Now that I’ve been in London two months, I’m ready to start taking advantage of Easyjet and Ryanair. Given that Europe is one of the easier, and less expensive destinations to get to from South Africa (and because I lived in France for a few months), I’ve crossed off most of touristy Europe. Now, I really want to get to know the touristy cities a little better, and also visit countries I’ve never been to like Iceland, Scotland and places like Estonia and Latvia.
Over the years, mine and Rishav’s travel preferences have evolved. Now, we avoid organized sightseeing tours (unless they’re food tours!), and try not to do anything too touristy. We often plan our days around food – missioning to get to a certain restaurant, and then spend the rest of our day in that area. We hardly use taxi’s and always try to walk or use local buses or trains. Lately, we’ve been Airbnb’ing vs. hotel’ing because that adds to the local experience – and you also get a much bigger space for the same amount of money.
Now that I’ve revived the blog, I want to share bitesized snippets of what to do in each of the cities I visit, from the moment you land. My trips are usually short, and as you know, I’m very well researched 🙂 I’d like for you not to have to redo all the research I’ve spent hours doing, so I want these posts to be as comprehensive as possible.
Think beautiful architecture (like Paris but colourful), vibey nightlife, great food and wine, thermal baths, river cruises and hilltop castle views.
Getting into the city from the airport:
The airport is around a 45 minute drive from the city centre. A taxi will cost you around EUR25 each way, and you can find taxis outside the airport. We used the airport shuttle; (there’s a dedicated desk inside the airport), which cost EUR30 return for 2 people and it was remarkably efficient. We waited around 5 minutes and joined a group of 4 other tourists in the bus – they were dropped off at their hotels and then we were dropped off at ours. We asked our concierge to book our return journey and the airport shuttle was at our hotel on time. For a door to door service I think this is a great deal.
You’ll see tourist cards on sale at the airport which give discounted or free entrance to some attractions and free public transport – apparently these aren’t good value because you don’t need public transport (Budapest is really walkable and you’ll likely not be able to see enough attractions to make it worthwhile)
Also, Uber is in Budapest and it’s way cheaper than regular taxis. Generally, Budapest is a lot cheaper than the rest of Europe and that applies to Uber fares too.
Where to stay:
There are some gorgeous Airbnb’s available in Budapest – for a steal. The thing with Airbnb is if you’re in a new city for just a weekend it’s sometimes just easier to book a hotel. I stayed at the Kempinski which was really well located, albeit a bit oldschool.
Wifi was free and fast. We opted to go without breakfast (although I hear the buffet spread is insanely good,) and made use of the in house deli (a nice touch) to get croissants and coffee in the morning. The hotel also has a really nice “Living Room” which is super cozy and particularly nice to work from if you’re in Budapest on business.
We were able to walk everywhere from the Kempinski and found it really convenient. The city’s biggest Christmas market is also right on its doorstep! Another lux hotel with good location is the Sofitel.
What to do in Budapest:
Budapest is split in two by the Danube river: Buda and Pest. I know, I had no idea! On the Buda side, you’ll find most of the city. Must do’s include:
1) Visit the Parliament building
It’s spectacular. We didn’t manage to go in because it was sold out, so definitely book tickets in advance.
2) Go to the Christmas markets
There are a couple around the city, but the most popular one is on Vorosmarty square. It’s fun to walk around and have some mulled wine and cinnamon bread.
3) Go to a thermal bath
Budapest is big on thermal baths, especially in the winter. We didn’t try this out, but the most popular ones are Szechenyi (quite touristy) or Gellert.
4) Spend half a day on the Pest side, around Buda Castle.
It’s quite a hike to get to the top. You can take the cable car which is a little pricey or you can take the number 16 bus from the city that takes you right there. Once there, walk around the castle, go to Fisherman’s Bastion and have tea at Ruskwurm cafe. Try and go close to sunset so you can experience it both during the day and at night. The views across the river are incredible! It was really really cold when we went, but thankfully not raining, so it made a stroll around this area quite fun. Allocate around half a day if you want to see everything here.
5) Go to the Invisible Exhibition
I don’t know how long it’s on for, but it’s a really special experience. It’s run as a fundraiser for the blind, where you’re led through a series of rooms in pitch darkness (with a blind person as your guide.) The rooms range from a studio apartment, to crossing a road, to a museum. You can’t see anything and have to feel and listen to make your way around each room. I personally don’t know anyone blind, and have always been curious about how the blind manage to get around with only the help of a stick or a dog. It truly is amazing, and it was also really touching to hear our guide, Thomas, tell us how he perceives colour. He said – “I love the smell of orange.” That’s something I’ll always remember.
6) Go to the opera house (if you can’t watch a show, then go on a tour)
We saw the nutcracker – it was a pricey EUR80 each for tickets, and the show was only an hour long! Tickets were fully booked on the site, but our concierge managed to get us tickets at a 30% surcharge. It was a really cool experience, but for the budget conscious I think you can still appreciate the opera house’s beauty on a tour.
Where to eat in Budapest:
1) Go on a food tour
Try and do this on your first day so that you can acclimatise to the city and also get tips from your guide about where else to go! I loved the one I went on – a culinary walk with Taste Hungary. It was one of the better food tours I’ve been on. Perfect amount and variety of food, with a good mix of historical info and a lovely guide.
On the tour, we visited the Central Market, which I would highly recommend for a glimpse into how the locals do their shopping.
2) Explore the Jewish district
This is a really trendy area. One street in particular where you can find lots of cool bars and cafes is called Vaci Utca. It has such an awesome vibe.
3) For coffee and cake in a gorgeous environment, head to the Book Cafe in Lotz Torem
A coffee shop in a ballroom. Say no more. It doesn’t look like much when you enter the bookstore, but when you go upstairs it’s amazing. They have a nice selection of desserts and when we went at around 5pm, there was a guy playing the piano. Dreamy.
4) For gourmet, delicious food, go to either one of the Costes restaurants.
Costes is the first restaurant in Budapest to have received a Michelin star. The food is beautifully presented, and the small restaurant has a very upmarket, but also warm ambiance. For a more trendy and casual atmosphere, Costes downtown is another fantastic experience. We tried both and loved them equally.
5) For delicious layer cake (a Budapest tradition), go to Augustz
This is a very old fashioned style cafe, with amazing desserts. Nice for an afternoon cuppa with something sweet.
5) For the restaurant that everyone raves about, go to Comme Chez Soi
I sadly didn’t get to eat here because I tried making a reservation only 1 week ahead instead of the recommended 3 weeks and the restaurant was fully booked. Waiting lists full too. Dammit. Anyway, it’s number one on Tripadvisor and all the blog posts I read about food in Budapest recommend it, so I’m guessing that it must good.
6) For good coffee, head to Mantra
They make their own blends, and the tiny little shop is great for a morning espresso. Coffee is actually really big in Budapest – there are lots of these great little coffee nooks where you can get your daily fix.
I loved our time in Budapest. It felt similar to Paris, but more gritty and colourful. The city is clean, and I liked the mix of trendiness and real-ness, in terms of old fashioned buildings and beautiful architecture.
Next up, I’m off to Paris over the December holidays. I’ve been so many times but it’s my favourite city in the world, and what better place to spend my 30th birthday 🙂 Stay tuned!