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Ultimate Budapest Guide – All you need to know

Budapest is a year-round city break destination and spending 3 days in Budapest is just about enough to visit its most interesting sights, admire the stunning architecture, fall in love with trendy cafés, taste some local drinks and specialities. In this Budapest guide you will find out how to plan your itinerary, how to move around Budapest, what you have to visit, what to eat & drink and something about Budapest’s nightlife scene.

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SNAPSHOT HISTORY OF BUDAPEST

Budapest is a rich cultural stew made up of Hungarians, Germans, Slavs and Jews with a dash of Turkish paprika – each group has left its mark. Budapest sits on a thin layer of earth covering thermal springs. Those waters attracted the ancient Romans, who established Aqiuncum. In a.d. 896, a nomadic group from Central Asia, called the Magyars took over today’s Hungary. The Magyars settled down, adopted Christianity and became fully European.

Gradually Buda and Pest became capital and a melting pot for the people of Central and Eastern Europe. In the 16th century the Ottomans invaded and they occupied Budapest (and much of Hungary too) for nearly a century and a half. Finally the Habsburg monarchs liberated Hungary (and kept it for themselves). After many decades, in 1867, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was created.

Six years later, the cities of Buda, Pest and Obuda merged to become Budapest. Budapest boomed and Hungarian culture blossomed. But with WW1 and WW2 Budapest’s fortunes reversed – Hungary lost the war and the ruins of Budapest were claimed by the Soviets who introduced communism to Hungary. By the end of this era in 1989, the city’s heritage was in shambles. Budapest has reinvented its cityscape with a mix of old and new and has shaped a glorious metropolis that fascinated tourists and Hungarians.

ORIENTATION TO BUDAPEST

As you navigate Budapest, remember these Hungarian terms:

  • tér – square
  • utca – street
  • út – boulevard
  • körút – ring road
  • hid – bridge
  • város – town

BUDAPEST NEIGHBORHOODS

Let’s take a tour through the places where you’ll be spending the most of your time.

PEST

The commercial heart of the city is where the most tourists spend the majority of their time. Downtown Pest (District V) divides into two sections:

  • the more genteel Leopold Town (Lipótváros) – this is the governmental, business and banking district with monuments and grand buildings
  • the more urban-feel Town Center (Belváros) – a thriving, touristy, shopping, dining and nightlife zone that bustles day & night. The main pedestrian street through the Town Center is the Váci utca, shopping street that runs parallel to the Danube promenade. At the southern end is the Great Market Hall.

The Town Center is hemmed in by the first of Pest’s four ring roads. The innermost ring is the Small Boulevard, the next one is Great Boulevard. Beyond this two ring roads there are two more – the Hungarian körút higway and the M-0 expressway, but only a few tourists actually see those ring roads.

Arterial boulevards stretch from central Pest into the suburbs. The most interesting is Andrassy ut, providing some of Pest’s best sights, restaurants and accomodations. It begins near Deák tér and extends past several key sights (including the Opera and the House of Terror museum) out to City Park. The park has its own attractions, including the Heroes Square, Vajdahunyad Castle and Széchenyi Baths.

More key sights lie along the Small Boulevard ring road (connected by trams 47 and 49), including the Great Synagogue, the National Museum and the Great Market Hall. The Great Synagogue is marking the start of the Seventh District which is the Jewish Quarter and ruin pub zone. Several other points of interest spread wide along the Great Boulevard ring road (circled by trams 4 and 6).

BUDA

Buda looks pretty but most tourists spend the most of their time in lively, exciting Pest. Castle Hill & Gellert Hill dominate the Buda side. The historic Castle District is full of tourists by day and dead at night. Gellert Hill has three points of interest – the Gellert Baths, the Rudas Baths and amazing views from the top.

THE BEST BUDAPEST ATTRACTIONS

Most of Pest’s top sights cluster in 5 neighborhoods: Leopold Town, the Town Center, the Jewish Quarter, along the Andrássy út and near Heroes Square and City Park.

For me, the most impressive building of Budapest is, without a single doubt, the Hungarian Parliament, set on Danube waterfront. Near the Parliament you will find the Kossuth Lajos tér with many monuments and Museum of Etnography (Néprajzi Múzeum).

Budapest Parliament

Budapest’s biggest church, St. Istvan Basilica, is one of the top Budapest attractions. It celebrates St. István, Hungary’s first Christian king.

Pest’s Jewish Quarter is gradually restoring its once grand sights. Today’s Jewish Quarter is a ramshackle neighborhood. The biggest attraction there is the Great Synagogue and it is also known for its ruin pubs (will talk about this later in this Budapest guide).

On the Pest side there are also Heroes Square, city park with Szechenyi Baths and Vajdahunyad Castle.

On the other side, Buda, there are less attractions. Nearly all of Buda’s top sights are concentrated on or near Castle Hill and Gellért Hill. There’s nothing much of interest to tourists in Buda beyond Castle Hill and Gellért Hills.

The major landmarks are the green-domed Royal Palace, known as Buda Castle and the Matthias Church. Matthias Church is one of those buildings in Budapest that leaves you staring for a long time. 

Matthias Church Budapest

I’ve written everything about Budapest attractions in this article, so I’m not going to write a lot about it in this Budapest guide.

READ ALSO: THE BEST NON-TOURISTY THINGS TO DO IN BUDAPEST

PLANNING YOUR TIME

Budapest demands at least two full days – and you’ll have to be selective and move fast. To slow down and really dig into the city, give it four or five days. Adding more time opens up day-trip options.
Almost evertything is walkable, but distances are far and public transport can save you a lot of valuable time. You can do several walks in a single day.

Keep in mind that Buda’s sights are mostly concentrated on Castle Hill and can easily be done in less than a day, while Pest deserves as much time as you can give it. I’ve saved laid back Buda for the last day when I needed a break from the big city.

If you have enough time, consider some of other destinations beyond Budapest – wine region Eger, beautiful Pecs, the small town of Sopron and you can also visit the Slovak capital, Bratislava.

BUDAPEST PUBLIC TRANSPORT

It’s almost impossible to explore Budapest only on foot. It’s crucial to get comfortable with the well-coordinated public transport. Public transport system in Budapest is great – there are metro lines, trams, buses and trolley buses and the same ticket works for the entire system. You can buy them at kiosks, metro ticket windows or machines. When I visit Budapest I always buy a multi-day ticket. Your options are:

  • Single ticket – 350 HUF
  • Short single metro ride (3 stops or less on the metro) – 300 HUF
  • Transfer ticket – 530 HUF
  • Pack of 10 single tickets – 3.000 HUF
  • Unlimited multi-day travel cards: 24-hour travelcard (1.650 HUF), 72-hour travelcard (4.150 HUF) and 7-day travelcard (4.950 HUF)
  • 24-hour group travel card – 3.300 HUF
  • The Budapest Card – multi-day ticket combined with sightseeing discounts

Always validate single-ride tickets as you enter the bus, tram or metro station. Multi-day tickets needs to be validated only once.

BUDAPEST METRO

Budapest’s metro is really efficient. There are four working lines:

  • M1/yellow – the 1st underground rail runs beneath Andrassy út to the City Park
  • M2/red – going under the Danube to Buda, the M2 connects the Deli train station with Szell Kalman tér (where you catch bus to the top of Castle Hill), Kossuth tér, Astoria (near the Great Synagogue) and the Keleti train station (where you can change to M4 line)
  • M3/blue – this line makes a boomerang-shaped swoop north to south on the Pest side, its stations are noticeably older
  • M4/green – the newest line runs from southern Buda to the Gellert Baths under the Danube to Fővám tér (behing the Great Market Hall) and Kalvin tér, then up to the Keleti train station

Metro platforms are usually well signposted with a list of upcoming stops on the wall behind the tracks. Digital clocks either count down to the next train’s arrival or count up from the previous train’s departure. You’ll rarely wait more than a few minutes for the next train.

BUDAPEST TRAMS

Budapest’s trams are handy and frequent and they are taking you anywhere the metro doesn’t. Here are some you might use:

  • #2 – follows Pest’s Danube embankment
  • #19 and #41 – run along Buda’s Danube embankment
  • #4 and #6 – zip around Pest’s Great Boulevard ring road, connecting Nyugati train station with the southern tip of Margaret Island and Buda’s Szell Kalman tér
  • #47 and #49 – connect the Gellert Baths in Buda with Pest’s Small Boulevard ring road

During my Budapest visit I use the metro and trams for most of my commuting, but some buses are useful withing the city or for reaching outlying sights. You will probably need the #16, #16A & #116 to get to the top of Castle Hill, #70 & #78 zip from near the Opera House to the Parliament, #178 goes from Keleti to central Pest and crosses Elisabeth Bridge to Buda. Bus #100E connects Liszt Ferenc Airport to Deak tér.

There are many companies in Budapest offering walking tours, food tours and boat tours. I haven’t done any guided tour in Budapest, so I can’t recommend you any.

FOOD YOU NEED TO TRY IN BUDAPEST

Food is a very important part for me when I travel, so I had to include this part in this comprehensive Budapest guide.

Most Eastern Europeans dine on a meat and potatoes cuisine to maximize calories and carbs through a harsh winter, but Hungary is different. Hungarian cuisine blends Magyar peasant cooking with rich spices, refined by the elegance of French preparation with a delightful flavors from the multiethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire. Everything is heavily seasoned with paprika, tomatoes and peppers of every shape, color size and flavor.

When foreigners think of Hungarian cuisine, what comes to mind is goulash. The real Hungarian goulash is clear, spicy broth with chunks of meat, potatoes and other vegetables. In other Germanic and Slavic countries the word goulash describes a thick stew. Closer to what people think of as goulash is a Hungarian stew called pörkölt.

Hungarian Goulash soup
Hungarian Goulash

Hungarian cuisine includes different kind of soups – bean soup, vegetable soup, mushroom soup, fish broth with paprika and meat or chicken soup. The ultimate staple of traditional Hungarian home cooking, but rarely served in restaurants is fözelék – a simple but tasty wheat flour-thickened stew that can be supplemented with various vegetables and meats (served at cheap restaurants around Budapest).

Hungarians adore all kind of meat. One trendy ingredient you’ll see on menu is mangalica. This uniquely Hungarian, free range woolly pig is high in unsaturated fat. It fits perfectly the food culture that elevates the pig. Meat is often covered with delicious sauces or garnishes, from rich cream sauces to spicy pastes to fruit jam. For classic Hungarian flavors, you have to try chickean or veal paprikás.

A traditional Hungarian “salad” is composed mostly or entirely of picked vegetables. Fortunately the more modern, trendy eateries in the capital often offer excellent vegetarian options.

DESSERTS

Pastries are a big deal in Hungary. In the late 19th century, pastry-making caught on here in an attempt to keep up with the rival Vienna. Today Hungary’s streets are still lined with cukrászda (pastry shops) where you can try whichever treat you’d like. Try the Dobos torta, Custard slice – Kréme and Chimney cake – Kürtőskalács.

READ ALSO: BEST CAFÉS & PATISSERIES IN BUDAPEST

DRINKS

Hungary is first and foremost a wine country. Hungary isn’t particularly well known for its beer, but Dreher and Borsodi are two of the better brands. Hungarians are almost as proud of its spirits as its wines. The local firewater, pálinka is a powerful schnapps made from various fruits (most often plum or apricots). Unicum is a unique and beloved Hungarian bitter liquor made of 40 different herbs and aged in oak casks. The flavor is similar to Jägermeister but harsher. Unicum started out as a medicine and remains a popular digestif for easing an upset stomach.

HUNGARIAN WINES

Wine is an essential part of Hungarian cuisine. Grapes have been cultivated here since Roman times and Hungarian wines had an excellent reputation up until WWII. Today many wine-growing families are attempting to gain reputation of Hungarian wines again. The area around Eger is the most famous.

Probably the most famous Hungarian wine is Tokaji Aszu, known as the “wine of kings, and the king of wines”.

BUDAPEST NIGHTLIFE

Budapest is a youthful and lively city with no shortage of nightlife fun. This beautiful city looks gorgeous after dark. Strolling along either the Buda or the Pest promenade along the Danube riber rewards you with beautiful views.

For a different angle on Budapest, consider joining one of these romantic Danube boat trips.

If you need some relaxation after a busy day of sightseeing, soak at Szecheny Baths. The outdoor pools stay open until 10 p.m. and on weekends (on saturdays) this places becomes a nightclub.

The plaza in front of St. Istvan’s Basilica is Budapest’s most trendy place for a glass of wine.

RUIN PUBS

Budapest is becoming known worldwide as a nightlife destination. And that’s thanks largely to the ruin pub phenomenon. This lively pubs are filled with secondhand furniture, a bohemian vibe and plenty of drinkers having the time of their lives. Each ruin pub is different, so you should visit a few of them to find your favorite one. A ruin pub may be a mulató (club) or a kávézó (coffeehouse). Many have a kert (garden), others have a tető (rooftop) where you can get some fresh air and often views over the city. In winter (or bad weather) find one with a cozy interior.

Budapest’s Sevent District – the Jewish Quarter, behind the Great Synagogue is Budapest’s prime nightlife zone. You can go on a ruin pub crawl and visit any place that appeals. But the essential ruin pub is Szimpla Kert. Need some street food to soak up all those drinks? Near Szimpla there are many food varieties.

DAY TRIPS FROM BUDAPEST

Budapest is a big city with lots of things to do, but I’ve decided to include some day trips options in this Budapest guide. If you have enough time and you can explore outside Budapest, the most rewarding destinations are Eger, Pécs, Sopron and Bratislava (Slovakia). But each of those is more than two hours away. For a shorter visit, the region surrounding Budapest offers some options for a day trip.

Of these options listed below, Gödöllő Palace and Szentendre are the easiest to reach from Budapest – each one is a quick ride away on the suburban train or HÉV. This sights can be done in just a few hours each. The other sights are further away and less rewarding, so do these only if you have extra time or they are on the way to your next stop. If you have a car, you can combine some of these places – the Danube Bend sights (Szentendre, Visegrád and Esztergom) go well together if you have a car and line up conveniently between Budapest and Bratislava or Vienna.

SZENTENDRE

The charming village of Szentendre is an art colony with a colorful history and Balkan-feeling. It’s the easiest (and most touristy) small town to visit from Budapest. Allow yourself a half-day trip from Budapest or combine with a full-day trip around the Danube Bend.

GÖDÖLLŐ PALACE

Just outside Budapest to the east this place is the best spot in Hungary to commune with its past Habsburg monarchs. This summer palace of the Habsburg monarchs is the best place in Hungary to get to know the royal and imperial couple, Franz Josef and Sisi.

VISEGRÁD

Visegrád offers a small riverside palace museum and a dramatic hilltop castle with fine views over the Bend. It’s the least engaging of the Danube Bend sights. Visit only if it’s on the way of you Danube Bend day.

ESZTERGOM

This place is a home to Hungary’s biggest and most important church, packed with history.

HELPFUL TIPS

This Budapest guide can’t be perfect without some helpful tips, so I’m sharing a few of them with you.

  • Budapest is quite safe, but tourists occasionally run into pickpockets, so secure your valuables.
  • Restaurants on Vaci utca often overcharge tourists. Avoid restaurant that don’t list prices on the menu. Check your bill carefully. Most restaurants add a 10-12% service charge, so you might accidentally double-tip.
  • Tipping: Hungarians tip less than Americans do. If the service fee is not already included, waiters expect a tip of about 10% or a little less. If the service is exceptional, you can leave more than 10%.
  • Avoid rip-off exchange offices at train stations and Vaci utca.
  • Bring both a card and some cash. Although cards are widely accepted, local cash is the easiest (and sometimes only) way to pay for cheap food, taxis and local guides. Having cash can help you avoid a stressful situation if you find yourself in a place that won’t accept your card.
  • When possible, use ATM’s located outside banks – it’s less likely that thiefs will target a cash machine near surveillance cameras. Stay away from the ATM’s such as Euronet, Travelex, etc., which charge huge commisions and have terrible exchange rates.

Is there anything you would like to add to this Budapest guide? Have you ever visited Budapest before? What was the thing you loved the most?

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