Budapest is an incredible capital city in Northern Hungary, straddling the Danube River. The city has a rich history of conquests and cultural transfusions, which shows in its wide array of cuisine offerings and the diverse populace. How I like to think of Budapest is the city that retained the Baroque/Romanesque architecture of central Europe, borrowed the convivial bathing practice from the Turks, and adopted the efficient city infrastructure of its neighboring Austrians. Although you could in theory spend weeks in Budapest, simply taking in the local lifestyle, I provide here the ultimate, 2-day itinerary to see the best of Budapest.
If you’re coming in from other parts of Europe while on a longer Eurotrip (which I highly recommend), you may be taking the OBB train into the city. I would highly recommend this method of travel, as it gets you into the heart of the town on the “Pest” (East) side of Budapest, with instant access to its extensive subways. If the train ride is more than 2-3 hours from your departure point, and you have a few extra euros to spare, I suggest you opt for the business class as it provides you with excellent privacy, comfort, and refreshment options (for a small fee). We traveled in from Hallstatt, which was about a 6.5 hour train ride and we opted to upgrade for just ~€30 per person – and it was worth every cent.
Before getting into the itinerary, I also want to mention another pro-tip. As I mentioned before, public transit is the way to go in Budapest as every inch of the city is accessible via subway or the extensive tram lines (see map here). And you may want to naturally gravitate to purchasing a “Budapest Card” for 48-hours or other variants depending on your schedule, and you might be fine with the ~$33 you would spend for each pass per person. However, there are a myriad of “discounts” that the card offers that bump up the price of the card, when all you might want is a hassle-free way to take the public transit without buying a ticket every time. So my suggestion is to visit a nearby BKK ticketing office and purchase the 5/30 BKK Travelcard instead, which gives you 5 separate passes (that can be split amongst 5 people for 1-day each or 2 people for 2.5 days each) that provides 24-hour access to all public transits. In my opinion, this is the better deal at only $15 for the 5 passes. Okay, with that out of the way, let’s get to Day 1!
Upon arriving in Budapest, we checked into our hotel – Budapest Marriott. The central location of the hotel and its amazing views of the Danube was a key reason for us choosing this hotel, as well as it being easily accessible via subway (Vörösmarty tér stop on the M1) and trams (Eötvös tér stop on #2). So on our first day, we ventured out and opted to walk around a bit.
One of the charms of Budapest is in walking through the cobblestone streets and taking in the beautiful architecture. As you pass the eclectic shops in the streets, you’re bound to encounter breathtaking aromas and captivating sights that will indulge your senses and invite you to take a detour. So certainly take this itinerary with a grain of salt, and explore the city as you experience it – since that is the true joy of traveling after all.
We walked towards Buda Castle, crossing the famous Széchenyi Chain Bridge in the process. There were quite a few people on the bridge walkway, many who stopped to take pictures of the cityscape along the Danube. Once at the Buda Castle, there is a funicular you can take to get to the top (~$5 for return trip), which may have long lines depending on when you’re traveling. The castle itself sits on a mostly flat plateau, and has a wide array of buildings and museums strewn throughout the massive castle grounds. I would suggest grabbing a map from the information center so you can plan how to best use your time. Of course, make sure you set aside enough time to take pictures of the aerial view of Budapest.
After making our way down, we made our way to the Central Market Hall (Nagy Vásárcsarnok), which we were told was a must-visit (as indicated by the 50,000+ reviews on Google Maps at the time of this writing). But honestly.. it was a disappointment. There were two massive floors of shops, but most of them were regular groceries, with a lot of repeated items sold from one vendor to the other. I had imagined a typical farmer’s market with some eateries, but that was not the case. I’ve since heard that Hold Street Market is where you should go instead (which is on the north side of town) to get that local vendor foodie experience.
From the market hall, we headed to the Buda (West) side of the Danube via tram, to spend our evening at Gellért Thermal Bath. If you’re coming to Budapest, you likely have heard about the thermal baths as “the thing to do” – and the two names that pop up most often are Gellért and Széchenyi. One quick difference is that Gellért is indoors and inside of a hotel, whereas Széchenyi is located within a large public park and both indoors and outdoors, and tend to get more crowded as it’s the more “famous” of the two. The experience is similar, in that you are given a locker access with an entry pass for the price of ~$15-20 per person. *Pro Tip* They do not provide you with anything at either locations – so make sure you bring your own towel and flip flops / slippers (these are mandatory), as if you forget, you will need to buy one from them at a high markup. Gellért had numerous baths with varying temperatures and also had massage services, which we indulged in (~$40 for 1-hour massage). After a few hours relaxing in the baths and getting pampered, we retired to our hotel and fell into the sweetest, deepest slumber.
On Day 2, we wanted to venture around the Pest side of the city, and made our way towards the Budapest City Park (with the full intention of visiting the Széchenyi Thermal Bath). Along the way, there were several Jewish temples that were worth stopping by to take in the history and tradition. We particularly enjoyed visiting the Dohány Street Synagogue, which showcased intricate architecture and grand interiors. We took a quick subway ride (M1) to the park, and walked around Heroes’ Square before making our way into the park.
After about 15-20 minutes of walking, we finally reached the baths. Unlike Gellért, the Széchenyi had two gigantic outdoor thermal baths in the central courtyard of the vast, castle-like building. Visiting in February meant cold, nippy temperature in the air – coupled with a mystical sight of the steam rising from the thermal baths. After changing, we quickly descended from the frigid cold into the warm embrace of the baths, and let me tell you – it was life changing. There is something so appealing about plunging into the hot baths while the cold winter air serves as a cool refresher. We spent a good 4.5 hours at Széchenyi, trying out different baths both indoor and outdoor.
After our bath, we made our way back toward the Danube, to visit the Hungarian Parliament Building. Keep in mind that the Parliament visit is organized into mandatory 50-minute tours, and the Parliament representative will guide you through the various wings of the building. Hence, an advanced purchase of the ticket is highly recommended, as the tickets do tend to sell out on the day-of. The tour is really helpful, as it walks you through a brief history of Budapest/Hungary, and of course gives you a chance to take pictures in the ornate, gold-adorned halls of the Parliament.
After our tour, we stopped to take pictures along the Danube River, in particular at the Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial, which has shoe sculptures all along the riverside to remember those killed during World War II.
We then had dinner nearby to stick around until the sunset, which is when the Széchenyi Chain Bridge lights up in the night with the Buda Castle in the background. If you’re a fan of nightscape photography, be sure to bring your tripod and you can go wild by the riverside. After a long day and full stomachs, we headed back to our hotel, again taking the convenient tram line located right beside the bridge (Széchenyi István tér stop on #2). Naturally, throughout our time in Budapest, we took in the local cuisine just as much we indulged in its beauty and activities. But more on that in another post!