Going to Budapest, the capital of Hungary? Great plan! Or still wondering about it? Budapest is not a gloomy city, as some people may think. Looking for an affordable city trip with beautiful architecture, a rich cultural history, tasty local food and winding paths that are by far not as explored as most European capitals? Want to try local wines, relax at a spa and party till dawn? Budapest is the right place to be!
Hopefully this first-timer’s guide will inspire you to visit and to enjoy all the fantastic things Budapest has to offer. Let me show you the things that make me come back (at least three times so far). There is simply so much to see and do, one visit is probably not enough, but you got to start somewhere, right?! Lots of free sights and cheap restaurants, so a great city for a budget travelers too!
Buda & Pest
Budapest is actually a merger of two distinct citiesback in 1873: Buda on the western bank of the Danube River, and Pest on the opposite bank (east). The first bridge between the two cities was only built in 1849, illustrating the distinctness of the two places at the time. Nowadays you can still see the differences.
Buda is built on a series of hills, offering fantastic views and obviously wealthy with imperial sights such as Buda Castle. Whereas Pest, on the other side of the river, is flat as a pancake, yet popular, buzzing and bourgeois, with lots of bars, cafés and restaurants. Both have their charm, offering visitors a great mix all together.
The Hungarian Parliament building is a great example of Neo-Gothic architecture. It functions as the seat of the National Assembly of Hungary since more than 100 years. With its 96 meters high dome it is already a fantastic building just to see from the outside, but if you want, on most days it is possible to take a guided tour inside as well. Be careful what you wish for though: there are more than 20 kilometers of stairs and 691 rooms!
Just outside the Hungarian Parliament, do not miss:
- the Kossuth Memorial to honor Hungary’s most admired patriots, and
- the Shoes on the Danube Bank to honor the Jews who were killed in Budapest during World War II.
Gellért Hill (Gellért-hegy)
Next to Fisherman’s bastion, Gellért Hill provides one of the best views of the city. It is quite a climb up, and the Citadel on top is closed for visitors a number of years ago, but for many still a favorite viewpoint (235m). About 150 years ago, there were only vineyards on this hill.
The hill has a dark side too. Gellért Hill was named after Saint Gerard (Hungarian: Gellért), Hungary’s first bishop, who was thrown down the hill and beaten to death during a mass revolt of pagans. In the Middle-Ages the hill was known as meeting point for witches. Take into account 1-3 hours for a visit.
The Danube River (‘Donau’ in Dutch) is right in the middle of Buda and Pest. Make sure you take a river cruise, if possible in the evening when the surrounding buildings are illuminated. Some Hungarian Danube shipping companies have boat rides with a culinary theme, provide wine tastings or beer and cocktails on board. Hungarian wine may not be as famous as French or Spanish wine, but it is not bad at all!
There are several bridges over the Danube River that link Buda and Pest, each with a fascinating tale to tell. The oldest and most famous is the Chain Bridge (Széchenyi Lánczhíd), which was opened for public traffic in 1849. Another nice one is Liberty Bridge, recognizable by its distinctive green color.
Buda Castle (‘burcht’ in Dutch) is the old royal palace and an UNESCO World Heritage Site situated on a plateau. The complex consists of dozens of historical and architecturally valuable buildings, connected by narrow cobblestone streets, alleys and squares. The nearest bus station is Clark Ádám tér and then walk up for about 7-10 min to the castle or take the historical cable train Sikló. Check the opening hours here. Or take a Buda Castle guided tour to learn more about the history.
Fisherman’s Bastion (Halaszbastya)
The Fisherman’s Bastion is officially part of the Buda Castle complex, but deserves to be mentioned separately. This panoramic viewing terrace is probably one of the most visited attractions in Budapest. Not strange because it is beautiful and provides a magnificent view.
The bastion was designed and built between 1895 and 1902 in neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque style and includes seven fairy-tale towers that represent the seven Magyar tribes that settled in the Carpathian Basin in AD895. The name refers to fishermen that had to defend this part of the castle in the early days.
It is hard to miss the bronze statue of Stephen I of Hungary on his horse and the gorgeous Matthias Church with its colorful roof tiles right next to the Fisherman’s Bastion.
Heroes’ Square (Hősök tere)
The most important square of Budapest is quite impressive with its gigantic statues of important leaders in Hungarian history, including those of the seven tribes of Hungary in AD 895 and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Heroes’ Square is located close to Széchenyi thermal bath (see below).
Thermal baths is one of the main highlights Hungary is famous and popular for. According to estimates, there are approximately 1000 natural hot springs and spas in Hungary, of which more than 120 are in Budapest. Aqua therapy is often prescribed by Hungarian doctors as treatment for patients. Nowadays there are even trance spa parties. So there is a reason why Budapest has got the nick name ‘City of Spas’.
The best spas in Budapest are:
- Széchenyi (HUF 3,000 – 6,500)
- Gellert (HUF 2,000 – 16,000)
- Király (HUF 1600 – 6,000)
- Szent-Lukács (HUF 2400 – 4,500)
- Veli Bej at Hotel Csaszar (from HUF 2,800)
- Rudas (HUF 1,900 – 6,500)
- Dandar (HUF 1,400 – 2,600)
Most of these thermal bath houses are more than a century old, for example Széchenyi dates back from 1868. The history of these buildings comes with beautiful features and decoration such as colorful stained glass at Gellert and the neo-baroque style of Széchenyi for example.
However, do not be surprised feeling like stepping back into the 50s when entering a changing room; many are a bit outdated according to western standards. Oh well, you will stay there only shortly anyway.
Good to know
- Go early in the morning (8-11h) or evening to avoid potential crowds
- Check in advance the bath’s opening hours and event calendar
- Bring your own towel, flip-flops and mandatory swim cap (or rent)
- Most baths provide a magnetic bracelet for locker access
- Most baths also offer extra services such as massages, therapy and sauna
- Several baths give discounts to Budapest Card holders (Szent-Lukács), seniors and students
- Some baths have men and women separated, which may depend per day
- Some baths are fully nude, others require swimwear, which may depend per day
- A very few baths are also available for private rental (two persons, for example Gellert)
- Rudas has a rooftop pool with a wonderful view!
During World War II, district VII of Budapest became ghetto where 200,000 Jews were squeezed in a space less than a square mile, in preparation for deportation to death camps. There is a Holocaust Memorial Center that you can visit at Páva utca. Or take a guided tour to learn more.
Europe’s largest synagogue, the Great / Central Synagogue ‘Nagy Zsinagoga’ is located at Dohány utca 2 (‘utca’ means street). Nowadays the Jewish Quarter is all hip and happening with ruin bars, street art and street food (see below ‘Where to eat & drink’).
Margaret Island (Margitsziget)
City trips can be tiring, determined to see (too) many things throughout the city. Take a break at Margaret Island (Hungarian: Margitsziget), the green gem of Budapest where locals hang out, especially during spring and summer. Margaret was the King’s daughter in the 13th century. It’s a bit out of the direction of the other highlights, but right the middle of the Danube River, connected by two bridges: Árpád Bridge (north) and Margareta Bridge (south).
Margaret Island provides a peaceful, 96 acre hideaway with romantic walkways, a rose garden, two musical fountains, Margit-sziget water tower, Palatinus Strandfürdő swimming pool, playgrounds, Szabadtéri Színpad open air theatre and cinema and a small zoo. Do not expect too much of the medieval of the ruins of the Dominican Monastery on the island; only a few pillars and foundations are left. No motorized traffic is allowed on Margaret Island, except some public busses and taxis.
Another pleasant park in Budapest is Városliget including Vajdahunyad Castle, on short walking distance of Heroes’ Sq. In winter time there is a very nice outdoor ice skating rink in the park.
Budapest has quite a long list of museums. The Museum of Fine Arts, the Hungarian National Museum and the Aquincum Museum are worth a visit, especially on a cold or rainy day. The Museum of Applied Arts has the most beautiful green roof. The gorgeous Museum of Contemporary Art Műcsarnok has a great location, right on the edge of Heroes’ Square. Hungarian Agricultural Museum (Magyar Mezogazdasagi) is located inside Vajdahunyad Castle. Budapest also has a few very specific and unique museums, such as the popular Pinball Museum and two (!!) paprika museums.
Other things to see
As mentioned before, there is simply so much to see and to do in Budapest, it is hard to squeeze it all in one visit. There are lots of beautiful buildings that are already an architectural highlight just to see from outside. Some also have tours, entertainment etc. on the inside. Should you have enough time or miracle feet, you could also check out the following sights:
- Saint Stephen’s Basilica
- Memorial to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence (‘the Iron Forest’)
- Magyar Művészeti Akadémia
- Hungarian State Opera House (Magyar Allami Operahaz)
- Pesti Vigado
- Danube Palace
- Gresham Palace (home of Four Seasons Hotel)
- Liberty Square with war memorials
- Parisi Udvar (at The Unbound Collection by Hyatt)
- Postatakarek Bank (Hungarian State Treasury)
- Kamermayer Károly tér (square)
- National Archives of Hungary
- Szilágyi Dezső Square Reformed Church
- Farkasré ‘Wolf’s Meadow’ Cemetery
- Street art all around the city
What to eat
Since a menu in a Hungarian restaurant in Budapest is likely to include many dishes that you do not have a clue what it is, let’s explain that a bit first. Goulash (gulyás) is Hungary’s national dish, a type of soupy stew with beef, carrot, potato, spices and paprika. The Hungarian kitchen is obsessed with paprika, from sausages to deserts, this is a paprika-allergic person’s nightmare. However, their other favorite, lángos, a deep-fried flat bread, does not include paprika, although some may put it on top…
Personally I also like úrós csusza, Hungarian pasta with bacon and cottage cheese. And then there are crêpes filled with veal, stuffed cabbage leaves, all kinds of soups (lentil, sauerkraut, etc.) and mouth-watering, very-difficult-to-resist cakes, like dobos torte and somlói galuska. Strudel (a pastry desert with fruit filling) is also quite a ‘thing’ in Budapest, it originates from Habsburg Empire times. Good luck choosing!
Where to eat & drink
As mentioned before, the Jewish quarter is a great place for both restaurants and bars. Check if there is space at Street Food Karaván. Lots of nice restaurants and bars can be found at Gozsdu Udvar, for example DiVino wine bar or Blue Bird karaoke bar. If you want to try Jewish-Hungarian food, go to Macesz Bistro.
The Jewish Quarter is home of the most wonderful ruin bars, such as Szimpla Kert, Fogas Ház, Instant, Ellátó Kert, Kőleves Kert and Mazel Tov. Mika Kert is also nice! The artistic atmosphere reminded me of some places in Berlin and Tallinn, with its own unique Hungarian twist. Solo travelers will like this Ruin Bar Pub Crawl.
For a good cup of coffee, tea, cake, drinks, lunch or whatever reason you can think of, go to one of the numerous fabulous cafes Budapest has, including New York Café, Café Central, Café Gerbeaud, Gerlóczy Kavehaz Café and/or Ruszwurm Cukraszda.
And let’s not forget about…
- The best goulash soup can be found at Budapest Bistro.
- For a refreshing Hungarian lemonade and lunch or dinner go to Elysée Bistro & Café next to the Parliament.
- If you like people watching while eating delicious food take a seat at Cyrano.
- If the weather is nice, for one of the best terraces in town visit Varosliget Cafe & Restaurant.
- To try the best strudel in town go to First Strudel House of Pest.
- If you are in the mood for a cocktail, go to Rumpus Tiki Bar.
- For drink with a view High Note SkyBar cannot be missed.
- For Italian food, try Millennium Da Pippo.
- Take an exciting Food Tour or Hungarian Cooking Course.
Where to shop
On a girls trip and in the mood for shopping in Budapest? The shop-must-do’s in Budapest:
- Andrássy Avenue with boutiques of big fashion brands like Armani, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Michael Kors and Burberry but also less known stores like Pig Shoes and Street Cakes. The street also contains gorgeous houses and ends at Heroes’ Square.
- Váci Street with especially on the south side nice Hungarian brands, such as Vass (hand-made shoes), Népművészeti Bolt (folk art), Herend (porcelain) and Fovam Central Market Hall.
- Erzsébetváros & Jewish Quarter with cool design shops like The Garden Studio, Printa, Sugar!, Retrock (vintage retro), Bortársaság (wine) and on Sundays the Szimpla Farmers’ Market.
- Malls like WestEnd city center, Mammut, Mom Park and Arena Mall
Where to stay
“Visit Buda but stay in Pest” is what locals would say. If you have a look at the map (bottom), you will probably see why. I would personally recommend to stay at Hotel Nemzeti Budapest – MGallery by Sofitel. I really like staying at this hotel because:
- you get great value for your money (fairly priced)
- it is stylish with stained glass, beautiful decorations and comfy beds
- ideally located near all Pest highlights and the Jewish Quarter around the corner
- the breakfast is good with lots of fresh items and champagne
How to get there & around
There are lots of ways to get around in Budapest, including:
- Public transport by bus, tram and/or metro
- Take a guided tour by bike, rent a bike or Segway
- Uber or local taxi for bad weather and/or late at night
- The Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus is an alternative option.
- You will probably walk a lot too.
Public transport in Budapest is good and easy, just use Google Maps to find your way from A to B. Get a public transportation card for HUF 1650 per day in the purple machine. If you are interested in unlimited access to public transport, free access to two museums and lot of discounts, then make sure you get a Budapest Card (1-5 days, EUR 22-64), super easy!
Metro & Airport
Budapest has three metro lines. Many metro stations are still in their original style including wooden decorations, booths and tiled walls. At Kussuth Lajos ter station, touch the bronze dog’s nose for good luck. Budapest East Railway Station (Keleti pályaudvar) also looks good from the outside. Take tram line 2 that will take you along numerous beautiful buildings and bridges.
Budapest International Airport (BUD) is 30-60 min from the center of Budapest, depending on traffic and your method of transport. European low cost carries such as Ryan Air, Easy Jet and Wizz Air also fly on Budapest. For flight possibilities and ticket prices check Skyscanner. A shuttle to/from the airport costs less than 9 euro and can easily be booked via Viator.
Tip: Hungary still has its own currency called Forint (HUF). Euro cash is not accepted!
Local tour guides can really add something extra to your trip, to learn and see things you would not know about on your own. Or book your activity or entrance ticket in advance to skip the lines. Check out these suggestions.
When to go
Cities like Budapest are best in spring or fall. In spring, the flowers will start to bloom, the parks get lush green and temperatures get pleasant. Early fall the parks get wonderful brown/orange/yellow colors and temperatures can still be nice. Every time I went, the weather was better in Budapest than back home!
Summers can get quite hot and you may expect cold, wet and grey winters. End of November till end of December can have its charm; it may snow, the ice skating rinks, Christmas markets and street lights are set up.
Back in 20016, during my studies in the US, I had a part-time job as a Project Coordinator at The Center for Global Education of Edgewood College in Madison, WI, USA. I was actually paid to promote countries for the study abroad exchange program ISEP. To be able to do so, I always dug deep into a country’s history. The one country that especially stuck on my memory is Hungary. So many wars fought over this piece of land, it must be very special!
Budapest is the capital of Hungary. Obviously this country with 10 million inhabitants has more to see. Hungary borders with seven other countries: Slovakia (north), Ukraine (northeast), Austria (northwest), Romania (east), Serbia (south), Croatia (southwest) and Slovenia (west). Hungary is a member of the EU, UN, NAT, Schengen etc. Some suggestions in case you have more time and would like to explore the country a bit further:
- Hárs Hill Forest for a hike
- Lake Balaton, for example Balatonfüred and Tihany with many wellness hotels and wineries in the area of Badacsony for example. No-one will regret staying at places like Vidéki Ház.
- Tokaj wineries for example Hímesudvar winery and Tokaj-Hétszőlő. It’s 2.5 hour drive from Budapest (northeast) and there is a local Wine Festival on June 1.
- Szentendre is a nice river side town with art galleries (day trip, 30 min from Budapest).
- Sziget annual music festival, as also mentioned in my earlier post about traveling for music.
For a trip out of Budapest, you may want to rent a car. I would recommend Sunny Cars, I always use them myself, because they offer great coverage and service for a very fair price. It’s all-inclusive car rental so you never get any unpleasant surprises when you pick up or drop off a car.
Budapest is also a great location to explore more beautiful and exciting cities in Eastern Europe, such as Bratislava (2h), Vienna (2.5h), Brno (3h), Prague (5h) and Krakow (5.5h). You can travel between these cities by car, train or bus.
Budapest vs. Prague
Some people asked me whether to go to Budapest or Prague. I would say: both, if you have the time. If not, I would chose Prague, but that’s very personal. Prague has a special place in my heart and I have friends there so the evenings are never dull. Honestly speaking, Budapest is less touristy than Prague. And as you can read in this blog post, Budapest definitely has a lot of charm and lots of interesting sights to see. So if you get the chance, visit Budapest!! (Before it gets discovered by mass tourism.)
This mobile friendly map includes most things mentioned in this article and is smartphone friendly. You can use it easily via Google Maps. Click on the top left icon to open the menu. You can (un)select categories/areas to customize the map to your needs. Via Google Drive you can copy it to your folder of My Google Maps.
Explore Central & Eastern Europe
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Are you a Budapest first-timer? Do you have any Budapest tips to add? Please feel free to post a comment or question below!