36 Hours in Budapest

Medieval old town, Ottoman remains, Austro-Hungarian period, Communist past, the current day – a well-rounded Budapest trip will offer a glimpse into the layers that shaped Hungary’s capital city, with plenty to eat, drink, see, and shop along the way.

A few words of advice: Budapest is a walkable and bikeable city, and most places featured below are accessible by both. Use the MOL Bubi app (Google Play; App Store) for the local bike share system. Public transportation is also convenient and wallet-friendly, especially the 72-hour travelcard for €14, which can be purchased through the BudapestGO app (Google Play; App Store). Here, you can find more information about getting around and into Budapest. Refer to this map for the places mentioned below.

FRIDAY

1 p.m. Lunch, coffee, pastries in the outer part of District 8

Jump headlong into Budapest by having your first meal at Öcsi Étkezde before it shuts down for the weekend. This type of lunch-only, low-priced, unpretentious eateries were popular during the Communist era (1948-1989), but are currently nearing extinction. For good reason, some locals say, but Öcsi is an exception: husband and wife duo, Feri and Erzsi, serve freshly made home-style Hungarian classics – főzelék, stuffed peppers, rántott hús – that draw locals from near and far.

After lunch, caffeinate yourself at Kastner Kommunity, a modern coffee shop with oversized windows ideal for observing the comings-and-goings of this dynamic neighborhood home to many ethnic minorities. Stroll back toward the city center via Vaj, known for its still steaming sourdough breads and pastries, such as the túró-filled batyu and the kakaós csiga (chocolate roll). 

kakaos csiga vaj budapest
The kakaós csiga (chocolate rolls) behind the display glass at Vaj. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

3 p.m. Palace Quarter, a surreal library, high-end thrift store 

Budapest’s Palace Quarter consists of a cluster of ornate buildings behind the National Museum (Pollack Mihály tér) and along Reviczky, Ötpacsirta, and Horánszky streets. These were the winter palaces of the Hungarian aristocracy, located strategically near the museum, which functioned as the Upper Chamber of the Hungarian Parliament in the 19th century. The aristocracy is long gone – most fled the country from the Communists – but a few interiors have been preserved.

szabo ervin library budapest ballroom 3
Students studying in what used to be the ballroom of the Wenckheim Palace. The building is currently home to the Szabó Ervin Library. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

Such as that of the Wenckheim Palace, today part of the Szabó Ervin Library. For the €4 admission, you’ll be privy to a surreal scene: throngs of local students cramming for their exams inside the chandelier-studded former ballroom and wood-paneled cigar room (4th floor!).

Is it time for a drink? At Fecske, you can enjoy a cool lager beside students taking their study breaks of various lengths and with various amounts of alcohol (a bit older, and more self-consciously cool crowd flocks to the nearby Lumen Café). Those more into shopping can unearth some gems at Typo Showroom, a high-end thrift store tucked away on the corner of Horánszky and Krúdy Gyula utca.

lumen cafe budapest
Lumen Cafe. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

6 p.m. Andrássy Avenue, Heroes’ Square, City Park

A stroll down Andrássy Avenue, the most famous boulevard in the city, will take you past fancy stores and striking Renaissance Revival buildings, including the Opera House. On a small side street in Paulay Ede hides The Garden Studio, a fun clothing store of local designers, with plenty of bright colors and playful prints.

heroes square budapest
Heroes' Square consists of two sets of colonnades containing statues of Hungary's historic figures. In the center, Archangel Gabriel tops the obelisk, whose lower part is crowded by statues of Hungarian chieftains. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

Heroes’ Square, a landmark packed with statues of famous Hungarian statesmen, is flanked by the Museum of Fine Arts, home to paintings by El Greco, Velazquez, Rembrandt and many more old masters. The nearby City Park has recently become a pilgrimage site for fans of architecture with the opening of the House of Music – designed by Japanese starchitect Sou Fujimoto – and the spectacular roof garden of the Museum of Ethnography. Instead of walking, you could take the charming, historic Millenium Underground back to the city center from Heroes’ Square.

museum of ethnography budapest
The recently completed Museum of Ethnography is located in Budapest's City Park and features a dramatic roof garden. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

9 p.m. Dinner & drinks in District 7

Budapest’s Old Jewish Quarter, also known as the Party District, has become a victim of its own success, but you can still find treasures amid ruin bar copycats and rowdy bachelor party crews decked out in uniforms (the main danger zone is Gozsdu Udvar). Such as M, a small, cozy restaurant that defies categorization. The menu is a collection of dishes that Miklós Sulyok, the literary-minded owner, is partial to: grilled goat cheese salad with beets, sweetbread in a white tarragon-laced sauce, monkfish pasta. Pair them with the wallet-friendly Hungarian wines. (Be sure to book in advance.)

millennium underground budapest
The Millennium Underground opened in 1896 as the first subway line of continental Europe. It connects the city center with the City Park. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

Szimpla Kert is the ruin bar that prompted the neighborhood’s revival, but the long line to enter may not be worth the wait. Instead, saunter over to Madách tér, where crowds of fashionable locals fill the sidewalk outside Központ and Telep, two see-and-be-seen bars across from one another. Looking for a middle-aged crowd? Try Kisüzem or Fekete Kutya, both just a few blocks away.

m restaurant budapest
M Restaurant. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

SATURDAY

10 a.m. Castle Hill, National Gallery, pastries

Fuel up on breakfast at a fashionable or a more casual joint, then head to the Buda side. Don’t mind the fellow tourists you’ll have to share the Old Town with, and climb up to the Castle Hill so elegantly perched above the Danube. What used to be the Royal Palace today houses the National Gallery, with a sweeping permanent collection of local artworks. Keep an eye out for the Impressionist Nagybánya art colony, the Art Nouveau paintings of József Rippl-Rónay, the colorful works of the Nyolcak, and to the hauntingly dark drawings of Lajos Vajda (this interview will help you prepare).

hungarian national gallery karoly kernstok painting
A painting by Károly Kernstok at the Hungarian National Gallery. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

Not all locals are thrilled by all the construction works taking place in the Castle Hill: buildings destroyed by Allied bombs are now springing back to life as perfect replicas, instead of giving contemporary architecture a chance (example: the Royal Guard and Riding Halls).

budapest skyline to the south
View to the south side of Budapest with the Gellért Hill and the Danube in sight. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

Amble over to the picturesque Matthias Church and get your mandatory photo from the Fisherman’s Bastion out of the way. When the line isn’t too long, I usually drop in to Ruszwurm pastry shop for a krémes (custard cake embraced by puff pastry) or a hot chocolate; I suggest that you do, too. My favorite part of the hilltop starts here, with the quieter, winding residential streets that exude a medieval air and hide such treasures as the Tóth Árpád promenade and the quaint Úri utca. 

hungarian parliament building
View of the Hungarian Parliament Building from the Fisherman's Bastion. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

12 p.m. Art gallery and lunch 

Descend back to the city through Várfok utca, where you can take a peek inside a leading contemporary gallery, Várfok, whose roster of artists includes photographer Péter Korniss and Francois Gilot, a painter and onetime muse of Picasso. Down here is Széll Kálmán tér – “Moszkva tér” to locals who still use its Communist moniker – currently enjoying a renaissance thanks to places such as the hip Taiwanese-inflected 101 Bistro, your designated lunch spot, and next door to it, Nemdebár.

castle hill budapest táncsics mihály utca
The northern, residential part of the Castle Hill is quieter with such quaint medieval streets as Táncsics Mihály utca, pictured above. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

2 p.m. Parliament building and Art Nouveau architecture

Start the afternoon on Kossuth tér, outside the Hungarian Parliament building. Budapest came into its own with the creation of Austria-Hungary in 1867, when this Habsburg-controlled provincial town suddenly transformed into the co-capital of an immense empire (beside Vienna). Along came skyrocketing economic growth, rapid urbanization, and the build-up of eye-catching architecture. The most ambitious was this bombastic Gothic Revival piece stretched along the Danube and containing 691 rooms. (They offer a 45-minute guided tour of the inside.) Behind the building, right on the riverbank is the poignant "Shoes on the Danube" memorial to the Budapest victims of the Holocaust.

gerbeaud cafe budapest
The inside of Cafe Gerbeaud, one of Budapest's historic coffeehouses whose pastries are still a benchmark. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

Kossuth tér’s hushed elegance ripples out to the nearby Liberty Square too, known for its strange amalgam of public sculpture, ranging from an obelisk raised to Soviet heroes to a lifesize statue of Ronald Reagan to a controversial WWII memorial. Here also hides Hungary’s  most important Art nouveau building, the Postatakerékpénztár, designed by architect Ödön Lechner. He concocted a local variant of Art Nouveau inspired by Hungarian folk art motifs (you can get a better view of its striking roof from Nagysándor József utca).

world war two memorial budapest liberty square
The controversial World War II memorial, which symbolically blames Nazi Germany for the Holocaust in Hungary, was erected in 2014 on Liberty Square. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

4 p.m. More pastries and shopping

Hungarian pastry-making evolved from the French and Austrian traditions, but such inventive treats as the Dobos and the Esterházy torte are proof that it found its groove by the end of the 19th century. Touristy it may be, the cakes of the historic Cafe Gerbeaud on Vörösmarty tér are still a benchmark. If you have money to spare, drop in to Nanushka for women’s designer clothing and to Vass Cipő for high-end handmade men’s shoes (Vass closes at 4 p.m.).

vass shoes budapest
Vass produces high-end handmade men's shoes. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

6 p.m. Music concert at Müpa

Once the city of Liszt and Bartók, Budapest still has a thriving music scene with plenty of classical, contemporary, jazz, popular and world music concerts. There are several high-quality performance halls to choose from: Liszt Academy, The House of Music, Budapest Opera, just to name a few. If unsure, check out the event schedule of Müpa, which offers the widest array of options.

9 p.m. Dinner & drinks

For dinner, head to HILDA, a chic, romantic restaurant hidden in a quiet pocket of the city center. Chef Renátó Kovács’s flavorful and beautifully crafted plates of goulash, fisherman’s soup, and inventive desserts show off the brightest side of new-wave Hungarian fare. After dinner, walk over to Marlou, a hip wine bar with an assortment that leans toward young local producers (with 22 wine regions, Hungary is wine country). If craft beers are more your speed, consider Élesztő; for cocktails: Boutique Bar.

hilda restaurant budapest 2
Hilda restaurant serves modern Hungarian fare. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

SUNDAY

9 a.m. Thermal baths, breakfast

Start the day early, before the crowds reach Gellért, Budapest’s prettiest thermal bath (here’s more information on the main baths of the city). The highlights are the two Art Nouveau-decorated pools hidden deep inside, and the heated outdoor section overlooking the Buda Hills. Thermal baths can leave you drained of energy – but also feeling weightless, almost levitating – so breakfast and expertly made coffee at the nearby Kelet will be especially rewarding. On your way there, stop by the tiny bakery, Pékműhely, for some of the best breakfast pastries in the city.

liberty bridge budapest
A view of Liberty Bridge. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

12 p.m. Dohány Street Synagogue

Even if you aren’t Jewish, I recommend a visit to the Dohány Street Synagogue. This enormous temple, the biggest in Europe, harks back to the turn of the 20th century, when nearly a quarter of Budapest’s residents were Jewish. Today, the congregants number no more than a few dozen, as a reminder of the Holocaust and rising secularization (Budapest still has a sizable Jewish community, but few are practicing). The admission ticket provides access also to the Jewish Museum upstairs and the memorials ringing the building.

weeping willow memorial dohany street synagogue
The weeping willow memorial is located behind the Dohány Street Synagogue. The names of Holocaust victims are inscribed in the metal leaves. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

1:30 p.m. Farewell lunch

Crown your Budapest trip with a generous lunch at the nearby Gettó Gulyás. Besides the namesake goulash, their standout is the túrógombóc – soft cottage cheese dumplings blanketed in sour cream and powdered sugar. Don’t leave before trying a glass of Tokaji, the famous sweet wines of eastern Hungary made with a benign fungus and known as the “wine of kings.”

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