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Inside: The best things to see and do with just 48 hours in Budapest.
The next stop on this whirlwind 30-day trip around Europe brings us to the dynamic Hungarian capital city of Budapest.
From our last stop in Vienna, my friend Shannon and I enjoyed a scenic ride down the Danube on the quick and easy hydrofoil.
The bonus of this route? An afternoon stopover to explore the charming Slovakian capital of Bratislava before continuing on to Budapest.
While you can continue on the hydrofoil from Bratislava all the way to Budapest, for this leg of the trip we opted for the train since it was both faster and cheaper.
Unfortunately, as we boarded the train we discovered it was lousy with odiferous crowds of animated backpackers headed to a music festival outside Budapest.
Luckily, we quickly realized we could buy our way into the sparsely-occupied first class car for a mere 5 euro, a no-brainer.
After that, the 3-hour ride got a lot more enjoyable.
When our train finally pulled into the crowded Budapest station, we beat the rush out of the station and grabbed a cab to the hotel.
Buda or Pest?
The Danube divides the city in two parts, “Buda” and “Pest.”
Hilly, residential Buda is home to the famous Castle Hill and medieval buildings; while Pest is the commercial center of the city with restaurants, bars, hotels, and museums (it’s also flat, a relief after a day spent walking Buda’s hills!).
The city’s historic center along the banks of the Danube (including the Buda Castle quarter) was inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1987 and is one of Europe’s most beautiful city centers to explore.
Where to stay in Budapest
Our hotel for the first of two nights in Budapest is the stunning Ritz Carlton Budapest.
Located in Pest, the Ritz is one of the city’s newest luxury properties after a total renovation from its previous life as a Le Meridien hotel. Ritz Carlton hotels are typically a bit out of my price range on an extended trip like this one, but in this case, the rates were extremely reasonable for the dates of our stay.
The building itself is a 1914 landmark on Elizabeth Square. And while it’s located in Pest, the Ritz is just a short walk to the Danube and into Buda across the Chain Bridge.
An ideal location for exploring the city on foot.
For our second night, we will move to the Hilton Budapest City. Mainly because I couldn’t decide between the Ritz Carlton and the Hilton, so I made the executive decision to try both since they are in different parts of the city.
And after all, spending more than one night in any given hotel is over-rated right?
Sidebar: It turns out to be a great move since the Hilton is right next door to the train station we need to get to the airport on our last day.
It’s just after 4:00pm by the time we settle into our lovely room so we head out to explore a bit and find some dinner.
We wander along the Danube, find a great spot for dinner, and spend the evening plotting out a full day of sightseeing for the next day.
Things to do in Budapest
The next morning, there is no time to waste. We have one full day to see the best of Budapest and we plan to make the most of it.
Hungarian Parliament Building
From the hotel, we start with a stroll down the Danube to Budapest’s most iconic sight, the Hungarian Parliament Building.
Inspired by the British House of Parliament, the stunning neo-Gothic complex is the seat of the National Assembly of Hungary. Inside, there is both a Visitor Center and Parliamentary Museum but since time is short we settle for appreciating its graceful beauty from the banks of the Danube.
River cruises are another terrific way to appreciate the Parliament building and if we had more time that would definitely have been on my to-do list!
Central Market Hall
Next up, Budapest’s lively Central Market Hall, the city’s largest and most expansive indoor market.
The beautiful neo-Gothic style building is an attraction in itself. Inside, hundreds of colorful market stalls offer everything from fruits and vegetables to exotic spices and wines.
As we enter, I realize that the market is oddly reminiscent of the one I visited in Papeete, Tahiti last year. Familiar enough that I suspect the top floor will have the best local food stands as the Papeete market did.
I am not wrong.
Our first discovery on the upper level is a local specialty called “Langos.”
THEY. ARE. DELICIOUS.
Langos are basically fried dough (which explains the delicious part!) topped with a wide variety of possible options of your choice.
It’s the perfect breakfast to fuel our morning shopping spree – though we should probably take the stairs for the rest of the day.
Szechenyi Chain Bridge
Second only to the famed Parliament building, Budapest’s Chain Bridge is one of the city’s most famous attractions.
Majestically spanning the Danube River, the Chain Bridge has been gracefully connecting Buda and Pest since 1849. Massive stone lions guard both bridgeheads and a stroll across the bridge is a must when visiting Budapest (so, of course, we couldn’t resist!).
In fact, the bridge is as much a symbol of Budapest as the Brooklyn Bridge is to New York City.
From the Adam Clark Square on the Buda side of the Chain Bridge, our next stop is a ride up the Castle Hill Funicular to Buda Castle.
Destroyed by fire in World War II, the vast 13th-century palace was rebuilt to modern standards while still maintaining its historic medieval charm. Home to Hungarian Kings, the complex includes the historical castle and the massive Baroque palace complex.
We had to dodge a rain shower along the way but finally make it up to the top to enjoy the panoramic views of the city below. Known as the “mini-city” atop the hill, the castle district includes the Royal Palace, the Matthias Church, museums, medieval homes, cafes, restaurants, and stunning panoramic views over Budapest.
A Hungarian Bath
Budapest is blessed with a bevy of natural hot springs earning it the nickname, the “city of spas.” Visitors interested in “taking the waters” – a staple of everyday life in Hungary – can choose from a variety of bathhouses from old-school Turkish-era spas to more modern luxury options.
Think husky Turkish grandmother barking orders (turn!) through a blanket of steam while scrubbing (exfoliating?) your skin with reckless abandon. Adding to the awkwardness, you are both naked.
Checked off the Bucket List. No need to repeat.
But since Shannon was interested in trying out a medicinal soak, I was game to give it another go. I am nothing if not a supportive friend. Plus, who knows, it might be fun!
We chose the granddaddy of them all for our spa day, the Szechenyi Baths just outside town, an easy metro ride from the historic center.
Built in 1913, the Szechenyi Thermal Baths are the largest medicinal bath in all of Europe and one of Budapest’s most popular attractions.
Fueled by two thermal springs ranging from 165 to 170 degrees Fahrenheit, Szechenyi boasts 15 indoor baths and 3 expansive outdoor pools.
Tickets prices to experience the baths range from $18-22 US, depending on the time of day, day of the week, etc. They also offer a wide variety of massage options ranging from $65-200 US (massage prices include a bath ticket).
Since we are short on time (and cash!), we opt for the basic bath tickets with locker usage. It’s a beautiful day and the outdoor pools are especially popular. All in all, a lovely and relaxing way to spend a day in Budapest. And far preferable to my Turkish bath experience!
Another great and more affordable option within the historic district is the Rudas Baths.
Dating back to 1566, the Rudas Baths are perhaps the most like a traditional Turkish bathhouse. Located right off the Danube on the Buda side, Rudas is a great choice within the city limits.
The stunning octagonal main soaking pool is surrounded by massive columns under a domed cupola. There’s also a swimming pool for the more active visitors and a laundry list of relaxing spa services like massages and mud baths.
Prices for a swim or soak range from $12-17 USD, while massages and other spa treatments range from $25-125 (a relative bargain by European spa standards!).
With our time in Budapest at an end, I’m sad to say it’s time to leave the beautiful city and move on to our next stop. Ah yes, the downside of traveling around Europe in just 30 days…so little time in each wonderful place!
From Budapest, we have an overnight layover in Berlin. I visited Berlin once before on Round the World #1. But since Shannon has never seen this part of Germany, we plan to get out for a bit and do some sightseeing before continuing on to Poland.
Next stop, Krakow!