I was born and raised in Budapest, so needless to say how close it is to my heart. Whenever I go home, I mostly chill at my parents' house, enjoy some quality time and only leave a day or so to do the mandatory 'sightseeing' and photo shoots. I guess that makes me an expert on 'Budapest in 24 hours'. It is such an up-and-coming city with immerse history! I'm excited to take you with me on this journey.
Did you know that this beautiful city is actually made of two cities: Buda and Pest? I'm not going to give you a history lesson because I know that's not why you are here, but to understand the layout of the city and the transportation, you have to know that the east side of the city is Pest (where all the nightlife happens), the west side is Buda (with fancy neighborhoods) and the two parts are divided by Danube River. There are 7 bridges where you can cross (+ two railway bridges but you don't need to worry about those).
Most of the attractions below are stunning (and very different) day AND night. I recommend checking photos of them online and deciding which ones you want to see during the day, and which would be better when lit up. You cannot go wrong either way.
Depending on which area of the city you are staying, you will either take the train or the bus. There is no underground system (Metro) that will take you to the airport.
I always use Google Maps directions to help me with public transportation planning - it works amazing, easy to use and is very accurate. You can also just take a cab if your budget allows.
Within the city
Metro (underground system): the most popular way to get around in the city. It's quick and takes you basically anywhere in Pest.
Bus: it connects you to places where the Metro doesn't take you and also the way to get around in Buda. Since it's traffic dependent, obviously slower than the Metro.
Tram: another convenient way to travel. Yellow trams run on most main streets, some of them are fancy, others are old school looking but regardless it's great way to get around the city without wasting time to go underground to the Metro.
Day 1 (must see/do/eat)
Start the day in Pest and start early. I guarantee you don't want to miss the first rays of sun at the Fisherman's Bastion. Then you can walk around the Buda Castle district. There are art exhibitions, cute cafes and restaurants, lots of history and epic views; there is something for everyone.
While going up to the hill before sunrise is only possible by bus, coming down will be more scenic. The Budapest Castle Hill Funicular is a fun experience and convenient way to get from the Castle down to the next spectacle. It used to be pretty pricey so I always warned my friends about it but now that I checked the prices to give you a ballpark, it is actually not as bad as I thought. It's 1200HUF (around $5) one-way. Make sure to get your cameras ready before you get in the funicular because it is a short ride.
Don't miss: Leo Rooftop Bar before you get on the funicular. It's only open during the summer but has killer views and you can grab drinks and snacks later in the day.
You are exactly where you want to be now because you can walk over to the Szechenyi Chain Bridge and the famous Lions, which is one of the most iconic views of the city.
Little known fact that Hungary is called the Hollywood of Europe. Since it is much cheaper to shoot here than in the US, many blockbusters were (and are being) shot in Budapest and in the town of Etyek where there is a major movie studio (nicknamed Etyekwood). You will recognize the bridges and streets of Budapest when you watch I Spy, Inferno, Red Sparrow, the new Terminator, The Debt, and many more movies.
Now you are ready to take on the city and head to Pest. Don't worry, we'll be back in Buda for sunset ;)
Next thing on your list is going to be Hero's Square. It's one of the biggest squares in Budapest and you most probably saw photos of it before. It is surrounded by statues of the Seven Chieftains (who were the leaders of the seven tribes of the Hungarians at the time of their arrival in the Carpathian Basin), and in the middle of the square is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Millennium Monument.
Note: If you are into art, on the two sides of the square are the main art galleries of the city where you can see seasonal exhibitions from the most famous artists around the world.
Keep walking until the square is behind you, and you will see a castle on your right ride as you cross a little bridge. It will take you to Vajdahunyad Castle, which is surrounded by water (like any good castle ;) and it is actually a boating lake where during the warm weather months you can rent a boat and be all romantic.
I hope you're getting hungry because you are FINALLY ready for lunch, and I want to make sure you don't miss the next 3 places.
Let's start grabbing a refreshment at Godzsu Passage. (This is a place where you will want to come back for some nightlife and parties. This cute Jewish neighborhood completely transforms at night into the famous Ruin Bars. There are countless bars and clubs but Szimpla Kert is probably the one I could recommend at night.)
But back to lunch! In the Godzsu Passage area my absolute favorite is Vintage Garden restaurant. They have an outstanding menu and you cannot miss their lemonades. The building itself is one of the most Instagrammable locations in the city with a vintage and floral interior that changes every month (see photos below). If I were you, I would only get a lemonade here (they have a huge selection) because you will want to try ALL the traditional Hungarian dishes at the next location.
The Central Market Hall is where you can shop for souvenirs and get ready for those mouthwatering bites. On the first floor of market hall, you will find traditional, handmade, really special items for purchase. This is not your typical knock off souvenir store, but this is the highest quality and most special one.
On the street level there is a unique indoor 'street food' area. I'm going to give you a list of the traditional Hungarian meal options and you decide what to try. (But pleeeease try all of them at some point ;)
Kifli (basically like Hungarian croissants - best with duck liver pate)
Famous Hungarian Sausages
Cold Sour Cherry Soup
Chicken Paprikash with Hungarian Spaetzle
Chimney cake (this is perfect to take with you for later)
Pálinka (Fruit Schnapps)
Moving on... hopefully you are very full and very obsessed with the Hungarian kitchen by now! Next on your list is the St Stephen's Basilica area, which has beautiful and vibrant pedestrian streets. Random fact: Sophia Loren's son got married in this Basilica. I suggest checking it out on inside, it's stunning.
Just a block or two away you can find Mr Funk Donut Shop. They are famous for their Unicorn Shakes and the cutest looking donuts.
Pro tip: if you want to take a photo of the Basilica with the Unicorn Shake, they will lend you the glass, you just need to take it back when you are done.
The Hungarian Parliament Building is one of the most breathtaking buildings in the city. If you can stay in Budapest for at least a few days and have extra time, you can definitely schedule a tour inside, it's so worth it! You can see the Crown Jewels, the Session Room and the Great Vaulted Room among others. Can you believe this building has 691 rooms?! (*it's the first photo way up in this blog entry)
Depending on how you are doing on time, you might want to take a short walk down to Danube to see a very important art installation, called 'Shoes on the Danube'. It honors the Jews who were killed by the bank of the Danube during World War II and represents their shoes that were left behind as they were being shot and their bodies fell into the river.
As you are nearing the end of the day (or at least the daylight), let's get you back to Buda to watch the sunset from the Citadel (which is a fortress on Gellert Hill) and get the best night view of the city right after.
Day 2 (if you have extra time)
I'm not going to give you an exact itinerary for Day 2 because you wouldn't have time for all, so I categorized them and you can make your picks and mix-and-match.
-Margaret Island: great place to spend at least half a day
-Szechenyi Thermal Bath: it is open year-round but I think the best time visit is during winter when it's cold and you can sit in the steamy water outside, it's pretty dreamy. Best to go earlier in the day if you want to avoid the crowds.
-Boat ride on the Danube: many different companies offer different cruises, day/night/happy hour/dinner/etc, no matter which one you choose, it will be a stunning ride.
-There are many plazas in Budapest but I think the shopping streets are much more fun.
For higher end designer stores go to Andrassy Street, and for more affordable and versatile shopping, hit Vaci Street.
-House of Terror is a really great museum to visit if you are interested in learning more about communism and fascism .
-There is also a museum called Hospital in the Rock, which was an air raid emergency hospital during WWI, and is now also a nuclear bunker museum. It is literally in the 'rocks' of Buda Hill.
-New York Palace Cafe: named The Most Beautiful Cafe In The World, this place is remarkable. It really looks like a palace inside and their food is to die for.
-360 Bar: rooftop bar, great during sunset, you can sit inside these cute igloos. Good happy hour!
-Sirius Tea House: one of my fave places in the city. Amazing tea and snack selection and they have hookahs too if you're into that stuff, but the place itself is awesome because you can sit in these cool little caves up in the wall.
-Pizzoli: ok I'm actually biased here because I know the owners and been going here since I was a kid but I swear this is the best pizza on earth. Family oriented place, nothing fancy just simply great food. It is a bit further away from the city center but easily accessible and worth the ride.
Budapest is has four seasons with a very hot summer and a very cold winter. I have to admit that winter is my absolute favorite season (you can't beat a White Christmas!), so I wanted to dedicate a whole section to the best winter activities.
Christmas Market at Vorosmarty Square
This is THE Christmas experience you won't ever forget. The snow, the hot mulled wine, the decorations, the nightlights.. ahhh I can't even begin to explain how much I love it. In my opinion the Budapest Christmas Market competes (and wins!) with any of the the Austrian and German Markets. You should go after dark for the full experience.
During the winter they open Europe's largest ice rink between Hero's Square and Vajdahunyad Castle and it's really beautiful with the castle in the background. Highly recommended.
During the winter many people will head up to the hills of Buda (called Normafa just outside of the city) for some toboggan fun. There’s a chairlift to help you get back up if needed, but either way it’ll be a whole day of thrills with a view of Budapest in the distance. Some people even take their skis and snowboards but if you are a more advanced skier, this slope won't satisfy you, so stay on the toboggan ;)
Bring in the New Year on the Danube
Budapest is getting well-known for its NYE parties. Amazing fireworks over Danube River, views to die for, and parties at the Ruin Bars make a perfect combo.
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