Budapest is a true European gem, a magical city in eastern Europe.
Budapest is home to fairytale architecture, fun nightlife, delicious food, relaxing thermal baths and sparkling sights set against the Danube River.
Things are old, almost retro, and so affordable.
We couldn’t get enough of the Hungarian capital in our three days visiting.
Before you travel to Budapest, you should know the city is divided into two parts, Buda and Pest, separated by the river Danube.
Once, Buda was the home of royalty (still marked by a castle), and Pest, on the other side, was a commercial hub.
In 1873, both formerly separate cities merged together. Although the sides have joined today, you’ll find noticeable differences in each side. Buda is more quiet and residential, not to mention hilly, whereas Pest is buzzing with nightlife and bars.
What to Do
Get to Know the City On a Free Walking Tour (And Don’t Miss Vörösmarty Square)
Google ‘free walking tour Budapest’ for options. We did one that was 2.5 hours, and perfect for getting acquainted with the city. Each tour has a slightly different route, but most visit typical sites like, Gresham Palace, the Chain Bridge, Parliament, and even Fisherman’s Bastion.
On our tour, we visited a bunch of places, learned how the city was connected and where they were in relation to each other, and then revisited ones that interested us afterwards.
It’s likely your tour will start in (or walk through) Vörösmarty Square. This square is home to shopping, and some great traditional coffee houses, that serve up Hungarian desserts with your coffee or tea drink.
At Christmas time (when we visited), the city’s largest Christmas market also happens in the square. Strolling it is a wonderful way to sample traditional food and drinks, while admiring artisan handicrafts.
See Parliament + the Shoes on the Danube
Budapest’s parliament is one of the most impressive government buildings in the world. Its gothic style is the largest ever built in a country.
Admire it from the outside, and then head inside for a 45-60 minute tour, which will show you some of the building’s 691 rooms.
Outside of Parliament, you’ll notice shoes along the Danube. These are a tribute to the Jews who were shot into the river by the Arrow Cross Party police during World War II. It’s estimated that 20,000 people were murdered along the river’s banks.
Visit Ruin Bars
One of our favourite parts of Budapest? The ruin bars. Ruin bars are built in the city’s old Jewish district in abandoned buildings.
The premise for most ruin bars is simple: Rescue a bar, fill it with flea market or discount furniture, decorate with local art and serve cheap drinks. Think speakeasy meets your average bar.
Many of the cities ruin bars are located in the Jewish Quarter. Less than 100 years ago, this was a run-down area. Nowadays, it’s a haven for trend cafes, hip ruin bars and street art.
Two of our favourite ruin bars:
- Szimpla Kert: The ruin bar featured in all the guidebooks for being the first one in Budapest. Aside from it being early to the scene, it’s a must visit for good reason- it’s multi-levels with a bunch of rooms. A trip to a bar actually feels like an adventure in its own
- Puder: Cool, interior decor and a chill vibe. Plus, mulled wine for £1.25 – need I say more?
Admire the View from St. Stephen’s Basilica
The interior decoration of the basilica is gorgeous and not to be missed, and for a few euros, you can take an elevator to the top for a panoramic view of the city.
Walk Across the Széchenyi Chain Bridge
The first stone bridge that connected Buda to Pest, walking across this bridge is an activity in itself.
Near sunset, it’s common to see people sit and stand near the sides of the bridge to watch the day end.
Watch the Sun Rise or Set at the Fisherman’s Bastion, and Visit Budapest Castle
With neo-gothic and neo-Romanesque design, the bastion is straight up Harry Potter vibes. Located on Castle Hill is a must-see in Budapest.
As the site is quite popular, it’s best to come first thing in the morning, or late in the day. It’s not that the bastion is less beautiful when it’s crowded, but I do believe there’s something to be said for how enjoyable places like the bastion are in the company of few others than crowds of visitors.
Either from the Bastion, or on your way there, walk to the Budapest Castle. There’s a trail that runs above the riverfront. It breaks off to the steps that connect to the riverfront, but the trail itself can be a bit hidden. It’s easy to spot using Google Maps, and only takes about 10 minutes to walk from the castle to the bastion, plus the views from the trail- of the trees and the river- are beautiful.
Once at the castle, admire the place where the kings of Hungary used to live. Inside, you can visit the Hungarian National Gallery and Budapest History Museum.
And, when you’re done, take the funicular back down to the city.
Relax in the Thermal Baths
With over 100 thermal springs beneath the city, it’s no surprise thermal baths are an essential part of Hungarian culture.
Thermal bath water contains minerals, which are said to be healing, and the water itself usually ranging from 70-172 Fahrenheit, so it feels like a lovely, warm bath.
Szechenyi Baths are the largest thermal baths in the city, and in all of Europe. They have 18 pools on site, including their popular outdoor pool.
Gellert Baths are another one of the most popular thermal baths in the city, and if you’re up for an off-the-beaten path adventure, head to Rudas baths- they’re less busy, and feature a beautiful rooftop pool.
Whichever bath you decide to visit, buy tickets in advance (if it’s an option) so you don’t have to wait in line. And, go early for chances of it being less crowded.
See the City Light Up at Night From a River Cruise
An impromptu river cruise was one of our favourite things we did in Budapest. For only €8, we went on a 90 minute cruise down the Danube, seeing Budapest’s beautiful, historic buildings lit up in the night.
There are a bunch of cruise providers, we went with no-frills Portum Lines. Our boat had was comfortable enough, and our cruise included a free drink.
Where to Have Coffee
Budapest has long been known for its cafe culture. Back in the day, artists met at coffee houses to share ideas while sipping cups of coffee and eating cake. Then, hundreds of cafes graced both sides of the river, long before world wars and communism ravaged the city.
Today, the third wave coffee scene in Budapest rules. During our time in the city, we enjoyed visiting a mix of more traditional coffee houses and modern cafes-
- Double Shot: Named for its drinks, which come with a double shot of espresso. The coffee here is ace, the brunch delicious, and the vibe is cozy. Both times we visited, it was mostly locals, which made it feel like we’d discovered a real gem
- Espresso Embassy: One of the city’s original third wave coffee shops, Espresso has all of the modern extraction methods, from Chemex to Aeropress. They also roast their own beans, which are fantastic
- My Little Melbourne Coffee: One of the best flat whites I’ve ever had- unsurprisingly, at an Aussie owned cafe. There’s seating upstairs, and a small brunch/pastry menu if you up for a bite to eat
- Vinyl & Wood: Lovers of classic Italian coffee will feel at home here. Operating as part-coffee shop, part-Vinyl record store, whether you stay for a while to sip brews or just pop in to browse labels, it’s a definite vibe
- New York Palace Cafe: Hailed as one of the world’s most beautiful cafes, and for good reason- it’s gorgeous. At the turn of the 20th century, it was the most popular coffee house in Budapest. However, that fame comes with hype, and in the case of New York Palace, we did feel it was over-hyped. We also had an incident with the staff, which soured our experience a bit. I’d come, because the details truly are exquisite, but level your expectations
- Gerbeaud Cafe: Stopping at least one of the city’s traditional coffee shops is practicially mandatory in Budapest, and Gerbeaud is a central, beautiful option
Where to Eat
If you’re not a vegetarian, you’ll need to try all of the Hungarian classics. If you are a vegetarian, like me, you’ll still find lots of great places to eat in Budapest, but likely won’t be digging into Hungarian food much.
In fact, the only true Hungarian dish I tried was Langos, disc shaped, deep fried bread. It’s a cheap and popular street food you’ll find throughout the city’s markets, and at food stands.
- Mazel Tov: My favourite place to eat in Budapest, it’s great Israeli food in a beautiful ruin bar. Genuinely the best hummus, falafel, tabbouleh and shakshuka I’ve had outside Israel
- Hummus Bar + Olive Tree Hummus: Both great options for more Israeli eats in Budapest (can you tell I was craving a certain kind of cuisine on my visit?)
- London Coffee Society: Great for brunch
- Pizzica: The move for late night slices after a night out in the Jewish quarter
- Tereza: Craving Mexican? Hit up Tereza- is it overpriced (especially for Budapest)? Sure.
Where to Drink
In addition to the ruin bars, I mentioned above, we also enjoyed trying Hungarian wines at Doblo Wine & Bar, and had a beautiful craft cocktail at Blue Fox.
If you’re out to party, you’ll find the best scene in the Jewish Quarter- there are ruin bars aplenty, and a few spots that are built for lively nights out. One night, we visited Fuge and Extra- both were bar meets club scene. Added bonus: Extra had a food market situation.
Extra Budapest Travel Tidbits
Language: Hungarian, although transactional English is widely spoken in the tourist areas, such as in bars/shops/walking tours/attractions
Safety: We never felt unsafe in Budapest, but the nightlife scene can be a bit raucous, so if you’re going out late night, keep your wits about you
Currency: Hungarian forint. Although Hungary is a part of the European Union, they have yet to adopt the Euro.
We carried a bit of cash on us, but also used contactless card for many purchases- especially at upmarket places
Budget: Like much of eastern Europe, chances are you’ll find Budapest affordable in relation to other parts of Europe. We visited in between a trip that took us to Norway and Scotland, and couldn’t stop remarking how affordable everything seemed to be by comparison
Getting There: We arrived by FlixBus from Bratislava, which dropped us at a bus depot outside of the city. To get to our hotel, we called a taxi via the Bolt app. Leaving the city, our flight left early morning, so we also took a taxi to the airport, although there is an airport shuttle that will take you from the airport to the center of town, and vice versa
Getting Around the City: Many of the main sights in the city are walkable, but some are spread out, and the city itself is big. To get around with ease, purchase a block of metro tickets- good for use on the underground, trams or buses. When bought as a block, they come out to about $1.40 USD a ticket. Generally, when travelling, I always find it easier to have a pass or tickets than pay per ride, especially when exact change is needed. To buy a block of tickets, just visit any underground (subway) station- you’ll find ticket machines there.
Where to Stay: We stayed on the Buda side of the city, at the Mercure Budapest Castle Hill. We enjoyed how spacious the rooms were, and how easy it was to get around the city with the hotel being on a tram line. However, if returning, I’d consider staying on the Pest side for a different vibe
When to Visit: We visited in December, in between Christmas and New Years. Most days, the weather was about 45-55 degrees, which meant we needed coats to walk around, but weren’t too cold. We had great weather during our stay (little to no rain), and loved there weren’t too many people around the city since it was the off-season
Tipping: Tipping is widely practiced in Hungary expect to round up at least 10%
WiFi Access: We had access to cell service via our EU plans, and noticed some upmarket cafes had WiFi available. However, I wouldn’t count on having easily available access, and either pick up a SIM when you enter, or bring a wireless hotspot, like a TEP
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