What to do in Budapest: The ultimate Budapest city guide
Part of what to see in Budapest entails just walking. And walking. And, yes, walking some more. Don’t be so busy dashing from museum to museum, statue to statue, or memorial to memorial, that you miss the small surprises and gorgeous views that can only be had by “slow travel.” Walk the bridges, including the famous Chain Bridge and also the Liberty Bridge, albeit not as famous but quite spectacular in its contrasting aesthetic. Since the hills allow sunrise and sunset to light up the city and its sights differently, do enjoy the views from both sides of the river – both day and night for different light moods.
Much of Budapest itself is on the UNESCO World Heritage List and worthy of its acceptance there. The Buda side of the river offers the classics – Castle Hill, Hospital in the Rock, Cave Church, an array of museums, and glorious buildings that crown the hillside and tower over the Danube. The Pest side is not to be forgotten – the winding streets of the old town hide secrets around the corners, the Jewish Quarter, City Park and Heroes’ Square. Margaret Island lies in the middle of the river between the two with its Roman ruins and winding pathways – one big urban recreational playground for Budapest residents and visitors. In nice weather, rent a bike, run, walk, or just stroll — with a requisite ice cream, of course. At night, there is dancing, an open-air cinema, restaurants and bars. If you are close by, enjoy the rubberized running track around the island for a beautiful approximately 5k jog.
One tip from a local: Take the little yellow M2 streetcar. It runs along the river and offers a great way to take it all in from the local’s view point, and they love the little M2. It is considered one of the top 10 streetcar lines in the world! And perhaps better than any tourist hop-on-off bus.
One can certainly “do” the city in a day or two, but you would be slighting Budapest’s variations in character, historical insights, and activities by such a short visit. Three full days there, minimum, and if you want a day at a famous Budapest thermal baths, then four or five, please. Our information, above, and guide, below, are most certainly not all-inclusive but will help you get a foot-up on your visit to what is truly one of the world’s grandest cities.
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Getting to and from Budapest
- By Plane – Budapest Airport (BUD) is served by most major international airlines. There are numerous ways to get to and from BUD — mini bus, taxi, train and public transport. Click here to access the official BUD transportation information page. We took the newly introduced (as of July 2017) public bus service connecting the city center with the airport.
The 100E bus can be boarded at Deak Ferenc square (Deák Ference tér officially) right near the entrance to the Metro station (we have the location marked on our map above). Price is 900 HUF. You will need exact change if purchasing from the bus driver. However, if you look carefully at most hours, there are typically several officials who help customers board the bus and who will also, if asked, sell you a ticket and give you change. We purchased our tickets in advance and would recommend you do the same (lines start forming ahead of each arrival at busy times). Buses leave every 30 minutes from city center beginning at 4 a.m.. More information can be found here, on the BUD public transportation website.
- By Train – There are three main international railway stations in Budapest — Déli in the south, Nyugati in the west and Keleti in the east. Various trains offer direct links with major European capital cities, with direct trains to Vienna departing every three hours. For train travel within Hungary, click here to access the official Hungarian train service.
Getting Around In Budapest
Much of Budapest’s city center and historic districts are ideal for walking. In fact, in and around the pedestrian areas in downtown Pest as well as on Castle Hill, walking is the best way to get around. Still, getting from point A to point B — especially when Point B might lie on the opposite side of the Danube — may mean public transportation will give your tired feet a rest and whisk you there more quickly. Budapest has an excellent public transportation network — buses, streetcars, subway and railway (which connects the outer reaches of the city). Rely on the public transport if you need to get around. With a Budapest Card, public transportation is included within the city limits, meaning 200 buses, 32 trams, 15 trolleys, and 4 metro lines (one is currently undergoing construction), as well as the HEV Suburban Railway and even boat taxis crossing the Danube are available for you to use. Click here for more information.
Do realize that in the city center, travel by bus or taxi can be very slow — congestion is mind-boggling. So plan your time accordingly. If you decide you wish to take a taxi from your hotel, or other location, be advised that Budapest taxis are notorious for, well, taking advantage of tourists if you are not careful. Only get in a taxi that is yellow, as those are licensed. Do not just jump in one cued up at the railway or bus station or waiting outside hotels. Insist on the meter being turned on and only pay in Hungarian forints. For more information on taxis, click here.
Finding a WC (toilet)
In Budapest, finding a public toilet can be a bit of a challenge as they never appear to be there when you most need them. One thing we discovered while wandering the streets of Budapest is the easiest way to find a clean, public toilet was to slow down and enjoy a coffee, or beer, or wine (depending on the time of day) at a small cafe and more often than not, a toilet would be available.
For planning purposes, know there are public toilets that are supervised (meaning you pay a fee — currently around 200 HUF) at the rear of the Central Market Hall, in the Metro stations, and in shopping centers. It is advised to carry a little TP for the times there is none in a public facility.
Our tried and true method for any city is to walk into a public space (a large hotel or a larger restaurant frequented by tourists) and act as if you belong there while you make a beeline for the toilet.
The forint (HUF) is the currency in Hungary. Use the calculator from Oanda below to help you manage your money exchanges and know how much something selling in forint would cost in dollars. In many places in Budapest (not elsewhere in Hungary) you will be able to pay with Euro, but expect to pay more. Our recommendation, pay in forint whenever possible.
One price includes free public transport within the territory of Budapest. In addition, each pass provides free one-time entrance to the Lukács Thermal Bath and Swimming Pool. Free entrance to 13 museums. Also, two free sightseeing tours with an English guide, as well as discounts of 10 to 50 percent on other attractions and events. Worthwhile if you want to zip in and out of a number of museums and sights and get between them well. Click on the image to purchase a Budapest Card.
Guided Tours in Budapest
What to do in Budapest — traveling tips & destination advice
Castle Museum of the Budapest History Museum – Admittedly, we are not huge museum fans, although they can be spectacular. The Castle Museum on Castle Hill on the Buda side of the river, however, is fascinating because you can walk through and down into restored palace rooms (restoration still in process in some places!) dating back 2,000 years in some cases. You can easily spend an hour or two there. Focus on the lower historical sections and don’t miss the stairs all the down to the lower floors. Check the website (frankly, with rather abysmal formats and translations) for opening hours.
Hospital in the Rock – We were skeptical. Sounded so touristy, although the caves in the Budapest area are the stuff of legends. We were wrong. Do not miss taking this tour. This is the real deal. A cave system that is some 10 kilometers long where a hospital was installed during WW II and then used again during the Hungarian Revolution. You take a tour (English available) and follow an enthusiastic young guide through a maze of tunnels, lovingly recreated in a somewhat funky but endearing way with old equipment, mannequins dressed like doctors and patients, and other materials. It also served as a nuclear bunker at one point, although was never used as such, and the tour ends with a bit of a plea for avoiding a nuclear war.
Cave Church – Another funky little sight to see is the Gellert Hill Cave church on the Buda end of the Liberty Bridge. It was built into the hill in 1926. You pay to take a self-guided tour – not a big place – but you can also still go to services there. The church was sealed off by the Communists for a time but it was reopened and consecrated in 1992.
Shoes on the Danube – On the edge of the Danube River just south of the splendid Parliament building is one of the most moving memorials we have ever seen, anywhere. Installed in 2005, it is utterly emotional in its simplicity. In sum, once Hitler installed his people in Budapest, they started killing Jews they had already rounded up and shoved into a small, walled-off ghetto. They would march them down to the river, tell them to take off their shoes (since they were valuable) and shoot them point blank. They’d fall into the freezing river and thus ended many tens of thousands of lives. This memorial – just 60 pairs of rusted period shoes of various shapes and sizes along the riverbank — is subtle, only marked by a small plaque at the north end. Go at sunset. Watch people. Think about how fortunate we are.
Ervin Szabo Central Library – Really, we are telling you to go to a library. This one – filled with people doing library things, like studying and finding books – is the former Wenckheim Palace. Purchased by the city in 1927 and opened as a library after renovation in 1931, it is highly worth a little side trip. Two of the reading rooms are grand and palatial with high ceilings and gold leaf and chandeliers in one and elegant wood paneling in the other. Go to the fourth floor and to your left form the elevator. Just south of the Hungarian National Museum on the Pest side of the river. Note: We heard it was free but were charged 800 HUF. Possible you can register as a library patron and get in for free. Worth a whirl. The staff doesn’t really speak English, or didn’t when we were there.
Jewish Quarter – Take up to a day to walk around the Jewish Quarter, also on the Pest side. If you want to spend the entrance money, the Jewish Synagogue is the largest in Europe and fantastic, but so are the exterior exhibits you can see from outside the fence, including the Holocaust Tree of Life Memorial in Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park.
Head over to Dob utca, one block over, and saunter up to the Gozsdu Weekend Market, in an area that is filled with clubs and restaurants. (On the left just before this – Dob utca 12 — is a fascinating memorial (easy to miss) to Carl Lutz, who saved many Jews in the city by giving them false papers.) Past the flea market booths are young local artists selling interesting creations. Look up at the arched buildings and you will see them marked I – VII for the candles on the menorah. Once you exit on Kiraly utca, turn right and, if the gate is open at No. 15, walk in and go all the way back. There, you find a 30m section of the old Jewish Ghetto Wall rebuilt in 2010.
And then there is the Parliament building on the shores of the Danube. You can spend hours just looking at it in different light, it is so splendid. You can of course also visit or take a tour. EU citizens get a grand break in the not-so-inexpensive entry fee.
Where to eat in Budapest
Spinoza Café – A tiny café in the Jewish Quarter, Spinoza definitely caters to post-all-nighters with breakfast all day, but really it’s great for everyone in search of a filling, homemade, extremely reasonable breakfast – superb granola, fresh fruit, eggs off the griddle, super rich coffee. The breakfast special is a steal at the equivalent of USD $5-6. The rest of the meals aren’t to be snubbed either – and the cakes in the case will make you swoon. Check on the evening music schedule. Dob utca 15.
Gerlozcy Café & Brasserie – For those who want to linger over lovingly prepared, gourmet meals should find their way to the small but quaint Gerlozcy Café, part of the Gerlozcy Hotel on the Pest side. The staff is delightfully warm and friendly, and the daily specials well priced for their exquisite preparation. On most weekend nights, you will dine to the tunes of a piano player from the mezzanine too. The outdoor terrace will remind you of Paris (once the city finishes its renovation of the small square in front of it). Gerloczy utca 1.
Mandragora – In a small neighborhood on the Buda side, the Mandragora is a family-run restaurant with homemade food that will warm the cockles of your heart. Hungarian specialties that taste like mom made them. A nice little terrace if the weather plays along. Kacsa utca 22.
Hunyadi Restaurant and Café – Castle Hill is a beautiful sight, but when you want to escape the press of tourists, just a short jaunt below the hill on the Buda side sits the Hunyadi. If you want a nicer, full-service experience with a full menu, go into the restaurant. If you prefer to sit outside with more of a beer garden atmosphere in a small green space in front, choose the café. The menu is quite limited — but still full yum — and the atmosphere in nice weather not to be beat. Either one gives you a little serenity after a day filled with sightseeing. Hunyadi Janos utca 15/17.
Ricsi’s World’s Jewish Street Food – Sandwiches, bowls, fries, knishes, dumplings, and more – all more than you can imagine in their creativity and spices and all dairy and pork free without a microwave in sight. A super eye-catching open-space “food-truck” atmosphere. Accommodates vegan and vegetarian without lacking an iota of flavor. Dob utca 40.
Where to stay in Budapest
You will absolutely love the Gerlōzy Hotel on the Pest side of Budapest. The hotel is located on Gerloczy utca 1. Rooms are basic but the hotel restaurant is notably spectacular and well known (see our recommendations on where to eat). What makes this hotel stand out so much, though, is the amazingly well-trained, friendly, and accommodating staff. You will feel like you are staying with family. If your inclination is more toward a fancy business hotel with a view, you should consider the Art’otel on the Buda side of the river — river-side rooms have a spectacular view of Parliament — and it is where we stayed for one night upon finishing our ExperiencePlus! bike tour along the Danube River to Budapest which you can read about in this story, Biking the Danube – A photo tour. You can also search for other hotels and accommodations using our Booking.com search box, below. By booking your stay using our Booking.com tool, we receive a small commission ,and you pay no more than if you would have booked directly…which helps us keep the lights on here in our offices, so thank you in advance for your support.
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