There are few cities in Europe with as much to offer as Budapest. Whether you’re an architecture aficionado, a history buff, a proud foodie or just a fan of walking around beautiful places, Hungary’s first city has a charm all of its own. Three days in Budapest is more than enough time to sample a bit of everything.
There is so much on offer, that nailing down exactly how you’re going to make the most of the spas, bars, museums, markets and monuments is often the only chore.
What follows is your all-encompassing guide to the Pearl of the Danube. Where to stay, what to eat, what to do and where to go. You won’t squeeze all of this into a three-day Budapest itinerary, unless you see sleep as an optional pastime. You will come home safe in the knowledge that you really experienced one of the most charming cities in the world.
Where to stay in Budapest
Need some help figuring out where to stay in Budapest’s 23 districts? We’ve managed to narrow it down to the four most convenient, exciting, happening areas of the city.
Literally the number one area in Budapest. If you’re planning on hitting some of Budapest’s most popular sites like Buda Castle, Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion, you’ll be right in the thick of the historical action in the slightly upmarket ‘Castle District’.
If you’re one of those people who despises the rigmarole of getting to your hotel, District VI, aka Terézváros, could be for you. Home to Nyugati Railway Terminal, Terézváros is vibrant and eclectic: a great option for backpackers and comfort seekers alike. High-end fashion stores, gritty graffiti, and historic buildings all blend together to make for a lively part of town.
Looking for something hipster cool? District VII, the Jewish Quarter, is slowly becoming to Budapest what Williamsburg is to Brooklyn. There’s plenty of coffee to go around, and your nighttime adventures are serviced by some of the city’s famed Ruin Bars – more on those later.
Once off-limits to tourists, Józsefváros is now one of the most popular areas in Budapest. That’s gentrification, folks! Whether your pillow of choice is in a hotel, hostel or Airbnb, there are options for all budgets in this up-and-coming neighborhood.
Budapest Itinerary Day 1
Delve into the darkest moments of Hungary’s past at the House of Terror
This isn’t what you would call a cheerful attraction. But, it’s certainly one of the most important, and undeniably one of the best museums in Budapest.
Terror Haza, aka House of Terror, is a frightening but necessary reminder of the horrors faced by ordinary Hungarians during Fascist and Communist rule.
Aside from emotive exhibits and memorials containing authentic items, the building’s chillingly reconstructed cellars, where innocent Hungarians were held captive, tortured, and murdered, are also part of the tour. The audio guide is a must for a fully immersive experience.
Where to eat in Budapest #1 – Langos Florian Square Underpass
You’re right to question why we would send you to a non-descript underpass outside central Budapest. No, this isn’t a drug deal, but you might get high on the intense flavor experience provided by traditional Hungarian langos.
The concept is simple: flat bread, deep-fried, with delicious toppings. Add smoked cheese, sour cream, meat stew, mushrooms, sausages, fried cabbage, and more. If you’re craving something healthier, please enjoy this editor’s note.
Taste a tipple from the Middle Ages at the Pálinka Museum
You can’t just buy a bathtub, ferment some fruit, give it a stir and call it Pálinka. If it’s not made in Hungary, it ain’t Pálinka.
For the most authentic introduction to Hungary’s exclusive fruit brandy, a guided tour and tasting at Budapest’s Pálinka Museum is a must. With an English-speaking guide for company, you’ll learn its history, why the name is protected, and how to spot knock-offs from other countries.
Before you know it, you’ll be shouting egészségére with Hungarian bartenders as you sink shots of the good stuff.
Where to eat in Budapest #2 – Street Food Karavan
Street food markets are the modern foodie favourite. You walk around once, dismiss the expensive options, debate between what’s left and end up, as always, going for tacos.
Karavan might tempt you outside of your Mexican comfort zone. You’ll find Hungarian favorites, as well as popular options from around the world like burgers, wings, falafel, shawarma and dumplings. Yes, and tacos. Live a little!
Toast your trip at the infamous Budapest ruin bars
For some, a sizable part of Budapest’s appeal is the promise of seriously cheap drinks. An entire night out in Hungary can cost the same as a regular meal at McDonald’s in Paris. Now that’s an unhappy meal, if you ask us.
The highlights of the Budapest nightlife scene are the ruin bars. If you’re unaware of the concept, they’re exactly what the name suggests: pop-up bars in ramshackle old buildings, decorated in junk-yard chic.
The best ruin bars in Budapest 2020
#1 Szimpla Kert – The original and most popular Budapest ruin pub
#2 Instant – Part ruin bar, part sprawling night club. Another popular hangout.
#3 Szatyor Bar – The sophisticated choice for beer-swilling locals
#4 Doboz – Young and hip with a fine selection of hot food. Eating is not cheating.
#5 Mazel Tov – Chilled bar-restaurant in the heart of Budapest’s Jewish Quarter
#6 Grandio – Self-described party hostel-bar. Shortest distance between bar and bed!
Budapest Itinerary Day 2
See an army of Soviet-era statues at Memento Park
When Communism fell in 1989, the burning question on everybody’s mind was: what do we do with all these massive communist statues?
Hungary’s idea was rather novel. Instead of pulling them down, or putting underwear on Lenin’s head, they saved the sculptures and moved them to an open-air statue park on the outskirts of Budapest. It was designed as a neutral space; the statues are simply reminders of what was.
A guided tour of Memento Park is a fascinating retrospect behind the Iron Curtain. Lenin, Marx, Engels, Dimitrov, Captain Ostapenko, Béla Kun and other icons of the communist world are all here. So is a seven-meter-tall statue of an imposing Soviet soldier that once struck a Sauron-like figure atop Gellért Hill in central Budapest.
Where to eat in Budapest #3 – Drum Cafe Budapest
How’s your Hungarian? Because unless you fancy knocking on a door and asking for some of mama’s homemade goulash, you really are better off heading back to the city for lunch.
The guided tour drops you back in Deák Ferenc square, which is just a short walk from some of the best goulash in Budapest. Drum Cafe is nothing if not authentic. Expect hearty Hungarian grub and no-frills service.
Sample Budapest’s world-renowned spa culture
Budapest isn’t known as the spa capital of Europe for nothing. A culture sponge such as yourself knows that already. There are 15 major public baths in Budapest. But where to start?
One of the steamiest options in the city can be found at the Gellert Hotel, an Art Nouveau icon which has been soothing guests with its restorative waters for over a hundred years.
Mineral-filled spring water has been warming the muscles of Hungarians since at least the 15th century. Admire the gorgeous architecture as you soak in one of 13 pools, and enjoy a 20-minute aromatherapy massage to make the most of the experience. There’s even an open-air wave pool!
Want to browse all the best spas in Budapest? Check out some more options to put a spring in your step, including the largest medicinal baths in Europe.
Where to eat in Budapest #4 – Indigo Curry House
Indigo is a favorite with Tiqets staff, i.e. the writer of this blog went once and maintains it was the best curry he ever had.
With friendly staff, digestible prices, and over 150+ flavorful menu options (meaty and otherwise) Indigo is one for the itinerary – a hidden gem in Budapest.
Channel your inner Houdini with an escape room quest
If you’ve never voluntarily locked yourself in a room just to see if you possess the smarts to get out again within an hour, have you even lived?
Escape games were dreamed up in Japan, but Hungary was one of the first European nations to make the activity popular. Is it any wonder that Budapest, birthplace of Harry Houdini, is full of them?
A teasing option for novices and escape experts alike is E-Exit Escape Game Budapest. Find yourself in the grips of an Orwellian nightmare in the 1984 room, and plot your route to the afterlife in Heaven&Hell. The least difficult challenge is The Circus. Unless you’re petrified of clowns. In which case RUN, IT’S NOT WORTH IT!
Another immersive option is Mission Enigma, an entire house of brain-mangling fun. Work together in your team (2-6 players) and obtain the mysterious Enigma by solving dastardly riddles and puzzles at one of the top escape games in Budapest.
Budapest Itinerary Day 3
Explore the UNESCO-accredited Budapest Castle complex
You’ve been in Budapest long enough now to have noticed the whopping-great castle that sits atop the imaginatively named Castle Hill. If you think it looks nice all the way up there, just wait until you see the view looking down.
Journeying up to the castle is an unmissable Budapest highlight – just as a walk through Central Park is to New York, or wandering underground tunnels full of skeletons is to Paris.
Some of the city’s most important medieval monuments are located within the castle complex, as well as many of Budapest’s best museums, including the Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest History Museum and House of Houdini.
There are so many routes you can take to explore the area. There’s also a rustic funicular, which is the recommended choice if you’re looking to save time while enjoying postcard-perfect views of the Danube.
If it’s summertime and the weather is fine, then walking up is a breeze. Start from Széll Kálmán Square and make your way up to Vienna Gate. You can also take stairs, an elevator or an escalator from Castle Garden Bazaar.
Where to eat in Budapest #5 – Retek Bisztro
If your stomach is craving more traditional flavors of Hungary, there’s a great spot just a hop, skip and jump away from Széchenyi Chain Bridge.
Retek Bisztro bills itself as the “taste of grandma’s pantry”, which is the kind of sentence you need to pronounce clearly to avoid embarrassment.
Chow down on the taste of Hungarian home cooking, with goulash galore, and other authentic dishes like deep-fried meatballs, veal stew and crispy duck confit. We’re salivating just thinking about it. Excuse us as we take an early lunch!
Search for vintage gems at Esceri Flea Market
If you’re the sort of person who browses vintage and second-hand stores, rifling through bric-a-brac in the hope of unearthing something beautiful, then an afternoon at Esceri Flea Market is a must for your Budapest itinerary.
This isn’t the sort of flea market that houses fast-fashion throwouts you could have found in H&M six months ago. The wares on offer at Esceri are as eclectic as their owners are eccentric.
Gramophones sit silently beside retro television sets. Old analog cameras lie filmless next to treasure chests full of storied old war medals, and nameless black and white photos of baby-faced soldiers.
When it comes to mementos and souvenirs, what would be more unique: a Budapest fridge magnet, or a giant mural of Lenin surfing a wave of hammer & sickle flags? The choice is clear.
Where to eat in Budapest #6 – Babel Budapest
We didn’t want to send you home without having recommended a fine dining option. If you’re looking to don your smart garms at a more upmarket ($$$) establishment, look no further than Babel Budapest.
Babel mixes Hungarian and Transylvanian flavors, extracted from traditional dishes from the childhood table of Head Chef Istvan Veres. Pick from various tasting menus developed with all-natural ingredients – including a rare vegan option. Best to make a reservation for this one.
Have a flippin’ good time at one of the best museums in Budapest
We know what you’re thinking – is this a museum dedicated to dolphins? Or acrobats? No, the flippers we’re referring to are inside the machines at the Budapest Pinball Museum, aka Flipper Muzeum.
You might be surprised to learn that thrill-seekers of the 1800s got their kicks from playing pinball. You won’t be shocked that the Pinball Museum, with its 150 rare and vintage machines, is one of the most popular museums in Budapest.
Launch yourself into the fun as you play antique tables, as well as the flashing neon tables you’re used to.
Bonus Budapest highlights
We’ve mentioned some of these already, but here’s a quick list of Budapest highlights to visit if you find time within your busy schedule. If you manage all of these, you’ll have rocked your three-day Budapest itinerary.
#1 Hungarian Parliament Building
One of the largest and most decadent parliament buildings on the planet, which is saying something considering how lavishly politicians spend our hard-earned taxes. Take a short but insightful guided tour to see the majestic Dome Hall, upper lobby, and absolutely necessary gold-plated staircases.
#2 Shoes on the Danube
The Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial is a harrowingly simple yet emotive representation of innocent Jewish civilians shot and killed on the banks of the Danube River by the fascist Arrow Cross during World War II.
#3 Fisherman’s Bastion
Some of the best views in Budapest can be found at Fisherman’s Bastion, the 19th-century lookout which forms part of the Buda Castle complex. The fairy-tale turrets and spires make for magical photos!
#4 St. Stephen’s Basilica
The largest church in all of Hungary towers over you when you stand outside. Enjoy a 360-degree view of the city from the cupola. St. Stephen’s mummified right hand is inside, if you’re into that kind of thing.
#5 Budapest Ruin Bars
Budapest’s nightlife is some of the best in Europe. Relaxed and friendly, nothing epitomizes this better than the famous ruin bars, which draw hordes of locals and tourists. The two most popular options are Szimpla Kert and Instant – you’re guaranteed a memorable night at both.
#6 Buda Castle
Some of Budapest’s most important monuments and museums can be found within the Buda Castle complex. Make your way up Castle Hill by elevator, escalator or funicular, and look down upon the city from its greatest vantage point.
#7 Szechenyi Thermal Baths
When it comes to discussing the best spas in Budapest, Szechenyi Thermal Baths is sure to get a mention. The mineral-laden water, known for its healing properties, has been soothing the aches and pains of Hungarians for over a hundred years. Opt for a massage and private cabin for ultimate relaxation.
#8 Central Market Hall
This isn’t your average market. Central Market Hall, with its immense frame and bustling trade, is one of the top attractions in the city. Shop for delicious Hungarian food and soak up the atmosphere, but avoid buying souvenirs here unless you’re made of forints.
#9 Heroes’ Square
What’s a city without an iconic main square? You can’t miss it – look for the 40-meter-tall pillar topped by a golden Archangel Gabriel. God’s wingman is flanked by 14 of Hungary’s most revered historical figures.
#10 Szechenyi Chain Bridge
Hungary’s capital is actually made up of two cities: Buda and Pest. They’re connected across the Danube by the Szechenyi Chain Bridge, the most impressive of all the bridges in the city – especially when lit up after dark.
Budapest Hidden Gems
How can you resist a place dubbed “the future’s theme park”? VR experiences are all the rage with thrill-seekers, and those who are determined to prepare themselves for the inevitable zombie apocalypse.
If zombies aren’t really your thing, or you’re planning to avoid the hassle and yield to our zombie overlords, then opt instead to dabble with dinosaurs, risk the curse of Anubis, or even slice your way through an immersive game of Fruit Ninja. Recommended for VR n00bs and nerds alike.
For those of us lucky enough to have been born with perfect or near-perfect vision, the idea of living life in perpetual darkness is pretty surreal. Could an hour of blindness open your eyes?
The Invisible Exhibition invites you to forgo your ability to see, and be led by the blind and partially sighted. The learning at this unique sensory museum is achieved only through touching, hearing, and smelling.
Walk through six zones, and attempt everyday tasks the sighted take for granted, like paying for your coffee or seasoning your food, without the benefit of your handy peepers.
Believe it or not, the idea of doctors washing their hands was once considered pioneering. Ignaz Semmelweis was the brainbox who figured out that childbirth fever could be prevented if doctors gave their mitts a good scrub.
The Semmelweis Medical Museum, housed inside the building where the Hungarian medical master was born, is a quirky, off-the-wall timeline of medicine, and a true Budapest hidden gem.
Michael Jackson Memorial Tree
Wacko for Jacko? There’s a tree-hee in Budapest dedicated to the King of Pop. Michael Jackson fans are nothing if not dedicated, stapling DIY tributes to their fallen hero to some bark across from his favorite Budapest hotel, the Kempinski. To catch a glimpse of this bizarre, make-shift memorial, moonwalk your way there from Deák Ferenc tér metro station.
Day trips from Budapest
One of the more exhilarating day trips from Budapest is a visit to the mountain-top fortress of Visegrád. Mountain top – you know what that means!
As you take on the 2-3 hour hike and climb 380 meters towards the citadel, you’ll see more and more of the Danube Bend and surrounding hills, before the crowning 360-degree view from the peak. Aim to be up there for sunset, there aren’t many better vistas in Hungary.
It’s an hour’s journey from Budapest to Visegrád by train and ferry, making for a cheap and cheerful excursion from the capital.
Despite being only a stone’s skip up the Danube, the former capital of Hungary, Esztergom, eludes many tourists. It’s even more surprising, considering the simple 90-minute journey from Budapest to Esztergom out of Nyugati Station.
History lines the riverside streets, with a cute main square hugged by Baroque and Classicist-style buildings. Just tootling around town envelopes you in the area’s charm, but there are also loads of things to do in Esztergom, especially for the museum-minded among you. The Museum of Christian Art houses Hungarian masterpieces and a bunch of Italian Renaissance paintings.
The city also boasts one of the largest churches in the country, Esztergom Basilica, and what remains of a hillside castle, erected way back in the 11th century. There’s plenty for a stress-free but enlightening day trip from Budapest.
Baradla Cave and Aggtelek National Park
When you get home from Budapest and tell your friends/colleagues/pets about your trip, the last thing they’ll expect is a tale of descending into caves that are thousands of years old. Prehistoric dwellers used to call Baradla Cave home. They still do, if you include the bats!
A guided tour is a must, just to understand the vastness of the 25-kilometer cave system which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.
The national park itself is glorious, especially in the summer, with lauded nature walks and hikes stretching out into the Hungarian countryside.
It takes around 2.5 hours by car to get from Budapest to Aggtelek National Park and Baradla Cave if you’re able to rent – unfortunately public transport takes a lot longer.
If you’re the kind of person that has a list saved on your phone of how many countries you’ve visited, you’ll appreciate the short two-and-a-half-hour journey time from Budapest to Bratislava by train, and the opportunity to add another nation to your list!
Bratislava has found its voice in Central Europe since the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993. Old and new collide like wrestling kittens, as Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance architecture is flanked by cool cafes, boutique shops, and bars serving crispy local brews.
You’re blessed with things to do in Bratislava. Potter around the old town or venture out to medieval Devin Castle. Have your senses abducted by the views from the UFO Tower observation deck, or wonder at the elegance of the Primatial Palace.