While touring Budapest (or any major metropolis), we all need to pause sometimes between admiring the city’s guidebook-superstar sights, and just kick back to catch our breath from keeping up with society’s constantly buzzing vibe. From steamy thermal baths to historic hangouts to peaceful Oriental gardens to a serene subterranean salt chamber, many slow-paced places and relaxing settings can be found just a few steps away from some of Budapest’s major landmarks, including the Parliament House, St. Stephen’s Basilica, the Citadel, and a number of other must-see monuments.
If marveling at the statuesque lions and arches of the graceful Chain Bridge is not a calming enough experience in and of itself, take a breather in the Clark Ádám Square Park, a refurbished riverfront plaza at the Buda side of this stunning span. Here, excursionists can lounge on benches and enjoy the sounds of twittering birds in the epicenter of Budapest, while the entire parkland lies in the shadow of the Buda Castle. At the park’s eastern end, ride the Castle Hill Funicular to enjoy a gently rising vista from the vintage cars as one ascends skyward, while the other one approaches the ground downhill.
Just steps away from Clark Ádám Square, Lánchíd Söröző on Fő Street serves hearty local meals on checkered tablecloths, surrounded by traditional Hungarian settings, making this a great spot for nursing a chilled beer and planning the next urban adventure. And during the warmer months, cross to the Pest riverbank to sit back and imbibe colorful cocktails at raqpart, a popular open-air summertime hangout built at the foot of the Chain Bridge right on the Danube shore. From here, guests enjoy an excellent panorama over the Buda Castle and Fishermen’s Bastion, an especially glistening sight to lazily gaze at in the night.
Many visitors in Budapest embark on a wearying hike up Gellért Hill for the sprawling vantage point at the Citadel – a monumental fortress built by the occupying Habsburg Empire in 1854 – and enjoy sweeping vistas over the city skyline, including the curving Danube and the Elizabeth Bridge. Crowds here can be overwhelming, but after completing the demanding jaunt, travelers can rest at several serene hideaways scattered beside the hill while descending: a meditative stopover at the Philosophers' Garden gives anyone a spiritual charge, surrounded by eight hallowed statues in the tree-flanked parkland including Jesus Christ, Buddha, and Laozi. On the other side of the hill, towering above St. Gellért Square, a mystical Cave Church awaits those who want to take a break by contemplating life inside this sacred hillside den that boasts a mild internal temperature all year round.
Besides Gellért Hill’s sylvan settings, two prominent thermal baths in the Citadel’s vicinity await visitors for a calming plunge: those who want to dive into the city’s Art Nouveau architecture amid vibrant light should not miss a sweltering swim in the Gellért Bath near the Liberty Bridge, and just a short stroll away from the Elizabeth Bridge, the recently added alfresco Jacuzzi atop the Rudas Bath is a serene oasis with magnificent city views; lounging in the spa’s recently modernized pools and saunas is a soothing conclusion to a hectic day of hoofing it around the city’s iconic sites.
After gazing at the monumental statue complex of Heroes’ Square, presenting figures of Magyar icons who had significant roles in Hungary’s history, urban dwellers can head to the adjacent City Park for an unspoilt retreat around its mirror-smooth lake and the fairy-tale Vajdahunyad Castle. For a sizzling dip, submerge in the indoor and outdoor thermal-heated pools of the revered Széchenyi Bath, where the water temperatures rise as high as 40°C.
Following these muscle-melting pleasures, several restaurants across the spacious parkland await guests amid serene settings for an invigorating dining experience: housed in a historic building, the legendary Gundel Restaurant offers an array of reimagined Hungarian cuisine, with meals served in the eatery’s flower-filled garden during the warmer months. Nearby, the charming Robinson Restaurant – set on a secluded islet on the City Park lake – is a romantic hideaway that is an ideal place to savor international meals and gourmet steaks. Those who fancy eating out amid a retro milieu during summer shouldn’t miss Pántlika located on Hermina Road at the eastern entrance of City Park – this tiny decades-old hut stands here as a legacy from the country’s communist era.
The masterpiece venue of Miklós Ybl – one of Hungary’s greatest architects – set on the lengthy lane of Andrássy Avenue is a popular photo stop for many travelers in Budapest, and those who don’t have a ticket for one of the opera or ballet performances can still marvel at the building’s gold-plated interiors and frescoed dome during daily guided tours in various languages (including English). Afterwards, it can be difficult to find a quiet nook to unwind in the middle of the city’s most bustling boulevard, but some small backstreets here hide some unexpected zones for lingering. Running beside the Opera, pedestrian-only Hajós Street is filled with friendly restaurants and bars with alfresco terraces to lounge on: Balettcipő serves delicious food for an artistic crowd on its patio, while Chagall Café is a nice all-purpose place for outdoor chilling. Or walk a couple blocks on Andrássy towards the Oktogon intersection to discover the diverse hangouts of tree-shaded Liszt Ferenc Square, featuring many terrace-seating spaces for leisurely dining or drinking. For an even more laid-back hideaway, check out Kiadó Pub on Jókai Square (across the boulevard from Liszt Square), a favorite among locals for its low-priced food and drinks that can be unhurriedly savored amid pillow-lined nooks.
To really leave the city scene behind for some restorative downtime in this area, walk just around the corner from Kiadó to Kristálysó Barlang (Crystal Salt Cave) on Mozsár Street, a meditative refuge with an underground salt chamber where anyone can laze around and sprawl in subterranean deck chairs, while rejuvenating with the healing power of illuminated salt-block walls that surround the entire space.
This expansive island in the middle of the Danube is a forested retreat in downtown Budapest, and a favored recreation ground for locals and travelers alike. Several sites serve as tranquil destinations across this vast parkland, like the stunning Japanese Garden, a cavernous Oriental space with its harmonious flora and burbling fountains; this silent hideaway is especially impressive during the blooming months of spring, when the fine blend of scented flowers stimulates the senses. The Margaret Island’s small petting zoo is a classic stopover for families with children, who want to slow down amid the island’s fauna that includes deer, peacocks, and several other species, and it’s open for visitors during the warmer months.
Many people come to the island for various sports activities, and those who are fond of yoga classes can join alfresco sessions starting from April on the island’s Nagytér, stretching across a vast meadow between the Danubius Health Spa Resort and the Margaret Island Water Tower and amphitheater – and best of all, anyone can join in on a donation basis (held from 11am and 1:30pm on Sundays and from 6pm on weekdays, depending on the weather). The soothing vibe of Margaret Island wouldn’t be complete without a supreme splash zone: the Danubius Health Spa Resort houses numerous thermal pools and wellness facilities, hidden amid this sylvan slice of Budapest.
Gracefully shaping Pest’s skyline, Europe’s second biggest Parliament building is one of Budapest’s postcard superstars with its neo-Gothic architecture, peaking high in the sky. It houses the Hungarian Holy Crown, and regular in-house guided tours are available every day in many different languages... although joining these excursions often requires waiting in long lines before entering. To unwind after the tour, opt for a peaceful pause in the Parliament’s vicinity by just strolling around the recently renovated Kossuth Square surrounding the monumental building, and enjoy the soothing scenery of its green lawns and statue complex of Lajos Kossuth – the Magyars’ brilliant leader during Hungary’s 1848 Revolution.
To dine and wine with sweeping views of this impressive setting, Elysée Bistro and Café flanks the square as a decades-old eatery that is now elegantly renovated, and it’s a perfect locale for chilling and devouring reinvented Hungarian and continental meals. A short distance away, Café Smúz is a colorful combination of a coffee shop, a florist, and a wine bar, and lounging here provides an aromatic recharge for the mind. For a peaceful stroll away from the touring crowds, Falk Miksa Street begins at the northeast corner of Kossuth Square, leading to numerous antique shops and art galleries – like the Judit Virág Gallery or the Kieselbach Gallery and Auction House – lining its pavement. Here we can spot valuable Hungarian paintings, but it’s a perfect lane for just roaming around at a leisurely pace.
Towering above central Budapest, this hallowed shrine is one of the city’s most photographed sites for its twin steeples, celestial stained-glass windows, and stately central dome. Those who want to get a bird’s-eye view of the city from this central perspective can ascend to the Basilica’s circular balcony encompassing the dome, accessible via a spiral staircase or an elevator. From this engrossing height, visitors can spot major attractions like the Parliament or the Buda Castle, or just enjoy the soaring view over the crowds down below.
Those who want to take a reinvigorating coffee break or a power lunch can stop by Café Kör on Sas Street, located just steps away from the Basilica’s Szent Isvtán Square. Here, guests are served high-quality Hungarian meals within an unpretentious ambience, including breakfast. Those who decide to walk to nearby Erzsébet Square will discover leisurely parkland bisected by Fröccsterasz, an alfresco hangout for wine-spritzer aficionados, operating from springtime through autumn. This unfussy outdoor bar is usually filled with a mixed crowd that comes here to enjoy Budapest’s city-center vibe – this vibrant plaza is a popular meeting point in the city, while the expansive field in front of Fröccsterasz is always packed with cheerful friends and starry-eyed couples lounging on its lawns.