Budapest is one of Europe’s most enchanting destinations and our favorite city in Eastern Europe. Budapest seems suspended between centuries, imperiously displaying elements of past and present. With its architectural wonders, bustling areas, colorful hills, grungy atmosphere, healing thermal waters, and a mix of old and new, Budapest has a lot to offer. It’s no surprise that people flock in their droves to experience these fantastic sights. 2 days in Budapest is the bare minimum one should spend here, so follow our itinerary for the best things to do in Budapest.
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How to Get Around Budapest
Budapest is is an ideal walking city, many attractions are easily reached on foot from the city center. or if you would rather save some time, public transport will get you there too. Walking will also enable you to stumble across some of Budapest’s hidden gems. Budapest is made up of two main distinct halves that are divided by the mighty Danube River. Buda is spread across several green hills and is full of narrow winding streets. It feels more suburban and oozes a serene classical quality. Pest, on the other hand, is flat as a pancake and is the urban center of the city. Pest is home to plenty of great museums, lovely Art Nouveau buildings, and a rejuvenated Jewish Quarter.
As you stroll across the city, be sure to look up at the buildings even if you have to stop a minute. There is a wealth of missed treasures above normal views that go unnoticed by many.
In order to save some time you can also use public transportation. Budapest has an efficient and extensive public transport network. You can get more information on this public transport guide. Taxis are also another alternative but should be avoided until absolutely necessary. Some taxi drivers are notorious for fleecing tourists. If you must use a taxi, Taxi Budapest and TaxiCab are the more reliable ones.
The Budapest Card might also be a good option depending on your needs. It includes free public transport and offers discounts on some museums.
Your 2 Days in Budapest Itinerary
We’ve included a free map of the top sights in Budapest for your convenience. Of course, we would recommend that you spend an extra day or two so you can appreciate the beauty of Budapest even better.
We understand that everyone travels at a different pace so feel free to choose the destinations according to your own pace. Many parts of this itinerary are meant to be walked, but you may certainly use public transport should you need it. Below we have compiled a list of the best things to see (or eat) in Budapest over the course of 2 days:
- Central Market Hall
- Gellert Hill Cave Church
- Gellert Hill & Citadella
- Buda Castle
- Traditional Hungarian Cakes & Pastries
- Matthias Church
- Fisherman’s Bastion
- Szechenyi Chain Bridge
- Gresham Palace
- Traditional Hungarian Lunch
- Shoes on the Danube Bank
- Hungarian Parliament Building
- Vaci Street
- Street Food Karavan Budapest
- Budapest’s famous Ruin Pubs
Day 1 in Budapest:
Today’s itinerary will cover the main sights in the castle district of Buda as well as some of the most popular sights in Pest.
1. Central Market Hall
Start your day early by heading to the Central Market Hall. The Central Market Hall, also called the Great Market Hall, is one of the city’s many fantastic local markets. Opened in 1897, it remains the largest and oldest indoor market in Budapest. The cavernous building is not only a tourist attraction but a place frequented by locals to do their daily shopping. There’s everything on offer here from butcher stalls, comestibles, and piles of local, seasonal vegetables and fruit. The upper floor has
several street food stalls, restaurants, and souvenir shops.
Strings of dried paprika and spicy Hungarian kolbász salami hanging are a ubiquitous sight in the market hall and the aroma is just heavenly. Hungary is one of the world’s main paprika-producing regions, with several varieties that differ in spiciness and color. Paprika powder and paprika paste is a Hungarian staple that makes for a perfect souvenir. The famed Hungarian dessert wine, Tokaji Aszu, one of the world’s most coveted libations is also available as a souvenir. We purchased quite a lot of paprika and salami ourselves.
The Central Market hall is open Mon (06:00 – 17:00), Tue-Fri (06:00 – 18:00), and Sat (06:00 – 15:00).
2. Gellert Hill Cave Church
Cross the Liberty Bridge to head over to your next destination. On the southern side of the Gellert hill quite close to the famous Gellert Baths, you’ll find the entrance to the Gellert Hill Cave Church. Having seen so many churches with high ceilings, ornate domes, and towers, I was really keen on seeing the Cave Church. It is basically hewn into the dolomite rock of Gellert Hill and is the antithesis of a traditional church. The church has an intriguing history with the entrance to the caves was constructed by Pauline monks in the 1920s to its closure during the Communist regime, and its re-opening after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
The rock wall and the dim lighting create a slightly spooky atmosphere. I really liked the altar and the replica of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Poland, that is said to have miraculous powers.
Opening hours of the Cave Church are Mon-Sat (09:30 – 19:30). Entrance costs 600 HUF and includes an audio guide. It is definitely worth a quick tour.
3. Gellert Hill & Citadella
Gellert Hill soars majestically above the Danube River, to a commanding height of 235 meters. The hike up Gellert Hill can be exhausting but it is totally worth the effort.
The Citadella (Citadel) is a fortress that sits atop Gellert Hill. It’s a massive structure built by the Habsburgs in 1854 in order to better govern Budapest after the suppression of the Hungarian War of Independence. It has seen a lot of history in its time and today most of the citadel structure stands. The Nazis and Communists used it for surveillance, taking advantage of its strategic position over the city. From here you are accorded jaw-dropping vistas of Buda Castle, the Danube, Chain Bridge, and Hungarian Parliament Building all visible below. The views are particularly magical at twilight or night-time when the city is lit up.
The Liberty Monument lies at its summit, and it represents the Hungarians’ unparalleled love for liberty, patriotism and nationalistic fervor. The central figure of the is a woman holding aloft a palm leaf, resembling the Statue of Liberty in a way.
4. Buda Castle
The imposing Buda Castle dominates Budapest’s skyline from its position on Castle Hill. The first Buda Castle dates back to the 13th century and was built as a means to thwart attacks by Mongols and Tatars. The present Buda Castle (also called the Castle Palace) was built in the 18th century in Neo-Baroque style structure and has in excess of 200 rooms. Large parts of the castle were severely damaged in World War II, but much of its exterior has been restored. Parts of the interior are open to the public, and these contain some museums and galleries such as the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum.
The castle courtyards are open 24 hours a day and it’s a nice area to explore. You can make the trek up to Buda Castle on foot or take the restored historic Castle Funicular Railway.
5. Traditional Hungarian Cakes & Pastries
No visit to Budapest can pass without sampling some delicious Hungarian cakes and pastries. Be a glutton and treat yourself to heavenly cakes such as the Eszterházy cake, Dobos cake, and the Podium cake. Ruszwurm Confectionery is one of the best places in Budapest to sample these cakes. You can also try their special cream pastry while you’re there.
6. Matthias Church
Officially named the Church of Our Lady, this famous landmark in the Castle District is better known as the Matthias Church after the beloved 15th century Renaissance monarch who ordered the transformation of the Church’s original southern tower and was married here twice. The Church dates back to the 11th century and has frequently been restored, repaired, and remodeled in whatever architectural style was in vogue at the time.
The most significant restoration works were carried out in the late 19th century when turrets and gargoyles were added to the exterior. I was most impressed with its magnificent diamond patterned tiled roof that really is an eye-catcher. The interior is very beautiful too with intricately decorated columns, lovely patterns, frescoes, and the stained glass windows.
The Matthias Church is open Mon-Fri 9:00-17:00, Sat 9:00-13:00 and Sun 13:00-17:00. The entrance fee is 1800 HUF.
7. Fisherman’s Bastion
Just beside the Matthias Church is the Fisherman’s Bastion, an early 20th-century structure that looks like it’s been plucked straight out of a fairy tale. The Fisherman’s Bastion is one of Budapest’s must-see attractions. It is a Neo-Gothic and Neo-Romanesque panoramic terrace on the Castle hill providing a sublime view over the Danube and the Pest side of the city. The seven towers of the Fisherman’s Bastion represent the seven Hungarian tribes that settled in the Carpathian Basin in 896. Its name originates from the guild of fishermen, responsible for defending this part of the city in the Middle Ages.
The Fisherman’s Bastion is open 24/7 throughout the year except for the upper terraces which are open from 9:00 – 19:00 or 9:00 – 20:00, depending on the time of the year. It is free to walk around the ramparts and cloisters. You can enter the upper-level terraces for 1000 HUF but it’s not really necessary in my opinion.
8. Szechenyi Chain Bridge
Though there are several bridges that connect Buda and Pest, Szechenyi Chain Bridge is the most famous one. It has a special place in the heart of locals as it was the first permanent link across the Danube River between Buda and Pest. The bridge was badly damaged by the Germans in World War II but was reconstructed and reopened in 1949 on the centenary of its inauguration.
On either side of the bridge are two huge towers that support the massive chains from which the bridge derives its name. There is also a pair of menacing stone lions that guard either side of the bridge. It is a superb subject for pictures and looks resplendent at night when it is lit up.
9. Gresham Palace Hotel
Budapest is loaded with stunning Art Nouveau architecture. Just after you cross the Szechenyi Chain Bridge over to the Pest side, there is one building which is arguably the best example of Art Nouveau in Budapest. The exterior is very impressive with gold ornamentation that brilliantly reflects the sun during the day. Inside there are many architectural Art Nouveau embellishments that can be appreciated, even by a layman. Today, the Gresham Palace houses the upscale Four Seasons Gresham Palace Hotel.
10. Traditional Hungarian Lunch
You deserve a good meal at this point and it would be prudent to try some local Hungarian cuisine. Two staples of Hungarian cuisine are goulash, a paprika-flavored soup loaded with meat and potatoes and chicken paprikash (chicken in a creamy paprika sauce). Jacky and I really love both these dishes and tried several different varieties during our trip. Hungarikum Bisztro is a great place for sampling traditional Hungarian fare.
11. Shoes on the Danube Bank
The ‘Shoes on the Danube Bank’ is a series of cast iron shoes laid out on the Pest side of the Danube Bank. The memorial commemorates the Hungarians who were shot dead by marksmen of the Arrow Cross, a Hungarian far-right fascist organization, at the very same spot during the World War II.
3500 men, women, and even children were forced to take off the shoes before being shot at the edge of the river! 60 pairs of shoes, some torn, some misaligned, are arranged haphazardly depicting the commotion and sorrow when they were called upon to be shot. It is a very simple and poignant memorial that acts as a chilling reminder of how evil man can be! I was only vexed by some people trying to take selfies and who seemed to have no idea of the history that occurred at this site.
12. Hungarian Parliament Building
Few buildings in the world can command the grandeur of the Hungarian National Parliament in Budapest. I’ve always considered it to be the most beautiful parliament building in the world. The facade of the Hungarian Parliament Building is possibly Budapest’s defining image.
This Neo-Gothic masterpiece, stretched along the bank of the river Danube, is the third largest parliament building in the world. London’s Houses of Parliament served as inspiration for the building’s design and no expense was spared during its construction. It was completed in 1902 having been designed for the millennial celebrations of 1896. The parliament building comes alive and gets even more beautiful (if that’s even possible) after dark when the city lights come on.
The unique interior design includes huge halls, over 20 kilometers of corridors, a 96-meter high central dome, and 691 rooms! You can take a guided tour of the interiors and see the Hungarian Holy crown as well as some of the grand halls and staircases. The grandiose Grand Staircase and the Domed Hall are the standouts here. Ticket prices are 2400 HUF (EU citizens) and 6000 HUF (non-EU citizens). We advise you to book your tour in advance as guided tours get sold out quickly.
Both runner-up designs for the Hungarian Parliament were built facing the Parliament building. One is the Museum of Ethnography and the other is the Ministry of Agriculture.
13. Vaci Street
The bustling Vaci Street (Vaci Utca) is Budapest’s most acclaimed shopping street. It stretches for over a kilometer from Vorosmarty Square to the Central Market Hall. The street is loaded with souvenir shops, high-end stores, lodging facilities, entertainment facilities, cafes, eateries, bars, and more. Off the street, there are old courtyards and shopping arcades.
Some parts of Vaci Street can feel a trifle touristy but its attractive promenade makes for a perfect stroll in the evening when it is lavishly illuminated. I mostly enjoyed the street for its lively atmosphere and the grand architecture of the surrounding buildings.
Most places on Vaci Street tend to be expensive, and some have dubious pricing policies. Be vigilant if you purchase anything. Since there are many tourists strolling here, beware of pickpockets.
14. Street Food Karavan Budapest
Feasting on street food is always great. In Budapest, you can get a sample of great street food at Street Food Karavan Budapest. This hipster-like place with picnic tables has plenty of dining options such as local, Thai, Mexican, Italian etc.
15. Budapest’s famous Ruin Pubs
One of the top things to do in Budapest is visiting one of the city’s famous ruin pubs. Ruin bars are makeshift bars that are located in dilapidated old buildings, abandoned industrial spaces and deserted parking lots. These buildings were re-purposed into eclectic, exciting bars, where 19th-century architecture is combined with cars hanging from ceilings and bizarre paintings hanging upside down on walls, illuminated by funky lighting.
Many ruin pubs offer cheap beer and live music. Nothing defines Budapest’s grungy character quite like ruin pubs. They are the perfect spot to unwind on a warm summer night after a busy day of sightseeing.
Most of Budapest’s ruin pubs are situated in Budapest’s trendy 7th district, formerly a thriving Jewish community. Each ruin pub is unique, but they all share certain similarities. Jacky and I went to Szimpla Kert, the oldest and most famous ruin pub. Other popular ruin bars are Kuplung, Instant, and Mazel Tov.
Day 2 in Budapest:
Today’s itinerary will cover even more incredible sights in the Pest district such as some great museums, religious shrines, and a visit to a thermal bath.
1. New York Cafe
Kick off your second day in Budapest by grabbing a quick breakfast at the famous New York Cafe. We really wanted to check out this joint since we had read it is often touted as the ‘most beautiful cafe in the world’. We can attest to this claim as the gilded Neo-Baroque interiors are astounding with grand chandeliers and marble pillars. It’s hard to believe that the cafe was once a hangout for destitute writers.
The food was good, nothing spectacular. It is quite pricey, so just grab a coffee and a pastry. But it’s all about the ambiance and spectacular setting. You need to make a reservation in advance, otherwise, you’ll have to wait in line in order to be seated.
2. Dohany Street Synagogue
The Dohany Street Synagogue (also called the Great Synagogue) is the second largest synagogue in the world (only behind Temple Emanu-El in New York), capable of accommodating up to 3000 people. It was built in 1859 and oddly enough, the architect who designed it was non-Jewish.
The synagogue features Byzantine, Moorish, and Romantic elements and its interior is a blend of Orthodox and Reformed Judaism. It is easily one of the best synagogues I have seen. I really liked the Moorish towers that are topped with Byzantine onion domes. The synagogue’s history is rich but also ladened with tragedy. It was desecrated by the Germans and Hungarian Nazis and was painstakingly reconstructed with donations from all over the world.
The Dohany Street Synagogue is open from Sun-Fri. The basic tour costs 4500 HUF, and also lets you see a memorial to Jewish Holocaust victims in the form of a weeping willow with the names of the dead and disappeared inscribed on the leaves. The synagogue starts welcoming visitors at 10:00. Closing hours vary by time of year. You can check the opening hours here. Even if you don’t want to go inside, it’s still nice to admire from the outside.
3. St. Stephen’s Basilica
St. Stephen’s Basilica is a Neo-Renaissance church and the largest one in Budapest – it can hold 8,500 people. It is undoubtedly one of Budapest’s star attractions and its 96-meter high dome is one of the most visible attractions in the Pest skyline. Its interior is beautifully adorned with frescoes, stained glass windows and stone covered columns.
The main attraction, however, is ‘The Holy Right’. This most unusual relic is a mummified, jewel-adorned right hand of St. Stephen that rests inside an ornate golden reliquary in the church’s Holy Right chapel. Talk about the gory!
Once inside you also have the option of riding the elevator or climbing the 360 odd stairs to the cupola for amazing views of Budapest. St. Stephen’s Basilica is open Mon-Fri 9:00 – 17:00, Sat 9:00 – 13:00 and Sun 13:00-17:00. Entrance to the church is free, but there is a fee of 600 HUF to go up to the observation deck.
4. Try a Traditional Hungarian Langos
No visit to Budapest would be complete if you didn’t try Hungary’s favorite savory indulgence. Langos is easily one of my favorite fast foods and it is so YUMMY! It is a deep-fried disc of flat dough that is traditionally slathered with fresh sour cream and garlic, then topped with shredded cheese. The best langos is crunchy on the outside and doughy on the inside.
Other toppings such as mayonnaise or Nutella are also available. Though it doesn’t look too big it is very filling. One of the best places in the capital to eat lángos is at Retró Lángos Büfé near the St. Stephen’s Basilica.
5. Andrassy Avenue
Andrássy Avenue is an iconic boulevard in Budapest that connects Erzsébet Square and the City Park. It was built in 1872 to divert the heavy traffic of the parallel Király street. The avenue is one of Budapest’s primary shopping destinations and features a slew of fine cafés, restaurants, and luxury boutiques. It is also home to a number of embassies, theaters and a spate of sumptuous Neo-Renaissance mansions.
6. House of Terror
The House of Terror is an important museum that documents the dictatorial oppression Hungary faced during its Fascist and Communist regimes. During these grim times, brutal interrogations and the torturing of countless political activists and dissidents took place.
The most chilling part of the museum is the basement, where the various types of prison cells and torture rooms have been recreated. The House of Terror is not an easy place to visit. The strains of gloomy music mix with heart-wrenching testimony from video screens and occasional sobs from visitors.
The House of Terror Museum is open Tue-Sun from 10:00 – 18:00. Entrance costs 3000 HUF. I would say that this is a good museum and definitely interesting for anyone with an interest in history. If however, you think that the museum sounds a bit too grim for you, you can skip this and move on to the next site.
7. Heroes’ Square
At the end of Andrassy Avenue lies Heroes’ Square. It is one of Budapest’s grandest landmarks and the largest public square in the city. It was here that the Millennium Celebrations opened in 1896.
The Millenium Monument dominates Heroes’ Square. At the center of the monument is a 36-meter high Corinthian column, upon which stands the Archangel Gabriel holding St. Stephen’s crown and the apostolic cross. These objects signify Hungary’s conversion to Christianity under St. Stephen. At the base of the column, there are equestrian statues of Prince Árpád and six of the conquering Magyar warriors, considered to be the founders of the Hungarian nation.
8. Museum of Fine Arts
The Museum of Fine Arts lies adjacent to Heroes’ Square. If there’s one museum in Budapest that shouldn’t be missed, it’s this awesome museum. The museum’s rich collection encompasses international art dating from antiquity to the 20th century. Greats like Raphael, Picasso, and Goya all feature. As well as Egyptian, Greek and Roman artifacts, the museum houses galleries dedicated to a variety of modern art. There are priceless drawings and countless works of graphic art alongside its fascinating collection of sculptures. Although you could easily spend all afternoon here, try to restrict yourself to an hour and a half.
The Museum of Fine Arts is open Tue-Sun from 10:00 – 18:00. Admission costs 1600 HUF.
9. Vajdahunyad Castle
The fairy tale like Vajdahunyad Castle is nestled within the shady trees at the edge of a lake in Budapest’s serene City Park. It is a facsimile of a castle by the same name in Transylvania, Romania. When it was first built it was made of cardboard as a temporary exhibit for the Hungarian millennial exhibition in 1896. The beautiful castle was proved so popular with the public, however, that it was agreed to make it a permanent fixture. It was good they did because it is so enchanting that I could gaze at it for hours! The castle was completed in 1906 with a blend of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque elements and represents more than 20 of Hungary’s most beloved buildings.
The Museum of Agriculture is the only part of the castle that is open to the public. We ended up going inside on a whim and were glad we did. This rather esoteric museum is famed for its incredible ‘Hunting Hall’. It displays some outstanding antlers and trophies of wild boar, mouflon, fallow deer, and Roebuck. The grandness and attention to detail of the displays is amazing. The hall itself has beautifully decorated vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows making it look like a cathedral for deer.
The museum is open Tue-Fri (10:00 – 17:00) and Sat-Sun (10:00 – 16:00). Entrance costs 1600 HUF.
10. Szechenyi Thermal Baths
After two longs days of sightseeing, you need to unwind and relax. Budapest has been one of Europe’s great spa destinations for hundreds of years. It’s thus inconceivable, in this city of spas, to leave without taking to the waters. Most of the city’s thermal waters contain high levels of sulfur and are said to be beneficial in treating rheumatism, arthritis and even Parkinson’s disease. There is no shortage of great options to choose from. Our favorite, however, is the Szechenyi Thermal Baths.
The Szechenyi Baths complex is the largest medicinal bath complex in Europe with over 18 pools. The main building itself is an architectural treasure of grandiose Neo-Baroque architecture. Built on the site of a thermal spring first discovered in 1879, Szechenyi is equally popular with locals and tourists alike. The pools are naturally heated courtesy of two thermal springs, which provide water with temperatures up to 38°C (100 °F). The outdoor pools are open year-round and taking a bath in the steaming water when the air temperature is below freezing is a memorable experience.
Practical Tips for Visiting the Baths
The Szechenyi Baths are open daily from 6:00 – 22:00 and you can check the prices here. We’d strongly recommend getting a cabin for your stay rather than a locker as this will entitle you to a little more privacy. Cabins can also be shared.
You can rent a towel from the counter after the entrance for 2000 HUF (+2000 HUF deposit). Swimming costumes and slippers are also available to rent. Hair dryers are available by the showers.
To cap off your final evening in Budapest you can either enjoy traditional Hungarian cuisine at the fantastic Paprika Vendéglő restaurant. However, if you are in the mood for something else, you might want to try Indian cuisine at the Haveli Indian Restaurant.
Extending Your Stay
Naturally, a big city like Budapest deserves more than 48 hours. If you decide to extend your stay by one or two days, it will give you enough time to explore some of the city’s outer districts, more great museums, and thermal baths. Or perhaps, you can even take a day trip or two! If you decide to stay, check out our recommendations for the best accommodation in Budapest:
Hostel: Wombats CITY Hostel, a great choice right in the heart of downtown.
Budget: Medosz Hotel, solid option just off Andrássy Avenue.
Mid-range: Hotel Zenit Budapest Palace, excellent choice on the Danube riverbank, close to the Chain bridge.
Splurge: Hilton Budapest, a sumptuous choice on Buda next to Fisherman’s Bastion.
Now, what do you think? How would you spend 2 days in Budapest? Is Budapest on your bucket list? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!