Budapest with Ama or On Your Own
One of the great things about an AmaWaterways cruise is the thought they put into creating a well rounded guest experience. Because Ama's owners Rudi Schreiner and Kristin Karst are both European born they have an innate instinct and taste for the kinds of highlights that will leave their guests with that WOW factor at the end of their trip. From the tours and menus offered on board the ships to the land packages that bookend each cruise, they want to ensure their guests get a genuine taste of the culture and flair of each Ama destination. It's no wonder there are multiple itineraries departing from Budapest with slightly different Ama land packages attached to each trip as pre and post cruise options. Deciding between exploring the embarkation and disembarkation cities on an arranged trip with Ama or putting together one's own package is one of the biggest questions I get as an Ama river cruise expert. Luckily, I have a lot of answers and tips for both options. There really IS something for everyone.. and sometimes a combination of both works best. It all depends how much time you have and whether you think you will ever be back.
The main thing about the Ama land packages and tours is that they are intended to give "overviews and tastes" rather than an intense, in depth look at a city. To get a really comprehensive look at a town like Budapest, you need to arrive early and add extra days to your Ama package OR follow my tips and create your own adventure. Whether the Ama package is right for you or not all depends on the travel experience and comfort level of each individual traveler, so I hope this special FREE blog planner will help you make the choice that is best for you. I have tried to include as many links and tips so that my Do It Yourself clients can build their journey, but also so that my guests on the Ama package can plan their own free time easily. Budapest is a city that makes doing your own thing easy, but many people love the idea of letting someone else do the heavy lifting and planning and that is what Ama and I are here for: we have your answers!
Budapest, Queen of the Danube
As of this writing I have been fortunate enough to have taken Ama's Danube cruises over a dozen times, sailing in multiple different seasons, on every class of Ama ship including the AmaMagna both embarking and disembarking in Budapest. While there is never a wrong choice, I personally feel that starting in Budapest gives me more freedom and I like the idea of being "fresh" when tackling this city. Budapest fits into Ama's cruises in various ways and showing different facets each time, but from my experience beginning my trips here lends a certain excitement of a red carpet to my Danube experience and I just prefer it to having Budapest be my "after party" at the end of a cruise.
When it comes to the traditional Danube trips that most people think of on the Upper and Middle Danube, Ama sails between Budapest and Vilshofen, Germany (Melodies of the Danube & Magna on the Danube itineraries) and from Budapest to Nuremberg (Blue Danube Discovery itinerary). The other names at Ama's site are simply the reverse itinerary (Romantic & Legendary). All these itineraries allow guests to visit various cities and towns in Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and Germany and each itinerary can be done multiple times as you will always see new things, have new adventures, and feel like each time is as magical as the first: sailing the same itinerary in different times of the year also allows for a totally different experience: this is why I alternate my Summer Danube and my Christmas Markets of the Danube each year as it allows me to have a warm weather vacation, but then also experience the magic of Advent the next year.
Since Ama offers a variety of tours in each location you always have the chance to see each place in a different way, go to a different spot during a port stop, for example taking the bike tour one time and the walking/bus tour another: Switching between Vilshofen and Nuremberg as disembarkation points provides a slightly altered nautical schedule and the ability to see different cities. For example, Bratislava is only on cruises that include Vilshofen and Regensburg is only on cruises that includes Nuremberg. Take it from me, every time I go I do something new combined with something I loved from a previous visit. Some of these cities and towns fit me like a glove now and I have favourite restaurants, tour guides, pubs, shops, and even friends in each.
I am excited to share all of that with you to enhance YOUR trip and below you will find Dave's 4 Days in Budapest downloadable planning guide: just under a brand new Budapest video from my YouTube channel!
The lower Danube through Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia and Hungary is visited on Ama's Gems itinerary which sails from Budapest to Giurgiu, Romania/ Ruse, Bulgaria... as well as the the 14 day itineraries of Grand/Magnificent Danube that travel all 3 sections of this amazing river with Budapest in the middle. Each of those itineraries can be combined with a selection of land packages ranging from 4 nights in Transylvania, 2 nights in Vienna and 3 nights in Prague. The best thing is that every one of those stops is a complement to Budapest and the history and culture of all of them are tied together in one neat, Ama adventure.
Needless to say, Europe's second longest river offers a multitude of chances to explore Europe's beating heart with Budapest as a major highlight.
FUN FACT: DID YOU KNOW THE UPPER, MIDDLE & LOWER DANUBE ARE SEPARATED BY GATES? The upper Danube is separated from the middle by the Devin Gate, a natural gorge at the border of Austria and Slovakia. As a point of interest for tourists on an Ama cruise, the Castle at Bratislava, which sits on an isolated rocky hill of the Little Carpathians overlooking the Danube in the heart of the city capital, is one of the main fortresses guarding Devin's gate and its ancient trade routes. Ama's Melodies/Romantic and Magna itineraries stop there for you to get an up close look.
The Lower Danube is separated by the "Iron Gate" as it is called today, also known as Trajan's Gate: named after the famous Roman Emperor who had the first ever bridge built over the Lower Danube.
The right side of the Danube (Serbian side) has a plaque to the emperor, but more impressively, the left side (Romanian side) has an enormous carved face of Trajan's firecest opponent, Decebalus, the last King of Dacia.
Today, one of the highlights of the Gems cruise between Budapest and Giurgiu is the beautiful sailing time through this mountainous and wildly beautiful region and that moment when you pass through this section of the Iron Gate is jaw dropping. It's like being in a scene from The Lord of the Rings, just on a luxury cruise ship!
Ama will tell you ALL about this on a Gems/Grand or Magnificent Danube cruise and I will have a future blog post fully exploring this fascinating itinerary. The best thing... no matter which trip you are on my following comments about Budapest will help you plan out your time in this MAJOR city of the Danube.
Getting Into Town from the Airport
Budapest is one of the easiest, most relaxed airports in Europe. If you are flying internationally keep in mind that most flights will require a connection thru London, Frankfurt or Paris so try very hard not to lose a whole day waiting for that connecting flight. However, once you come into the Budapest arrivals terminal you will notice there are ATMs, car rental and transfer info kiosks near the luggage carousels. I've never been keen on using ATMs at the airports because they usually have extravagant fees. If you are able to get some Hungarian Forint before you arrive, great, if not, you can still reach your hotel without needing cash by following my tips and then use one of the more reasonable ATMs after you check into your hotel. (Always use a reputable BANK ATM!)
If you have booked AmaWaterways airfare OR if you are Silver or Gold members of Ama's Privilege Reward program you are entitled to free airport to Sofitel Hotel (or ship) transfers, but ONLY if you are traveling on the published package dates. That means if you deviate your trip by arriving a day or two early or stay a day later then you must arrange your own transfers. The good news is that it is simple and I will explain below what your options are. If you are traveling on the package dates that include the Ama transfer you will receive printed instructions with your tickets along with an airport map and a local contact number. Your Ama representative will meet you outside baggage claim and escort you to the bus.
For those arranging their own transfers, it could not be simpler.
Budapest taxis have a SET PRICE from the airport to either the Buda or Pest parts of the city. It is currently 8045 HUF (26€) and the ride takes about 35 minutes. If you want to take the taxi DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES ACCEPT A RIDE FROM ANY TAXI DRIVER APPROACHING YOU INSIDE THE AIRPORT ITSELF! Simply follow the lines on the ground that lead directly from the luggage carousel to the taxi stand as shown in the photo above. Get in line (it goes fast) and you can get your taxi ticket and tell the kiosk taxi manager if you want to pay by credit card or request an English speaking driver. Budapest has by FAR one of the best and most organized taxi programs of any European airport.
Personally, I like having a private driver meet me as I come out of the baggage area, bring me to a waiting luxury sedan and drive me to my hotel as I sip a nice water, nibble on a Hungarian sweety, and feel like a VIP when I pull up to my hotel. Since I generally stay at Prestige Hotel Budapest when I have the chance, I let them arrange the airport pick ups for me and my other guests who stay there, too as part of their DIY tours of Budapest.
RiverCruiseKing TIPS: One of the secrets that I have discovered over the years is that if I book my car THRU the hotel directly, I tend to have a room waiting for me when I arrive. Since the driver stays in contact with the hotel during the whole journey, they are already prepared when I walk in, as opposed to booking thru BlackLane or another VIP service that isn't necessarily connected with where I am staying. Even if you are on the Ama package, you can contact the Sofitel (or wherever they have you) to arrange this. Since private drivers meet all their guests right outside baggage claim you just need to collect your bags and exit. You will see a friendly driver holding a sign or iPad or something with your name and off you go.
For guests ending their time in Budapest, I have my own list of drivers that I provide to my clients so you can arrange your airport transfer AND support local people who are friends to RiverCruiseKing.com members of my Royal Court!
Getting a Feel for Two Cities in One
As all of you surely know, Budapest is two cities combined into one major metropolis of Hungarian deliciousness. Buda is on one side of the Danube and Pest on the other. As both grew during the various stages of its history (Magyars, Ottomans, Hapsburgs, etc.) the city eventually merged into the place we know today of Budapest. The city itself is divided into Districts and you will find a lot of information referring to "The Best Restaurants of District VIII "or "The Best Things to Do in District III" but personally I find all of that confusing. Just like arrondissements in Paris, the numbers don't really mean anything to me and to be totally honest, even as often as I go I don't need to know them as long as I know the things I want to see and do and the names of the places that are important to me. You might as well speak.. well, Hungarian to me as to ask me what District something is in. So instead of talking to you about districts, my blog post here will attempt to put things into an Ama guest perspective, using an orientation method that has always worked for me: largely landmarks in relation to the Ama package hotel and separating the city as I have done above .. and no, my numbers are not matched in any way to the official Districts.
I look at the city as follows.. and it mirrors the path of my days:
Buda Hill / Fisherman's Bastion / Matthias Church / Buda Castle
Ground Zero / Sofitel Chain Bridge Area / Ama Host Hotel
St. Stephens to the Parliament
Margaret Bridge / My Friend Andras' Jazz Neighborhood / Antique Row
Széchenyi Thermal Bath / Vajdahunyad Castle / Heroes Square
New York Cafe/ Dohany Street Synagogue /Szimpla Sunday Market / Ruin Bars
Ships & Liberty Bridge / Food Hall / Ráday Food Street / Museums
Buda Bath Area - Rudas to Gellert / Jubiliams Park
Buda Came First
The folklore of Budapest says that an eagle dropped a sword on Buda hill and that is where the Magyars settled, considering it an omen. Today the Turul monument is there to commemorate this part of Buda history and every time I see it I am reminded of my first visit to Budapest: I remember feeling as if I had been dropped into a magical land with millions of stories. My first visit also started here on Buda Hill, right near the Turul and every time I return I stop by to enjoy the view and say hello to my friend the eagle. Being born in Philadelphia, it just seems right.
The Buda side is the quieter side. It is the side with the great big hill, with the Buda Castle overlooking the Danube, with Fisherman's Bastion and Matthias Church. The views over to Pest are stunning from almost every single vantage point imaginable. However, if you stay on this side, know that you will need to take the funicular down or use the local bus or a taxi whenever you want to access the Pest side of the city. It is romantic and charming and lovely, but also a little isolated. That is exactly what some folks want when the come to Budapest for the first time, but others who prefer to be in the thick of things should better stay on the Pest side.
The Budapest Hilton is located overlooking Fisherman's Bastion and river view rooms offer that magnificent view. I remember my first stay here, sitting with my coffee and looking over at Parliament with the morning sun glinting off the river. It was pure magic. Guests staying here tend to enjoy spending time at the National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum inside the Buda Castle and some of my guests will stay 2 nights here and then spend 2 nights on the pest side to bring balance to their experience (hmmm. I wonder where they got that idea?! smile ).
There are also some fantastic cafes, and restaurants on the Buda side and one of my favourite things to do is book a special wine tasting at Faust's Wine Cellar which is located deep under the Buda Hilton in the former wine cellars of the monks. Now THAT is a special experience!
RiverCruiseKing TIP: Ama tours WILL bring you up to Fisherman's Bastion and Matthias Church. Some versions of their tour will bring you inside the Matthias Church so pay attention to your pre-cruise Info package that comes with your tickets. You will NOT go inside most places featured on the Ama tours so if it is important to you to see the interiors of certain buildings I recommend you plan to do it on your own (most notably the Hungarian Parliament, museums, etc.).
Chain Bridge and Ama's Package Hotels: Sofitel, InterContinental, Marriott & Four Season* (*with up charge)
*BLOG NOTE: For the purpose of this blog post, I am using the Sofitel as my ground zero as that is normally the primary hotel used in Budapest. However, please note that as of Dec 2020 the Sofitel is undergoing major renovations and 2021 guests are currently booked at the InterConti (next door), the Marriott (2 blocks down and steps away from Dunacorso), and for an upcharge you can also stay at the glorious Four Seasons Gresham Palace. The Sofitel will return as primary once renovations are over. Just know that this alters nothing in regards to my comments about directions, etc.
If you look at the map above and see where I have written Ground Zero in purple, this is where the Ama package hotel, the 5 star Sofitel Chain Bridge, is located: directly at the foot of the Chain Bridge on the Pest side of the city. The Sofitel is within easy walking distance of so many Budapest highlights that you can very easily fill every moment of your free time by simply walking about even if you don't do an ounce of pre-planning. If you train your mind that the Chain Bridge is the epicentre of the entire city, your tour and exploration highlights radiate from here. Ama chose the Sofitel for its quality and luxury, but also because of its prime location.
So let's take a walk from the Sofitel*. When you come outside the hotel you'll see the Chain Bridge to your left and the Eötvös tér tram stop. The Sofitel is sandwiched between the InterContinental and the Four Seasons and there are so many eateries within walking distance that you will be hard pressed to choose just one restaurant to enjoy. There are multiple pathways and routes, but the pedestrian walkway immediately next to the InterConti leads to a row of restaurants with outside terraces overlooking the Danube which are lovely in the Summer and contain trendy interiors for the colder nights. A favourite and reliable "go to" is Dunacorso, however, Covid has surely brought some establishments to their knees so you will need to double check on arrival if some of my suggestions in this blog are still around. Your Cruise Manager who is along to escort the land package will have a list of great restaurants and can even arrange reservations, but TripAdvisor has changed the game on dining while traveling and you can reliably find great places on your own.
RiverCruiseKing TIP: Use the hotel wi-fi to check places before going out and make a list. It is next to impossible for foreigners to get a Hungarian SIM card so make sure your own data plan has hot spots or international capabilities, OR get a SIM card that has roaming features from another European country with less restrictive purchase options. You can ONLY activate a Hungarian SIM card in one of the 4 major cell providers and the paperwork and requirements were designed by a dictator. With that said, most places in Budapest offer free Wifi.. but logging on could expose you to hackers.. so beware.
If you come out of the Sofitel and turn to the right at the very first corner you will find yourself on a short street leading to the famous Vörösmarty Square and the pedestrian shopping street called the Váci. Think of this as the Times Square of Budapest. It is very tourist driven and you will rarely find a local in this area doing anything other than working (or hustling tourists). To be very honest, the Váci has turned into the same shopping mile that you can find in every city on the planet: chain stores, a mall or two with H&M, adidas, KFC, McDonalds, Deichmans, etc. It is certainly worth one look, but unless you are really in need of some basics that you might have forgotten, there is not much real shopping to be done here.
Now, if you need deo or some cosmetics or a pharmacy, you are in luck. Head to Müllers for necessary items and the pharmacies have green crosses out front; keep in mind that we separate drug stores from actual drug dispensaries. As far as the Váci goes, other than some pretty architecture (including Budapest's last wooden facade) this area is something to explore after you have used your valuable time for the more important sites. There are 2 reputable Bank ATMs in this area so you can get Forint, just don't flash your wallet and don't allow anyone near you while using them.
There are still a few shops of note along the Váci like the florists and decorative and Christmas shops, a few hidden gems, but mostly this has turned into a commercial street. One thing I must say though, Cafe Gerbaud is worth a visit ANY time of year and I love to stop here and have an espresso and slice of cake or a coffee or a beer or even a lunch. I tend to eat and drink a LOT in Budapest because there are so many great places. I will even stop at Cafe Gerbaud on my way to Cafe New York.. why? Just because.
Another thing you have to be careful about on the Váci is that since this is largely a tourist area there are a lot of scammers, pick pockets and people trying to "sell" you things ranging from iPhones to flowers to scarves. Take a wide berth. Don't bother to say "no thank you" just walk on by. If you don't you will spend your entire time there saying "no, no thank you, etc." USE YOUR HEAD and this is one of those times when being polite will get you in trouble. So just don't.
Advent and the Christmas Markets Change Everything
Like every rule, there is an exception. During the Advent season when Vörösmarty Square hosts one of the many Budapest Christmas markets the entire area transforms. Naturally, you will want to come and check things out and soak up the atmosphere. Since the Sofitel is just around the corner, this would be what we would consider "Your Neighborhood Christmas Market" and the place you stop each day on your way home for a hot mulled wine. There are nicer and more charming Christmas markets around Budapest to be sure, but all of them are sweet enough and it is lovely to have one literally right outside your door.
Instead of listening to what I say, take a look at what one of my favourite Hungarian Instagrammers says about Budapest Christmas Markets
Heading North Up the Danube to Parliament and St Stephen's Basilica
So getting back to our walk... when you come out of the Sofitel and look straight ahead up river in the direction of the Parliament building, the first thing you will see is the absolutely fabulous Four Seasons Gresham Palace Hotel. It is a stone's throw from the front door of the Sofitel and in my softball days I could probably have gotten you out at the front door to the Palace. Definitely head inside for a look. The architecture is lovely and at Christmas time the decorations are fairy land-like; in the Summer I like to stop in the bar at least once for a gin & tonic and let my imagination go wild.
The street just beyond the Four Seasons to the right takes you up to St Stephen's and Zrínyi Street, an amazing avenue of culinary and entertainment choices. While there are pubs and bars and even a disco/club or two like the fantastic Ötkert, this is not some disorderly pub street. You can find really great restaurants (like one of my group dinner favorites Société Budapest) and the atmosphere is romantic and relaxed. At the head of the street is the square with St. Stephen's Basilica so if you do accidentally do something naughty, you can go confess later. That or just have another Unicum and forget about it until the next day.
RiverCruiseKing Tip: Just one street further on is my Budapest home away from home, the Budapest Prestige Hotel: a really great boutique hotel with decent prices, an architecturally beautiful building and interior with comfortable and stylish rooms and breakfast run by the Michelin Star in house restaurant Costes ( also one of my group dinner spots). I love the location as much as the hotel as it is on a quiet side street and I can be at the Danube, the Sofitel, or at St Stephen's in 5 minutes.
This area also transforms during Advent time and the Christmas market in front of St Stephen's is one of the smaller, more intimate and special markets. It is largely made up of food stalls and places to get hot drinks and lovely bevvies which makes sense since the entire Zrínyi Street is comprised of fabulous eateries. Since the Budapest Prestige Hotel is just around the corner, I consider this my "Home Market" and when in town for Advent I love to meet my local friends and share a meal, a good catch up, and some laughter over hot mulled wine or more Unicum, one of the beloved local schnapps.
Check out my homepage rivercruiseking.com to see what Christmas Market sailings I am leading or to schedule a personal consultation go to plan your own Christmas market cruise with AmaWaterways.
Moving on Towards Parliament
So heading north from St. Stephen's and back towards the river you come to what is arguably one of the most famous buildings in the entire world, as well as one of the most beautiful architecturally: the Parliament of Hungary. This building is breathtaking from every angle, in every light and at every minute of the day. It is always different, there is always something else catching your eye and instead of rushing by it as so many people do, let yourself take a nice walk around its entirety at different times of the day and in different light. You always find something new and unique and interesting. What is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT to know is that your Ama tour will NOT take you inside. You must arrange to visit this building in your free time.
RiverCruiseKing TIP: I find that embarkation day is the PERFECT time to visit the Parliament building. You can purchase tickets from the Hungarian National Assembly web page or you can book a "private tour" that takes you to the building, brings you in and hands you off to an approved guide inside. Exactly when you time your tour depends on where you are staying, but my suggestion is to allow yourself to have a leisurely breakfast, then check out of the hotel and check your bags for them to hold. Many tours pick you up from your hotel and take you to the building. They give you the choice to go back on your own or they can escort you, but personally I find it easier to go back on my own, that way I am not rushed. If you are staying in a hotel that is not within walking distance of the Parliament, then take your bags to the ship and arrange to meet your guide at the Parliament ticket office. I DO ORGANIZE A PARLIAMENT TOUR OPTION FOR ALL OF THE PEOPLE WHO COME ON MY GROUP TRIPS.
Behind the Parliament and off to the side, directly on the banks of the Danube is another very famous monument and memorial: The Shoes on the Danube Bank. The moving tribute to the over 3500 people who lost their lives to Hungarian fascists during the Second World War and Nazi occupation is a striking reminder of the hardships that the people of Budapest have often faced.
Victims were ordered to take off their shoes before being shot and their bodies allowed to fall into the river and wash away, never to be seen again. It is a sombre moment, but definitely one you will want to make time to see. This soul stirring monument was erected in April 2005 and created by sculptor Gyula Pauer and is now one of the most looked for monuments by visitors to Budapest.
Northwards to Margaret Bridge & Island, My Friend Andras' Jazzy Neighborhood & Antique Row
One of the things I love about Budapest is something I also find interesting about Berlin and that is the unique neighbourhoods defined as much by the architecture and style of the buildings in them as the people themselves. I might never have really gotten a close look at this area of Pest near the Margaret Bridge, but in the early days of my travels here I made a friend who lived a few blocks from the bridge. I enjoy coming to this area surrounded by cool, authentic little restaurants, pubs and leafy green streets. It almost makes me feel like a local myself when I go to places like Babka's.
Remember earlier when I mentioned the tram stop outside the Sofitel? Well, tram 2 and 2M run along this track and if you head north and ride around the Parliament and take the tram to its end at the Margaret Bridge you find yourself at the Jászai Mari tér tram stop. You can walk the entire length of this in about 20-25 minutes, but it is lovely to ride the tram along here.
If you make time to walk over to Margaret Island (which I highly recommend during the Spring, Summer and Fall months) you will discover one of the most beloved areas of Budapest and a magically mystical park area. If you explore the neighborhood parallel to the island on the Pest side you find Jazz bars, the Víg Theatre of Budapest, hundreds of apartment houses built at the turn of the 19th/20th Century and a "regular person's" part of Budapest: it is very nice. I enjoy just walking here, stopping for a beer here and there and watching life.
Fans of Eiffel might also want to head away from the river and go up to the Nyugati train station: built by the Eiffel company in 1877. It has definitely seen better days, but it is still elegant and beautiful all the same. If you switch to tram 4 and 6 from here you can go directly to the main station. If you stay on, you will pass the main station and follow the outer ring of the city.. ultimately ending up at New York Cafe / Dohany Street Synagogue.
Another highlight for me in this area are all the antique shops: my dining room is the recipient of several lamps from here and if I had more wall space they would be full of the amazing wardrobes I always find.
RiverCruiseKing Tip: To spend an afternoon antiquing, just exit the tram at Jászai Mari tér, turn right onto the main street and first treat yourself to some incredible Turkish food at Szeráj Turkish Restaurant. Then head down Falk Street and walk all the way back towards Liberty Square. You will encounter more antique and design stores than you can shake a stick at. Not only is it a lovely neighbourhood, but you end up at yet another of Budapest's important memorials to past struggles.
From Park to Park... and on to the Spa!
While Margaret Island is a fantastic park it is not the only huge, fantastic source of natural wonder and escape in Budapest: far from it. City Park at the foot of Heroes Square is a huge inter city park that is home to the Zoo, the city's huge outdoor ice skating rink, Vajdahunyard Castle and one of the most famous thermal baths of the city: the Széchenyi thermal bath, a giant complex of pools and wellness treatments with 18 swimming pools and 10 saunas. This is my go to spa when I want a very social experience and to enjoy the large outdoor pool. Although it can get quite crowded, especially in the Summer, if you time your visits well and go early enough you can generally avoid the worst crowds. A day ticket costs around $20US for entrance, a towel and a locker. Be sure to have your bathing suit and spa shoes if you go.
RiverCruiseKing Tip: On Saturday nights the Széchenyi baths host the Grand Budapest Bath Party and the spa turns into a fantastic experience that combines music, lights, lasers, dancers and special decor. It is AMAZING!
Let's Reset Back to Ground Zero
So let's go back to the Sofitel and think about what we have seen so far and where we have been. We've been on the hill over on the Buda side, we've gone North to Margaret Island, Parliament and St Stephen's. We've been to the City Park and the first thermal bath and seen monuments to freedom and liberty and sacrifice with just a basic description of the areas. There are even MORE things to discover in each of those sections as you will see in both guide books and on Ama's tour, but keep in mind this planner is just an overview of MY favourite things, not all there is to see and do in Budapest. For example, I didn't even touch on the museums as that is a whole other blog post. In 10 years I have barely scratched the surface of this complex and multi-layered city.
But we have more neighborhoods to discover and now we are going to exit the hotel, and head to the east of Vörösmarty Square to one of the most storied parts of Budapest with some of its most harrowing stories: the Jewish quarter. Now you can either walk, take a cab or even ride a series of trams to get to this area of the city, but of course I prefer walking. While Über was available the last time I was in town, I don't know if it still is and quite frankly, I don't like Über. However, Budapest is one of those cities where the cab system is so regulated and so many people use them that sometimes it can be hard to get one: always have your hotel or restaurant call for one or go to a taxi stand. They will rarely stop on the side of the road to pick up a random fare. With that said, some people find that they prefer to take transportation to the Jewish quarter and then walk back.
Dohany Street Great Synagogue
Arguably one of the most important religious structures in the Jewish world, the Great Synagogue in Budapest is the 2nd largest in the world and the center of Jewish life for the region, as well as a keeper of records and teller of history for us all.
It is not possible to put into words what happens to me when I come to this place. I won't even try. It is too personal and too deep. What I can tell you is that you can not miss coming to this Synagogue while you are in Budapest and even if the doors are closed as they are right now during Covid, the power that emanates from this complex is palpable. At the very least, you need to get a glimpse of the Tree of Life, the memorial for the over 400,000 lost Hungarian Jews to the Holocaust.
I highly, highly, highly recommend that you book a tour to explore the neighborhood and the Complex and while there are many to choose from I have had good experience sending my guests to Hidden Treasures Tours (don't let their website fool you.. they are really good).
Once you explore the Great Synagogue complex and the neighborhood with a guide, you can head over to New York Cafe for some much needed joy. This is one of the world's most beautiful cafes by anyone's standards and I highly recommend you stop at some point during your time in Budapest. It is a good idea to make reservations, especially if you are more than 4 people. There is a great menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but of course their desserts are incredible. There is a special tasters tray that I always get... because it is just SO GOOD!
Another highlight of this area are the Ruin Bars and the Szimpla Sunday Farmer's Market. To start, the Ruin bars are exactly as described... bars set into the ruins of Budapest's crumbling Jewish ghetto. What started as a Bohemian idea to use abandoned space as an alternative gathering place has now become one of Budapest's premier tourist draws receiving as many visits per year as the Parliament building: some say more. Dilapidated building on the outside, labyrinth of fun on the inside. The series of courtyards and interconnected buildings offers a maze of cubby hole pubs, hidden discos, basement pool halls and one of the most amazing displays of urban artistic expression of the 21st Century. I can spend hours just wondering around, having a drink here or a drink there. People are amazingly friendly and welcoming and you find both locals and tourists mixed together. It's a lot of fun.. and some of the courtyards are open during the day. There are several different complexes and each has some very well known individual bars in them. You can book a tour or go on your own, but check out google as well as some of the different Ruin Bar ratings.
For example, if you are lucky enough to be in Budapest on a Sunday you can head over to the Szimpla Sunday Farmer's market which has more than just the best hand grown veggies of the area, but also live music, great food stands, and a place to relax and take it all in. For me this is a MUST every visit.
You have to be tired by now... all that dancing and drinking and mingling with Budapest's social set. Maybe the Ruin Bars are a little too loud and raucous for a sit down meal (although there are MANY courtyards that basically invite you to have a seat and sample all kinds of food) and you really want to take a load off and enjoy some of the delectable Hungarian comfort foods. Not far from the Ruin bars, a short cab ride in the direction of the Food Hall is Rády Street: similar to Zrínyi Street, but maybe a little bit more active, maybe with a few more establishments that the younger crowd might inhabit, maybe with a few more hostels close by, but also fun and with some great local food. For example, Costes has their flagship restaurant at the top of Rády Street so you can go from haute cuisine to pub style food and everything in between in 400 meters.
And maybe you stayed out all night. Maybe you got caught up in your youth and lost track of time and came out of the Ruin Bars to find that the sun is shining and the farmers are bringing their wares to the great food hall of Budapest. If you find yourself walking back in the direction of the river, at the very end of the Váci a quick jaunt down at Liberty Bridge is the enormous hall of mouth watering delights, the Central Market Hall. One note: not every Ama tour goes to the Central Market, so be sure to check your itinerary and find out if you will go here with Ama or should go on your own. The ground floor is where you find the majority of vendors and upstairs is where you find wonderful lunches and take-away specialties that can be eaten at one of the standing tables or even as a picnic out at the Danube.
Getting to the End
If you have read this far, guess what? You have almost traversed the entire ring road system of Pest and are close to both where the ships are most usually docked on embarkation day and just a few minutes walk back to the Sofitel. You see, Pest is basically a set of rings getting smaller and smaller as you approach the river.
The very inner ring is the area that I almost ALWAYS walk. From Margaret Bridge in the North to the Liberty Bridge in the south, unless I need to be somewhere really quickly I prefer to hoof it.. and keep in mind, I am a fairly lazy, mostly sedentary overweight, 50+... but Budapest is flat, the roadways are easy to navigate and I have found that each section of the city has fairy identifiable parks and squares as markers and enough pedestrian zones or sidewalk friendly walkways that I like to enjoy the sites as I go from point A to B.
Now when we start talking about the middle ring zone it really depends on my time and my mood if I walk and since the trams make me a bit irritated (I am impatient to wait and tickets must be bought in kiosks - not on the train or at the stops - I tend to hop a cab to get where I want to be and depending on my mood and the condition of my feet as to whether I will walk back or not.
This brings me to the final section of my neighborhood walks and highlights section: Liberty Bridge, the ships, and the spa areas on the Buda side between Elizabeth and Liberty Bridges. Let's begin with Gellert Spa and Hotel which are directly at the Liberty Bridge and an easy walk from the ships if you are docked at Belgrad Rakpart (between the Elizabeth and Liberty bridges on the Pest side - closer to Liberty Bridge than Elizabeth), which is where 80% of embarkations take place (and AmaMagna late afternoon arrival embarkations) you will find that not only can you exit the ship and find yourself a hundred yards or so from where the Váci crosses the Elizabeth Bridge, but also within easy walking distance of the Gellert Spa on the other side of the Liberty Bridge.
One of the things I like to do on embarkation day, regardless of whether I have done a tour in the morning or not is to get to the ship, say my hellos, drop my bags and then immediately head out to my favourite thermal bath over on the Buda side, Rudas baths. Now you have to pay attention to their schedule because although the Rudas complex is open every day, certain parts of the spa are reserved for all women or all men days. For example, the vapor bath section is open each day from 06:00 AM until 8:00 PM, on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday gentlemen are welcome, and on Tuesdays ladies can enjoy the vapor bath; on Saturday and Sunday groups are welcome, during which time bathing suits are compulsory. Depending on the day dictates if I go to Gellert or to Rudas. I will always schedule a massage as I find this combined with a good soak is the best way to get rid of any travel stress I might have encountered or any lingering tiredness I might have from my first days exploring this magical city.
Rudas Thermal is located closer to the Elizabeth bridge and while you can technically walk there from the ship, I like to get a cab and walk back. Gellert Spa is one of the traditional spas and is attached to what used to be a great, grand hotel but now pretends to be one. We stayed there and I was not impressed, in fact it soured me on Gellert Spa in general with the exception of a FANTASTIC massage I had in a private clinic attached to the hotel, completely independent of Gellert Baths which I find to be impersonal and unfriendly compared to all the others.
RiverCruiseKing Tip: Rudas baths was established in the 16th Century during the time of the Ottoman occupation. They have a complete blend of modern and ancient and it is by far my favourite of all the major thermal baths in Budapest. If you have to pick just one spa to go to, this is the one I personally like, mostly because I let my imagination run free when I am in the old steam room which has been in use for Centuries.
Dave's 4 Days in Budapest
So now that I have walked you around the city, let me give you a sample of one of my visits to this wonderful city. I always counsel people to make sure that they plan time to relax and take things in as much as they plan tours and experiences.
One of the great things about a city like Budapest is that its street theatre is as interesting as any TV reality show and there are so many great outdoor cafes and bars that nursing an ice cold Soproni and watching people on the Váci at Anna Cafe. My personal style of traveling is to "neighborhood hop" and see as much of the people and surroundings that make up daily life as going to tourist hot spots. That includes walking into grocery stores and checking them out, paying attention to places that seem to be full of normal people going about their business as much as any trendy hot spot.
While not everyone speaks English, I have found that enough people do that I can always find someone to meet and talk to and have a nice chat about "life in the city" and generally a simple question like "is this your normal hang out" can elicit a wealth of suggestions of places to go that don't show up in tourist guides which are generally designed to impress you rather than show you every facet of a city.
So without further ado.. here is Dave Does Budapest. Click on this link to download a PDF file for your records and to access the links listed.
The current downloadable schedule with links is only readable for apple/Mac users. I will add a PDF document as soon as possible.
Dave's Top 10 Things to Do in Budapest
10. Spend time biking or walking Margaret Island / bring a picnic
9. Visit Gellert Hill at night time for a fantastic view back towards the city
8. Visit the Sunday Market at Szimpla
7. Museums! All of them!
6. Have an ice cream at Gelarto Rosa
5. Meet friends for a night in the Ruin Bars
4. Stroll Falk Miksa Street for Antiques and Boutiques
3. Cafe hop from New York to Gerbaud... YUM
2. Get a massage and spend some hours at Rudas Thermal Bath or Széchenyi Thermal Bath
1. Board my AmaWaterways cruise and sail the Danube