For your first visit you need no less than two full days to be able to fully appreciate the city and all of its major sights while keeping relatively unhurried pace.
Distances between points of interest are not always walkable, you will need use of public transport more than occasionally.
Love avenues and squares of central Pest, fronted by impressive examples of 19th-century architecture.
Don’t miss: taking a dip in a hot springs spa; browsing the covered Central Market Hall; viewing the entire city from the lookout at Citadel late at night.
On the other hand: Construction and renovation was omni-present in the city during our visit – Budapest may become even more impressive once the major works are concluded.
Worthy attractions: Royal Palace grounds; Mátyás Church; Fishermen’s Bastion; Labyrinth of Buda Castle; St Stephen’s Basilica; State Opera House; Central Market Hall; Vajdahunyad Castle grounds; Széchenyi Baths; Gresham Palace.
Left for another visit: Hungarian National Gallery; Parliament [did not tour inside]; Ethnographic Museum; Hungarian National Museum; Great Synagogue [did not tour inside]; Museum of Fine Arts; House of Hungarian Wines; Margaret Island [only circled on a boat]; Aquincum [further afield].
Last visit: April 2009.
We heard from people in the past that a couple of days is more than enough to see all of Budapest. I am not going to try to dispute that; if you do not visit any museums, do not take time to go to one of the baths, and only limit yourself with exterior views, you should be able to cover the city in two days or so. (Come to think of it, this may be true for almost every city in the world.) On the other hand, if you avail yourself to everything that Budapest can offer, you might have to stay for longer than a week. We did not have any museum visits in mind, yet we easily filled up 4 days in town with fun things to do and places to see.
Things to See
Buda and Pest, the two parts of the city separated by the river, are quite distinct from one another. Pest is flat, 19th-century-planned in its layout, and full of architectural treasures of that century, built with the expressed notion to rival Vienna. Buda is hilly, retains more of a historical charm, and, aside from some dramatically-positioned edifices, does not appear too monumental.
Royal Palace is one of the most dramatically-positioned and monumental sights in all of the city. Its grounds ♥ would be more impressive if the fountains were working, but we were not that lucky during the visit. There are no royal apartments to tour inside the palace. Instead, the space is given to a couple of museums, most notably, the Hungarian National Gallery, which we did not visit.
Mátyás Church ♥♥♥ (technically, Church of Our Lady) was partially covered in scaffolding, but its brilliantly colored tiled roof was still visible. The church is quite colorful inside as well, with vivid satined-glass windows, painted walls and pillars, and other rich decorations.
Fishermen’s Bastion ♥ is a good vantage point for views over Buda riverside and all of Pest. The views are unobstructed, but the entrance is for a fee. Similar, albeit sometime partially obstructed, views for free can be had from other lookouts, from inside the Castle District and away from it. For instance, also on the Buda side, on Gellért Hill, a reasonable view opens up from the monument to St Gellért ♥. The most spectacular view of all is higher on that same hill, from Citadel ♥♥♥ – the fortification itself is not worth the visit unless you are interested in the restaurant and nightclub located there, but the panoramic view is beyond comparison, especially after the fall of darkness.
We extensively walked the pretty streets of the Castle District and stopped at the Labyrinth ♥. It is a series of caves – not a true labyrinth, you cannot get lost, – dimly lit and sparsely decorated with statues, wall paintings and curiosities. No more than mildly interesting for most, but the teenager in our group was quite enchanted.
We took only passing interest in lower areas of Buda, such as Tabán or Víziváros, which have several minor points of interest and appear pleasant enough to wander around. We devoted more time to exploring Central Pest instead.
Central Pest reminded us of Paris quite a bit, with its wide boulevards, impressive squares and nearly-uniform building height. It is a veritable treasure trough of 19th-century architecture, with many “neo-” styles, common to that era, represented throughout the town quite well. If you have the stamina and the desire, walk the entire length of Andrássy Avenue ♥♥♥, and you will encounter architectural masterpieces and delights practically every step of the way. Kossuth Square ♥♥♥, Liberty Square ♥♥♥ (Szabadság), Roosevelt Square ♥ are all surrounded by magnificent buildings.
The Parliament building ♥♥ is simply grandiose and reputedly boasts no less grandiose chambers. Getting in requires some scheduling luck (it is closed to visitors when the parliament is in session) and the extra effort of getting to the ticket booth early in the morning. We limited ourselves with a lingering look from the square.
St Stephen’s Basilica ♥♥ was only completed in early 20th century and, subsequently, lacks the atmosphere of an “old” church. But its interior is quite impressive nonetheless and the dome mosaics are absolutely splendid. You can also get to the viewing gallery under the dome (most of the way up and down is by an elevator), although the rooftop panorama falls short of truly breathtaking.
Built to emulate Vienna’s Opera, the State Opera House ♥♥ is a remarkable architectural gem, with an interior of opulence and grandeur. Guided tours are offered, but the simplest way to see it is to buy the cheapest tickets to a performance. Those go for 400 HUF (roughly $1.85 at the time of our stay) and do not allow any view of the stage. Get in half an hour before the performance, walk around the building, check the magnificent performance hall, and leave if you are so inclined. Or stay for an auditory, if not visual, enjoyment. (We got lucky in that the kids were able to move into seats with good views, so we stayed for all three acts of The Swan Lake.)
There are several interesting Secessionist – Austro-centric Art Nouveau movement – buildings in Central Pest. Some, such as the Post Office Savings Bank, with its elaborate roof, or the Turkish Bank, we only saw from the outside. One, Gresham Palace ♥♥, currently a Four Seasons hotel, we stepped into, marvelling at it curvilinear forms and organic motifs. The wrought-iron gates and fancy mosaics were among the highlights.
Several churches in the city besides the two already mentioned merit attention, both in Buda and Pest. We skipped the visits to most of them, except Inner City Parish Church ♥, which dates from 14th century. It has some interesting elements, including little remnants of it being used as a mosque during the Turkish rule.
Great Synagogue ♥♥ was firmly on our list of places to visit, but we were in Budapest during Passover, and the great temple was closed to tourists. It earns its hearts on the basis of its wondrous outward appearance; we were greatly disappointed that we could not see its interior.
There are two Holocaust monuments in Budapest, commemorating the fate of Hungarian Jews during the WWII. The “weeping willow” is in the yard of the Great Synagogue. The “shoes” – a minimalist evocative memorial to people executed on the banks of the river – is on the Danube’s embankment near the parliament building. Putting hearts next to them feels inappropriate, but I strongly recommend to anyone that you find time to view them, especially the “shoes”.
The Jewish Quarter of Budapest is not especially remarkable, although there are some fine buildings along its narrow streets and some Kosher establishments. We walked by Orthodox Synagogue. But the unexpected highlight of the visit to the area was the interior of a popular bar/club on Kazinczy Street, SzimplaKert (Simple Garden), hidden behind a crumbling façade; the bar is fancifully decorated with old furniture and household objects from 50-60 years ago.
Covered Central Market Hall ♥♥♥ is delightful as only a market could be. Its wide central aisle is lined with stalls that sell various delicacies, spices, sweets and produce. More of the same is found in the side aisles. A feast for eyes and senses! The upper level is given to souvenir stalls, arts and crafts, clothing and accessories sellers, and food vendors. We love markets as a rule, and browsing this market was an unquestionable top-notch experience.
The Market Hall is where the pedestrian Vaci Street ♥ starts and runs parallel to the river for a couple of kilometers, lined with boutiques and restaurants. As with any street of such type, it is almost perpetually busy with people, mostly tourists.
Taking to the hot springs was a must-do on our list. There is a good number of well-known baths in Budapest, most of which not only provide for a pleasant relaxation, but also aspire to be sights to see, in terms of architecture and decor. One little problem, if you travel as a family or a mixed-gender group, is that most of these spas are true baths and, therefore, segregate the sexes either in different areas or via single-sex days. We cared for pools more than baths anyway, so we picked Széchenyi Baths ♥♥♥ as our destination. The beautiful neo-Baroque complex houses a medical clinic (step into its foyer, if you have time, for a look at the stunning ceiling mosaics) and the public thermal pools, the latter not putting any restrictions on gender-mixing (obviously requiring swimming attire). There are three pools of different temperatures, the lowest 30°C, the highest 40°C (the hottest of all of Budapest spas), plenty of hydro-massage implements, as well as a swift-current whirlpool, infinitely popular with children. Great way to spend a couple of hours!
It should be noted that soaking in warm waters for a lengthy interval has a pretty tiring effect on the body, so plan your activities accordingly. You may not be physically up to lots of walking and sightseeing after you leave the spa. On the other hand, even in the middle of the week, the pools get progressively busier towards the afternoon; the most uncrowded time to visit is in the morning on a regular workday. If you manage to leave the spa within two hours of entering it, you are issued a refund of 300 HUF, roughly 10% of the entrance fee.
Széchenyi Baths are located within the confines of the vast city park, Városliget. The park is fronted by the expansive Heroes Square , with the majestic Millennium Monument ♥♥♥ as its centerpiece. Aforementioned Andrássy Avenue ends here. Two large art galleries stand on either side of the square: Museum of Fine Arts, with the only non-Hungarian-centric collection of art in the city (including many of the famous masters from all over Europe), and Műcsarnok Art Gallery, Hungary’s largest exhibition space, hosting mostly temporary exhibitions of contemporary painting and sculpture. Both buildings are magnificent, but we did not check out their collections.
The park, itself not especially remarkable, is home to several important attractions. First of all, Vajdahunyad Castle ♥♥, built for Hungarian Millennium celebrations in 1896 (the anniversary of Magyars settling in what later became Hungary). This is not a true castle, but rather a complex of buildings illustrating various architectural styles that existed in Hungary at the time of construction. Overall, there are over 20 of Hungary’s most renowned buildings represented here. Most of the viewing is from outside, though. You can step into a small chapel (for a symbolic fee), or you can visit the Museum of Agriculture (entrance in the Baroque section of the castle). We did the former, but otherwise limited ourselves with the castle grounds.
Also within the park limits is the zoo ♥ and the Vidámpark ♥♥ funfair. Entrance to neither costs much, and both provide an excellent diversion from sightseeing for your tired and bored offspring.
Another popular park area is on Margaret Island, somewhat north of the city center, which we only observed from aboard a river cruise boat.
As mentioned above, museums were not part of our programme for Budapest, but we did visit a small gallery, Kogart, on Andrássy Avenue not far from the Heroes Square, for a fine exhibition of Hungarian impressionists. The gallery does not have a permanent collection.
Numerous musical performances are being held in various venues in Budapest throughout the year. We attended a folk dance and music concert at the Danube Palace, halfway between St Stephen’s Basilica and Roosevelt Square on Zrínyi Street. The venue is adequate if not exactly remarkable, but the performance was superb, given by Rajko Folk Ensemble ♥♥♥, with virtuoso play on violins and percussion and fiery and graceful dances.
For a couple of hours over each of our first two days in Budapest, we were guided by Gabriella Török of Private Tours Budapest ♥♥. A very nice lady who spoke an excellent English, she gave us a pretty good orientation tour of the city. She is pretty open to customizing the itineraries to your liking.
She took us to one location that we otherwise would not have visited, the new Palace of Arts/National Theatre ♥ complex a little bit downriver from the city center. Quite interesting.
We also took a boat cruise on the Danube. There are several offerings of the kind alongside the river embankment; we followed the recommendation of our guide, and picked Dunayacht ♥, from Pier 10 near the Elizabeth Bridge. The cruise lasted exactly an hour and took us upriver to and around Margaret Island and back, under the accompaniment of commentary in English and German. The English recording was heavily accented, but still quite informational.
Budapest has all different types of public transportation – Metro, buses, trams, trolleys – but we only made use of a couple: Trams to move north-south parallel to the river on the Pest side, and Metro line #1 that runs under Andrássy Avenue to Városliget. Other Metro lines are not much useful in city center, but trams can be pretty handy in Pest. Only one small appendage of the Metro network goes to Buda (with another currently being built).
There is a funicular to take you up to the Buda Castle near the Chain Bridge, but, with our luck, it was closed for refurbishment during our visit. Walking up the Buda hill is not an overly exhausting exercise, but it is still not for everyone; bus routes should provide an alternative to the funicular.
Family ticket, valid for 48 hours, costs 2900 HUF, is valid on all modes of public transport and pays for itself after three journeys. There is a regular human ticket control at entrances to the Metro stations (and once we had our tickets checked while on a train), but none that we encountered on trams.
If you require transportation to the airport from your hotel, beware of our less-than-ideal experience with the Airport Minibus. It costs 2500 HUF per person (roughly $45 for a family of four – no discounts for children, at least children over 8), and promises to get you to the terminal in under 40 minutes from your hotel in central Budapest. Unfortunately, after picking us up from our hotel, the driver had to wait for one other person for nearly 25 minutes at a different hotel. We, of course, did not plan on a 25-minute delay in our schedule; we still made our flight without a problem (no lines anywhere at the check-in or security control), but it caused us some aggravation. Given that the airport is only 10 miles away from the city center, I don’t expect a taxi ride to cost more than 10000 HUF, although that is a guess, not a fact.
Places to Eat
We did not have any extraordinary culinary experiences in Hungary, for some reason, but pretty much all places that we dined at were quite good. Do not worry about not knowing enough Hungarian to read the menu – every eatery in the city center and in tourist areas has menus in English. All places visited in April of 2009. At that time, $1 was roughly equivalent to 220 HUF. The size of the party was two adults and two children, unless otherwise noted.
Our tour guide recommended Arany Bárány ♥♥ (Golden Fleece), on Harmincad Street near Elizabeth Square, and it was both the most striving-to-impress and by far the most expensive meal of our stay. Nicely decorated small dining rooms (there is also sidewalk dining area, but the night was getting chilly). Excellent, if a bit too loud, live music. Very professional service. All of our selections were great, while simultaneously failing to reach level of fantastic. We were offered a tasty spread, the ingredients of which we failed to identify, for our bread. For starters, we ordered a goulash soup and a very unusual lamb ragout soup. We then had peppers stuffed with lamb, half a dozen duck legs with croquettes and the Gypsy’s spit (mixed grill on a skewer, on a bed of potatoes). Our arbitrary pick of a bottle of Hungarian wine was not bad. For dessert, a pancake with chocolate in nuts was well received. Our damage: 33000 HUF, including wine and gratuities. The larger cost of the meal (compared with other places) contributed to the downgrade of heart.
Walking streets of Buda Castle District, we came across Fekete Holló ♥♥ (Black Raven), on Országház Street not far from Mátyás Church. We sat outside in the sidewalk dining area which became fully occupied in a short while; there is also an inside dining room. Friendly service, great food. Chicken soup was ok, but pumpkin soup, duck liver with grilled vegetables, pancake stuffed with meat with paprika sauce and cold cuts plate were all excellent. Dessert standout was honey cake with chocolate. Our damage: 18000 HUF, including gratuities.
On Vaci Street, we randomly selected restaurant Sorforras ♥ for a dinner one night. Modern interior, understated service, good food. Children’s menu, consisting of chicken soup and turkey schnitzel, went down perfectly; other selections, such as excellent “peasant” potato soup, thick mushroom soup, very tasty duck liver over ratatouille and expertly prepared butter fish with grilled vegetables, were also well received. We did not take any dessert. Our damage: 21000 HUF, including gratuities and a bottle of wine.
Kafe Kor ♥♥, on Sas Street not far from the St Stephen’s Basilica, was a travel forum recommendation. Top-notch service, most of the patrons seemingly locals, interesting menu. We started with goose cracklings (one of the local specialties – fried slices of goose skin), eggplant caviar and a large cold cuts and salad plate called Kor Specialty. For mains, we took beef goulash with croquettes, lamb chops with potatoes, lamb pieces with mash potatoes. Everything quite tasty. For dessert, cherry strudel and sponge cake. Our damage: 24000 HUF, including two glasses of wine and gratuities. Cash only.
Next to our lodgings was a nice Italian eatery La Porta di Taormina ♥ (Pesti Barnabás Street), where we had restaurant-type pizza meals a couple of times. Many many different types of pizzas and other Italian staples, reasonable service. We spent less than 6000 HUF on each occasion (ordering two pizzas at most), with a single pizza pie costing as little as 1300 HUF for the basic pizza margherita.
A convenient choice for lunch after leaving the spa, Széchenyi restaurant ♥ is located at the end of the eponymous spa/clinic complex. Unpretentious set-up under a tent, but nice service and a pretty good menu. The fish soup was one the best I ever had, if only a bit too rich. Broccoli soup-purée, spaghetti bolognese, schnitzel and especially Hungarian steak (with delicious potatoes) were quite tasty as well. Relatively inexpensive. Our damage: 12000 HUF, including gratuities.
Another convenient choice is restaurant Fakanál on the upper level of the grand Market Hall. It is a self-service buffet with a broad selection of mostly traditional fare. The quality of food is what you’d expect from a good buffet – it is not gourmet, but it is still quite good. Live music in the seating area. Our damage: 8500 HUF.
As in any large city, the options for a hotel or an apartment are plentiful on major online platforms. Any location in either Buda or Pest that is close to the river will put you within at most 15 minutes of walking to most of the points of interest. The excellent tram network makes staying somewhere outside of city center workable as well.