An elegant city divided by the placid flow of the Danube River, you should visit Budapest for its relaxing spas, decadent ruin bars, stunning architecture and hearty food.
Hungary’s capital, Budapest, is situated on the northern side of the country, not far from the Slovakian border.
The central European nation located in the Carpathian Basin shares its frontier with six other States: Austria and Slovenia to the west, Croatia and Serbia to the south, Romania and the Ukraine to the east.
Budapest was not always one compact city. Hilly Buda and flat Pest were, in fact, unified only in 1873 – after 150 years of Ottoman rule – and the city became the co-capital of the powerful Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Arriving in Budapest – transportation
Taxis are not terribly expensive and they’re a comfortable and faster alternative to public transport.
However, the cheapest way to get to the city centre – Belváros in Hungarian – is to take the bus. You can choose either the direct shuttle service, 100E, or the normal bus, 200E.
The prices between the two do differ: the 100E shuttle costs HUF 900 (£2.35/ US $ 3.00), whilst the 200E bus tickets is only HUF 350 (£1.00/ US $ 1.15).
Getting around Budapest
Budapest has an efficient transport system. The easier way to get around is by tram, bus or metro.
A single ticket costs HUF 350 (£0.92 / US $1.20) and allows for a single uninterrupted trip on the whole network. Transfers are only possible on metro lines M1, M2, M3 and M4. The ticket must be validated before the start of the trip.
If you need to take two different means of transport you can opt for a transfer ticket (HUF 530) or even a travelcard, depending on how many times you’re planning to gwtting around using the public transport.
For a complete list of prices, check the official Budapest public transport website.
Visit Budapest – the itinerary
If you have at least a couple of days to visit Budapest on foot, this two-day itinerary is for you.
Both days feature a stop at a spa, good food and a decent amount of exploring, taking into account all the major attractions and sights the city has to offer.
To assist you with the exploration, get yourself a Budapest & Hungary Lonely Planet guide.
The first day will focus on the livelier Pest side of the city.
Start your day on the eastern bank of the placid Danube River. The wealthy splendour of the river-facing Parliament of Budapest fills your eyes with beauty and elegance.
But before we guide you inside the sumptuous building, you need to spend a few moments of silence admiring a moving memorial dedicated to Hungarian Jews.
It’s called “Shoes on the Danube Bank” and it’s in fact a collective piece designed by film director Can Togay and sculptor Gyula Pauer, and consisting of 60 pairs of shoes seemingly abandoned along the river bank.
The memorial recalls a bleak moment in the country’s history when Hungarian Jews were lined up on the edge of the river bank, tied together, shot and thrown in the cold Danube water during the rule of the extreme right Arrow Cross Party in the 1940s.
They were forced to remove their shoes before the execution, hence the inspiration for the memorial.
Visit Budapest – the Hungarian Parliament
Next on your list has to be the Parliament. Built between 1885 and 1902, the building is truly impressive.
Apart from being 268 metres long and 123 metres wide, its total floor space reaches nearly 18,000 sq m with over 700 rooms. It sports a Neo-Gothic exterior but also blends different architectural styles, holds some 40 kilograms of gold used for decorative purposes and provides a safe harbour to Hungary’s most precious treasure: the 12th-century Holy Crown of Saint Stephen.
If you want to hear more impressive numbers regarding the building, the history behind the crown and are intrigued enough to see the lavishly decorated interiors, book a tour here.
The 45-minute guided tour is available in eight languages: Hungarian, English, Spanish, French, German, Hebrew, Italian and Russian. If the tour in your language starts after 11 am, you might want to make a slight change to your itinerary and visit Saint Stephen Basilica – out next stop – first thing first.
Keep in mind that restrictions and social-distancing measures have been imposed due to Covid-19 since the beginning of July. Follow the link above for more info.
Practical info for the Parliament building
Address: Kossuth Lajos tér 1-3, 1055 Hungary
Prices: EEA citizens HUF 3200 (£8.40/US $ 11.00); non-EEA citizens HUF 6400; check the complete price list here.
Opening times: Currently Monday – Sunday 8:00 am – 4:00 pm. Guided tours start at different times. Book here.
A few metres behind the Parliament, it’s Liberty Square (Szabadság tér) and its controversial Antifascist Monument erected in 2014.
Right before setting foot onto the square there used to be the statue of Imre Nagy standing in the middle of a bridge. Nagy was an important figure in the country’s history as the reformist Communist leader of the Hungarian Revolution against the Soviet regime. For his role he was executed in 1958, his statue, as of December 2018, has been moved further up north to Jászai Mari square.
The next two stops are a must if you visit Budapest: first up – just 10 minutes away from Liberty Square – is Saint Stephen’s Basilica.
The neoclassical cathedral with its 96m-high dome contains an important relic known as the Holy Dexter, or the mummified right hand of the revered Saint Stephen (Szent Istvan in Hungarian).
The number 96 holds a symbolical meaning for the Hungarian people and, in fact, buildings can’t be taller than 96 metres. Culture Trip explains why.
Practical info for Saint Stephen Basilica
Address: Szent István tér 1, 1051 Hungary
Prices: Entrance to the Basilica is free (voluntary donation: HUF 200);
Access to the Lookout Tower and the Treasury: Adult HUF 1000; for discounted entrance and guided tours, click here.
Opening times: Mon: 9:00 am – 4:00 pm (5:00 pm organ concert with tickets); Tue – Fri: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm; Sat: 9:00 am – 3:00 pm; Sun: 1:00 pm – 4:30 pm (and National Holidays).
Lookout Tower and Treasury: Mon – Sun: 10:00 am – 5:30 pm (4:30 pm from November until March)
Just before lunch, walk south towards Dohány Street Synagogue (Dohány utcai Zsinagóga), or simply, the Great Synagogue. It’s an apt name considering this is the the largest synagogue in Europe.
There are free tours in different languages that spontaneously sprouts once you walk inside the main hall. Alternatively you can book more comprehensive Jewish Heritage guided tours.
We did enjoy our short, free, educational tour: we learned some interesting facts, such as the atypical church-like features found in the building; we were also reminded of the horrors suffered by the 600.000 Hungarian Jews who were either deported to concentration camps or confined in unlivable ghettos.
Practical info for Dohany Street Synagogue
Opening times: Temporarily closed due to Covid-19
Prices: Adult HUF 5000; Child (6 – 12) HUF 1700
Lunch at Central Food Market
Central Food Market: we recommend a stop here both to try some traditional Hungarian food and to buy traditional products, mainly paprika and pickled vegetables.
Have a gulyás at Fakanal Etterem, literally “Wooden Spoon”. It may seem like a touristic spot at first because of its location right inside the market hall but the place itself is unpretentious, the food is good and the prices reasonable.
It makes it for a good late lunch before heading to our next stop. For more information on what and where to eat in Budapest, read our dedicated post here.
Relax at Széchenyi Thermal Baths
You can’t leave Budapest before having paid a visit here. The oldest spa complex in Europe – dating 1916 – Széchenyi Baths are very popular with tourists and locals alike.
You can rent anything, from swimwear to slippers and swimming cap, but we would recommend to come prepared and already geared up to save time and money. Check the full price list here.
For more detailed info, read our post on the “Best thermal baths in Budapest“.
For dinner you can stop at close-by Bagolyvar Etterem once they reopen. It’s an elegant little restaurant that serves refined Hungarian food and it’s cheaper than its neighbour, Gundel.
Alternatively, you can take the public transport back to the city centre and, either peruse Gozsdu Udvar – a food court located in the Jewish Quarter, offering international food options, – or simply have a salty lángos and a sweet kürtőskalács at Karavan Street Food.
End your day at the most famous ruin bar in Budapest, Szimpla Kert. As you down shots of traditional fruity pálinka or bitter unicum, be mesmerised by the colours around you and the general artsy vibe.
Ruin bars are all the rage in Budapest. Once empty skeletons of run-down industrial buildings, they were turned into hypnotic nightlife venues some 20 years ago.
Kick off your second day by traversing the mighty Széchenyi Chain Bridge (Széchenyi lánchíd).
Once on the other bank of the river, standing tall on the southern side of Clark Adam square is a limestone sculpture resembling a “zero”. This stone marks the point from which all distances from Budapest are measured.
It’s just behind this sculpture that your short descent to Buda Castle will commence. Alternatively you can take the funicular to reach the top of the hill.
The Baroque complex once served as the royal palace; it sits atop Castle Hill and currently houses two museums, the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History museum.
Practical info for the Hungarian National Gallery
Address: Szent György tér 2, 1014 Hungary
Prices: Adult HUF 3200 (£8.40 / US $11.00) For more info, follow this link.
Opening times: Temporary opening hours observed due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Tuesday – Friday 11.00 am – 4.00 pm
Saturday – Sunday 10.00 am – 6.00 pm
Closed on Mondays
If you’re not a museum lover, there’s nothing much for you to do here apart from taking pictures of Pest and the Parliament standing proud on the opposite side of the Danube.
And if you’re looking for the most advantageous point for a great, postcard-like shot of the Parliament, the next stop will make you truly happy.
The Fisherman’s Bastion is a characteristic attraction in Budapest. Its seven turrets evoking the seven Magyar tribes that settled in the Carpathian Basin in 895.
The building vaguely resembles Walt Disney’s logo but it has nothing to do with it.
Practical info for the Fisherman’s Bastion
There’s free entry to all parts of the Fisherman’s Bastion
- any day between October 16 and March 15
- free entry on August 20 the national holiday (don’t miss the Fireworks in Budapest)
- any hour on any day between 8 pm and 9 am (night hours)
If you’re visiting in summer, you will have to pay to access the upper towers or turrets.
Adult Entrance Fee: HUF 1000 (approx. €3.00 /£2.60 /US $ 3.40)
For more info, visit the Fisherman’s Bastion website.
Noteworthy is the Gothic St. Matthias Church just beside the Bastion.
Visit Budapest – the Dobos Torte
A visit to Budapest would not be complete without having tried a slice of the famous Dobos Torte.
An absolute favourite of the country’s beloved Sisi, you can try it right from the place where the Empress herself would eat it.
Ruszwurm Confectionary serves the original Dobos, a sweet, sponge cake layered with chocolate buttercream and topped with crunchy caramel. There are also many other sweet creations to try, including the delicious cream cake (krémes).
Make your way back to the Castle. Walk past it and head toward Gellert hill.
It’s an easy 20-minute ascent along a path that gently zigzags up the north-eastern side of the hill. It leads to the Citadella, a fortification built by the Austrian Habsburgs in 1854.
The building itself is quite impressive but the main reason to climb atop Gellert hill is for the amazing views over both the Buda hills and Pest.
Don’t miss the Liberty Statue on the eastern side of the Citadella. The poignant monument commemorates the Soviet liberation of Hungary from the Nazis during World War Two.
At this point you have two options: you can either descend the hill on the southern side and stop at Gellert Spa or make your way down on the northern side and unwind at Rudas Baths.
Check their websites as the opening hours vary. Be aware that Rudas Baths has dedicated days for men and women. Gellert spa will reopen on 1st September 2020.
During our stay in Budapest we visited Gellert spa. It was a nice experience: albeit smaller than Szechenyi baths, the place has a long history that dates back to the 15th century and mosaic-clad walls that give it character.
Once well-pampered and rejuvenated make your way to Pest. Depending on which baths you’ve chosen you can either cross the Elizabeth bridge (Erzsébet híd) – closer to Rudas baths, – or Liberty bridge (Szabadság híd), found just outside Gellert spa.
For your dinner spot we would recommend Belvarosi Diznotoros. They’re specialized in meat of all sorts, from liver sausages to grilled chicken.
For the vegans and vegetarians once again Lonely Planet has got you covered. Here’s a list of ten restaurants you might like. To optimise your itinerary, in the close proximity of our next and final stop you can find three of the ten recommended restaurants: Napfényes Restaurant, Hummus Bar, Las Vegan’s.
For more on Hungarian food in Budapest, head to our dedicated post.
Conclude your two-day exploration in yet another ruin bar, Instant-Fogas. A wide (1200 sq metres) complex created by the merging of two distinct venues in 2017, the place has a lot to offer: from 7 music floors to 18 bars and more.
Visit Budapest – exploring alternatives
Are you spending an extra day in Budapest? Here’s some of the things you might want to add to your list.
- House of Terror: or Terror Haza, deserves a little bit of your time. Housed in the old Nazis – and later Soviets – headquarters, this museum tells the story of Hungary under the yoke of oppression. It also stands as a memorial to the victims of the terror regimes. Noteworthy is the cellar where you can see a reconstruction of how prisoners were kept and tortured during the ruling of Nazi-sympathiser Arrow Cross Party.
- Hospital in the Rock: at the time of our visit we were forced to skip this place but it featured in many lists of things to do in Budapest. The Hospital was built during WWII inside the natural cave system found under Castle Hill. It served to help soldiers and civilians injured in the American aerial raids.
- Margaret Island: or Margitsziget in Hungarian, is a small island just north of the city centre, splitting the Danube in two branches, Margaret Island comes to life especially in summer with festivals, pools and beach clubs. For more info on what to do on Margaret Island, read what Culture Trip has to say.
- Sisi statues: in our tour of Budapest we’ve bumped in two statues of Sisi, the restless Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary. Born Duchess Elisabeth of Bavaria, she married her cousin Franz Joseph at 17 years of age. Ill-versed with court life she often visited Hungary to find repose and quietude. One of the statues is located on Döbrentei square, on the western bank of the Danube. The other statue is in Pest, right outside Gozsdu Food Court.
- More ruin bars: we could not leave you hanging and hoping for more by only suggesting two ruin bars, so we’ve decided to get help from TimeOut and serve you a list of the 9 best ruin bars in Budapest.