A Complete Travel Guide to Budapest
Relax in the City of Baths
The Hungarian capital is often referred to as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, which might explain why it is also known as the Paris of the East. However, this nickname is also, in part, due to Budapest’s abundance of beautiful architecture in various styles ranging from baroque and neoclassical to art nouveau.
Although there is far more to it, this city is famed for its thermal baths. It is the largest spa city in the world which has earned it the nickname, ‘City of Baths’. The water here is known for its healing properties and is the perfect place to put your feet up to relax after a long day of sightseeing.
The centre of Budapest is relatively small and can easily be explored, even if you are just visiting for a few days and is ideal if you are looking for short break destinations. It is the perfect destination for friends or a romantic getaway with your loved one.
Budapest at a glance
Budapest is actually formed of Buda and Pest. (In fact, it was very nearly the other way around so you could have been heading to Pestbuda for your trip.) The two distinct parts of the city sit either side of the Danube River and are connected by the Chain Bridge.
The majority of tourists will base themselves in Pest because it is the liveliest part of the capital. This is where you’ll find the heart of the city’s nightlife, the best restaurants and many of the top attractions. Buda, on the other hand, takes you away from the hustle and bustle, offering a tranquil escape especially around the hills. It’s the residential part of the city and so offers a more local feel.
If you are planning to visit to see the two parts of the city for yourself then read on to ensure you make the most of every second.
Travel advice when visiting Budapest
Budapest is incredibly safe. It actually attracts a lot of solo female travellers because of this. Yet you should still take out travel insurance before you visit, just to be on the safe side and, as with any capital city, you should also be aware of your surroundings at all times.
You need to be very careful with your belongings. According to gov.uk, pick-pocketing and bag snatching are the most common crimes in Budapest. Avoid taking out any valuables you don’t need and ensure any you do have on you aren’t in your pockets. You should also be careful about where you put your bag, especially on public transport, in the markets and in restaurants. Taxi scams can also be a problem here. It is best to call one rather than hailing them in the street.
The city, especially the centre, is quite small and, in parts, traffic is restricted or it is pedestrianized. Therefore, it is easy to walk around and often simpler to do so.
However, there is also a metro, trams, trolley buses and buses. You can also take the HÉV railway if you wish to head to the outskirts or the Fogaskereku if you are in the Buda hills. There are also riverboats and the Danube River Ferry Service, which is the perfect way to see the city from the water.
Public transport is both easy and affordable and your ticket is valid across all of modes. However, it is important to know that you must validate your ticket before you travel to avoid a fine. You do this before you reach the platform on the Metro and just after boarding trolley buses, trams and buses.
Average accommodation costs
The average cost of accommodation for one person is £40 a night, or £79 for two people.
Popular attractions in Budapest
Much of Budapest is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so there are plenty of impressive attractions. Here are three of the best that you won’t want to miss.
1. Parliament Building
This is one of the largest buildings in the country, the third largest Parliament building in the world and the most iconic monument in the city. It can be admired from the Buda side of the river, on a boat from the water or you can walk alongside it in Pest. If you would like to get a closer look then you may like to take a guided tour so you can step inside and explore what it has to offer. During the 45-minute tour you’ll see the main staircase and Hungary’s coronation jewels as well as learning about the rules and procedures of parliament. Make sure you book your tickets in advance, the queues can get incredibly long and there are only a limited amount available.
2. Buda Castle
On Castle Hill you’ll find a number of the city’s most important monuments including the famous Buda Castle. This UNESCO World Heritage Site dates right back to the 13th century. Due to a number of architectural updates over the years it looks quite different to how it would have done then, however. Within the castle there are various museums and galleries as well as churches and palaces. You may like to join one of the many tours on offer, including one that takes place after the sun has set.
3. Fisherman’s Bastion
This part of Buda Castle, with its turrets and spires, wouldn’t look out of place in a fairytale. The magical Fisherman’s Bastion is the most popular attraction within Buda Castle. It dates back to 1902 when it was built for the Hungarian state’s 1000th birthday. The lower terrace is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and is free to visit. The upper towers are free in the evening after 8pm or can be visited during the day for a small cost. This is one of the best spots to take in panoramic views across the river, over to Pest and the Parliament building.
The best things to do in Budapest
As well as sightseeing there are plenty of other things to do in Budapest. To make sure you don’t miss the best, here are three you’ll want to plan into your itinerary.
Relax in Szechenyi Thermal Bath
You can’t visit Budapest without experiencing the healing waters at one of the city’s thermal baths. There are nine baths and 123 hot springs to choose from but this one is arguably the most famous. It is the biggest and also the best natural hot spring spa bath in Europe. Szechenyi, which is more than one hundred years old, boasts 15 indoor baths and three outdoor pools You’ll also find a sauna and steam room as well as treatments such as massages. It is the perfect place to unwind, whenever you visit.
See a show at the Opera House
Head for Andrássy Avenue and you’ll find the Hungarian State Opera House, which dates back to 1884. As well as regularly being listed among the most beautiful in the world it is known for its sound quality, boasting the 3rd best acoustics in Europe. You can take a seat in the auditorium to watch the opera or ballets such as The Nutcracker. Alternatively, you may like to go behind the scenes and see the interior during a 30-minute guided tour. As well as seeing the sections that are closed to the public normally, you’ll enjoy a mini concert.
Visit Margaret Island
Situated on the Danube River, between Buda and Pest, you’ll find Margaret Island. This green oasis, which used to be known as Rabbit Island, is connected to either side by Margaret Bridge. The island is just over one and a half miles long and 500 metres wide, so it is easy to wander around and explore. You can discover the island’s history through the many religious buildings, find a moment of calm in the Japanese Garden, swim in the Olympic swimming pool or climb to the top of the water tower. Unsurprisingly, there is also a thermal bath here and a selection of bars.
Excursions from Budapest
You won’t have a chance to get bored in the capital. But, if you would like to take the opportunity to see more of Hungary while you are here, then you are ideally based for a number of day trips.
Head north on the Danube river and you will eventually come to Esztergom, the country’s former capital. It takes about an hour by road to reach one of Hungary’s oldest towns. While you are learning about the city’s past make sure you visit the Hungarian Royal Palace ruins. You may also like to explore the Pilis mountains while you are here.
An hour and 20 minutes from Budapest you’ll find the largest freshwater lake in Europe. It’s no surprise that Lake Balaton is often described as the Hungarian inner sea as it is more than 50 miles long. As well as activities on the water such as windsurfing and sailing, there is plenty to do around it too. Most notable are the vineyards that can be found in the volcanic hills.
If you want to discover what Hungary really used to be like, then make the hour journey to Hollókő. The UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is inhabited to this day, is unchanged from the 17th and 18th centuries. See traditional architecture and experience village life as it would have been.
Food and drink in Budapest
Budapest has earned the reputation of being a food capital. Many of the dishes here are rich and warming, reflecting the colder climate.
Goulash is the most popular and one of the country’s traditional dishes. It is actually a soup but tends to be served as more of a stew that is made with beef.
You’ll also want to try Langos while you are in the city. This is deep fried dough served with sour cream and cheese. It is a street food typically served in Lake Balaton. However, it is known in Budapest for being the perfect pcik-me-up after a night at the ruin bars and you’ll find plenty of places to try it. Head to Fény Street Market to sample this at Lángos Land or Great Market Hall, where you can try a number of traditional Hungarian dishes.
You won’t want to miss Café Gerbeaud, especially if you have a sweet tooth. This famous café, which dates back to 1858, is also the largest and most traditional in the city. There are two treats in particular that you won’t want to miss while you are here. That is konyakos meggy, a dark chocolate covered, sour cherry in cognac and zserbo szelet, a sweet yeast cake with jam and walnuts with chocolate glaze.
To wash it all down why not try Hungary’s national drink, palinka? This is a strong fruit brandy made with various flavours ranging from apple, pear and sour cherry to blueberry, honey and even chocolate.
Alternatively, you might like to sample unicum. This herb-based drink, which is also believed to have medicinal qualities, tends to be served after a meal.
Budapest has a selection of local beer which is fairly cheap but it’s perhaps better known for its wine. One of the most recognisable is the sweet Tokaj wine. Make sure you visit Faust Wine Cellar, a historic wine cellar beneath Buda Castle to try the best Hungarian wine.
Budapest is believed to have the best nightlife in Eastern and Central Europe. It is known for its ruin bars, which are situated in former derelict buildings that have been renovated into a shabby-chic style.
The most iconic and the one you won’t want to miss is Szimpla Kert. The conversion of this old factory marked the beginning of ruin bars and completely changed the city’s nightlife and drinking culture. The mismatched décor is full of character and is best-known for the Trabant car.
If you are in Budapest on a Saturday then make sure you go to a SPArty. This is when the historical thermal bath, Széchenyi, becomes a party venue from 10.30pm until 3am.
Shopping in Budapest
As with most capital cities, Budapest is a great place for a little retail therapy. The best shopping can be found in Pest, especially around Váci Street – the city’s most famous shopping street. Just a short distance from here you’ll find shopping street which is lined with the likes of Lacoste, Hugo Boss and Tommy Hilfiger and Andrássy Avenue, which is home to the likes of Gucci and Burberry.
You won’t want to miss the famous Great Hall Market which is both the oldest and largest in the city. The market which is situated across three floors opened back in 1897. On the lower floors you’ll find food stalls selling fresh fruit, vegetables and meat. As well as picking up produce, you can also sample local delicacies here. Then head up to the upper floor where you’ll find souvenirs.
There are also shopping centres including WestEnd City Center, which is the largest mall in Central Europe. Here you can shop till you drop at a number of well-known retail brands.
Budapest culture and art
The Hungarian National Gallery is situated within wings of the Buda Castle. Here you can see more than 6,000 paintings, 11,000 drawings, 5,000 prints and 2,100 sculptures.
The Museum of Fine Arts is the most important art gallery in the city. Pop in to see one of the largest collections by Old Masters in Europe. It dates back to 1870 and is split into six sections: Ancient Art, Egyptian Art, the Old Painter Gallery, the Old Sculpture Gallery, the Modern Collection and the Graphics Collection.
If you prefer modern art then head for Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art where you’ll find pieces by the likes of Andy Warhol. This museum is situated within The Palace of Arts or Müpa, a cultural hub that is home to contemporary visual arts.
As you wander around the city, between art galleries and museums, you’ll also notice that many of the walls are decorated with street art especially around District 7 and the Jewish district.
To learn more about the country and its residents visit the oldest museum in Hungary, the Hungarian National Museum. You may also like to visit the House of Terror. This building, on Andrássy Avenue, used to be the headquarters of the communist secret police. Today, it commemorates the victims of the regime.
Outdoor adventure in Budapest
Budapest is home to the second oldest funicular in the world. The Castle Hill Funicular dates back to 1870 and boasts views of the city and the river as it takes you to the top of the hill.
The Buda Hills are the greenest part of the city, here you’ll find trails designed for hiking and mountain biking.
You may also like to take the Zugliget chairlift or hike to the top of János Hill. Once at the top you’ll find the Elizabeth Lookout Tower, the highest viewpoint in the city with breathtaking panoramic views across Budapest.
Once you’ve seen the city from above, you may like to explore beneath it to. The thermal water cave, Molnár János Cave, is ideal for cave diving, as are the Kobánya Mines.
While there is plenty of touristy activities that you won’t want to miss during your time in Budapest, you may like to step off the well-trodden trail and explore the other side of the city too.
Explore underground caves
There are more than 200 caves and a caving complex of 75 miles beneath the city, which is a result of its thermal water. Szemlohegyi and Pálvölgyi are two of the most popular caves to explore. While hidden inside Gellért Hill you’ll find a Cave Church. Join a guided tour to discover the world hidden beneath the city.
See the shoes on the Danube Promenade
The iron shoes found along the Danube riverbank on the Pest side are a monument to the Jews that were executed here during World War Two. There are more than 60 pairs of shoes, a valuable item that the victims had to remove before being shot. They are all based on shoes from the 1940s and often have pretty, colourful flowers placed inside them.
Situated in the City Park, alongside the lake, you’ll find this magical castle. Interestingly, this castle was initially built using cardboard and wood and was originally made for an exhibition that celebrated one thousand years of the Hungarian state. However, it was later rebuilt using brick and stone.
Best times to travel to Budapest
Like the UK, Budapest has four distinct seasons. This includes very cold winters and often incredibly hot summers. In July and August, temperatures are, on average, 21°C but can reach the high 20s. During winter you can experience temperatures in minus figures. The best time to visit this capital city is from March to May and September to November when temperatures are pleasant but you can explore without the crowds and the heat. You may also like to visit for the Christmas markets, which run from the beginning of November to the start of January. Make sure you wrap up warm and visit the thermal baths, during these colder days they are absolutely blissful.
Now you know a little more about Budapest, you can start planning your trip to this intriguing city to ensure you make the most of every moment.
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