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 Central and Eastern Europe, make time to visit 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. If you arrive on the hour between 8:30 and 5:00 pm, you’ll 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 tour and its setup logistics take about 60-90 minutes. You can buy tickets online here or 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.
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. The opera house is also along this avenue and guided tours are also possible.
After dark, be sure to see Budapest’s city lights from the water. There are numerous boat tours operating from piers along the Pest side of the Danube. You can 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 which tour you choose, have your camera ready! Budapest absolutely sparkles at night!
Have a Hungarian Beer at a Ruins Bar, 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 into 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, as well as for links leading you to the country-specific site to purchase train tickets directly, rather than using a more expensive third-party site.
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. To be sure we got a fair price on a taxi, I arranged a pick-up through the hotel. Expect for a taxi to cost between 2400-2700 HUF, or Hungarian Forints.
If you’re arriving by plane, plan to take a taxi or book an airport transfer with Welcome Pickups. I’ve used them before for my airport transfers and have always had a great experience. Unfortunately, there isn’t a seamless way via public transportation to easily get from the airport to the city center. By car, 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 the finest 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 the locals’ place to shop for food.
Have dinner at Apostolok. It’s a mix of tourists and locals and the food was delicious, the staff friendly, and had a live band playing music.
The area in and around the Ruins Bars is an up and coming trendy 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. As of September 1st, 2016, Starwood’s Le Meridien Budapest is no longer in the Starwood collection of hotels. The hotel is now a Ritz Carlton.
We stayed at Club Carlson’s 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, but needing some updating compared to other Radisson Blu Hotels we’d stayed in. With our hotel point strategy in mind, it made sense to use our Club Carlson points. Consider the Marriott, IHG, and Starwood properties if you want to stay right on or closer to the Danube River.
What have I missed? Have you been to Budapest? What do you recommend for first-timers?
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