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It's been called the "Pearl of the Danube" -- and no wonder. For elegance and feel, Budapest easily rivals any capital city in Europe. The artery that defines it is the Danube, one of the world's most celebrated waterways and also one of the most popular for European river cruising. Spend any time at all in this grand city, and it's easy to understand why the riverbanks of Budapest -- that's right, the riverbanks -- have been assigned UNESCO World Heritage status.
The first thing you need to know about Budapest: It, in effect, operates as two cities with distinctly different personalities. Buda, on the west bank of the Duna (as the Danube is called), is hilly and houses the restored Castle District, a cultural and arts center known for its famed Matthias Church, Royal Palace and Fishermen's Bastion, a rampart that offers the best views in town. The entire district is a real scene-stealer.
Pest, on the east bank, is the hub for dining, shopping, banking and nightlife. There you'll find the pedestrian shopping zone, Vaci Utca; Heroes' Square; the old Jewish quarter; the not-to-miss Andrassy, Budapest's grandest avenue; and the imposing neo-Gothic Parliament, modeled after the British version in London.
Budapest's history dates back to the third century, when Celtic warriors occupied the area. Study the place a bit, and you'll find yourself wondering: Who didn't invade the city? The Romans, Magyars, Mongols, Ottoman Turks, Austrians, Germans and Soviets have all played starring roles in Budapest's longstanding municipal drama. Hungarians are said to be famously pessimistic and cynical -- maybe that history explains why. As one guide told us, "We lost all our battles, but we celebrated all our defeats."
Budapest is a town that's been destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries -- part of the reason for its eclectic architecture. Its current skyline reflects the building programs and styles of the turn of the 20th century. For my part, I agree with Claudio Magris, who writes in his travel memoir, "Danube," that "Budapest is the loveliest city on the Danube. It has a crafty way of being its own stage-set."
During our recent river cruise, we visited Prague, Vienna and points in between. Finally, we sailed into Budapest. Our takeaway? They saved the best for last.
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There's terrific souvenir shopping in Budapest -- at all manner of venues. Vaci Utca is a wonderful pedestrian shopping street filled with gift shops, galleries, jewelers and boutiques. Also not to miss: a covered farmer's market at the foot of Liberty Bridge on Vamhaz Korut at Vaci Utca's southern terminus. It's in an unmistakable building that looks like a railroad station with a yellow, green and red roof. Locals go there to buy groceries, but it's also loaded with inexpensive souvenirs. Many of the market vendors accept U.S. dollars and euros, but ask first to be sure. (Editor's note: Typically, shops open around 10 a.m. and close at 6 p.m. Many businesses close at 1 p.m. on Saturdays.)
During the holiday season (many riverboat operators offer special winter cruises at that time), you'll find an outdoor Christmas market in Vorosmarty Square, just off of Vaci Utca.
Among the most popular souvenirs: hot or sweet paprika, the national spice; dried salami; Tokaji wine; Herend porcelain; cut glass; Helia, a facial cream made from the extract of sunflower seeds; embroidery; and Unicum, an herbal digestive sold in a distinctive round, black bottle with a red cross on it. As they say in Hungary, "It is good before, after and the day after."
The official language is Magyar, or Hungarian, as it is referred to in other countries. It's a tough language to master, but a few basic words go a long way: "Hi" is szia (si-ah). "Excuse me" is bocsanat (bo-chaa-naht). "Good morning" is jo reggelt (yoh regh-ghelt). English is spoken in finer stores and restaurants, but it is not widely understood in shops and neighborhood eateries. English is taught in schools, so younger people are somewhat conversant with it.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Even though Hungary joined the European Union in 2004, it still uses its own currency, the Hungarian Forint, denominated in both coins and notes. It is expected to switch over to the euro by 2014. Visit Oanda's Web site at www.oanda.com for up-to-the-minute exchange rates. Oanda also has a nice "cheat sheet" conversion chart that fits neatly into a wallet.
ATM's tend to be the least expensive way to obtain local currency. Generally, banks are open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. As in any city, there are currency exchange offices that charge a commission. It's best to avoid Interchange and Checkpoint agencies, due to the very high rate of exchange they offer.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock on both sides of the Danube, right in the center of town. Basically, they tie up, and passengers walk ashore into the thick of it all.
It's like the real estate signs in the U.S. say: "If you lived here, you'd be home." That's the glory of river cruising -- you're there already. A good many of Budapest's highlights are walkable from the riverbanks. On the Buda side, there's a funicular that will take you up into the Castle District. Or consider strolling to the riverside Gellert Hotel and Baths, a prestigious Art Nouveau hotel with a well-known spa. (Note: The medicinal baths are open to anyone. Buy a visitor's ticket.) On the Pest side, there's easy access to Parliament, the Vaci Utca corridor, St. Stephen's Basilica and Inner City Parish Church.
Budapest has an excellent public transportation system. There are three underground lines that are safe and easy to use, and they run frequently during peak hours (every two to 10 minutes). You can buy your ticket -- also valid on trams and buses -- at every Metro station or at coin-operated machines at bus stops and tram platforms. The machines don't dispense change. Be sure to validate your ticket in the orange boxes at Metro entrances and on newer trams and buses. Older-model vehicles use red, hand-operated punch slots. Put the ticket in with the arrow pointing downward, and pull the black knob back toward you. The metro stations are easy enough to find. Just look for the big M signs. Public transport information can be found in English online at www.bkv.hu.
Budapest taxis are famous for taking people for a ride -- in more ways than one. To avoid overcharging, agree on a price before taking a cab. The fare should not be more than $1 U.S. per kilometer. Ordering a taxi by phone is cheaper than hailing one on the street. Taxis that troll around major tourist spots tend to overcharge. Budataxi, 233-3333, and Tele5 Taxi, 355-5555, have good reputations, and their dispatchers speak English.
Watch Out For
As in any large city -- Budapest has two million residents -- pick-pockets loiter around shopping and tourist areas, including on buses and trams. It's best to leave your passport and any other valuables onboard.
A maze of cobbled streets and medieval courtyards, the Castle District is Budapest's crowning achievement -- literally. It hangs grandly above the city, and the lovely Matthias Church that is its centerpiece is known locally as "the coronation church." Austria's Franz Josef was crowned king of Hungary there in 1867 to the strains of Franz Liszt's coronation mass, composed especially for the occasion. Today, as it has for centuries, the rampart next to the 700-year-old church offers incomparable views of the Danube and Pest. The scene of battles and wars since the 13th century, the district also is home to the former Royal Palace, one of Hungary's most important national symbols. There are shops and restaurants in the complex in addition to a number of museums, including, notably, the Budapest History Museum and the House of Hungarian Wines. The wine museum, open daily from noon to 8 p.m., houses more than 700 wines from the country's 22 growing regions. For a few forints, samples are available. There's also a tourism office next to the church, open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Andrassy Ut, the city's grandest boulevard, is a 2.5-kilometer expanse, considered so special that the street was granted World Heritage status by UNESCO in 2002. There you'll find the stunning State Opera House, opened in 1884; chic boutiques and grand villas with gardens; Franz Liszt Square with its open-air cafes; and, at the very end, Heroes' Square. No visit to Budapest would be complete without a walk around the magnificent square, dominated by the Millenary Monument. The monument is topped by the Archangel Gabriel, credited with converting the pagan Magyars to Christianity. At the base of the column are seven figures on horseback, representing the Magyar tribes. Across from the square is the Museum of Fine Arts and its showcase of Old Masters from outside Hungary. The Spanish, Italian and Dutch collections are particularly worth a look. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday.
In the late 1930's, the Old Jewish Quarter was a thriving community with about 200,000 Jews. Most perished in the Holocaust. Today, the Great Synagogue, the world's second-largest after Temple Emanu-El in New York City, stands tall in the now-shabby neighborhood. Built between 1854 and 1859 by a Viennese architect, the synagogue, with its onion-shaped domes, looks Moorish. The synagogue, closed Saturdays, seats 3,000 people. The complex also includes a Hall of Heroes, where a Monument of Hungarian-Jewish Martyrs was erected in 1991; a Jewish Museum; and a Holocaust memorial room. It's not in the Jewish Quarter, but the Holocaust Shoe Memorial -- on the riverbank, just south of Parliament -- is especially moving. The simple memorial, erected in 2005, features 60 pairs of cast-iron shoes, representing thousands of Jews who were shot on that spot by soldiers in World War II. Many fell or were pushed into the icy Danube and died.
Been There, Done That
Said to be one of the most beautiful McDonald's restaurants on the planet, the fast-food outlet at Nyugati Railway Terminal is the largest in Hungary with its two-story Baroque interior crafted in the style of early 20th century Budapest. Next door is the WestEnd City Center, which boasts the best shopping mall in Budapest.
The crowded Turkish baths are to Budapest what coffeehouses are to Vienna. This is where friends come to meet, gossip and relax in healing waters that are fed by the 120 thermal springs that feed the Danube. Among the most popular is Szechenyi Bath and Spa, located in a sumptuous yellow building at City Park, just above Heroes' Square. There are indoor and outdoor pools, and it's not unusual to see bathers playing chess on floating game boards. It's a neat way to mingle with the locals. Note: The spa does not accept credit cards. Only local currency is accepted.
Hungary has tasty national cuisine, much of it seasoned with paprika, which appears on restaurant tables beside the salt and pepper. Among the country's signature dishes: goulash, a thick beef soup cooked with onions and potatoes; fisherman's soup, a mixture of boiled fish, tomatoes, green peppers and paprika; chicken paprika; grilled fresh-water fish; and fried or grilled goose liver.
Credit cards are widely accepted in restaurants. As for tipping, it's customary to tip your waiter 10 percent. But be sure to check the bill first. Increasingly, the tip is included. It's okay to tip in U.S. dollars or euros.
Long the centerpiece of Budapest's cafe society, Gerbeaud is more than a sweet shop -- it's a Hungarian cultural institution. Known for its coffee and torte cakes, the cafe has classic high ceilings with crystal chandeliers, polished wood and marble, and thick curtains. Little has changed since it opened 150 years ago. The patisserie is sweetly situated on Pest's Vorosmarty Square. It's open daily, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. The neo-Classical building also houses a pub with beer that's brewed on-site, as well as a gourmet restaurant, the Onyx. Its hours are noon to 11 p.m.
For more information, visit www.gerbeaud.hu.
For elegant dining, Gundel lives up to its legend. The award-winning restaurant, open under its current name since 1910, is located in a late 19th-century palace at Allatkerti Korut 2 in City Park, just a two-minute walk from Heroes' Square. Gundel, with its innovative menu, is known -- and deservedly so -- for creating new spins on traditional classics. It can be a little stiff. The Sunday lunch buffet, served 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., less so. In the evening, men must wear jackets. It's open noon to 4 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. to midnight. Check www.gundel.hu for details.
A local favorite for special outings, Karpatia Etterem, with its medieval interiors, will remind guests of Matthias Church. Situated in the courtyard of a former monastery, the restaurant specializes in traditional Hungarian cuisine, accompanied by traditional gypsy music. It also offers Mediterranean, Asian and Latin American fare. The brasserie, at Ferenciek tere 7-8 near the Pest side of the Elizabeth Bridge, is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. The restaurant opens at 6 p.m. There's also a Sunday buffet from noon to 3 p.m. The restaurant is more formal and romantic, while the casual brasserie offers lunch and snacks in addition to a dinner menu. Visit www.karpatia.hu for more information.
For location and comfort, it's hard to beat the Hilton Budapest next to Matthias Church and the Fisherman's Bastion in the Castle District. The hotel has everything you'd expect of a Hilton: spacious rooms with flat-screen TV's; stylish toiletries; and wireless high-speed Internet access throughout the hotel. There's a restaurant that's open all day and a lobby bar with views of Parliament across the Danube. Be sure to ask for a room with a view of the river.
A favorite of cruise lines, Best Western Hotel Hungaria is located near the Elizabeth Bridge in downtown Pest, so it's close to many of the highlights. Best yet, it's right next to Karpatia, the popular Hungarian restaurant. On-site, the hotel has two restaurants, a cocktail lounge and a fitness center. Computers are available, and there's high-speed Internet access. The hotel also has excellent public transportation options with the Metro nearby.
Staying in Touch
Many hotels and cafes -- even haute cuisine Gundel Restaurant -- are wireless these days. You can also find pay-by-the-minute connections in places where tourists congregate. There are several Internet cafes on Vaci Utca, as well at tourism offices. The standard fee is 10 forints per minute.
Best for Exploring Budapest: You can't go wrong with an introductory highlights tour that typically includes the Castle District, Andrassy and Heroes' Square; a drive by Parliament and through the Jewish quarter; and a stop at St. Stephen's Basilica. Architecturally eclectic, it's the largest Roman Catholic church in the city. The tour easily lasts at least three hours and will help you to decide what you'd like to revisit later.
Best for Royal Watchers: Visitors from around the world enjoy a 20-minute detour to Godollo Royal Palace, the second-largest Baroque palace after Versailles. A favorite resort of Emperor Franz Josef and his Austrian Queen Elisabeth, the palace has a Grand Hall with marble-covered walls and gilded stucco ceilings; a Riding Hall; and the recently restored Baroque Theatre, now the venue for performances of chamber music and opera. Some tours include a concert.
Best for Experiencing Medieval Hungary: A trip to Esztergom, Hungary's second-most historically important town, delivers on two fronts: historical tradition and location. Situated on the scenic Danube Bend on the border between Hungary and Slovakia, this was the birthplace of the first Hungarian king and founder of the nation, St. Stephen -- crowned there on Christmas Day in 1000 AD. Be sure to stop at the Basilica, which was completed in the 1860's, and the Bakocz chapel, built in 1510 by Florentine craftsmen, dismantled in the Turkish occupation and reassembled in 1823. Continue to Visegrad, whose heritage dates back to the New Stone Age. Tours typically include stops at the Renaissance Palace Museum and lunch inspired by medieval royal traditions and recipes.
For More Information
On the Web, visit Hungary's information office at www.hungarytourism.hu and Budapest's tourism office at www.budapestinfo.hu.
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-- by Ellen Uzelac, a finance and travel writer from Maryland's Eastern Shore.