Use this map to find all places mentioned in the article below.
Budapest's downtown consists of a long and narrow strip running north to south along the Danube, a 40-minute walk at a leisurely pace. The area is a melting pot of local residents, office workers, and tourists. Downtown is where most of the must-see tourist sites—including the Parliament building, the shoes memorial, and the St Stephen’s Basilica—and best restaurants are but you can also find charming side streets and low-priced places for food and drinks.
Start your trip from the Great Market Hall, which is officially part of Ferencváros, and work your way up all the way to the Parliament. Across the market hall is Váci Street, Budapest's most famous pedestrian shopping area lined with overpriced souvenir shops and restaurants catering to tourists with "goulash menus." Think of it as the La Rambla of Budapest. Although it's worth a visit, I recommend that you not spend much time or money here.
Turn right on Szerb Street, where you will pass the Saint George Serbian Orthodox Church, built in the 18th century for the once numerous Serbian community of Budapest that found refuge here from the Ottomans. The imposing building on Egyetem Square, a handsome plaza, is the city's leading law school that breeds the Hungarian political elite. From here, turn right on Kecskeméti Street, then left onto Magyar Street.
In the late 19th century, most parts of the historic downtown were razed and replaced by bigger, grander buildings that better symbolized the city's elevated status in the Austro Hungarian Empire. Magyar is one of those peaceful side streets that retained an air of small-city charm. Along here ran Pest's medieval city wall of which bits and pieces have survived—if you catch the concierge at #36 Magyar Street in a good mood, he will let you take a glimpse at the wall's remains inside the building's staircase.
Back on Magyar Street, the charming park emerging before you is Károlyi-kert, a prescious pocket of peace and quiet. Before WWI, it was the private backyard of the aristocratic Károlyi family, as was the estate attached to it, today the Petofi Museum of Literature. The residential apartments overlooking the park are some of the most expensive and sought-after in Pest, and, accordingly, many well-heeled expats live here. During the outdoor season, stop by Csendes Társ, a laid-back café at the entrance of the park that serves snacks and a range of Hungarian wines.
A side note to bookworms: Múzeum körút, around the block, has long been home to antique bookstores. Although specialty coffee shops are starting to replace them at an alarming rate, some are still left. Most books are in Hungarian, but they usually have a small English section. I'm most taken with Weöres Sándor Antikvárium (#27 Múzeum körút), a hole in the wall, where you have to crane your neck to find the witty shop assistant hiding behind walls of books.
At the end of Ferenczy István Street is Belvárosi Disznótoros, a standing-only lunch spot that counted the late Anthony Bourdain among its fans. Like a local, go for a sausage (regular, blood, or liver variety) and pair it with a dollop of mustard and a thick slice of bread. There are two old-school bars near each other here that both offer a journey back in time along with low-priced drinks: Ibolya and Grinzingi. If specialty coffee is more your speed, try the nearby Madal.
Your dreamy stroll will come to an abrupt end when you reach Kossuth Lajos Street, a crowded, six-lane thoroughfare piercing through downtown. Not far from here is FUGA, an architecture bookstore that doubles as an exhibition venue. They sell books in both Hungarian and English, and often host classical music performances. Turn right on Pilvax köz to reach a charming square flanked by pre-war buildings that evokes images of Paris (have a drink or dessert at Gerlóczy Café, especially if their outdoor terrace is open).
For a distinctly hipster atmosphere, proceed to the Röser interior courtyard, where bearded-and-tattoed baristas serve pricey cups of specialty coffee at Kontakt with a strict no-milk and no-sugar policy. Across it is Szimply, a similarly trendy breakfast-all-day joint run by the same owners.
From here, head to Szervita Square for an interesting melange of architecture. The Madonna statue is flanked by a Baroque (#6; built in 1732), a pre-modern (#5; 1911), a Renaissance Revival (#4; 1875), a Hungarian art nouveau (#3; 1906), a Viennese Art Nouveau (#2; 1908), and a Neoclassicist (#1; built in 1820) building. Also note the enormous mosaic atop the art nouveau building, whose ground floor is occupied by the hopping À la Maison Grand breakfast restaurant.
The epicenter of downtown is Deák and Elizabeth Square, a common meeting place for locals. The odd-looking hole in the ground is where Budapest's National Theater was supposed to stand before politics interfered; the area is now home to Akvárium Klub concert venue. During the summer months, the park fills with young people who stay out here until the wee hours. The tastefully understated, polished limestone building of the Ritz Carlton used to be the headquarters of the Adriatic Insurance Company during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, back when Hungary had access to a sea.
Váci Street terminates in Café Gerbeaud, an iconic café and pastry dating back to 1858. Pop in for a pricey cake to appreciate the gilded interior complete with crystal chandeliers, marble-topped tables, and cherrywood paneling. In the side of the building is the two Michelin-starred Onyx restaurant, run by the same owners. Right outside Gerbeaud is a subway stop of the Millennium Underground, the first subway line on the European continent and currently a UNESCO World Heritage Site (it's still operational!).
Another overpriced but iconic venue is Kollázs Brasserie & Bar, the café and bar of the Four Seasons Hotel. This monumental art nouveau building was built for the London-based Gresham Life Assurance Company. Get your camera ready before you enter the ornate lobby featuring a glass roof and glazed ceramic wall paneling. From here, walk down Zrínyi Street to the St. Stephen's Basilica, the biggest church in Budapest, whose cupola offers sweeping views of the city. For comparable views from a more relaxed setting with a drink in hand, visit High Note Skybar, a rooftop bar atop the nearby Aria Hotel.
Not surprisingly, Budapest’s fine dining restaurants cluster around the center of downtown. Here is Michelin-starred Costes Downtown and Borkonyha, and also MAK Bistro, which brings a Hungarian locavore approach to fine dining with a fish and vegetable-heavy menu. The best sit-down restaurant for traditional Hungarian food is Café Kör. But there do exist cheaper restaurants, too. Your best bet is the nearby Hold Street Market Hall, where leading Hungarian chefs operare wallet-friendly fast casual restaurants. My favorites are Séf utcája, Stand25 Bistro, and Buja Disznó(k). Downtown's specialty coffee mecca is Espresso Embassy, a hipster wonderland.
Central European University on Nádor Street, an architectural eye candy that delicately blends old and new. Around the corner from it is Börze, an Instragram-friendly restaurant with above-average food and views onto Liberty Square, which is known for its dramatic buildings and a controversial WWII memorial.Before you go there, take a detour to see the main building of the
This part of downtown, between Liberty Square and the Parliament building, is a government and financial district. Politicians, bankers, and tourists run around these stately streets during the day; come night-time, they get eerily deserted. The Parliament is partially open to visitors, and you can see some of its 691 lavish rooms, including the former Upper Chamber, as part of their 50-minute guided tour.
Near the Parliament sets off Budapest's "antique row," dotted with art galleries and high-end antique stores along Falk Miksa Street. Keep a special eye out for Pintér (#12), Artcore (#12), Antikvitás (#12), Pethő (#24), and Virág Judit Galéria (#30).
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