Post updated on July 17th, 2017 at 04:24 pm
Budapest is one of my favorite cities in Europe (Seville and Barcelona being close seconds). It was lively, charming, cultural, and still untouched by mass tourism. Such a great vibe! In all honesty, we only got 2.5 full days in Budapest because our flight got delayed so we only got Day 1 started at about 5pm. Even so, we thought 3 days was just not enough for Budapest – it turned out to be our favorite city of the trip (the others being Vienna, Prague and Munich). Here’s how we chose to spend 3 days in this beautiful city.
Going for fewer days? Check out my other post for shorter itineraries!
Visit the Central Market Hall
This is a two-storey closed market; the ground floor has gorgeous displays of fruits, vegetables and PAPRIKA – lots and lots of paprika! Budapest is really famous for its paprika; it comes in so many forms – as a powder, as a cream, in a tube etc. Go ahead and buy a sample!
The top floor is lined with tiny souvenir stalls: magnets, postcards, aprons, and so much more. I would recommend buying your souvenirs here; we couldn’t find any other souvenir market like this, just individual stores scattered around, so this is your best bet if you want to evaluate many options under one roof!
Walk around the Jewish Quarter
I’m not even sure if the area we found ourselves in was exactly the Jewish Quarter; we were trying to get to the Dohany Street Synagogue from the Central Market Hall and got lost (intentionally) in really cute cobblestone streets lined with souvenir stores and cafés. I’d highly recommend doing that. Just like most European cities, Budapest is ideal for wandering around. Good thing we did because this was the café we stumbled upon – cute, right? Check out Europa Kavezo!
Word of caution: the coffees and lemonades are just average. Get some tea to be on the safe side, and just enjoy the cute décor.
Have dinner at Dionysos Taverna
Hands down – one of my favorite meals of the trip (and we went to Vienna, Prague and Munich too!). This is an adorable Greek restaurant that makes you feel like you’re in Santorini: blue and white walls and doors, little balconies, a small outdoor patio overlooking the Danube and excellent Greek cuisine. Check out more here.
What to order: Tzatziki (so creamy and garlicky), Grilled Halloumi Cheese and Spicy Rice
Take a night cruise along the Danube
It’s hard to imagine something more beautiful than this. I’ve taken a lot of boat sightseeing tours and river cruises, but nothing compares to how gorgeous Budapest looks along the Danube. Make sure to choose a time that’s just around sunset so you get to see the transition from light to dark, and most importantly, the lights turning on. All the important buildings are along the Danube (on both the Buda and Pest sides), including the Parliament building, the Buda castle and several museums and universities, making the entire experience even grander.
Which cruise to choose? There’s a range of different cruise options from dinner cruises to party cruises, at all times of the day. We chose a basic 1-hour night cruise (Legenda Cruises) that provided a complimentary drink and audio guides. If there’s one thing you do in Budapest, it should be this!
Here’s a map of everything we covered on Day 1:
Have breakfast at ES Bistro in the Kempinski hotel
We were staying at this hotel and had free breakfast included so I can’t comment on the price, but the spread was a feast! The décor was absolutely adorable, there were little breakfast counters spread around the dining area and there was a great selection for vegetarians too: more breads than you’ve ever seen, more cheeses than you’ve ever heard of, and more homemade jams than you can fit on your plate!
Take a walking tour to cover all the major spots
Most European cities have free walking tours that cover all the important sightseeing points and give you a good historical overview. Try taking one of these because there’s a lot of ground to cover in Budapest. We knew someone who runs her own tour company so we got a private walking tour, but I’ve heard Free Budapest Walking Tours is the best one out there.
Make sure your tour covers at least these basics:
1. Parliament Building
This is the third largest Parliament building in the world (Romania has the largest, followed by Argentina). It is absolutely stunning (especially at night when seen from the Danube). Unfortunately, we were unable to take the inside tour but I have heard it is even more impressive on the inside. Make sure to buy tickets in advance!
2. St Stephens Basilica
Honestly, this is just like any other gorgeous church in Europe. More than the inside, it’s the outside that’s impressive, especially at night. I would highly recommend taking a walk here as the sun sets; you will surely be astounded by what you see. There are several cafés and bars around too; a quick dinner or a couple of drinks with a spectacular view like this will make definitely make it a night to remember.
3. Budapest City Park (the oldest in the world!)
Budapest is so underrated, especially when you think of how many historical sites it is home to. The world’s oldest city park is a sprawling complex with amazing sights like the Heroes Square, the world’s oldest zoo, the famous Szechenyi Baths and a medieval museum complex, housing buildings with architectural styles of the past 1000 years. The park would be a great place to rent a bike!
4. Buda Castle, Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church
The Buda Castle, Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church are all on the Buda side of the Danube, within walking distance of one another. The castle complex is beautiful from the outside, but where we spent most of our time was at the Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church. Matthias Church has the most gorgeous colored tile work on its roof. You just won’t be able to stop taking pictures of it! The entire complex also overlooks Budapest, offering great views and wonderful photo ops!
Visit the Szechenyi Baths
You can’t come to Budapest and not visit the thermal baths! There are several spread across the city, but the most famous and most beautiful are the Szechenyi Baths. You can also get massages here for super cheap – don’t miss it!
Word of caution: the outdoor baths have different temperatures. We made the mistake of soaking in the cold one for a while, confused about why these baths were “thermal”, until we realized the pool on the other side was much warmer. Check the temperatures before going in!
Get a drink and hang out at a park with a pool
Check out Erzsebet Ter, a tiny green space with a pool, in the center of the city. You’ll see tons of young working professionals and students hanging out on the grass, with their own food and drinks. There’s an open-air bar right beside, and the Budapest Eye overlooking the entire scene, giving the space a great vibe!
Here’s a map of everything we covered on Day 2 (green), along with markers from Day 1 (red) to help you orient yourself!
Visit the Gellert Hill for panoramic views
Honestly, there are so many viewpoints from which Budapest looks stunning, you can’t really go wrong. One of them is Gellert, a beautiful hilltop, with several lookout points (i.e. multiple photo ops!) and 360-degree views of the city. It’s easy to take a cab up the hill, and then just walk down (wear comfortable shoes, the road is not smooth!). The biggest attraction is the Gellert Cave Church at the bottom of the hill – it’s a church in a cave! Sadly, we got lost and couldn’t find it, but we heard great things about it, so if you can, definitely go check it out!
Grab food and drinks at a beanbag restaurant by the Danube
On the Pest side of the city, there are several restaurants and cafés along the Danube. Try to grab lunch at one of these places. We spotted an open garden beanbag bar and restaurant called Kiosk; if you’re looking for vegetarian food or a substantial meal, you’re unlikely to find it here. But the place had a great vibe – definitely a good option for drinks, snacks and mid-afternoon relaxation.
For more food options, I would recommend walking a few blocks in toward the city center, close to the shopping/tourist square (Vaci Utca). There are several food joints here, all pretty meat-heavy. We ate at Café de Paris – do NOT eat here! Service was lousy and vegetarian options were awful. There were a couple of pizzerias around that you could check out.
Check out the famous ruin bars – Szimpla Kert is the best one!
Budapest is famous for its ruin bars: old, dilapidated buildings have been converted into bars by bringing together an eclectic mix of furniture and accessories. The best one in town is Szimpla Kert: it has a great vibe even during the daytime! There are several food options too, including veggie burgers so you can definitely have dinner here! I’d recommend getting there before sunset, and staying on until after it gets dark so you can experience both a daytime and nighttime vibe. If you are feeling adventurous enough, try some Palinka: an Eastern European fruit brandy shot, that is way too bitter even for the most experienced alcohol drinkers! We shared two shots between the three of us, and definitely felt it in our throats for the next few days!
Try out Innio wine bar for wine and tapas
If you’re looking for a more classy experience, check out this cute wine bar that promises wine from 5 continents, along with tapas like cheese platters, varieties of olives, cherry gazpacho and lots more!
Here’s everything we covered on Day 3 (yellow), mapped out. Markers from Day 1 (red) and Day 2 (green) are left in to help you orient yourself!
If we had more time, we would have definitely visited more ruin bars (Ellato Kert & Taqueria was next on our list), taken an inside tour of the Parliament (I’m so bummed I didn’t get to do this), biked through Margit Island in the Danube, and checked out the dictator-themed Memento Park with statues of Stalin, Lenin etc. Clearly, 3 days wasn’t enough for Budapest!