Last Updated on June 28, 2019 by Christine Kaaloa
Penned under our expert traveler series, this guest post is written by traveler and expat, Katie, who blogs for Wandertooth. In 2009, she and her husband Geoff quit their jobs in Canada to travel full-time. Currently they live in Budapest. She will be your Budapest travel guide, showing you the best things to do in Budapest.
Hungary has long fascinated visitors intrigued by the country’s unique culture and language, exceptional wine and food, and beautiful and inspiring capital, which is wonderful to visit throughout the year. Having fallen in love with and moved to Budapest myself over a year ago, I can think of nothing better than a few days spent exploring Hungary’s intriguing capital. If you’re planning a short trip to Budapest and are looking for the best ways to maximize your time, keep reading for some of my favorite suggestions for Budapest.
Here’s what to do and eat if you only have 48 hours in Budapest:
Table of Contents: 48 Hours in Budapest | Budapest Travel Guide
Budapest Travel Guide
Experience the City’s Spa Culture
Hungary was occupied by the Ottoman Empire for more than 100 years, and happily for you, one of the remaining legacies of this foreign rule is Budapesters’ love for thermal baths. The two most popular baths for visitors are Szechenyi Baths in City Park, and Gellért Baths in Buda.
Szechenyi is mostly outdoors, and is comprised of 18 pools and 10 sauna/steam cabins surrounded by a gorgeous 20th-century palace. Gellért is mostly indoors, with 8 thermal baths, 4 swimming pools, and beautiful art nouveau architecture and decorations to admire while you soak. If you’d prefer to soak with a crowd of mostly locals, skip Szechenyi and Gellért and head to Rudas or Lukács thermal baths instead.
Get Shutter Happy at the 5 Best Views of the City
Nicknamed the “pearl of the Danube,” it’s easy to see how Budapest earned this moniker when you visit the Pest side of the river to catch some of the best views of the city. Starting in the Castle District, the birthday-cake-like Fisherman’s Bastion looks out over the famous Chain Bridge and Hungarian Parliament, providing spectacular views framed by the characteristic arches.
Further along, the courtyard of Buda Castle offers a similar view from a different angle, and is a spectacular setting for a glass of wine during sunset. There’s a small terrace restaurant with a great view in the northeast corner of the castle courtyard, although I suggest sticking to a drink only; the food and service aren’t the best.
Check out the best times to travel Budapest so you don’t miss out on those photo opportunities.
If you’re up for being active, hike up to the Citadel, a prominent hill on the Buda side of the river, south of the Castle District. The Citadel is easy to spot from almost anywhere in the city due to the large Soviet Liberation Monument standing proudly at the top. It’s a sweaty 20 minutes up along a well-marked path. There are vendors selling drinks, ice cream and souvenirs if you need some refreshment at the top.
Finally, the best spots to get a view of the mighty Hungarian Parliament building are from the middle of Margaret Bridge (Trams #4 and #6 stop here), or from the Buda side of the riverbank, facing the parliament straight on.
Enjoy Budapest Nightlife at a Ruin Pub
When communism ended and the Hungarian economy opened up, creative entrepreneurs took over some of Budapest’s derelict buildings, giving birth to a uniquely Budapest phenomenon: ruin pubs.
Ruin pubs are essentially pop-up pubs that never went away. Thrown together quickly in unused buildings, or in courtyard spaces between buildings, they feature a mishmash of used decoration and furniture, giving the appearance of a yard sale at grandma’s, but with drinks and music. The most famous ruin pub is Szimpla, in the heart of the 7th district. It fills up quickly in the evenings, so head there a bit earlier to get a seat or go to the Sunday morning farmers’ market, which is great for creating a D.I.Y. brunch!
Get to Know Budapest’s Jewish History and Heritage
Budapest’s Jewish community has lived in this area for centuries, and like many Jewish communities in 20th-century Europe, has experienced its share of tragedy. There are a number of sites throughout Budapest where you can learn about the community, and hope and despair of the Nazi period:
Shoes on the Danube
The Shoes on the Danube monument is a touching tribute to specific victims of the Hungarian Arrow Cross (the Hungarian Nazi militia). Walk south along the Danube between the parliament building and the Chain Bridge, and you’ll see the monument of bronzed shoes and plaques in several languages. The monument is set-up in the spot where people from Budapest’s Jewish Ghetto were lined up and shot in 1944 and 1945, their bodies disposed of in the Danube.
Carl Lutz monument
For a more hopeful look at this dark history, head to the Carl Lutz monument on Dob Utca. Carl Lutz was a Swiss diplomat who saved more than 60,000 of Budapest’s Jews by issuing 7,800 “protective letters” and claiming diplomatic use of more than 70 buildings in Budapest’s Jewish quarter. The protective letters permitted holders to emigrate to Palestine, and Lutz’s success at commandeering so many buildings had the effect of creating multiple safe houses for Budapest’s Jews, putting them out-of-reach of the Nazis.
Finally, stop in at the Great Synagogue on Dohány Street. The second-largest synagogue in the world (and the largest in Europe), it’s a centre of Hungary’s unique brand of neolog Judaism, and is stunningly beautiful, too!
Understand Budapest’s Communist Past
Hungary has a fascinating recent history, and Budapest is the perfect city to delve into its communist past, learn about the years Hungarians spent behind the Iron Curtain, and begin to understand how the legacy of communism has shaped modern Budapest. Trip to Budapest offers a free communist walking tour daily at 10 am and 3:30 pm. There are some reductions in low season. The tour focuses on life during the communist and post-communist period, stopping at key sites and memorials from this period.
Best Things to Eat in Budapest
Not a specific dish, but rather a movement – street food is a huge thing in Budapest, especially in the warmer months. Your best bet is to head to Street Food Karavan (Kazinczy u. 18) in the 7th district. Karavan is an empty parking lot wedged between two buildings and fitted out with picnic tables and street food vendors. My favorite is Samurice, which sell “burgers” with rice patty buns and an Asian-fusion interior. If that doesn’t sound like your perfect meal, you can also pick up pizza, sausages, Hungarian lángos, deep-fried cheese sandwiches, and even some veggie and vegan options.
Note: Karavan closes down in the winter, roughly from early November to the end of March.
Lángos is a deep-fried disc of dough that’s slathered in garlic butter, cream cheese, and grated cheese, with optional special toppings. Llángos is Hungary’s favorite local junk food. Crisp on the outside, but soft on the inside, lángos is great on a hot summer day or in the depths of a central European winter. You can get it at Street Food Karavan: they offer a traditional option, and some more hipster versions topped with non-traditional toppings. Alternatively, Lángosh (Király u. 7-11) is Budapest’s newest spot to indulge, conveniently located at Gozsdu Alley.
Not food per se, fröccs is Budapest’s drink of summer, although you’ll probably see people drinking it year round. Fröccs is a wine spritzer, and the word itself is onomatopoeic, referencing the splashing sound created when pouring the drink! Rosé fröccs is most popular, and is most commonly served as a kisfröccs (small fröccs, with 2 parts soda water to 1 part wine) or nagyfröccs (large fröccs, with 2 parts wine to 1 part soda water). In the summer, Budapesters and tourists fill up Fröccsterasz on Erzsébet square, and you should too!
Kürtőskalács is a Hungarian chimney cake that’s roasted over hot coals on a spit. When done right, the outside turns slightly crispy, while the inside remains soft and chewy, creating an irresistible combo. Kürtőskalács are topped with a dusting of sugar, and other treats, according to your preferences: crushed nuts, cinnamon, Nutella, and more. Year-round, they are sold in small stalls throughout the city. The stall outside Nyugati train station and the one in the Deák Ferenc Tér metro station are particularly popular.
Well-located right in front of St. Stephen’s Basilica, Gelarto Rosa (Szent István tér 3) is a must-stop for ice cream lovers. In addition to serving-up high quality ice cream, Gelarto Rosa’s true claim to fame is their stylish presentation, serving each cone with a beautiful ice cream rose on top!
Getting Around Budapest
Budapest’s city centre is pretty compact, which makes it a great city for getting around on foot when the weather is nice. If you stick to the tourist centre, you can mostly get wherever you need to go in about 30 minutes, max. Most of Budapest’s trafficked streets have wide, well-maintained sidewalks, and there are several pedestrian-only zones throughout the city centre.
Tram, Bus and Metro
Public transportation in Budapest is excellent, and you can get pretty much anywhere on the tram, metro or bus.
Budapest has 4 metro lines, although you’re most likely to use lines 1, 2 and 3, as line 4 covers fewer areas of interest to visitors. Lines 1, 2, and 3 all converge at Deák Ferenc tér in the city centre, making this one of the most convenient stations in the city.
Tip: Getting from the airport to the city centre, you can use the airport shuttle bus here.
The tram is the second most convenient transport , with Trams #4 and #6 running across the Pest side of the city in a semi-circle arch, and Tram #2 running along the Pest riverbank.
If you can’t get a metro or tram, the buses are also easy to use, with next stops announced on a loudspeaker so you know where to disembark. As a short-term visitor to the city, you’re most likely to need Bus #16, which runs from Deák Ferenc tér (in front of the Ritz Carlton) to the Budapest Castle District. On most buses, you can board at the middle and rear doors, although sometimes drivers will keep those doors closed, and check tickets via the front door.
If you plan on using public transit, your best bet is to buy a transit pass that covers the duration of your stay in the city. A 24-hour ticket costs 1,650 ft, and a 72-hour pass costs 4,150 ft (unfortunately, there isn’t a 48-hour option), and gives you unlimited access to transit in the city, with the exception of the special airport bus.
Alternatively, you can buy individual or a 10-pack of tickets from vending machines at all metro stations and most tram stops. If you opt for individual tickets, you must validate the tickets before use.
Note: At metro stations, there is a validation machine at the top of escalators. On trams and buses, it is on-board the vehicle. Also, trams and buses have a “one ticket, one ride” policy, so you have to validate a new ticket each time you switch. If you are switching within the metro to a different line, however, you can complete your metro ride on one ticket.
Budapest doesn’t have Uber or Lyft, but it does have a similar service called Taxify. To use Taxify, you have to download the app and have access to data or wifi when calling the taxi. Taxify cars are yellow marked taxis, but other than that it works pretty much identically to Uber.
Budapest has a bike share program called MOL bubi, and you’ll see the green bikes and stations throughout the city centre. The program is quite affordable and convenient, with the first hour costing a mere 500 ft (about $2 US), with a 25,000 ft deposit on your credit card.
Where to Stay in Budapest
The most convenient areas for short-term visitors are the 5th, 6th, and 7th districts, all of which are on the Pest side of the city. The Oktogon area is particularly central and convenient, with a number of hostels clustered around this part of the city, including the highly-rated Avenue Hostel, Friend’s Hostel, Pal’s Mini Hostel, and more.
Tip: For solo travellers on a short trip, we’d recommend staying in Pest, as opposed to Buda. There is simply far more going on in the Pest side of the city, which is the true heart of the city.
Safety Tips for Solo Travelers in Budapest
Overall, Budapest is a very safe city, making it a great choice for solo travelers. We’ve lived here for over a year now, the worst things we’ve seen happen is a single purse snatching, in which the victim was unfortunately knocked to the ground.
That said, Budapest is a large capital city, and it’s worth being aware of your personal and property safety while exploring. Key safety considerations include:
- Pickpockets and Petty Property Crime: The more touristy districts are also the areas you’re most likely to fall victim to property crime, so be aware of your belongings when you’re out exploring, in busy areas like a queue or on public transit, and in crowds. Store belongings in a zippered pocket, or keep them secured in a bag to can’t easily be grabbed off your body. Read How to Outsmart Pickpockets
- Out and About at Night: Of the two sides of the Danube, Pest is the busier side of the city, and you’re less likely to find yourself alone on a dark street if you’re out at night in Pest, as compared to Buda. The busiest entertainment district is the Jewish Quarter in the 7th. There is a reasonably large police presence here to assist people who need help, and to deal with disorderly conduct. It’s worth noting, Budapest is a popular stag and hen party destination for Europeans from other countries. These groups have a reputation for getting pretty drunk, and can get into fights amongst themselves and with others.
- Overcharging: Not a safety consideration per se, the police made several high profile arrests of restaurant staff in 2017 for brazenly overcharging tourists, sometimes to the tune of hundreds or thousands of dollars. There’s not need to be overly paranoid about this happening, but it’s worth keeping the currency conversion in mind when it comes time to pay your bill.
- Read Safety Tips for Solo Travelers
Budapest is a wonderful city – one of my all-time favorites, in fact! Hopefully these suggestions will help you enjoy the best of the city during your visit. And if you enjoyed reading this post, please share it or pin it!
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