The insider advice on this page is from Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for Hungary: Gwen Kozlowski of Exeter International.
Gwen has been masterminding custom trips for independent travelers to Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and other parts of Eastern Europe for more than a decade. She’s based in the U.S. but heads to the region at least twice a year to suss out new hotels and restaurants, test driving and train routes, and add to her ever-growing list of local experts—from museum curators to pastry chefs to artisanal vodka makers—who provide access and insights that you could never get otherwise. Unflinchingly honest and obsessively detailed-oriented, she prides herself on knowing exactly where to find the best food—and drink—in every town from Innsbruck to Budapest to Krakow, and she has such strong relationships with local hoteliers that her guests frequently receive preferential rates and VIP treatment at the most atmospheric four- and five-star hotels.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotels
The only true splurge in Budapest is the Four Seasons Gresham Palace —but that’s about to change! A new Ritz Carlton is opening at the former Le Meridien this spring, and it’s poised to be the first luxury property to really compete with the Four Seasons. The Aria Hotel, just opened in 2015, is not to be overlooked for those who love a boutique property, and its location is just steps from St. Stephen’s.
Hertelendy Castle is a Relais & Chateaux resort with just 14 rooms in the castle proper (there are more in the modern lodge) and its own thermal spring. People often spend three nights or so in Budapest and then move on; this property, 30 minutes from Lake Balaton, justifies a longer stay.
Restaurants the locals love
I love Café Kor in Budapest for its real local feel—not a lot of English spoken, cash only, menu on a chalkboard. I’ve eaten here every time I’ve been in the city and haven’t had a bad meal yet. Plus, its central location means you can walk to it from most hotels (on the Pest side). The menu changes frequently, but you can generally find excellent duck, beef, and veal with some fish dishes as well. Whatever you do, don’t neglect to try the excellent local wines. The restaurant is closed on Sundays and always, always busy in the evenings, so reservations are essential.
Just down the street from Café Kor is Borkonyha Wine Kitchen, a modern bistro with a fantastic selection of Hungarian wines; it is enjoying a surge in popularity because of its recently awarded Michelin star. The menu, which changes seasonally, features local Hungarian cuisine and even some vegetarian options.
Meal worth the splurge
Located right on the ramparts of Fisherman’s Bastion, Halaszbastya has uninterrupted views over the Danube to Pest, including the magnificent House of Parliament. Prices are a bit steep, but the food is excellent, and the location is to die for.
You’re in Hungary, so you have to try goulash. The country’s famous beef stew is the ultimate comfort food, and every chef has his own take on it.
What to See and Do
The wine regions of Tokaj and Eger are often overlooked by American tourists because you have to hire a driver (or drive yourself) to explore this area of northeastern Hungary. What you’ll find: low hills and river valleys intricately patterned by vineyards and farms, as well as lovely villages and small towns, local festivals, great food and, of course, wine. Eger has reds and Tokaj has whites and sweet dessert wines. Well worth the trip.
Budapest’s Café Gerbeaud has been through many incarnations since 1870, when Henrik Kugler moved his thriving confectionery to a prominent location on Vorosmarty Square. Today, Gerbeaud features tiny portions of overpriced cakes and trendy pastries and is obviously geared toward tourists. It has grandeur without charm.
The wine region of Etyek. It’s only 40 minutes by car from the center of Budapest, and there are lots of small family-owned businesses that offer informal tastings. In addition to vintners (who produce mostly chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and sparkling wine), you can visit a cheese maker, a producer of artisanal ham, and a palinka distiller.
Margaret Island, named for a thirteenth-century princess, is a short cab ride (or a long walk) from most hotels in Budapest. Here you can rent a golf cart and have a picnic or just stroll around the 240-acre island. There’s a petting zoo, a water park, a musical fountain (not quite Bellagio Las Vegas but not bad), and evening performances of theater and music as part of the Budapest Summer Festival. This is a very popular place on weekends, so Saturday and Sunday may not be the time to go.
Discover the secrets of Hungarian cuisine with the noted head chef of Gundel, the century-old restaurant in Budapest that Hungarian-born restaurateur George Lang (of New York’s Café des Artistes) helped restore to its former glory in the 1990s. You can start with a shopping excursion with the chef in the central market, then put together your purchases into the perfect three-course meal of traditional favorites. If you want, you can add a wine tasting in the restaurant’s private cellars with the sommelier.
For something a little touristy but very scenic, I would hop on a cruise to the Danube River Bend (leaving from Budapest). It’s a very leisurely way to get outside the city. You could go to Szentendre for the day (artists, marzipan, tourists) or head all the way to Visegrád (Roman fortress, hiking trails). Mahart offers boats on Saturday and Sunday in summer (July through August) all the way to Visegrád. There isn’t a less stressful or more scenic way to travel!
Head early to the Budapest Market Hall to get great shots of local produce, meats, cheeses, and lots and lots of paprika.
For great overviews of the city, head early or late for the best lighting and (hopefully) fewest people to Fisherman’s Bastion. The gorgeous views through the archways can’t be beat. You can get shots of just the bastion or across the river to Parliament.
If you’re staying in a river-view room at the Four Seasons (or another hotel along the Danube) and your camera takes good night shots, the view with the castle lit on the hill is pretty spectacular.
I love spring and fall in Hungary—April through May and late September through October. The countryside is beautiful, the weather is decent, and Lake Balaton, a popular summer destination, is relatively tranquil.
November and March are likely to be rainy and gloomy. (I much prefer the months in between, when you have snow and occasional blue skies, Christmas markets, and plenty of theater and cultural events but no crowds.) Hotels in Budapest are often a bargain in July and August, but you have to put up with the heat and the crowds—the city is the starting or end point for hundreds of Danube cruises every year. Whatever you do, avoid the Hungarian Grand Prix, generally held in late July.
Going with just any old cab driver. Before you arrive in Budapest, book a reservation with Fotaxi, the authorized taxi service at the airport, or go to its booth at the exit of terminal 2A or 2B. Its fixed rates to the city center are very reasonable, and you can use your credit card—a great convenience, since Hungary isn’t on the euro yet and few guests arrive with forints. (Tip: Get them at an ATM; letting a shopkeeper do the exchange will result in a less than ideal rate.)
Taxis are maybe not as bad about overcharging as they are in some places, but make sure the meter is working and be very clear about where you are heading or you might get a little “city tour” on the way to your destination.
Best of Budapest and Hungary (for Android and iPhone) is quite nice and lists lots of restaurants by cuisine with links to make reservations. I also love the wine-cellar list. The shopping and sightseeing lists are pretty small. This one is for iPhone and Android.
I’m a sucker for tourist-board apps. Hungary Tourism is only available right now on iPhone, so I haven’t played with it personally. It does have a talking dictionary, which I like.
I generally make sure to tip in cash here (any currency works). About 10 percent for restaurants is just fine.
Budapest has a nice modern airport and a surprisingly extensive food court. A couple of things to note: Lost luggage (on arrival) is an issue, and this generally takes quite a long time to report. Get ahead of the game by using carry-on only or taking pictures of your luggage before you travel.
For luggage carts in the arrival area, you have to pay via local currency (forints, not euros) or a card that has a pin.
Bubble bags for wine and also some extra padding if you’re going to indulge in a Herend piece of porcelain (See “Perfect Souvenirs”).
The most upscale souvenir is a piece of hand-painted Herend porcelain; several authorized stores in Budapest sell it, or you can make a day-trip to the factory in the countryside.
Another good choice: local wines, especially those from family vineyards in Etyek, as they are not easy to find in the U.S.
For cooks, it’s nice to bring home authentic (and flavorful—not just red powder) paprika from the Central Market Hall.
For me, personally, it’s down. Yes, down. My favorite shop is Billerbeck—it’s German, but they use Hungarian goose down and feathers, and I should have a frequent-guest card for the shop in Budapest, near the Jewish Quarter. I’ve brought back comforters, pillows, duvets, you name it. I’ve even dragged a king-size comforter by train to Vienna and then Prague. They do pack them nicely for travel, but that was sheer lunacy on my part.