What to do in Budapest
Planning a trip to Budapest? You’ve heard the hype and want to check it out? If you’re looking for ideas on what to do in Budapest, you’re in the right place! After spending some time there, I have some good ideas for where to focus and how to make the most of your time.
This is a fairly comprehensive post so I give it a 10 minute read time.
What I’ll cover:
- The city
- Buda vs. Pest
- What to see
- Where to eat
- Where to drink
- Where to stay
Budapest is the largest city in Hungary, but also surprisingly one of the largest cities in the European Union. Buda and Pest used to be two different cities split right in the middle by the Danube river. It didn’t become one united city until the late 1800s. In the time surrounding World War II, Budapest saw occupation by both the Germans and the Soviets and was heavily bombed. (Many of the historic bridges, etc. that you see today have been rebuilt.) After that, it was actually part of the Soviet Union and communist until the very early 1990s.
Yes, I know, you didn’t come for a history lesson. But I bring this all up because the history actually has an impact on the city vibe today. One example of this is what the old Jewish Quarter has turned into which is now a center for one of the coolest Euro nightlife phenomenons, the “ruin pub” (more on that later).
Buda vs. Pest
Buda is known as the “fancy” part of town and is very hilly (steep hills, think San Francisco) with large residential sections. It has sweeping views, palaces, castles and manicured flowers. The famous Fisherman’s Bastion you see in all the Budapest photos is in Buda.
The Pest side is more of the bustling city center. It has tons of bars, restaurants and really holds the “vibe” of the city I experienced. I spent most of my time in Pest. With more time I may have spent more time in Buda, but if you’re traveling through and only have a few days, I’d stay in Pest, but definitely plan to spend a day in Buda. There are some really nice hotels in Buda, but I think staying in Pest is more convenient overall.
What to see
Iconic Spots – Pest
Even with a short trip to Budapest, you can see a lot. Walking around on the Pest side of the river, you should check out the following iconic spots. Plug these into Google Maps and it’s really easy to navigate walking between each stop on a self-guided walking tour.
Pro Tip: Save an offline map of Budapest in Google Maps first to save your data. All of these places should show up in the map directions by typing them in by name. It’s easy then to navigate on the go.
- St. Stephen’s Basilica (pay cash to go up in the dome for panoramic views of the city!)
- Parliament House (This is best seen from the river at night. It glows really beautifully on the water.)
- Kossuth Square (Pretty park outside the Parliament House)
- Liberty Square (You can see the communist “tribute” giving praise to the Soviets that “saved” the Hungarians from the Germans. (Guess who ordered that tribute.) You can also see the oddest statue in the park….wait for it….US President Ronald Reagan, full bod in bronze. Not a joke. The park is actually very nice. Just be prepared to run into Ronnie.)
- Shoes on the Danube River (This is a somber tribute to the Jews that were killed during the Holocaust, shot right on the Danube River. You’ll see men’s, women’s and children’s shoes as a memorial to those sadly murdered in Budapest during World War II.)
- Chain Bridge (Pretty bridge connecting the two sides of the city. This will take you across to Buda so plan logistics accordingly. I recommend cabbing to Buda when you go visit that side and walk back on the Bridge.)
- Walk up Andrassy Ave to Heroes Square (The view along this walk will explain why Budapest is known as “Paris of the East” with the style and sophistication of the buildings lining the street. If you’re short on time, this one is probably my first cut.)
- Shopping on Vaci Utca (This is the main shopping street. Cars are banned so it’s great to walk around. There are also tons of restaurants and cafes. Every European city has that quintessential shopping street. This is Budapest’s. This would be a lot if you were also seeing all the sights above, as it’s in a different direction. So, plan for this to be an outing of its own.)
Iconic Spots – Buda
On the Buda side of the city, I mostly recommend checking out Castle Hill. This is where you’ll see the iconic palaces, castles and churches as well as get great views across the water.
- Buda Castle – Very old (like, 11th century) castle with a wine tasting cellar in the basement (more on that later). There is a funicular you can take up the hill which offers great views. Outside the castle you can also see across the river to the Pest “skyline” and Chain Bridge. It’s really pretty.
- Mathias Church – Right in the castle complex, this church is very pretty with colorful mosaic on the outside. It’s right next to Buda Castle.
- Fisherman’s Bastion – This is that gorgeous palace you’ve no doubt seen in photos. It’s made of stone with turrets and looks like a fairytale. This gets REALLY crowded. It’s probably the top tourist attraction. I recommend going very early or very late to get good photos. It’s a top Instagram spot for sure.
Beyond walking around and snapping photos of all the sights and urban areas (always a top activity in my book) here are some other activities I felt were worth it.
Wine tasting in Faust Cellar
This was awesome. Faust Cellar is in an old medieval underground area of Buda Castle. It was really pretty and the people were great. We tasted only the Hungarian wines. You could do an international tasting, but why not taste local? It was the perfect amount to have fun but not get too hammered, which you may not want in the middle of the day. (Save that for the ruin pubs!) It took about 2 hours. It was also a great way to get out of the heat in the middle of the day. It was dark and cool in the cellar (as it should be). If you want to get in on this, make sure you make a reservation ahead of time. They were very nice over email!
Hungarian Bath House
An ancient tradition still alive today in Budapest is their thermal bath houses. These date back to both the Turkish and the Roman influences of Hungary. These are public “pools” (for lack of a better term) that are surrounded by palatial architecture, giving them more of a spa-like feel. Each has their own character, some more luxurious, some more kid-friendly. The water in the different pools ranges from hot to cold. Some are outside, some are inside. Some are large like a swimming pool, some are small like a hot tub. Some also offer spa treatments and massage. Two popular ones to consider that allow mixed men and women:
- Széchenyi Baths (very large, pretty architecture and a mix of indoor and outdoor pools)
- Gellért Baths (gorgeous indoor baths)
Before you go, look up the opening times on the website to be safe.
Danube cruise at night
This is a must. The banks of the river and the bridges glitter at night and it is gorgeous. BUT, you have to be careful you don’t wind up on a lame cruise. I use TripAdvisor a lot and the one I chose got good reviews but it was just not my vibe. I’m lucky my friends still talk to me. It was one of those “herd people on a boat” and put on a headset for a weird movie blocking the actual view I was there to see. They called it a “cocktail cruise” but we got one beer about 10 minutes before the end. They also wanted us to be very quiet.
I wasn’t looking for a Spring Break party boat but talking to each other about how pretty the views were seemed like it would be OK. I hate to give bad reviews, and I usually don’t have to, but this was a miss. So, while I hate to do this to a tour group that might otherwise be good, don’t use Absolute Tours for the night cruise.
Where to Eat
Costes Downtown – I love my fancy feasts. And I do seek out a Michelin Star or two when I travel. This restaurant was great! It is also a sister restaurant to Costes which was the first in Budapest to earn a Michelin Star. Costes Downtown was the 5th. The food was really great and the vibe was on-point. Cool but not too stuffy. Make sure you head to Costes Downtown and not the other Costes. There was a mix-up with our group which had us late to our reservation.
Vintage Garden – Instagrammer’s dream alert. This place is so inviting with feminine meets industrial meets vintage vibe. Also has a comprehensive menu and great craft cocktails. I’d be surprised if you were disappointed here.
One of the most memorable meals I had? Honestly, it was a gyro cooked up by a random guy at a pop-up stand on the side of the street at midnight. It was to die for. Unfortunately I can’t tell you who he was or how to replicate this exactly, but what I can tell you is that it’s worth checking out the street food scene. Did I mention it was $1? So, yeah. That was a win.
Where to Drink
One of the coolest vibes in Budapest is what’s known as the ruin pub. They are literally (at least originally) built out of old abandoned spaces in the Jewish Quarter. This is one of those gems that came from Budapest’s unique history of occupation and communism. People would get a bunch of old furniture, artwork and vintage decor and set up “shop” in these empty spots. They’d serve booze and get artists and other patrons to add to the decor and the vibe. For this reason, they are all different in personality as well as filled with personality! Nowadays it may be a little bit more profesh than squatters setting up a bar in an abandoned storefront, but either way, the history of how they came about is cool.
The original one, and by many accounts the best one, is Szimpla Kert. I was worried when I was planning my own trip that I’d be picking some place that at one point was cool but now is more of a tourist trap, but that honestly wasn’t the case. There probably were a lot of tourists there but the vibe was on-point. We had such a great time there. It is room upon room of eclectic awesomeness, much outside and some inside. You can go during the day, but I recommend the night.
Another one we visited was Instant. I’m going to be honest with this one, we may have been too old. If you need the weirdest place ever for your Instagram pics, you got it here. But, this one was almost TOO ruin-like (snob, I know) and I think it was for super young 20 year-olds to party their face off. So, we didn’t stay long here. BUT, many people do like it. We ran into a 20-year-old Aussie on the street asking if we knew where it was, beyond pumped to find it.
Grandio Party Hostel was the last place we had drinks after we realized Instant wasn’t our vibe. It was chill and had a great outdoor area to hang out in with tables that could handle bigger groups (like ours was).
So, if you want the no-frills, post-communism-cool, unique ruin bar scene, check it out. We loved it. And, we literally went from our Michelin star meal at Costes Downtown to beers at the ruin bars and party hostels and it all made for the best night ever.
Where to Stay
While a lot of nice hotels are in Buda (Castle Hill area) I say stay in Pest. I like a good boutique hotel, but Budapest is the perfect place for an AirBNB, so I would go that route. It’s the type of place you want to feel the local vibe and it’s also nice to have somewhere to hang out when you’re tired from sightseeing to gear up for the night.
If you DO want to go the hotel route, here are some good boutique hotels to consider:
I stayed at this AirBNB and it was perfect. The place was so stylish and comfortable and the host was great.
So, with that, I wish you good luck on your quest for the ultimate short trip to Budapest! Comment with any questions and I’ll try my best to help!. A couple of articles you may find helpful in making your choice between a hotel or AirBNB: