Everything you need to know to plan an amazing trip to Budapest, Hungary!
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Budapest had been on my list to visit for a long time, but it surprised me with how much fun it was. The city is positively packed with history, beauty, and great food. It hits that sweet spot of being big enough to keep you busy for days, but not so big that you feel rushed if you only have a weekend.
I went to Budapest most recently for the Christmas markets, and they were amazing! I’ve written up a guide to the markets here, and I highly recommend the city in December. Typically they start the weekend of Thanksgiving, so it’s a good one to go early in the holiday season!
Know Before You Go
Budapest is actually two cities combined! I recommend staying in Pest, on the eastern side of the Danube river, because so much of what you’ll want to see is there. Buda merits a day of exploring as well!
Although Hungary is part of the EU, it doesn’t use the Euro! Hungary’s national currency is the Forint. Occasionally places accept Euros, but it’s a bad exchange rate and your change will be in Forint. That being said, most places do take cards! So get a little cash but you won’t need a ton. In three days, the only place we needed cash was for parking.
Nearly everyone spoke excellent English, even down to the night shift parking attendant. That being said, it’s always respectful to try and learn a few works in the local language! Here are a few worth knowing (phonetic in italics):
- Yes: igen (ee-ghen)
- No: nem (nem)
- Thank you: köszi (kew-si)
- Hello: szia (see-yah)
Getting a feel for a city is easiest on the move! Here are my favorite ways to get your bearings in Budapest.
Take a River Cruise
A river cruise is a must do in Budapest. If you can time it right, it’s particularly gorgeous in the evening! Best case scenario is to start at sunset, so you get gorgeous light for the way out and see the architecture all lit up on the way back.
Most are very inexpensive and include a drink. I’d recommend this cruise with a welcome drink or this one with plenty of prosecco.
Join a Walking Tour
Join a walking tour is a universal way to get a sense of the city! These are always cheap and excellent. There are often free tours for tips, or charge a small fee ($10 a person). I love doing a walking tour the first day we arrive – it gives a good sense of which parts of the city I want to spend more time in, and which I see and don’t need to go back for more. The guides also always have great recommendations for local favorite restaurants & bars if you ask!
Ride the Historic Trams
One cheap way to see the city is by riding the historic trams! Route 2 was named as one of the top ten most beautiful tram rides in the world by National Geographic. For about $1, the route takes you along the Danube from the Elisabeth Bridge to the Margaret Bridge, passing many of the major sights along the way. You can also get a 24-hour pass and treat it like your own hop-on hop-off tour of the city!
I list Buda first because it’s a shorter list – easy to do in a big morning or slow day.
Because the Chain Bridge is currently closed for renovations, you’ll start on one far end or the other of the city. These are listed north to south, but they work in either direction. (The Chain Bridge is slated to reopen spring 2023, but no specific date has been released yet.)
Part of Pest’s former city fortifications, Fisherman’s Bastion is now a gorgeous lookout spot! It’s called Fisherman’s Bastion because it was part of the city wall protected by the fisherman’s guild, and the name stuck. It’s a multi-level fortification with several overlooks snaking around Mattias Church. If you’re trying to save money, the ground-level views are free – not quite as Instagram-perfect architecture, but the views are exactly the same!
Matthias Church is definitely worth the ticket because the interior walls and columns are intricately painted! It’s a truly unique church. Don’t miss the second story where you can overlook the nave. Historically, two kings of Hungary were crowned here.
Castle Hill neighborhood
The area connecting Fisherman’s Bastion and Buda Castle is a cute historic neighborhood, perfect for meandering your way through! It’s not very big, so it’s an easy walk between the sights.
Buda Castle includes the ancient fortification for the city and royal palace. The castle grounds house three museums: Budapest History Museum, the Hungarian National Gallery, and the National Széchenyi Library. Even if they don’t interest you, walking through the castle grounds is free and well worth it.
It has some beautiful statues on it, but Gellert Hill is optional to visit in my book. You can also see the statues from other parts of the city or from the ground by the Elisabeth bridge. The citadel on top is currently closed (as of winter 2023). There is a cave church worth checking out at the base of Gellert Hill. Built right into the rock, it’s beautiful and unique.
St Stephen’s Basilica
After living in Italy for years, you’d think I’d have seen my fill of churches. But St. Stephen’s Basilica is a must-see! Named for the sainted first king of Hungary, the space is beautiful. It also houses his right hand, if you’re into relics.
Entry is pretty cheap: about $3 for the church, and $6 for additional access to the roof. It’s worth it for the roof views, and they have an elevator is stairs aren’t your thing!
Hungarian Parliament is considered one of the most beautiful government buildings in the world, for good reason! You can tour it, but even if you don’t choose to go inside, seeing the exterior is a must.
Shoes on the Danube
The Shoes on the Danube memorial is a sobering reminder of the city’s recent history. During World War II, thousands of Jews were executed along the riverbank. They were told to leave take of their shoes first, so they could be stolen and sold.
Did you know Budapest is home to the largest synagogue in Europe? The Great Synagogue is the second largest in the world, and the interior is gorgeous. You can tour it, but their website is tough to navigate, so I’d recommend simplifying and getting a third party ticket from Get Your Guide.
If you have time, a good day three activity is visiting the Széchenyi Baths! Hungarian culture loves public baths, and you’ll find several throughout the city. Széchenyi is the oldest. It’s a massive outdoor heated pool and a few sauna rooms.
Don’t assume it has the same experience as a modern spa. Like a spa, it has massage and treatment on offer for an additional fee. There’s also a beer spa option, mostly for tourists. 😉 But for the base price, there aren’t a ton of different options. It’s fun, but maybe not an all day experience.
Note: swimsuits are required, bring your own. As of winter 2023, you’re also required to bring your own slippers/flip flops and towel.
If you’re in the area, also stop by a few other spots within Városliget, or City Park. Vajdahunyad Castle is beautiful and you can walk through the courtyard area without paying, so wander in for a few minutes. There’s a gorgeous ice skating rink next door! Also see Heroes’ Square, celebrating a millennium of Hungary! Two art museums flank the square.
Budapest’s cost of living is pretty inexpensive, making a refreshing break from Northern Europe and even Italy! You can find comfortable accommodation for really reasonable prices.
I found a VRBO apartment I loved only two blocks away from St. Stephen’s Basilica and steps away from a Christmas market for less than $60 per night.
Prefer a hotel? I stayed at the The Magazine Hotel, which was comfortable and well done for a budget hotel. The Grand Hotel Savoy is a beautiful option if you want something more luxe.
All three of these are in District V, also called Belváros-Lipótváros. Its the central part of Pest, making everything walkable from here. If your focus is going out, I would also look in District VII, the Jewish Quarter, which is a headquarters for much of Budapest’s best nightlife!
Because no trip is complete without great local food, I’ve gathered my favorite restaurants as well!
Want all this in an interactive form? I’ve put all of this and more in a guide on Thatch! It shows everything on an interactive map, perfect for exploring on the go!