Budapest fascinates me. It was my first experience of a place that had lived behind the Iron Curtain, the Soviet Union’s barrier to the outside world. Its history can be harsh, but there is such a buzz of energy now, from the bubbling hot springs to the vibrant ruin bars. I think three days is an ideal length of time to get a sense of this city of contrasts – here’s my itinerary, and check out the map at the bottom for all the spots!
Day 1 – A Tale of Two Cities
Budapest was originally two towns – Buda and Pest – located on opposite sides of the Danube River and not officially unified until 1873. Hilly Buda is home to the Castle and famous Fisherman’s Bastion, while flat Pest has the country’s Parliament and many of my favourite cafes, restaurants and nightlife. On both sides you’ll find the famous hot pools and plenty of beautiful architecture – and linking it all are the city’s famous bridges.
Start your day by getting high – for the views, of course! The winding paths that lead up to the Citadella fortress offer tantalising glimpses of the city below, but it’s not until you reach the top that you are rewarded with the full 180 degrees view.
When we visited in autumn there were cute stalls selling comforting hot food and delicious mulled wine – I’m never one to turn down the latter!
Once you’ve taken in every inch of the panorama, make your way down the hillside and along the riverbank to Buda Castle, home to Hungarian kings for more than 700 years. You can take the funicular up but (in my experience at least) it’s quite expensive and often not working. Pro tip: just to the left of the funicular is a gentle winding path that will get you up to the top with ease… and its free!
Today’s palace was built in the mid-1800s and is just part of the huge complex that contains beautiful churches, museums, military patrols and more. You could easily spend half a day here, so it’s your choice whether you want to wander the baroque hallways and take in the exhibits, or move on to the next sight.
And that next sight is the stunning Fisherman’s Bastion which, despite the name, is not a fortress but was built around the beginning of the 20th century and is designed primarily as a lookout. Its seven white turrets, one for each of the Hungarian tribes, make it super-distinctive – it’s a bit like a fairytale building!
Next, descend down the hill to the Szechenyi chain bridge, one of Budapest’s most distinctive bridges. I love the varying viewpoints from each of the river crossings, and this one has great views back to the Castle and also of the Parliament building. From the bridge, follow your nose straight to the imposing St Stephen’s Basilica.
Inside the Basilica is beautiful, with gorgeous ornate ceilings and ancient relics. It’s well worth a wander, and if you haven’t yet had your fill of panoramas, you can also climb to the top, passing in between the inner and outer walls of the ceiling, to take in more views of the town.
After you’ve climbed the Basilica steps, you can definitely reward yourself with one of the beautiful icecreams from Gelarto Rosa, located on a corner of the central square outside. Even in October I couldn’t resist! While you’re enjoying that, stroll through Erzsebet Square on your way to the Dohany Street Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe. The Moorish style building is fascinating just to look at, but the history it represents is also important. The street is one border of the Budapest ghetto and within the complex is a museum dedicated to helping you understand more of the Jewish history of Budapest.
And now – take a load off! You’ve done a lot of walking if you’ve made it this far, so rest your bones at one of Budapest’s beautiful baths complexes. If you’d like to complete the loop you’ve walked today, Gellert Baths are just back across the river, with hot pools inside and out to relax. However, you might have your heart set on the iconic Szechenyi thermal baths complex in the City Park… if so, just hop on the Budapest metro. It’s very easy to use and absolutely gorgeous!
Day 2 – From Terror to Fun!
Today is a mix of sight-seeing and learning more about Budapest and Hungary’s history. I love spotting a city’s iconic sights but, particularly somewhere like Budapest where I’m less familiar with the events that made the place, I like to learn more about it too. Start out at Heroes Square at the entrance to the City Park. Here you can spot many icons of the country’s history, including the Seven Magyar Chieftains and other national leaders.
From here, wander into Varosliget, the City Park. Home to a zoo, many beautiful walkways, and the aforementioned Szechenyi Thermal Baths, we spent most of our time here exploring the Vajdahunyad Castle complex and admiring the lake it wrapped around.
Outside the House of Terror
Next another opportunity to stretch your legs, along the iconic Andrassy Ut Avenue. Home to stunning mansions and many centres of culture, including the Opera House, it’s also the location of the House of Terror. Now I’m a total wuss, and the name of the museum really put me off at first. But I braved it, and I’m so glad I did. The museum is dedicated to revealing the experiences of those who lived under the fascist and communist regimes in Hungary in the 20th century, and as such deals not only with the world wars, but also what happened behind the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union. This aspect is something I knew much less about and was simultaneously fascinated and horrified. I highly recommend – although I’d also say it’s important to get an audio guide if you’re an English speaker in order to understand the most about what you’re seeing.
Stepping back onto Andrassy Ut, continue towards the city centre. Now it’s time for some light relief, while also experiencing a key aspect of Budapest’s culture… it’s ruin bar time!
The ruin bars are now an essential part of Budapest’s night life. They sprang up all over the city, but particularly in the streets between Andrassy Ut and Rakoczy Ut. The bars were started by some enterprising drinkers who wanted a cheap space to drink, and took over the disused buildings and empty spaces that dotted the city, bringing in mis-matched furniture, graffiti and strong drinks.
Throwback alert! Szimpla Kert on my first visit in (gasp) 2013!
Szimpla Kert was the first and I can testify, it is a very fun night out. However, it’s also the most well-known, so if the line is too long for you, stroll the streets nearby. You can do as we did, simply sticking our heads into various bars until we found one that we liked the look of. That’s what led to a great night at Anker’t!
Day 3 – The Blue Danube
Right – by now you’ve seen some of the icons, learned a load, soaked yourself and partied up a storm, or y’know, just enjoyed the city. Today’s itinerary focuses on a leisurely walk up the River Danube, with a variety of stops along the way.
Start at the Central Market Hall – also an ideal place to pick up breakfast or a light snack. The stalls here are a real mix of bakeries, butchers, fresh produce and other bits – you’ll spot an elderly woman chatting over the watermelons with a stallholder, as well as tourists admiring the incredible vaulted ceilings and grabbing a souvenir or two.
Now, exit the Market Hall, turn left, and start your gentle promenade along the river. You might look at the map and think it’s too far but I promise you, between admiring the bridges, the views of Buda and the trams speeding by, you’ll be there before you know it! If you’re not quite able for walking that far, then fear not – the trams will take you along much of the same way.
Your first stop is the haunting ‘Shoes on the Danube’ memorial to a group of Jews murdered during WWII. Towards the end of the war, the vicious Arrow Cross militamen would regularly round up Jews and take them down to the riverbank, forcing them to remove their shoes before shooting them into the water. This memorial serves as a fitting reminder of the atrocity of war and I found it very moving.
Next, the magnificent Hungarian Parliament. It is the largest building in Hungary and its size, coupled with its neo-Gothic spires, brought to my mind Notre Dame of Paris. Its ornate facade features statutes of former kings and leaders of Hungary (in its various historic guises) and although I haven’t yet had a chance to take the tour inside, that too looks incredible!
And now, your final stop – the beautiful Margit Island. When I visited in summer, the island was buzzing with musical fountains, runners, families out for a day in the sun, and those of us crazy enough to hire a golf cart to zoom around! It’s a great contrast to the city streets and if you’re lucky you could catch a concert or one of the pop-up food festivals that take place regularly through the summer.
Getting Around Budapest
I’ve stayed in Air BnBs on both visits to Budapest – the first up by the Parliament and the second down near the Central Market Hall. I preferred the southern location but both were very well-connected to the metro and tram routes, which made getting around easy, especially when heading out to Szechenyi Thermal Baths or coming back from Margit Island. The transport is pretty cheap, and you can also buy various travel cards to make it even more convenient. However, my favourite way to see a city is always to walk and that was easy too – all of Pest is flat, while Buda is hilly but many of the attractions are located on the same hill!
My Favourite Coffee and Eating Spots
My favourite discovery during my latest visit was Karavan Budapest – almost next door to Szimpla Kert, this small but perfectly-formed street food market had everything from vegan burgers to traditional stews. For coffee, check out OneCup and Budapest Baristas. At Magyar QTR, I had an amazing stew but was more jealous of the incredible roast duck ordered by those around me. And if you’re just after a quick but hearty bite, the sausage at Belvarosi Disznotoros might be just what you’re after!
I hope that this itinerary has inspired you to book a trip to Budapest soon! I guarantee you won’t leave disappointed, no matter whether its culture, relaxation, good food or a history fix that you’re after. The buzz of Budapest remained with me long after I left – and I’m already plotting to go back!
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