City Trips

3 Days in Budapest – What to do, what to see, what to eat

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Budapest is not beautiful but also not ugly. It has a unique character. Some buildings are completely ruined and let to decay, while some others are perfect and seem brand new. Some areas are clean, nice and full of life, while some others are abandoned and ruined.

I could never imagine living here but there are some things that I would really love to have in my city as well, like Margaret Island, the huge city park with the castle and the many things to do, like going to the thermal baths or rowing a little boat in the lake.

Some observations:

  • There are no signs and no indications anywhere about the touristic spots or information points. Without Google Maps we would have been completely lost.
  • Contrary to Prague (read here about our 3 days in Prague), here they try to earn their tips with a kind and sometimes cheesy service.
  • The app Visit a city was very useful to find the best touristic spots to see and create the best itinerary to see them all in a short time.

Itinerary

Streets of Budapest with sun in the middle

Day 1 – Arrival and first quick tour of the city

From the airport to the city

Our flight was at 9 AM so we thought we would have the whole day to explore the city… Nope!

The transit from the airport to the city center is about 45 minutes, but we managed to make it last 2 whole hours!

One of my colleagues from work is from Budapest and she was kind enough to write me an extensive guide about the city, including how the transportation from the airport works. Well, it wasn’t enough.

When you exit the airport, you’ll find 2 buses stops and hundreds of people in queues which are difficult to identify.

One queue is for the bus 100E which bring you comfortably directly to the city center but this ride is not included in the normal bus tickets, it needs a special ticket that costs 3 euro. The other queue is for the bus 200E which brings you to the Metro station of line 3, which goes to the city center. This ride is included in the standard bus ticket fare.

It’s not that easy…

We want to take bus 100E because it’s direct and easier, so we go to the third queue of people, the one to the ticket machine.

When it’s our turn we select the ticket to buy but doing a rapid calculation of the price to euro, it seemed that it costed only 1 euro. So, something went wrong. I’m sure my colleague told me it would be 3 euro, so it must be wrong. Due to the chaos of the packed area and the pressure from the people behind us in the queue, we didn’t have time to try again to look for the special ticket. We bought it and went to the 100E bus queue and try our luck.

One bus went, so we waited for the next one. When we arrived on top of the queue to show our ticket to the controller, an angry Hungarian woman who doesn’t speak a word of English, she looked at the ticket and then started yelling (yes, yelling) at us in Hungarian, moving back and forth her harm frantically pointing to her right, to an unidentified location. She was pointing, we were looking in that direction, then looking back at her, then looking again where she was pointing, trying to understand if she was pointing to another bus or another ticket machine or to another person. We kept asking her “Where??? …What??? …How???”, but she kept yelling in Hungarian. This went on for a good 5 minutes, while she was letting other people go inside the bus. Until a man, who was sitting next to her the whole time but was too lazy to talk, decided to weigh in and explain in English that our ticket was valid only for the bus 200E (…thank you!!!).

Then we moved to the queue of the bus 200E. One bus went, so we waited for the next one.

It’s not over…

We knew there were construction works at the metro station, but my colleague informed me that were would be replacement buses and there would be more information written on panels there.

We got off at the bus stop that we though were the right one as it said Metro station. Although in retrospect I don’t think it was the right one. The Metro station was there alright, but it was on the opposite side of 2 very busy roads with no pedestrian crossings.

We stood there for a few minutes, trying to figure out how to get to the other side. The elevate crossing for the Metro station was obviously closed so the only possible way was to just climb over the guard rail and cross the road. It took us 15 minutes to cross the road.

Inside the Metro station there were no signs on how to get to the city center and with which bus. We went all around the station to check, back and forth. I then searched on Google which direction was the one to the city center so that we could choose the correct bus from the 10 waiting there.

view form the danube of the Buda castle

Finally in the city

We finally got on the bus (the right one) and got off at Astoria. The first thing we decided to do was to change our money to the local currency. If we learned anything in Prague was that having always cash available is of the outmost importance.

Meanwhile it was already 2PM and we haven’t eating anything all day, so we stopped along the road to the first eatery we found. My boyfriend got a hamburger and I got a hot dog with Hungarian sausage which was twice as long as the bread.

By the time we changed the money it was already 3 PM. We went to the hotel and we decided to rest a little bit and freshen up before going out again. We left the hotel at 6 PM.

Thankfully we have a Metro station quite close to the hotel so it’s fairly easy to move around. We went to Deàk Ferenc, the most central station and walked around the city. We went towards the Danube and crossed the famous Széchenyi Chain Bridge, the oldest and famous bridge which connects Buda and Pest, the western and eastern sides of Budapest.

high view of budapest chain bridge

We walked towards the Parliament because it looked so close (it was not), my feet hurt already and I was so tempted to rent a bike. It’s the golden hour and the Parliament looks beautiful and regal as I was expecting it to be.

We take the convenient Metro to go back to the city center and start looking for a place to eat.

sunset photo of Budapest parliament with golden colors

Where and What to Eat

My boyfriend wants a quite place for today so sadly we had to exclude the folkloric Hungarian restaurants with loud musician that play and sing traditional songs behind your neck. And there are several of these restaurants in the main roads.

We walk around for a while and finally we find a nice looking bistrot, called Parisi 6, which served also traditional food. 3 courses menu for 12 euro, I thought it was a mistake at first, or that the food would be cheap and disgusting. Far from the truth! It was probably the beast meal we had in those 3 days.

Great food

I had a Porcini mushroom soup, red wine beef stew and for dessert, cottage cheese with orange jam (which seemed to be fermented or had something that made it fizzy). My boyfriend had Goulash (the best one I’ve ever tasted), Hungarian sausages and crêpes with apricot jam.

The server was very shy but was always attempting to make jokes and be funny (really forced and awkward, I felt a little bad for the guy). At the end of the dinner he also asked us to fill out a survey about the food and the service (this explains why he was trying so hard). I thought this was quite strange and still awkward, but we then found out that it’s actually common and probably part of the culture.

The good thing is that the tip was already included in the bill, which took a lot of pressure out for us (it’s really difficult to calculate a good tip when you don’t know the currency. It was painful in Prague).

We anyway rounded up the total of the bill, as a good gesture for the poor server who tried so hard to be funny and failed tonight.

statue in Budapest at night, black and white

Day 2 – Fisherman’s Bastion and Danube Cruise

Fisherman’s Bastion and Buda Castle

After breakfast, we immediately went in the direction of the Fisherman’s Bastion.

We got off at the Metro station Halàsz Utca and following Google Maps, we went through little uphill alleys and many many stairs to finally get exhausted at the entrance of the impressive bastion. The beautiful white walls and towers have more a decorative function than a defensive one. It was built between 1895 and 1902 and it was designed to be a panoramic view terrace and to enhance the beauty of the Matthias Church. The name though, was given in Medieval times, when the Buda castle was protected by the guild of fishermen, who lived between the walls and the Danube, in the town called Watertown. Here you can read more about the history of the Fisherman’s Bastion.

front view of the fisherman's bastion in budapest

Buda Castle

We walked around the bastion and around the gorgeous Matthias Church with its colorful rooftop, but we didn’t stop for too long (the Church was also closed at that point for Mass). We then started to walk towards the Buda Castle going through the Castle district, until we reached a military building with guards standing outside. We could not figure out where the entrance to the Castle was, we knew it was there, we could see the walls in front of was but there was no sign whatsoever to tell us where to go. We went down the little stairs and walked through a rough path with broken tiles until the end of the Castle side wall, we then walked up but the entrance was blocked because there was a Wine Festival. So, we walked back to the starting point and gave up. When we were about to leave, it started the change of the guards. It was a really nice, quite long, dancing choreography with rifles (which I really cannot grasp the utility of it), quite entertaining.

Budapest funicular in black and white

At that point we notice that there is a nice and practical funicular which brings you up and down in a couple of minutes and I started wondering why the hell Google Maps didn’t mention it at all instead of making us walk 30 minutes uphill and go up a thousand stairs.

Now we’re sitting in front of the 0 Kilometer stone (the reference point from which all road distances to Budapest are measured in the country) and wondering the existential question: Where do we eat?

sitting on a window looking at the budapest parliament

The Danube Cruise and Margaret Island

In the end we went back to the center and ate a simple salad to stay light and then we decided to do something softer in the afternoon, with less walking involved. Somehow, I managed to convince my boyfriend to take the river cruise (YES! I love love love going on boats!). There are several cruises and tours you can choose from, we went for the hop-on-hop-off boat tour which stops at Margaret Island and lasts about 1 hour. The departures are every hour, so we take the one at 4 PM and we even manage to take some nice seats on the upper deck, even though the boat is already full (of loud Dutch people nevertheless).

We get off at Margaret Island and I’m immediately in love. The island is huge and it’s full of cafés, gyms, swimming pools, parks and fountains. The sunny weather makes it look even more idyllic. We look at the map and we decide to go to the Japanese Garden, which of course is on the very end of the island. I try to convince my boyfriend to get some rental bikes but my convincing powers are over and so we must walk some more (sigh!).

When we get to the Japanese garden, we realize it’s really not that much and we regret wasting the last of our energies to get here. At least to get back to the dock, we take the bus. We hop on our cruise boat again and somehow manage to get the same seats as before (even though it’s not the same boat) and we finish the tour at sunset, with a beautiful golden light enhancing the beauty of the buildings and the landscapes.

lake with waterlilies and reflection

Dinner Time

Since it’s already dinner time, we decide to go directly to eat something, without going back to the hotel. Tonight’s the night: we go to the folkloric Hungarian restaurant with the loud musicians!

There are a few but we go to Hell’s Kitchen, though the name doesn’t promise anything good. The ambiance is really nice and we’re sitting as far as possible from the musician so it’s bearable. The food is okay, but nothing really stands out as the previous night. I don’t remember what we had but most certainly it was meat. One thing I remember was the Peach Pálinka (Pálinka is a distilled fruit spirit, typical from Hungary) which was really nice and sweet (other flavors of Pálinkas usually are not sweet, they just taste like Grappa to me). Even in this case the service was included in the price and at the end of the dinner they gave us the survey to complete. Okay, so it really is a cultural custom.

couple hiding under a bridge in Budapest, black and white

Day 3 – Great Market Hall and Budapest City Park

The Great Market Hall

First stop, the market! The Great Market Hall (in Hungarian Nagycsarnok or Vasarcsarnok) was built in 1897 and is the most beautiful and largest of all Budapest market halls. It’s very closed to the center and the Metro station Fővám tér M is practically in front of the entrance. It’s a huge space, divided in 2 floors, full of market stalls that sells fresh produce, meat, Hungarian salami, dried chili peppers and souvenirs. There are also some food stalls to tame your cravings. Here you can read more about the Great Market Hall.

The only problem: it’s FULL of people. We went there quite early in the morning, but it was very difficult to walk in the tight aisles of the upper level. We bought a magnet, as per our tradition, a Hungarian salami and a sausage (of course). We go back to the hotel to drop off the loot and then we go to the beautiful city park Városliget.

great market hall of Budapest
great market hall stall with chili peppers

Lunch and Budapest Zoo

We got off at the Metro station Hősök Tere and walked around the Art museums and then walked to the Heroes’ Square, laid out in 1896 to mark the thousandth anniversary of Hungary.

The park is beautiful and huge, it has a lake, a castle, a few museums, the famous thermal baths and a zoo. It would take a whole day just to walk around it all.

We stop in a cute café called Nyereg which has nice simple food. We eat outside, with a fantastic view of the park with a beautiful sunny weather. It’s the perfect weather to order a cold beer and my boyfriend gets a burger while I get the Spinach, Feta and Mozzarella Gozleme, delicious!

Hero's square in black and white

We (read I) decided to go to see the Zoo. It’s really cute not nothing special, we sit every few meter because our legs cannot take it anymore. The highlight was the Polar Bear which was playing with its log, so cute. The butterfly house was also cute.

When we walk out, we go to see the famous thermal baths Széchenyi, but we decide not to go in because it’s way to hot outside and I’d much prefer a cold swimming pool than hot thermal baths.

We go back to the hotel to rest an hour before going out to dinner.

paws of polar bear in water
thermal baths of Budapest with sunny weather

Where and What to Eat

For dinner we found a fantastic place, a restaurant on a boat, called Columbus.  The ambiance is fantastic, we have a table on the deck and it’s overviewing the Buda castle and the Chain bridge, all lit up at night.

The food is okay, nothing special, but the view is just perfect. I had a tiny Goulash, chicken with rice and a cherry pie, unfortunately they didn’t have much Hungarian food.

After dinner we go to a bar in the center to drink a last Pálinka, we had a quince and pear one, but to me they were tasting exactly the same. And just like that, the holiday is over.

Budapest castle at night
statue overlooking Buda castle at night

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