A few words of advice: Budapest is highly walkable and bikeable and the city's public transportation is among the best in Europe; for visitors there's a 72-hour travelcard for €14, which you can purchase through the BudapestGO app (Google Play; App Store). Use the MOL Bubi app (Google Play; App Store) for the local bike share system. Here, you can find more information about getting into and around Budapest. Refer to this map for the places mentioned below.
1 p.m. Sausage shop, Andrássy Avenue, Heroes’ Square, City Park
Jump headlong into Budapest with a meal at Pinczi, a pretense-free traditional sausage shop across from the Nyugati train station. You'll stand elbow-to-elbow with fellow diners while mopping up the grease stains of delicious paprika-laced sausages and roast pork belly cuts. This type of low-priced lunch-only eatery was popular in days of yore but currently nearing extinction. For good reason, some locals say, but Pinczi is an exception, as the ever-present line before the glass display proves.
After your meal, walk over to the grandest street of Budapest, Andrássy Avenue, named after Gyula Andrássy (1823-1890), the famous statesman of Austria-Hungary and presumed love of Queen Sisi. A leisurely stroll will take you past fancy stores and striking Renaissance-looking palaces that seem to have been parachuted here straight from Florence (there's an actual replica of the Palazzo Strozzi).
While the whole of Andrássy symbolizes Budapest's golden decades at the turn of the 20th century, architect Miklós Ybl's Opera House is especially astonishing after its recent gut renovation. Amid the gilded loggias and coffered ceilings you'll find the statues of famous composers, including Hungary's own Franz Liszt. The side streets also hide treasures, for example The Garden Studio, in Paulay Ede utca, a clothing store of local designers featuring plenty of bright colors and playful prints (and coffee).
Next destination: Heroes’ Square, a landmark packed with statues of Hungary's greats, from the nomadic tribal leaders who led the Magyars to the Carpathian Basin in the 9th century all the way to the (mostly) enlightened statesmen a thousand years later. At the center soars a victory column topped with Archangel Gabriel, in bronze and with outsized wings, who's supposed to have played an advisory role in Pope Sylvester II's decision to admit Hungary to the Christian nations of Europe in the year 1000.
Heroes' Square is flanked by the Museum of Fine Arts (Szépművészeti), home to one of the great old masters collections with paintings by Raphael, Titian, Bronzino, Tintoretto, Paolo Veronese, El Greco, Rubens, Van Dyck, Velazquez, Frans Hals, Pieter Saenredam, Francisco Goya, and many others (my favorites). This museum often turns out to be the greatest surprise for art-loving tourists to Budapest. Most of its paintings had belonged to the princely Esterházy family before the cash-strapped Miklós Esterházy sold them to the Hungarian state in 1871.
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. A wonderful exhibition charts the development of music from its folk beginnings to the present day. Just steps away stands the spectacular roof garden of the Museum of Ethnography by Marcel Ferencz (also in the park: the country's most kid-friendly playground).
That strange looking castle in the back? Fusing elements of famous buildings across the Hungarian Kingdom, it was erected as a temporary structure for the 1896 Millennial celebrations but proved too popular to get rid of. There hides today Budapest's least sexy, but completely amazing Museum of Agriculture. When you're finished in the park, take the charmingly old-school Millenium Underground back to the city center – it's the oldest subway line in Europe (1896).
4 p.m. Palace Quarter, a surreal library, high-end thrift store
Budapest’s Palace Quarter consists of a cluster of dazzling 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 before the Communist takeover in 1947 – but a few interiors have been preserved.
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 students cramming for their exams inside the chandelier-studded former ballroom and wood-paneled cigar room (4th floor!) loaded with Rococo ceiling decorations.
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 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 on the corner of Horánszky and Krúdy Gyula utca.
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 Hungarian wines and be sure to book in advance.
Szimpla Kert is the ruin bar that prompted the neighborhood’s revival, but if the line isn't worth the wait, you could saunter over to Madách tér. There, crowds of fashionable locals fill the sidewalk outside Központ and Telep, two see-and-be-seen bars across from one another. Looking for an older crowd? Try Kisüzem or Fekete Kutya, both just a few blocks away.
10 a.m. Castle Hill, National Gallery, pastries
Fuel up on breakfast, plenty of options out there, then head to the Buda side, ideally via the recently pedestrianized and renovated Chain Bridge. Don’t mind the fellow tourists you’ll have to share the Old Town with, and climb up to the Castle Hill so magically perched above the Danube (bus #16 and the funicular are available if you don't feel like walking). 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 pointillist paintings of József Rippl-Rónai and those of the Nyolcak, a Hungarian art group (1909-1919) inspired by post-impressionism, expressionism, and cubism. From the inter-war period, I'm a fan of the strangely nervous works of Vilmos Aba-Novák, István Farkas, Lajos Vajda. The top floor of the museum is dedicated to post-WWII paintings, so you can explore how abstract expressionism, pop art, and minimalism showed itself in Hungary. (This interview can help you prepare for a visit).
Not all locals are thrilled by the frenzy of 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).
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 Táncsics Mihály utca.
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.
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 a capital, beside Vienna, of an immense empire (my interview with Habsburg-expert Steven Beller can help you make sense of this complicated place, which was both modern and antiquated for its time).
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. (The Parliament offers 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.
Kossuth tér’s hushed elegance ripples out to the nearby Liberty Square, known for its strange mix of public sculptures, 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.
Lechner concocted a local variant of Art Nouveau inspired by Hungarian folk art motifs and using the versatile, durable, and colorful glazed tiles made by one of the biggest Hungarian companies at the time, the Pécs-based Zsolnay (Pécs, one of the my favorite cities beside Budapest, is worth a weekend trip). You can get a better view of the building's striking roof from Nagysándor József utca, or with drink in hand at the rooftop bar of Hotel President, located right across from it.
4 p.m. More pastries and shopping
Hungarian pastry-making evolved from the French 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.).
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.
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 city's main baths). 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 tasty chocolate rolls and túrós batyu.
12 p.m. Dohány Street Synagogue
Budapest's post-19th-century history is Jewish history. Without the outsize Jewish contributions to the economy, to culture, to the sciences, the city wouldn't have ballooned into a flourishing metropolis by 1900 when a quarter of its residents were Jewish. In return, the political leadership completely rooted out anti-semitism until 1918, which wasn't the case in the neighboring Vienna for example.
Although much smaller today, the Jewish community still numbers around 100,000 people, making it the biggest Ashkenazi group in continental Europe. Very few are practicing or even religious, but Jewish culture is still palpable in other ways.
Even if you aren’t Jewish, I recommend a visit to the Dohány Street Synagogue, the biggest in Europe. The admission ticket provides access also to the Jewish Museum upstairs and the memorials ringing the building.
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 from eastern Hungary made with a benign fungus and known as the “wine of kings.”