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A Traveling Insider’s Guide to Budapest

Visit Budapest to experience a culture built upon a rich history, comforting cuisine and natural surroundings. | By Paul Oswell | July 7, 2023

Visit Budapest and you can enjoy two city stays for the price of one. Separated by the celebrated Danube River, the twin cities of Buda and Pest face each other over the water, each with their own distinct character. The hills of Buda are more pastoral, and home to a stunning medieval quarter, while Pest boasts its own historical architecture and a dynamic social hub. Unified in 1873, the combination of a historical city, scenic nature and a thriving cultural life give Budapest an ongoing allure that is made for exploration.

Orchestrate your ideal stay and hit all of the city’s high notes. Here are some ideas for a harmonious visit:

  • Get some air: Walking is a hugely rewarding activity here, and allows you to take in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites as well as the glorious surrounding nature

  • Take to the water: Cruise along the Danube River for a different perspective on the city skyline, raise a glass on a floating bar or laze in a heated bath

  • Fire up your appetite: Fuel up on Hungarian delicacies, from spicy stews to gooey chocolate cakes, all sold in the city’s beautiful old cafes

Woman smiles at camera in front of bridge over Danube river in Budapest
Views of the Danube River are framed by historical buildings and opulent architecture.

Why visit Budapest?

There’s a hint of decadence to Budapest almost everywhere you look. The architectural pageantry is typified by everything from Buda Castle to the Hungarian State Opera House and Gothic churches, and this sophistication spills over into daily life here. Indulge like the locals, whether by decompressing in a thermal bath or savoring slices of chocolate cake in opulent cafes.

The Danube River, which slices through the heart of the city, has inspired generations of poets and classical musicians. It’s framed by colorful historical buildings on each bank and boasts a number of scenic bridges, including, most famously, Chain Bridge, which is dramatically lit come nightfall.

The views from the hills of Buda are stunning, and the imperial surroundings of the Castle District are a delight with the elegant domes of Buda Castle and the Gothic splendor of Matthias Church. City Park is a similarly green urban oasis, with its lakes, bracing Szechenyi thermal baths, spectacular Vajdahunyad Castle and the monumental statues in Heroes’ Square. Religious diversity is apparent in the churches, mosques and synagogues, with St. Stephen’s Basilica among the most famous.

Budapest, including the banks of the Danube, the Buda Castle District and Andrassy Avenue are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but you'll find that just wandering along cobbled streets surrounded by so much living history is exhilarating. This is a city that celebrates life and isn’t afraid to experience the full gamut of cultural delights — from listening to classical music in a grand hall to playing chess in an open-air public pool.

Woman tourist looking at the map on the street in Budapest.
Plan your sightseeing to include the city's many historic buildings, urban green spaces and elegant castles.

When is the best time to visit Budapest?

Budapest’s peak summer season, which runs from June to September, offers the sunniest weather but also the largest crowds. Consider visitng during the shoulder seasons of spring and fall, when the weather is mild and there are fewer visitors.

Most of the city’s biggest festivals take place in August; however, winters are also popular as the festive season is very atmospheric, with holiday markets popping up across town. It can get very cold around this time of year, though, so pack warm clothing and layers.

African American woman waiting for public transportation in Budapest.
Trams are a great way to get around Budapest (especially in the winter) and many follow scenic routes through the city.

Getting to and around Budapest

International flights arrive at Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport. A 24-hour bus service stops at Ferihegy railway station, with frequent trains into the city center. Taxis are abundant and affordable into the city center, which is around 10 miles (16 kilometers) away. Budapest’s main train station, Keleti, is served by trains from most major central European cities with tickets via Eurail or Interrail.

The city has good public transport services, with bus, trolleybus, tram, metro and suburban railway services. Tickets and passes can be bought from self-service machines at metro stations and major bus and tram stops. Budapest has four metro lines, distinguished by color (yellow, red, blue and green). There are some 30 tram lines providing an efficient way to cross the city, plus extensive bus routes and 15 trolleybus routes (which only operate in Pest). The overland train network connects the city to the suburbs. For a unique way to get around town while you sightsee, Budapest also has a public river taxi network. With such good (and plentiful!) public transport options and affordable taxis, there’s no real need to rent a car unless you’re planning day trips out of the city.

A young woman holding a traditional Hungarian Langos with cheese, rucola and tomatoes.
Sample delicious and authentic dishes — like fried flatbread, langos — to experience Hungarian culture at its finest.

Culture and customs

Budapest is a sophisticated, artistic and progressive city. Locals have a joie de vivre that is evident in their pastimes of relaxing in thermal baths, eating rich food and enjoying a wide range of culture — and they’re happy to share this ethos with visitors.

Hungarian food has a reputation for being hearty comfort food. A bowl of goulash is an unmissable treat, as are langos (deep-fried flatbread topped with sour cream and cheese) and the luxuriant dobos torte (layered sponge cake with chocolate and buttercream). Settle into a corner of a historical kavehaz (coffee house) such as the aristocratic Cafe Gerbeaud and treat yourself. Cafe culture is a big part of life here, but if you long for fine dining, there’s also several Michelin-starred restaurants such as the modern elegance of Costes or the Regency opulence of sustainability-centered Onyx.

After a delicious meal, nothing beats a relaxing soak. Budapest is home to some 80 geothermal springs, and the public baths here are rightly famous. Broaden your horizons to avoid crowds and lines and bathe with in-the-know locals at Lukács Baths and Dandár Bath, both favored for their charm and tranquility.

Culture is the lifeblood of Budapest. The Neo-Renaissance grandeur of the Hungarian State Opera is genuinely moving, and the venue is also home to the lauded Hungarian National Ballet. The country has its share of well-known classical composers, Bela Bartok being the most famous. There are several great concert venues, including the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music and the Bela Bartok National Concert Hall. Don’t sleep on the country’s folk music traditions, either — any events produced by Hungeria Koncert at the Danube Palace concert hall will be worth seeing.

After dark, visit the city’s famous ruin bars. Bringing new life to previously dilapidated buildings, and celebrating local art and music, the original ruin bar, Szimpla Kert, is a kitsch reworking of an old factory.

Budapest is a destination that celebrates all aspects of life to the fullest. The city feels authentic, and its cultural, social and culinary indulgences aren’t just for visitors, they’re a part of the fabric of life for residents. Tap into them, and the local attitude of enjoyment, and you’re guaranteed a truly magical stay.

Paul Oswell is a British award-winning journalist and published travel author based in New Orleans, Louisiana in the United States. His books include Bucket List North America and The Great American Road Trip, as well as New Orleans' Historic Hotels. He has also been an editor of and contributor to several guide books/editions published by Dorling Kindersley (owned by Penguin), including New Orleans, Florida, Orlando, Los Angeles, California and The United States. His work has appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure (both of which he has written multiple online travel guides for) and The Guardian, as well as dozens of international newspaper and magazine titles, and inflight magazines for major airlines.

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