Slovenia: A 7 Day Hiking and Eating Itinerary


Everyone knows Switzerland is beautiful but Slovenia might be the most beautiful country you’ve never heard of.   Slovenia's tourism industry was re-birthed only 25 years ago when it gained independence from the former socialist Yugoslavia.   

If my pictures don’t do it justice, consider the chance of beauty in a country where 55% of it is covered by forests making it one of the greenest countries in the world.  Bordered by its well-known neighbors - Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia - Slovenia got a heaping serving of big mountains, enough Mediterranean coastline to be meaningful, and more than 260 waterfalls.  All contained in an area roughly the size of Massachusetts.   And with a population of just over 2 million people, there is plenty of room to spread out.  It’s enough to make you say ahhhhhhhhhhh and for no one to hear how loudly you say it.


I’m guessing you’ve never been there since of the 4.3 million tourists to Slovenia in 2016 only 2% of them were from North America.  Tourism has been rising steadily since 2012 but most of that has come from visitors within Europe.  However that trend is now changing.  This summer Croatia was crushed with tourists who were avoiding other destinations in Europe due to terrorism fears in Greece, Italy and Turkey, and that increased volume spilled over to Slovenia.  We heard a number of people tell us that it was their busiest summer on record.  So my advice is to "Just Do It" before the secret is fully out.


Slovenia also has a vibrant food and wine scene.   Travel and Leisure's story called "Why Slovenia Has Become One of Europe's Best Food Destinations" is an interesting read.   Part of that reputation is likely because the Slovenian people are very open to other cultures and they are proud to take inspiration and ingredients from their Italian and Austrian neighbors.    While nature and fresh air has been the cornerstone of Slovenia’s tourist draw, it’s homegrown red and white wines (90% of which are consumed in country) and inventive cooking have been creating a good deal of international buzz.


So with outdoor activity and good eating as our dual mission, we spent a week in Slovenia in mid-October (for our school Half Term Break.)  We crafted an itinerary that had us touch down in four different locations with roughly two days in each spot.  Here’s where we went and did and what we might recommend if you were to do the same.   The country so exceeded our expectations that we have an itch to go back for a second trip to cover some areas we missed like the Southwest wine region and the Soca River valley. 

Day 1: Ljubljana

We started our trip in the capital city of Ljubljana.   We flew from London Stansted on easyJet to Ljubljana airport.    EasyJet is our least favorite airline but for £75 per person round trip, they are hard to pass up.   For this trip, easyJet was unusually hassle free and the arrival, rental car pickup and 30 minute drive into the city was easier than many commutes in LA.

You actually don’t need a car in Ljubljana which is completely manageable on foot but it was easier to pick it up and park it since we were only spending 24 hours in the city.  With a population of less than 300,000, Ljubljana is a charming town along a river with a castle on a hill and green space in every direction.  It’s picturesque and lovely and you’ll feel like you are in a storybook (in a good way) but you don’t need more than a day to see it all.  I know this to be true because I, being hopelessly directionally challenged, never get lost.  


We stayed at the boutique hotel Hotel Cubo which I would highly recommend.   We got a double room with an interconnecting junior suite for the four of us with breakfast included.   There are cheaper options but the location and view from the third floor was great and nothing says “welcome to vacation” quite like a honeymoon circular bed.  

One of the first things we discovered in Slovenia is that like the Dutch, the Slovenians almost to a person speak very good English. English is the first foreign language they learn in primary school followed by German or Italian depending where in Slovenia they live.   It’s the default language spoken with even the European tourists.  As the guy at the Hotel Cubo desk told us, “In a country of 2 million people, to survive we need English.”    We found this to be true everywhere we traveled and it obviously made for easier communication.  


We decided to splurge on our first night in Slovenia so I booked a reservation ten days before our trip at one of the city’s current top five restaurants, Monstera Bistro.  Unimpressive from an ambiance standpoint, the contemporary but casual bistro is a destination place for a true foodie experience.   On weekends only they offer a 5 or 7 course tasting menu for dinner.  We did the 5 course tasting menu which started with a rye cracker with marinated anchovy and pork, a ceviche-like shrimp dish with dehydrated carrots, beef carpaccio, broccoli three ways, and venison with black currant reduction.  The boys liked everything as much as we did but as these gastro restaurants sometimes go, we did find our way towards ice cream afterwards to “top up.” 

The next day we had lunch at the Pivo (Beer)& Burger Fest that was going on in the center of town.  Unlike German festivals where every brat and curry wurst is basically the same because the point is more about the festival than the food,  this festival in Slovenia was totally about unique craft beers and very unusual burger creations.  Last minute intel helped us dodge the horse burger.  We just couldn’t.  I went for a (confirmed beef) unagi burger that looked better than it tasted but my Human Fish pale ale made up for the miss.   The boys had better burger luck. 


Much to my husband’s delight, the Slovenians embrace their reputation as the environmental capital of Europe.  It was demonstrated to us not only by having well-marked rubbish and recycling bins at the festival but they also had staff at each station to insure the protocol was followed.  With the trash police's eyes on me,  I found the correct food waste bin for the unagi burger.

Day 2 and 3: The Savinjske Alps

Our next destination was in the small village town of Luce at the base of the Kamnisko Savinjske Alps.   This was the “off the beaten track” portion of our trip.   If truth be told I picked this area because I had read about a guest house called Hisa Radhua but we found this area to be as gorgeous, if not more, than the more popular destinations.


Lodging and Eating

Hisa Raduha is a boutique family-run guest house and restaurant set in a small village on a river.  It has been in the family for five generations and started first receiving guests in 1875.  That tradition along with the modernization of an old barn, hayrack and tree houses as guest quarters – each with their own hot tub – makes it a romantic weekend destination spot for people coming from Ljubljana. 

The highlight at Hisa Raduha is their gastronomic four course dinners prepared by the current owner Martina with help from her husband and daughter.  Hisa Raduha was voted one of the top 5 regional restaurants in Slovenia in 2017.  The dining room which feels more like someone’s home than a restaurant only seats 20 people and it was booked full both nights we were there (even in shoulder season.)   Slovenian wines are paired with the locally sourced dinners and given the family run operation element, service is slow but warm.  Our first night we had black risotto with vegetables and trout, apple soup,  “paper” pork with leek sauce and chestnut pie.   It is simple food prepared so well that you have to keep from licking your plate.  It is no wonder this tiny restaurant in the middle of nowhere is getting a lot of attention.   (Note: While our kids were old enough to enjoy it, it’s more a couples rather than family guest house.)

 Hike #1


Our first hike was in the Logarska Dolina valley, one of the three valleys in the Savinjske Alps and one of Europe's most beautiful alpine glacial valleys.   A la the USA park system, we paid a small fee to enter the Logarska Valley National Park and drove to the end of the road.   We hiked up to Slovenia 's second highest waterfall (Slap Rinka) then up past the treeline and up as far as we could go before rock climbing was our only option.   The boys discovered they very much like straight up/straight down hikes whereas my knees and ankles were less sure.  This hike was also the first but not last time a local, noting our American accent, proudly mentioned First Lady Melania Trump (who is from Slovenia.)

Hike #2


Our second hike was out of another valley, Robanov Kot, which is not a national park but is protected land with a few working mountain farms.  We parked at the last mountain farm and then climbed 3 miles and 3,000 feet, through steep alpine sections and along ridge lines, to finish on the ridge of Mt. Strelovec where we also got to sign the registry.  At the summit we were treated to an unbelievable 360 degree view of both the Robanov Kot and Logarska Dolina valleys.  We saw only one other person on the trail which speaks to how much of a hidden gem this valley is.  

Day 4 and 5: Lake Bohinj


Our next destination was Lake Bohinj which was was less than a 2.5 hour drive.  Lake Bled, Slovenia's most iconic tourist attraction with a lake, castle and church, was in route to Lake Bohinj.  Lake Bled is beautiful but with it's proximity to the motorway and easy access from Ljubljana, the area was more built up than I expected.  Lake Bohinj on the other hand is surrounded by a national park, less a tourist attraction and more of an outdoor recreation area.   Home to what looked like a number of large camps, Lake Bohinj has all the outdoor activities: hiking, cycling, rowing, kayaking, canoeing, rope courses, rock climbing, etc.

Lodging and Eating  

Changing it up, we stayed at a self-catering apartment called Alpik Apartments in Ukanc, a small recreational community at the Southwest corner of Lake Bohinj. We were the only lodgers the nights we were there.  The apartments (of various sizes) are simple, clean, and cozy. It was a great base camp and groceries were only 10 minutes away in the main town of Lake Bohinj called Ribcev Laz.  

There were only two restaurants in Ukanc which made our two dinners easy to decide on.  Though a departure from our fancier eating earlier in the week, traditional Slovenian food is actually quite nice.  We had trout from the Lake and beef medallion cooked on the "Green Egg" (who knew the Green Egg had found distribution in Slovenia!) with local porcini mushrooms at Gostice Erlah.  Better yet was the jovial waiter Marco who sang Slovenia's praises and told us this had been the busiest summer in the restaurant's 24 years. 

Hike #3


After two hikes with a lot of elevation gain, the boys were kind enough to oblige me with a flat hike from the apartment and around Lake Bohinj.   Bohinj is enormous, warm during the summer due to it not being very deep, home to ten types of fish, and not lined with any holiday homes.  What started as a meander around the lake on a well-groomed trail somehow turned into a duathlon day where we rented bikes and ended up walking/riding 20 miles on our “rest day.”  We rented cruiser bikes for 1.5 hours from AlpinSport in Ribcev Laz to do a loop around the valley that takes you through some traditional towns and meadows.  Highly recommend but probably only for older children as there are some sections along curvy two lane roads.    

Hike #4

Our fourth hike was climbing again but this time in the Triglav National Park where we did a 7 mile hut to hut alpine hike.  We drove to the highest trailhead in the park and did a couple of trails that took us through rocky trails and meadows.  The huts were closed for the season but it is also known as the “cheese route” as the huts serve local mountain cheeses.  We called it the “Marco Supper Club hike” as we saw two groups we had seen the night before at Marco's restaurant.

Day 6 and 7: Kranjska Gora

It’s an easy 1.5 hour drive from Lake Bohinj to Kransjka Gora, the cute village skiing resort at the foot of the other side of the Triglav National Park.  In addition to being a fantastic fall hiking spot, Kransjka Gora is best known as the destination in Slovenia for skiing and they are proud to have hosted the World Cup ski jumping championship for many years.

Lodging and Eating

The Skipass Hotel is another family run, boutique hotel but this one was built only 5 years ago. It's a 10 room/suites, modern, and very comfortable hotel run by a ski-loving family who started a travel business in Kransjka Gora 10 years before they opened the hotel. We aren’t skiers but Kranjska Gora is apparently the cheapest resort in Europe for skiing and roughly half the cost of a similar trip to Switzerland. 

Like Hisa Raduha the hotel also has an excellent restaurant that is run by one of Slovenia's best young chefs.  It's a fine dining kind of experience where as Hisa Raduha is more like being in some one's home.   Offering a set chef's menu, a set Slovenian menu, a set Italian menu, a set Austrian menu or ala carte mash up of the individual dishes, so good was the food that we ate both dinners at the restaurant.

Hike #5


When we go flat, we go long.  For our fifth hike we did 10 miles following a river valley from the hotel to a mountain hut.  The hut (which was open) is the base camp to the start of a climb of two of the biggest peaks in the area.  Though mostly flat, you had a feeling of being up close to the peaks.

Hike #6


For our last hike we drove from Kranjska Gora to Vrsic Pass along a well-known road with 24 marked hairpin turns on cobblestones.  The road which is only open  7 months out of the year is also known as the Russian Road because over 10,000 Russian prisoners of war built it during WW1.  Unlike all our other hikes where we felt like we had the mountains to ourselves, this was a festive hike where we saw streams of people of all ages on the trails enjoying one of the last beautiful weekends in October.  Cars in the parking lot had license plates from Slovenia, Croatia and Italy.  Most of the people were doing the same hike we choose that took you up a high climb, through a saddle and up to a grassy viewpoint that gave you beautiful vistas the entire way.   It was a glorious way to end a week of epic hikes.

Travel Tips:

  • You absolutely need a rental car to get around Slovenia but the roads are good and given that the country is only about the size of the state of Massachusetts, nothing is too far away and so you won’t be wasting precious hours in the car.

  • We flew into Ljubljana which was convenient from London but a local told us that the best value flights to Slovenia are via Venice or Munich.  Who knew?!  International flights to Venice are much cheaper and more frequent.  The Venice airport is outside the city towards Slovenia and only a 2 hour drive to Kranjska Gora.  The Munich airport is only 3 hours away.

  • Given the above point, an interesting way to visit Slovenia would be to make it part of an itinerary that included Venice, Munich, and Salzburg Austria OR going the other direction with an itinerary that included Zagreb, the Croatian coastline and Montenegro. 

  • There is not much information online about specific hiking trails but we would highly recommend purchasing regional hiking maps from KART GRAFIJA (or borrow ours!)  We bought ones for Bohinj and Kranjska Gora from the travel bookstore Stanfords in London which were excellent.   The maps combined with local advice helped us discern how to best select from the many hike options available so no day was wasted.

  • Slovenia is one of those places has something to offer almost any time of year.  High alpine hiking is as we learned fabulous in fall; late spring/early summer would be a great time for low country hiking, river rafting and the wine region; and winter for skiing and alpine sports.

One Tip for Prague

Rick Steves said, “Eastern Europe has been really trendy. Prague is the best-preserved city in the region … and the best beer in Europe lands on your table there for 50 cents.”

When and if you go to Prague, I have one tip and one tip only (assuming you have remembered your camera already!):

Buy this.  The Prague Foodie Map.  It’s a PDF guide of the best eating and drinking in Prague written by true food-loving locals with a Google Map you can download to your phone.

You’ll already have people like Rick Steves and the guide book to tell you to visit the Prague Castle, Charles Bridge, and Old Town Square but you’ll need someone to tell you where to get that 50 cent beer. 

Answer: Lokal.   It’s a pub too with sausage and goulash but really it’s a traditional beer hall with one beer - Pilsner Urquell – on tap.  Leave the little people at home.  This is a place for serious consumption and dirty floors.

You don’t have to be a foodie (so done with that word!) or flush with Czech Koruna (in the EU but not on the Euro) for the Prague Foodie Map to make sense for you.   It’s useful for all palettes and budgets.   You'll want someone to tell you were to get a "Chlebicek" - the classic Czech open-faced sandwich after all the beer (Bistro Sisters) and where to go if you must have tacos.

Answer: Las Adelitas.  It's in a basement and we did not care because it was real Mexican with a salsa bar and jalapenos and a queue to prove it.

The Google Map part of this guide is key.   When you are touring a city it’s much more helpful to see recommended places in map versus list view and where you can set expectations with your traveling companions as to "how much farther."   As a food lover, traveler and marketer, the Prague Foodie Map is one of the most well done travel finds I’ve actually used.  The authors Zuzi and Jan really know the best eats in their city and now how to package it an way that's accessible for users.  I wish this kind of thing was more available in other cities. They also cover shopping but I was less impressed with those recommendations.  (Not exactly sure Prague is a great shopping destination ...)

After our first score at Sansho, an Asian fusion set menu dinner, followed up by lunch at Dish Fine Burger Bistro (where reservations are required even for lunch) we did not detour from Zuzi and Jan’s suggestions.  Our two other excellent dinners were at Cestr, a modern Czech canteen, and Field, an upscale Czech restaurant focusing on local ingredients.   We did other places on the guide for lunches and coffee and were never disappointed but the three places for dinner were all surprising homeruns.  Who even goes to Prague for food?  Now you can!

We traveled to Prague right before Christmas when the Christmas markets were in full effect (as good or better than some in Germany.)  It’s truly a magnificent city and one that you can “do well” in three or four days.   While the hotel options are plentiful, we stayed in the well located and new Hotel UNIC Prague which had great family rooms done up in the color purple and delicious American sized included breakfasts.  There I go again with the food ...

My inlaws are heading to Prague in less than two weeks.  They've already booked their three dinners.  I can be quite persuasive. 

Croatia, Croatia, Croatia

I’ve been hearing about Croatia for years with a steep escalation once we moved to Europe.   The Greek Islands however have stolen my summer heart and without a sailboat we kept putting Croatia off.  Enticed by the promise of warmish weather, we finally decided to visit Croatia in the off season.  Instead of swimming suits we packed our hiking boots for nine days in October.

Croatia has 1100 miles of coastline and as many islands (the legend is that God cried on bare rocks where his tears turned into islands) and so the project of figuring out “How to do Croatia” was a bit like a plodding jog after an undigested lunch.   The travel guides are helpful until the moment that you have compiled two dozen places you want to see and then realize that half of them require ferries – which logically won’t be running in October.  This meant crossing the Southern Dalmatian islands of Vis, Brac and Korcula off our list.  (Glamorous Hvar was already o$$ our list.)

Our best and cheapest flight option was into Zadar and so that became our jumping off point for a driving tour down the Dalmatian Coast.  (Northern Zagreb, on many Best of Europe lists, was also crossed off to make way for a southward journey.)  Always the optimist (and never the driver), I booked our first place on the island of Pag which was conveniently connected to the mainland by a bridge but a not-so-convenient 1 hour 40 minute drive from the airport.  [Take note:  Car renting in Croatia is not at all like car renting in the USA.   In and out efficiency is not their sweet spot.   If you lean towards beating someone to a spot in line, this is absolutely the time to engage those quick twitch muscles.]  


Like a lonely swing set on the edge of nowhere (especially in the dark) is perhaps the first impression you might have of the long, skinny island of Pag with its moonscape, rocky terrain.  The second impression is sheep.  Pag is home to around 8,000 people and three times as many sheep.  If you miss your first photo of sheep, be assured – you’ll be grazed with another.  Roaming the slopes in search of edible herbs like sage, Pag is home to famous Paskisir sheep cheese that is every bit as delicious and earthy as their diet would suggest.   


When you travel off season rates are obviously better which means you might be able to book a place one star higher than you would during peak season.   That advantage allowed us to stay at HOTEL BOŠKINAC, an 11 room family run hotel with gourmet restaurant & winery in a beautiful peaceful setting among vineyards and olive trees.  I’d like to take credit for finding such a gem, but Anthony Bourdain found it first and his word has a way of traveling the blogosphere.  He was also right.  It’s an awesome self-contained place (important when traveling to an area where much has already closed for the year) with wonderful but unfussy service, huge, nicely oriented rooms, a wedding-worthy terrace, and indeed tasty food (octopus carpaccio, roasted lamb, risotto with shrimps, squid and potatoes ) and wine. 

We were Hotel Boskinac’s very last guests of the season though not the loudest.  Credit that to the local dinner guests the night we arrived who were celebrating a 60something birthday party with two guitars and a whole table singing traditional Dalmation music long into the evening.  Not only was the music lovely, but there was something about watching an older group of Croatians who had likely been around for the conflict only thirty years prior and now living in a tourist boom sing every word to every song with an intensity that was mesmerizing.  My family’s sweet Happy Birthday serenade the following evening was meek by comparison but loud enough to wake the kitchen into a special dessert. 


People come to Pag to party.  Often called the Croatian Ibiza, most of the partying radiates around one of the three main beaches near the non-descript town of Novalja.  Even without the crowds (not a soul in fact), it was easy to imagine that the “scene” is more of a draw than the “scenery” as the beaches are relatively small and pebbled.  Call me a snob but I like my beaches with sand and minus the floating party dock.  But, then again, we were here to hike and hike we did.

Hike #1:  The Super Windy Hike

October is the month of bora winds which blow down from the mountains along the eastern Adriatic.   The gusty winds keep fisherman grounded (hence the dinners of squid and octopus which are the only fish that they freeze) and *may* have caused me to bark a few too many inaudible commands to stay away from the edge.  Our first hike was on Metajna, a rocky stone outcropping on the east of the island.  The roughly 3.5 mile rugged coastline hike takes you along four distinct sections:  a long rocky beach, a moonscape rock scramble on a point, a pine forest with small beaches, and a narrow walkway along a rock cliff that ends in a small village.  It’s not a groomed hike with trail signs.  Great for rock climbers. Even great in wind. 

Hike #2:  The “When Can We … Go Skinny Dipping?” Hike

Never suggest the remote possibility of skinny dipping before a hike begins.   It impedes leisurely progress.  Our second hike was on a botanical reserve of olive trees on the northern tip of the island called Lun.  Developed into a reserve by the UN in 2013, the Lun Olive Garden has more than 80,000 olive trees including the oldest olive tree at 1,600 years old.  A 7 km trail runs through the garden – part of which is along coast with great places to picnic and an interior part with some elevation and great views – with a surreal mix of rocky undergrowth, dense groves, and sheep crisscrossing through dry stone wall pens.  It’s absolutely stunning.  On both hikes, we never saw another person.  Had the water temperature been more agreeable (and the begging less relentless), it could have been ideal for skinny dipping.

One of the highlights from our time on Pag was touring and tasting at the Sirana Gligora dairy to see how the Paskisir sheep cheese was made.   Naturally this called for a hazmat suit.  Like so many things during shoulder season with the hives of tourists gone, it ended up being a private tour which meant that we didn’t have to conserve our questions.  At the start of the tour the guide asked Lawton, “Where does milk come from?” to which Lawton replied, “Mom.”  Clearly, we needed the tour and the full airspace for questions.

From the island of Pag we drove down the Dalmation Coast to Croatia’s second largest city, Split.  Instead of the motorway, we took a slower route that hugged the coast which was well worth the time investment.  Packing a picnic lunch is always advised when taking the scenic route.   We’d been advised to stopover in Sibenik on the way down for a few hours but got seriously lost on a tangle of steep streets that seemed to be going everywhere but the medieval centre and sucking all collective will from the car. 

We carried on to Split where we booked an apartment at Divota Apartment Hotel – a scattering of restored stone houses in the center of old town Split near the harbor.  The location could absolutely not be better.  They have apartment configurations for all sizes and budgets and they are wonderfully managed properties.  (We stayed in House 800.)  Highly, highly recommend.

As the second largest city, Split is obviously a year round place that doesn’t shut down for the season.  There is a pride among people from Split as well as a disproportionate number of Olympic athletes.  With its cobblestoned old town and great seafront promenade, like Budapest did, Split was lively and fun and exceeded our expectations.  We did some of the recommended site seeing, challenged ourselves to find above average food (Konoba Marjan, Villa Spiza, Uje Oil Bar, Wine& Cheese Bar Paradox, and Restaurant Dvor were all solid triples) and of course hiked. 


Hike #3:  The Urban Hike in Cute Shoes

A favorite hike you must do in Split is climb Marjan Hill which is located on the city’s peninsula with the city to one side and the sea on the other.  A longer and steeper climb with footpaths most but not all the way, it is advised to ditch the cute shoes in favor of running shoes.  Ballbach shoes that weren’t mine were also found running up Marjan Hill several mornings.

Hike #4:  The Unfortunate Hike to Dinner

Some walks turn into hikes when maps don’t help you anticipate walking the long way around bodies of water in the dark.  Those are never fun on an empty stomach and 15 minutes past your reservation.  Then again, who needs reservations in the off season except the one time you don’t.  So if you want to have dinner at Restaurant Dvor, call a cab and if you want to get a table at Tavern Matejuska, make a reservation.  Thankfully before dinner that night, we finally got our swim in (though with suits on.)

Leaving Split in route to Zadar for one night before our flight home, the plan was to drive into Bosnia-Hercegovina to add another country to the kids expanding list and then either make a second attempt in Sibenik or head for a final hike in Krka National Park.  The Bosnia plan was thwarted when we drove out of our way deep into the hills to a lonely border crossing only to be inexplicably sent away in gruff Croatian (USA citizens don’t need visas and so our passports should have been enough.)  Watching the next car pass through the border in our rear view mirror, our only conclusion was that maybe we needed to pay a bribe.  Honestly, I was a bit relieved as there was something eerie being in a place so desolate and disquieting to read constant reminders about care when walking off trail due to mines left from the Balkan War. 

Hike #5:  The There Could be Snakes Hike

After that, we opted for Krka National Park which was totally the right choice.  Visited by almost 750,000 people a year, the cascading waterfalls of Krka National Park are not to be missed.  You enter the park by car, park and then hike along elevated foot paths.  At the beginning of the hike, you will see signage of the types of flora and fauna found in the habitat and there WILL be pictures of snakes.  This was deeply troubling to some members of our family who shall remain nameless.  Like the eternity of a spiritless basketball game that only turns on in the last two minutes of the game is a hike with someone you love with a phobia who finally releases the death grip in the last hundred meters.

Hike #6:  The Itty Bitty Hike

Zadar is tiny and sleepy and aside from the The Sea Organ and Greeting to the Sun light tiles is an overnight kind of place.  Then again, maybe we were just tired. 


The 10 Best Budapest Surprises

We did the requisite sightseeing of Budapest’s main attractions and came away with a few surprises.


1.  A city still trending.  Walking around Budapest which was recently named “Most Welcoming European City”, it is hard to believe that it was occupied by Soviets when Brett and I were in college.  With the Danube River at the heart of this sprawling yet walkable city, though it has been modernized since destruction in the two world wars and Soviet occupation it is still a city very much in transition. It only takes seeing your first retro60s bus or tram to realize the renewal is not yet done.  (Given the central location of where we stayed, we were able to do everything on foot.)  Against the backdrop of some beautiful architecture and a vibrant music and nightlife scene, trendy shops and organic cafes are popping up next to abandoned buildings on streets like Király Street, also known as Budapest's Design Street.  (One section of Kiraly Street might also be known as the Sex Street and home to the unfortunate Starbucks/KFC combo franchise … so be warned that it’s a mixed use street.)  There is also massive construction going on to pedestrianize the area around the historic Parliament building, all signals that Budapest is rallying to keep their moniker of “Most Welcoming European City.” 


2.  English, ok.   Unlike other large European cities we’ve visited, only 4% of the population in Budapest is foreigners.  With that, we had heard that there wasn’t a lot of English but we found there was actually plenty to get by.  Most of the places we visited and restaurants we ate in were more than ready to cater, and generally quite friendly, to English speakers.   This was a plus since our Hungarian was not good, and the boys French not at all useful.  Brett never even needed to work in his German.


3.  Seriously, it really is cheap!  We expected that Budapest would be cheaper than other places we’ve visited in Europe, but it was even more of a bargain than we expected.  We noticed the rock-bottom prices most with food.  As a data point, a full breakfast for the five of us with freshly squeezed juices and cappuccinos was 35 euros.   Getting there was also ridiculously cheap. Flying Ryan Air, we got round trip airfare for 20 euros (or US$28!) per person.   To compare, that is 20 bucks less than the average price you’d pay for a single game NBA ticket.  (Always adding a basketball reference where I can to win some street cred in dah house.)   There are apparently some very nice hotels in Budapest, but if you are considering the apartment route we found an EXCELLENT modern, super affordable apartment with all the creature comforts you need right in the center of town in between Parliament and the Danube River.  The owner is a young, friendly Hungarian woman who used to work in a 5 star hotel in the US, so she knows service (ie she arranged our transport to and from the airport, had breakfast fixings in the frig for us, etc.)  Her reviews on Airbnb are perfect and for good reason.  Check it out.  

4.  Budaspaaaahhhhh.  This is how little I knew about Budapest before going:  I did not know about their thermal spas.  You should know about them.  Once you do, you’ll be booking a flight.  Geologically perched on some thermal springs, Budapest has over 30 spa-water pools and thermal baths.   We choose to go to Szechenyi Baths, which is the most impressive of the bunch given that it’s both the largest bathing complex in Europe and the one with the deepest and hottest baths.  With three outdoor and fifteen indoor pools all at varying temperatures plus more steam rooms and saunas than you can count, it takes a good couple of hours just to bath hop.  You can see the Turkish influence in the old world architecture which has been safeguarded against commercialism.  With a robust over 60 crowd, some of whom play chess in the corners of one of the outdoor pools, these baths are more about relaxation than water frolicking.  One of the outdoor pools was dubbed the “adventure pool” because it had a whirlpool and several jets.  Naturally, this is where our romping boys spent the majority of their time.


5.  Deep-roasted coffee culture.  Coffee was introduced by the Turks in the 16th century, cultivated during the Habsburg era and evangelized during the 1960s as many cafes converted into eszpresszo bars catering to Western-leaning teens.  At its high point, there were more than 600 cafes.   You’d think with those numbers our odds of finding them would be easy.  We did not.  That’s because rather than walking into one of the many we saw, Brett worked hard combing through local blogs to find the *perfect* coffee spots.  We hiked to several of these spots eagerly only to be disappointed.   By the third letdown, our oldest made this astute observation:  “Dad, there’s a difference between good coffee shops and interesting coffee shops.”  By the last day, we hit on two good ones (found through research of course) worth nothing.  

  • Ecocafe (on Andrassy near the Museum of Terror) serves quality 100% bio/organic coffee and pastries.  With a dozen or so tables, it’s not only good coffee but also a comfortable spot to hang out. 
  • Ozsem (right near our apartment) is an excellent pastry/coffee shop with more than twenty different homemade sweet and savory pastries in various caloric sizes.  More grab & go than sit & linger, but definitely worth a stop if you are near St. Stephen’s Basilica.

6.  Goulash is only the beginning.  Hungarian food is good!  Unlike German food which can be heavy and narrow, Hungarian food is lighter and has a wider range of options (meat, veal, pork, chicken, duck, trout, pike) and flavor profiles (some French and Turkish influences.)   We never had a bad meal, but the following three restaurants are worth going out of your way for.  The first was our favorite and one that Brett found through a food blog.   The second two were recommendations from people who had lived in Budapest. 

  • Café Bouchon – off Andrassy, near Octagon in the 6th (1066 Bp. Zichy Jenő u. 33.)  Café Bouchon is a small neighborhood restaurant with exceptional food and excellent service.  Every dish was carefully explained, they were flexible on portion sizes and they seemed genuinely unfazed by a shrieking baby at the next table.  We ordered roasted pork tenderloin stuffed with green spices, grilled pike perch fillet, veal cutlet, roasted salmon, and grilled beef tenderloin goulash with four different kinds of potation preparations.  All of us ordered full size plates for which we were glad as we all ended our meals in the “clean plate club.”  Make reservations.
  • Ket Szerecsen – also off Andrassy in the 6th (Nagymezo u. 14).   This restaurant has an old world feel with a modern take on food.  Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, we had one dinner there and decided to come back for a breakfast.  A sit down eggs-wht-options breakfast is hard to find in Europe, and this one delivered.; The Hungarian Omelet was particularly outstanding.  Note:  They stop serving breakfast at 11am on weekdays and 11:30 on weekends.
  • Menza – also off Andrassy in the 6th (2 Liszt Ferenc ter).  A popular, large very busy restaurants that has a late 80s/early 90s feel with “happening” atmosphere.  Good food and portions sizes though service was a bit slow.  The energetic atmosphere and good value however make up for slower service.

It’s generally recommended to eat on the Pest side rather than the Buda side as there are fewer and more expensive restaurants on the Buda side (Castle District.)  Our most expensive meal was a lunch at the above average Var: a Speiz in the Castle District, and we also heard good things about 21. 

7.  Hungary has hamburgers.  I don’t know if it’s a carryover from the first McDonalds behind the Iron Curtain being in Budapest, but Budapest has hamburgers!  Hamburgers, more than brats, were available on most dinner menus we saw.  They are even served with a delectable brioche bun.  Coming from the US, they won’t necessarily impress or disappoint, but coming from Luxembourg – it’s a hamburger that doesn’t taste weird!  We especially enjoyed a burger spot in the Gozsdu courtyard off Kiraly uta (a covered passageway hotspot) that’s called Spiler. Though Hungary is not known for their craft beers, Spiler also has a decent selection of bottled beers.  (Burger Confession: we went twice.) 

8.  Hipster Hungarians.  Because we were traveling with our kids, we didn’t get the chance to check out the Ruin Pubs that put Budapest on the map as a party city several years ago.  These late hour pubs are typically in the basements of ruined buildings where they serve drinks and snacks and play live music.  You can spot them all over town. Next time.  In terms of shopping, you’ll be happy to know that shopping isn’t limited to Hungarian peasant blouses. Note:  the guidebooks and everyone will tell you that Vaci Utca is the big pedestrian shopping street, but only go if you enjoy vultures trying to lure you into their overpriced restaurants or if you need something at Foot Locker.   Andrassy Utca, their “Champs Elysses”, is however worth a stroll especially at night when the embassies are lit up and Heroes Square is in the distance. Though we just skimmed the hem of shopping in Budapest, a couple of places we read about turned out to be fun stops.

  • Tisza Cipo – Karoly Korut 1.  Unisex leather sports shoes made and only available in Hungary.  Really interesting, iconic looking shoes that have a passionate following.  Unfortunately they didn’t make shoe sizes big enough for Brett (size 13) and Quinn (size 14).     
  • Printa Budapest - Rumbach Sebestyén u. 10. A graphic design concept gallery that is described liked this: “The gallery is dedicated to presenting contemporary serigraphs, drawings, graphics and urban art from upcoming Hungarian and international artists.”  We bought a couple of really cool posters there.
  • Orange Optika – Kiraly Utca 38.  Glasses shop that makes glass frames from vinyl records.  Apparently Elton John ordered some.  They also have a Seattle connection that I wasn't totally able to figure out.  They graciously let the little boys have fun trying on frames for 40 minutes (I know because our teenager was outside clocking us).  Wanting to find something unique from Hungary to bring back, I opted for a vinyl record pair of sunglasses.

9.  Decent red wine.  The French and Italian get all the attention for their red wines, but Hungary makes a number of red wines.  We especially liked some of the dry Pinots as a nice change of pace to the full-bodied stuff we’ve been drinking from our Italy adventures.

10.  House of Terror.  One of the most highly recommended museum stops we got was to visit the Terror Museum – a tribute to WWII/Soviet Occupation.  Given the subject matter and a seven year old with a particularly sensitive soul, Lawton and I hung out at a coffee shop (the nearly Ecocafe mentioned above) while Brett took the older boys.  They all said it was incredibly powerful and moving, and a must do for anyone coming to Budapest.  Next time…