I don’t know about you, but I can’t get a feel for a city until I’ve walked its streets. My favorite thing to do as soon as I arrive in a new city is to take a walking tour…whether it is self-guided or with a professional. Upon arriving in Budapest via train from Vienna, we immediately headed out for an introduction to Budapest walking tour with Context Travel.
Context Travel offers private and small group tours in nearly 40 cities around the world. All their guides are scholars and specialists in their field, so you aren’t going to get any of the BS you might find on less qualified tours. Families with children under 13 need to book a private tour, so we met our guide Szonja on Váci utca on the Pest side of the city for Context’s new offering, Budapest Exploration Kids Tour. After a quick chat about our plans while in Budapest, she was able to customize our tour to cover what we wouldn’t be seeing on our Jewish history tour of Budapest or exploring Buda on our own.
For me, the benefit of taking a guided tour isn’t just learning about what you are seeing, but also chatting with locals to learn more about what life is really like. Szonja offered a really interesting perspective because not only was she a professor at the University, but she has also spent time in the United States and Russia. This background led us to some really interesting discussions about politics, religion, and life in Budapest. Of course, she was also able to give us some great tips (like not to trust the taxis) about getting around the city and things to look for when we were on our own.
Want local tips and personalized advice for your trip to Budapest? Connect with Attila from Go Ask A Local! Attila is a born and raised Budapest resident and local guide who’s available for trip planning consultations done over Zoom.
Context Travel Budapest Walking Tour Review
Note: Our Budapest walking tour was hosted by Context Travel for purposes of this review. All opinions are my own.
Trying to provide an overview of Budapest in just three hours is a nearly impossible job with over 2,000 years of history. Yet somehow we came away with a decent understanding of the major events in that timeline, we visited some of the most important sites in Pest, and we got a sense of what modern Budapest is like — good job Szonja!
The Hungarian empire really started in 896 when seven tribes arrived on horses from Asia and settled on the trade route along the Danube River. Today you see a tribute to 896 in the Parliament Building and St Stephens Cathedral (the dome is 96 meters high and so is Parliament.) Although the Pope granted Hungary a crown in 1000, a few centuries later began a series of foreign occupations, starting with 150 years of Ottoman rule in the 16th century.
Then the Habsburgs drove out the Turks to begin an occupation of their own. After the 1848 War of Independence, the Habsburgs granted semi-independence and formed the Austro-Hungarian Empire with two separate countries, two capitals, and Parliaments. In doing so, they united the three separate towns into one city of Budapest in 1873. If you walk around the city, you may see buildings that remind you of Vienna, and that was done with purpose. Walking through Pest, we saw a mix of classical, Art Nouveau, and Tiffany-style, but also evidence of Hungarian arts in tulips, roses, and their unique, colorful tilework.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral
One of our first official stops along the tour was a St. Stephen’s Cathedral, which was built in 1838 and took 70 years to build. St. Stephen was the first King of Hungary and it is his likeness that you see on the cathedral — not Jesus. A stop inside is definitely a must when visiting Budapest. One interesting (although a bit gruesome) sight to see is in the Szent Jobb Chapel, where you will find what is claimed to be St. Stephen’s right hand. If you have the time, you can also climb 364 steps up to the Dome observation deck.
Since we were taking a Jewish tour a couple of days later, we skipped the Synagogue and the Shoe Memorial, but we still stopped at quite a few monuments and memorials along the route. It really surprised me how many monuments there are in Budapest…and this isn’t even counting Memento Park with all the old Communist statues.
Learning about all these monuments is really where the conversation got interesting. First, there is the Memorial to the Victims of the German Invasion, which tries to rewrite history and denies Hungary’s role in the Holocaust. Interestingly, Hungarians have protested this ugly and inaccurate monument with a touching memorial of their own, showcasing letters, suitcases, and personal possessions from Holocaust victims.
It was also fascinating to learn how much Ronald Reagan is revered as the defeater of Communism. For many of these monuments, we would have walked right on by without having a clue about their meaning and the inherent symbolism.
A Budapest walking tour would not be complete without a stop by the Hungarian Parliament building. Modeled after the English Parliament, this building is beautiful from every angle (especially from the river at night!) We didn’t get to go inside, for that you will need to book an English-speaking tour at least a few months in advance.
From Parliament, we took a tram along the river to the Central Market, the largest food market in Budapest. The tile roof of the beautiful structure is a classic example of Hungarian tilework. Inside are two floors of food stalls and handicrafts. In addition to meats, vegetables, and other food staples, you can also find many Hungarian specialties. Just make sure you bring cash because most don’t accept credit cards.
We ended our tour at the market, with clear instructions on how to find our way back to our hotel via tram or walking. Szonja also gave us some great tips on what to look for in Matthias church, how to get up to Buda Castle, and what else to do in the city.
A Budapest walking tour with Context Travel is for those that really want to learn the history of the city and Hungary. Even though our tour was geared toward families, it is still best suited for children that enjoy history and have the attention span to handle some standing still and listening. I would recommend it for those 10 and up, depending on the child.
A three-hour Intro to Pest private tour is $230 or $53 per person for small group tours (children must be 13 or older.)