I'm slightly ashamed to say that Budapest is the farthest east I've been in Europe, but after the school trip I went on in April, I really want to go farther. Budapest was such an amazing mix of gritty, decaying buildings and pre-war splendor. It's not like the cookie-cutter beauty of Prague or the thoroughly rebuilt, puzzle-piece feel of Berlin. Rather, it combines the best bits of both Berlin with Prague in its own, unique way.
Of course this was a school trip, so my free time was limited. However, I did get to see a number of cool places and ate at a few nice restaurants that I'd like to share. I really did enjoy my time in Budapest, and I hope that I get the chance to return one day so that I can expand my list of recommendations.
As a side note, I would say that visiting Budapest offered more of a challenge when getting around in terms of language. To an English speaker, there is almost nothing in common between the Hungarian spelling and grammar (the language has 18 cases!) and English (which has largely lost its case system, apart from personal pronouns). Luckily, most people seem to speak some English, especially in all of the tourist parts, and I even spoke some German with our hotel staff.
In addition, public transportation is fast (we arrived by plane, then bus) and easy to navigate, especially the underground metro and aboveground trolley cars. But if you stay inside the city center, as we did, then you'll have no problem seeing most of the sights I've listed below on foot.
What to see
Buda Castle - I really loved the visit I made to the castle. I took a lovely, leisurely walk across the Széchenyi Chain Bridge and had a fun ride up the old funicular to get to the castle. Unlike Prague's castle, Buda Castle has been turned completely into a series of art museums, so it's less touristy. I chose to walk through the Hungarian National Gallery inside the palace, which was free for teachers.
Matthias Church & Fisherman's Bastion - A short walk from the castle on the Buda side of the river is the Matthias Church and the Fisherman's Bastian. I arrived too late to go inside the church, but the gorgeous architecture is worth the visit. The very touristy marzipan museum is also located in the vicinity.
Hungarian Parliament Building - Almost directly across the river from the Matthias Church is the Hungarian Parliament Building. This ornate building was modeled after the British Houses of Parliament. We were lucky enough to have booked a tour to see the interior rooms, which are just as spectacular as the outside. You can also see the jeweled crown of St. Stephen on the tour.
Váci Utca & around - This is one of the main shopping streets in the city. It is a bit touristy, but I liked it because at the end was an adorable market with some cool Hungarian trinkets. In particular, I found a unique Budapest shirt made by a local artist. A little farther down and on the right you can also find St. Stephen's Basilica, which has a gorgeous interior.
Great Market Hall - If you follow Váci street in the opposite direction of St. Stephen's Basilica, then you'll make it to the Great Market Hall. One of the few remaining covered market halls in Europe, this impressive structure houses everything from fresh fish and vegetables, to kitschy souvenirs and traditional Hungarian food and liquor. I enjoyed my first glass of Tokaji here.
Boat and/or Bus Tour - We took both a boat tour down the Danube (called the Duna in Hungarian) and a bus tour around the city with the students. I would recommend both. Our boat tour just after dusk yielded some impressive, night-time views of the castle and parliament building. We also got to pass under the many bridges of Budapest, including the Liberty Bridge, Chain Bridge, Margaret Bridge, and Elisabeth Bridge. The bus tour took us past the Uránia National Film Theatre to Heroes' Square and back up Gellért Hill, which offers some impressive views of the city.
Széchenyi Thermal Baths - At the end of our trip, we spent a relaxing evening at the Széchenyi Thermal Baths, which is the largest medicinal bath in Europe. They offer a gorgeous, warm outdoor pool that was lovely in the chilly April climate. Inside, there were several roasting saunas, cold dip pools, and a number of indoor pools of varying temperatures in which to relax. They offer massages as well, though I didn't have one.
Places to eat
Mâtyâs Pince - We found this traditional Hungarian restaurant quite by accident, as it's attached to our hotel. The interior looks like an underground, vaulted wine cellar with intricately carved wood paneling and brilliant stained-glass windows. On the night we were there, a traditional gypsy band was playing. I ordered a Hungarian beer (Dreher) and a rich veal goulash with oven-baked curd cheese noodles, which was recommended by our waiter.
Centrál Kávéház - This old-world café just off a side street in the center of town offers delicious coffees and cakes, including the traditional Dobos (layers of vanilla biscuit, chocolate creme, and a caramel top). I hear they offer a lovely breakfast as well.
Trattoria Toscana - We visited this Italian restaurant twice on our 5-day trip -- the food was that good! On the first occasion I had a to-die-for appetizer of goose livers on toast in a vin santo wine and dried plum sauce. (I only wish I'd have gotten a picture!) For my main, I had a spicy spaghetti dish with arrabbiata sauce, while on my second visit I went for the more decadent Scoglio Scialatelli (homemade pasta with seafood). The real draw, though, was the smaller wine bar off to the side of the restaurant. You can order all the same food there while also enjoying .1L tastings of a variety of Hungarian and Italian wines. Much like Czech wine, Hungarian wine has a lot to offer in terms of flavor, but sadly not enough in terms of production in order to export any.
Ruin Bars - Undoubtedly one of the coolest parts of Budapest is the ruin bars. These establishments, which were once doomed to demolition, have since been reclaimed and furnished with a number of unwanted paraphernalia, like bikes and chairs, to form some pretty cool bar spaces. The one we went to was called Szimpla Kert and is just down Kazinczy street. There were several separate bar areas within the crumbling building, and I was delighted to find some Belgian beers in the mix while watching a rather raucous British stag party.