48 Hours in Budapest
Leah Walker August 4, 2013

Budapest is a beautiful city, but not in the traditional way. It’s not perfectly restored like Vienna or straight from a storybook like Prague. But there’s no mistaking that Budapest is splendid, and it has become one of my favorite European cities.

Budapest Danube River View

Located on both banks of the Danube River, the steep hills of Buda and the bustle of Pest give visitors a glimpse into the city’s grand and turbulent past. Approximately 30,000 buildings were destroyed during World War II and the 1956 Revolution, and much of that can still be seen today. The crumbling buildings give this city character and are a reminder of the past, while the restored buildings remind visitors of what makes this Hungarian capital one of the most picturesque cities in Europe.

Stay

Lobby Four Seasons Gresham Palace Budapest Hungary

Four Seasons Gresham Palace

For the ultimate in luxury while in Budapest, there’s only one place to rest your head: Four Seasons Gresham Palace. The building has a rich history and storied past. Completed in 1906, the Palace was heavily damaged during WWII. Sadly, it remained in disrepair until 1998, when the Four Seasons began the historic restoration.

Four Seasons Gresham Palace Budapest Hungary

Once luxury apartments and high-end shopping for the crème de la crème of Budapest, artisans transformed the dilapidated building back into its once-grand condition. Salvaged were the two million-piece mosaic tile floor, staircase, stained-glass floors, and a wrought iron elevator. Modern touches like a spa, fitness facility, and a pool were added as well. Once revitalized, Gresham Palace was opened as the Four Seasons in 2004 after a five-year, $110 million dollar restoration.

Four Seasons Gresham Palace Budapest

The stunning Art Nouveau building couldn’t be in a better location. Situated in Szechenyi Square, along the bank of the Danube River and in front of the famous Chain Bridge, the Four Seasons is on the bustling Pest side of Budapest. With only 179 rooms in an intimate setting, it’s easy to feel like royalty here. And just like every other Four Seasons in which I’ve stayed, I was made to feel like a queen.

Four Seasons Gresham Palace Budapest Hungary

My Danube River View Room was decorated in art deco style and retained some of the original architecture elements like soaring ceilings and detailed crown molding. The room even had a doorbell, which is fun feature left from the Palace’s apartment days. My absolute favorite aspect of the room was the floor-to-ceiling windows and glass doors that lead out to a small balcony. From here, I could see the Danube, Chain Bridge, Buda Hills, Royal Castle, and the Fisherman’s Bastion. Honestly, I didn’t see any better view while in Budapest.

Four Seasons Gresham Palace View Budapest Hungary

Little thoughtful touches throughout the two nights made my stay even more special. In typical Four Seasons fashion, beautiful two-bite pastries and bottled water awaited me each evening. That’s so much nicer than typical chocolate. The mini bar not only included the standard offerings of snacks, drinks, and alcohol, but also a travel guide of Budapest, gorgeous note cards, and a Rubic’s Cube. Apparently, the inventor is from Budapest.

What impressed me the most were the two parting gifts I received: A small box of cookies and my favorite, a quart-sized plastic bag. I know it must sound silly considering I was staying in a palace, but the bag was so simple, innovative, and something I’d never seen. I thought so much of this minute amenity that I included it in “Six Simple Amenities that all Luxury Hotels should Offer.”

Four Seasons Gresham Palace Budapest Hungary

Budapest, one of Europe’s oldest cities, has a long and storied history. For me, it was a pleasure to experience not only the luxury that is the Four Seasons, but also to feel a part of the city’s past. More than simply a grand hotel, Gresham Palace has an interesting story: From the early 1900s when Europe’s richest women sipped coffee on the terrace, to WWII when tanks rolled through the iron gates and all but destroyed the Palace, to now when visitors from all over the world sit in the lobby drinking cocktails. Four Seasons Gresham Palace has as many tales to tell as mosaic tiles on its floor.

Eat & Drink

Great Market Hall Sausage Budapest Hungary

ÉS Bisztró

Located in the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus, ÉS Bisztró offers guests a relaxed environment and serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. ÉS, Hungarian for and, has a unique menu divided into three separate parts: nibbles to share, typical dishes of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, and grilled meat and fish.

ÉS Bisztró Goose Liver Budapest Hungary

ÉS surprised this Texan and long-time steak eater with their dry aged fillet steak. The cut of meat is encased in lard mixed with herbs and spices. Here, the meat rests and becomes super-moist and flavorful. When ready to be cooked, the lard is cut away and grilled to perfection. I’d never even heard of such a method, but it made for a stupendous steak.

ÉS Bisztró Steak Budapest Hungary

ÉS Bisztró Steak Budapest Hungary

Dishes to Try: Goose liver made with Tokaji, seasonal stewed fruit and brioche; beef carpaccio; Hungarian charcuterie sampler; cabbage salad; dry aged fillet steak; and wild plum strudel.

ÉS Bisztró Strudel Budapest Hungary

Kazimir Bisztró

I’m not sure if I could find this place again, but it’s located near or in the Jewish Quarter. I stumbled upon Kazimir while looking for a place for dinner. I decided it looked just fine and took a seat in the courtyard.

Kazimir Bisztró Budapest Hungary

The eclectic menu offers everything from traditional Hungarian food to Thai fried rice and basic hamburgers. I had a chef’s special that included two kinds of homemade sausage, salad, and grilled potatoes. Add to that two glasses of wine, and I walked out the door spending about $12. Good food and a good deal—that’s what I like.

Kazimir Bisztró Hungarian Food

Gelarto Rosa

In the shadows of St. Stephen’s Basilica is perhaps the best place in Budapest to get gelato. Gelarto Rosa is a small, unassuming place, but the line of about 30 people stretched out the door will help you find it.

Gelarto Rosa Budapest Gelato

Hungarian owner, Niki Szokron, studied authentic Italian recipes and brought them back to Budapest. The gelato is as delicious as it beautiful. As the name implies, each scoop is made to look like a rose. It’s almost too pretty to eat. Almost.

DiVino

This wine bar has several locations in Budapest, but my favorite is in front of St. Stephen’s Basilica (and next to Gelarto Rosa). DiVino offers a good variety of Hungarian wine by the bottle or glass. Tables and chairs fill the bustling St. Stephen’s Square, which makes for a great place to enjoy a glass of wine and people watch. DiVino charges a deposit on your wine glass, so before you leave, make sure to return your glass to the counter for a cash refund.

DiVino Budapest Hungary

Bar and Lobby Lounge at the Four Seasons Gresham Palace

Even if you’re not fortunate enough to stay at Gresham Palace, you can still enjoy the beautiful atmosphere of the historic Páva Udvar {Peacock Passage} by visiting the Bar and Lobby Lounge. There’s seating in the bar, but don’t miss out on the comfortable couches and chairs that spill out into the lobby.

Four Seasons Gresham Palace Cocktail Budapest Hungary

In the evenings a pianist plays recognizable tunes and the bartender mixes delicious drinks, including the Elderflower Martini. Get ready for a theatrical production when ordering this signature cocktail. Made table side, the Elderflower Martini has vodka, elderflower honey, and aged elder balsamic. It tastes like a limeade, but much more potent. You even get a button to take home.

Gresham Palace Cocktail Budapest Hungary

Blue Fox at the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus

This laid-back lobby bar has a modern vibe to go along with its innovative cocktails. With an intimate and lounge-like feel, the Blue Fox at Kempinski Hotel Corvinus feels very modern in a city known for its historical past. A projector displays random video, while a DJ plays every Tuesday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Blue Fox Fifty Spice Budapest Hungary

I’m officially obsessed with the Fifty Spice. A martini containing Absolute Vanilla Vodka, St. Germain, lime juice, and chili, this unusual drink combines sweet with spicy. I’d say it would be hard to go wrong with any drink from the Collection menu.

Experience

Budapest Castle

The Great Market Hall

Located at the Pest end of Liberty Bridge, the Great Market Hall {aka Central Market Hall} is a beautiful three-story building built in the late 1890s. Although it was seriously damaged during World War II and closed, the Great Market Hall was extensively restored in the mid 1990s. Photos from the history of the market can be seen on the walls of the second floor. Still an important market for locals to shop, it’s also become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Budapest.

Great Market Hall Budapest Hungary

On the ground floor is the fresh produce, meat {including more sausage than one could eat in a lifetime), and fish. One floor up has people selling Hungarian arts and crafts, perfect as souvenirs. Make sure to buy some smoked paprika!

Great Market Hall Dolls Budapest Hungary

There are also plenty of stalls selling traditional Hungarian food. I wanted to taste everything, especially the goulash and lango—a deep-fried dough similar to a funnel cake that’s topped with sour cream and cheese.

Great Market Hall Sausage

Go hungry and prepare to leave stuffed, but not on Sundays. The Great Market Hall is closed then.

Great Market Hall Pastries Budapest Hungary

Erzsébet Square

The largest green area in Budapest’s inner city is Erzsébet Square. A gathering place for locals and tourists alike, the square was originally named after Elisabeth {aka Sisi}, wife of Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph, in 1858. It was then renamed to ‘Stalin’ in 1946 and to then ‘Engels’ in 1953, before getting its original name back in 1990. Erzsébet’s main attraction is the Danubius Fountain, located in the middle of the square.

Erzsébet Square

Credit

Erzsébet Square has large trees that offer shade to the numerous benches below, and also a couple of bars that offer everything from beer to wine to mixed drinks. If you prefer, bring your own bottle, find a place on the grass, and people watch. In the evenings, bands playing traditional Hungarian music can be heard. The square is a great place to catch a glimpse of a local’s life in Budapest.

Ruin Bars

As far as I know, ruin bars originated in Budapest. And what is a ruin bar? Well, due to poor economic conditions, abandoned buildings that needed restoration were instead turned into makeshift bars. Booze was brought in and toilets were fixed and a Budapest legend was born.

 Szimpla Ruin Bar Budapest Hungary

There are many ruin bars in the city, but Szimpla is the original, dating back to 2004. A feast for the eyes, this multi-story bar is filled with stuff one might find in a junk store, including relics from the communist era.

 Szimpla Ruin Bar Budapest Hungary

Downstairs is a vast open-air courtyard full of wooden picnic tables, high top tables attempting to balance on the uneven dirt and concrete floors, and hundreds of drunken people throwing back some of the cheapest drinks available in Europe.

Wall Grafiti Ruin Bar Budapest

Upstairs is more of a ‘quiet’ lounge-like atmosphere filled with bistro tables, couches made from old, claw-foot bathtubs, and mismatched lawn furniture. Walls are adorned with graffiti and flea market paintings.

 Szimpla Ruin Bar Budapest Hungary

Keep in mind that the crowd at Szimpla is young, which is great for entertainment value, but annoying when one of them vomits on the table next to you. My advice for more mature patrons is to go check out the place after dark because the atmosphere and décor is really cool. Take advantage of the cheap drinks, but get out when you start seeing people being carried out by their friends.

Budapest at Sunset

Like all places I become enamored with, my time in Budapest was far too short. I’m intrigued by the glory of its Hapsburg history and communist-controlled past. I’m obsessed with Hungarian paprika and apricot pálinka. Most of all, I’m enamored with the juxtaposition of the grand architecture next to decaying buildings. Budapest definitely deserves to be mentioned in the ranks of great European cites.

I was a guest of Four Seasons Gresham Palace and the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus. In no way was I swayed by the lovely hospitality, scrumptious food, and creative cocktails. As always, opinions are mine. 

Note: There are affiliate links in this post, meaning I make a small commission if you make a purchase through my links. It costs you nothing more, but helps keep me stocked in French wine {and a roof over my head}.

Leah Walker

Leah's a luxury travel and food writer who has as many stories as she does shoes. She documents her experiences whether that's in the lap of luxury or riding through a swamp in an airboat. Leah freelances and has contributor/editor roles with The Daily Meal, The Daily Basics, Bonjour Paris, France Today, Luxe Beat Magazine, Four Seasons Magazine, Forbes Travel Guide, and is a travel ambassador for Atout France USA. Leah's thrilled to call Paris home after being awarded the coveted three-year Compétences & Talents visa from France, though her talents don't extend to speaking French. Yet.

33 Comments

  1. If only we read this before our trip to Budapest. Random memories including Swedish tourists cadging cigarettes off us and having to buy an inappropriately-tight swimming costume in order to enter a spa. We only flew there as a base to travel by train to Slovakia. It’s a long story. Oh, to return and tap into your local knowledge.

    1. Ok, so the vision of the tight swimming costume made me laugh out loud. Even though you didn’t have my guide at the time, it sounds like you have some fun memories of Budapest. That’s worth the trip alone.

  2. We’re in prague. Budapest is coming up soon. And the while time we were walking around prague, I was like: “how can I describe this??” You’ve nailed it: “storybook.” Literally the most city I’ve ever seen.

    This article is fueling my excitement for Budapest.

    1. Don’t you just love Prague? I’m eager to know what you think about Budapest in comparison. In my mind, they’re similar, but also so different. I’ll let you make up your mind for yourself. 🙂

  3. I had maybe 4.8 hrs in Budapest, the one and only time I’ve been there… Considering my Hungarian-sounding maiden name, it’s unacceptable! When I go there (not if), I’m definitely checking out those ruin bars.

    1. Aren’t you in Poland right now, Pola? I think a quick trip to Budapest is in order. At least get 48 hours this time.

    1. Budapest would make for a great long weekend trip for you from England. I wouldn’t describe it as cosmopolitan, but I think you’d enjoy it nonetheless.

  4. i love Budapest for the same reasons…it’s a grand capital city that’s a little rough around the edges and gives it more character than many. so glad you tagged along for the ruin bar experience and found it interesting despite the youthful crowd. Kazimir was, in fact, in the Jewish Quarter.

    1. Great call on the ruin bars, Lauren. It was a lot of fun despite the multitude of smells that came our way. I’d like to visit another one the next time I’m in Budapest.

    1. The tour I took of the property was very interesting. I was really taken aback by what that building has seen in its time. It really is a snapshot of much of Budapest’s most recent history. Very cool place to see and certainly a fabulous place to stay.

  5. Great tips for eating, drinking, being merry, and seeing Budapest. I am sold it should be visited. I hope the gelato line did not bring back bad memories of doughnuts in Chicago.

    1. Hahaha! Luckily I made note of the place and came back when there wasn’t such a line. You know I’m not standing in a line that long for anything but a Bradley Cooper kissing booth. 😉 I can see Ted and his fanny pack really enjoying Budapest. There’s lots of yummy alcoholic options.

  6. Budapest is so beautiful! And the four seasons hotel is definitely stunning, so jealous you got to stay there. I’m planning to go to Budapest by the end of this year, keeping this post on my tab for reference.

    1. Budapest in the winter should be awesome. I’d love to see it under a bit of snow. Enjoy! Let me know how you like it.

  7. I also loooove Budapest! I haven’t been to Vienna or Prague (yet) to compare it to, but I don’t think my feelings for it are likely to change. It’s just such a cool, dynamic city!

    1. Did you visit Budapest on this summer’s European trip, Amanda? It’s hard to keep up with you. Budapest is absolutely a dynamic city. What a perfect way to describe it.

  8. Sign me up for the ruin bars and that rose gelato! I have yet to visit Budapest, but I’ll be bookmarking this for further reference when I finally get there. 🙂

    1. Me thinks you’d like Budapest, Erin. And, yes, the gelato was as delicious as it was pretty. I want to go back…girls trip?

  9. I didn’t quite realize Budapest still had remnants of damaged buildings. Very interesting – my kind of place! And I am amazed at your insistence on going to places that sell sweet things that have long lines 😉

    1. Oh, Raul, you’d really love Budapest. I would love seeing your photos of the old buildings. And, yes, I tend to gravitate towards places with long lines, but I didn’t stand in it. Instead, I went at a less crowded time. I learned my lesson from Chicago!

  10. Perhaps staying in a less sumptuous place [Ibusz has a program that less affluent travelers use, allowing you to rent a very nice room in a private home] would allow you to meet the people of the city on more equal terms, opening you up to a potentially richer experience than gathered hanging where all the other tourists hang out.

    1. Hi Andy. I write luxury, thus I stay in luxury accommodations when I travel. However, your suggestion is a good one for people who would like to experience Budapest but don’t want to splurge on a hotel. I had a guide who was Hungarian, and he took me to many locals-only places. I’ve just yet to write about them. Stay tuned.

  11. I’ve been here for 8 months now and am starting to get my head round the language and be a little more in touch with the culture.

    I’d actually like to experience the city in luxury like you did just to see how different the same place feels!

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