Budapest is high on my list of favorite European cities. If you are planning your first trip there, you will love it. From the time I checked into my hotel on lovely Andrassy Boulevard, I felt a connection with Budapest. The city has heart and a vibe that is historical and full of life.
It’s a city of contrasts. Culture and quirk are blended together. The beautiful Danube flows lazily right through the middle of the city, which is awash with classic architecture, while just a few blocks away old buildings are in need of repair. Budapest doesn’t flinch from its recent violent past. But it also beckons you to let your cares go as you splash in mineral water pools renowned for their healing properties.
Read on for information to help you plan your visit. The main problem will be narrowing down what to do during your stay. So a little knowledge ahead of time will allow you to cover what you most want to see. And, like me, you may reluctantly leave Budapest but vowing to return to sample more of its wonders.
1. Know That The City Has Two Distinct Parts
Until 1873, Buda and Pest were separate cities, situated across the Danube from each other. As the history of civilization here goes back to the Romans in the first century, that means for most of its existence, Budapest was in two sections.
One way to plan your visit is to focus on one side at a time. Spend a day on the Buda side, then spend the next day on the Pest side. The Buda side, with its Castle District, is hilly and green. It has open spaces and forested land. The Pest side is a bustling urban center. Both offer notable sights.
While centering yourself on one side or the other for a day at a time, you may also want to walk back and forth between the Buda side and the Pest side on the amazing bridges. Head to the bridges at sunset to experience the city’s lights twinkling and the changing colors of the Danube.
The iconic Chain Bridge is the one to be sure to include in your walk. It’s designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
2. Relax Because Transportation Is Easy And Fun
Budapest has a metro system, efficient buses, and bright yellow trams for easy access to any area. I rode all of these and found them simple to navigate.
Buy your tickets at one of the purple BKK vending machines. You can buy a single trip ticket or passes good for 24 hours, 72 hours, or a week. Check out the options on the transportation website before your trip.
For a fun ride along the Danube, catch Tram No. 2. See the sights along the riverbank from the comfort of a soft seat. The line ends at the massive Parliament building. You can get off and get back on and go the other way. A one-way ticket costs about 1 euro, so it’s a thrifty way to enjoy the beauty of Budapest.
3. Plan For A Castle District Day
The Castle District covers a large section above the river on the Buda side of Budapest.
The winding cobblestone streets and leafy promenades of Castle Hill lead past baroque houses, Habsburg monuments, and cafes. Here you will find the Buda Castle, a palace razed and rebuilt six times over centuries. The current castle, built in 1769, is home to the Hungarian National Gallery and the Castle Museum.
The Sandor Palace, residence of the president of the republic, sits across from the castle, with guards in the style of Buckingham Palace. Show up outside on the hour and witness the changing of the guard ceremony.
My favorite part of the Castle District is Fisherman’s Bastion. This neo-gothic structure features wide stairways and seven white turrets along its walls, said to represent the Magyar tribes that lived here in the 800s. Wander through the bastion and its terraces and you will feel you are in a fairytale. It’s also a prime place to view the Danube below and the Pest side of the city across the river.
Nearby is Matthias Church, with its multicolored tile roof and a collection of spires. Parts of Matthias Church are 500 years old, though the building you see today was completed in 1896.
Pro Tip: If you are coming to the Buda side from the Pest side, take the funicular up the steep hill to the castle level, then when you leave, walk down the hill using the paths. Stop on the bridges at different levels and take in the view.
4. Splash In The Famous Baths
Budapest is known for its natural mineral water springs. Hungary has more than 1,000 natural springs, and several of those are in Budapest. You will want to include a visit to at least one of the baths as part of your Budapest experience. Be sure to pack your swimsuit!
The most popular spring is the Széchenyi Baths in Pest, one of the largest medicinal baths in Europe. Your entrance ticket gives you access to 21 pools in and around a neoclassical sunny yellow building that’s topped with an ornate dome. Move from pool to pool, inside and outside, and test out the different water temperatures. Some of the pools are cooled, and you’ll also find saunas. Enjoy the decor in the different rooms. My favorite is the large outdoor pool because the middle contains a spiral section with water pressure that pushes you around. Everyone going in circles here laughed and screamed with delight. This makes for good, healthy fun in the sun.
On the Buda side, the Gellért Bath is a great choice. The interior is striking, and there’s also a large outdoor pool.
While the baths of Budapest attract visitors, they were opened and exist for their healing properties. The natural waters are said to be therapeutic for arthritis and other joint conditions. Plunge into these pools or sit and linger awhile. You may feel better than ever.
Pro Tip: I worried more than I needed to about where to change into a swimsuit. At the Széchenyi Baths, I rented a dressing room for a small fee. It’s a one-person, tiny changing room with a door. You can lock your things inside. Leave valuables such as an expensive camera and passport at your hotel. Take your phone with you to the pools to take photos. Leave it in shelving units by the pools while you swim. It was all very easy and safe.
5. Pay Respect At The Shoes On The Danube Memorial
This unique memorial on the Pest side of the river is a must-see on your visit. Shoes on the Danube is made of 60 pairs of rusted shoes in the styles of the 1940s, cast out of iron. The shoes represent the Jewish people of Budapest who were killed here during World War II. The shoes are different sizes and styles because no Jews were spared, no matter their age, profession, or status. The baby shoes are particularly poignant.
Plaques with text in Hungarian, English, and Hebrew read, “To the memory of the victims shot and pushed into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944–45.” People leave flowers here, ribbons, memorial stones, and candles. You’ll find locks of love on the shoes, too. A woman behind me sobbed helplessly, “May we never forget.”
6. Marvel At The Unusual Hospital In The Rock
It’s always fascinating to seek out one-of-a-kind attractions that speak to the history of a city. Take a tour of the strange Hospital in the Rock for this kind of sightseeing in Budapest.
This actual hospital was hewn into rock and is an amazing system of tunnels that were used to care for patients when the city was under siege during WWII. Bomb proof, the underground facility housed as many as 700 patients. Families and friends of the sick and injured stayed here, too, to be safe from attack. During the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviets, the hospital was once again called into heavy use.
The hospital was transformed into a nuclear bunker during the Cold War. When you tour, the last 20 minutes will focus on the evils of nuclear war. As this is pointed at those from the U.S., it gave me some interesting food for thought.
7. Sample A Rose Gelato Treat
For something different, order a rose gelato from Gelarto Rosa. Your treat will come in the shape of a rose. The founder of this delightful gelataria says that her mission is “to bring delight to people from all over the world with beautiful and delicious ice cream.” Made with organic ingredients, the gelato is not only pretty, it’s also yummy.
8. Take Some Money With You
Hungary doesn’t use euros. Its money is the forint. For that reason, I recommend ordering the equivalent of about $50 from your bank before you arrive in Hungary. That way, without getting cash in a strange system, you can pay a taxi from the airport if you need to. You can buy a snack on the street when you arrive in Budapest, as well. For most expenses, such as dining, you can use a credit card. I didn’t use an ATM at all in Budapest, which made the visit easier.
9. Book An Evening Cruise On The Danube
If you want a breathtaking view of the banks of both sides of Budapest, book an evening cruise on the Danube. Seeing the iconic Parliament lit up with a thousand points of light reflected in the water below is an inspiring sight. This is a bucket list item for sure.
Budapest displays both its splendor and its dark side for all to see, and you can find plenty of each to fill your days here. Visit the baths to relax on the same day you tour the House of Terror. This museum is in the building that housed political prisoners during WWII and then the Cold War. A literal chain wall section outside is called “The Iron Curtain.” Have a coffee in the shadow of the magnificent Fisherman’s Bastion. Afterward, glide down the Danube on a boat at day’s end.
Your visit is sure to be one of your most memorable travel experiences.