Budapest Travel Guide: “A Perfect Day in Budapest”
Budapest is a romantic city on the beautiful River Danube formed by the union of two great cities: The historic medieval town of Buda and the cosmopolitan Pest. Boasting some astonishingly graceful architecture, therapeutic spas, leafy parklands and superb cafe houses, the Hungarian capital blends the historic and the modern very well.
This very detailed guide covers all the highlights of Budapest. Also included is ‘A perfect day in Budapest’ itinerary for those who have only one day to enjoy this beautiful, historic city. Further below are resources on eating, drinking, and shopping as well as some additional tips and information that you’ll find useful for your visit.
Above: Views from Gellert Hill
The Buda Side
Castle Hill – A key destination for visitors to Budapest as this location hosts many of the city’s most important monuments and museums as well as offering excellent views of Pest across the Danube. Sights include:
Buda Castle (Budai Var) or Royal Palace – Budvari Palota Diszter 17
Carefully reconstructed and situated on the southern part of Castle Hill at its highest point. The original medieval palace was destroyed during the battles against Turkish invaders, and has been bombed, razed, rebuilt and redesigned at least six times over the past seven centuries. At one stage the site was filled in to lay the foundations of the new grandiose Baroque palace started by Maria-Theresa and expanded on Hungarian initiative in the 19th century, only to then be gutted during the Second World War. Unfortunately there is no place in the Palace today that would allow the visitor a glimpse of the lavish suites and interiors of past royals. It does however house impressive cultural institutions and museums:
- The Hungarian National Gallery (includes fine arts, medieval and renaissance stonework remains, Gothic wood sculptures and easel paintings, Renaissance and Baroque art).
- The National Széchényi Library.
- The Museum of Contemporary Art (includes works by American Pop-Art artists, and by German, French and North American artists active in the 1980s).
- The Budapest History Museum (includes exhibitions about the history of Budapest and constructed sections, and Gothic sculptures from the Mediaeval Royal Palace).
Tip: One of the most interesting ways of getting to the Castle is by taking the Funicular cable car up the Castle Hill.
Castle District – One of the most romantic pedestrian sections in Budapest. A medieval little town with atmospheric streets, picturesque houses, gas lamps and beautiful monuments. Highlights include:
Trinity Square. This square is the current centerpiece of the Castle District featuring a monumental Holy Trinity statue, the discreetly reserved old Buda City Hall, and the world famous Matthias Church. The best restaurants and shops in the area are also nearby along with the cellars of the Hungarian Culture Foundation.
Matthias Church. The church bears the name of its biggest Maecenas, King Matthias, who married twice in this shrine.
Cave System (at Castle Hill). On the Buda side almost every house in the quarter has cellars several storeys deep running down into the hill. One section of the cellar system was turned into what is known as the Labyrinth of the Buda Castle with a remarkable historical walk-through tableaux.
Fishermen’s Bastion (at Castle Hill). Views from the seven-turreted Fisherman’s Bastion are inspiring, especially in the evening. It has been part of UNESCO’s World Heritage since 1988.
Gellert Hill (Gellert hegy). The hill (that some believe used to be the meeting place of witches) offers panoramic views of the city in particular the Royal Palace, the Danube and its bridges. At the top of the hill is the Citadella (a type of fortress) and the Independence Monument, which is Budapest’s unofficial symbol. Below the hill are several thermal baths including the Rudas baths which has an octagonal pool under a dome supported by eight columns.
Chain Bridge –The first permanent bridge over the Danube is a symbol of the city and a magnificent site when illuminated at night.
Margaret Island (Margitsziget) – The city’s finest green spot located in the middle of the river Danube between Margaret Bridge and Árpád Bridge. Originally there were three islands here, the islands of Spa, Pictor and Rabbits. These were framed with a common concrete shore as part of river regulation efforts in the 19th century and so the 2.5-kilometre-long island was formed. The 100 hectares of parkland is kept peaceful and quiet by being sealed off to most vehicular traffic.
The northern section of the island is home of the turn-of-the-century Grand Hotel Margitsziget and the modern Thermal Hotel Margitsziget, the latter offering thermal spa and state-of-the-art medical services using thermal water springs, both properties are featured by Great Escapes.
Above: View from St. Stephen’s Basilica
The Pest side
Heroes’ Square. The Millennium Monument of Heroes’ Square was build for the Hungarian Millennium in 1896 to commemorate 1000 years of Hungarian history (the Magyar tribes conquered the Carpathian Basin in 896). The Square itself with the Museum of Fine Arts on one side and the Palace of Arts on the other is one of the most impressive open spaces in Budapest. In the center you can see a 36 meter high column with the Archangel Gabriel and equestrian statues of the 7 Magyar chiefs who actually conquered the territory. The stone block in front of the column is the Heroes Monument. The 2 part colonnade in the back shows in chronological order the rulers, kings and princes of Hungary. Behind the square you will find the City Park, with lots of recreation possibilities.
City Park. One of the largest parks in Budapest with its entrance at Heroes’ Square that has a very solemn monument – an empty coffin beneath a stone tile. The square is home to the Museum of Fine Arts. The park is bordered by a winding avenue and has plenty of playgrounds, sports fields, small gardens and green esplanades. It also accommodates the Municipal Zoological and Botanical Gardens, the Transport Museum, a Municipal Circus, a funfair and Aviation Museum (located in the Petofi Hal), and the Vajdahunyad Castle which is home to the Hungarian Agricultural Museum.
State Opera House (Andrassy ut 22). Considered to have one of Europe’s most beautiful interiors, it is worth taking a guided tour of this building during the day to admire the stunning architecture. You can attend a performance in the evening.
Great Market Hall (Fovam ter). The largest and richest indoor market in Budapest was built at the end of the 19th century when open market facilities were no longer able to satisfy the needs of a growing city. The construction of five market halls was therefore started with the Grand Market Hall being the most attractive and interesting shopping site. It is still a very busy and vivid market, definitely worth a visit if you wish to get a glimpse of the everyday life of ordinary Hungarians. Interested in a food tour, that includes Langos, Unicum and wine tasting? This tour is recommended.
St Stephen’s Basilica. A grandiose cupola dominates the edifice, offering visitors a good view of the city from its rim. From the unique 360-degree circular lookout you can admire Budapest from a height of 65 meters. A modern and secure elevator will take you most of the way up, from where you climb to the circular lookout on a spiral staircase.
Parliament (pictured below). This is Hungary’s largest building and its design is based on the Houses of Parliament in London. It comprises of 691 rooms with the National Assembly Hall and Domed Hall the most impressive. Unfortunately you have to take a tour to see the interior. This tour is recommended.
Vaci Street. This was the first street in Budapest to be pedestrianised, but it was one of the best places for shopping long before this change.
Momento Park. When communism ended, instead of destroying all the statues and monuments around the city, they put them all in this park situated about 30 minutes outside the center. If you love Soviet-era monuments you’ll love this.
The House of Terror (aka Communism Museum). Having survived two terror regimes, it was felt that the time had come for Hungary to erect a fitting memorial to the victims, and at the same time to present a picture of what life was like for Hungarians in those times.
Above: Heroes Square
Some people come to Budapest with the sole purpose of relaxing on one of its famous Spas. The one I recommend is the Szechenyi Thermal Spa in the City Park , especially in the summer. But Rudas Spa, located at the Buda side of the Elisabeth Bridge (great white bridge), is just as pleasant for a relaxing afternoon splash in its hot thermal water (you can even go on a Saturday night – they’re open all night starting at midnight). Gellert Spa is also a beautiful spa. There is also a 500-year-old spa called Kiraly Furdo . It’s located a 5-minute-walk from the Buda side of the Margaret Bridge. Main page for ALL historic spas in Budapest.
For the Szechenyi Spa, I really recommend pre-buying your ticket if you go in the summer. You can do that here. But the tour also has a lot of extras like hotel pickup, private change cabin..it’s all worth it for a day at Szechenyi.
Above: Széchenyi thermal bath
A Few Tours we Recommend
- The Hop On, Hop Off Bus. Budapest (unlike many European cities) is well suited to the Hop On Hop Off and you can basically see all the sights in the span of the 48 hour validity of the tickets. Very much recommended.
- A River Cruise. Especially in the summer. And as you see it is very inexpensive. If you want something a little fancier, you can have a romantic dinner cruise.
- An Organ Concert at St. Stephen’s Basilica.
- Pre-buying your ticket for the Szechenyi Spa.
- A Tour of the Parliament building.
Above: Sunset over Fisherman’s Bastion.
Recommended Itinerary for ‘A Perfect Day in Budapest’
– Make your way to Batthyany Ter (square) by public transport (metro station) and start your day with a delicious breakfast in Nagyi Palacsintazoja (Granny’s Pancake Restaurant).
– Walk southwards towards the Chain Bridge by the river until you reach the funicular. Go up to the Buda Castle by the funicular, enjoy the lovely view and take some pictures.
– Wonder around the castle district all the way to the Fisherman’s Bastion and enjoy the beautiful panoramic view. Explore beautiful Matthias Church. Before leaving the castle district, don’t forget to have a morning coffee and cake in Ruszwurm Cafe. It claims to be the oldest confectionery in the city (it is located at the corner of Trinity Square, next to the Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion).
– Walk down the steps from Fisherman’s Bastion, turn right and walk down the street all the way back to the Chain Bridge.
– Walk through the Chain Bridge (the first permanent bridge built on the Danube).
– Get on the tram (No.2) stopping at the other side of the bridge (Pest side), running towards your right as you look at it from the bridge and enjoy the view of the Buda side as you travel alongside the Danube.
– Get off at Liberty Bridge (great green bridge, it can’t be missed) and walk to the Great Market Hall which is located next to the bridge on the right hand side of the square (buy some Hungarian paprika, as you may want to make some traditional Hungarian dishes on your return home).
– Have lunch at Fakanal Restaurant, located on the mezzanine floor of the Great Market Hall with a view of the colourful market buzzing under your feet. This place offers typical Hungarian dishes, preferred by the locals and a is great place to grab some lunch while sightseeing.
– Walk across the square and all the way down on Vaci Street, which is the equivalent of the Oxford Street in London but slightly more elegant in style.
– Arrive at Vorosmarty ter (square) and have a delicious cake with a coffee in Europe’s greatest confectionery, called Gerbeaud. Try a gerbeaud cake which is named after the confectionery, relax with a coffee and watch the people passing by).
– Walk down to the metro station (located at the same square) and get on mainland Europe’s oldest underground, called Millennium Underground (the first was built in London but this is the oldest on mainland Europe and the second oldest in the world) and travel all the way to Hosok tere station (Heroes Square station, it is the 8th stop).
– Walk around huge Heroes Square. It’s impressive. Here you can either walk to the City Park, located right behind the Heroes Square, or turn back and start walking down on Andrassy Avenue.
– If you decide to go to the City Park (which I would strongly recommend), start walking to the left and soon you will see the magnificent building of the Szechenyi Thermal Spa on the right hand side of the road. You will need to spend a good 2-3 hours soaking in its thermal pools (ticket cost around £9) and don’t forget to have a massage as well. This is the largest spa complex in Europe with numerous inside and outside pools, saunas, steam rooms and massage facilities. Don’t forget your bathing suit!
– Come out of the spa refreshed and relaxed and walk right through the park (nearly back towards the Heroes Square) to see the Vajdahunyad Castle located next to the boating lake. The artificial lake, next to the castle becomes Hungary’s largest outdoor ice skate rink in the winter.
– Short walk back to the Heroes Square and either walk or get on a bus running down on Andrassy Avenue, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and enjoy the view of the elegant neo-renaissance and neo-baroque villas and mansions dating back to the early 19th century lining both sides of the Avenue.
– Get off the bus right after the huge junction/roundabout, called Oktogon (tram crosses the roundabout) (**museum option here, see further below)
– Walk to Liszt Ferenc Ter (square), located after the roundabout on the left hand side of Andrassy Avenue, and have a casual drink in one of the many cafes and bars on the Square. It is a very popular place amongst the locals with many bars and party places open through the night.
– After having some rest, walk all the way down on Andrassy Avenue, where you will pass the Hungarian State Opera on the right hand side and some other historic buildings.
– You will find most of the elegant shops at this end of the Andrassy Avenue as well.
– At the end of the Andrassy Avenue, you can see an enormous cupola rising between the houses, this is the St. Stephen Basilica , located slightly to your right.
– Walk all the way down on the pedestrianised Zrinyi Street or Jozsef Attila Street (next to the Basilica), which will take you back to the Danube and the Chain Bridge .
– If you still have some energy left, hop on the tram (No.2), running to your right as you stand facing the Danube. A few stops later get off at the Parliament Building It is one of the largest Parliament buildings in the world. It has a long history but probably the most interesting story is that when the Queen’s singer Freddy Mercury was in Budapest in the ‘80s, he wanted to buy it.
– Walk to the Margaret Bridge (next bridge from the Parliament to the right/downstream, and get on the tram that is running through it (No 4 or 6). Enjoy the view of Margaret Island on the right hand side and the UNESCO protected landscape on the left hand side.
– Get off at the Buda side of the bridge. Time for dinner and the closest restaurant is Trofea Grill Restaurant (located in the first building as you leave the bridge on the left hand side). It has great service and quality traditional Hungarian as well as international cuisine.
– Alternatively, you can get back on the tram and go to Spoon Cafe and Lounge. There you can have a stylish dinner on a boat with beautiful view of the Buda Castle and Chain Bridge on the other side of the Danube. Alternatively, get on the other tram running from the foot of the Margaret Bridge on the Buda side to get to Symbol which is a trendy restaurant in Old Buda (4th stop by tram). If you prefer a traditional Hungarian restaurant then get on the suburban, stopping at the foot of the Margaret Bridge on the Buda side, and travel 3 stops to Arpad Hid (Arpad bridge, next bridge upstream to the north). Get off here and a short walk to either Kehli Restaurant for a proper traditional Hungarian cuisine with live gypsy music, or alternatively you can visit another traditional old Hungarian restaurant here called Uj Sipos Restaurant , which is the meeting place of the last members of the famous “Magnificent Magyars” football team, who beat the whole world in the ’50.
– Finish off the day with a visit to a ruin bar. I recommend Szimpla Kert. See my post on Ruin Bars here.
Above: Tram #2. Fun to take even if not going anywhere…
My preferred area is around the Astoria area (you’re centrally located and in walking distance to the Old Town sights as well as the ruin bars). An excellent budget suggestion is K9 Residence. Two great Mid-range options are City Centrum Apartman and Roombach Hotel Budapest Center. Some really nice high end hotels are Aria Hotel Budapest by Library Hotel Collection and Hotel Moments Budapest. Have a look at the deals finder below to see the hottest deals.
Flights (and hotels). Ferenc Liszt International Airport is located about 30 minutes from Central Budapest. The easiest and cheapest way to get there is by taking the 100E bus from Deák Ferenc tér (the main square at the end of Andrassy). We use Expedia for all our flight bookings. We also use it to book hotels when bundling a flight with a hotel stay (bundling flights and hotels results in big savings on Expedia).
Above: New York Cafe
Guide to Eating, Drinking, Dancing & shopping in Budapest
Where to Eat
KEHLI RESTAURANT – 22 Mokus utca in Obuda. A cozy family-owned tavern, the menu serves traditional meat dishes. Apparently the actress Rachel Weisz likes to eat here when she visits the city.
GUNDEL RESTAURANT. Allatkerti ut 2 ut City Park (Pest). The city’s fanciest and most famous restaurant is also considered to be one of the best in Eastern Europe.
SIR LANCELOT. VI. Podmaniczky u. 14. Medieval theme restaurant, which clearly doesn’t take itself too seriously. Food and drink are served by ‘buxom wenches’ who actively encourage customers to get plastered. Entertaining, especially if you plan on going with a small group. Not the best place for vegetarians though…
IGUANA BAR&GRILL. V. Ker. Zoltan u. 16. Voted Budapest’s Best Mexican Restaurant five years in a row! Specializes in authentic Tex-Mex cooking, with a menu that famously offers “everything from chorizo to cheeseburgers”. Iguana also hosts Europe’s biggest Cinco de Mayo Street Party, held at the beginning of May when they take over the street with live music, outdoor grills and dancing till dawn.
PILVAX RESTAURANT. 1052 Budapest Pilvax köz 1-3. The old Pilvax Coffee House acted as a focal point in one of Hungary’s most illustrious moments, the outbreak of the 1848 War of Independence. Today it functions as a first class restaurant on an attractive and quiet side street in the very heart of Budapest. The menu ranges over international and traditional Hungarian dishes to delicious health food. During warm summer evenings their charming terrace decked out with greenery tempts one to take an intimate supper by candlelight.
SZAZEVES 100-YEAR-OLD RESTAURANT. 1052 Budapest Pesti Barnabás utca 2. Százéves/100-year-old Restaurant is Budapest’s oldest hostelry. In fact it originally opened in a small Baroque building in the heart of the city in 1831. Furnished in rustic, period style to generate an authentic and elegant environment, Százéves serves the very best of Hungarian and international cuisine as well as the finest Hungarian wines. The intimate ambience is enhanced by candlelight and Gypsy music.
ROBINSON RESTAURANT. XIV. Városligeti Park on the lake. Right in the heart of the city, with its own island on the City Park lake near to the Heroes’ Square. In the summertime there is a beautiful view from the open air terrace to the lake with its fountain, in the winter the fireplace ensures the special surroundings for the culinary delicacy.
Alcohol (including some Special Hungarian Drinks)
Wine – Hungary is famous for its fine wines.
Beer – have become increasingly popular in recent years, the popular brands are Dreher, Kobanya and Arany Aszok all of which are meant to compliment well the traditional Hungarian dishes.
Palinka – distilled from fruit such as apricot and cherry. Plum is the favorite amongst the locals.
Tokaji – a dessert wine ranging from sweet to dry.
Unicum – Hungarian herbs are used to produce this bitter liqueur, drink as either an aperitif or digestive with coffee.
Cafes and Coffee Houses
GERBEAUD. Vorosmarty ter 7 (Pest). Budapest’s most famous coffeehouse, opened in 1858 with a vast interior, decorated with velvet curtains, silk wallpaper and crystal chandeliers. Chocoholics in particular will think they have died and gone to heaven.
NEW YORK CAFE. Erzsébet krt. 9-11; The most opulent of Budapest’s coffee houses. Spectacular. But expensive.
ANGELIKA CAFÉ. Batthyany ter 7. Housed in the former crypt of the pretty St Anne’s church, this café has a stylish, comfy interior with a good selection of cakes and a few choices of savory dishes.
BECSI KAVEHAZV. Apáczai Csere János utca 12-14. Although to some, the upmarket setting of the Hotel InterContinental represents the more expensive side of the Budapest café scene, prices are surprisingly reasonable. What’s more, the mouth-watering selection of cakes and pastries on offer are among the best in town. Well worth a visit.
RUSZWURM CUKRASZDA. I. Szentháromság utca 7. This small, but charming pastry shop began life as a coffee house way back in 1824. The fine Biedermeier interior, together with the sheer variety of mouth-watering cakes on display makes the Ruszwurm well-worth a visit
Where to Dance
FAT MO’S MUSIC CLUB. Budapest, V. Nyáry Pál u. 11. A music venue, bar and restaurant rolled into one. The club stages regular DJ sets, along with jazz, soul and blues nights. Seemingly around forever, the club has still managed to retain its popularity, both with locals and expats alike.
COTTON CLUB. Budapest 1066, Jokai u. 26. In the heart of the city center, on the corner of Jókai and Weiner Leo Street.They bring you back the atmosphere of the good old days. They have a Restaurant, Orpheum hall and Cigar room.
KAMELEON CLUB. II. Lövőház u 1-5. Looking a bit TOO much like Tony Montana’s boudoir (ie. Scarface), the Kaméleon Club is actually located on the 4th floor of the Mammut II shopping mall. Lots of Latin nights while there’s a pleasant enough restaurant and bar area. Proclaims itself a techno/trance free zone!
School Club (Közgáz Pinceklub). IX. Fővám tér 8. Student disco located in the bowels of the city’s Economics University. Disco oriented grooves and a weekly karaoke are supplemented by cheap beer and no-nonsense food. Bouncers have a reputation for being real bruisers, so keep out of trouble!
Above: Ruin Bar in Budapest
Where to Shop
Most shops are open Monday-Friday 10am-6pm, and Saturday until 1pm, with most supermarkets open from 8am up until 6 or 7pm. Some shops in the city centre have started to stay open later on Saturdays.
There are also several convenience shops that are open 24 hours, which will sell alcohol, cigarettes and a limited range of food items. The price of all goods in Hungary includes a VAT of 27% (AFA), with the exception of antiques and works of art. Some of the department stores in the city are housed in spectacular buildings so may be worthwhile seeking out if only for ‘window shopping’.
Despite price rises since the return to the free-market economy, there are still some bargains, in particular actual Hungarian goods.
The main shopping areas are located in central Pest to the south of Vorosmarty ter. In and around the pedestrianised Vaci utca and Petofi Sandor utca there is a large variety of designer, more expensive shops, but here and dotted throughout the Pest side you will also find modern shopping malls across the city that house M&S, Benetton and similar ‘high street’ shops.
Varhegy (Castle District) is where you will find quaint, small shops, which will provide a good choice of souvenirs. Antiques stores and galleries can be found in Flak Miks utca, Vaci utca and the Castle District are also key areas for antiques.
Markets are an essential part of life in the city and it has several traditional market halls, which were built in the late 19th century. Three of the most popular markets are:
– The Great Market Hall. Fovam ter – known officially as the Central Market Hall is the largest with more than 180 stalls selling a variety of fruit, vegetables, meat and cheese, open 7am-6pm Monday-Friday and 7am-1pm Saturday.
– Ecseri Flea Market. 156 Nagykorosi ut in district XIX – anything from second hand clothes to porcelain, silverware and jewellery, open 7am-2pm Monday-Saturday.
– Jozsefvarosi Market. Near to Jozsefvaros Pu on Kobanyai – includes goods from China and Southeast Asia at bargain prices, with Russian vodka and caviar, Stalinist memorabilia and the usual fashion fakes.
If you want to eat in a particular restaurant it is wise to reserve a table.
Restaurants are non-smoking and for tipping, give an extra 10-15% of the total bill.
Tourists are always easy targets for inaccurate bills so it is always worth having a quick check through.
Related (if you have more time in Budapest: What to See and Do in Budapest (and what to skip)
This destination guide is contributed by Viktor: born and raised in Budapest, he ran the trade and marketing department of the Hungarian Tourist Office in London for 6 years. He now has his own tour company, organizing tailor made tours for individuals, groups, schools, and sports teams. He’ll show you the best of Budapest and the Hungarian countryside (including tours of the amazing castles of the region!). See his tours on Hungary4U.
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