As William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Nowhere is that more true that Budapest. Even spending only 24 hours in Budapest is like traveling through time. You can see everything from medieval ruins, to the majesty of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to the destruction of World War II and the communist period.
During our 24 hours in Budapest, we will learn all about Budapest’s tragic history. But we will also enjoy the finest modern Hungarian bites. Then we’ll combine both past and present by whiling away the evening in some actual ruins. Ready to travel through Hungarian time? Let’s go!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours in Budapest.
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24 Hours in Budapest
Where to Stay?
Because Budapest has become such a popular tourist destination, spending 24 hours in Budapest can be very expensive. Remember that Budapest is really a combination of two cities. If you’re looking at Google Maps, Buda will be on the left hand side of the Danube, and Pest is on the right. When I was looking at hotels, the ones in Pest were cheaper, though I suppose that could always change.
I recommend staying at the Fig Tree House Budapest in Pest. The rooms are adorable, there’s a great free breakfast, and the staff couldn’t be more helpful. I had an early morning flight back to the United States, and the front desk arranged for a cheap taxi to the airport, and they packed a free and tasty breakfast for me. It’s not near main attractions like the Castle District but there’s public transportation nearby that will get you there quickly.
24 Hours in Budapest
Morning: House of Terror
The House of Terror is arguably the saddest building you’ll see in your 24 hours in Budapest. It was the headquarters of the Hungarian Nazi party during World War II. (The party had a different name; we’ll learn about that soon.) As if that weren’t enough murder and cruelty for one building, this house was later used as the headquarters of the secret police of the Hungarian communist regime. No wonder it is called the House of Terror.
I always have a strange feeling about recommending places like this. Whenever I talk about a “dark tourism” attraction like Chernobyl or Schindler’s Factory in Krakow, I worry it can seem like I’m making light of a serious subject. But one of my most deeply held beliefs is that laughter, learning, and love are the best weapons in the face of evil. So as long as we approach a place like this with the right attitude, I think we should visit to learn about what humanity is capable of, for good and evil.
No photos are allowed in the House of Terror, so I’ll have to make do with photos I took of other parts of Budapest. I can’t distill all the information from the museum into this blog post. But I can share with you…
three facts: the house of terror
1) what happened in this building during wwii?
During World War II, Hungary was allied with the Axis powers. The government collaborated with the Nazis, and the Jewish population of the country was forced to wear yellow stars. Eventually they were sent to death camps. (My photo above is a Holocaust Memorial in Budapest. It was financed by legendary American film star Tony Curtis, whose father was a Hungarian Jew.)
As I mentioned in our last 24 hours in Budapest, Hungary tried to make a deal with the Allies in 1944, but this was crushed by the Nazis. At this point, the Hungarian Nazi party, led by Ferenc Szalasi came to power. (They called themselves the Arrow Cross party, but they were definitely Nazis.) Szalasi set up his headquarters in the House of Terror building. He said that it should be called “the House of Loyalty”. Sounds like a charming fellow!
If you’re worried that Szalasi is still around, don’t be. He was executed for war crimes by a Hungarian court after the war. I generally think it’s bad form to wish one’s enemies were in Hell, but if Szalasi is there, I won’t shed even one tear.
2) did things get better in this building after wwii?
I really do not think so. After World War II, Hungary was invaded by the Soviets. Naturally that meant it had to become a Communist country. The Soviets decided to re-purpose the Arrow Cross headquarters and turn it into the headquarters for the State Security Office/Authority, aka the Secret Police. The Hungarian in charge was another charmer named Gabor Peter.
Peter had been a tailor-in-training before he was put in charge of the secret police. In this very building in the photo above, Hungarians were imprisoned without trial or proper evidence. If a neighbor didn’t like you and wished to report you for politically subversive behavior to the authorities, you would have no defense. The Hungarian secret police spied on the rest of the population constantly. You could never feel safe.
If you were taken to the secret police headquarters, you would have been tortured until you confessed, whether or not you committed the crime. Then you would be sent to prison or executed. It’s not surprising that no one I spoke to in Budapest misses the days of communism.
3) how did the house of terror become a museum?
This building stopped being the headquarters of the Hungarian secret police in the 1950s. And Gabor Peter was relieved of his position around the same time because he was Jewish. Peter died in 1993; his New York Times obituary is a very strange read. Apparently he was never sorry for any of his crimes.
The building where the House of Terror was now located fell into disrepair. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to live here or own a business here. In 2000, a non-profit purchased it in order to turn it into a museum about the crimes of the Nazi/Communist periods. It is also meant to serve as a memorial to those who were so brutally killed.
I was a little alarmed to read that right-wing politician Viktor Orban was Prime Minister during the planning of the House of Terror museum in 2000 because he is Prime Minister of Hungary now, and that is way too long for one person to be Prime Minister. But he wasn’t Prime Minister between 2002-2008, so at least that is something. Also when researching this blog post, I found out that Orban and I have the same birthday, which is weird. I wouldn’t have pegged him for a Gemini.
24 Hours in Budapest
Afternoon: Bites and Sights Tour
After visiting a place like the House of Terror that has seen such misery, it’s bizarre to go directly to recommending a food tour. But I don’t think we can spend the entire 24 hours in Budapest talking about war crimes. And we can’t visit a beautiful city like Budapest and not take advantage of the delicious Hungarian food and wine!
That’s why I suggest taking the Urban Adventures Bites and Sights food tour. Food tours are one of the best ways to get to know a city. And as a solo traveler, it’s also an amazing way to meet people. Our Hungarian guide, whom I shall call Zsa Zsa, seemed to know everything about Hungarian food. By the end of the tour, we felt like we did too. I can’t spoonfeed you goulash through the computer screen, but I can spoonfeed you…
approximately top 5: 24 hours in budapest food
1) central market hall snacks
It’s definitely that time in our 24 hours in Budapest to begin lunch. And what better way to start lunch than with dessert? The tour meets in the historic Central Market Hall, so it was a good opportunity to begin to snack our way through Budapest. First thing, Zsa Zsa gave us the oddest candy I have ever eaten. It is called Túró Rudi, and it is chocolate covered cottage cheese. (It says Pottyos on the wrapping because that means polka dots.)
I had never realized that it was popular to wrap cottage cheese in chocolate before! I liked it because it wasn’t as sweet as most candy bars. And I’m sure the cottage cheese cancels out the calories in the chocolate. So basically eating Turo Rudi will help me get fit! I’ll go buy a whole bunch.
But there’s more to eat at the Central Market than odd candy. We feasted on enough Hungarian salamis and cured meats to please Zoltan Karpathy himself. Zsa Zsa said that salami was extremely popular in Hungary, and many Hungarians, especially older ones, don’t really understand the concept of being vegetarian.
Some of these cured meats were made spicy, with proper Hungarian paprika, and some were made extra fatty for the winter months. A salami for every season! I knew I would like Hungary.
2) ice cream
Well you know what they say. After eating chocolate-covered cottage cheese, it’s time for ice cream! Our next stop was at Levendula, which is often called the best ice cream in Budapest. The name means lavender, so they specialize in lavender flavors. But I can never resist a flavor of ice cream I’ve never seen before, so I ordered Blue Majik.
I didn’t realize when placing my order that Blue Majik is actually the name of a type of spirulina. So it’s basically a health food. It’s supposed to get you protein and boost your immune system and all that jazz. It doesn’t have a delicious taste on its own though, so my Blue Majik ice cream just tasted like vanilla. It would make a pretty Instagram picture if I were even a little good at taking photos, though!
3) ruin bar time!
If you spend 24 hours in Budapest without going to a ruin bar, you are just making terrible life choices! Ruin bars are a truly Budapest tradition. They started because there were so many abandoned old buildings in Budapest, especially in the former Jewish ghetto. So young Hungarians decided to turn one into a bar. (We’ll be visiting that one later today.) Now you can’t throw a Forint without hitting a ruin bar, it seems.
It seems like wine spritzers are very much the thing to get in Budapest. In Hungary they are called froccs, which is a great name. I think it should catch on worldwide. Zsa Zsa told us that seltzer making was invented in Hungary, which is one reason spritzers are so popular here. Definitely go with the rose spritzer if you want to have a HHGS (Hot Hungarian Girl Summer).
4) jewish food
Hearing about the history behind ruin bars does bring a tragic note to sipping on a rose spritzer. The only reason some of those ruins were there in the first place is because the Jewish population of Budapest was murdered by the Nazis. So I’m glad that this food tour pays tribute to the Hungarian Jews with a hearty bowl of matzo ball soup.
I’m from New York City, so I grew up on the stuff, but in case you don’t know, matzo balls are made with mushed up matzo crackers. Jewish people eat matzo during Passover because it’s not permitted to eat bread with yeast in it. When the Jewish people were escaping from the Pharaoh, they didn’t have time to wait for the yeast to rise, after all.
This matzo ball soup has a bit of a twist because it’s served with an extremely hot pepper, not Hungarian paprika. Be very careful with the pepper, as it made one man in our tour group cry! You don’t need to put any in your soup at all.
5) hungarian seafood
Hungary is more famous for its meat dishes than its fish. After all, it is a landlocked country. But the might Danube runs through it, so certainly you can get plenty of fish here. We stopped at a restaurant that specializes in Hungarian fish. (It’s bringing seafood back.)
We feasted on freshwater fish like catfish and carp in three different ways: fried, smoked, and in a paste. I loved how flavorful the catfish and carp were. Who wants to eat a piece of seafood that tastes like frozen fish fingers?
The fish reminded me of the seafood I had eaten in Tulcea, Romania, which is also on the Danube. I always like to notice the differences and similarities between countries I visit, but I never say them aloud. You never know if you will horribly offend a Hungarian by suggesting their seafood is anything like Romanian seafood. For all I know, the Hungarian might start ranting that Romania should give Hungary back Transylvania, and then where would we be?
6) goulash time!
It’s actually a crime to spend 24 hours in Budapest and not eat their goulash. They say the Hungarian Secret Police doesn’t operate anymore, but they do, and the only crime they investigate is people who don’t eat goulash. Having just been in Prague and Bratislava, where I ate the Czech and Slovak goulashes, I was surprised to see that the Hungarian goulash looked very different.
Zsa Zsa explained that the goulash in Hungary is more like a soup. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, it is served more “dry”. Either way, it is highly scrumptious. You can add paprika to the goulash but you don’t have to. In either case, this paprika was a lot less spicy than the hot pepper we had with the matzo ball soup. Tears were shed by no one.
24 Hours in Budapest
Evening: Ruin Bar Time!
After all those Hungarian treats, there’s probably no way you’re going to want dinner. So I suggest we conclude our 24 hours in Budapest at some of Budapest’s finest ruin bars. We’ll have all the wine spritzers and decaying architecture that anyone could desire.
If you’re only able to hit up one ruin bar in Budapest, let it be Szimpla Kert. It’s historic because it was the first ruin bar in the city. It used to be in a slightly different place, but the owners moved it to its current location in 2004 because this spot is bigger. (It used to be a factory, among other things.)
Szimpla Kert gets a crazy number of visitors every day, and many of them are tourists. So you need to be a little feisty to get a table so you can rest your spritzer. But even though Szimpla Kert is hardly off the beaten track, it’s still a tremendous amount of fun. Also the idea of converting a building into a new purpose instead of knocking the whole thing down and building a bigger one is an eco-friendly concept many cities can adopt.
24 hour treat: langos
If all that Hungarian wine and seltzer water starts to make you snacky again, head to the Karavan Street Food court just next to Szimpla Kert and buy a langos. This is a flat, fried bread topped with sour cream and cheese. I admire the commitment to fat involved in combining cheese, sour cream, and fried bread. It’s almost American in its splendor. And it’s the perfect end to 24 hours in Budapest.
That’s a Perfect 24 Hours in Budapest!
What would you do with 24 hours in Budapest? Do you have an opinion about dark tourism? And if I asked Viktor Orban if he’d share his birthday party with me, what would he say? Please leave your thoughts below!