Budapest’s 23 districts are arranged in a clockwise circle similar to Paris’ arrondissements. These are the neighborhoods with the most attractions.
There was a snowstorm when I first visited Budapest in 2009. My shoes sank in inches of snow and face whipped by icy wind every time I stepped out.
But even in that bitter winter—or maybe because of it—I fell in love with this achingly beautiful city and kept coming back through the years.
My fascination for Budapest was tied to my fascination for the Cold War and the fall of the Iron Curtain. It was a historical event that fired up my imagination as a young student who was devouring espionage and spy novels by the likes of John Le Carre.
I would visit the Eastern Block cities of Berlin, Prague, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Warsaw and Moscow through the years because I was intrigued to find out if their present was still in the shadow of their communist past.
Budapest was no exception. But unlike other Soviet-influenced (and controlled) countries that destroyed their communist-era monuments, Hungary gathered them all in a thematic outdoor museum located about an hour outside the city. It was actually Statue Park where Stalin’s Boots, a remnant of a huge statue that was topped by student protesters, that made me want to go that first time.
By European standards, Budapest is a medium-sized city in terms of population. Smaller than metropolitan Berlin’s 4.7 million and larger than Zagreb’s one million, it sits in the middle with 2.6 million people. Until 150 years ago, Buda and Pest were separate towns along with Obuda. While these places were founded almost 2,000 years ago, they were unified only in 1873.
Budapest is the epicenter of Hungary’s art, music festivals, culture, youthful energy, food, bar and shopping scenes. Pre-pandemic, it welcomed 4.6 million visitors in 2019; last week’s New Year’s Eve celebration felt like a million people were at the Danube banks to see the fireworks.
Budapest is divided into 23 districts. Similar to Paris’ arrondissements, the districts are arranged in a clockwise circle but not in the shape of an escargot.
It can be time-consuming to decide where to stay in a city with so many attractions and each district having its own character. So here’s a guide to the top neighborhoods of Budapest in order of their concentration of tourist attractions.
1. Bélvaros-Lipótváros, District V
What to see: Chain Bridge, Parliament Building, Vorosmarty Square, St. Stephen’s Basilica, Parisi Passage
Running south of the Parliament building on the right bank of the Danube, District V is elongated alongside the river. It has the most expensive accommodations as it follows the rule of thumb that the closer you are to the water, the more expensive it gets.
Széchenyi Lánchíd or Chain Bridge, the oldest and most beautiful in Budapest, is the main star. It’s where tourists congregate—and therefore locals avoid it when they can. You will also find here the more upscale accommodations like Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace. Completed in 1906, the building started as an Art Nouveau office and residential building with the lobby decorated with over two million mosaic tiles and a stunning chandelier.
Accommodations at Four Seasons can cost up to $1,000 a night during the Christmas holidays (New Year’s Eve is especially expensive) but if, like me, you just want to have a look inside, head to its bar Múzsa for craft cocktails (average price $20) and small plates of appetizers.
Mid-range hotels average $150 a night during the winter holidays and room size ranges from 11 sqm. for single and 18 sqm. for double.
A few hundred meters from Chain Bridge are Vorosmarty Square and St. Stephen’s Basilica, where the drinks and food at the Christmas market stalls are decidedly more affordable. These are the two main areas for high-street brands and touristy (but good) restaurants.
They are also the busiest during the Advent weekends. When I arrived in Budapest on the second weekend of December 2023, I headed straight here and could barely move to get a cup of mulled wine. On Christmas Day, it was deserted; on New Year’s Eve, only a few food stalls were open. Close to midnight, people were setting off firecrackers in Vorosmarty Square and along the Danube (there was no massive fireworks display for NYE 2023) .
The market at St. Stephen Cathedral was livelier in the days between Christmas and right after New Year than Vorosmarty Square. A light and sound show was projected on the facade of the church and mulled wine stalls were still open.
On my third week in Budapest, I found myself hanging out mostly in Bélvaros, the area near Elizabeth Bridge (the white one) in the southern part of the district. Walking on Vaci ut., a long pedestrian street near Chain Bridge that goes up to Elizabeth Bridge and Liberty Bridge, you get a cross-section of food and shopping that range from underground markets to shoe stores and Hungarian restaurants side by side.
Parisi Passage restaurant in the Parisi Udvar Hotel ($600 a night during the holidays) is one of Budapest’s most stunning restaurants. It is a century-old architectural masterpiece that was originally built as a department store and is now a hotel. A three-course lunch with cocktail here can set you back $80—and it’s worth it. The food and service are good; and you don’t feel like they’re rushing you. They also have a bar that doesn’t take reservations—you have to stand in line if all you want is a drink. A better option if you don’t want a full meal is to book for afternoon tea.
2. Téresváros, District VI
What to see: Andrássy Avenue, State Opera House, Heroes Square, Museum of Fine Arts, Terror Museum
Heroes Square at the eastern end of Andrassy Avenue.
Called Andrássy ut. in Magyar, this 2.3-kilometer boulevard is to Budapest what the Champs Elysées is to Paris. At the eastern end is Heroes Square featuring the Seven Chieftains of Magyars (the seven tribes of the Hungarians) on their horses, and the Museum of Fine Arts. There is also a skating rink in winter and you can book a hot air balloon ride in the same park.
Andrássy ut. is where I lived for a month from December 2023 to January 2024. I booked an Airbnb across the Opera House (beside the W Hotel and across the Louis Vuitton boutique), and couldn’t be happier about the neighborhood. The apartment was in a 200-year-old building and surrounded by everything you need for a long stay. As in any city, the older the structure, the bigger the cuts of the flats are.
Andrassy has all manner of transportation— metro, tram and bus lines running along its length and leading to the main tourist attractions. Plus, many places to grab a chimney cake to munch on your walk.
Hotels in the area include Kempinski Hotel Corvinus ($600 a night during the holidays) and mid-range boutique hotels (from $100 nut average price during this high season is closer to $150). It has a plethora of Airbnb apartments around it, priced a little higher than other districts except District V.
At the Museum of Fine Arts in December 2023Hungarian Opera House
The buildings on the avenue are magnificent: former neo-Renaissance mansions that are now residential buildings, townhouses that have been turned into embassies, and mini palaces. Every time I stepped out of my building, I was amazed by the architectural details on their facades: Grecian caryatids, mythological and Hungarian historical figures, saints and Roman statues.
The 19th-century Opera House is a masterpiece of Hungarian architecture and a cultural gem of the city. The House of Terror Museum is also on Andrássy, housed in the former headquarters of the secret police, a poignant reminder of Hungary’s past during the Nazi and communist regimes.
Like Champs Elysées, Andrássy ut. is dotted with high-end boutiques, souvenir shops, restaurants, and small cafes and brunch places. And like any European capital, it has a spate of kebab and the famous chimney cake shops. Some of the most charming cafés are towards Heroes Square, where it gets quieter, in former townhouses with al fresco seating. Andrássy is sometimes called “Embassy Row” as many former villas on the avenue or just off it have been converted into embassies.
3. Erzsébetváros, District VII
What to see: Jewish Quarter, New York Café, synagogues, ruin bars, artisanal coffee houses
New York Cafe gets a bad rep for high prices (true), and bad food and service (not always true).
Erzsébetváros or Elizabeth Town is the center of nightlife in Budapest, but in the 18th to 19th century, it was a predominantly Jewish commercial neighborhood. Like other European Jewish Quarters, people living here were banished and killed during World War 2.
After the fall of communism in 1989, Erzsébetváros was restored and revitalized. In the early 2000s, the neighborhood became a hub for artists and culture, and abandoned buildings were repurposed into ruin bars. The most famous ruin bar is Szimpla Kert, a large hodge-podge of creative design (meaning, maskipaps!) that’s opens up to the crack of dawn and turns into a farmer’s market every Sunday.
In this colorful, free-flowing space, try the Hungarian liqueurs pálinka, a clear brandy distilled from fermented fruit such as plums, apricots, or cherries; and unicum, which is produced from a combination of 40 herbs and spices and originally formulated as a stomach ache remedy.
Szimpla Kert, New Year’s Eve 2017The author on the Danube River in 2019
In 2017, I went to Budapest twice. The first was at the end of August as my jump-off point to the Balkan countries. The second was for Christmas and New Year, where I found a newish residential building literally across Szimpla Kert that was renting out for short term. Needless to say, I was out drinking every night because I could just crawl up to the apartment whenever I had enough.
Szimpla Kert and other ruin bars are mostly populated by tourists. You will have to use your power of persuasion to make a local friend take you there. On the bright side, they will instead take you to their favorite hangouts for craft beer. Some of the best places are so lowkey you will walk past their doors. A few also look like ruin bars but not by design—just by age. If a bar looks too polished and nice, it’s probably intended for tourists.
4.Várkerület or Castle District, District I
What to see: Buda Castle, Fisherman’s Bastion, St. Matthias Church
Perched on a hill in the Castle District, Buda Castle can be accessed on foot or via funicular.
Perched on a hill overlooking the Danube, getting up to Buda Castle can be done by the funicular or a winding path. The lines for the funicular can be long, so make sure to get your ticket online (there’s a shorter, separate line for ticketed visitors). Book a one-way ticket going up because the walk down is easy and a lovely experience, giving you more time to take pictures of Chain Bridge from different levels.
Buda Castle is a great example of how Hungary constructed and reconstructed its buildings throughout history. The castle reflects Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Neo-Classical architectural styles, and when evening descends, it lights up dramatically as do all the city’s landmarks. The castle is best viewed and photographed from the Pest side at the Chain Bridge tram stop.
Accommodation prices are mid-range and can start at $80 a night or lower. Buda Castle’s grandeur aside, the buildings on the left bank remind me of East Berlin. It is quieter and seems less cheerful than Pest. One discovery I made on my long walks on this side of the Danube is a Belgian bistro called Henri. Their duck dish with braised apples and potato dumplings is delicious, and they have a large assortment of Belgian beers.
5. Józsefváros and Ferencváros, Districts VIII and IX
What to see: Hungarian National Museum, Palace District, Natural History Museum, Great Market Hall
Head to the Great Market Hall for Hungarian food, spirits and ingredients to bring home. It does have slightly higher prices than supermarkets—but the variety is astounding!Hungarian National Museum
These two districts sort of mesh together and if you ask locals which neighborhood you’re in, you might get two different answers. Ferencváros has Szabadság Híd or Liberty Bridge (aka Freedom Bridge), the green bridge south of Chain Bridge.
Józsefváros is emerging to be a cool, hip place with coffee shops and small cafes. The hotels and Airbnbs here are less expensive by 30% to 60% than Bélvaros-Lipótváros because you don’t get Metro Line 1, which passes through most attractions, and from here it’s half an hour’s walk to Vorosmarty Square. You can take Metro Line 3, and then transfer to Line 1 at Deák Ferenc, the main metro hub of the city.
My favorite place in Ferencváros is the Great Market Hall, where you can buy Hungarian food like sausages, salami, pepperoni; paprika, fresh meat; and wine and liqueurs. Don’t forget to check out the second floor for the Hungarian restaurants. One is cafeteria style where you choose a sampling of Hungarian cuisine—different kinds of goulash, chicken paprika and sausages. It even comes with musicians that go from table to table.
6. Újbuda, District XI
What to see: Citadella, Gellert Hill, Liberty Statue
Citadella is a fortification and was built after the suppression of the Hungarian monument in 1848. It’s worth a visit for the amazing views you get of the city below (and a few statuary).
Gellert Hill, meanwhile, affords you views of Elizabeth Bridge (the white one) and the neighborhood around it. The Liberty Freedom Statue is also on this hill, erected in commemoration of the Soviet liberation of Hungary during World War II. The 14-meter bronze statue originally had two more statues but they were transferred to Statue Park. At the foot of the hill is Gellért Thermal Bath, the most famous Art Nouveau thermal bath in Europe.
There’s not a wide choice of accommodations here, but the Airbnbs and hotels range from $75 to $200 a night during the holidays.