I am originally from York, England. I have spent much time here in Budapest. It still amazes me how this metropolis continues to live up to its many tourist truisms and clichés without being either too overrun or overrated.
What struck me whilst taking promenades in early days upon the many bridges was the contrasting splendour of the hillier Buda with its greener peaks and the more commercial inner-city Pest. And in between, the abundant flows of the illustrious River Duna.
It’s now so clear that this city, which crept up from Cold War darkness, is once again a top tourist destination alongside London, Paris and Rome, and deservedly so. It’s similar to how it was more than 100 years ago in Austro-Hungarian Empire times, until the nation’s fall after World War I. But that bygone era is another matter altogether. What is most significant is, business and tourism here are generally on the rise. This makes it an ideal time to see this great all-year-round wonder before it gets too overcrowded like in many other swish European destinations, all before the current health crisis.
For me, when I got beyond my early days of wanderlust around the city’s tourist trails, then and only then did my real life in Budapest begin. It took roughly two years to get to know the capital, be accepted by the locals – who are known as Budapesters – and overcome culture shocks and differences. My most difficult task was driving my “GB” car, designed for left-hand driving, on the “wrong” side of all roads in Hungary and elsewhere. But finally I “made it” as a Budapester despite immense language difficulties, still apparent today.
There is so much on offer here – the difficult part is fitting everything in. Consider the many museums, the world-famous spa baths and entertainment venues as well as great quantities of history and general research beforehand. I will leave this matter entirely for you to figure out. But if you still want recommendations, my favourites are the lesser-known Magyar Szecesszió Háza (the House of Hungarian Art Nouveau) at 3 Honvéd utca, near Kossuth Lajos tér Metro. Also the Vígszínház (Comedy Theatre) and the Gellért Baths at the Gellért Hotel. The first two are in Pest and the third is easily sighted by the Buda riverside. These venues carry high artistic early 20th-century atmospheres.
The range of comforts and general tourist information is in free flow everywhere. Check out www.budapestinfo.hu and many other helpful online tourist information sites before arrival.
Day 1. Birds-Eye Budapest
If time really is short, I recommend seeing the best central city views before all else. To achieve this essential matter requires making a circle around central Buda and Pest. But first, (for getting familiar with the surroundings), proceed to the Vörösmarty riverside promenade in downtown Pest and take a Duna boat ride. There are many excursions available every day.
When cruising, not too much explanation is required other than “It’s fabulous!” Most obvious and immediate sights relating to Buda on the one side and Pest on the other will come straight to immediate attention. This very pleasant voyage will also lend some orientation to these nearby attractions you will want to explore further soon afterwards.
One is the unmistakable “pudding-esque” Neo-Gothic domed Országház parliament house. This one-off architectural gem, on the Pest side, will impress anyone with eyes for irregular architecture. To get there from the main boat terminal is either a delightful 20-minute walk or take the number 2 tram northwards, both proceeding along the river shoreline.
Having seen the Országház, directly opposite is the distinct and renowned Buda Castle District containing the National Gallery, Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion. The best way to reach this dainty district is by taking the Red-Line Metro from outside Parliament to Széll Kálmán tér. Then either proceed up the escalator to the Castle bus, take a taxi or walk up the immediate hill until completion.
Alternatively, from the Országház jump onto the number 2 tram and get off at its end stop at Margaret Bridge. From this picturesque premise take either the number 4 or 6 tram over this bridge. Then, as above, get off at end stop Széll Kálmán and carry on by bus, taxi or foot.
Although this particular neighbourhood is very “ritzy”, it makes essential sight-seeing. Take to walking around the walls of the fairytale-esque Halászbástya (Fisherman’s Bastion). At this stage, one’s mind is buzzing due to the remarkable scenery. When finally fulfilled, make your way to other nearby attractions, ranging from museums to galleries and tea shops. Finally, you will notice the number 16 mini-bus, which travels downhill to the river and over the Chain Bridge, thus returning you to the Pest embankment and completing this full essential circle.
But for art enthusiasts, the plenteous National Gallery, in the former Royal Palace, is a must. However, this takes several hours to fulfil. To complete this run-around itinerary (without this venue) will easily take a day.
Day 2 and beyond
Now I have started you off, take all else in your stride with complimentary maps, found at tourist information booths everywhere. For another recommendation, enter St. Stephen’s Basilica (near the Pest boat terminal) and after looking around inside take the stairs to the top. Should you have children, there is a ferris wheel nearby. When completed, I recommend to stroll along the grandiose and lengthy Andrassy út.
Here, one passes the Opera House, various cafes, book shops, museums and embassies before reaching Hősök tere (Heroes Square). This is a distinct wide, open area that speaks for itself with its imposing monuments relating to heroic Hungarians, as noted in all travel guides. Evening entertainment then follows.
Should you wish to slow the pace and need some quiet, a visit to Margaret Island fits the bill. It’s directly reachable on the number 4 and 6 trams from Oktogon (also found on Andrassy út). With its shady parkland scenery in mid-river between Buda and Pest, it makes a perfect getaway from the city.
Then, if you want to abandon the tourist scene, head towards the more residential Buda Hills. Should trains be of interest, I recommend the fabulous Children’s Railway, accessible by the number 21 bus end stop from Széll Kálmán tér. When at the peak, these mini trains are easy enough to find, and they tootle through the hilly forested areas fairly frequently during peak times. See https://gyermekvasut.hu for a thrilling outing among the Buda valleys.
A fairly common local tip is to see Buda by day and Pest by night.
Public transport will get you to all the main points of interest. To save on time organising tickets, as well as money, I suggest to purchase day, weekend or weekly passes, which are valid for the entire Budapest transport network, including the airport.
Should bicycling be more preferable, there are opportunities for bike hire. Then you can cycle along both sides of the Duna on the designated lanes. This I do often and it is always most exhilarating.
As for taxis, I advise phoning for them in advance. Like many taxi services worldwide, if you stop one on the street it’s a gamble as to what the eventual price will be. Most drivers are generally good-natured and courteous but caution is required for the occasional “mathematically challenged” ones who will give you a hard time if you don’t “agree” to their rules (and whose meters may be similarly roguish). Check that the price is reasonable before stepping in.
Pick and choose from the wide range of restaurants. But as a loyal Budapester I definitely recommend Hungarian cuisine, such as Paprikás Csirke, which is chicken served with an abundance of paprika sauce. For vegetarians, there is a Főzelék option. This is vegetable stew or soup, which is usually thickened up by flour. Fish here is a speciality, but nowhere near as salty as fish from the ocean.
Then there are the famous wines such as Balaton, Villány, Tokaj varieties. All follows with visits to the cukrászda tea shops, which are always easy to find. Hungarian cakes include Eszterházy-torta, a walnut crème cake. The more deluxe Szatmári szilvatorta is a delightful plum cake. The list goes on as there is plenty on the menu. All are delicious and will fill you up and see you through each day of rigorous sight-seeing – and still one (hopefully) remains slim.
Although the local cash currency is the forint, others such as euros, dollars, pounds, yen and many more are widely accepted in most banks and exchange bureaus, as are credit cards in many shops, hotels and restaurants.
There is so much more to do as well as left unsaid, but this itinerary for first-timers should be sufficient for a long weekend. Beyond this point, you are on your own. But until the plague finally lifts, stay safe and keep well. Budapest still awaits your arrival.