Budapest was the twin capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire; something that is evident in the grandeur of its buildings, its wide boulevards and rich architectural legacy.
One of the decisions to make when booking your hotel in Budapest is which side of the River Danube you want to be on. Historically, the city was made up of two parts: Buda and Pest. Pest is livelier and more economical with a greater choice of bars and restaurants than in more historic and exclusive Buda, with its castle and relative scarcity in tourist accommodation.
Budapest also has an eclectic side and there’s plenty to surprise and delight you if you are prepared to explore. So if you’d like to fill your time in Budapest with all things quirky, here are some of the most esoteric things to see and do:
Get steamy at the City of Baths
Take a sauna in the ‘City of Baths’. With its natural hot springs, there are a number of baths to choose from in Budapest but top of your agenda should be Rudas Baths, dating back to the 16th century. They were built by the Ottomans, who at the time were laying siege to the city. The baths include an octagonal pool, a Turkish-style dome and a sauna room to test the hardiest of souls. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, there’s also the option of a vigorous massage.
Immerse yourself in history at Ostalgie
Budapest once formed part of the Soviet bloc and this part of its history is commemorated in Memento Park, home to around 40 statues, busts and plaques of Marx, Lenin and the former national leader, Béla Kun. Some of these were erected as recently as the 1980s.
The exhibition in Ostalgie’s old barracks explores the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 to suppress the national uprising, as well as the changes Budapest has undergone since independence in 1989.
Walk with the dead at Kerepesi Cemetery
Tour Kerepesi Cemetery, Budapest’s city of the dead, which houses 3,000 mausoleums and gravestones containing some of those killed in the 1956 insurrection, including notable politicians, artists, architects, sculptors, composers, scientists and actors.
Go on a Ruin pub crawl
Enjoy a night out at one of the city’s ‘ruin pubs’ which open, and sometimes just as quickly disappear, in some of Budapest’s empty and run-down buildings. Popular with both young and old, they often offer live music, as well as food in atmospheric surroundings.
Top of the list is Szimpla Kert, known simply as Szimpla, one of the most popular nightspots. You could check out Fogás Haz too, which includes a theatre, artist studios as well as a bike rental shop.
Marvel at the Art Nouveau
Explore the city’s rich legacy of art nouveau architecture by following a 10-stop trail. These include: Gellért Thermal Baths, which opened in 1918; the gloriously ostentatious Museum of Applied Arts with its ornate tiling, which the unimpressed Emperor Franz Joseph visited in 1896; Paris department store, with its lavishly decorated café that was once the hangout of the city’s artists, writers and intellectuals; and the House of Hungarian Art-Nouveau café.
Grab a bargain
You can shop for bargains at one of the city’s flea markets. Check out the market in City Park, housed in a former concert hall. Alternatively, browse memorabilia, old photos and amateur paintings, jewellery and cameras, or visit downtown Budapest with its rich variety of second-hand shops.
Enjoy craft beer
One of the more obvious attractions for people booking holidays in Budapest is the wine-tasting tours but less well-known is the weekend-long Craft Beer Festival, held in early June and mid-September in a city square. It showcases wheat, fig, millet and even pear beers, along with hocks and new lagers. If you are not there for the Craft Beer Festival, try coinciding your trip with the Czech Beer Festival held in late June.
Take Hungarian cookery classes
Another offbeat Budapest holiday option is to take a Hungarian cooking class. Hungarian cuisine is famously rich and the courses help you select and prepare ingredients for dishes such as traditional goulash. Classes begin with a visit to the city’s Central Market Hall, guided by a chef, followed by researching, preparing and eating a delicious three-course meal.
Drive a Trabant car for an authentic Soviet experience
For a unique experience, you could hire and learn to drive a Trabant car, a two-stroke vehicle that used to be the most commonly used vehicle in the communist bloc. Choose from a range of terrific tours through the capital.
Take to the air
Finally, why not see Budapest from a different perspective? For a truly memorable experience, sign up for a helicopter ride flying high above iconic sites such as the massive Parliament building, the famous Chain Bridge and the castle district.