Your Trip to Budapest: The Complete Guide

••• Mark Mervai / EyeEm / Getty Images

Budapest is one of Europe's most photogenic capitals. Divided in two by the Danube River, many of the city's most famous sites cluster around the river. But no matter where you walk, especially if you remember to look up, you'll always find some unique detail that captures your imagination. Once your camera has run out of battery or you're done with sightseeing (whichever happens first),you can take a dip in one of the stunning thermal water baths or grab a drink at an iconic ruin bar. Whether you're into architecture with a touch of drama, old-world cafes, thriving nightlife, grand thermal spas, or even communist history, Budapest has something for you. You'll find history etched into its bullet-scarred walls and life buzzing around its boulevards and promenades downtown.

Here’s a complete guide about when to visit, where to stay, what to do, how you can get around, and more on your visit to the Hungarian capital.

Planning Your Trip to Budapest 

  • Best Time to Visit: The shoulder seasons like fall and spring are the best time to visit Budapest. The temperatures are the most pleasant and it’s not too crowded this time of year.
  • Language: Hungarian 
  • Currency: Hungarian Forint 
  • Getting Around: Budapest has an excellent public transportation system, which makes it very easy to get around. It’s also a very walkable city, so if you are centrally located you can walk everywhere. Otherwise, you can take the metro, tram, bus, or even the local public transport boat, which runs along the Danube in the summer. 
  • Travel Tip: Make sure you validate your single tickets correctly when you get on the tram, bus, or metro. Plainclothes ticket inspectors may fine you if you’re caught with an unvalidated ticket.
View of the cathedral
 Taylor McIntyre / © TripSavvy

Things to Do

First-time visitors should head up to Castle Hill for fantastic views over the river and the charming historic streets winding around Fisherman’s Bastion and the Royal Palace of Buda Castle. Once you’re done with the historic Buda side, cross the Chain Bridge on foot to downtown Pest for St. Stephen’s Basilica and the Hungarian Parliament.

Art lovers and history buffs have no shortage of excellent museums to explore. Be sure to make a stop at Memento Park—a large park where communist statues go to die. If you enjoy nature, head up to the Buda Hills for hiking, go for a ride on the Children's Railway, or explore some of the many caves running below the city like the Pálvölgyi or Szemlőhegy Caves. Some things every visitor to Budapest should do are:

  • Take a boat up the Danube. See the city from the river on a boat tour or take the local public transport boat for a couple of dollars.
  • Bar hop in the Jewish District. Explore Budapest’s most famous ruin bars by night. Grab a drink at Szimpla, the first ruin bar of the city, and head over to nearby Instant, Fogas Kert, or Anker’t.
  • Visit a thermal bath. Budapest hasn't earned its title as the City of Spas for no reason. With more than 80 geothermal springs and 10 thermal baths, you have plenty to choose from. If you want grand architecture, head to the Széchenyi or Gellért Thermal Baths. For a spot of history, go for a dip in one of the historic 16th century Turkish baths like the Rudas Baths.

Get more information about activities in Budapest with our guides to the city's best museums and top things to do in Budapest.

What to Eat and Drink

Hungarian food is rich and hearty. Meat, especially pork, dominates the cuisine, which tends to be spicier than its Central European counterparts. Most typically Hungarian dishes like goulash, catfish soup, or chicken paprikás bear a deep red color thanks to their generous paprika content. Other specialties you may want to try is street food like lángos, a deep-fried savory dough topped with cheese and sour cream, or chimney cake, a grilled brioche-like cake rolled in cinnamon, cocoa powder, or ground nuts. If you have a sweet tooth, try some of the amazing cakes in one of the historic cafes or confectionaries. The chocolate-caramel Dobos cake or the nutty Eszterházy cake won’t disappoint.

When it comes to drinking, Hungary has got you covered. Hungarian wine is gaining a solid reputation, and it’s incredibly diverse. You have the famous sweet dessert wines from the Tokaj region, the dry, crisp whites from Badacsony, and the rich reds from Eger or Villány. The beer scene is growing, so if you want to sample some Hungarian craft beers, an excellent place to try them is Élesztő, a ruin bar with 20 local brews on tap. If you’re feeling adventurous, maybe you can try some pálinka, a potent fruit brandy, or Unicum, a bitter herbal liqueur.

Budapest has six Michelin-starred restaurants and plenty other award-winning dining establishments. You can still find more traditional restaurants scattered around town, but street food, craft burgers, and chic bistros are popping up more and more in Budapest’s Inner City and Jewish Quarter.

For more culinary inspiration, see our guide to the top restaurants in Budapest and Hungarian dishes you should try.

Where to Stay

Castle District: The Castle District puts you among some of the city’s most famous sites and charming bistros. If you like to sleep on quiet streets, this is a perfect choice as there are no clubs and very few late-night bars up here.

Inner City: You’ll find the best hotels in the Inner City in Pest’s V District. Not only will you be around the top shops and restaurants, but you can find the best hotels like the Four Seasons, the Aria Hotel, the Intercontinental, the Kempinski, and more in this district. You are also only minutes away from the main transport hubs, like Deák Ferenc tér, where you even have a direct bus to the airport.

Jewish District: If you want to be at the heart of the action, and don't mind having late nights, then you may want to stay in the Jewish District. You’ll find many hostels here—most of them party hostels —so it’s a part of town buzzing with youthful energy. Some of the hostels even have their own ruin bar.

Palace District: The Palace District is close enough to downtown to be within walking distance from the major sites, but is also a much quieter neighborhood than the neighboring Jewish District.

For more about accommodations, see our guide to the city's best hotels.

Getting There

Budapest’s Ferenc Liszt International Airport (BUD) offers direct flights to and from New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago via major airlines like LOT Polish Airlines and American Airlines.

From the airport, it's a 30 to 40 minute drive to downtown. You can rent a car, use a rideshare like Bolt, hail a taxi, or take the downtown shuttle, which is $20 per passenger and leaves approximately within 20 minutes of request. You can also take the 200E bus directly to Deák Ferenc Tér in the center of the city, or take the 100E bus which connects you to the metro line 3.

Money-Saving Tips

  • Come to Budapest during the off-season. Since hotel rates can be very high in the height of summer or around Christmas, you can save a lot by visiting at a quieter time like April or October.
  • If you’re planning to use public transport a lot and hit many of the museums, you may want to invest in a Budapest Card. This card gives you free public transport access, discounts or free entry to some of the museums and even the entrance to the Lukács Baths. 
  • Go for the lunch menu. Most restaurants, even the high-end ones, will offer a good value lunch menu. You can also eat out pretty cheaply by opting for street food or picking up a picnic from one of the local market halls and heading over to the Danube Banks or one of the many parks in the city. 
  • Take one of the free walking tours in the city center to get your bearings and learn a little about Budapest’s history.
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