Merging whimsy with grit, Budapest fires the imagination and fills the camera card. Here’s an inside guide on how to spend two days in Budapest, complete with a bespoke 48 hour Budapest itinerary.
Pest & Gellert Hill
Michelin star dining
and ruin pubs
House of Terror
Or Széchenyi Baths
Like a spinning coin, Budapest is a city with two sides. The whimsical, classical Budapest of cream puff architecture, hazy views, spires and spy novels. And the gritty, complicated Budapest, where ruin pubs snarl their way through the scorched difficulties of the 20th century.
Even the name Budapest comes as two parts: hilly Buda and flatter Pest, divided forever by the Danube. Political patterns pair up as well: the Nazis and the Soviets. Christianity vs Islam.
Budapest is a place where those deep footprints of history leave imprints in the most beautiful and ugly of places.
However you spend your time in Budapest, be sure to see her from the river. The view from the Danube of the parliament buildings is one of the best in the world.
On my first trip to Budapest, I opted for a short evening river cruise.
This last time, my two days in Budapest were part of my 10 day Danube River Cruise with Avalon Waterways [ad] That trip surprised me in so many ways and you can read the full Avalon review here.
But one of the best parts? Avalon's attention to time spent on land as well as on the water. Many of the recommendations in this 48 hour Budapest itinerary come straight from their programme and their tour guides.
But that’s what makes the city so fascinating – and deserving of more than just two days in Budapest.
But everyone’s gotta do what they gotta do, right? If two days in Budapest is all you have then two days in Budapest it shall be!
And I’m here, with my experience of many visits to this Hungarian city, to give you my two day itinerary for visiting Budapest.
Disclosure - Some recommendations may have been discovered during a hosted trip and this post may contain some affiliate links. As ever, all thoughts and opinions are truly my own, otherwise what's the point?!
Good morning Budapest! There truly is no better place to greet the city than on top of Castle Hill amid the cream stone and archways of the Fishermen’s Bastion. Since we’re not the first to have noticed this, the place does attract a good crowd.
The best advice? Get up early and get there first. A stay at the Hilton Budapest (found and booked for me as day one of my cruise with Avalon Waterways) makes this easy. It’s right next door and this is the view from the room:
Academic texts may describe the place as a terrace in neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque style; instagrammers probably call it heaven. We’ll settle for a mix between an austere religious institution and a Disney castle dream and all can agree it’s one of the top attractions in Budapest.
But what actually is it? Despite the formidable name, the Fishermen’s Bastion was only ever built as a decorative panoramic spot, protected by the fishermen’s guild and built between 1895 – 1902. Its seven turrets represent the seven tribes who founded Hungary back in 895 and its café represents the universal need for travellers to refresh themselves and traders to trade.
It’s open all year round and entrance to the most part is free: to access all the turrets you’ll need to buy a ticket but as time is tight in this two day Budapest itinerary, it may be worth skipping this.
The beautiful clean white stone of Matthias Church pierces the sky with cheery triumph at the top of Castle Hill. Its zig-zag bright roof tiles succeeding in drawing the eye away from the otherwise majestic panorama of Budapest at all.
Aside from being a beauty, this Catholic church notches up some other well-eraned triumphs. It was the second largest medieval church in Buda and the seventh largest in the medieval Hungarian kingdom. Its life began in Romanesque style in 1015, only to be reworked into a florid Gothic masterpiece in the 14th century.
Both kings and queens and fame and fortune have come and gone here.
Saint Stephen, King of Hungary, founded and named the place over 1000 years ago. Since then, it’s been a mosque, a Nazi and then Soviet military camp, and a coronation site (the last two kings of the Habsburg Empire first put on the crown within its walls.)
On a quieter note, it’s also the home to the Ecclesiastical Art Museum and its accompanying sacred relics and medieval stone carvings.
Afficionados could probably spend the day here but with only two days in Budapest, it’s time to walk around, walk in and walk on.
The area atop Castle Hill is perfect for a leisurely lunch, especially in summer when chairs and parasols spill onto pavements and hearty goulash seems entirely inappropriate. Several restaurants and cafes sit on top of the hill – all with tourists in mind but the flavours are still paprika-smoked, fresh and tasty. I loved Ramazuri Bistronomy for its chic mix of traditional Hungarian favourites – and the open air view and location.
Walk through the royal areas to the top of the funicular to see the landmarks of Budapest line up before your eyes: the Szechenyi Chain Bridge, Gresham Palace, and St. Stephen’s Basilica
From here, you can funicular all the way down as we’ll be crossing the Danube to the Pest side of town.
Markets always fascinate me. They show such a glimpse into the character and tradition of a place. The Great Market Hall earns its place on this 48 hours in Budapest itinerary because, of course, it’s stunning, but you can also easily dip in and out if you find yourself short on time.
Designed and built by Samu Pecz in 1897, Budapest even managed to throw in a neogothic touch to the simple sale of fruit and vegetables. Over three storetys and 10 000 square metres, goods such as meats, spices, spirits and pickled vegetables exchange hands in what can often feel like a reimagined train station.
If you skipped lunch on Castle Hill, look out for eateries on the second floor here. A word of warning: the market doesn’t open on Sundays so check before you plan to eat.
In utilitarian terms, Váci Utca is just a street. But that would be like saying Sir Isaac Newton was just a scientist or that Nelson Mandela was just a guy who gave a lot of speeches.
In reality, Váci Utca pulses through Budapest as one of the most scenic pedestrian shopping streets in the world. What Brits or Americans may see as yet another line of chain stores, locals saw as a revolution after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
In addition to shops and cafes, look out for the Fountain of the Fishmonger Girls, the Nude Boy and the Hermes Fountain in Régiposta utca.
Look out for chimney cake, or Kürtőskalács, a sweet treat made by coiling dough to form a chimney. Often served dusted with sugar and cinnamon, chimney cakes go well with coffee and friends. They’re huge so it’s hard to eat one all in one go. Enjoy this traditional Hungarian snack!
Sure, Vienna is the famous place for coffeehouses. But can I let you in on a secret? The gilded and glorious Gerbeaud Coffee House in Budapest is my favourite by far.
With 160 years of history and a spacious interior that oozes old world charm without the inconvenience of the hardships of the time, Gerbeaud is a rich and creamy treat.
Try a slice of Dobos cake for me on Vörösmarty Square.
Er, what? This is no ordinary McDonalds, the Nyugati one on Teréz krt. 55, is the first to open after the fall of the Iron Curtain and a symbol of freedom (in a way.) Don’t worry, though. The menus are still the same…
Wander past the State Opera House for a fix of Neo-Renaissance. Bear in mind though that it's undergoing extensive renovations until 2020. Guided tours are available or you can watch a show if you have more time.
Move beyond the mighty McD with a Michelin-starred dining experience at Borkonhya. Inside a mirror lined dining room, Borkonhya serves up Hungarian wine and experimental dishes alongside classical Hungarian cuisine. The food is great and the atmosphere unpretentious.
Thermal springs are a thing in Budapest. A steamy, classical, orchestrated thing. But to truly enjoy them takes time. So, consider your choice carefully when planning your 48 hour Budapest itinerary.
The Gellért Baths live on the hill of the same name. They mix art nouveau with a cathedral vibe and carry the added bonus of a great view from the peak.
When it comes to UNESCO World Heritage in Budapest, a combination of great sites combine to make one. The banks of the Danube, the Buda Castle Quarter and Andrássy Avenue all combine to make one listed UNESCO World Heritage Site.
With key highlights covered on day one, as well as time to explore, day two has a few more options. The day starts with one of Budapest's highlights, the Parliament Building, before branching off into two very different kinds of history... Let's go.
Budapest’s Parliament Buildings are simply some of the most beautiful in the world. And they’re not too hard to visit, as long as you make some preparations in advance.
The neo-gothic palace remains the most expensive building ever constructed in Hungary, with over 40kilograms of gold leaf, towering marble, statues, paintings and, of course ,the King Stephen crown.
Completed in 1896, for a country more than twice its current size, there are two fantastic ways to see it. From the inside on a velvet-edged tour. Or outside, as part of a fabulous Danube River Cruise.
Often referred to as the Champs-Elysees of Budapest, this grand old avenue swishes through town wearing leafy trees and stately facades. Today, it hosts boutiques and residences but in days gone by, it was the house of terror.
Not for the faint of heart, the House of Terror takes an unflinching (though not particularly reflective) look at the way freedom and those who fought it suffered under the USSR, and the Nazis before that. It’s housed on 60 Andrássy Avenue, the former headquarters of the Hungarian Nazi Party and then the State Security Authority. Bleak and brooding, it is educational rather than sensational, and provides an essential grounding in the recent history that flows through these leafy Hungarian streets.
It is possible to squeeze both the parliament buildings and the House of Terror into a single morning, but it will be a rush. Better to visit one before and one after lunch and skip one of the following recommendations. Bu tit’s up to you…
At the end of Andrássy Avenue, you’ll find the iconic statues of the seven Magyars and the Memorial Stone of Heroes. But if time is tight, don’t feel bad if you skip it – especially if weather conditions are harsh.
Dubbed the most instagrammable café in Budapest, this will either entice you or frighten you forever. Either way, the food is good and the interior intriguing.
It’s entirely possible to visit these retro landmarks independently but I’d highly recommend joining a guided tour. It’s a little awkward to reach the monument park on your own, and the thrill of riding in a retro Trabant is an experience in itself. Plus, there is poignancy in hearing stories of life behind the Iron Curtain first hand from those who lived it during a walking tour.
But if you want to go it alone, here's how.
What happens when a regime falls? All those posturing statues have to go somewhere – and that somewhere is Stalin Park in Harbin.
It’s a little out of town and tricky, though not impossible, to visit on your own. Better yet is to join the Retro Budapest Tour and head there in a characterful.
The visit itself is a mix of kitsch and killer. After the colourful chatter of the cars, it is sobering to stand in silence between these broken giants and ponder the scale of suffering and oppression that they signify.
If drinking amid spray can skulls, cascading plants, cracked concrete and a cool but also kinda tourist crowd suits you, then head to Budapest’s ruin pubs. In fact, head there anyway as they’re a curio to be seen once, even if, like me, you don’t particularly enjoy them!
The Széchenyi Baths combine timeless luxury with a rather brusque reminder of the recent Cold War past. Spread over several sites, including a dramatic outdoor section, the architecture may say ornate but the service says functional. Read about my trip to the Széchenyi Baths here.
It's tight but you can have a great weekend in Budapest and get a hearty flavour of the city. However, to fully explore the place would take longer. If you have more time, here are my suggestions:
During summer, watch theatre programmes beneath starry skies in this calm area with lush lawns and swaying trees. IN winter, stride past to see the ornate Water Tower. A baby in European terms, it’s more than 100 years old.
Twentieth century Budapest saw all the worst horrors there were visited upon the Jewish community here. Yet in the 1850s, one of Europe’s largest and most richly decorated Jewish temples was built here in Budapest. It can hold nearly 3000 within its walls and reached fame when Franz Liszt and Emile Saint-Saëns played its pipe organ before the wars.
As you’d expect, there are holocaust memorials in the courtyard. Also look out for the memorial Shoes on the Danube along the banks of the river. It commemorates how prisoners had to remove their shoes at the edge before they were shot during the second world war.
Named in honour of the first king of Hungary, St Stephen, this Roman Catholic co-cathedral is the third largest church building in the country. Yet, with only 48 hours in Budapest, tough decisions need to be made. Visit Matthias instead on Castle Hill and save St Stephen’s for a longer trip.
The Budapest History Museum has many branches, including the Castle Museum, which makes it tricky to fit into a two day Budapest itinerary. But there’s obviously plenty to be found within as exhibits sift through over 2000 years of history.
This behemoth of a building sits on Castle Hill, right by the funicular and the Fishermen’s Bastion. Inside, it offers the Hungarian National Gallery in several of its wings and the Budapest History Museum so why isn’t it on the core 48 hours in Budapest itinerary? Time, that’s why. Come and see it another day.
Spend more time exploring the street art and history of the Jewish Quarter in Budapest. Fellow travel blogger Michael Turtle describes the best of the Jewish Quarter here.
Zoos remain controversial but the Budapest Zoo also showcases an art nouveau Elephant house, designed by architect Károly Kós.
Beyond the animals, a glass-walled greenhouse shelters tropical plants and trees and a botanical garden accompanies a huge children’s playground.
In European terms, Budapest is quite a big city and you’re unlikely to manage it all on foot. Luckily, public transport is clean, friendly and plentiful and the city’s striking landmarks make it even easier to get around.
Buses run on 268 routes throughout the city and beyond, operating throughout the day and night. Look out for buses marked with an 'E' to indicate an express service with limited stops.
Cycling is a growing trend in Budapest, with more dedicated cycling lanes appearing.
I’ve stayed in a variety of places but there are two standout spots in the city when it comes to Budapest hotels:
Up on Castle Hill, right next to the Fishermen’s Bastion, this international chain delivers reliable service with a spectacular view. Find prices and availability for the Hilton Budapest here.
A lux stay in a beautiful location by the River Danube. Expect grandeur, great service and a higher price tag than many of the other hotels in the city. Find prices and availability for the Four Seasons Budapest here.
Like many cities, there’s the option to buy a tourist card that combines discounts with public transport tickets. As in most other cities, you have to tourist like a whirling dervish in order to get your money back. However, the money spent can be worth it in terms of reducing the hassle and time spent grappling with machines and queues at each individual place.
You can find out more and buy here: Budapest Card
There’s no bad time to have two days in Budapest. In winter, the weather is harsh and cold but that makes the thermal baths more inviting. In summer, the temperature can soar and the crowds can seem oppressive but it’s glorious weather for cruising and wandering through the parks. For maximum sightseeing and chalking up Budapest attractions, visit in the spring or autumn/fall.
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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