I remember when I returned from a trip to Central Europe several years ago. As I was sharing some highlights with a well-traveled friend, I told him how much I’d loved our few days in Prague. He said – yeah Prague is nice, but wait until you see Budapest. Ever since then, Budapest has very much been on my travel radar. I finally had the chance to visit Budapest recently, and my friend was absolutely correct. It is fantastic! We spent a week exploring Hungary’s capital city and it wasn’t enough. I definitely wanted more time discovering all its charms. Nonetheless I did learn quite a bit about Budapest during the time we did have. Here are some of the Budapest Travel Tips I discovered while there.
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Stay in Pest
Determining where to stay in each new city is the first thing I always look for when trip planning. So the first of my Budapest Travel Tips is stay somewhere in Pest – simply for convenience’s sake.
Central Budapest is split by the Danube River – with hilly Buda on one side and flat Pest on the other side. These two distinct parts of town are connected by several bridges – the most famous of which is the Chain Bridge, completed in 1849. These bridges, along with a great public transportation network, make it very easy to travel back and forth between the two sides.
In Buda you’ll find some of Budapest’s most popular sites such as the Buda Castle (pictured below), Fisherman’s Bastion, and Matthias Church. But riverside Buda is mostly a historic district, so you won’t find a lot of lodging and dining establishments in this part of town.
Pest is really where most of the action is. In the various riverside districts of Pest, you’ll find a plethora of lodging opportunities, lots of restaurants, nightlife, shopping. And plenty of touristic sites too – including the iconic Hungarian Parliament and the Jewish Quarter.
Public Transportation is Easy
The second of my Budapest Travel Tips is to use the city’s excellent public transportation system.
We are budget travelers, and try to use public transportation as much as possible. And while Budapest can be very walkable depending on your daily itinerary, it’s also cheap and easy to get around Central Budapest using its subway, light rail, and bus systems. Google Maps very accurately shows you the best routes and modalities for getting to your desired location.
(In case you are wondering, you won’t find Uber in Budapest. There’s a European ride share company called Bolt, but we never needed to use it.)
All forms of public transportation in Budapest share a universal ticketing system, and you can purchase either single ride tickets or choose from various passes. The easiest purchase locations are the automated machines at the subway and train stations. Or you can also buy tickets and passes via an App, where they are then accessed from your phone.
The transportation passes include 1-day, 3-day, or 14-day options. Strangely, there isn’t a 7-day option, though the 14-day pass is a reasonable alternative. It’s cheaper than two separate 3-day passes, so it’s the best choice for stays between 5 and 14 days.
For our week in Budapest, I didn’t use the App, and purchased our 14-day passes from the machine. Tickets purchased via the App require that you pull out your phone with each ride and use a QR code validation system.
The paper pass is simpler. You are only required to show it when asked – and we were asked only sporadically. (Single ride paper tickets do require validation using a yellow box found inside the metro stations or onboard the buses and light rail cars.)
Definitely Eat Hungarian Food
I didn’t have a lot of experience with Hungarian food prior to our week in Budapest, but I can now whole-heartedly recommend it. It was really quite delicious. So #3 on my list of Budapest Travel Tips is to definitely eat the local cuisine.
Perhaps the most well-known Hungarian dish is Goulash, and I tried several different versions while in Budapest. This is a beef goulash from a restaurant in the Jewish Quarter called Gettó Gulyás -considered by many to serve the best Goulash in Budapest.
Goulash typically features a stewed meat in a paprika-based sauce. And any time I ordered Goulash, it was served to me with some sort of starch – usually a pasta. And every time, the pasta was unique and unlike anything I’ve ever eaten (as you will notice in these photos).
Below is another very popular Hungarian dish called Chicken Paprikash. It’s usually a little heavier on the paprika than Goulash, and the sauce is often thickened with sour cream. Dishes heavy in paprika are very common in Hungarian cuisine, as Hungary is one of the world’s largest producers of this mild spice.
But if you find you don’t like Hungarian food, don’t worry. Budapest is a big international city and you can find just about any type of food you desire, including lighter options like this Falafel and Hummus from Falafel Bar in the Jewish Quarter.
(If you want to learn about another type of cuisine I didn’t know much about prior to my travels, then check out my post on Portuguese Food in Lisbon.)
Don’t Miss Touring Hungarian Parliament
Certainly the most iconic building in Budapest is the Hungarian Parliament. This giant structure (Hungary’s largest building) sits on the Pest side of the Danube. It was built in the late 1800s and is purposely meant to resemble Britain’s Parliament on the Thames.
And while the outside of this majestic building is easy to admire from several vantage points around the city, the fourth of my Budapest Travel Tips is to tour the inside of Parliament too.
Touring Parliament will generally require some planning. It’s a very popular thing to do in Budapest and tour sizes are limited. But make it a priority. The inside of the building is just as stunning as the outside. Plus you will get to see the heavily guarded Holy Crown of Hungary which dates all the way back to the 1200s.
I have an entire blog post about our tour inside Hungarian Parliament, so be sure to check it out if you would like to learn more. Here are a couple photos to whet your interest…
And Also, Go Inside Matthias Church
Matthias Church is a popular site on the Buda district’s Castle Hill. It’s a 13th century Gothic church and was Budapest’s most important house of worship during the Middle Ages.
It sits adjacent to Castle Hill’s most popular site The Fisherman’s Bastion – a multi-level panoramic viewing terrace with castle-like turrets. Fisherman’s Bastion is a relatively recent addition to Castle Hill, having been completed in 1902. In the picture below, Matthias Church is in the top right, sitting behind the Fisherman’s Bastion. All the rest is Bastion.
You can purchase entrance to both of these sites at adjacent ticket booths. At the time of our visit to Castle Hill, the ticket line for Fisherman’s Bastion was 10 times longer than the line for Matthias Church. But pay heed to the fifth of my Budapest Travel Tips….don’t miss the chance to enter Matthias Church. It’s one of the most visually stunning European church interiors I’ve seen.
The original interior was damaged over the centuries for various reasons, including the time it was converted to a mosque by the ruling Ottomans. In the late 1800s, the interior was completely redone. Every surface inside this massive church is now painted. It’s a visual feast of soft shades of red, blue, and gold. And some of the detail is extraordinary. Do not miss it!
Learn About Hungary’s Jewish History
Since the 11th century, Jews have lived in Budapest. And modern Budapest has one of the largest Jewish communities in Eastern Europe.
However, as you might expect, Jewish history in Hungary has been a troubled one. Sometimes Jews were allowed to thrive. Sometimes Jews were persecuted. Which of those scenarios depended on the country’s leadership at the time.
Then in WW2, Nazi Germany and Hungary’s own Arrow Cross Fascist Party killed 75% of all Hungarian Jews – 600,000 people.
#7 on my list of Budapest Travel Tips is to explore some of this history by taking a guided walking tour through the Jewish Quarter.
This particular neighborhood in Pest was once a ghetto. Now it’s the epicenter of Budapest’s nightlife with lots of trendy bars and restaurants. But it’s still home to 3 synagogues, including the 2nd largest in the world (Dohány Street Synagogue). The Jewish Quarter is most definitely full of stories.
We took a free Jewish Quarter walking tour offered by Trip to Budapest and it was excellent. If you would like an even more detailed and personalized look at Budapest’s Jewish History, then you could consider this tour on Viator.
Another important reminder of Jewish history in Budapest is the Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial. Be sure to visit this as well. It’s only a few hundred meters from Hungarian Parliament.
During WW2, many of the Jewish residents who weren’t taken away to concentration camps were shot on the Danube riverbank instead. Before their murder, they were told to remove their shoes. Shoes were a very valuable commodity at the time. This powerful memorial pays tribute to all those who died in this tragic way.
Hang Out in a Ruin Bar
If I showed you this picture out of context, you would probably think that it was some old derelict building in some forgotten part of Budapest.
But in reality, it’s a stairwell inside Budapest’s most popular bar – Szimpla Kert. Szimpla Kert is the first of many Ruin Bars that popped up in Budapest’s Jewish Quarter during the early 2000s.
The concept of a Ruin Bar is to take over an abandoned building, maintain the “rustic” vibe, offer inexpensive drinks, and provide a cool place to hang out.
We spent an hour hanging out at Szimpla Kert one late afternoon. And while it was mostly filled with tourists like us, visiting is an undeniably unique experience, and deserves a spot as #6 on my list of Budapest Travel Tips.
Szimpla Kert is huge! As you wander around you’ll discover many different rooms, patios, nooks, crannies.
You’ll also find multiple funky bars spread throughout, from where you can order your drinks. There’s also a kitchen that serves food from a small menu at night. And it still is very much a derelict space – in fact, the missing main roof has never been replaced. Tarps are used instead.
If you want to check out some more of these unique drinking establishments, then here’s an article listing some of the other top Ruin Bars in Budapest.
Go To Market
I always seek out a city’s main market when I travel in Europe. And Budapest’s Great Market Hall is one of the most cavernous I’ve ever visited. This ornate 19th century building takes up an entire city block and is covered by an impressive wrought iron roof. Its numerous stalls cater to locals and tourists alike. So #7 on my list of Budapest Travel Tips is to spend some time wandering around this amazing market.
On the main floor, you’ll find stalls selling a variety of food products, baked goods, meat, and fruits/vegetables. The top floor is dedicated exclusively to souvenirs. And there is a basement too – it’s where fish and seafood is sold.
One of the most common stalls we saw in the market sold Paprika….lots of Paprika.
We also saw lots of stalls selling Hungarian sausage, which is heavily spiced with…you guessed it….Paprika! (I ordered Hungarian sausage on a couple of occasions while dining out, and it was really really good.)
Check Out Some Unusual Architecture
While many streets in central Budapest are lined with stately old buildings, the city offers some impressive modern architecture too.
#9 on my list of Budapest Travel Tips is to check out the new museums in the huge Budapest City Park.
This building is The House of Music…
While it might look like an alien spacecraft hidden in a grove of trees, on further inspection it’s a whimsical structure meant to resemble a giant lotus root. The building was designed and constructed around the established trees. Very very cool.
This unique building houses two concert halls, classrooms, and a permanent exhibit that traces the evolution of music over time (with extra emphasis on the history of Hungarian music). We didn’t have time to see the exhibit (tickets required), but we were able to go inside and have a quick look around the general spaces.
Not far from the House of Music is another unique building. This is the Museum of Ethnography…
My initial impression from afar was that it looked like a giant boat had been dropped from the sky, which then sunk into the ground with both ends sticking out. You can see one end in the photo above, and the other sits directly opposite. Each is covered by foliage and walkways and benches. (I subsequently read that the architect’s vision was that of two adjacent hillsides.)
We also walked inside this building and checked out the lobby area, mostly so I could confirm my suspicion that the two “hills” were connected underground. And indeed they are…via a series of exhibit-lined stairways. Again, very very cool.
Get Out of Town
The last of my Budapest Travel Tips is to actually leave Budapest and check out the nearby town of Szentendre. Szentendre is a picturesque riverside town only 14 miles north of Budapest. You can get there by suburban train within 40 minutes, and the fare equates to only a couple USD.
In Szentendre, you’ll get a different taste of Hungarian life. Narrow cobblestone streets, colorful Old World houses, hilltop churches. And the town is a haven for artists, so it’s teaming with small galleries and museums.
I have an entire blog post all about our easy day trip from Budapest to Szentendre, but here’s a quick look at what you can expect to see if you go.
We really loved everything about Budapest. Hopefully these Budapest Travel Tips will help you during your own time in this great European Capital. We definitely hope to go back someday and spend even more time exploring everything Budapest has to offer.
If you are traveling to Budapest from Vienna, then be sure to check out my posts on Traveling by Railjet Train between Vienna and Budapest and 8 Insightful Vienna Travel Tips.
And for more travel tips from around the world, check out these posts: