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A buzz with pavement cafés, street artists, vendors, boutiques and nightclubs, the dowtown (belváros in Hungarian) or Inner City is the hub of Pest.

A buzz with pavement cafés, street artists, vendors, boutiques and nightclubs, the dowtown (belváros in Hungarian) or Inner City is the hub of Pest and, for tourists at least, the epicentre of what’s happening. Commerce and pleasure have been its lifeblood as long as Pest has existed, first as a medieval market town and later as the kernel of a city whose belle époque rivalled Vienna’s.

Since their fates diverged, the Belváros has lagged far behind Vienna’s Centrum in prosperity, but the gap is fast being narrowed, at least superficially. It’s now increasingly like any Western city in its consumer culture, but you can still get a sense of the old atmosphere, especially in the quieter backstreets south of Kossuth Lajos utca.

Pest

Pest, on the left bank of the Danube, also has many historic districts, resorts and famous sights. There are nine bridges spanning the Danube, the oldest being the Széchenyi Chain Bridge built in 1849.

Széchenyi Chain Bridge
Széchenyi Chain Bridge

 

Downtown - Pest The Downtown Parish Church on Március 15. tér was the city’s first church. Examples of all architectural styles, ranging from Romanesque to Classicist, blend into the interior of the church.

At 2 Dohány utca Europe’s largest synagogue is found, serving also as a concert hall of excellent acoustics. The Jewish Museum in the courtyard of the synagogue is a centre for Jewish studies.



The Hungarian National Museum (14-16 Múzeum körút) is the finest example of Hungarian Classicist architecture. In existence since 1846, it is the most significant public collection in Hungary, tracing the history of the Hungarian people from prehistoric times to the present day.

Hungarian National Museum
Hungarian National Museum

 

The Vásárcsarnok (Grand Market Hall, 1-3 Fővám körút) is striking in its architectural inventiveness.

The finest examples of Art Nouveau architecture in Hungary include the Museum of Applied Arts (33-37 Üllői út) with its wide selection of permanent and temporary exhibitions, the houses on Szervita tér (Pest town centre) and the building of the former Postal Savings Bank (4 Hold utca).

The Parliament (Kossuth Lajos tér) is the largest and the most lavishly decorated building in the country. Built between 1885 and 1902 by Imre Steindl, this exquisite edifice is 96-m high and 118-m wide, and has 10 courtyards, 29 staircases and 27 gates. Europe’s first area heating system was put in service in this building. Seat of the Hungarian Parliament and government offices, it provides a place of safety for the Holy Crown and the royal insignia. It is accessible only by guided tours in groups.

The neo-Renaissance St. Stephen’s Basilica (Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út), elevated to the rank of basilica minor, is the largest church in Budapest, and the second largest in Hungary. The right hand of St. Stephen, Hungary’s first king (970-1038), preserved intact for over 1,000 years, is the relic of the Chapel of the Holy Right. The tower balcony of the basilica offers a splendid uninterrupted panorama of the whole of the city.



It is worth taking a walk along the straight Andrássy út, a boulevard that is now a World Heritage site. It is lined with 19th- and 20th-century Eclectic-style palaces.

The State Opera House (22 Andrássy út), with its frescoed interior, seating an audience of 1,200, is a splendid work of by Miklós Ybl, Hungary’s most famous architect, and has been the centre of musical life in Hungary since 1864. There are guided tours.

State Opera House
State Opera House

 

After a stroll along Váci utca from Vörösmarty tér and a look at the splendid view of Várhegy from the embankment, the best way to appreciate the dowtown is by simply wandering around. People-watching and window-shopping are the most enjoyable activities, and though prices are above average for Budapest, any visitor should be able to afford to sample the cafés. Shops are another matter – there are few bargains – and nightclubs are a trap for the unwary, but there’s nothing to stop you from enjoying the cultural life, from performances by jazz musicians and violinists to world-class conductors and soloists.

The exceptional shopping street but also the street for tourists, lined with bureaux of exchange and shops of all kinds with enticing displays.

Name: Váci Street
Category: Architecture, castles and historic districts
Location: 1052 Budapest, Váci utca

Description

Váci utca has been famous for its shops and promenade since the 18th century. During the 1980s, its vivid streetlife became a symbol of the "consumer socialism" that distinguished Hungary from other Eastern Bloc states. Since 1989 it has been a tourist haunt, with endless souvenir shops and rip-off bars where unsuspecting visitors would be tricked into paying huge bills.

Today the northern half of the street, down to Ferenciek tere, has at least gained a touch of style from a number of outlets for big Western designer names.

Váci Street linking Vörösmarty Square with Fővám Square represents the main artery of the inner city. A stroll down "Váci utca" takes one past jewellers, perfumeries, brand name clothes shops from Marks and Spencer to Cottonfield, a C&A store, boutiques and bijouteries. But leave time for the foreign language bookshop selling translated works by several Hungarian authors.

Tips: Walk along the street and take in the atmosphere, the bustle and the stunning architecture of the street's buildings. A new exclusive shopping street (called Fashion street) was recently opened. It streches from Vörösmarty square to Deák square.

Váci street
Váci street

 

Then again, don’t forget to slide off down one or two of the side streets: you’ll discover boutiques and wine shops marketing the very finest quality Hungarian reds and whites. Famous Szamos marzipan is available in Párizsi Street, and the confectionery’s ice cream is outstanding too.

And since the number of shops that can be squeezed onto the street level is finite, enterprising Hungarians have moved underground: three shopping centres have been created out of old cellars. One shop in Fehérhajó Street sells healing minerals, and in the middle of Váci Street others trade in antique furniture, porcelain and kid’s clothing. In the meantime don’t forget to direct your eyes upwards occasionally: most of the buildings in the heart of town were raised in the late 1800s, among them there are several outstanding examples.



The Csók Gallery on the corner of Pesti Barnabás Street displays and retails works by modern Hungarian artists, but if you are interested in antiques, you’ll find them here too. Kígyó (Snake) Street is gradually turning into a street of porcelain: two shops selling the finest Hungarian porcelain face each other across the street. The speciality of the Zsolnay porcelain factory is its eosin glaze, a technique rarely employed in Europe. This iridescent glaze with its golds, greens and (more uncommonly) blues covers Zsolnay statues, plates and ash trays, while dining sets are characterized by an attractive ivory hue to the porcelain. The Herend shop sells single pieces, sets and statues patterned on classics created by the old factory established 176 years ago. Replacement pieces can also be ordered. At Elizabeth Bridge an underpass takes us on to the continuation of Váci Street.

Passing the Downtown Auction House (Belvárosi Aukciósház), it’s fascinating to scan the regularly changing collection of shopwindow “treasures” small and large. Visit the Folkart Centrum at Váci Street 58 for just the right gift to remind you of your stay in Hungary.

The exceptional shopping street but also the street for tourists, lined with bureaux of exchange and shops of all kinds with enticing displays. Look up to admire the façades Nos. 5, 11a, 13, 15 and 18!

Good to know about Váci utca

  • Váci Street is a pedestrian street in the heart of Budapest spanning between Vörösmarty Square (city center) and the Great Market Hall (Fővám Square)
  • It is one of Pest's oldest streets. Originally it led towards Vác, a town some 40 km (25 mi) from Budapest
  • Soon it became popular with traders gathering around Vác Gate and wealthy citizens of Pest who came here to shop and enjoy a coffee
  • The street now is famous for its buzzing atmosphere with cafés, restaurants, shops, department stores, night clubs and many souvenir shops
  • The street is cut in half by an acess road to Elisabeth Bridge; the southern part being much quiter than the northern part
  • The department stores are dominated by brands such as Zara, Mango and H&M. Their selection is somewhat modest compared to those in Western Europe
  • Tourists are the prime audience of the street; locals are less likely to come here

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Váci Street on the map

 

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After a lot of pacing the streets in Day 1 and Day 2, here we start with a coffee at one of Budapest’s most luxurious coffee houses, followed by a spot of shopping, taking in everything from designer boutiques, folk art shops, and food markets. This tour also gives you the option of ending the day with a swim and a thermal bathe to soothe the joints after scaling the dizzy heights of Gellért Hill.

START: M1 to Vörösmarty tér or Tram 2 to Vigadó tér and walk for two minutes in the opposite direction of the river.

Café Gerbaud

Try morning coffee and cake at one of the plushest of the city’s illustrious coffee houses. Your biggest decision here will be to work out where to sit to take it all in.

This is not the place we would choose to start the day every day - the ornate interior can be a bit over the top - but we find it tasteful enough in small doses to be an ideal treat. Coffee culture is about not only reading papers and devouring Gerbaud’s renowned Esterházy and Dobos cakes, but legend has it that young men indicated their availability to well-heeled ladies of pleasure by tipping an excessive amount of sugar into their coffee.

In summer, if the wealth of chandeliers, marble tables, fine wood paneling, and stucco ceilings gets a bit much, take to the terrace and sit out on Vörösmarty tér.

Time: 45 minutes. Opening hours: 9am–9pm.

Location: Budapest, Vörösmarty tér 7. Metro: M1 to Vörösmarty tér.

Váci utca

Even those who are not shopaholics can easily take in this relatively short shopping street and surrounding area. Starting from Vörösmarty tér, which often has something going on and hosts a Christmas market, you’ll find most big international fashion brands from Zara and Mango to Jackpot and H&M.

However, most of them offer a somewhat modest selection in comparison to other international cities. Keep an eye out on the side streets for high-end designers.

Souvenir shops also abound, though with steep price tags, but if you are into embroidered tablecloths and folk art, then you have come to the right place.

The shopping street continues on the other side of Szabadsajtó út, where the vibe is less frenetic.

Time: 60 minutes.

Location: Walk through the pedestrian crossing that connects the two sides of Váci utca from Vörösmarty tér to Vámház körút. Metro: M1 to Vörösmarty tér (starting point).

Great Market Hall

You may feel like you’re walking through an Impressionist painting when the sunlight shines into this beautifully restored king of neighborhood markets. However, it’s far from a museum piece; many locals come here to shop for fresh food and it’s bustling with life and color. The array of meat on sale shows just how thrifty Hungarians are, as they consider every part of the animal fair game for the pot. The carp and catfish crammed in tanks on fish "death row" downstairs are an uncomfortable sight for some, but hey, at least they’re fresh.

There are plenty of foodstuffs like paprika, salami, and goose liver to take home in the Great Market Hall, and upstairs look out for folklore and handicrafts hidden among the mountains of tourist goods.

There are plenty of nibbles to be eaten upstairs.

Time: 30 minutes – 1 hour.

Location: Budapest, Vámház körút 1–3. Opening hours: Mon 6am–5pm, Tues–Fri 6am–6pm, Sat 6am–3pm. Metro: M3 to Kálvin tér. Tram: 2/47/49 to Fővám tér.

Walk across Liberty (Szabadság) Bridge

Buda and Pest are seamlessly connected by this bright green piece of intricate ironwork that joins the Pest’s Great Market Hall and its neighbor the Budapest University of Economics (formerly the Karl Marx University) with the Gellért Hotel and the dramatic Gellért Hill of Buda.

The Liberty Bridge was opened by Emperor Franz Joseph in 1896, who actually knocked the last rivet into it.

Time: 10 minutes.

Location: Starts where Pest’s Vámház körút meets the Danube. Tram: 47/49 to Kálvin tér.

Gellért Hill

The imposing Gellért hill, that towers over the Pest waterfront of the Danube has been used to good effect to suppress forces for change. Italian missionary Szent Gellért was reportedly rolled down the hill in 1046 to his death by revolting pagans. The Austrians then built a Citadel from which to lord it over the Magyars.

To find the Gellért Statue upstream towards the Erzsébet Bridge where you will see the steps leading up. Gellért, who participated in spreading the gospel in 11th century Hungary on King Stephen’s request, met his end being tumbled down the hill (that was subsequently named after him) in a barrel filled with nails.

Ultimately, Christianity won through with Gellért canonized in 1083. The Gellért Statue captures the saint preaching defiantly but precariously on the edge of the hill. It dates back to 1904 and is the work of Hungarian sculptor Gyula Jankovits (1865–1920).

Follow the path up and you reach the Citadel that the Austrians, smarting from the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, built, replete with cannons galore, atop the hill pointing at the Hungarians below. There wasn’t much use for it after they patched up their differences in 1867, although German occupying forces utilized it in World War II.

The three-level bunker inside the Citadel has waxworks and photos chronicling the Siege of Budapest. Close by and at the peak of the hill, Budapest’s very own statue of liberty, the Freedom Statue M, ironically went up in 1947 as a tribute to the Soviet forces that liberated the city from the Nazis. Featuring a woman proffering the palm branch of triumph and not overtly Soviet-looking, it survived the cull of Communist statues from the capital.

Time: 1–2 hours.

Cave Church

On the way down, just before reaching the Gellért- Hotel and Baths, check out this spooky church whose eerie passages dig deep into the hill.

Don’t be alarmed if a priest appears from nowhere in the Cave Church!

Time: 15 minutes.

Gellért Baths

After another hard day of pounding the streets, the Art Nouveau architecture of the Gellért thermal baths allows you to relax in style but also to see something special. Inside, the central pool is surrounded by Romanesque columns and lions spitting out water, and just for a moment you might expect Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra to dive in alongside you.

At the end of the pool, the male and female thermal facilities are to the right and left respectively. This is where things start to get really colorful and heated, and we are not just talking about the design or decoration, nor the saunas and steam rooms. You can keep your bathing costume on, though many locals like to let it all hang out and dispense with their modesty cloths, although the authorities are said to be cracking down on that sort of thing.

The plunge pool is so icy you feel the chill right through your bones, but the thaw of the warm pools is always close at hand. While the waters are supposed to sort out arthritis, blood circulation, and the spine, we say just enjoy them and come out feeling squeaky clean and purified. In summer, be sure to check out the outdoor pools and garden, which is a bit more suited to kids who can enjoy the artificial waves in the main outdoor pool.

For more information, please see this post about Best Thermal Baths in Budapest.

Time: 2 hours. Opening hours: 6am–7pm.

Location: Budapest, Kelenhegyi út 4. Tram: 47/49/18/19 to Szent Gellért tér.

street-fashion

In general, dress is very casual in Budapest – in summer, daringly brief, even by Continental European standards – and many people attend even the opera in denim. Men needn’t bother bringing a necktie; it will be seldom – if ever – used.

Like everywhere, Budapest has its own fashion boutiques and home-grown designers.

Judging from what’s on offer in some of the used or "second-generation" clothing shops such as Iguana and Ciánkáli, the über-trend on the street is for retro (1950s to 70s) and fetishist (leather, military) foundation pieces and accessories.

What the masses are going for is another matter. The high-street favourite C&A has launched three new stores in Budapest and Spanish fashion chain Zara, much beloved by the braces-and-bubblegum brigade, has opened a 2400-sq-metre outlet on Váci utca.

Main shopping streets

Shopping is the most beloved activity of modern-day human being. Budapest, as every other big city, has shops of worldfamous brands to offer. These are to be found mainly in malls, Vörösmarty Square (Vörösmarty tér), Fashion Street and Andrássy Avenue (Andrássy út). But in order not to arrive home with worthless pieces of junk as a result of your frantic shopping spree, take a little time to look through our selection of shops.

 

The most sensitive issue is, of course, that of the souvenirs. These are the items traditional tourist hubs are flooded with. Fortunately, there’s another option. If you want a classic Hungarian product, purchase ground paprika at the Great Market Hall (Központi Vásárcsarnok), Rubik’s cube at any of the souvenir shops or Hungarian porcelain of worldwide fame in Andrássy Avenue (Andrássy út).

Apart from next-generation popup stores, there are many young and progressive shops with permanent headquarters, many times around clubs. Uniquely designed, colored, scented souvenirs, jewels, clothes and pieces of art can be bought here for reasonable prices. If you’re an avid collector of clothes, you’ll go crazy seeing what Budapest has to offer. The choice ranges from classic, elegant shops and trendy, shiny showrooms to designer stores with creaky floors, and the pricing could be surprisingly friendly for tourists. Or if you’re looking for the lowest prices, check out the vintage shops and those selling earlier models. You might as well find timeless favorites. All in all, with some creativity and keeping your eyes open you can have a richer piece of Budapest than you might have thought you would. Here is why:

The world of fashion and commercialization has bombarded the capital with a silent invasion. Each week, coming soon signs are appearing on storefront windows, promising yet other items of globalized fashion, but you can rest assured they are not for the average Hungarian. From famous designer labels like Louis Vuitton and Chanel, brand-name items, stylish secondhand shops, and, sad to say, As Seen on TV stores, Budapest offers a far wider array of shopping experiences than just a few years ago.

Should you want an entertaining „Hungaricum”, your best choice is Rubik’s cube.

A popular yet overpriced shopping area for travelers is the Castle District in Buda, with its abundance of folk-art boutiques and art galleries. A healthy education about Hungarian wines from historical local viticulture regions can be found in the intimate labyrinthine cellar of the House of Hungarian Wines, but buy elsewhere for a better price. Most supermarkets carry an extensive selection of Hungarian wines.

Hungarians tend to do their serious shopping on Pest’s Outer Ring (Nagykörút), which extends into West End City Center, a shopping mall, located just behind the Nyugati Railway Station. Another favorite shopping street is Pest’s busy Kossuth Lajos utca, off the Erzsébet Bridge, and its continuation, Rákóczi út. Andrássy út, from Deák tér to Oktogon, is popular for browsing or wishing, since it is the more upscale shopping street. It is out of question that the most popular shopping/pedestrian walking street of Budapest is Váci utca.

West End City Center
West End City Center

 

Together with the adjacent Liszt Ferenc tér and Nagymező utca, Andrássy út is a popular hub for nightlife, with numerous coffee shops, bars, and restaurants (many change often). Nestled among the plethora of cafes and restaurants on the lively Ráday utca, you will often find small boutiques and shops where you can find unique presents and doodads. You can often pay by credit card in the most popular shopping areas.

Opening hours

Most stores are open Monday to Friday from 10am to 6pm and Saturday from 9 or 10am to 1pm or sometimes 2pm. Some stores stay open an hour or two later on Thursday or Friday. Sunday, most shops are closed, except for those on Váci utca. Shopping malls are open on weekends, sometimes as late as 7pm.

Taxes & Refounds

Refunds on the 27% value-added tax (VAT), which is built into all prices, are available for most consumer goods purchases of more than 45,000 Ft ($173/EUR 143) purchased in one store, in 1 day (look for stores with the taxfree logo in the window).

The refund process, however, is elaborate and confusing. In most shops, the salesperson can provide you with the necessary documents: the store receipt, a separate receipt indicating the VAT amount on your purchase, the VAT reclaims form, and the mailing envelope. The salesperson should also be able to help you fill out the paperwork. Use a separate claim form for each applicable purchase.

If you are departing Hungary by plane, you can collect your refund at the IBUSZ Agency at Ferihegy Airport. You have to do this right after checking in but before you pass security control. Otherwise, hold on to the full packet until you leave Hungary and get your forms certified by Customs when you land. Then, mail in your envelope and wait forever for your refund.

Two wrinkles: You must get your forms certified by Customs within 90 days of the purchase showing that it is leaving the country, and you must mail in your forms within 183 days of the date of export certification on the refund claim form. We have never found this to be any significant savings since there is a “service charge” for the service. Unless you are making grandiose purchases, you may want to save your time and energy for other things. For further information, contact Global Refund (Innova-Invest Pénzügyi Rt.), Budapest, IV. Ferenciek tere 10. (00 36 1 411-0157; fax : 00 36 1 411-0159; www.globalrefund.com).

Shipping & Customs

You can ship a box to yourself from any post office, but the rules on packing boxes are as strict as they are arcane. The Hungarian postal authorities prefer that you use one of their official shipping boxes, for sale at all post offices. They’re quite flimsy, however, and have been known to break open in transit.

The Hungarian post does not have a five-star rating on service, but they do rank four stars with misappropriating packages coming and going from the country.

Very few shops will organize shipping for you. Exceptions to this rule include most Herend and Zsolnay porcelain shops, Ajka crystal shops, and certain art galleries, which employ the services of a packing-and-shipping company, Touristpost.

Touristpost offers three kinds of delivery: express, air mail, and surface. The service is not available directly to the public, but functions only through participating contracted shops. You need to consider whether the cost of shipping will still save you money by purchasing your fine porcelain and crystal in Hungary than at home.

Hungarian Customs regulations do not limit the export of noncommercial quantities of most goods, except collectibles. However, the export of some perishable food is regulated, but allowed if acceptable to the receiving country. The limit on wine and spirits is not limited at export if shipped, but may be limited by Customs at your destination. Shipping wine can be prohibitively expensive.