Budapest is a true European gem with a casual, hip vibe. Despite a turbulent past, reflected in the city’s culture, food, politics, and architecture, Budapest shines through the grit and will dazzle you with its stunning sights and squares near and along the banks of the Danube River and up along its hilly slopes. If you’re traveling through Eastern Europe, be sure to plan your first trip to Budapest!
A Cheat Sheet for Budapest First-Timers
What to See and Do:
Spending 2-3 days in Budapest will give you enough time to see and do first-timer musts. It’s likely, though, after spending time in this still (somewhat) off-the-beaten-path city, you’ll be thinking about your next visit to Budapest.
Start off by riding the #2 tram along the Danube to get a sense of how the former cities of Buda and Pest are situated. Tickets are easily purchased in a metro station. The ride will give you a glimpse of Budapest’s major sights.
If you prefer a guided tour, check out Budapest Free Walking Tours. They offer daily tours at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m that depart from the lion fountain in Vorosmarty Square. Tours range from the typical tourist sights to the history of the Jewish population to communism in Budapest.
There’s no need to book ahead of time and no obligation to stay for the entire tour. If you’re happy with your guide, make sure to tip them what you can at the end of the tour.
After this introduction to the city, walk or take the funicular up to Castle Hill. The funicular is on the Buda side, on the other side of the famous Chain Bridge. Once at the top, you’ll be rewarded with sweeping panoramic views of the city and the Danube.
On Castle Hill, spend the morning or afternoon visiting the Royal Palace, Mathias Church, and Fisherman’s Bastion.
Fisherman’s Bastion is part of Buda Castle and history says that fishermen back in the Middle Ages lived just below the castle walls and served as a line of defense protecting the castle. Today, the terraces along the walls that stretch opposite the Danube provide the lookouts over the river and city below.
Matthias Church is a Catholic church built in the latter part of the 14th century in a Gothic style, replacing an even earlier Romanesque-style church dating back to the 11th century.
Also on Castle Hill is Buda Castle, a Baroque palace built in the 1700s. The original structure dates back to the 12oos and was the residence for the Hungarian Kings throughout the years. Today, the palace houses the National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum, both of which have traditional daily hours. However, the Castle’s courtyards and surrounding grounds are open 24/7.
If you arrive on the hour between 8:30 and 5:00 pm, you’ll also see the Hungarian Changing of the Guard at the castle.
Budapest’s grand Parliament Building is another popular sight. You can opt to see it just from the outside or take a guided tour of the inside. (You cannot get in without being part of a tour.)
The Parliament tour and its setup logistics take about 60-90 minutes. You can buy tickets online here and combine your visit with a city tour or get them in person at the Visitor’s Center below the Parliament building itself. Either way, you’ll be able to select your tour time in your preferred language.
Along the river, near Parliament, a simple but impactful bronze shoe exhibit stands as a memorial remembering Jewish people who were killed less than a day before the Soviets came to “liberate” the city.
Residents were told to take off their shoes and place their valuables inside of them. Then, they were shot execution-style along the river so their bodies would be swept off in the current.
Budapest is also famous for its thermal baths. Gellert Spa and Bath and Széchenyi Thermal Bath are the two most popular. With a ticket, you’ll have access to the baths and can also arrange spa treatments like a massage.
If you’re planning a visit to Budapest in summer, avoid the crowds and plan ahead.
Also keep in mind, that starting in the fall of 2022, Gellert Spa will be closing for renovations. Széchenyi Thermal Bath will be even more popular during this time.
Traveling to Budapest soon?
Visit St. Stephen’s Basilica and Dohany Utca Synagogue for a look at Budapest’s prominent religious structures. The architecture is unusual and the history, particularly of Budapest’s Jewish residents, is fascinating.
Walk along Andrassy Avenue to see architecture that has been renovated and refreshed, as well as mansions that are crumbling. It’s along this walk where you can see both the grittiness and rebirth of Budapest over the past decades. The State Opera House is along Andrassy Avenue and guided tours are also possible.
After dark, be sure to see Budapest’s city lights from the water. Boats operate from piers along the Pest side of the Danube. You can pre-arrange to take a sightseeing tour to loop past Budapest’s main sights and under its bridges or opt for a lengthier dinner cruise.
No matter how many days you have in Budapest, seeing the city from the water at night is a must. Have your camera ready! Budapest absolutely sparkles at night!
Later, have a Hungarian Beer at the Budapest Ruins Bars, like the touristy but, still, fun Szimpla Kert where different music plays in each room and the decor is fashioned with old computers, a car, and other odd salvage bits.
Arrival in Budapest:
Budapest’s main train station is Keleti. Trains from Vienna are 2 1/2 hours while trains from Prague are just under 7 hours long. Use the super helpful site Seat 61 to research your train options and plan to buy your train tickets ahead of time, as prices tend to go up the closer the departure date gets.
I’d read a few reports about Keleti Train Station’s sketchiness, particularly because of pickpockets. I’ve been through this station twice, once as a solo female traveler, and never felt unsafe.
If you feel more comfortable having something arranged, check with your hotel to see if they can send a taxi for you as ours did. Expect for a taxi to cost between 2400-2700 HUF, or Hungarian Forints.
If you’re arriving by plane, take a taxi or book an airport transfer with Welcome Pickups. I’ve used them before for my airport transfers in Europe and have always had a great experience.
Budapest has also added an airport shuttle bus to transfer to the city center. The 100E bus takes visitors from the airport to the Deák Ferenc tér central metro station. You can purchase a ticket for 3€ or 900 HUF at the vending machine or at a customer service desk in the arrivals area of the airport. Then wait for the bus between 5 a.m and half past midnight at the BKK stop conveniently situated between the arrival terminals.
By taxi, the ride should take about 30-40 minutes and cost around 8000 HUF. Always be sure your taxi driver has the meter on or you agree on a price before getting in.
Where to Eat:
Visit the Great Market Hall and walk through aisle after aisle of fresh meats, bread, and produce. Head to the upper level to order a Langos and other Hungarian specialties, like Goulash. The market is as much a sight to see, as it is a place where locals shop for food.
You can enhance your authentic Budapest foodie experience by joining locals for a Hungarian dinner or cooking classes.
Enjoy Budapest’s colorful food scene with everything from Hungarian classics to restaurants serving cuisine from around the globe. Of course, you’ll want to taste some local specialties like roasted meats and hearty meat and bean soups served at favorites like Kispiac Biztro.
The area in and around the Ruins Bars is also an up-and-coming foodie area of Budapest. You’ll find cuisine that ranges from traditional Hungarian to tacos to Kosher vegetarian.
Where to Stay:
Staying along the Danube or within a 5-10 minute walk to the river will give you the best access to the sights you’ll want to visit on both the Buda and Pest sides of the city. The #2 tram also runs along the river and is a quick and easy way to get from Parliament to the Great Market Hall.
There are several well-situated properties if you’re hoping to use hotel points for award nights. IHG’s Intercontinental and the Budapest Marriott are along the Danube. Both hotels require 35k points per night. What used to be the Le Meridien Budapest is no longer. It’s now a Ritz Carlton.
We stayed at the Radisson Blu Beke Hotel. It was a 10-minute walk to Parliament. The hotel lobby was open and bright, the staff super helpful, and the rooms were comfortable, and from recent photos, it looks like the rooms have been updated and more in line with other the Radisson Blu hotels where I’ve stayed.
If you have Radisson points, redeeming them at the Radisson Blu Beke can help save money on a more expensive option. Consider the Marriott or IHG properties if you want to stay right on or closer to the Danube River.
Have you been to Budapest? What do you recommend for first-timers?
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