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Best of Budapest 4 Day Itinerary-An Introduction
Travel is about getting to know a City–its culture, history/politics, food, challenges, tragedies and highlights. Budapest has all of this and more.
In this Best of Budapest 4 day itinerary, you can only scratch the surface of this complicated place. And, that’s helpful because you need time and space to come to terms with the City before diving in deeper on a second trip.
Budapest is a city of contradictions. Made up of two centers–Buda and Pest–it is a mix of old world and new beginnings. Beautiful buildings, museums and architecture. A vibrant culture and great food. Ruin bars, street art and thermal baths. It is a vibrant and engaging place. And, all that is enough of a reason to see the City. To understand Budapest, however, you need to grapple with its modern history of anti-Semitism, communism, fascism and democracy.
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Buda and Pest–What’s the Difference?
The Budapest that most travelers see is made up of two areas–Buda and Pest. Buda is known for the Castle and gorgeous views of the city. It sits on the west side of the Danube.
Pest is on the east and has the official government buildings, the Jewish quarter and the parks. Both areas also have residential districts. 1.7M people live in Budapest today, so the city is much, much more than these two areas.
Hungarian 20th Century: A (Very) Brief Political History
Hungary was the second communist state to be formed in 1919, right after the Soviet Union. The Hungarian Soviet Republic, however, was short-lived and only lasted 133 days.
Shortly thereafter, Miklos Horthy became the leader of the country. During WWII, he led Hungary into an alliance with Hitler and Nazi Germany (Romania and Bulgaria were also members of the Axis Powers). You can read a more detailed history of the holocaust in Hungary in A New Look at the Jewish Quarter Budapest Synagogues.
More than 600,000 Jews were sent to death at Auschwitz in a two month period. Thousands more were murdered on the streets of Budapest by the fascist Arrow Cross. The remaining Jewish population (between 75,000 and 100,000) is mainly in Budapest.
After WWII, Hungary was a multi-party democracy until 1949 when the communist People’s Republic of Hungary was established. A 1956 uprising started by students was violently suppressed by the Soviet Union. During that period, approximately 200,000 people fled the country and tens of thousands were imprisoned or executed. In 1989, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Hungary became a democracy again. Hungarians are very proud members of both NATO and, more recently, the European Union.
Currently, Hungary is led by Victor Orban, a social conservative and economic populist. He campaigned on a nationalist, anti-immigration platform. Hungary’s second largest party is Jobbik, a right wing, Neo-Nazi organization. They received 20% of the vote during the April 2018 elections.
Budapest 4 Day Itinerary Overview
There is a lot to see in Budapest and you can’t see it all in 4 days. This Budapest 4 day itinerary gives you one day in each the most important areas: Buda, the Jewish Quarter, the Park/Vorosmarty/St Stephens Basilica and one day on the Danube.
Let’s start with getting around Budapest.
Getting Around Budapest
Budapest is an easy city to get around via mass transit. You can buy a mass transit card for $15 USD. It is good for consecutive three days. Another option is the Budapest Card which gives discounts at museums/sites and free use of the mass transit system. The card costs $15 for 1 day and $45 for three days. We strongly advise buying either the Budapest Card or the Transit Card.
The Budapest Card
Disclosure: The Budapest Festival and Tourism Center gave me a free card to use while I was there.
The Budapest Card gives free admission to: Buda Tower, the Hungarian History 3D show, Lukacs Thermal Baths and all 17 museums in the city. It also gives discounts on certain Danube cruises and some other sites. All mass transit in the City is free with the card, including, the “Official Budapest Castle Bus.” This bus loops around every 5 minutes through the whole Castle district (2100HUF without the card).
You should think through this carefully before purchasing. A single bus/tram/trolley ticket is 350HUF ($1.30 USD) per ride so you will need a lot of rides to add up to $15 USD/per day. If you are planning to go to a few museums, do a Danube cruise (40% off) and go to the Lukacs thermal baths (save $14USD), then the Budapest card can save you money. If you’re the kind of traveler that likes to shop and sit in cafes, then you won’t save money by getting the card.
The card runs for 24 hour periods based on what time of the day you start the card. This is written on the back of the card. You can buy the card online, but you’ll still have to go to an authorized place to pick up the card.
We calculated what we would have spent without the card and determined that we had saved a small amount by having the card.
The Funicular to Buda Castle
We didn’t take the funicular. The line was often long and it seemed like an unnecessary expense (time and money). We either took Bus 16 from the Deak Ferenc Square, the Official Buda Castle Bus or walked up the steps. Walking up takes about 10 minutes from the Chain Bridge and it is not that difficult.
On to the First Day in Buda.
Start early and go directly to Buda Castle (officially the Royal Palace). The National Palace and Budapest History Museum are also there. The buildings open at 10 am, but you’ll want to arrive a little earlier to take in the picturesque views of the city from its courtyards. The History Museum has a good tour that takes you to the basements of the castle and will give you a sense of Hungarian and the Castle’s history. The National Galleries are also worth seeing. We saw an excellent Frida Kahlo exhibit there. It closes in November, so try to catch if you are there before then.
The changing of the Guard in front of the Hungarian Presidential Palace (near the Funicular) takes place every hour on the hour. It’s about a 5 minute walk from the Castle.
Important Note: The History Museum and National Galleries are closed on Mondays.
Buda Castle Costs:
It’s free to walk around the Castle. The History Museum charges 2000HUF ($7.30USD) and the National Galleries 1800HUF ($6.60USD). Special exhibits (like the Frida Kahlo) cost 3200HUF ($11.70USD). With the Budapest Card, you can see the permanent exhibit at the National Gallery. Special exhibits cost extra. In order to enter the museum with the Budapest Card, you have to go to the ticket counter first.
Continue on to Matthias Church.
Next Stop: Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion
Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion are right next to each other and about a 10 minute walk from the Castle.
Mathias Church is beautiful and is a must see. It’s free to enter. The church dates to 1015 but the original structure was destroyed by the Mongols in 1241. It was rebuilt in the late 13th century. Many coronations have taken place at this Catholic Church. It has also been used as a mosque (during the Turkish invasion in the mid-1500s) and as the headquarters for both the Germans and Soviets at various points in its history.
There are excellent views from the Bell Tower if you are up for the 197 steps to the top. The Bell Tower has timed entrances so go buy your tickets as soon as you get there if you want to do this, especially in high season.
Fisherman’s Bastion is beautiful to look at from the outside. It costs a small fee to go inside and up the turrets. If you are planning to do the Bell Tower, there is no need to also do the Fisherman’s Bastion–the views are similar. You can also take the stairs underneath the Bastion for a free view of the Danube.
At this point, you are probably ready for a lunch break. We ate at Jamie Oliver’s Italian (review below). There are several other restaurants in the area.
Cost: Bell Tower tour costs 1500HUF ($5.50USD)
After lunch, head on over to Buda Tower (Magdalena Church). All that remains of the church is the tower and you can climb the 170 steps to the top. It has slightly different view than the Bell Tower. We did both–we had the Budapest card and it was free for us. Otherwise, it costs 1500HUF ($5.50).
By the end, you’ll probably be pretty spent (especially if you climbed both towers), so head on back to your hotel for pre-dinner rest.
Additional Optional Activities for Families with Children in Buda
We also went to the House of Houdini (the escape artist). He was of Hungarian ancestry. Entrance fees are 2400HUF ($9.00) for adults and was not covered by the Budapest Card. It’s a great activity if you have children. There is a short tour of the museum and a magic show at the end.
The Labirintus is an underground cave system where Dracula was imprisoned. With children, it could be an optional activity. It’s cool, very wet and dark. And yes, we got lost. It could be scary so young children would need to stay with their parents. The entrance fee was 2000HUF ($7.30).
How to get to Buda
The 16 bus goes right to Buda and that’s the easiest and quickest way to get there. You can also walk across the Szechenyi Bridge. It takes about 15 minutes to get to the top from the ramp next to the Funicular. The Funicular is not worth the wait or the cost. There is also an official Budapest bus if you have purchased the Budapest Card. It costs 6 Euro ($7.00) if you don’t.
After a well deserved rest, Day 2 starts with the Doheny Synagogue in the Jewish quarter.
Day 2 Jewish Quarter and Street Art
On the second day, head over to the Jewish Quarter. We stayed in the Jewish Quarter and found it to be a great location.
First stop is the Dohany Synagogue. Make sure to take the guided tour which costs 3600HUF ($13.10USD). The Budapest card gives you a 10% discount. It takes about 40 minutes and will give you the history of the Jewish community in Budapest and Hungary. The synagogue is very interesting and has both Moorish and Catholic influences. It is the second largest synagogue in the world.
The guide will tell you in great detail about the Holocaust in Hungary and the genocide of 80% of Hungary’s Jewish Population. It is very disturbing and important to take in. We found the non-Jewish Hungarian tours to be very defensive about the Holocaust and Hungary’s role in it. We will be doing another post with more in depth information about this history.
Be sure to see the Holocaust Memorial (Tree of Life) in the courtyard as well as a tribute to Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews by giving them visas and sheltering them in Swedish diplomatic buildings.
Carl Lutz Memorial
Nearby, you will find the Carl Lutz Memorial He was a Swiss diplomat who saved more than 60,000 Jews by issuing protective letters for emigration to Palestine.
Lutz was supposed to issue 8,000 letters to Jews, but chose to interpret it as 8,000 families. After the war, he was chastised by the Swiss government for doing this (Switzerland was neutral during WWII). As a result, many people don’t know about him. He is listed as One of the Righteous Among Nations by Yad Vashem.
Nearby, you will also find the Holocaust Memorial Wall (along Doheny Utca). Make sure to look through the peepholes.
Hannah Senesh Museum
The Hannah Senesh Museum is right next to Dohany. I had originally planned to visit the Hannah Senesh Museum right after the Synagogue but decided against it. It is hard to take in all of the atrocities of WWII and the holocaust.
You’ll be close to the Karavan outdoor Street Food Court. Karavan has about 15-20 outdoor food trucks with great food. The trucks have traditional Hungarian food as well as more modern, fusion versions.
After lunch, the Hannah Senesh Museum is a good stop. Hannah was a Hungarian Jew from Budapest who emigrated to Palestine. In 1944, she parachuted into Yugoslavia in an attempt to rescue Jews from Hungary. She was captured, tortured and killed on November 1944, just three months before Hungary surrendered. She was 23 years old. Senesh was a poet and is widely revered in Israel. The very last poem she wrote in her cell has these final lines:
I could have been twenty-three next July;
I gambled on what mattered most,
The dice were cast. I lost.
After lunch, it’s time for a street art walk.
Street Art Walk
The Jewish Quarter has some of the best Street Art in Budapest. The following route will take a couple of hours to do. Stop whenever you are ready for a break. It takes you to many of the famous murals in Budapest.
- Dob St 10 – Rubik’s Cube
- Dob St 4 – Angel Sans Briz (above restaurant)
- Rumbach Sebestyen St 10 – 6:3
- Kiraly St 23 – Landscape
- Kacinzy St 55 – Sunrise or Sunset
- Kacinzy St 45 – Budapest Isn’t So Small
Dob St 36 – City People
Dob St 40 – Love Thy Neighbors
Kertesz St 27 – Art of Gastronomy/What Does Being Hungarian Mean to You/Pan Galactic/Gargle Blaster/Market/Countryside or City – these murals are painted around a huge carpark lot
- Wesselenyi St 40 – Man of the Year
- Akacfa St 9 – Bike
Want to hear directly from a street artist? Read my series Street Art Speaks: An interview with Street Artist and Activist LMNOPi.
If you like street art, check out: 10 Reasons to See Exciting Jersey City Street Art
Want to Combine New York City Jewish Food and Street Art? This post is for you: How to See Lower East Side Jewish Food & Street Art Tour
Ruin Bars and Palinka
After dinner, it’s time to check out a Ruin Bar and try Palinka. Ruin Bars are famous in Budapest. They are in old crumbling buildings (thus “ruin”) . There are many in the Jewish Quarter. We went to Szimpla Kert, the first ruin bar opened in 2004. It was huge and there are many small rooms on the first and second floors. There was a bar in every room.
Palinka is a very strong Hungarian drink – it contains 37.5% alcohol content! It is served in a shot glass and you are supposed to drink it like a shot. We tried it once!
Third Day-City Park, Vorosmarty Square and St. Stephens Basilica
If you are staying in the Jewish Quarter, take the yellow streetcar #74 from Doheny to City Park. Get off at the Bethesda stop so you can walk through the park to Heroes’ Square, a World Heritage Site. On your way through the park, you’ll see Municipal Zoological and Botanical Garden, Vajdahunyad Castle and the Museum of Fine Arts. You can stop at any of these or just past by for pictures. The Castle is very beautiful. There is also a lake with boating and a thermal bath in the park.
It takes about 30 minutes to walk through the park, unless you stop at the gardens, baths or other activities. You can also bring food and have a picnic lunch in the park. You’ll eventually arrive at Heroes’ Square, a very impressive place. It honors 900 years of Hungary’s kings, princes and military leaders. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is also in the square.
One the side of the square is the Mucsarnok, built in 1895. It has a nice folk art exhibit while we were there. It showcases Hungarian arts and performances. Budapest Card covers the entrance fee, otherwise it costs 1500HUF ($5.50).
At the opposite end of the square is the entrance to the Millennium Subway, the oldest subway in the city and third oldest in the world. Built in 1896, the subway connects City Park to Vorosmarty Square.
If you’re ready for a break, try Gerbeaud’s at Vorosmarty Square. It’s pricey and touristy but the pastries are good and the chandeliers are magnificent.
Next stop is St. Stephens Basilica just off of Deak Ferenc Square. It is a large, beautiful church named after the first king of Hungary. St. Stephens and the Parliament Building are the two tallest buildings in Budapest. No buildings can be built taller than them. You will be asked for a donation upon entry.
Fourth Day-The Danube Cruise and Shoes on the Danube
Day 4 The Danube Cruise and Shoes on the Danube
Day 4 will be spent in and around the Danube. Take yellow streetcar #2 to the Parliament Building. You will need to book tickets in advance to go into the Parliament Building. The whole area is beautiful to see on foot.
After you have finished this area, walk towards the river to see Shoes on Danube. On this spot, the fascist Arrow Cross murdered thousands of Jews. People were ordered to take off their shoes, then tied together. Some would be shot and then the entire group would fall into the Danube and drown. There are 60 iron shoes in the memorial. It is chilling to see them.
Since you are at the Danube, you can take a cruise along the Danube. Some feel the night time cruise is best to see the lights of the City.
If you prefer to cruise in the evening, then go shopping instead. You can take the #2 yellow streetcar along the Danube from Szchenyi Iszvan for 4 stops and get off at Fovam Ter to the Grand Market Hall. The market has been on the same spot since 1897 and sells fresh produce, food and souvenirs. This is also the place to buy sausages, palinka and paprika.
Another option is to go to one of the baths. If you have the Budapest Card, the Lukacs Bath is free. It’s on the Buda side so you’ll have to go across the Danube.
Where to Stay
Most visitors stay in either in the Buda Castle District or on the Pest side (including the Jewish Quarter).
If you decide to stay in Buda, you’ll be near everything in the Castle District. You’ll need to take buses into the Pest side and the traffic can be very slow on the Chain Bridge.
We found that we spent much more time on the Pest side and preferred that location. We stayed in a studio apartment on Rakoczi street, a busy thoroughfare in the Jewish quarter and found it to be an excellent location. It is near many of the metro, bus and trolley lines. The Jewish Quarter also has many restaurants as well as Ruin Bars.
The Yellow Street Car #2 runs along Danube (450HUF)
Bus 16 goes to Buda and Castle Hill
Yellow Street Car #74 goes along Doheny and around the City Park
The Bus 100E goes from Airport to Deak Ferenc (costs 900HUF and is not covered by Budapest Card or Transit Day Pass). It only makes 3 stops and is an express into the city.
The Millennial Subway is the M1 and goes from Vorosmarty Square to Heroes’ Square
The other subway lines are the M2/M3/M4
Budapest is a good city for bikes and there is a bike sharing app called BUBI that you can download before you go.
Where to Eat
Karavan (on Kazincy St) is popular with the younger crowd. There are 15-20 food trucks serving burgers, langos, chimney cake and traditional Hungarian food like goulash, sausages. There’s even a Las Vegans truck! And, of course, there are several bars and beer trucks too ($15 for dinner for 2 people including drinks).
Rosenstein (Monsonyi 3) next to the train station is a Jewish Hungarian restaurant. They have specials every day. We were there on a Wednesday and were happy to learn the special of the day was stuffed cabbage! The venison soup was excellent as was the duck with kale chef special. Rosenstein’s has an extensive wine collection. The food is cooked by the owner and his son. It is a little on the pricier side but well worth it ($72USD for 3 courses for two people including wine).
Tasting Table Budapest
Tasting Table Budapest Wine Cellar (Brody Sandor 9) holds Thursdays@The Tasting Table which includes a wine tasting and dinner. It typically happens every other week. on our visit, they served 6 wines from the central Hungary region during our 3 course dinner. We heard a presentation about each wine from a director of the vineyard. This costs US$49.00 per person and can be booked on their website.
The Olaszrizling varietal from Szent Donat was paired with a delightful peach soup with thin slices of mangalica ham. The main entree was trout, baked and served with chives and beetroot in a bearnaise sauce. This went very well with a glass of Furmint. We finished with a cheese plate and summer berries accompanied by a glass of a red wine, Magma Kerfrankos.
The Tasting Table also has wine tastings without dinner and other wine-related events. The wine cellar seats about 24 people in communal tables.
Jamie Oliver Italian
Jamie Oliver Italian (Buda) was an excellent find among the many tourist restaurants next to the Matthias church. We had pizza and a melt-in-your mouth ravioli with pea leaves. Prices are reasonable for the Buda Castle district ($31 for 2 people lunch).
Gerbeaud’s Cafe (On Vorosmarty Square) is known for its wonderful pastries and was apparently a favorite of Sissy (nickname of Queen Elizbeth, wife of King Stephen). In addition to pastries, they serve a lunch and breakfast. Expect to find strudels, sacher torte and dobos and other traditional Hungarian desserts. It is on the pricey side for dessert but a nice experience ($16 USD for 1 dessert and 1 coffee).
Fuego is a Spanish roasted chicken restaurant along Kazincy Street, near the Ruin bars and Karavan. The menu is a la carte so you are charged for everything, including sauces. The chicken is very nicely cooked and the extra sauce is not necessary. We ordered a side of salad and potatoes ($22USD for 2 people for dinner).
Arany Pince is a traditional Hungarian restaurant offering goulash, bean soups, chicken paprikash. We had the mangalicza pork wrapped in bacon with potato donuts (the donuts were yummy!) and the duck combo dish with red cabbage. Portions are very generous and tasty. Lunch was (US$35.00).
The Best Views
The are many ways to get great pictures of Budapest. To give you an idea, here are photos from Matthias Bell Tower, the lower part of Fisherman’s Bastion (we did not go to the area that requires tickets), Buda Tower at Magdalena Church, and Buda and Pest Views. You don’t need to do all of them. Pick your favorite and go there. We liked the Bell Tower View the best. If you are not up for the climb, then the free view at Fisherman’s Bastion is great.