Insider guide: best of Budapest

Budapest, Hungary is the capital of a nation rich in history and even richer in a food culture that’s bound to inspire you to take a Hungarian cookbook home with you.

There’s no question that Budapest cuisine with its zesty amalgam of flavours and spices (especially paprika) will give your tastebuds a thorough workout (and may leave you a couple of kilos heavier).

Thankfully the hilly side of the River Danube at Buda encourages visitors to walk everywhere. There are steep inclines to walk up see such photogenic precincts as the Buda Castle District, which has been listed as a World Heritage site.

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Walk through the historic streets of Budapest's Castle District

It is worth the effort to arrive on foot at the Royal Palace and the Gothic Matthias Church with its wonderful organ. When we visited we were lucky enough to hear a choral mass by Kodaly. It is an experience to be treasured.

If the rigour of uphill walking is a bit too much to contemplate, there’s another option. Take the funicular tramway from the bottom to the top, and down again for a unique view and photo opportunity.

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The beautiful Royal Palace, Budapest

From the cliffs of Buda you can look across the river to the flat expanses of the Pest side. What you see is a major urban sprawl dominated by the impressive Hungarian Houses of Parliament. This is best seen at night when they are lit up and look spectacular.

Many other fine structures adorn the Danube riverfront with a variety of architecture revealing different periods of history. Don’t miss the symbolic collection of shoes along the river bank, depicting the footwear left behind by Jewish victims of WW2.

Behind the Pest riverfront there are shops, bars and restaurants galore in a ‘walking street’ which is perfect for ‘people watching’. If you happen to be there during an important football (soccer) match, watch out. Passions and tempers can quickly get out of control, so it is best to carry an Aussie flag (or speak loudly so your accent is recognised).

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A trip to Budapest isn't complete without visiting the Hungarian Houses of Parliament

In the backblocks of Pest you’ll find the lovely St. Stephen’s Basilica and also the Jewish quarter with its extensive synagogue. It is very expensive to go inside, so unless you really want to visit you can simply admire the exterior. The small kosher cafes which are both friendly and great value.

Perhaps the most outstanding memory you’ll take away from Budapest is a visit to one of the many public spas for a soak in the mineral waters and a massage. We tried the famous Szechenyi Thermal Bath. It was built in 1913 and is reputedly the largest spa complex in Europe with 18 indoor and outdoor pools, where you can rub shoulders with people from all corners of the globe seeking a healthy thermal fix. If you are brave enough, then also try a massage or a sauna/steam cabin.

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The beautifully decorated St Stephen's Basillica

Arriving in Budapest by river cruise ship is the perfect introduction to the city. On our ship, the Monarch Empress, we sailed down the Danube from Bratislava, Slovakia, at dawn with the sun dappling the placid water and the passengers on the sun deck. We were all struck with the beauty of it all.

We had one more night on the ship and then stayed at a charming boutique hotel for a few nights as there is so much to see in Budapest. On the Buda side we found the riverside Art’otel with a view towards the Houses of Parliament, and interiors populated by works of art from distinguished painter, printmaker and sculptor Donald Sultan. It’s a bit like staying in an art gallery, and the perfect way to spend the last few days in this beguiling city.

Have you ever been to Budapest? Let us know in the comments section below.