By Ash Merscher;
From the Pacific Northwest in the USA, Ash is a blogger currently living in Europe. For two years, she resided in Budapest, Hungary, teaching English & looking for the perfect places to visit that she could share with the world. Ash also has her own travel website called Cairn and Compass & is active on Instagram where you will be able to see some amazing photos of her travels.
Budapest is a city for explorers, but fitting all the big sights into one day is nearly impossible. Every twist and turn of an intriguing side street opens up a new scene, a new temptation. You’d be amiss not to follow your instincts, poking your head down corridors and alleyways. But that’s the thing about Hungary’s capital; it begs to be experienced in a different way, in a way that must be felt, as if your steps are the city’s heartbeat.
After living in this energetic urban hub for over two years, here is the ultimate day guide for Budapest.
It all begins before dawn. I know it’s hard, I’ve never been a morning person myself. But trust me on this one; there are few city sunrises that rival that of Budapest. You have your choices of viewpoints, including Gellért Hill (which requires a short but rewarding trek) and Buda Castle. My place of preference, however, will forever be Fisherman’s Bastion, a fortress encircled in twelve symbolic turrets. As the sun bursts over the city and the river, still calm in its morning slumber, you can’t help but feel a rush of energy. Bright yellows, oranges, and pinks illuminate rooftops and monuments.
And the best part? You can wander around Castle Hill and have it nearly all to yourself.
After sunrise, a quick wander down Castle Hill will put you directly in front of the famous Chain Bridge. Cross it, enjoy the views, and catch the #19 tram heading south. My biggest piece of advice for Budapest newbies is this: invest in a transit pass. Public transportation is not only efficient here, but also an experience.
This vintage, yellow tram will bump and rattle along the Danube, giving you glowing glimpses of the riverfront, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hop off at Fővám tér, where you can admire the green Liberty Bridge spanning the river.
Make a stop at the Great Market Hall. At this hour, you can avoid the tour groups and focus on the locals that, honestly, shop there. Old women hobble along, wicker basket in hand, as they order their fresh meats and produce from loyal sellers. If you’re interested, this is an optimal place to pick up some paprika. Take a peek upstairs where stalls are overflowing with leather goods, Hungarian trinkets, and handwoven linens. But don’t forget to venture downstairs and try some pickled vegetables, a true Hungarian staple.
The market may make you hungry, so it’s time for a snack. Head over to Butter Brothers, an early morning bakery that lures its customers with rumors of the city’s best pastry: a chocolate csiga. The rumors are true. Pair it with a cappuccino and take it to-go to admire more river views.
You are now in Budapest’s 8th District, Józsefváros, or sometimes referred to as the Palace District. Go back just a handful of years and this neighbourhood came with warnings of petty crimes. Today, it’s buzzing with pure Budapest energy as it starts to revive itself. It’s my favourite area of the city to wander and discover. Make your way to the Jewish Quarter, but take your time. Meander, explore, and enjoy this historic area of the city. There are endless buildings with intricate facades, revealing deep, emotive history. You’ll pass the Hungarian National Museum, where you can chronologically follow the country’s diverse history.
Soon enough, you’ll find yourself at the crossroads of Rákóczi Street. Look left, look right. You’ll see why this was once the grand avenue of the city. As you walk, you’ll pass deteriorating facades, shops with rusty signs swinging aimlessly, secret courtyards filled with art, and old theaters that make you wonder what life was like a century ago.
When you’re ready, hang a left and circle back to the Dohány Street Synagogue, Europe’s largest. It’s worth the entrance fee, both for its impressive stature and its look into the city’s Jewish history. Spend some time in the Jewish District. There are plenty of original art and vintage shops worth a visit (like Ludovika, Retrock, Vinyl & Wood, Printa, PSTR) as well as a few smaller synagogues.
Make your way up Andrássy Street, Budapest’s version of Champs-Élysées. Buy a kürtőskalács (chimney cake) from one of the stands, a perfectly sweet snack to enjoy as you stroll. Head towards the Opera House, popping in for a quick tour before lunch. I adore Két Szérecsen just a few blocks from the Opera. This vintage cafe beckons for a leisurely meal tucked in its plush royal red and turquoise booths. Budapest is known for its high-value napi (daily) menus, but Két Szerecsen goes a step further with both a daily and a weekly offer. And if you need a jolt of java, they serve excellent coffee.
From here, take the #1 metro, the oldest line in the city, which sports yellow cars with vintage leather straps swaying from the ceiling. Depart at Hösõk Tére, Heroes’ Square. The feeling you’ll get as you walk the steps out of the metro, with the breeze on your face, as you admire the unfolding scene, is unlike any other. Heroes’ Square is the definition of Budapest grandiosity.
From here, it’s a quick walk to Vajdahunyad Castle, which depicts several types of architecture found throughout the country. Stroll around the grounds and you may even run into a festival, with one held nearly every weekend of the year.
No visit to Budapest is complete without a trip to the thermal baths. If you’re new to the city, don’t pass up the opportunity to experience the likes of Szechenyi. It’s Europe’s largest medicinal bath, housing 18 pools and 10 spas. But it’s the atmosphere that will impress you. It’s fit for royalty, with tall domes, several spires, and a wrap-around yellow interior of columns and terraces. Its an ideal tourist spot, simultaneously encouraging culture and relaxation.
Now that you’ve pampered yourself, it’s back to sightseeing. Jump on the metro to Déak Ferenc tér and transfer one stop to Kossuth Lajos tér. Emerge to find Hungary’s enormous Parliament building. This very well may be the country’s most stunning example of architecture. After seeing it nearly everyday for over two years, it never grew tiresome. In fact, it became more intriguing with each view: the gothic detail of the spires; how some shutters are open while other remain closed; how, depending on the time of day or the weather, it changes color; or the bats that fly overhead at night.
Walk across Freedom Square, down Október Street, and turn left when you see the city’s other startling site: St. Stephen’s Basilica. From this viewpoint, it’s nestled perfectly between streets lined with Baroque buildings. It eventually opens into an enormous square and the photo opportunities are endless. Step inside for a minimal donation, find Saint Stephen’s mummified hand, and brave the spiral staircase to the top for some killer views of the city.
Book a table at Hotel President’s rooftop bar for a pre-dinner drink (try some of Hungary’s underrated wine) to watch the sun melt into the sky. You saw the sunrise, so you might as well enjoy the sunset too! You’ll be surprised at the perfection here: as the sun dips behind the Buda Hills, it will shine directly behind the Parliament’s tallest spire, dispersing the rays behind the maroon dome and spreading the light around the entire city. As a bonus, the famous Zsolnay tiles of the Hungarian State Treasury sparkle in the dramatic light.
Walk down to the river and admire the city’s impressive ‘blue hour’. This is when Budapest truly earns its nickname as the Pearl of the Danube. As the sky darkens, lights flicker in all directions. The Chain Bridge, framed by the Buda Castle, begins its evening glow in a soft green hue before sparkling in bright gold.
Take this time to admire Budapest’s gleam by strolling the Danube Promenade. Make your way through the streets to Kazimír Bisztró, an excellent restaurant, named after Krakow’s famed neighborhood, that perfectly fuses traditional Hungarian cuisine with Jewish fare. But save your sweet tooth for the Centrál Kávéház, one of the city’s most impressive, turn-of-the-century coffeehouses that was once frequented by Hungary’s most celebrated authors. Devour a slice of cake, presented as its own form of art, and sip on some sweet Tokaj wine.
The night is always young in Budapest! At this hour, you should check out a ruin bar or two. My favorite is Élesztő, because it’s out of the tourist zone and appeases both craft beer fanatics and wine connoisseurs. It gets busy with young locals, so either make a reservation or be prepared to stand as your imbibe.
Your other option is Szimpla Kért, maybe Budapest’s most famous ruin bar. It’ll be crowded, and on the weekends it turns into a bit of a club feel. But it’s worth your time as each room is decorated with a different theme, filled with trinkets from forgotten times. You can even sit in a broken-down Trabant or order carrots in the rabbit room. To each their own.
If you want to keep bar-hopping, Budapest will deliver. Wander and discover on your own, or check out some of my favorites: Anker’t and Kisüzem for more beer and good vibes, Doblo Wine Bar for some tasting notes, or Farm for a delicious and unique cocktail.
And as you amble back to your accommodation, consider a pit stop at one of the monuments to see it sparkle under the stars. (Some of the best include Heroes’ Square, the Buda Castle, and the Parliament.) And continue on your way, breathing deep, looking up, and keeping step to the rhythm of the living, breathing, and stunning city of Budapest.