On the first visit to Budapest, it is easy to be surprised and overwhelmed by the beauty of the city. Often compared to Paris, Budapest is nestled along a picturesque river, filled with spectacular architecture, grand boulevards, and charming parks. The people are exceptionally friendly, the city is very clean, one of the safest in Europe and best of all it is still very affordable. Here’s a first timer’s guide to Budapest… one of the most charming cities in Europe (and the world, for that matter)!
WHAT TO DO
Take in the city lights at night.
The city takes on a magical appearance when the sun sets. Walking across Margaret Bridge you are able to capture the Parliament Building as the lights are turned on, section by section. In the background, you can see the beautiful and historic Chain Bridge and Buda Castle. Off in the distance is the spectacular Citadel. Taking one of the many boat cruises is another great option to enjoy the twinkling reflections along the river.
Parliament Building From Across the Danube River At Night
One of four majestic lions at Chain Bridge (left), The Opera House at sunset (right)
A night view of Chain Bridge
Relax at a spa.
Budapest has been a spa destination for centuries. While all of the high-end hotels have their own spas, it is more fun to step back in history and take the waters like the locals. Széchenyi Thermal Baths are housed in a bright yellow building that hasn’t seen much of an update since the turn of the century. Don’t let the 1930s aesthetic and brusk service put you off. The spa offers a number of pools varying from quite chilly to lobster like hot, saunas, and massage treatments. The outdoor pool is great for soaking, people watching and enjoying the whirlpool jets.
After an hour or two of relaxing in the warm, magical waters your jet lag and travel aches will disappear.
Tip: Get there early to avoid the crowds and bring your own towel and flip flops otherwise you will be waiting in a long line to rent them. For a little extra, you can have your own private dressing room to change and store your things.
Széchenyi Thermal Baths
Rising Steam of Széchenyi Thermal Baths
Explore Buda Castle and Fisherman’s Bastion.
Both the Buda Castle and the Fisherman’s Bastion are located in the Castle District, a UNESCO World Heritage site filled with Medieval, Baroque, and 19th-century houses.
The Castle was first completed in 1265 but was destroyed several times throughout history. It was reconstructed in its current state after WWII and provides amazing views and relaxing gardens to explore.
Fisherman’s Bastion and its seven towers were constructed to represent the seven Magyar tribes that settled in the area around the year 900. Today it provides a perfect spot to enjoy a panoramic view of the Danube, Margaret Island, and Pest.
View of Budapest from Buda Castle
Statue of Prince Eugene of Savoy in front of the palace atop Buda Castle hill.
The Fisherman’s Bastion conical-shaped towers.
Buda Castle environs
Fountain of King Matthias (Left); View of Matthias Church (Right)
Castle District Street (left); Matthias Church (right)
The Parliament building is a magnificent 100-year-old white limestone construction. Tours are offered in multiple languages throughout the day. One of the highlights is seeing the changing of the guard as they protect the crown jewels housed in the rotunda at the top of the grand staircase. If you are lucky enough to be there at the same time of visiting dignitaries, the building will be decked out in red carpets.
Budapest Parliament Building
Budapest Parliament Chamber
Parliament Hallway (left); View of hallway window of the Danube River (right)
Budapest Parliament Grand Staircase
Walk Across the Bridges.
Budapest has eight bridges that span the Danube to link Buda and Pest. Each has its own character and history.
Chain Bridge – with its famous lions and twinkling lights is the most beautiful and certainly the most photographed. It has become a symbol for Budapest across the world.
Liberty Bridge – a lovely green delight of steel and rivets. On the Pest side of the bridge, you will find the Great Market Hall, a perfect spot for lunch. On the Buda side, you will find the Gellert Hotel and Spa and can hike to the Citadel.
Margaret Bridge – delicate archways that when lit up a night make a lovely reflection on the water. It is a perfect spot to enjoy the sunset and watch the city light up. Mid-span you will find Margaret Island, a delightful and relaxing park.
Budapest’s iconic Chain Bridge
Budapest Liberty Bridge
Budapest Great Market Hall
Absorb History Through Sculpture.
Budapest is a city that has embraced its history, both good and bad through the use of public sculpture. On most every block you will see bronzes depicting moments in history, public figures and memorials.
One of the most powerful sculptures is the Shoes Along the Danube. A poignant reminder of the Jewish citizens who were lined up along the Danube and executed. Baby shoes and adult boots serve in remembrance lest we ever forget and repeat the atrocities.
Statue of Anonymus (left); Statue of Man Fighting Evil atop Liberty Monument (right)
The ‘Shoes on the Danube’ memorial
Budapest is a surprisingly walkable city, with clean sidewalks, well-marked crossing, and respectful drivers. The Pest side is quite flat and has a lovely river walk. The Buda side is high up on a hill, and it requires a bit of a stair climb. However, if a workout is not in your plans, a lovely Funicular is just a short ride to the top of the hill.
Budapest also has the oldest Metro in Europe, the 1 line can take you to all of the main sites and it is fun to see the lovely stations and narrow trains. Above ground, an extensive streetcar network takes tourists and locals throughout the city. These bright yellow cars are not only a delight to see, but they are very efficient, convenient and affordable. Tickets can be purchased at kiosks near the Metro stations. Be sure to validate your ticket at the little orange machines prior to starting your journey.
If you prefer pedal power, you can rent bikes from locations all over the city from MOL Bubi. They charge a very small fee and the locations are plentiful. At the time of this publishing, base rate is HUF 500 (about 1.70 US) for 24 hours. The bike rentals are self-service, so you must register online at the MOL Bubi website first before using them.
MOL Bubi rental bikes and the Funicular to Castle District
WHERE TO STAY
There is a multitude of options for every budget and taste. The Buda side of the city offers amazing views, while the Pest side is filled with the restaurants and shopping.
AirBnB has a great selection of affordable options for those who like the extra space and experience of living like a local. Behind the historic facades of the 19th-century architecture lie apartments kitted out with all the modern day conveniences.
Four Seasons Gresham Palace
Located at the foot of the Chain Bridge this art nouveau building offers luxury and convenience. It’s close proximity to the Parliament means it is a favorite with visiting dignitaries.
Housed within a converted 13th century Dominican church, this hotel is perched on the Buda side of the city within the Royal Castle District. Rooms feature spectacular views and close proximity to Fisherman’s Bastion.
Sofitel Chain Bridge
Great location at the foot of the Chain Bridge. What this very modern hotel lacks in charm it makes up for in its convenient location.
Boutique Hotel Budapest
Modern and affordable hotel with a great location near the the Váci utica (pedestrian shopping street), Central Market and Liberty Bridge.
Four Seasons Hotel Budapest
Finally, since Budapest is such a friendly and walkable city, we heartily recommend closing Google maps, putting away your smart phone and just exploring, old school style. We hope you enjoyed this First Timer’s Guide To Budapest. Now go enjoy the real thing!