Budapest is a fantastic weekend destination in Europe! It is aptly called ‘the Heart of Europe’ because of its central location, and ‘the Pearl of the Danube’ because of its stunning beauty: streets lined with pastel coloured buildings constructed in a pastiche of all the most complementary architectural styles, from new-gothic to the dramatic art nouveau; grand buildings lit up with a thousand lights; natural hot springs steaming from decadent old public baths; the magnificent Chain Bridge linking the Buda and Pest sided over the gushing blue Danube. Budapest is definitely one of the finest European capitals – as beautiful as Vienna and Prague, and even more romantic than Paris – and perfect for some short-term traveling. To make the most of your two or three nights (though you could spend a while week and have things left over to do!), make sure to do these 8 things during your visit:
GREAT CENTRAL MARKET
Make this the first stop on your Budapest adventure if you want to eat like a local right off the bat. Also called the Great Hall Market, it’s an enormous and beautiful market hall right in the centre of the inner city with a multicoloured, eye-catching tiled roof – you won’t be able to miss it. It’s mostly a souvenir and farmers’ market type place with lots of stalls to get fresh meats, cheeses and produce. But there are also a couple of stands on the first floor serving traditional Hungarian food, and it is GOOD. We weren’t sure what to get, so we pointed to a few things and sampled a couple of dishes and we loved all of them! Just do the same – if you like hearty, cooked meals you can’t really go wrong in Hungary. Or try the stuffed cabbage, and any kind of Lecsó, which is a vegetable stew similar to ratatouille with lots of paprika (the national spice).
GOOD TO KNOW
The usual mantra where earlier is better (aka less busy) does not apply here when the locals do their shopping for the first few hours right as the market hall opens. We would recommend going for a late lunch when the lunch rush has died down and it’s not too busy and overwhelming.
The market is also closed on Sundays.
You are absolutely required to hit up at least on of the public thermal baths on your weekend in Budapest! This city is mainland Europe’s geothermal hotspot – there are over a hundred natural springs and lots and lots of baths to choose from. Start with either the art deco Gellert Baths on the Buda side or the deliciously decadent and super big Széchenyi Baths on the Pest side, where the 15 thermal baths (ranging between 16 and 38 degrees Celsius) are fed by two of these natural springs.
GOOD TO KNOW
The Széchenyi Baths are open daily from 6am to 10pm.
BEST TIMES TO GO: The baths are quietest after dark (save for the occasional ‘sparty’ = spa + party), and the early mornings when the locals come in for their baths. Tourists tend to flood the baths during the middle of the day. We would suggest going before sunset, so you can see the baths in daylight and under the moonlight when the yellow buildings and blue pools are illuminated.
These are also the time when you can save a couple of bucks: a Post-5pm ticket and a two-hour morning ticket (6-8am) with locker usage will cost you around 14EUR. If you come any other time during the day you will have to buy a day pass for 17EUR. But you only really need a couple of hours.
All you need to bring is your swimsuit and some sandals (though they are not required) – you can rent towels for 1000HUF (3EUR) with and extra 1000HUF deposit. CASH ONLY!
CROSS THE CHAIN BRIDGE
The Széchenyi Chain Bridge is a glorious old steel construction that spans the Danube river and connects the city’s Buda and Pest sides. Take a 375 meter stroll for beautiful river views of both banks and watch the tourist boats cruise in and out. If you really want to fall in love with the city, wait until dusk when the entire thing is lit up with hundreds of light bulbs.
BUDAPEST CASTLE HILL FUNICULAR
While you’re on the bridge, look up and over towards the iconographic funicular tracks leading 51 meters up the Budapest Castle hill. This is by far the best and most exciting way to get up to the castle area – also the most efficient if you’re only in Budapest for the weekend. There’s lots to see, and the 2-minute funicular ride saves you a whole lot of time and effort. Plus, it’s the second oldest funicular in Europe! (Though the current system was reconstructed and opened in 1986 after it was bombed during WWII).
GOOD TO KNOW
A return ticket on the funicular will cost you 6EUR.
There’s usually a line and a bit of a wait to go up, and there are people nearby who will try and sell you a ticket for a ride on a little open bus instead. ‘The same price but no wait’ – they will tell you that the wait for the tram is about 20 minutes, and that their bus leaves right now. I decided to go the classic route and wait in line for the funicular – the line moves pretty quickly (I did definitely not wait for 20 minutes!) and it’s an iconic part of the city.
A gorgeous towering medieval church stands in the heart of Budapest’s castle district, only a 10-minute walk from the funicular. It really is a stunning picture, with the colourful tiles on the roof contrasting starkly with the white washed walls, all the while framed by a sky-high view of the city, the Danube, and the Fisherman’s Bastion.
Seven white spires connected by steps and tunnels with all-around views of the city frame the Buda Castle wall. This is the Fisherman’s Bastion and it’s the perfect place for sweeping panoramic views in order to get the lay of the land. Built at the turn of the previous century, the seven towers are for the seven ancient Hungarian tribes, and the structure was named after the Fisherman’s Guild which had to protect this part of the castle wall. Definitely worth the walk from, and back to the Castle Hill funicular – especially in winter when all of the viewing areas are free.
GOOD TO KNOW
The Fisherman’s Bastion is always open from 9am to after sunset, so it will serve as an amazing site for some sunset magic.
The upper deck will cost you about 800HUF in season, but the turnstiles are covered and opened up in winter so it’s free all around!
GET TO KNOW THE CITY, AND SOME LOCALS, ON A WALKING TOUR
Walking tours are always a good option for quick city breaks – especially in many of the old European centres where lots of the meaningful things to see are located close to the inner or old city quarters. We spent between 2 and 3 hours with the guys from Trip To Budapest and we had a great time, despite the fact that we couldn’t cross the river from Pest to Buda because the whole inner city was blocked off for the Prime Minister of China’s visit!
GOOD TO KNOW
These tours are free, but it is good etiquette to tip a fare amount after the tour – we generally tip about £10 per person or so, depending on the length and value of the tour.
DO A RUIN PUB CRAWL
Next to natural hot springs, Budapest is famous for its ruin pubs. These are spaces like warehouses, old offices, or even movie theatres that have been converted into bars by entrepreneurs and artists. So hit up one of the many for a drink and a dance, or try the Sunday farmer’s market at the famous Szimpla Kert.
GOOD TO KNOW
Do not expect pubs in actual ruined buildings! This is not really what this is – they are just revamped buildings that used to stand empty and/or ugly.
There are ruin pubs for every type of evening – from a relaxed night for a drink and a chat to full on dance parties in massive clubs with celebrity DJs. So whatever your mood, there’s a ruin pub for it – just check out this list and make your choice.
GET COZY AND FESTIVE AT BUDAPEST’S CHRISTMAS MARKETS
Budapest is a romantic city – she is charming and pretty and framed by that beautiful blue Danube – and it gets even more romantic during Christmas time, when the city is lit up by Christmas trees around every corner, some of which are accompanied by quaint Christmas markets that carry the scent of baked sweets, cinnamon and the spice of hot cider and mulled wine.
If you’re hopping over for a weekend away, you can spend your whole weekend lingering around the christmas trees, refilling your cup of glühwein and eating as many traditional Hungarian flatbreads, and rolled chimney cakes cooked over hot coals as you possibly can. But if you’re doing at least some of the other things on this list, give two of the main markets a go:
The Vörösmarty Square market is located in the central plaza of the city, opens in the second week of November, and runs until the end of December. It is hard to miss – just follow the alluring smell of honey cookies, cinnamon and fir. We loved this market, returning each day for a fresh chimney cake and browsing all the wonderful uniquely home-made crafts.
Just around the corner is the Christmas Fair at the Basilica, which is in the square underneath the towering St. Stephen’s Basilica. It is a tad smaller and only a couple of years old, but it has all the magic of delicious treats, handcrafted gifts, a small skating rink and daily light shows against the Basilica’s façade. The market opens in the last week of November and runs until the 1st of January.
We can’t recommend a weekend in the beautiful capital enough. I’ve been to Budapest both in the middle of summer and the cold of December, and both visits were perfect in their own ways. There are so many things to do besides these mentioned above, so you could extend your weekend into a long-weekend or full on week and still not run out of things to do and corners to explore! On top of all this, if you feel like branching out, you could leave the city for a night and head to the Hungarian sea, aka the largest lake in central Europe, Lake Balaton.
Let us know if you’re heading to Budapest, and if you’ve already visited – what were your favourite moments?