If you’re lucky enough to have a bit of time pre-or post-cruise to explore Budapest, it’s worth carving out the extra time to take in the city’s sights. Here's Cruiseable's travel guide to Budapest, and below are a few of my experiences from our trip last fall.
I should start by saying that my expectations were high for the Hungarian capital. Friends who had visited in years past waxed lyrical about the city’s beauty, and it was just a matter of time before Budapest began ranking among the fan favorites on everyone's Best Of lists. Whether it could live up to its hype or not, spending a few days in Budapest was a must for me. As fortune would have it, the city wowed me from start to finish.
For those who've been to Vienna, I think it’s natural to compare and contrast the two cities with their historic ties. Where Vienna is elegant and sophisticated, Budapest brings a bit more grit and character, which has helped define the city’s cool kid vibe. Vienna is a fabulous city for arts enthusiasts looking for a polished escape with a dose of grandeur, but in truth, I preferred Budapest’s contrasts: its Champs-Elysees-inspired Andrassy Avenue juxtaposed with the ruin bars in the old Jewish Quarter. In some ways, Budapest feels like Vienna’s much cooler, hipper sister.
If you'll be in Budapest during your travels and can carve out two days, here is my ideal itinerary for a couple of days in the city.
Day 1: Budapest on foot & bus
On a pleasant day, there’s no better way to experience Budapest than on foot. The city is alive with beautiful buildings, a stunning and bustling waterway and gorgeous views at every turn. We were there during a few perfect days in September with temps hovering in the mid-70s, ideal for walking for hours on end. A free walking tour and a Hop On Hop Off bus tour will help with getting around and exploring vast areas of both Buda and Pest, the two different areas lying on opposite sides of the Danube. The Hop On Hop Off bus is a great way to cover more ground in limited time.
Breakfast in the city
First, fuel up with breakfast in Budapest. If you’re keen on exploring a historic establishment, head to Central Café. Opened in 1887, it was the meeting ground for high-minded Hungarian influencers in decades past. The setting is more of a draw than the food here, with dark wood and an elegant atmosphere that pulls in a range of visitors. Alternatively, skip the food and just grab a cup of coffee for the road!
Walking tour of Budapest
Caffeinated and ready to roll, it’s time to set off on a free walking tour of Budapest. We opted for the original tour (you can also do a Communism Walk and a Jewish Quarter Walk). Ours set off at 10:30 am from a central point and visited some of the city’s most iconic sites.
If you’ve never done a free walking tour, the concept is simple: you’ll end up with a certified guide who will take you on a two- to three-hour tour of the city for free. At the end, leave a tip to say thank you. If you think they’ve done a good job, tip generously as these guides generally do this for a living, not as a feel-good hobby. In our experiences, the guides have generally been young, exuberant, and educated, and our tour guide in Budapest was no exception.
We learned a ton during our tour, starting in Pest and making our way to hilly Buda where we finished near Fisherman’s Bastion and St. Matthias Church. Have your camera at the ready because Fisherman’s Bastion is a stunner. If you decide to do a self-guided tour, by all means, grab a map and go but you must make your way to Fisherman’s Bastion for epic views and a truly spectacular space. Expect a healthy number of tourists or head there early to snap some epic pictures sans the crowds.
Hop On Hop Off bus tour
After soaring past our 10,000 daily step goal for the day, my traveling partner and I debated about how to jet to other sites nearby. Do we cab back? Walk back? Is Uber a thing? (By the way, it’s not in Budapest, but Lyft is.)
We ran into a Hop On Hop Off ticket counter and felt compelled. There were other areas we wanted to see anyway, and for the cost of the HOHO tour — we paid about $25 each — it made economic sense as well. We hopped on the first available bus and let it take us on a journey up to Gellért Hill, where we had amazing views of the Danube plus some options for snacks at stands along the stretch. Our ticket granted us 48 hours of access plus a Danube River cruise. We ended up riding around for a couple of hours until we made it back to Pest, where we visited Great Market Hall before returning back to our hotel.
Great Market Hall
We opted to disembark from the Hop On Hop Off Tour at Great Market Hall, a marketplace that gets rave reviews for its size and offerings. With our hotel about 20 minutes away on foot, it seemed like the perfect afternoon fix before getting cleaned up for an evening out. The market is spread over three floors, each doling out different sorts of goods with a mix of household items, fresh fruits and vegetables plus spices and a few stalls for ready-to-eat food. If you’re in the market for paprika as your Hungarian souvenir, you’ll find it here in abundance. From my perspective, the market was more geared toward a local audience with pantry items and a farmer’s market feel rathern than a craft/artisan market with souvenirs for tourists.
Lunch in Budapest
We were so focused on exploring that lunch was a bit of an afterthought for us. Plus, let’s be honest, during our walk at Gellert Hill, I’d pretty much made a meal out of Hungarian chimney cake (what they call kürtőskalács, but don't ask me to pronounce it!). We ended up dining at the For Sale Pub, a quirky Hungarian restaurant right across the street from the market since our dining time ended up being on the later side. If you want to try a prix fixe lunch menu, check out Offbeat Budapest’s Guide to the 10 best options.
Exploring the ruin bar scene
Visiting one of Budapest’s ruin bars is practically a requirement in the city. Scattered around the old Jewish Quarter, ruins have been converted from the aftermath of WWII into hip bars (some more makeshift than others) that can be visited by day or night, pre or post-dinner, though you’d probably be best to go after dinner if you want an extra lively experience. We opted to visit Anker’t, an expansive and rather established space set not far from the buzziness of Andrassy Avenue.
The most iconic of ruin bars is Szimpla Kert, which is cited as being the original ruin bar. For those who like the idea of a ruin bar in theory but prefer more polish, Mazel Tov may fit the bill. We enjoyed brunch at Mazel Tov as mentioned below, but it’s beautifully lit by night for an evening meal or a drink.
Dinner in Budapest
Alright, let’s talk dinner. You’re in Budapest and you’ll likely want to take a plunge into the Hungarian food scene. We opted for our first dinner in the historic Jewish Quarter at M Restaurant, a hip spot serving up great food at reasonable prices. Generally speaking, Hungarian food seemed to skew toward heavy and meat-laden, but I found plenty of wonderful options at M Restaurant for veg-friendly bites. Worth keeping in mind: This restaurant is cash only, which can be a bit of a math game in Hungary. One dollar is equivalent to about 280 Hungarian forint, so keep that currency converter app handy. Also look closely at the bills when you’re leaving cash, because it’s easy to get confused with such large denominations in your wallet!
Day 2: Budapest by water
During the second of our two days in Budapest, we opted for a fabulous brunch, a visit to St. Stephen’s Basilica, some river-based exploration and a swanky night out exploring rooftop bars and enjoying a fine-dining experience.
Brunch in Budapest
Our dining decisions — yes, even breakfasts and brunches — are often pre-planned when we travel, and we usually give just as much consideration to where we’re going to dine as where we’re going to stay in a given city. In Budapest, we were excited to see that there’s a bit of a restaurant renaissance that seems to be happening in the capital. Many restaurants ranging from casual to fine dining, mindful of the large numbers of international travelers, are offering lighter fare and dabbling in international cuisine. We decided on Mazel Tov restaurant for brunch, where we sipped on frothy lattés and noshed on elevated Israeli street food to start our day.
Want some more breakfast and brunch inspiration? Check out Offbeat Budapest's 10 best breakfast spots in Budapest.
Danube River Cruise
We knew that we wanted to include a Danube River cruise as part of our Budapest exploration so when the 48 hour HOHO tour ticket included this complimentary we knew it made sense. There’s a specific boat and a specific pick up point outlined in the brochure, and we chose one of the day’s earlier departures at 11 am. I mentioned that we were fortunate enough to have stunningly perfect weather during our two days in Budapest, which made a river cruise an absolute must for us. The cruise was an hour-long journey past Margaret Island, enough time to see some of the gorgeous architecture that lines the river banks. The Parliament building is an absolute icon but there are other buildings that’ll keep the photographers in the group snapping away.
We arrived about 20 minutes before our boat’s departure and were the first people on board. If you’re able, arrive early so you can get premier seats at the front in the open air. They sell beverages on board so have some cash prepared so you can enjoy a Hungarian beer during your cruise.
St. Stephen’s Basilica
After our morning cruise, we made our way to St. Stephen’s Basilica, a stunning Roman Catholic church in the heart of town that opened in 1905. If you’ve been in grand European churches before, the inside here will be similar to what you’ve seen, not that it makes it any less beautiful to see first hand. The church is free to enter, but you’ll have to pay to access the stairwell that leads to the viewing platform. I’m all about the views, so we made our way up the many stairs that led to the viewpoints upstairs. For those with mobility issues, there’s a small elevator as well. Nearby you’ll have plenty of options for a mid-day bite with a lovely view of the square.
Pre-dinner bar hopping
We’re too fascinated with hotels and restaurants to miss out on the opportunity for a bar hopping excursion. For us it’s a great way to have a brief brush with new spaces, concepts and views during an otherwise short stint in a destination.
For the evening, we started out at the Aria Hotel in Budapest, a beautiful, centrally located five-star property themed around music. The Aria is home to a gorgeous rooftop lounge and some fun craft cocktails, perfect to enjoy during sunset. Many of the seats were reserved when we popped up there so we were lucky to get a couple of chairs farther from the railing. If you know you’d like to visit it may be worth calling in advance to see if you can reserve a table' there may be a F&B minimum for reservations.
Following our sunset cocktail at the Aria Hotel, we headed down to the Tuk Tuk Bar, a cool and sexy cocktail bar inspired by 1920s Shanghai. Yes, it’s as cool as it sounds and the cocktail list is incredibly creative. We moseyed on up to the bar and sat with the bartender, gazing at all of his fresh inputs as he crafted cocktails infused with green tea, Japanese whiskies, yuzu, chilies and spices. Go after the sun has set, though, so you don’t spend precious daylight hours in a dark space. It’s perfect for a pre-dinner cocktail or a place to lounge post-dinner for a nightcap.
With two days in Budapest and as many dinners, we wanted to mix up our experiences to try out a hip new Hungarian spot (M Restaurant, above), plus a restaurant steeped in tradition. When we think of Hungarian cuisine, we often conjure up the down-home classics like goulash, paprika-spiced meats and hortobágyi, but Budapest also has a beautifully sophisticated side with Michelin-starred restaurants that are elevating classics and putting a new spin on Hungarian flavors.
For our upscale evening, we headed to Gundel Restaurant, a dining establishment with a long history and Old World vibe. Expect a high-end dining experience with violinists playing for you at tableside. Based on our dinner there, I’d say that the experience is more of the draw than the food itself.
If we make it back, I have my eye on Onyx, a two Michelin starred restaurant with a great tasting menu. It’s a bit of a splurge compared with other restaurants in Budapest. but compared to most international cities, pricing is competitive -- about $120 per person for a dinner tasting menu.
Where to stay in Budapest
Let’s close out by talking where to stay in Budapest. When you start researching, you’ll have the option of narrowing down hotel properties by district. If you haven’t been to Budapest before, it can seem a bit confusing and overwhelming initially, but you’ll quickly notice that many premier hotels are concentrated in District V, the main tourist area.
We generally opt for boutique properties, but in Budapest the most appealing options turned out to be larger chain properties. We opted for the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus, which was extremely well located with wonderful service. Nearby options include the Four Seasons Gresham Palace, Ritz-Carlton, the Aria Hotel, the InterContinental and the Sofitel. As first timers, we enjoyed being centrally located within walking distance of many of the city’s main sights. While you’ll pay a premium to be in the thick of it all, we found it was worth it to be within walking distance of the city’s most iconic tourist draws. Check out the Culture Trip’s guide to Budapest’s Districts for a great overview on each area.
Our final thoughts on the Hungarian capital and our take after two days in Budapest? It exceeded expectations. It’s still relatively budget-friendly compared with much of Western Europe, it’s visually stunning with its gorgeous architecture and riverside locale and it’s rich with history and activities. Would we return? A resounding yes.
Have you been to Hungary? What would be on your itinerary for two days in Budapest?
This article originally appeared in The Wanderlust Effect.