Surprises are the Rule on a Budapest City Break
When you’re whizzing through lots of European cities you’ll see more national galleries, cathedrals, and parliament buildings than you can count on both hands. Your to-do list in each stop can look a tad monotonous. But this is certainly not the case for Budapest.
By European capital standards, Budapest is pretty unique. Not only does it have everything capitals are entitled to – glamorous architecture, stories from history not long gone, and too many cool hang-outs – but also a few eye-brow-raisers up its sleeve. Which other city can claim ruin bars, a public bathing culture, the birthplace of Houdini and the Rubik’s cube, a cake that can double as an ice cream cone, and intricate cave networks with Dracula’s labyrinth?
Check out below for our top tips for Budapest things to do, in no particular order.
1. Not Just for Vampires – What to See in Budapest
Below Budapest’s streets is a tangle of caves. And they aren’t just full of dripping stalactites and gravity-defying stalagmites (definitely had to google the difference just then). The church under Gellért Hill, built into a cave where a reclusive Saint Ivan gave people their health back.
Via. Instagram: @insapassport
Buda Castle sits on top of about 10 km/ 6 miles of subterranean passages, which were repurposed as, in no particular order, a bunker, hospital, barracks, harem, and prison for the real-life Dracula (an eccentric aristocrat named Vlad Tepes). For those with a marble willpower and wriggling know-how there are also adventure tours through Pál-völgyi, the longest network of caves in Hungary.
2. Make Do and Mend (and Drink)
This is pretty much the motto for Budapest’s bar and cultural hub scene. Giving new life to old crumbling buildings is a trend that has barely been around for 20 years, but already the city is synonymous with it.
Via. Instagram: @szimplakert
Szimpla Kert – a retired factory-complex now filled with imagination – was one of the vanguards of the ruin bar movement. Whether it’s an old communist car or a bathtub, trash is treasure here.
3. Going Underground like it’s the Very First Time
Via. Instagram: @hennaelise
Budapest’s majestic Andrássy Avenue is so beautiful that the city forbade any public transport to be built on it. But under it is fine – hence the birth of Europe’s first electrified underground metro in 1896. You can still take the quaint Millennium Line (the M1, of course) for a ride.
4. Is it a Telescope? Is it a Didjeridu? Nope, it’s a Cake!
There aren’t just things to do in Budapest, there’s also cake to eat. Chimney cake is a cute name for an ingenious treat. The dough is rolled flat, a spiral is cut from the outside into the centre, and the ribbon of dough is snaked around a cylinder on a spit, rubbed in sugar, and baked in a special chimney cake oven. What comes out looks exactly like a chimney.
Via. Instagram: @nozsemi
Although you can find this yummy thing in a couple of other European countries, Budapest has transformed it. The hole in the middle turned out to be a literal niche in the market this winter: reinventions revolving around fillings range from chimney cake sandwiches and eclairs, to chimney cake ice cream cones. And is Budapest cheap, I hear you wonder – you can pick up one of these delicious treats for the equivalent of just over £2!
5. Bath Time
Even if you’re just stopping for 3 days in Budapest, whether it’s a pool, a sauna, or a red-wine bath (“medicinal”, they say), the baths are one thing you have to try. The city takes the biscuit when it comes to taking to the waters, there are over 100 thermal springs are bubbling under the city (and it’s these same springs that also warped the rock under Budapest to make caves).
Via. Instagram: @victoritous
But even though baths are one of the typical things to do in Budapest, “typical” Budapest baths don’t really exist. The Király Baths are housed in 16th century Ottoman chambers. The Gellért Baths shimmer with elaborate Art Nouveau interiors. The Széchenyi Baths look like a palace. In summer the outdoor pool at Rudas Bath is a great spot to get a view of the city centre right on the river.
6. Eat Stone Soup
The story of “stone soup” goes back to once upon a time. It has many variations, but essentially the folk tale describes stingy villagers being unwilling to share their food with hungry travellers, until the travellers offer them some of their “stone soup” – only, it needs a little extra “seasoning”, and slowly the villagers add bits and pieces to make a more nutritious meal…
Via. Instagram: @fuszereslelek1
It seems like the lesson has gotten through, because, in Budapest, the restaurant Kőleves (Hungarian for “stone soup”) does nothing but share goodness (and absolutely does not serve stone soup). Based in the old Jewish district and housed in an old kosher meat factory, with a cosy summer garden, this is a great place to experience traditional Jewish and Hungarian cuisine with a dash of the modern. Try the soups and stews, such as the matzo ball soup or the beany sólent!
7. Drink Communist Grape Soda
Communism is undergoing a capitalist revival in Hungary. Old communist Hungarian brands, after an initial slump following the collapse of the Iron Curtain, have since been doing good business. Their products have now become commodities, now novelties from the old days.
Via. Instagram: @traubikult
Hipsters and old hands alike show their pride in the local by buying trainers by Tisza Cipo, chocolate by Turo Rudi, and Traubisoda. The German name (Traubi = “grape-y”) hints at the drink’s invention in Austria in the 50’s; but Hungary made it a star.
8. Experience the Mother of all Escape Rooms (Literally)
You said you wanted to “escape” on your Budapest city break? In a world where everything is becoming more and more virtual, real-life adrenaline rushes are cropping up as a counter-trend. And where do you suppose the very first escape room was opened to the public…?
Via. Instagram: @bara_andras
Parapark took inspiration from video games and made the wishes of Houdini-wanna-be’s come true. It’s only been going since 2011, but has already started a worldwide craze.
9. Learn How to Do a Houdini
Speaking of Houdini, let’s not forget where this slippery legend originally came from: some say Houdini’s first “escape” was to run away to the USA, where he worked his way up from tie cutter to star performer.
Via. Instagram: @lottepeetersx
Your list of Budapest things to do will definitely include the Buda castle, so why not pop into the House of Houdini located inside it? It was founded just last summer (June 2016) by actual magicians and escape artists, admirers of the late Houdini, and it is meant as a tribute to the world’s favourite run-away. A trail of authentic artefacts will lead you through his spectacular life to his tragic demise in Detroit.
10. Finally Solve that Rubik’s Cube
Hungarians are inventors. Along with the nuclear reactor, Ford Model T, hydrogen bomb, electric motor, and digital computing, their creations include all those things that are so everyday, you forget they needed inventing: the biro by none other than László Bíró, the safety match by János Irinyi, and the beloved Rubik’s cube by – you guessed it – Ernő Rubik.
Via. Instagram: @edouards
The frustrating thing is that, in 2017, there should have been a Rubik’s cube-shaped museum opening in Budapest. Yet the news is ominously silent about its opening… Still, while you’re waiting, there are other Rubik-related things to do in Budapest: visit the mural by Neopaint, or see a collection of cubes in the Museum of Applied Arts, or buy your own: the friendly Reflexshop has too many variations on the classic cube.
One final tip for your Budapest city break…
Book your return ticket, or else you may never want to leave. Those who run away to this quirky haven seldom returned (nothing to do with getting lost in the caves, promise…). They probably just never ran out of things to do in Budapest.