Buda and Pest. Two cities that make up the capital and the most visited city of Hungary.
We spent a total of two days and three nights in this amazing city. We felt like this was the perfect amount of time to see most of what Budapest has to offer, but still leave you wanting to come back. A two day itinerary for Budapest is pretty jam packed so if you like a more leisurely paced schedule, you can spread these two days into three. Our Budapest itinerary is as follows:
Chain Bridge, Castle Hill, Ruin Pubs or River Cruise
The first day we spent a majority of our time in Buda, exploring the castle hill area. When exploring this area, the best idea is to get a really early start. As much as we understand its hard to get up early on vacation, this is one of the most popular tourist areas of the whole city and its a must to start early if you don’t want to become part of the HUGE herd of people walking around, and trust us, we mean HUGE.
Since we were staying across the river in Pest, we decided to walk (~15 minutes from the Great Synagogue) to Buda and see/walk across the Chain Bridge on our way. This bridge was built between 1842 and 1849 and is an icon of Budapest. Prior to this point, there was no permanent bridge to connect these two cities and to get across the people had to rely on ferries or a frozen river, which was horribly unreliable. Thus, the Chain Bridge or Széchenyi lánchíd was born, and later reconstructed after it was destroyed in WWII.
Just on the Buda side of the bridge, there are two methods up to the Castle Hill area: the Funicular or the walking path. The Funicular is a little cable car that will lift you from river level all the way to the top of Castle Hill for a little more than $4 one way. When we got there, the line was pretty long, so we just decided to use our legs and hike our way up. Luckily for us, each hair pin turn gave us better and better views of the Danube river and Pest.
Right at the top of the hill, you will hit a fork – to the left is the Royal Palace, the Hungarian National Gallery, and the Budapest History Museum. To the right is the Fishermen’s Bastion, Matthias Church, and the remains of St. Mary Magdalene Church. If you have all day to spend, then we would recommend starting to the left and then working your way to the right. Since we didn’t have time to spend literally all day here, we decided to skip the Royal Palace (it was reconstructed after WWII and doesn’t look like previous versions) and the National Gallery.
Since we got there early, we had to wait for the main areas to open, but this gave us plenty of time to walk around the streets, explore the ruins of St. Mary Magdalene’s Church, and get in line to be the first people in Matthias Church right when it opens at 9 am. Tickets can be purchased just across from the church side doors for about $4.40/person.
Travel Tip: This church has a ton to see and gets super, super crowded quickly so the best way to see it is either when the doors first open or late in the afternoon when most of the tours have left and just a hour or two before closing.
This church is actually named the Church of Our Lady, but it has been nicknamed Matthias church after King Matthias Corvinus, a very popular renaissance king. The name was never officially changed because a church cannot be named after someone who is not a saint.
Matthias Church, or a version of it, was first established about 800 years ago by King Béla IV. From then, it has been renovated twice in the late 19th century and after WWII’s destruction. Once inside the church, every where you look is a peek into Hungarian history – from the statue of Mary and Jesus from 1515 to the carving capital from 1260 to the coronation banners from 1867. Every part of this church is lined with patterned wall paper, ornate decorations, and intricate stained glass. It was truly a fascinating and beautiful site.
Right outside the church lies a big white castle-like structure, the Fishermen’s Bastion. This is essentially the old castle walls that was built into what it is today around 1902. Frigyes Schulek built the wall with seven towers to represent each of the seven Magyar tribes, which were some of the original inhabitants of Hungary back in the 800s. From up in the towers, there are amazing views over the Danube River into Pest and of the grand Hungarian Parliament. After walking around the church, we spent some time up in the Bastion just taking in the view as well as watching all the tours pass by and catching a few historical facts.
Travel Tip: The tower close to the entrance of Matthias Church and the statue of St. Istvan costs about $4 to enter (these are the tickets you pay for at the same place as where you bought your Matthias Church ticket), but just a few towers down, right above the restaurant, you can climb to the top for just under $1 and see pretty much the exact same views.
From here, we walked down the street from the front of the Church and treated ourselves to some Hungarian cream cake and coffee (see here), before heading past the changing of the guards (happens on every hour). At this point, we felt like we had our fill of seeing the sights of Buda Castle – although if you are still up for it, there are a few other sites including the Hospital in the Rock, the Royal Palace and the National Gallery that you can continue through. We took the Funicular back down and headed back into Pest for the rest of our afternoon.
For the rest of the afternoon, we took a long stroll back to our apartment, took a few minutes to recoop, and headed out for an early dinner. When it comes to the rest of the night, there were two different options that we toyed with and would recommend.
First option would be an evening dinner river cruise. This will take you by all the main sights of the city and give you a totally different view – the Danube River. Spend a few hours munching on traditional Hungarian food and see the spectacular sight of the Hungarian Parliament all lit up. We originally planned on this, but by the time it came to book our trip, we decided to be cheap and save our money. If you want to go this route, we were recommended the company Danube Legenda, located just in front of the Marriott on the Pest side of the river.
So instead, we went with option two. Down in the Jewish Quarter of town are a bunch of bars called the Ruin Pubs. These are a bunch of new bars/restaurants that have been built out of what was once bombed during WWII and left abandoned for decades. They may not look like much from the outside, but walk back through a hallway and they open up into huge open air courtyards filled with “rickety-chic” decor. We headed to the little pub, Szimpla Kert, enjoyed a few local beers, and met some great new friends.
Regardless of if you are looking for a night out or not, stopping by and seeing these crazy bars is worth a few minutes of your time. It was so fascinating that they have taken a slum and transformed it into something worth seeing.
Travel Story: A little while after we were at the bar, we noticed a lady walking around the bar from table to table. When she finally reached our table, she stated that she was selling carrots from her garden. Umm, what? We have never in our lives seen veggies being sold in the middle of a bar, and told her we would pass. Another hour passed and she came by again and Nate gave in. He bought a carrot and all our newly made Scottish friends died laughing as he chomped on his carrot and drank his beer. It was one of the strangest things we’ve experienced in a really long time.
Parliament, St. Istvan’s Basilica, Vaci Utca shopping street, Great Market Hall, Heroes Square, Szechenyi Baths
Since we spent a majority of the first day in Buda, the second day was mainly focused on seeing the sights of Pest. We started again with a semi early morning and left our apartment around 8 am to catch a quick breakfast on our way to our 9 am tour of the Budapest Parliament. (Or that should be your plan…we slept in and missed our tour.) This 45 minute tour will take you through the history of the Parliament building as well as through the detail of the interior architecture, including the gilded dome.
From the Parliament building, its time to see the rest of Pest before ending the day in the thermal baths. (This is where we started our day later.) Just to the southeast of the Parliament building, we walked past the US embassy and the gardens surrounding, then around to St. Istvan’s Basilica.
This church, like many other things, was built for the millennial anniversary of Hungary in 1896. The outside is stunning and the square outside the church is always bustling with people and cafes. If you are more interested in the church, the interior is free to visit.
A few more blocks south is Vaci Utca street – the main shopping street in Budapest. This is a great pedestrian street lined on either side with clothing, souvenir, and any other shop you could imagine. We mostly just walked down this street to see it – we already knew we would never buy anything from here considering it is known to be a tourist destination.
Continuing a few more blocks south to our main destination, the Great Market Hall. Up on the second floor of the market are lines of different food stalls with a variety of different Hungarian treats – exactly what we were looking to have for lunch. Take your pick of what you are feeling or buy a few different things to share. We went with the Kolbice, but could have easily also split a Langos if we were patient enough to stand in line again. After our stomachs were full, we headed to the first floor and explored the different market stalls full of fruits and veggies, spices, toys, clothes, and knick knacks. We stopped by a few different stalls and then found the perfect little one that let us try paprika before we purchased some to take back with us.
After our late lunch, we were off to go spend some time relaxing in the thermal baths! I don’t know about you, but after walking around for two days, we were overjoyed at the thought of spending time at the spa. We walked up Múzeum Korút street to the Deák tér metro station and took the M1 subway the rest of the way up to Széchenyi Baths. (Side note: this was one of the coolest subway trains we’ve ever ridden on. This train was the very first metro on the entire European continent and was built in 1896. Because it was the first, it is also the shallowest metro so make sure to read the signs ahead of time because you have to go back to street level to change sides.)
Thermal baths are a big thing in Hungary and there are three in Budapest. Széchenyi Baths is the most popular of the three, so with only one afternoon, we figured this was our best bet. For those of you who have never been to a thermal bath (just like Nathan before this trip), we will give you a little low down. A thermal bath is essentially a big hot tub. In this case, they had three baths outside – one was closed, one was for swimming laps, and the last is where we hung out. Inside, they have a series of indoor pools (some for medical use), saunas, massage areas, and a fitness area. This was not the case at Széchenyi, but word to the wise, at some Hungarian bath houses, clothing is optional.
After paying our entry fee, we grabbed our towels, changed into our swimsuits in our private cabin, and headed out to the main pool. We floated around until our fingers and toes were way too pruny.
Our last stop before dinner was to Heroes square, which happens to be a block away from Széchenyi baths. Built in 1896 (seeing a pattern yet?), this monument was dedicated to all the heroes of Hungary for the 1,000th anniversary of the Magyars arrival in Hungary. The statues here represent 14 different Hungarian leaders through the history including István, Béla IV, and Mátyás Corvinus.
And that wrapped up day 2! The rest of the evening for us was just spent getting a fantastic dinner and heading back to our Airbnb (we stayed here) early so that we could catch our very early morning train ride to our next destination.
Our two days in Budapest were absolutely fantastic and jam packed with so many different sites. We might have been walking around all day, but we wouldn’t have had it any other way. We loved our time in Budapest and this city became truly one of our favorites that we’ve ever been to. The food, the people, the history – we couldn’t get enough. It was a city as bustling and rich with history as any western European city, but with a fraction of the touristy feel. Budapest wasn’t originally that high on our list, but after this trip, we couldn’t recommend it more. It’s definitely a must add to any of you travelers out there.
Have you been to Budapest?