I would say that Budapest would be the beginning of what most people consider to be “Eastern Europe,” making it not quite as far to travel, but still with the benefits of being a little outside the traditional Europe tourist zone. Recently I visited Budapest for my second time and it was amazing. Food and beer are cheap, the ruinbars are super cool, and it is such a beautiful city to get lost in. This time around I was too early to catch the Christmas markets, (which are truly a great experience if you get the chance!) but that also meant that it was not below freezing the entire time I was there!
My favorite restaurant in Budapest by far is Frici Papa. You can get a plate of beef goulash with traditional gnocchis and a pint of Soproni for 7 euros – not bad at all. Service might not be amazing, but I always let that slide because first of all the place is always packed so I can’t blame them, also prices are great, and service in Europe is always different in comparison to the tip-centric US. After a filling dinner at Frici Papa, one of the oldest ruinbars in Budapest, Szimpla Kert is only a couple blocks away. This ruinbar is truly amazing, it makes you feel like you’ve entered into a different universe. The mix of people at Szimpla is also interesting, it is so big there is space for older people as well as young people. They have multiple bars throughout the building, and although its not the cheapest place for drinks in Budapest, compared to Western Europe everything is a good deal. There is also a hookah room on the first floor if you’re looking to sit down and chill out for a bit.
The thermal baths are another thing that Budapest is famous for. I have been to both the Szechenyi Baths as well as the Gellert Spa, and both are amazing. The Szechenyi bath is the one that most tourists go to. It has the massive outdoor pool that everyone takes photos of. They also have parties on the weekends during the summer months. My recent experience at the Gellert Spa felt more authentic, probably because it is quite a bit older than the Szechenyi Baths and there were less Americans. The big outdoor pool was unfortunately closed at Gellert when we visited because it was winter, but it looked beautiful. The architecture and mosaics inside the spa were unreal. At Gellert they have a Finnish sauna outside which was super fun, as well as a smaller thermal bath outside that was around 36 degrees Celsius. Inside there were multiple thermal baths and all were gorgeous. If you really like baths and you want to spend the money to try out a couple that would be ideal, but if you just want to do one I personally preferred Gellert Spa.
Climbing up Gellert Hill to the Citadela for sunset is awesome! But the best seats aren’t at the top, the benches along the trek up are better places to avoid all the tourists.