Planning a weekend in Budapest? This three-day itinerary will see you on your way to discovering the city’s main highlights, as well as some of its hidden quirks.
Interconnected via the Danube River, the east and west banks in Budapest reveal how two divided settlements evolved into the dynamic Hungarian capital of today. The city’s size makes it the perfect destination for shorter breaks – providing you plan accordingly. Use this handy guide to get to know Budapest’s most famous monuments and lesser-known landmarks in just three days.
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Start your Budapest weekend by fuelling up with hearty pancakes and caffeine at Gossip Coffee. After breakfast, the first thing to do is get set up with a public transport pass. There are plenty of ticket vending machines dotted around the city, including at Metro stations, so head to a nearby station such as Oktogon. A 72-hour pass costs 4,150 HUF (£10.25) and includes access to Metro, bus and tram links, giving you unlimited freedom during your short stay.
Before heading to some of Budapest’s key attractions, it’s worth making a short stop on Falk Miksa street to seek out one of the city’s most overlooked monuments – a bronze statue of Lieutenant Columbo, the much-loved fictional detective and lead character of cult TV show Columbo. Installed in 2014, the monument highlights an ancestral connection between the late actor Peter Falk – who played the detective – and Miksa Falk, a Hungarian political figure. The link may be tenuous, but any fan of old-school detective shows will relish the chance at taking a selfie with the scruffy Lieutenant and his trusty basset hound.
Walk toward the riverbank and cross Margit híd (Margaret Bridge) on foot, watching tour boats pass underneath and admiring the imposing facade of the Neo-Gothic Hungarian Parliament Building. On the other side, catch a tram down to Batthyány Square and begin the 15-minute hike up the hillside to the Castle District – specifically to Matthias Church and the surrounding viewing platform that is the Fisherman’s Bastion. Paying a small fee to explore the interior of the church is highly recommended; you’ll get a chance to learn about its historical significance, the architectural alterations that took place over the centuries and the splendidly colourful Zsolnay tiles that decorate its distinctive roof. If you’re happy to just take in the views, a walk around the bastion’s parapets means you can observe the city below – although you’ll have to dodge the crowds vying for the perfect photograph.
Weave your way through the Castle District’s cobbled back streets after a quick bite to eat at Hungarian-French brasserie Déryné Bisztró. Sooner or later, you’ll arrive at Buda Castle. The palace is home to the Hungarian National Gallery, the Castle Museum and National Széchényi Library – but if you’re short on time (and strapped for cash), opt to stay outside exploring the many monuments situated within the palace grounds. Head back up the Habsburg steps and ride the Budavári Sikló (Budapest Castle Hill Funicular) – the second oldest of its kind in Europe – down to the riverbank.
After spending most of the day on foot, take a tram from Clark Adam Square to Szent Gellért Square, stopping to admire Szabadság híd (Liberty Bridge), which, at 333 metres (1,093 feet) long, is the shortest of the city’s eight bridges. Then it’s time to don your bathing suit and unwind in one of the six heated pools at the Gellért Thermal Baths. The palatial spa can get busy with people keen to reap the benefits of the mineral-rich water that’s said to help with everything from arthritis to asthma, so it’s recommended you book a slot in advance – even more so if you’re planning to go the extra mile and get a massage treatment.
Visit High Note SkyBar after dinner in Pest to indulge in a nightcap and sweeping city views. Staying true to its reputation for being one of the best rooftop bars in the world, High Note combines inventive cocktails, an impeccable wine list and sophisticated bar food within a landscaped garden setting, bringing patrons a taste of the good life. See how many city landmarks you can spot from your seat; St Stephen’s Basilica will likely be the first you’ll lay eyes on.
The end of World War II was the catalyst for one of the darkest periods in Hungarian history, and the Terror Háza (House of Terror Museum) provides an informative, raw insight into the workings of the communist regimes that governed the country in the 20th century, and the 1956 uprising against Soviet rule. The museum itself is housed in what was once the headquarters for the Hungarian Secret Police; the building is easily recognisable as plaques containing the photographs of victims tortured and killed during this period line the exterior. Spanning four floors, a tour of the permanent exhibition usually takes just over an hour, and you can collect the leaflets provided in each room to have a more in-depth read after the visit.
From here, it’s a short walk to the city’s Jewish quarter, where you can explore the bakeries, cafés, design shops and street art. Forego a formal sit-down lunch; instead, pop into The Chimney Cake Shop to pick up a famous Hungarian delicacies. Essentially a cake on a spit, the preparation of a kürtőskalács sees the dough shaped into a cone, then traditionally coated in sugar and cinnamon. Nowadays, more inventive coatings are also used, and most people opt to choose tasty fillings ranging from a generous amount of Nutella to more extravagant ice cream and Oreo combinations.
To stave off any post-cake sluggishness, set off on a 15-minute walk to Metropolitan Ervin Szabó Library. Located inside the Wenckheim Palace since 1931, the grandiose library and its Neo-Baroque reading rooms – including the Smoking Room with its intricate spiral staircase – are available to explore for a small fee. Outside, you’ll find another literature-themed landmark in the form of a charming little book cart selling second-hand novels.
A tour of the Hungarian Parliament Building – a UNESCO World Heritage Site and arguably the city’s most recognisable attraction – should be the next thing on your list, but it’s imperative you book tickets beforehand as there are only a limited number of same-day slots available. A guide will lead you on an hour-long experience, taking you through some of the several hundred rooms on the premises including the opulent main floor, lined with frescoes and framed by elaborate stained-glass windows; the Dome Hall, where the Crown of St Stephen lies guarded 24 hours a day; and the Assembly Hall. Try and book an afternoon tour and stroll around adjoining Kossuth Lajos Square afterwards; the stark-white building with its red domes and spires is particularly beautiful at golden hour.
If you’re after a hearty meal on your second night, make your way back to the Jewish quarter and grab a table at Drum Café. The restaurant’s interior resembles the inside of a traditional (if slightly kitschy) log cabin and the menu features classic, paprika-heavy Hungarian dishes such as goulash and lángos – deep-fried discs of dough traditionally topped with generous amounts of sour cream and cheese.
Then it’s onto the ruin bars; the legendary Szimpla Kert is less than a 10-minute walk away and should be your main stop for the night. The place is a little rough around the edges, toeing the line between enchanting and dystopian; you’ll see visitors smoking shisha in bathtubs and playing video games in a cave. Take your time to explore the otherworldly mini gardens and flourishing businesses that have made their home in the nooks and crannies of the dilapidated building.
Your last morning in Budapest should be spent getting to know the city from a different perspective. Set off on foot towards the Marriott Hotel, stopping by St Stephen’s Basilica on the way. Another quirky landmark to check out on your walking route is the Michael Jackson Memorial Tree – an unofficial shrine to the late singer, who stayed in the neighbouring Kempinski Hotel three times throughout his career.
Beyond the Marriott lies your official destination – a stretch of riverbank where boats moor up and various tour operators run excursions on the Danube. Unless it’s peak season you’ll have no trouble turning up and buying tickets for the next boat. Most tours run in several languages and last approximately an hour, taking you past key attractions at a leisurely pace and offering a condensed history lesson on Margaret Island, Gellért Hill, Buda Castle and many other cultural landmarks. Depending on the operator, you might even be treated to a free glass of bubbly when you board.
Once back on land, catch a tram from the pier to Nagyvásárcsarnok (Central Market Hall). At the time of its opening in 1897, the market, with its beautiful steel-vaulted ceilings and state-of-the-art refrigeration systems, was considered one of the grandest and most innovative in Europe. Though ravaged by bombings during World War II, it was eventually restored and declared a national monument at the end of the 1970s. It’s also the largest market of its kind in Budapest, with seemingly endless stalls. There’s a narrow food court on the upper floor, and lunch here will involve perching on the side of a high-top table as you devour a deliciously warm lángos or currywurst, occasionally bumping elbows with whoever’s seated next to you. After finishing your meal, take time to browse the maze of souvenir shops selling everything from doilies, magnets and Christmas tree decorations to local delicacies and booze.
Spend the remainder of your afternoon at the Hungarian National Museum, which houses an impressive collection of relics dating from the Stone Age to the end of the communist era. Perhaps the most unique artefact on display here is the Hungarian coronation mantle, hand-stitched in 1031 for Stephen I of Hungary – otherwise known as King Saint Stephen. If you’re stretched for time, opt to stay outside and stroll around the recently renovated Museum Gardens, a large open space where people come to picnic and relax.
There’s a reason Budapest’s New York Café describes itself as “the most beautiful café in the world”. Gilded ceilings, elaborately decorated pillars, statues, ornaments and paintings adorn every corner of the space; its opulent atmosphere is reminiscent of a time gone by. Originally opened in 1894 on the ground floor of the equally luxurious New York Palace Hotel, the café quickly became a designated meeting place for some of Hungary’s most influential writers and poets at the time. Nowadays, while the crowd has changed (you’ll find more influencers here than brooding intellectuals) the regal flair remains, and it’s the perfect place to splurge on an extravagant dinner (or simply a coffee and a slice of cake) before heading to the airport for your late-evening flight home.
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