12 Hours in Budapest, Hungary
The tale of a city with two personalities: Buda and Pest.
As the capital of Hungary, Budapest has a strange appeal and charm to tourists. It’s a mixture of both the old and modern world with apparent signs of western capitalism mixing in with a city once under the rule of Communism for over forty years.
Originally a Celtic settlement, the Hungarians did not arrive in the territory until the 9th century. The territory was originally divided into Buda, on the west bank of the Danube River and Pest, on the east bank. When the two territories united into the single city of Budapest on November 17, 1873, the city became one of the most prosperous regions of Europe.
Even though the city has been united for centuries, Buda and Pest both have very distinct characteristics. The Buda side of the city is filled with hills and is home to the castle district and has a very medieval feel to it. On the other hand, Pest is very flat so it has more of a city feel to it with its streets filled with bars, cafés, restaurants, museums, and synagogues.
It’s difficult to say which side of the city as a better personality, but locals advise to “visit Buda and stay in Pest.” While Budapest has a lot to offer, this guide will help you manage to squeeze in as much as possible during your stay in the city with two personalities.
Start your day in Budapest by signing up for a free walking tour to familiarize yourself with the layout of the city. The Free Walking Tours Company takes you to major sites such as the Danube Promenade, Municipal Concert Hall, Gresham Palace, St. Stephen’s Basilica, the Chain Bridge, and ends in the Castle District area. Not only do you get to hit a solid amount of sites in the city by taking a walking tour, but you can also ask your tour guide for any tips or recommendations of where to go specific to your interests. The tour group meets in Vörösmarty Square, where there are a lot of small cafés so you can grab a light and quick breakfast before joining the morning tour, which starts at 10:30 AM.
The tour ends at Fisherman’s Bastion, where you can find small cafes and restaurants nearby. I recommend that you stay in the Buda side of the city after the tour because you can explore the area a little bit more. Since Buda has a lot of hills, you can take amazing pictures overlooking the Chain Bridge, Danube River, and the Pest side of the city. However, if you decide you have had enough of Buda, you can trek down the hill and over the Chain Bridge to go back to the Pest side of the city for lunch.
If you had lunch in Buda, explore the Castle District, one of Hungary’s landmarks and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It houses the Fisherman’s Bastion, Mathias’ Church, the Hungarian National Gallery, the National Széchényi Library, and the Budapest History Museum. The Hungarian National Gallery is the go-to place to see the largest collection of Hungarian fine arts that represents up to five hundred years of art in Hungary. Collections include, Medieval and Renaissance stonework, Gothic wood sculptures and altarpieces, and paintings from the late 19th century. However, if you decided to go down to the Pest side for lunch or want a museum that offers a wider variety of art, visit the Museum of Fine Arts, Hungary’s largest art historical library. Located right at Heroes’ Square, the museum houses Egyptian Art, Classical Antiquities, Old Master Paintings, Sculptures, Prints and Drawings, and Art after 1800.
If you’ve had enough of art and are ready for a history lesson, go to The House of Terror museum. It commemorates the victims of both the Nazi and Communist regimes in Hungary. The building itself is actually the former headquarter of the Nazi party in 1940 and the basement was used as a prison. During the Communist era, the building was taken over by the State Security and hundreds (maybe even thousands) were tortured in this building. The museum is incredibly interesting and I highly recommend it.
Budapest is also known for its thermal baths and is even called the “City of Baths.” After a long day of walking and exploring the city, stop by one of the city’s thermal baths for a unique spa experience. Széchenyi Baths is the largest medicinal bath and one of the largest public baths in Europe and is popular among locals and tourists. It has a total of 18 pools, 15 of which are indoors. The pools vary in size and range of temperature so you have a lot of options to try! There are also several saunas and steam baths you can hop into. In addition to this, there are add-on spa packages you can purchase, such as massages, mudpacks, access to a gym, and private baths and treatments. Be sure to bring your own towel because towels are not provided or else you will have to buy one in the lobby.
For dinner, find a place that sells traditional Hungarian food, like goulash. Hungarian goulash is somewhere in between a soup and a stew. It contains beef, onions, tomatoes, some green pepper, potatoes, and Hungarian paprika. It’s delicious and I highly recommend that you try it at least once while you’re in Budapest. I suggest going back to Vörösmarty Square for dinner because there are a variety of restaurants with different price ranges so you have a lot of options to choose from. It’s always fun eating in a square where you can people watch and take in your surroundings.
8 PM and onwards
The nightlife scene in Budapest is unique, but very fun to say nonetheless. The city is well known for its ruin bars. These bars are typically located in the old Jewish quarter in abandoned buildings, stores, or lots. From the outside, they look like old normal buildings, however on the inside, the ruin bars are known for their funky and eclectic decorations. I would describe it as drinking at a thrift shop because each room is different, the furniture doesn’t match, and the ceilings are even different. I recommend Instant, which has more of a club vibe, but I really liked the decorations inside because I’ve never seen anything like it. In the main room, there is an installation of hanging bunnies that looked like they were running across the ceiling. In one room, the furniture is even on the ceiling so it looks like the room was flipped upside down. Instant opens everyday until 6 AM so you can stop by anytime during the night. If you choose to go to a ruin bar, be sure to look up the names of some of them and where they are located before you go out or else you will never find one.
Budapest is an amazing and unique city that makes you feel like you have been transported to another place. As the capital of Hungary, it has so much to offer. You can see a lot of the city in just twelve hours, but if you can spend more time in Budapest, you can get a better feel of the city by exploring its backstreets and immersing yourself into the culture!