How to spend two days in two cities in one
Acity of two halves, the Hungarian capital Budapest was born in 1873 when cities divided by the Danube known as Buda and Pest came together as one. Today Budapest is one of the highlights of Eastern Europe, a place where beautiful boulevards and dilapidated courtyards both play a special part in the city’s DNA.
Here’s how to make the most of two days in Europe’s other City of Lights.
DAY ONE MORNING
Make your way to the Castle Hill Funicular, which dates back to 1870, and hop in a vintage-style carriage up to the Castle District in old Buda. Step back in time as you walk the cobblestone streets to Buda Castle, and get a culture fix at the Hungarian National Gallery which is spread through several wings of the castle and mixes international masterpieces with Hungarian fine arts.
Stroll along the Fisherman’s Bastion and take in the beauty of both the fairytale towers and the views over the River Danube from the panoramic terrace.
After taking photos of the outside of the Matthias Church with its multicoloured roof, step inside and see its rich wall paintings and beautiful stained glass windows. Early birds can also avoid the long queues to step inside the coronation church of Hungarian kings.
Walk down the hill and back across the city’s most famous bridge. The first permanent stone bridge connecting Pest and Buda, the Chain Bridge was inaugurated in November 1849 and features stone lion statues that come complete with tongues, despite urban legends to the contrary.
Make your way to The First Strudel House (reteshaz.com) where you can try various Hungarian main meals before trying to decide between apple, apricot, sour cherry, cabbage and other strudels that have been made in front of you.
Find out why Budapest’s thermal baths have been winning people over for hundreds of years with a visit to one of the city’s indoor or outdoor pools. There are about 120 thermal springs under the city of Budapest and dozens of baths to choose from.
The New Baroque-style Szechenyi Baths, built in 1913, has three outdoor and 18 indoor pools to choose from, and is where you might find yourself playing chess in your swimsuit against one of the regulars.
The Art Nouveau Gellert Baths at the bottom of Gellert Hill is another favourite with beautiful stained glass windows, mosaic floors, painted dome ceilings and tiled walls.
A visit to one of the baths usually includes saunas and steam rooms, with spa treatments available at an additional cost.
Get a taste for Budapest’s ruin bars, which have taken over abandoned buildings and turned them into quirky places to have a drink and a bite to eat. Start at Puder Bar where surreal collages and statues mix with colourful furniture and where the staff are refreshingly honest and not afraid to say “I hate it” when you ask about a cocktail on their menu.
Walk to the For Sale Pub where the walls and ceilings are lined with paper with messages from former guests, and marvel at the occupational health and safety differences between countries when you notice the open flames of candles near paper lined walls and straw-covered floors.
Then head to the ruin bar that started it all, Szimpla Kert, and check out its eclectic nooks and crannies before taking a seat in an old Trabant car for a drink or three.
DAY TWO MORNING
Start the day in one of the most beautiful buildings in the city, St Stephen’s Basilica. The largest church in Budapest is dedicated to the first king of Hungary, St Stephen, and visitors can see his mummified right hand covered in ruby and pearl bracelets in a glass case near the main altar. It’s free to visit this Baroquestyle cathedral but for a small fee (about $2.50) you can also walk up a spiral staircase to get a bird’s eye view of Budapest.
It may be early for gelato for some but it’s also a good time to avoid the queues at Gelarto Rosa. There are two stores just in front of the basilica and both design your icy treat to look like the petals on a rose.
Take a 15-minute walk to the Hungarian Parliament Building to see this Neo-Gothic masterpiece at close quarters. The third largest parliament building in the world offers 45-minute guided tours when the National Assembly is not in session, and tours include a visit to the Hungarian crown jewels.
Then take a moment to appreciate that you’ve now visited the two tallest buildings in Budapest.
The dome of St Stephen’s and the tallest point on the Hungarian Parliament Building are both 96m high, symbolising the balance between church and state, and no other structure is allowed to be taller.
VISITORS CAN SEE ST STEPHEN’S MUMMIFIED RIGHT HAND COVERED IN RUBY AND PEARL BRACELETS
See what a difference daylight can make to Kazinczy St when you head back to Szimpla Kert’s part of Budapest for a taste of the city’s street food scene.
Street Food Karavan is a mix of
street food carts including vegan and meat sushi burgers, Transylvanian cabbage and goulash in bread bowls, Italian dishes, and chimney cakes.
Enjoy some pottering around Budapest’s streets and shops, starting with the eclectic mix of boutiques in District VII in the Jewish Quarter.
If it’s Sunday, the Szimpla Farmers Market is another top pick and is where fresh produce and pastries are accompanied by live music and art.
Make your way to The Great Market Hall on the Pest side of Liberty Bridge and take in the architecture and range of goods on offer in the city’s largest and oldest indoor market. The Great Market Hall has three levels of food, fashion and souvenirs to browse through and is where locals doing their everyday shopping rub shoulders with tourists on the hunt for mementos.
For international brands on a beautiful boulevard take a stroll along Andrassy Ave. Don’t forget to look up in between the window shopping as this street is lined with grand buildings with statues, columns, and interesting design features and is so important to the city it’s a World Heritage site in its own right.
Fancy a coffee fix? For one of Budapest’s best grand cafe experiences head to New York Cafe with its high ceilings, marble columns and Venetian glass. At the turn of the 20th century, this cafe was a hotspot for artists and writers, with some of the most influential newspapers edited upstairs.
Or if you’re in the mood for something quirkier try The Donut Library where classic and unique flavours like cinnamon-plum are created with all natural ingredients.
When the sun goes down, Budapest gives Paris a run for its money in the City of Lights stakes, and the best way to take it all in is from the water.
At night the dramatic Parliament Building, Buda Castle and other monuments all light up with a golden glow, and the bridges come alive with twinkling lights.
There are many riverboat cruises on offer, including some dinner cruises, but the best option is to go for a sunset cruise so you can watch the city light up around you as the daylight fades.
On top of Castle Hill, Matthias Church reigns; browse the city’s largest and oldest indoor market; enjoy icy treats shaped like a rose; Chain Bridge connects Pest and Buda. CHAIN BRIDGE
GREAT MARKET HALL