A comprehensive 3-day itinerary for first-time visitors
Budapest might well be one of the most underrated capitals of Europe. As a first-time visitor, I was completely amazed by how much there is to discover, and I still can’t get over how beautiful Budapest is! The city took me by surprise on so many levels – from a really great vibe in the evenings, when everyone seemed to be eating out or just chilling in the park at Elizabeth square (Erzsébeth tér), to quiet mornings when I just roamed the streets (mostly in search of coffee) and basically had the whole city for myself – including the popular, and normally very crowded Fisherman’s Bastion.
That said, if you want to experience the city properly and explore both sides of the river, Buda and Pest, I honestly think you need at least three days. Mistake number one – I only booked two full days, and even though I loved every minute of my stay, I wish I could have explored all Budapest has to offer at a slower pace. I actually broke my personal steps record – I walked over 30,000 steps in one day!
Let’s dive into my ‘ideal’ 3-day itinerary, which includes a number of stops around the city you really don’t want to miss, especially when visiting Budapest for the very first time!
Discovering Budapest – Day 1
As every traveller (on budget) knows, one of the best ways of getting to know a new place is a guided walking tour – many big cities offer them for free, usually run by locals who are just passionate about their city and want to show what it has to offer.
In Budapest, you can go on a free walking tour, offered by volunteers every day at 10.30 or 14.30. This walk leaves from Elizabeth Square (under the Ferris wheel), and there is no need to book in advance. Just show up and join an amazing 2,5 – 3 hour walk around both sides of Budapest. Good walking shoes and reasonably good shape are required, as the Buda side of the city (with Buda Castle and Fisherman’s Bastion) is very steep.
However, being Dutch and all, I chose to give the bike tour of Budapest a try, and it was the best choice in my opinion! A local guide took as on an app. 2 hour bike tour, offered in 3 languages (English, German or Dutch), amazing way to see the city. If you’re a bit like me (or Dutch), you’ll definitely prefer biking to walking. It is less tiring, and you get to see much more in shorter time. The parts of the city we went to were mostly flat and reasonably well equipped for cyclists.
Another thing you don’t want to miss, of course, is paying a visit to the Hungarian Parliament building. Even though it is incredibly impressive from the outside, I’d recommend going inside as well. In order to go on a guided tour through the golden halls and corridors, however, you need to book a ticket well in advance. The tour of the Parliament takes approximately 45 minutes, including a security check – it does not seem long, but the rooms are so ornate and beautiful that I definitely found it worth a visit.
The guided tour is only offered a few times a day, and the places/tickets are limited (35 per group). Also, the tours are offered in different languages (including Hungarian), so watch out when booking! I did not manage to book an English tour (two weeks before arrival date was already too late!), but I was still able to book a tour in German (close enough) – luckily, there were multiple groups walking through the building at the same time, so I ended up eavesdropping on the English group most of the time.
Whether you decided to go for a tour or the parliament, or just passing by, don’t forget to stop by the Shoes on the Danube Bank. This monument is right across the street from the Parliament building, and it might well be one of the most touching places I’ve ever seen. It commemorates more than 3,500 people, many of them Jews, who were executed on the Danube embankment; the Nazis would make them take their shoes off and shot them, letting the river carry away their bodies. Keeping in mind this place is a memorial, I’d refrain from taking happy selfies here – even though you’ll see most tourists do that.
Just a short walk from the Parliament is another popular meeting spot, the St Stephen’s Square, dominated by the famous St Stephen’s Basilica. First of all, this church is enormous – and I have to say I just stood in front of it in awe, taking it all in, for quite a while. You’ll want to take pictures of it from all possible angles, but I’d recommend going on top as well – for just 3 euros, you’ll be able to climb the steps to 96 meters high terrace, overlooking the city. Once you get down, you might want to sit down for a while, and just watch people stroll by and tourists take pictures. Luckily, I found you the perfect spot already – the California Coffee Company (look for the Szent István tér 4 location on Google). They serve the best coffee in town (trust me!), delicious blueberry muffins, and have plenty of tables outside, which are literally facing the basilica! It became my regular breakfast spot, and, admittedly, it got me dreaming about moving to Budapest for good!
If you find yourself at the St Stephen’s Square, make sure to stop by for the delicious (and highly instagrammable!) ice cream from Gelarto Arte, located just around the corner. Not only is its gorgeous rose shape a delight to the eye, it tastes really good and comes in an array of unusual flavours – my favourite was mango and strawberry, but you can make the craziest combinations! Just make sure they colour-match ;).
One thing I can’t recommend enough is going on a Danube by night cruise – I know, I know. Cheesy as it sounds, I promise the views of the Parliament buildings lit up will leave you speechless – and that was only the start! The cruise I booked started off with the most amazing views of the parliament during the blue hour (21:30 during summer), and a glass of champagne; as we set off, the light started to change, fading away and slowly turning into night. At night, whole Budapest is so beautifully lit it really feels like a fairytale – passing under the Chain Bridge, with views of Buda Castle and Geller baths, the cruise took as further to Liberty Bridge and back. By the time we got back, it was completely dark and the parliament was shining like a gem into the night. Did I mention I really, really recommend it?!
Obviously, there are multiple companies offering a cruise, with a whole array of complimentary add-ons, such as the aforementioned glass of champagne, or even a complete three-course dinner. However, if you’re on a budget (or broke, like me, haha), you can enjoy a simple, 1 hour cruise for as little as 10 euros. I booked mine through the GetYourGuide app. You’re welcome.
Discovering Budapest – Day 2
Now, if you want to make the most of your visit (and snap a few Instagrammable pictures!), you will need to get up early (yes, we’re talking 5 am-ish) and head to the famous Fisherman’s Bastion to catch the sunrise. But believe me, making it to this fairytale place before the buses full of Japanese tourists arrive is very much wort hit! You’ll be rewarded with amazing views of the Parliament and get to walk around this beautiful, romantic 19th century bastion all by yourself. That’s what I did, at least, and watching the sunrise from here remains one of my favourite moments.
If you want to save yourself a couple of hundreds of steps, you can catch the bus number 16 form the centre (Deák Ferenc Ter) to get up the hill. From the Fisherman’s Bastion, the equally impressive Matthias Church is only a few steps away. I did not go in, as it only opens at 9 a.m., but from what I’ve seen, you’re missing out if you don’t. However, you can also choose to continue your walk up to the Buda Castle (believe me, you can’t miss it, just keep walking).
The castle houses the Hungarian National Gallery, but its grounds also offer the most gorgeous views of the whole city. From Gellert Hill on one side, to the Parliament buidlings on the other, with bridges crossing the Danube and St Stephen’s basilica produly standing on the opposite side – you can’t help falling in love with the place. The views were so amazing that I decided to come back for sunset the same day, taking the funicular this time (for the price of a regular public transport ticket), and leisurely strolling downhill when the sun has set.
As you’re getting from one side of the city to another, you’re bound to cross one of its most beautiful bridges, the Szechenyi Lanchid (aka Chain bridge). I absolutely recommend taking your time to walk it at a slower pace, stop to admire the views of the Parliament and Buda Castle, and take an abundant amount of photos! I have to say I took some of my best pictures in Budapest from this bridge – and as some fellow travellers commented, it actually looks a lot like the Brooklyn Bridge!
When exploring Budapest, be it on a guided tour or just strolling through, you’re bound to notice the presence of Jewish history in the city. From the various memorials to the Jewish Quarter, you’ll learn bits and pieces about the life of the Jewish community. But if you’re interested in getting to know more, I’d absolutely recommend visiting the Dohány Synagogue. Located on the Dohány street (hence the name), it is actually the largest synagogue in Europe! Its exteriors are stunning, as it was built in a Moorish Revival style, but the interiors are equally impressive. You have to pay an entrance fee to get inside, but once you do, there are free tours of the synagogue offered inside, in a number of languages. After wandering around a bit and taking pictures of the beautiful decorations inside, I joined the English tour, led by one of the oldest members of the community. He turned out tob e an extremely witty old man, who was able to tell us a lot about the actual daily lives and practices of the Jewish community. But he also explained a lot about the history of the place, since the synagogue once made part of the Budapest ghetto. The tour guide also took us to the Jewish cemetery, located in the courtyard of the synagogue, and to the Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial park, which is right at the back of the synagogue and commemorates over 400,00o Jews who died during the Nazi occupation between 1944-45.
After your visit and a full day of explorating, you might want to just chill and cheer up a bit – well, there’s no better way to do that than going for a ride on the Budapest Eye – however touristy it might feel, this large ferris wheel at Erzsébeth tér (Elizabeth Square) is pretty awesome, and offers great views of the Pest side of the city. For 10 euros for an adult ticket, it was a steal (yes, looking at you, London Eye), and if you go up there just before sunset, you’ll be able to enjoy the impressive architecture of Budapest basking in the light of the setting sun. Need I say more?
Discovering Budapest – Day 3
To start off your final day in Budapest in style, I recommend you book a breakfast at New York Café, one of the fanciest restaurants I’ve ever visited. It is advisable to make a reservation online, but I got in on a regular workday without any problems. Right after the opening, it wasn’t busy at all, so I enjoyed my 10 euro cappucino at peace and quiet ;). Yes, I’m not gonna lie, this place is probably above anyone’s budget, but you only live once, right?
With your belly filled and your feet sore after the previous days of exploration, you’re probably looking for a relaxing way to round off your trip. In that case, you cannot skip the opportunity to pamper yourself at the Szechenyi baths. For around 20 euros, you can spend a whole day here, enjoying the thermal baths (yes, you can go for a swim even in January!), watch the locals play chess in the hot water, go for a massage or just sit back, people-watch and give your feet the rest they deserve! Just keep in mind that pretty much everything (slippers, bath towels, massage, private cabin) come at extra cost, so it’s better to come prepared (already wearing your bathing suit, having your own towel with you, etc.). Another tip I got from a fellow traveller was to bring some food and drinks, too, as the options inside are limited, and quite expensive, too.
Even though you could easily spend a whole day enjoying the various baths and treatments (did I mention you can also book a beer bath here for about 25 euros?), if you’re a bit like me, you’ll feel the need to get going again and explore more of the city after a couple of hours.
That’s exactly what I did, only to find out that the Szechenyi baths are actually located in a beautiful city park, the Városliget. Not only is this enormous city park a popular refuge for the locals, but it also has a few surprises for you. A perfect replica of a Romanian castle, Huneadora, for one. This smaller version of the famous ‘Dracula’ castle is called the Vajdahunyad castle, and even though it looks perfectly medieval, it was actually built in 1896, as a part of the millenial celebrations of the Hungarian state.
The castle is located on the edge of a lake, which offers boat rides in the summer and transforms into a huge skating ring and magical winter wonderland during Christmas – as if you need more reasons to put Budapest on your bucket list!
Another building worth checking out is located right next to the Vajdahunayd castle, which houses the Hungarian Museum of Agriculture. And while that might not sound very exciting, the building is actually really worth visiting, as it was built in the opulent, baroque style of Maria Theresa’s rule, this time as a tribute to the once enormous Austro-Hungarian Empire. Together with the Vajdahunyad castle, it creates a vast complex of buildings you can easily spend a few hours exploring! The city park is best explored by bike, as there are many beautiful bridges, hooks and nooks. So if the weather allows, I’d recommend renting a bike for the day, and after soaking in the thermal baths, spend the rest of the day happily exploring the rest of the park.
To wrap up your day in a fun way, there is another place you shouldn’t miss while in Budapest: the Karaván street food market, which offers a great variety of foodtrucks. You’ll find pretty much anything here, from traditional Hungarian ‘langosz’ or vegan bars, to good old burgers and chicken wings. You’ll find Karaván right at the heart of the Jewish Quarter, which, in itself, is worth exploring. From amazing street art on every corner, to beautiful buidlings and – wait for it – the ruin bars, which became insanely popular over the past few years. One of the most famous bars in this area is Szimpla Kert, located right next to the Karaván market, so the best thing you can do is to grab something to eat first, and then head for a craft beer (or two).
If you have an extra day, I’d definitely recommend to take it easy and explore a bit out of the city centre – for example, do as the locals do and go for a picknick on the Margit Sziget (Margerite Island) – just grab a picknick blanket and enjoy a day out in the middle of the city! A tip I got from a local was that every evening at 9 pm, there is a fountain light show on the island.
That’s a wrap for now, but I’d love to hear your thoughts and more tips! Because after exploring this amazing city for just a short time, one thing I know for sure: Budapest, I’ll be back.