Sitting at the crossroads between Germanic, Slavic, and Balkan Europe, Hungary is a nation all its own, descended from Magyar settlers from Central Europe. Hungarians have a cultural identity very separate from their neighbours, which manifests in an architectural and artistic style you won’t see elsewhere in Europe. Nowhere is this better embodied than in Budapest, where one need only catch a glimpse of the magnificent Parliament for proof they’ve arrived in a uniquely splendid city on their Hungary vacation.
Many Central and Eastern Europe tours either start or end in Budapest, as do many cruises along the Danube. Arrive a day or two early, or stay on, and enjoy one or more of these great Budapest one-day itineraries.
Start with an early tour of Hungary’s greatest architectural marvel, the Gothic Revival Hungarian Parliament. After your tour, follow the Danube south until you reach the Shoes on the Danube Bank, a small, sobering reminder of what Budapest endured during World War 2. You’ll have a nice view of the Chain Bridge from here as well. Head to Liberty Square next for a quick look at the only surviving memorial to Hungary’s Soviet “liberators,” before visiting St Stephen’s Basilica, home to the country’s most sacred relic.
After lunch, take a tour of Budapest’s magnificent Hungarian State Opera House. Seeing the guides split up with their respective groups in tow, each taking a different route (and speaking a different language) through the Neoclassical venue is a perfectly choreographed show all its own! Afterwards, take a walk up magnificent Andrassy ut, or take the Line 1 metro beneath it to say you’ve been on the oldest subway in continental Europe. Disembark at Heroes Square to see the founders of the nation in all their glory, then take a stroll around City Park and Vajadahunyad Castle before taking a well-earned end-of-day soak at Szechenyi Thermal Baths. Budapest is a city filled with thermal spas, ranging from the simple and traditional to wildly elaborate complexes that are works of art unto themselves. They’re a great way to relax after a long sightseeing day on your Hungary vacation.
If thermal spas are Budapest’s ultimate relaxation, its ruin pubs embody the best of its nightlife. Repurposing abandoned apartment blocks in the Jewish district, these ramshackle venues attract party-goers of all ages and backgrounds. Some come to drink, some to dance, some to catch live artists, and some simply to gawk. The granddaddy of all ruin pubs is Szimpla Kert. Though it’s absolutely recommended, it’s also the go-to ruin pub for tourists, so feel free to ask the locals or look online for slightly more underground options.
The Best of Buda
Cross the Chain Bridge today and take the Castle Hill Funicular (or hike it, you little ball of energy, you!) to Castle Hill. Wander the Castle District to Fisherman’s Bastion for unbeatable views over the Danube and Parliament, then admire the magnificent interiors of Matthias Church. Afterwards, treat yourself to one of Buda’s more oddball attractions. The Hospital in the Rock shows how Budapest weathered the horrors of World War 2 and stayed prepared for the worst throughout the Cold War.
In the afternoon, take a quick wander through Buda Castle. It’s a rebuild, and was never one of Europe’s grandest palaces to begin with, but it does contain the extremely worthwhile Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum. Spend some time exploring whichever one interests you more before moving on to Gellert Hill. Enjoy more fantastic views from the Citadella, not forgetting to look up for a glimpse of Hungary’s Liberty Statue. After that, it’s time for a spa break! The opulent Gellert Baths are highly recommended, with some of Budapest’s best facilities for both fun and wellness. Alternatively, you might choose Rudas Baths for a more traditional spa experience. Check the schedule as Rudas is gender-segregated during the week. Gellert welcomes both men and women every day. Both are located at the bottom of Gellert Hill.
You’ve been enjoying magnificent Danube views all day on your Hungary vacation, so why stop now? Consider making this your night to enjoy a cruise on the Danube, enjoying Budapest in all its glittering night-time finery. There are dinner and cruise options available as well.
Ghosts of Totalitarian Budapest
The communist era occupies less than 50 years of Budapest’s long history, but its legacy looms large. Steel yourself for a morning exploring the House of Terror on Andrassy ut. The former headquarters of the fascist Arrow Cross Party was taken over by the State Protection Authority after World War 2, but the building’s purpose didn’t much change until 1990. When you’re done, wander through the Jewish quarter until you reach Dohany Street Synagogue. This unique Moorish masterpiece is Europe’s largest synagogue, and contains the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives, and the Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park.
For lunch, head to Budapest’s impressive Central Market Hall for budget-friendly local specialties, then take the metro and bus or taxi to one of Budapest’s strangest, most memorable attractions. Rather than simply destroy its monuments from the Communist era, Budapest gathered them all at Memento Park. This small field in suburban Buda arranges these politically charged monoliths into three sections, each more outlandish than the last. Don’t miss the small museum across the street on your way out to learn more about the 1956 revolution. Stalin’s disembodied boots memorialize that occasion.
Return to the city, perhaps enjoying a soak at either Gellert or Rudas baths (if you haven’t already) to recharge on your Hungary vacation. In the evening, explore more of the ruin pubs, or make a glamorous night of it at a Hungarian State Opera performance.
Roaming the Past, Relaxing in the Present
Keep this itinerary for a good weather day as you’ll spend most of it outside. Start your day in the Obuda district at the Aquincum Museum. The Romans discovered the wonders of the city’s thermal springs centuries before modern Globetrotters, and they left behind an impressive array of ruins, ready for exploration at this archaeological park and museum. Round out the morning at either the Imre Varga Collection or the Vasarely Museum, depending on which way your artistic tastes swing.
Devote your afternoon to Margaret Island, Budapest’s favourite summer playground. You can cycle, swim, wander the ruins of a Franciscan Monastery, visit the Dominican Convent, or pull up a table for an al fresco lunch. Afterwards, recharge those muscles at (you guessed it) either Lukacs Baths or Kiraly Baths, both located on the Buda side of the Danube. If you’re all bathed out, check out another of the city’s most unusual attractions at the oddly atmospheric Budapest Flipper Museum, which boasts over 150 playable pinball machines.
In the evening, crib from one of the above itineraries (there’s plenty to explore) or step into Budapest Jazz Club for an intimate taste of the local music scene.
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