Books Set in Budapest + what to do in Budapest based on each book

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If you’ve spent any time here, you know I like to read books set in the places I am traveling. During the month we stayed in Hungary’s capital, I was lucky enough to read a bunch of books set in Budapest.

I’ve written about the books in the order in which they take place, although I didn’t read them in that order. You probably won’t have the time or desire to dive in the way I did, but I hope you pick one or two of these novels set in Budapest to add to your reading list before or while you travel to this magnificent city — it really does add to the experience.

I’m also adding a suggestion of something to do in Budapest that will hopefully enhance your experience of the book, while the book enhances your experience in Budapest.

As always, please add your suggestions in the comments so we can come up with an even better compilation of Budapest books.


Best Books Set in Budapest

statue of woman holding a parasol and a budapest book titled "Sissi"


The Accidental Empress and Sissi: Empress on Her Own

  • by Allison Pataki
  • Set in the mid through late 19th century, Austria-Hungary

These books of historical fiction tell the story of Elizabeth – Empress of Austria-Hungary and Queen of Hungary.

Sissi, as the beautiful “fairy-queen” was known, is still popular in Budapest and Hungary today. There is the Elizabeth Bridge (Erzsébet híd), Elizabeth Square (Erzsébet tér), and a statue of Sissi in Madách tér, near the busy Kaároly Street, among other tributes in Budapest. She was a popular Empress and you can’t spend time in Budapest without hearing about her.

I quite enjoyed the retelling of Sissi’s life in these well written and well researched novels. They are fiction, of course, but they illustrate a time when monarchs were strong in Europe, and personalize the players. I appreciated having so many names I am familiar with — Napoleon, the Romanovs, Mad King Ludwig, and of course, her husband – Franz Joseph and the other Habsburgs – put into context.

In some ways, Sissi’s life was made for novelization — it was incredible and entertaining. Pataki did a good job of imaging and using historical documents to show the feelings behind these famous rulers. If you like a good story and keen character development with your history, these are the books for you.

What to do in Budapest related to Sissi: Visit the Sissi statue in Madách tér. Take a day trip to Gödöllő and visit the former summer residence of Queen Elisabeth. Known as the “Hungarian Versailles,” Gödöllő is the second-largest Baroque chateau in the world and Sissi’s favorite place. She stays there several times in the books. We came up with some other great day trips from Budapest that you might also like.

(The Accidental Empress) (Sissi)

 


Budapest Noir

  • by Vilmos Kondor
  • Set in 1930s, allied with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany 

 Zsigmond Gordon, a Hungarian reporter, back from the United States, stumbles on a lewd photo in 1930s Budapest. The photo draws him down a trail of political corruption and murder. While the names and places can prove a bit challenging to a non-Hungarian, the 1930s setting draws the reader in and inspired me to do some googling about the times and locations. 

Regardless, Vilmos Kondor, the author, tells a good story well and sets a scene that easy for the mind’s eye to conjure. Street trams, coffee shops, and the misty Danube combine with darkened streets and run-down factories bring the reader into pre-war Budapest. 

The story of a murdered young woman in the Jewish Quarter that police refuse to investigate compels Gordon to sate his own need for answers using his reporters connections in the boxing and crime worlds. 

I found myself unable to stop reading until I’d found the answers as well. It’s a quick, noir read and a great introduction to the geography of the city, but have Google Maps ready to look up the locations, a few of which go by pre-war names that I couldn’t locate without some sleuthing on my own. This actually might be even more fun to read after you’ve arrived in Budapest and get the lay of the land. — Henry from @travelingfilmmaker See his walks around Budapest on his YouTube channel: City Walks.

What to do in Budapest related to Budapest Noir: Take a free walking tour of Budapest to orient yourself to the city. We recommend doing this anyway in our Budapest itinerary.


The Man Who Went Up in Smoke

  • by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, published in 1966
  • Set in the 1960s, Soviet Communism

 This Budapest book is the second in the Martin Beck series by the Swedish couple who are known to be some of the most, if not the most, influential crime-detective writers. They pretty much defined the genre we know today.

Swedish Detective, Martin Beck, is sent to Budapest to find a missing Swedish journalist. In addition to an interesting story, I appreciated the image of Budapest during the 60s. Beck visits a lot of the places a tourist to Budapest would visit and I was able to follow along with his explorations.

Once Beck arrives in Budapest, he has no idea where to start looking for Alf Matsson, but he eventually gets help from a Hungarian policeman. I don’t want to say too much about it, as it is a mystery novel set in Budapest and I’d hate to give away the ending. Worth a read – especially if you are in Budapest or a lover of detective mysteries.

What to Do in Budapest relates to The Man Who Went Up in Smoke: Stroll along the Danube between the Elizabeth and Margaret Bridges. Soak in Palatinus Strand Thermal Baths on Margaret Island, just like Martin Beck. This is a fun thing to do with kids in Budapest, too.


Ballad of the Whiskey Robber

  • by Julian Rubenstein
  • Set in the early 90s, post Communism

 I really enjoyed this true story of Attila Ambrus — the Whiskey Robber. I didn’t know what I was getting into with this book, I just knew I wanted to read a book set in Budapest. About a chapter in, thanks to the footnotes, I realized this was a true story written by an American journalist.

The writing is good and the story is so entertaining that it felt like reading fiction. Along with a concise history of Hungary and Budapest, there are lots of laughs as we follow Attila on his robbery career.

You’ll find yourself rooting for the Whiskey Robber as many Hungarians did in the early 90s when he was known as the most polite of thieves in post-Communist Hungary.

If you are visiting Budapest, as I was when I read this, you’ll be able to follow Attila’s robberies and antics around town and grasp some understanding of what it was like for Budapest to come into its own after years of oppression by Germans and then Soviets.

What to do in Budapest related to Ballad of The Whiskey Robber: Drink whiskey and rob a post office. Just kidding. You could go ice skating if you visit Budapest in winter – Atticus was a professional hockey player in addition to his thieving career. Or roll the dice at the Las Vegas Casino near the Chain Bridge — he loved gambling and this casino was mentioned in the book.


Strangers in Budapest

  • by Jessica Keener
  • Set in the early 90s, post Communism

 This novel set in Budapest got some good reviews, but I didn’t love it. That said, I did enjoy reading about the city just after communism, and what it was like for an American couple to live there.

The story follows neurotic Annie as she grapples with a new culture, makes some half-hearted attempts to help a group of Roma, and looks in on an old man renting her friends’ apartment. Her husband’s job, the reason the came to Budapest, isn’t going well.

The old man, Edward Weiss, is a Jewish American WWII veteran who helped free Hungarian Jews from a Nazi prison camp, has come to Budapest to seek revenge for what he claims is his daughter’s murder.

Annie gets involved with Edward in an attempt to help, but the whole situation goes terribly tragic. Annie is winey and wishy-washy, not the kind of person you can really like or get behind. The plot moves slowly and the ending blows up too quickly.

The upside is that the author does do a good job of showing what Hungary was like just after communism fell.

What to do in Budapest related to Strangers in Budapest: Walk along the Danube “by the river” and cross the Margaret Bridge. Take a run through Margaret Island – or just a stroll with a stop at a café or playground.


close up of door in stone building with Café Gerbeaud sign

Prague: A Novel

  • by Arthur Phillips
  • Set in the early 1990s, post Communism

This is a story of a group of expats who end up in Budapest just after the fall of Communism. They are all looking to get in on something new and just beginning – and they wonder if they should be in Prague instead (hence the title).

Each character has their own reason for being there — to get rich, to reinvent themselves, to reconcile with a brother — and hope that Budapest can do that for them. They meet at the Café Gerbeaud and play a game called “Sincerity,” which is ironic since most of them seem pretty insincere.

The writing is wonderful in this story and along with great character development we get a little history of Hungary.

What to do in Budapest related to Prague: Have coffee and desserts at Café Gerbeaud (Gerbeaud Kávéház) on Vörösmarty tér.


Death in a Budapest Butterfly

  • by Julia Buckley
  • Set in Chicago, present day

Even though this isn’t set in Hungary, I am including it with the other novels set in Budapest, because I learned so much about the Hungarian culture while reading it.

This cozy murder mystery/romance takes place in a Hungarian tea house in a Hungarian neighborhood of Chicago. The location is based on the real Hungarian neighborhood that the author’s grandparents lived in when they immigrated.

When a group of Magyar (Hungarian) women meet at the tea house and one of them is murdered, protagonist Hannah helps the hunky police officer solve the case. Hungarian mythology comes into play when the murder is predicted by the tea leaves Hannah’s grandma read during the event.

The story is a fun read and I especially enjoyed the Hungarian mythology and fairy tales, the descriptions of traditional Hungarian food (you will get hungry reading this), and learning about Hungarian porcelain.

This is supposed to be the first in the Hungarian Tea House Mystery series, so we can look forward to more coming out in the future.

What to do in Budapest related to Death in Budapest Butterfly: Visit the porcelain display in the basement of the Great Market Hall or take a market tour to learn about the three big porcelain producers. We took a Great Market Hall tour and cooking class while in Budapest that tied in nicely with this book and it’s one of the unusual things to do in Budapest.

If you like cozy mysteries, you might also like Death on the Danube: A New Year’s Murder in Budapest.

I haven’t read it, yet, but it looks pretty fun and would be especially great for someone on a river cruise on the Danube. Or, if you are spending New Year’s Eve on one of the famous Danube Cruises. I haven’t done either, but I plan on reading it anyway.


Origin (Robert Langdon Book 5)

  • by Dan Brown
  • Set in present day

This novel by Dan Brown is primarily set in Spain, but there is a rather detailed section in Budapest. In the story, Professor Robert Langdon visits Dohány Street Synagogue, the Chain Bridge, Szimpla Café, and the party district.

In the book, Edmund Kirsch, a future scientist and tech magnate, promises to make a scientific announcement that will overwrite all religions and answer the world’s greatest questions. Unfortunately, he is murdered and Langdon is left to follow the clues and discover what that secret is.

I thought this book was meh, and the ending anti-climactic, but I did like learning about Gaudí and following along with the Budapest locations.

Sidenote: Budapest stood in for locations in Florence and Venice, Italy in the movie, Inferno, based on another of Brown’s books. We read Inferno while in Florence and made a video about the locations in Florence from Inferno.

What to do in Budapest related to Dan Brown Origin: Visit the Szimpla kert ruin bar in Budapest’s Jewish Quarter. Even better, take a tour of the Dohány Street Synagogue and see the “Tree of Life.”


The Grand Budapest Hotel

  • by Wes Anderson and Stephan Zweig
  • Set in fictional Zubrowka (Europe), 1930s

The Grand Budapest Hotel isn’t set in Budapest and it isn’t a book — it’s a movie by Wes Anderson. It was filmed in Germany and based on stories by Austrian Stefan Zweig. The Palace Bristol Hotel in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic was inspiration for the exterior of the Grand Budapest Hotel in the movie.

Even though the country is fictional, Zweig wrote about the late 19th century in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and that inspired the location for the film. Plus, it has “Budapest” in the title.

The comedy-drama about a concierge and his protege at the opulent Grand Budapest Hotel is a great story. And, like all Wes Anderson films, it is so aesthetically pleasing to watch.

We watched it while we were in Budapest, so at the very least, it will always be part of our Budapest experience. If you watch it in Budapest and think about all the fancy hotels in the city, it could be part of your experience, too.

What to do in Budapest related to The Grand Budapest Hotel: Have coffee, take a spa, or just hang out in one of the city’s lavish 19th century hotels, such as the New York Palace Hotel, the Danubius Hotel Gellért, or the Corinthia Hotel.


photo of a cart of books with text "books set in Budapest + things to do related to each book

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