Since emerging from behind the Iron Curtain, Budapest has become one of Europe’s best-loved short-break destinations. And with good reason. The city has been called the ‘Paris of the East’, and romance is all around. Through the middle runs the Danube, lights from illuminated bridges dancing at its surface. The hills of Buda rear from the western bank, home to the cobbled medieval quarter with its grand palace and multi-coloured Matthias Church. Across the river sits the magnificent domed Parliament building, and around it the elegant 19th-century mansions that today contain the shops, bars and cafés that give Pest its buzz.
You can browse a colourful market for wooden crafts in the morning, soak in a thermal bath after lunch and head for the crumbling courtyard of an atmospheric ‘ruin pub’ after dark. Every type of cuisine is represented in the restaurants, there’s accommodation to suit any pocket, and the sights are rarely more than a short walk away.
The Great Market Hall is a bustling place to shake the sleep from your eyes. Built in 1897 and topped with multi-coloured roof tiles, its design is a wonder in itself. Beneath its girders, stall-holders hawk fresh produce to locals and bags of powdered paprika and lace tablecloths to tourists; if you missed breakfast, there are open kitchens on the first floor selling buffet-style food and snacks.
Some of the local dishes you should look out for are hortobágyi palacsinta (pancakes stuffed with minced meat and baked in a paprika sauce), gulyásleves (the classic goulash soup) or lángos (flattened, fried dough ladled with garlic sauce, sour cream and grated cheese).
Cross the road to join Váci utca, the pedestrianised artery that runs through the heart of the Belváros (Downtown), lined with boutiques – but beware the over-priced gift shops. It’s a vibrant street of buskers, history (look out for no 9, where an 11-year-old Franz Liszt gave a performance in 1823) and the occasional intriguing statue (a favourite is the ‘Fisher Girl’ in Kristóf tér). After a kilometre, you’ll emerge into the grand Vörösmarty tér, where it would be a crime not to stop for a cake at Gerbeaud, the most famous café in Hungary. Find more of the best cafés in the city in our guide.
Head out of the square’s top right corner towards Erzsébet tér, where you could take a spin on the Budapest Eye with its views across the rooftops. It’s a short hop from here to the domed St Stephen’s Basilica, which also offers splendid views from its gallery (if you can brave the 300 steps) – and a casket containing the mummified right hand of St Stephen, the country’s 11th-century founder.
The afternoon is all about Buda. After a spot of lunch at Bistro Fine, a relaxed restaurant a short walk away on Andrássy út, settle your stomach with a stroll to the Danube and across the iconic Chain Bridge. Join the funicular railway (the lower carriage has the clearest views) for a trundle up to the medieval quarter. With its cobbled alleys and pastel-coloured burghers’ houses, the Castle District oozes romance (although it can also get crowded).
Turn left into the palace complex, home to the absorbing, vast National Gallery, which holds over 100,000 works of Hungarian art ranging from medieval stone carvings to dramatic canvases by 19th-century Romanticists like Károly Lotz.
When you emerge, don’t miss the Mátyás Well in a courtyard behind the palace – a bronze fountain showing Hungary’s great Renaissance king hunting in a forest. The same king was twice married in Mátyás Church, which stands a few hundred metres away, its interior is an eye-smacking riot of colour. Find more of the best things to do in the city in our guide.
There are several decent dinner options – perhaps try Pierrot, whose guests have included everyone from Salman Rushdie to Jason Statham. The menu has Hungarian and international (especially French) dishes, from pan-fried pike perch to chocolate soufflé, and service is excellent.
By the time you’ve had that postprandial pálinka, the coach parties will have long gone, and you can enjoy a peaceful sunset from the district’s fortified walls. Then it’s a brief descent on the funicular, a stroll across the Chain Bridge and a drink or two in a downtown bar before the DJ takes to the decks in the courtyard club at Ötkert. Find more of the best restaurants in the city in our guide.
Start the day with a walk along Andrássy út and you’ll understand why Budapest has been called the ‘Paris of the East’. This elegant boulevard was the brainchild of 19th-century nobleman Count Gyula Andrássy, who wanted the city to have its very own Champs-Elysées. As you walk away from Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út – neo-classical mansions forming a guard of honour either side – you’ll pass the beautiful State Opera House and the many café-bars around Liszt Ferenc tér.
Standing just beyond Oktogon, the Terror Háza is well-named. This was the headquarters for first the Nazis and then the Communist secret police – a place of brutal interrogation, torture and execution. Today the building contains a stylised museum focused upon Hungary’s terror regimes that’s as fascinating as it is chilling. Find more of the best things to do in the city in our guide.
Andrássy út reaches a dramatic climax in Heroes’ Square, laid out in 1896 to mark the 1,000th anniversary of the arrival of the ancestral Magyar tribes. At its centre is a 36m-tall column topped with the Archangel Gabriel, while behind are colonnades bearing statues of some of the country’s greatest leaders.
Gundel is the place to eat this afternoon. It has an illustrious history and a sumptuous dining room, but for day-time visits there is also a less formal terrace and a good-value set lunch.
After that, City Park has more than enough to fill a few hours. You can go boating on its lake, which lies in the shadow of the quirky Vajdahunyad Castle, a fairytale hotch-potch of a building that incorporates over 20 different Hungarian architectural styles. Nearby, the Museum of Fine Arts in Heroes’ Square has some superb exhibitions.
Please don’t miss the House of Music, Hungary, which opened in 2022 and is not only a stunning work of design by architect Sou Fujimoto but contains one of the most engaging and interactive permanent exhibitions you’ll find anywhere, taking a breathtaking sweep through everything from choral music to rock and pop. It’s a surefire winner with adults and kids alike.
End the afternoon with a soothing soak at Széchenyi Baths, a huge complex of natural thermal pools chock-full of minerals that are said to ease everything from arthritis to migraines. Take a swimming costume, towel and flip-flops.
Catch the M1 metro line – the oldest in continental Europe – from Széchenyi Fürdő to Oktogon where Menza offers a stylish retro take on the communist workers’ canteen.
It’s a short walk to the heart of the Jewish District, which comes alive at night. Tuk-Tuk Bar is a tiny place – just three or four tables – that specialises in its own Asian-themed cocktails.
Don’t leave without trying a ‘ruin pub’, a bar that occupies the – usually flaking – rooms of a former residential building. They come and go, but Szimpla Kert is one of the originals that’s still alive and kicking. Expect regular DJs and performances by live bands, several bars in different areas of the building, and menus that feature some of the produce sold at the farmer’s market that’s held each Sunday during the day. Discover more of the city’s best nightlife in our guide.
The Jewish Quarter has emerged as the city’s coolest neighbourhood, known not only for its bars and clubs but for staging cutting-edge arts events. Spinoza Café has its own theatre, for instance, and Gozsdu Weekend Market (which sets up at Gozsdu Udvar every Saturday and Sunday) offers people the chance to create their own works of art.
The Fishermen’s Bastion in the Castle District is a popular spot to visit for its city vistas. But while people pay to access the upper tier, the section below is free to enter – and the views are just as good.
The Budapest Card (from €29/£26) allows free travel on public transport and free/discounted access to a range of attractions and tours. It’s best suited to visitors looking to pack a lot into a short space of time. Places you can visit free of charge with the card include the Budapest History Museum, the Hungarian National Museum and the Lukács Baths.
Guests at the top-class boutique Aria Hotel Budapest can tuck into free cheese and wine every day between 4pm and 6pm. Even if you’re not staying here, it’s worth taking the lift to the rooftop for views of St Stephen’s Basilica. If you want to reserve a table on the Panorama Tower, there’s a minimum consumption fee per hour per table (currently HUF 60,000/£150).
Did you know?
Budapest sits on countless thermal springs, and locals love not only to wallow in the mineral-rich water but to drink it too. You can try three different varieties inside the atmospheric Rudas Baths.
Where to stay
As the name suggests, music is the inspiration behind the Aria Hotel Budapest. Views of the domes of St Stephen’s Basilica from the rooftop bar are killer and the hotel is within a short walking distance (generally under 15 minutes) of Váci utca. This, along with a soaring garden courtyard, fabulous rooms, a seductive underground spa and a swimming pool, makes it one of Budapest’s top hotels.
Pest-Buda blends the modern and the historical with genuine class. And there is history here, for the building housed an inn as early as 1696 (you can still see original brickwork and marble seating around the central stairway). Today’s hotel incorporates classic craftsmanship in the limestone bathrooms and wood panelling with industrial touches like bare-bulb lighting and colourful works by Hungarian graphic artists. It’s not only characterful, but warm and welcoming.
Gerlóczy is as central as you could wish, but also on a quiet square. The building has heaps of style and character. As you might expect from a three-star property, there’s no gym or spa or room service on offer. However, unlike any of the more star-studded hotels, the Gerlóczy provides guests with an entirely free minibar, refreshed daily and stocked with goodies including sparkling wine, soft drinks and homemade cookies.
What to bring home
Herend porcelain is Hungary’s premium product. Since the manufactory was founded in 1826, it has attracted fans ranging from Queen Victoria to Arnold Schwarzenegger. There’s a Herend shop at Andrássy út 16 – but beware – it’s not cheap…
Tokaj is rated among the world’s very best dessert wines, so it’s well worth bringing a bottle or two home. Bortársaság – which specialises in Hungarian wines – has a number of outlets where you can purchase Tokaj, including one near the Chain Bridge on the Buda side of the river (Lánchíd utca 5; 00 36 1 225 1702) and another on Andrássy út.
And Hungarians love their paprika, which ranges in taste from sweet to fiery. The Great Market Hall is a good place to buy some – either threaded whole on strings or powdered in bags.
When to go
Budapest is a cosmopolitan capital and there’s always something going on. It’s a place of proper seasons. Winter can be very cold, but the festive Christmas markets and outdoor ice rink in City Park make it a special time of year. By contrast, the summer months – particularly July and August – can be steamy. It’s well worth considering a visit in spring or autumn when the temperature is pleasant, the buds are opening or the leaves blazing gold, and there are festivals of music, dance and food. Hotel prices are highest in early summer and at Christmas, and sky rocket during major events like the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Know before you go
British embassy: 00 36 1 266 2888; II, Füge utca 5-7; Mon-Thurs 10am-4pm, Fri 10am-2pm
Police: 107 or 112
Tourist office: There are several outlets of the local tourist office (known as Budapestinfo). The main one is near Deák tér (Budapest Városháza park, Károly körút), and opens between 9am and 7pm daily.
Currency: Hungarian Forint (HUF or Ft)
Telephone code: 00 36
Time difference: GMT +1Flight time (from London): 2 hours 30 mins
Budapest is an eminently walkable city, but it also has an excellent system of public transport. The metro started operating in 1896, making it the second oldest in the world (after London’s tube). Today there are four lines, as well as a network of trams, trolley-buses and buses. Routes worth noting are: the M1 metro line (from Vörösmarty tér out to City Park); trams 4 and 6 (running around the Great Boulevard and over to Buda); tram 2 (going along the Danube out to the National Theatre); and bus 16 (from Deák tér to the Castle District).
Tickets (which are accepted on all forms of public transport) can be purchased from most metro stations and larger transport hubs like Deák tér, and some hotels can provide them. They are available as single tickets (HUF 350/£0.80) or in books of 10 (HUF 3,000/£7); you need to validate your ticket by inserting it into punching machines at the entrance to metro stations or on joining a bus/tram/trolley-bus. Alternatively, you can buy passes granting unlimited travel for 24 or 72 hours (HUF 2,500/£5.50 or HUF 5,500/£12). The Budapest Card – which gives free or discounted entry to many attractions around the city – also works as a transport pass. Controllers regularly board tourist routes and can impose significant fines on those without valid tickets.
Budapest once had a serious problem with unscrupulous taxi drivers overcharging tourists. However, regulation was tightened up significantly in 2013, and the situation has improved dramatically; nevertheless, where possible it is prudent to ask your hotel concierge or restaurant staff to order your taxi rather than hailing one in the street, while taxi transfers from the airport should be booked from the kiosk just outside the terminal. All taxis are painted yellow, there is a uniform charging system, taxis must have a visible meter and they must accept credit card payment. A ride from the airport should cost HUF 8,000-10,000 (£20-£25), and a 10-minute journey in the centre around HUF 4,000-5,000 (£10-£12).
The service industry has taken gigantic strides in the last decade as restaurants and hotels have recognised the need to meet the higher expectations of tourists. You might still encounter less engaged staff in some bars and nightclubs.
It is customary to pay a tip to reward good service. Restaurant bills often – but not always – include service (between 10 per cent and 15 per cent), so do check before settling. Note that cash tips are not generally left on the table in restaurants; instead, let the staff member know how much you’d like to add to the bill as a tip when paying or simply say ‘thank you’ to indicate you do not expect change. You might offer a locker attendant in a spa a small tip of HUF 500 (£1.25) or so and a hotel porter HUF 1,000 (£2.50). Pay a taxi driver a tip of 10 per cent (or simply round up to the nearest convenient figure).
Adrian and Monika Phillips make regular visits to Hungary together – mainly to write guidebooks and articles about the place, but on one occasion to tie the knot (in a little castle in a remote country village).