too, at their rooftop skybar TOPRUM. (One of the few spots to find classic brunch in town.)

Continental Hotel: Four stars. The regal architecture and decor here seem to recall the city’s beautiful thermal baths. Actually, Continental Hotel housed a thermal bath a few decades prior. Now their rooftop pool competes for your affection. It’s like the real “Grand Budapest Hotel.”

Hotel Clark: Four stars. A rare exception to the “stay in Pest” rule. This hip hotel in Buda has remarkable views and is right at the foot of the famous Chain Bridge. That means you’re just a short, brisk walk away from everything—and safely central at any hour of the evening. It also puts you close to the Rudas and Gellért thermal baths.

Budapest’s Thermal Baths

Széchenyi Thermal Baths
Széchenyi Thermal Baths Courtesy of Széchenyi Thermal Baths

The baths are such a cultural mainstay that they deserve their own section, and we suggest you visit a different one each day (or night). The city is built on a network of thermal springs with mineral-rich water feeding into the many 16th- and 17th-century bathing sites, so you get all the benefits of a spa from a cinematic setting. (Most have massages, saunas, facial treatments, and more.)

Here are the five that are the most worth your time:
Széchenyi: It’s the granddaddy of them all—and the largest in Europe, too. Three giant outdoor pools, 15 indoor, all dripping in Baroque detail.
Gellért: Known for its glass ceiling and pillar-lined pool, Gellért looks like an imperial YMCA—in a very good way.
Rudas: The lavish Turkish pools at Rudas look like a set piece from The Fifth Element, and are only outdone by the rooftop tub with a panorama of the Danube and Pest.
Lukács: Once you’re in a thermal-bath routine, you can go to Lukács for practical reasons: to relax without all those damn tourists! It’s housed inside a former monastery and you’ll get plenty of monk-like R&R.
Kiraly: Kiraly’s main bath sits beneath a purposefully punctured dome, so that streams of light shower over you while you soak in the Turkish round.

What to Do in Budapest

Fisherman's Bastion Budapest
Széchenyi Thermal Baths Kareszzz Photography / Courtesy Image

Buda Castle and Castle Hill: To see how the Hungarian royals lived, walk across the Szechenyi Chain Bridge from Pest into Buda, then up the hill. (You can catch the funicular if you prefer.) The view across the Danube is outstanding as well, but it’s up on this hill where you’ll spend half a day or more touring Buda’s main attractions. This 13th-century castle got a Baroque upgrade in the 1700s, and you can tour its galleries for just a few bucks.

Fisherman’s Bastion: These castle walls (also on Castle Hill, of course) were once occupied by the fisherman’s guild back in the Middle Ages as they kept an eye out over the waters to guard the castle. Don’t miss the view from here, either.

Danube Boat Tour: There’s no shortage of boat tours for your stay, but we recommend the Danube—to sight see or enjoy a romantic dinner on a private yacht.

Shoes on the Danube: Follow Zoltan Street all the way to the Danube in Pest, where you’ll see this memorial. It’s comprised of 60 iron-cast shoes right along the riverbank, commemorating those 3,500 people who were shot into the river by militiamen during World War II.

St. Stephen’s Basilica: Have a look inside the country’s most revered church. It’s believed that the physical right hand of King Stephen (Hungary’s first king) is inside this neoclassical marvel.

Heroes’ Square at City Park: It’s just beside the Fine Arts Museum and on the way to the Széchenyi baths. There are towering statues in the plaza that commemorate the Magyar conquest of Hungary in the 800s and 900s. (This effectively established present-day Hungary.)

Hungarian Parliament Building: You don’t necessarily need to spend time here, but you should be able to point it out, especially from across the river in Buda. It’s photogenic as hell, too.

Hidden Gems

Normafa Park
Normafa Park Kiss Ákos / Courtesy of Normafa Park

Sunday Szimpla Farmers’ Market: Sample the freshest foods from the Hungarian countryside. You can also sit down to a farmer’s breakfast for 4000 HUF each (roughly $15 USD).

Bartók Béla Boulevard: This culture-packed street is lined with cafes, galleries, musical performances, and more. It’s named after composer Béla Bartók, one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.

Row the Danube to Romai Beach: Find the nearest canoe rental company and row your way north to relax with a drink and delicious fuel at Fellini. They’re open ’til midnight every night, too (though canoeing after dark is ill-advised).

Normafa Park: This is the best place for a hike into the western hills past Buda. You can also take a Libegő (cable car) if you’re just in it for the city views.

7th and 8th District Coffee Shops: These are the two “already up and came” spots, though the 7th (Erzsébetváros, the Jewish Quarter) is a beat ahead of the romantically ragtag 8th district (Józsefváros, the Palace District). Stop through for a midday coffee or if you need a chill but bustling place to work for a few hours. Try any of these cafes: Fekete, My Little Melbourne, or Mantra.

Botellón Party on Gellért Hill: Expect random dance parties and outdoor gatherings—Spanish botellón style (just hanging outside with your pals). See if they’ve got any parties popping up while you’re in town.

Brody Studios Events: Check this group’s calendar to see if they’re hosting any parties or random events while you’re in town. You might get a cocktail tasting, stand-up, jam session, or an intellectual talk.

Where to Eat

Stand25 Bistro
Stand25 Bistro Courtesy of Stand25 Bisztró

Kispiac Bisztró: Country-traditional, elevated Hungarian food. Translation: Fresh and not too heavy. Just a few tables and a menu that changes with the season.

Mazel Tov: You didn’t intend to eat Israeli food in Hungary, but you’re going to because this place is so charming and so damn delicious.

Beefbar: Fancy steaks. Expensive steaks. But delicious steaks at that.

Borkonyha: Come for the fois gras and Hungarian wines.

Stand25 Bisztró: Michelin-star goulash and casserole. Book well in advance for lunch or dinner.

Babel: Fresh, fine dining inspired by Transylvania. Dishes often spotlight surprising ingredients plucked from the forest.

Rosenstein: The best for local cuisine. Come here for true comfort food like fish soup, veal, or catfish.

Börze: Traditional Hungarian food, but in a bright, new setting. Get the duck leg.

Hilda: Brightly lit and bustling. Come for a classic breakfast or rotisserie chicken lunch.

Á La Maison Grand: Hungarians don’t really do brunch, but if you’re craving waffles, coffee, and cocktails, you can find it all at Á La Maison.

Where to Go Out

Barside Cocktails Budapest
Barside Cocktails Budapest Image Courtesy of Barside

Anker’t Ruin Pub: You’ve heard about the numerous ruin pubs around Budapest, that thrive despite their disrepair. However, they’re all packed with tourists, and very few locals set foot inside. Word amongst the Budapestians is that Anker’t is the best of them all thanks to its fun evening parties and overall atmosphere.

Barside: The best Negroni in town. (Confirmed, after numerous leads suggested the same.)

Boutiq’Bar: Cozy cocktail bar with an extensive list, plus custom options. Try the Devil Inside: Jim Beam Devil’s Cut with chili bitters and cherry.

Doblo: The coolest, if not the best wine bar, featuring a regional selection plus cheese and meat pairings.

St. Andrea Wine Bar: St. Andrea vineyard has a gourmet restaurant, a rooftop skybar, a bistro, and a wine shop all carrying its regional product. Take your pick from those options, based on the occasion—although we strongly recommend the occasion center around Hungarian wine. We’d suggest the skybar if you just want a drink. (Plus, that view!)

Her Majesty the Rabbit: Ask your concierge or any local friends about getting into HMtR. It’s a members-only piano bar, but each member can bring up to three guests. It’s hard to get access otherwise.