Last Updated: 9/28/21 | September 28th, 2021
Before I first checked out Budapest, I visualized the city as a rundown former Communist capital with little to do.
Fortunately, I was wrong.
Budapest [turned out to be] a lively city with a rich history, beautiful parks and buildings, bustling food halls, cool underground bars, and centuries-old thermal baths.
It’s a lively capital that rivals the best of Western Europe. While it may have something of a drab exterior, if you can look beyond its concrete façade you’ll find a cool city with plenty on offer. It’s incredibly budget-friendly too!
Budapest is actually two cities straddling the Danube: Buda on the west side is hilly and classy, while Pest (pronounced “pesht”) on the east is its flatter, wilder neighbor. (A third, Óbuda, merged with the others in 1873.)
Each part has its own personality as if the river not only divides the city geographically but metaphysically too.
To help you plan your visit to this marvelous central European capital, I’ve created this Budapest travel plan with the best things to see and do in the city so can have an amazing, budget-friendly experience!
Budapest travel plan Highlights
Day 1: Castle Hill, national Gallery, Fisherman’s Bastion, & more
Day 2: Parliament, great Market Hall, spoil Bars, & more
Day 3: Gellért Hill, Cave Church, terror Museum, & more
Budapest Itinerary: Day 1
Since Budapest is so neatly divided, it’s best to tackle each half separately. Today, we’re going to start with the Buda (west) side of the Danube. This is the upper-class, ritzy area — complete with a castle — and it’s filled with lots of museums, historic streets, parks, and regal homes.
To kickstart your trip, start your visit with a complimentary walking tour!
Take a complimentary walking Tour
I love complimentary walking tours. If you’ve read some of my other posts, you probably know that already, considering that I’m always recommending them. They give you a terrific way to get an introduction of a place, learn about its culture, and orient yourself. Budapest has a number of good tours. check these out (and be sure to idea your guide!):
Trip to Budapest
After the complimentary walking tour, which lasts about three hours, head over to Castle Hill.
Tour Castle Hill
This area has a lot of charm, with cobblestone streets and narrow alleys running through the Old Town. There are panoramic views of Pest and the Danube, great cafés and restaurants, and shops to explore.
The least expensive and easiest way to get up the hill is on the No. 16 bus. The funicular is another option, but it normally has a lengthy wait. I actually like walking, as I don’t think the hill is that steep.
See Buda Castle
They call it a castle, but it’s a lot more of a palace complex than anything else. though it was originally constructed in the 13th century, the huge Baroque complex you see today was built between 1749 and 1769. The palace’s days of being a luxurious living space ended in world war II, though, when Nazi (and then Russian) troops looted it. Today, it’s home to a collection of museums (see below).
Beneath the castle, Vlad the Impaler (who we know colloquially as count Dracula) was apparently imprisoned here for 14 years. In the dungeon area, there is a labyrinth that tourists can explore.
Szent György tér 2, +36 1 458 3000, budacastlebudapest.com. The courtyards are open 24/7 while the castle has hours that align with the museum and gallery below. excursions cost 3,850 HUF (must be booked in advance).
Visit the Budapest history Museum
This museum covers four floors of Buda Castle and really gives you a detailed introduction of the city’s entire history (plus the views across town are amazing!). It has some rooms that date back to the 15th century, and you can also explore the old cellar, which also dates to the 15th century. Personally, I really liked the “1,000 Years of Budapest” area.
2 Szent Gyorgy Square, +36-1-487-8854, budacastlebudapest.com/budapest-history-museum. open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-6pm. Admission is 2,400 HUF (free admission if you have the Budapest Card). There is an additional charge for taking pictures.
Admire the Hungarian national Gallery
Opened in 1957, this museum focuses on Hungarian artists and history, of which I knew very little before my visit. There are a lot of treasures here: besides the paintings and sculptures, you can see a collection of altarpieces from the 1400s and excursion the building’s dome. To see what new momentary exhibits are on display, check the website.
1014 Budapest, +36 20 439 7325, mng.hu. open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-6pm. Admission is 1,800 HUF and there is an additional charge for taking pictures. Audio guides are available for 800 HUF.
See the healthcare facility in the Rock
This museum is underneath Castle hill and just a five-minute walk from the castle. It has a fascinating history,having served as a hospital, bomb shelter, prison, and nuclear bunker. Inside, you can learn about world war II, the 1956 revolution, and the cold War. It opened as a museum in 2008 and is one of the most popular attractions in town. There’s a one-hour guided excursion complete with wax figures, tools, equipment, and furnishings!
Lovas ut 4/c , +36 70 701 0101, sziklakorhaz.eu/en. open daily 10am-7pm. Admission is 5,080 HUF for adults.
Visit Matthias Church
This neo-Gothic Roman Catholic church is not what you might expect. I’ve seen hundreds of churches and cathedrals across Europe, and this one is unique. The colorful roofing nearly looks like it was built from Lego. The original church was built in the 11th century, though nothing remains of it. The current building was constructed in the 14th century and it saw significant restorations in the 19th century. once inside, look out for the vaulted ceilings and ornate décor. It was a mosque for a while, which describes its lively colors and painted designs that aren’t the norm in European churches.
Szentháromság tér 2, +36 1 355 5657, matyas-templom.hu. open 9am-5pm on weekdays, 9am-1pm on Saturdays, and 1pm-5pm on Sundays. Admission to the church is 2,000 HUF and it’s 2,200 HUF for the tower.
See Fisherman’s Bastion
This ornate, fairytale structure faces Pest and supplies great panoramic views across the Danube River. built between 1895 and 1902, the terrace comprises seven lookout towers that represent the seven Hungarian tribes that founded Budapest. (It was created by the same architect who constructed the Matthias Church next door.) The name comes from either the fact that the terrace overlooks the fishermen’s guild or that the fishermen’s guild actually was responsible for protecting that area of the wall (no one is certain which).
Szentháromság tér, +36 1 458 3030, fishermansbastion.com. open daily 9am-11pm. Admission is free, with an additional charge of 1,000 HUF to visit the upper turrets.
Tour the Hungarian presidential Palace
The home of the Hungarian president is called Sándor-palota (Alexander Palace). It is not incredibly eye-catching compared to the surrounding buildings, but if you time it right, you can see the changing of the guard ceremony at the top of each hour, from 9am to 5pm Monday-Saturday. If you’re really lucky, in the summer the palace is often open for excursions (though this rarely happens).
Szent György tér 2, +36 1 224 5000. Admission to the changing of the guard is free. There is an additional fee for palace admission (when available).
See Buda Tower
This reconstructed “tower” is all that remains of the Church of Mary Magdalene, which was built in the 13th century but nearly destroyed during an air plunder in world war II. When the Turks occupied the city between 1541-1699, it was used as a mosque. considering that reopening in 2017, you can now climb the 172 steps to the top, but given the great complimentary views on Castle Hill, I’d skip it and just view the tower from the outside.
Kapisztrán tér 6, budatower.hu/en. open daily 10am-6pm (but only on the weekends in January and February). Admission is 1,500 HUF.
Budapest Itinerary: Day 2
Today, let’s tackle the Pest (eastern) side of town:
This massive building on the Danube is where the Hungarian legislature meets. The literal translation indicates “House of the Nation” or “House of the Country.” After the three cities that make up modern Budapest (Buda, Pest, and Óbuda) united in 1873, it was made a decision that a new parliament building was needed. This massive structure took 19 years to build, with construction finishing in 1904. Not only is it the tallest structure in Budapest but it’s actually the largest in the entire country.
These days, you can excursion the Gothic Revival edifice and enjoy the changing of the guard. I recommend purchasing your tickets in advance, as the lines to get tickets on-site can be exceptionally long.
Kossuth Lajos tér 1-3, +36 1 441 4415, parlament.hu. open daily 8am-4pm. Admission is 6,700 HUF for non-EU residents and 3,500 HUF for EU residents.
Stroll Along the Danube
A walk along the river is a great activity after checking out Parliament. Head south and check out the promenade and its lots of green spaces and sculptures, including the sobering “Shoes on the Danube Bank,” a memorial honoring the Jews who were carried out here during world war II.
Walk across the Chain Bridge
Continuing south, you’ll reach the Széchenyi Chain Bridge connecting Pest with Buda. This wrought-iron and stone suspension bridge is 375m in length. It opened in 1849, though it had to be rebuilt after world war II. At the Pest (east) end of the Chain Bridge is the Gresham Palace, a beautiful Art Nouveau building. It was once a luxurious office/apartment building and is now a luxurious hotel, the four Seasons.
Eat at the great Market Hall
Built in 1897, this is the oldest and largest indoor market in the country, a bit southwest of the Jewish Quarter. There’s mostly produce, meats, baked goods, and candy on the ground floor, while the upper floor is home to restaurants and souvenir shops. It has a lot of standard places to eat, so be sure to walk around and explore first. Sure, it’s touristy (it’s the central market, after all!), but I still found the food tasty. My favorites are the shops on the second floor, on the ideal side, closest to the front.
Vámház körút 1–3, budapestmarkethall.com/great-market-hall-budapest. open Monday 6am-5pm, Tuesday-Friday 6am-6pm , and Saturday 6am-3pm. closed on Sundays. Admission is complimentary but excursions are available. prices start at 6,300 HUF.
Gaze at St. Stephen’s Basilica
This is the largest church in Hungary and can’t be missed. It is beautiful inside and out, with ornate architecture, stunning artwork, sparkling marble, and a tall dome. No wonder it took 50 years to build! If you go inside, check out all the little chapels and St. Stephen’s mummified hand. If you’re there on a Monday, you can go to an organ concert.
Szent István tér 1, +36 1 311 0839, bazilika.biz. open daily from 9am-7pm (7:45am on Sundays). entry to the basilica is by donation, though it’s 2,000 HUF per person for the tower/observation deck.
Check out Dohány street Synagogue
Also known as the great Synagogue, this is the second-largest synagogue in the world, built in 1854 with 3,000 seats. Make sure you go on the guided excursion (included with admission) to get a lot more perspective on the building. The guides are incredibly knowledgeable, and you can learn about the construction of the synagogue, Jewish life during wartime, and a lot more. also check out Wallenberg Memorial Park (right behind the synagogue) and the nearby Hungarian Jewish Museum.
Dohány u. 2, +36 1 413 5584, jewishtourhungary.com/en. hours vary from month to month; call ahead or check the web site for details. Admission is 5,500 HUF.
See the Hungarian state Opera House
You can go inside this neo-Renaissance masterpiece or just view it from outside. I recommend the latter, as the auditorium is being renovated, and the excursion doesn’t cover much of the architecture. If there are performances while you are in town, try to catch one. It may even cost less than a tour! check the web site to see what’s on during your visit.
Andrássy u. 22, 1061, +36 1-81-47-100, opera.hu. excursions cost around 3,000 HUF while performances can cost as little as 1,000 HUF.
Party at the spoil Bars
Ruin bars are all the rage in Budapest and have been around considering that the 2001 founding of Szimpla Kert, the mecca of all spoil bars. They are in Budapest’s district VII neighborhood (the old Jewish Quarter) in the ruins of abandoned buildings, stores, or lots. This neighborhood was left to decay after world war II, so it was a best place to develop an underground bar scene. (Not so underground anymore, though!) From the outside, these bars look like normal homes. They don’t have large signs pointing the way, you don’t hear any loud noise, and there’s no line of people waiting to get in.
Here are my favorites:
Szimpla Kert – This is the original and a lot of popular spoil bar and started this trend. once an abandoned factory, it has a large open courtyard, a top floor with eclectic furniture, cocktail bars, and even an old, stripped-down Trabant (Communist-era car) you can have a drink in. Kazinczy u. 14, szimpla.hu. open 3pm-4am on weekdays, 12pm-4am on Saturdays, and 9am-4am on Sundays.
Instant – Occupying an entire apartment or condo building, instant is the greatest spoil bar, with a lot more than 20 rooms. They’ve knocked down lots of of the walls to connect the apartments and make space for the DJs and dancing. Akácfa u. 49-51, +36 70 638 5040, instant-fogas.com. open daily 6pm-6am.
For a longer list of the best spoil bars in Budapest, click here.
Budapest Itinerary: Day 3
Explore Gellért Hill
Start your day back in Buda with a trip to Gellért Hill, south of Castle Hill. This hill uses the best views of Budapest, and it’s a popular spot to enjoy a sunset from. (If you choose the sunset, take a f