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?
I had a comfortable stay and fantastic service at the Radisson Blu Beke. Research and book other great Budapest hotels on Hotels.com or Booking.com.
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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56 thoughts on “A Cheat Sheet for Budapest First-Timers”
stunning Pictures of castle!! looks like an amazing place.lots of useful information you have shared. Appreciative Work.
Thanks so much, Maggie. Budapest is such a great city. Thanks for commenting. 🙂
Hi Jackie! I went to Budapest a few years ago and loved it. You’re right once you visit it, you already make plans to visit it again. Went to a medieval restaurant and had great food there and also tried local desserts, sooo good! Can’t wait to visit again. So glad you wrote about Budapest.
Hi, Melanie! I’m so happy to hear you went to Budapest and loved it! No doubt the food you had was delicious! I was actually excited to find there is a Hungarian food truck here in NYC. 🙂 Will definitely be heading back to Budapest!
Budapest is one city I would really love to visit! Your photo of the rose is so evocative!
Thanks, Carol. 🙂 You’re sure to love Budapest when you make it. Great sights, delicious food, and fascinating history.
Budapest is stunning. I went there a couple of years ago for a few days. Although it was a work trip, I managed to use a good amount of time to explore the city.
The views from the top of the hill are beautiful. Also did the Parliament tour and although it was a bit short, it was a great to see it from the inside. What an amazing building.
I found the city great for walking as well.
So well said, Hugo! I thought the city was made for walking as well and would love to go back again and really just stroll through and explore different areas and quieter streets. 🙂
Budapest looks so gorgeous. I’m really going to try and finally make it there when I’m in Europe this fall. The Parliament building is stunning!
Oh, Mags, you’ll be happy you did! Budapest is great! Definitely worth using some of your time in Europe to explore Budapest. 🙂
Budapest is one of my favourite cities and after two visits there are still a few things on your list that I have not seen. Just means I’ll have to return again 🙂 Thanks for linking up this post with #TheWeeklyPostcard
It’s never a bad thing to have a reason to return somewhere, Lyn, especially a gorgeous city like Budapest! ?
You’ve described it very well. Budapest is vibrant and there’s always something to do and see.
We’ve enjoyed Gellert, the local food and the views all around this city too.
Definitely worth a visit for a couple of days.
PS: we liked Budapest a lot more than Prague…a bit boring… 😉
Definitely worth a few days of a European itinerary, Jempi. You’re so right when you mention the pulse of Budapest. It feels really alive and trendy. 🙂
Hmm, haven’t made it to Budapest yet but it looks gorgeous in your pretty pictures!
Thanks so much, Lotte. Add Budapest to your European must-sees for sure. It is a true gem of a city. 🙂
Brilliant. Thanks for this – we are going to attempt Budapest with toddlers in the next year. It’s been on the top of my travel wish list for a little while now. Thanks
Great, Katy! The #2 tram is cheap and easy to hop on and off and will leave you with convenient access to most sights. Really easy to manage with the kiddos! 🙂
This guide is just what I need as I plan a trip around Central Europe. I can’t wait to visit some of the famous thermal baths!
Fantastic, Brianna! Definitely have 2-3 days for Budapest, especially if you want to linger for a half day at the baths. Have a great trip! 🙂
Very interesting! Would love to see your posts in the Practical Mondays Link Up:)
Thanks so much! I’ll be sure to check out the link Up. Thanks for the invite. 🙂
That is one heck of a packed itinerary and you’ve picked great things to do. My favourite are the baths – I’ve checked out just about every thermal bath in Budapest and never get tired of them. Concerts are another great activity in this musical city for sure.
That’s 1 thing we wish we had done, Carol! We went to a jazz club in Prague and a classical concert in Vienna but didn’t have time to fit it in… We did spend a night in the ruins bars debating politics with a NATO soldier, but that’s a whole different story (lol)! 🙂
Excellent tips, Jackie. We visited Budapest last year and the city has so much to offer that it’s hard to decide what to fit in. Definitely agree about staying near the river. We stayed at the Budapest Marriott and were really happy with our decision. Thanks for linking to #TheWeeklyPostcard.
Thanks, Linda! I saw that Marriott and it is very nicely located. Glad to hear you enjoyed Budapest and got to see many of its fantastic sights. 🙂
The story behind the memorial is really painful. I’m glad there is something to remember them by, and reminds us never to do something like that again.
I couldn’t agree more, Mar. The more you stand “in their shoes” the more the horror reveals itself to you.
I love Budapest, Jackie, and your post is doing a lot of justice to the beautiful Hungarian capital. I like how you caught the essence of what to do and see in Budapest and also I like your pictures. Great post!
Thanks, Anda! I’m in good company for sure. I just fell in love with Budapest.
I’m thinking about making a trip to Prague, Vienna, and Budapest in July or August by myself. I love to just wander and take photographs. How safe do you think Budapest is for a 60 year old woman traveling alone? I’m a pretty seasoned traveler and use public transportation to get around, but I’ve always had a travel companion before. I’ve rented apartments in France and Italy, but haven’t been to the east.
Thanks for reading, Robin. How fantastic to be planning a trip to Prague, Vienna, and Budapest! I took this exact trip in February and loved it! I found Budapest to be really safe. Even in February, there were plenty of people walking around and sightseeing. I took a free walking tour and the guide’s only warning was to beware of pickpockets. My advice would be to use common sense and keep your wits about you just as you would in any city. I would happily and comfortably return to Budapest on my own. With your traveling experience, too, you’ll really enjoy the city. It’s a true gem!
Thanks. Your suggestions were very helpful. We particularly liked the House of Terrors, the museum about the unbelievable atrocities the Russians and the Naziis wreaked on the Hungarians. It’s depressing but well worth your time. The cathedral is beautiful and the city at night is not to be missed. And don’t miss the market!
Thanks, Maureen. I’m glad you enjoyed your trip to Budapest! I missed the House of Terrors, so thanks for the tip. As a history buff, these museums are so interesting even if the content is hard to understand.
Planning a trip for September! Do most places take the forint? I thought Hungary was in the EU thus would use euros?
Hi Sandy, although some places take the Euro, prices are all in Forints. The exchange rate is better this way, too. It makes Budapest a very affordable European city to visit. Forints are easy to get once you arrive.
A friend and I are going to Budapest next month and would love to take an evening boat trip to see the Parliament building lit up. But I’ve read that the boats don’t start running until April Do you know if this is true?
Your photos are lovely and we can’t wait to visit.
Thanks for reading. From my experience, this is not true. I was there in February and took a night boat ride. It was cold but gorgeous. An absolute must while in Budapest. 🙂 Happy travels!
That’s a really great cheat sheet, It seems to us you know our beloved city as well. Thank you for coming and sharing your deep experiences. You are always welcome back. And great pics, btw.
Thanks so much for your kind words. I loved Budapest and hope to return someday. Please understand, while I appreciate your suggestions, I do not post comments with links in them, so have edited the last line of your comment. Thank you again for reading. 🙂
I loved my trip to Budapest last fall. We enjoyed the cave tour where Vlad the Impaler was imprisoned, under the castle on the Buda side. Spooky. We found several great self-guided walking tours. (LINK EDITED OUT)
We were lucky to see the Christmas markets as well.
Thanks for reading, Baranie. So glad you had a great trip to Budapest! 🙂
We will be in Budapest for a few days in 2020 and this was by far the best information I have read about visiting for the fist time, Thank you so much for all the wonderful information and the stunning pictures,
Thanks for reading, April. So glad the post will be helpful for your Budapest trip in 2020. It’s a fantastic city! Happy travels. 🙂
Great article, glad to see that I’m not the only one in love with the city.
I wouldn’t recommend Apostolok restaurant though, it’s a tourist trap. Use Google maps to check the ratings and reviews and you can find a good place to eat anywhere in the city.
Or pick from these :
Kiosk, Divin porcello, Gettó Gulyás, Kazimír bistro, Fat mama, Tukory… The food scene is amazing in Budapest
Thanks for reading, Matyas. Great restaurant tips and couldn’t agree more about the amazing food scene in Budapest.
Your transportation segment needs to be updated. From the airport, there’s now a shuttle bus, leaving every 20 minutes, that gets you into town in @ 30 minutes. Cost is $3.
Thanks for reading, Rich. I appreciate the info. Yes, the post is scheduled for an update. 🙂
Hi Jackie – we found your article very helpful. Thank you. One concern I have is that I am not a lover of meat or game type menu’s. I know in this part of the world they are not very health conscious, but could you recommend a great place for optional items that might be more health generated such as some gluten free or vegan options or we love fish. Just trying to find a variety on the menu instead of so much meat/potatoes. I know this is a tall order…thank you so much.
Thanks for reading, Cindy. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend a specific restaurant but I can tell you I’m a vegetarian and had no problem finding great food to eat. Budapest has a fantastic food scene. So, even if you’re not looking for traditional food which does include a lot of meat, there are all kinds of cuisine options, not to mention vegetarian alternatives for classic Hungarian dishes. Thank you again for reading! Happy eating in Budapest. 🙂
Thanks, Jackie. I’m headed to Budapest next fall with my wife. Your information and ideas will help make our four days fruitful!
Thanks for reading, Bob. 🙂 Enjoy Budapest!
Thanks for the information Jackie, me and my wife are going next week for a few days and we’re both really looking forward to visiting this lovely city.
Thanks so much for reading, Paul. Enjoy Budapest.
Planning to visit Budapest and Debrecen. Bookmarking this article for when I get to Budapest.
Thanks for reading and bookmarking, Sarah.