Arriving in Budapest to a winter wonderland of snow covered roads, buildings and cars, it instantly felt new and exciting. The language blaring out of the taxi radio was like nothing I’d ever heard; the taxi driver was singing songs I’d never come across, the words on the road signs were indecipherable, and as airport turned to city, it suddenly felt so very different to anywhere else I’d been.
Budapest, the capital city of Hungary, is very much on the tourist map nowadays, and rightly so. I was expecting thousands of tourists and commercialised attractions, but what I found was somewhere that still feels totally authentic; a special place that has left its mark on me. I learned a lot, drank a lot, ate a lot and laughed a lot.
If you’re thinking of a trip to Budapest – my advice would be to do it. It’s one of the few cities I’d love to go back to over going somewhere new. I spent 5 days in the city, but my itinerary was laid back and chilled out and you could do everything I did in 3 days. That said, it’s really worth doing it at a chilled pace to enjoy the atmosphere and not rush through the city.
Here’s an itinerary for 3 days – but make the most of it, and spend more time there if you can. Just the Palinka and Goulash is worth an extra day!
Day 1 – A day exploring Buda
Budapest is actually historically 2 cities – Buda and Pest – separated by the river Danube in between. Buda is the castle district, high up on the hill looking down to Pest across the river. Pest is the more ‘happening’ part of the Hungarian capital, home to bars, restaurants and clubs.
Buda is the historic area of the city, and probably the most touristy, but it’s still absolutely beautiful to explore and well worth a day of your time.
A. Walk the Chain Bridge
This bridge connects Buda and Pest across the Danube. It’s a symbol of advancement, innovation and east meeting west. It’s an absolutely beautiful bridge and a famous landmark in Budapest which should be on every visitor’s list.
B. Take the Funicular up to Buda Castle
Walking straight ahead from the Buda side of the Chain Bridge, you arrive at a Funicular to take you up the hill to the castle. You could opt to walk, but save your legs and time as the journey itself is quite fun. The line was open in 1870, and the cars are great for the quick couple of minute’s ride up with views out across the river.
C. Explore the Buda Castle & Museum
Once at the Castle, take in the glorious views from the top out across the Danube and down to Pest. The Castle Museum is also worth some time – learn about the history of Budapest, its settlers, invasions (from Mongol, to Ottoman, to Nazi – this city has seen it all), ancient castle and royal palace. We spent about 3 hours in the museum, but if you’re sticking to this as a 3 day itinerary you won’t have time – so take in what you can in a couple of hours.
D. Learn about Budapest’s war history at Hospital in the Rock
This was one of my favourite things in Budapest. Hospital in the Rock is just down the road from Buda Castle, and is a museum which enables you to take a trip in to the war tunnels used in the city as hospitals during WW2. You have to visit as a guided tour and it’s fascinating to see.
E. Discover the beautiful Mathias Church
Originally a church was founded on this site in 1015, but this was destroyed by the invasion of the Mongols in the 1200s and the current church was constructed in the second half of the 13th century. This church is where 2 Hungarian kings were crowned and it’s absolutely beautiful inside so well worth going in.
F. Admire the views from Fisherman’s Bastion
Fisherman’s Bastion is the ultimate Instagram spot in Budapest. It’s here where beautiful women in beautiful dresses sit looking at beautiful views out over the Danube and across to the Parliament building (more on that later).
But did you know there has been some form of defence fortification here since the Middle Ages, and though repeatedly destroyed today’s structure’s 7 towers represent the seven Magyar tribes that settled here in 895, and a bronze statue of Stephen I sits mounted on a horse just in front of the Bastion?
H. Spend the evening in an Escape Room
Budapest is one of the homes of Escape Rooms (you get locked in a room and have to solve puzzles to work your way out of the room)- and you can’t visit the city without doing at least one of them. In our time in the city, we did 8 Escape Rooms – ranging from a Game of Thrones theme, to an Egyptian Pyramid, to Sherlock Holmes (!) – but our personal favourite was Locked Room Budapest. You could genuinely have a whole holiday in the city just playing it’s many Escape Rooms, and I wouldn’t blame you if you did!
Day 2 – A day in Pest
This is the busiest day of the itinerary so it’s an early morning start! Today is focused on the opposite bank of the river Danube to yesterday, exploring the Pest area of the Hungarian capital.
A. Take a moment to reflect at the Shoes on the Danube Bank
During the second world war, the Red Arrow Cross party ruled Hungary. It was a fascist party, supportive of the Nazis. During this time, hundreds of Jews were lined up along the river, and shot. One thing that is striking on visiting Budapest is it’s very little acknowledgement of it’s war atrocities (unlike in Germany). It actually took until 2005 for this memorial of the victims to be created – shoes representing the footwear left behind on the bank as murdered Jews fell in to the river.
B. Marvel at the Hungarian Parliament Building
One of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen, the Hungarian Parliament building is not to be missed. Whilst some of the best views are from across the water, it’s also worth walking around the building to see it from the park behind the Pest bank, which also provides lovely views of the building.
C. Grab breakfast or a coffee at Gerbeaud
Built in 1858, relive Hungary’s hey-day in this gorgeous cafe, with high vaulted ceilings and chandeliers. It feels like stepping back in time…oh, and the food is delicious.
D. Enjoy Miniversum (update – this is now permanently closed as of 2021)
A fun stop on the itinerary, perfect for actual kids and big kids (in my case) alike. Miniversum is an exhibit full of miniature models of Hungary and the world – there was even a UK section, which made me realise how little of my home country I’d seen. In writing up this post, I discovered this museum is currently closed – hopefully it will reopen soon, but if not at least it means longer at some of the other places on this itinerary.
E. Visit St Stephen’s Basilica
This magnificent catholic cathedral is named after Stephen I – first king of Hungary, whose right hand is still somewhere in the cathedral today. Outside and in this building is stunning and well worth a visit.
At the Basilica
F. Educate yourself at Dohany Street Synagogue
This synagogue is special as it is the largest in Europe, seating up to 3,000 people. Also at the site is a Jewish Museum and a Memorial to the 400,000 Jewish victims of the Holocaust of WW2.
G. Visit a traditional ruin bar
Moving on from cathedrals and synagogues to the opposite extreme, another thing that Budapest is famous for is its ruin bars. These are ‘run down’ bars, often with a theme, lots of different rooms and quirky decor which make the perfect spot for a drink. And if you’re going to drink in Hungary, you have to try Unicum. It’s a national drink, made from a secret formula – and it’s absolutely disgusting in my opinion. But these things have to be tried, and on the plus side I was very merry for the rest of the day!
H. Take in some history at the Hungarian National Museum
Staggering slightly, it’s time to sober up and explore more of Hungary’s history. We make a point that for every country we visit, we learn about it’s history. We don’t retain it all but I think it’s important to try. I found Hungarian history fascinating – from Turkish takeover, to its glorious Empire days to the fall to Fascist control, to the present day. It has a rich and complex history, and I did feel like the museum was a bit biased. When talking about the WW2 atrocities, no accountability was taken on the Arrow Cross Party, and all was passed on to the Nazis. A lot of protests have happened across Hungary over the years in relation to war denial, and I definitely felt an element of this.
I. Cross Elizabeth Bridge for sunset up Gellert Hill
Gellert Hill gives one of the best views down across the Danube river and the whole of the city, so is perfect as the last stop of the day to watch the sunset. Also at the top is the Citadel, towered over by the Liberty Statue which was erected by the Soviets to celebrate their victory in WW2.
Then end your day with a traditional Hungarian dinner – we chose to eat at an amazing little place called Kacsa Restaurant in the Buda district which serves traditional Hungarian food and even came complete with a violinist as we ate…oh, and lots of Palinka and wine…
Day 3 – North Budapest
For your final day in Budapest, it’s all about exploring just slightly outside of the main city centre to discover some more amazing places.
A. Learn about Hungary as a Soviet state at the House of Terror
So far, you’ll have learnt about ancient Hungarian history, it’s hey-dey in the early 1900s, and it’s role during WW2. But what happened after WW2 when the Soviets ‘liberated’ the city? The House of Terror is located in the same building where the Arrow Cross party, and then later the Hungarian secret police (an extension of Soviet Russia), were based. Learn more about the fascist rule during WW2, and then the subsequent communist rule. Both led to thousands of innocent victims, whose lives are memorialised here. Do spend a few hours here, it really is worth it.
B. Visit Heroes’ Square
Just up the road from the House of Terror is Heroes’ Square, one of the major squares in the city. It’s famed for it’s statues of the seven chieftans of the Magyars and other important Hungarian national leaders, as well as the Memorial Stone of Heroes (the Hungarian equivalent to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier).
C. Explore Vajdahunyad Castle
Built in 1896, this castle celebrates 1,000 years of Hungary. Today it houses the biggest agricultural museum in Europe which if you’re interested is worth a visit. If not, just stroll round the grounds and enjoy the pretty views, or hire a row boat to go on the lake (when it’s not frozen of course).
D. Go for a dip at Szechenyi Thermal Baths
Just across the way from the castle are the world famous Szechenyi baths. Most people have the baths high on their list of things to do in Budapest. I don’t. Because I can’t swim and I don’t like the idea of bathing in other people’s dirt. I didn’t visit, and instead opted to sit in a lovely restaurant next door eating Goulash soup and drinking Palinka for hour. Much better.
E. End your trip with a final cruise along the Danube at sunset
What better way to end your trip than to head back to the lifeblood of this amazing city – the mighty Danube. We cruised along it to see the sites one last time from the water at sunset. We were also served some rather disgusting orange tea so washed it down with some final shots of Palinka. The perfect way to end a stay in this perfect in its way city.
And that brings to a close a magical 3 days in Budapest. I loved everything we did on this itinerary and hope you’ve enjoyed reading.
Changing topic completely, I get to go on holiday on Friday for a long weekend as it’s a bank holiday here in England on Monday. I’m only staying in England but it will be our first hotel stay since August 2020, and I can’t wait. It feels so good for the world to be opening up a bit again and hopefully you’re all feeling a bit more positive and boosted too.
Thank you for stopping by; stay safe and happy travelling!