Budapest’s Top 5 Parks for Kids

While if you’re on holiday with your family you’re certainly going to be spending a lot of time on the more major sites, parks are great places to get in some playground time and let the kids burn off some energy and sight-seeing boredom. Budapest has a number of great public parks, and here are the five greatest for kids.

Szabadsag ter (Freedom Square – pronounced: Sa-bahd-shahg ter)

  • The Skinny: Great central location, decent playgrounds, wonderful fountain, good restaurant options nearby.

Karolyi Kert (Karolyi Garden – pronounced Ka-roy Kehrt)

  • The Skinny: A quiet, shady park with large playgrounds and several good restaurants in the neighborhood.

Margit Sziget (Margaret Island – pronounced Mar-geet Si-get)

  • The Skinny: A large island in the middle of the Danube, with a very extensive playground, a small zoo, lots of trees and open spaces, and one very good sit-down restaurant.

Kopaszi Gat (pronounced Ko-pas-si Gaht)

  • The Skinny: A lovely narrow peninsula with the Danube on one side and a protected bay on the other. Cleaner and better-maintained than most other Budapest parks. Loads of activities and good restaurants. Somewhat difficult to get to.

The Budapest Zoo

  • The Skinny: A surprisingly high-quality zoo in a peaceful garden setting, with good playgrounds and picnic spots. One good café and one very good restaurant.

Szabadsag ter (Freedom Square – pronounced: Sa-bahd-shahg ter)

Szabadsag ter playground, with the MTV building in the background

Szabadsag ter, until a few years ago a rundown patch of weeds brimming with dog poo and broken bottles, has been completely renewed and is now a great park.

One of its main advantages is its location right in the city center, near the Basilica, Parliament, and the newly-pedestrianized Zrinyi utca. It has an interactive fountain that is marvelous on hot summer days – you may want to bring along the kids’ swimsuits or at least a change of clothes. There are two playgrounds on either side of the park as you face it with your back to the fountain – both are quite good but not superlative.

There are a number of lovely historic buildings surrounding the park, including the Hungarian National Bank building, the headquarters of MTV (Magyar Televisio), the Hungarian national television stations and the focal  point of some of the worst rioting in 2006, the US Embassy, and the old Hungarian Post Office Savings Bank.

Another advantage of the park is that there are some very good restaurant options nearby.  If you’re dying for some authentic  Mexican food, then Iguana, on Zoltan utca 16, is not the place for you. Consistently mediocre (if you’re at all into real Mexican food or even good Tex-Mex), Iguana at least offers all the reassuring favorites and does them, if not outstandingly, at least competently.

A better option is Momotaro Ramen at Szechenyi utca 16, just up the street from the park across Nador utca. Despite being named after a Japanese folk hero, the cuisine is Chinese. Try the honey pork or the shredded sesame beef.

Oktober 6 utca, which leads away from the fountain toward the Bazilika, has a couple of good options. Hummus Bar, at Oktober 6 utca  19, has great vegetarian dishes as well as meatier offerings – I highly recommend the kebab laffa wrap.

If you’re angling for a more authentic Hungarian meal, try Kisharang Etkezde at Oktober 6 utca 17, which has traditional dishes like stuffed peppers and cabbage. It’s small, often crowded, and much less kid-friendly than the others, but it’s real Hungarian worker-man fare.

If the weather turns ugly there is a small indoor playhouse called Mazsola (raisin)  around the corner from the park at Arany Janos utca 16, which is geared toward children ages 0-4.

Karolyi Kert (Karolyi Garden – pronounced Ka-roy Kehrt)

Karolyi Kert

This lovely, leafy park is tucked away at the corner of Ferenczy Istvan utca and Magyar utca, two blocks from the Astoria Metro stop. Clean and well-maintained, it has large play areas with good-quality equipment, a massive sandbox, a fountain and lots of flowers. Despite being right in central Pest, it is a quiet and tranquil spot. Once the private garden of the adjoining Karolyi mansion (now the Petofi Literary Museum), towering centuries-old honey locust, chestnut, and silver poplar trees provide plenty of shade.

When lunchtime rolls around, you can pop around the corner to the Karolyi Restaurant, housed in the courtyard of the restored Karolyi mansion. It’s on Karolyi Mihaly ucta 16. The outdoor courtyard setting is perfect for the kids – a safe place for them to run around while waiting for the food to come.  It serves traditional Hungarian dishes as well as contemporary international cuisine at reasonable prices.

The partially-pedestrianized (busses and taxis are still allowed) Karolyi utca has a pretty church facing the square, and the kids can splash in the water that burbles up from the street-level fountains. There are a number of restaurant options nearby. If the little ones are clamoring for pizza and pasta, Tratorria Trinacria, across the street from Karolyi Restaurant, has very good food. Eat inside, as the buses hurtling past the outside tables spew exhaust and are a constant hazard for kids who aren’t strapped into a seat.

A bit farther down the road, on the corner of Karolyi utca and Iranyi utca, is the lovingly-restored Central Coffee House. More upscale and correspondingly pricier, it is still absolutely worth a visit as one of the most beautiful and historically significant coffee houses in the city.

Margit Sziget (Margaret Island – pronounced Mar-geet Si-get)

Flower gardens on Margit Sziget

Parting the Danube like the prow of a great green ship, Margit Sziget is a great place to spend the day with the kids. Connected to the shore by two bridges, one at the northern end and one at the southern, the island is easily accessible either by tram or on foot.

If you are entering the island from Margit Hid (Margaret Bridge), and most people do, follow the main road through the island and you will soon come to a marvelous playground on the left.  It has some interesting and unusual equipment, and those old-school style swings with the really high crossbars and long chains that allow for a massive arc. These are the kind of swings I grew up with, the kind that invite kids to leap off at the apex of their swing and break an ankle. Your little ones should probably be discouraged from doing so.

The rest of the island consists of tree-shaded paths, extensive flower beds, and wide playing fields great for picnicking. Near the southern tip of the island there is a musical fountain to watch and dip your toes in. There is also a small (very small) zoo with deer and ducks and other birds that may be of interest to your kids about midway on the island, on the right hand side coming from Margit Hid. A good way to tour the island is with one of the four-wheeled ‘bringo’ carts available for rent – you pedal and the kids sit in safe seats up front. You’ll find them in the roundabout as you get onto the island, as well as at the bike rental place you’ll pass on the way to the playground. Or, for older kids, you can also rent traditional bikes.

If the searing Budapest summer heat is getting to be too much, the largest pool complex in the city, Palatinus Strand, is located on the island. It has a wave pool, a water slide, loads of kids’ pools, as well as warm thermal baths. Prices in 2012 are 2400 HUF (about $12) for adults, 1500 HUF (about $7.50) for children. You can rent sun lounges for next to nothing and make a home base on one of the broad swathes of grass. There can be a certain soft-porny feel to the place, particularly in the afternoon, with a fair amount toplessness, teeny thongs, and dodgy guys filming silicone girls jogging and jiggling slow-mo in shallow water. Food at the pools can best be described as county fairish – fried dough, hot dogs, and sketchy hamburgers, but there is one sit-down restaurant with a simple but decent menu.

At the northern end of the island (if you make it that far) you’ll find a small Japanese garden with two diminutive ponds connected by a narrow stream. The kids might enjoy the frogs, turtles, and fish that call the place home, but otherwise it is, while pleasant enough, not of tremendous interest.

While there are a large number of places to grab a bite on Margit Sziget, the only really good sit-down restaurant is Holdudvar. It is close to the entrance to the island, on the main footpath that runs down the island’s center.  It serves excellent food at very reasonable prices, and is extremely kid-friendly. The outdoor portion of the restaurant is in a courtyard where the kids can wander safely, and behind that is a grassy lawn where they can kick a ball around or simply run. The entire space is enclosed by a wall so there is no chance of them running off.  Highly recommended.

Kopaszi Gat (pronounced Ko-pas-si Gaht)

The tip of Kopaszi Gat peninsula

Originally built in the 19th century to protect the nearby factories from devastating flooding, the park is a thin finger of land pointing south with the flow of the Danube, creating a calm protected bay popular for kayaking. Most of the factories are now defunct but still standing, which far from detracting from the natural setting somehow adds a funky, post-industrial feel. Some distance outside the city center and without tremendously convenient public transportation to get there (see the “Getting There” section), this park is more difficult to access than the others, but definitely worth a visit.

The peninsula has several  advantages. One, the fact that it’s nearly surrounded by water means that on scorching summer days it tends to be cooler and breezier than other city parks. Two, aside from the usual playground, it has more activities on offer. There’s a broad sandy beach for the kids to build castles on and splash in the shallow water. (Although there is officially no swimming allowed, people do anyway, and although I probably wouldn’t drink the stuff, the water is certainly clean enough for wading.) There are sweeping swathes of grass for  ball games, and as no dogs are allowed in the park, that grass isn’t dotted with dog dookie as it is in many other public spaces in the city. (In fact, you’ll see signs saying “Fűre lépni szabad!”, meaning walking on the grass is allowed, a twist on signs indicating “Fűre lépni tilos” –  It is Forbidden to Walk on the Grass – that you find at many other Budapest parks.) The bay side of the peninsula has a coarse, gravelly shoreline where your kids, it they’re anything like mine, can spend a seemingly inordinate amount of time simply pitching stones in the water. There is a sailing school where kids and parents can take a lesson on the protected bay. There are ducks to feed, and if you keep your eyes open you’re likely to spot lizards scuttling in the bushes, seagulls and shorebirds soaring along the river, even the occasional snake searching the shallow water for small fish.  If the weather turns sour or if it’s just too hot to be outside, there is an excellent indoor playhouse, Kolyok Obol, where parents can grab a bite and a coffee either inside or out on the terrace while the children play in a safe and chaperoned environment.

Another tremendous advantage of Kopaszi Gat is that there are a number of very good, and very kid-friendly, restaurants there. Indeed, all of the park’s restaurants seem to be vying with each other to offer play areas and entertainment for children.

The first recommended one that you’ll come to is the newly-opened Veranda Pizza and Pasta, which has lots of outdoor seating directly adjacent to a large grassy lawn for the kids. The food is excellent, the prices reasonable, and on the weekends it has clowns and kids’ activities in the small outdoor play area.

A bit farther along is Le Bistro, which serves international food in a slightly more upscale atmosphere. The food is quite good and the terrace on the bay lovely, but service can be spotty and it seems to cater to a more stylish and somewhat silicone crowd.

A better spot for the kids is Café Ponvaregeny, which bills itself as a coffee house, restaurant, and sailing school. It has a front terrace on the main walkway and a back terrace overlooking the bay. You’ll probably end up on the front terrace, as that is where the play area for the kids is located. There is a small table and chairs, a huge toy chest, and often a selection of costumes for the kids to try on.  The well-executed menu has traditional Hungarian dishes as well as international cuisine, and the children’s menu is ridiculously inexpensive. If you’re feeling adventurous, the sailing school can arrange for a customized lesson and a sail around the bay.

Just down the path is the charming Fruska Picnic and Bistro, also with a small children’s play area and terraces both on the path and in the back overlooking the bay. They turn very nice food out of the miniscule kitchen, and perhaps best of all will arrange picnic baskets for you to take anywhere you like in the park. We’re not talking brown bags here, but elegant and well-appointed baskets with everything you need for a truly civilized picnic experience.

The Budapest Zoo 

White stork at the zoo

While strictly speaking of course not a park per se, the zoo is a surprisingly good and one of the nicest green spaces in the city. The Budapest Zoo and Botanical Gardens was opened in 1866, making it one of the world’s oldest zoos, and many of the buildings are splendid examples of Art Nouveau style.

Kids generally love zoos, of course, but apart from the usual attractions of animals on display, there are two good playgrounds, one with a view of the African Savannah enclosures, and a slightly smaller one where your kids can watch mandrills going about their apish business while rocking on the springy rides or going down the slide.

To the left of the entrance there is a large pond with fish, turtles, abundant bird life including pelicans, grey herons, cormorants, gulls, storks and ducks. Interestingly, many of the birds are wild native species, free to come and go as they please, and you’ll often see them flying off to spend the day at the Danube. Across from the large pond there is a smaller one, and if you follow the path you’ll come to a small bamboo pavilion that’s a perfect picnic spot.

During the summer months the zoo puts on over 20 different programs a day, from petting snakes to tropical storms in the Palm House and Animals in Action at the outdoor theater, so there’s always something for the kids to see and do.

There are two restaurant/cafes actually inside the zoo. The Barlang Etterem (Cave Restaurant) is a self-service cafeteria that is, well, dismal. Avoid it if you can. The much-lauded (and, I feel, exceedingly overrated) Gundel Restaurant operates a café that is attached to the Palm House, but it offers only drinks, cakes, and simple sandwiches. The food is certainly much, much better than the Cave Restaurant, and there is nice outdoor seating overlooking the pond.

There is a restaurant accessible from inside the zoo, called Bagolyvar (pronounced Bag oee var and meaning owl castle). If you pass the small pond opposite the large one, keeping the bonsai display on your left, you will see the entrance.  It’s located in a lovely, rustic building with shaded outdoor terrace seating and a miniature play area. The moderately-priced menu is traditional Hungarian to, according to their website, “evoke the atmosphere of a good, traditional restaurant of the past.” Now here’s a curious thing. While you may certainly enter the restaurant from the zoo, what happens if you go to the restaurant first, then the zoo? In other words, what if you enter the zoo without paying the admission fee? You used to be able to do this openly, but when I got in touch with the restaurant manager to ask if that was still the policy, she was very cagey. Why didn’t I just come in and we’d talk about it? she wrote to me.  I emailed her that I didn’t want to go in to talk about it, I just wanted to know what the deal was. She never replied. I’m quite sure that if you were to eat at the restaurant and then enter the zoo from there no one would say anything, but since admission fees go toward improvements at the zoo and conservation efforts, I’d say it would probably be best to do the right thing.

A Note:  No, Varosliget (City Park) didn’t make the Top 5, and I’ll explain why in another article. Briefly, while there is much to see in Varosliget, there are better places to take your kids.

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