Updated on December 5, 2019
There are so many things to do in Budapest, yet some people choose to spend most of their time in Szechenyi Baths, the best thermal spa in the city. I’m one of them. For years, I’ve been thinking that winter was the best time to visit Budapest, to enjoy the outdoor thermal pools in Szechenyi. I’ve even booked a long weekend in Corinthia Hotel, only to be close to the pools.
Apart from being a thermal spa paradise, Budapest is a beautiful city. The old buildings in the center are very well preserved, the architecture is impressive, and the Budapest locals are welcoming. The Budapest bridges over the Danube river offer excellent photo opportunities, particularly around sunset, during the golden hour and the blue hour. Sometimes, there are aviation shows going on in the city, and some of the pilots fly under the bridges.
What You'll Read About
- Where Is Budapest?
- Is Budapest Safe?
- What Is the Best Time to Visit Budapest?
- What Are Some Best Things To Do in Budapest
- Where To Stay in Budapest?
- What To Pack for Budapest?
Where Is Budapest?
Where is Budapest in Europe? This is one of the first questions that come to mind when you think about Budapest and about this part of Europe. Most people are confused when it comes to countries in Eastern Europe and their capital cities. Budapest and Bucharest, for instance, are often mistaken for one another. Budapest is the capital of Hungary, while Bucharest is the capital of Romania. If you want to visit Budapest, make sure you don’t end up in the wrong city.
Danube is the river that splits Budapest into Buda and Pest, two areas that have their special charm. Buda is the part on the west bank of the river, and it boasts a hilly scenery and some of the oldest and the most beautiful buildings in Budapest. Located on the east bank of the Danube, Pest is rather flat and more modern than Buda.
If you want to take cool photos of the Danube and of the east bank, you should walk along the west bank promenade. You’ll see the Parliament building reflected in the water, the cruise ships, the bridges, and the sleek and modern silhouette of Hotel Sofitel Chain Bridge Budapest, with its glass facade that makes a striking contrast with those old buildings in this area.
For taking photos of Castle Hill and Fisherman’s Bastion, the riverfront on the west bank is the ideal location. Walk along the promenade to find the best spots. This is also a great spot for nighttime photography, as the castle and the Chain Bridge are fully lit by night.
Is Budapest Safe?
The second question on most people’s lips is about safety. I’ve been to Budapest for about five times, and I’ve always felt safe, even by night. It is true that I’ve only wandered around the center, on Andrassy Avenue, in the Old Town (Downtown Budapest), on Vaci Street, along the Danube promenade, and in the former Jewish Quarter.
All cities have their less safer areas. Budapest makes no exception. If you want to stay safe, you should probably avoid dark areas by night. If you want to see some off the beaten track neighborhoods, you’d better go there during the day and inform yourself on how safe they are. Nevertheless, I’ve been wondering around Oktogon by night and I felt safe. Oktogon is one of the biggest squares in Pest, located at the intersection of Andrassy Avenue with The Grand Boulevard. I’ve also walked along the streets of Budapest (of Pest, actually), from Oktogon toward the Danube, and through the night bars area and I also felt safe by night.
As you steer away from the central districts, you’ll see that the city starts to look dull, with communist buildings that lack character and style. I saw barely any difference between the outskirts of Budapest and the ones of Bucharest or Sofia.
Fortunately, Budapest has a huge central area, so you’ll have plenty of things to do and see there.
What Is the Best Time to Visit Budapest?
The best time to visit Budapest is May-June, when there are lots of flowers and greenery, and when the weather isn’t too hot yet. April can also be good. July and August are surely hot, so you’d better avoid them, if you can. September and October are nice, as trees get that colorful foliage that adds to the beauty of the city.
Winter months can also be good for a short visit, particularly if you want to experience the outdoor thermal pools. However, if you want to also enjoy some sightseeing, winter isn’t the best time to go to Budapest, because it can be freezing cold. The only exception is the end of December. Budapest at Christmas is one of the most beautiful places in Europe.
What Are Some Best Things To Do in Budapest
Whatever you decide to do in Budapest, make sure to schedule at least four hours to try the thermal baths at Szechenyi. These baths are in a very old, Ottoman-style building, which looks like a work of art. It will awaken your desire to know more about the history of Budapest, and of the whole Hungary for that matter.
The Gellert hill is also worth seeing. You can enjoy a few hours of spa time in the Gellert Baths. Although smaller than Szechenyi, these baths are in a very beautiful, old building.
As Budapest looks like an open air museum, simple strolling around the streets can be a wonderful experience. Make sure you have enough storage space on your smartphone, as you’ll surely take plenty of photos.
If you want to make the most out of your visit and save some money along the way, you should get the Budapest Card, the Hungary capital’s official city pass that will allow you to use public transport and to enter more than 30 attractions (17 museums, the Lucacs Thermal Baths, and two sightseeing tours with English guide).
Castle Hill Budapest – Buda Castle District – Fisherman’s Bastion – Matthias Church
Castle Hill is one of the oldest districts of Budapest. Its cobblestone roads and colorful buildings, the Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion will keep you busy for a full day. Keep this in mind when you plan your trip to Budapest.
Climbing Castle Hill by foot is a rewarding experience. The zigzag road is a pleasure to walk on. As far as I remember, you can get from the Chain Bridge to Buda Castle District in about 20-30 minutes of walking. However, if you don’t feel like doing it, you can get to Castle Hill by taxi or by public transport.
Bus 16 crosses the Chain Bridge and goes up the hill. For more details, take a look at this Budapest transportation guide. You’ll find it useful, I hope, as it offers details on different transportation options and their prices.
The Bridges of Budapest and Margaret Island
Buda and Pest are well connected through the eight bridges of Budapest, out of which two or three are very famous among tourists. If you want facts and details about all of them, follow the previous link. I”ll only list a few of them here.
The Chain Bridge (Lanchid)
The Chain Bridge is perhaps the most widely known. It is not only a very photogenic one, but also the first permanent stone bridge to connect Buda and Pest.
The Chain Bridge has a sad history: opened in November 1849, it was blown up during the World War II, in 1945, and then rebuilt four years later, in 1949.
Today, this is the most spectacular of all eight bridges of Budapest. Fully lit by night, it offers an impressive view and a great photo opportunity.
Margaret Bridge (Margit Hid)
Built according to French plans, in Neo-Baroque French style, Margaret Bridge is the second permanent bridge to link Buda and Pest. It was built about 20 years after the Chain Bridge, destroyed during WWII, and then rebuilt in 1948.
This bridge links the two banks of the river with the Margaret Island.
Megyeri Bridge (Megyeri Hid)
If you enter the city by car, you’ll probably get on the Megyeri Bridge, which is the newest and the longest of the eight bridges of Budapest. This bridge is part of the M0 highway, the ring road that goes around Budapest.
Budapest River Cruise
There are lots of Danube cruise options, so you may want to spend some time doing research on that. I’ll list here, below, a few options you may want to take a closer look at.
Danube Day & Night Cruise – This is perhaps the best choice available. Your ticket for a 45-minute Danube cruise will be valid for 24 hours. You can use it multiple times. This can be a great idea for those who want to capture photos of Budapest by different moment of the day (golden hour, sunset, night time).
1-Hour Private Boat Cruise – this is a 60-minute private boat cruise tour of downtown Budapest that will take you through the inner city in an elegant and spacious setting. This tour is suitable for groups of 1 – 10 persons.
1.5 Hour Budapest Dinner Cruise by Night – This cruise with dinner by candlelight is a great opportunity to enjoy Hungarian traditional dishes and live Hungarian music while cruising along the Danube by night. This tour includes pick up from your accommodation. It is wheelchair accessible.
Saint Stephen’s Basilica (Szent Istvan Bazilika)
St. Stephen’s basilica is not only a representative piece of Neo-baroque architecture, but also a good observation point to see Budapest from above. It is one of my favorite places in Budapest. Located in Pest, in District V, Saint Stephen’s cathedral is a gorgeous work of art and home to many music concerts that gather together thousands of people each and every time.
The church hosts the mummified hand of St. Stephen, in a beautiful setting made from gold and adorned with rubies.
You can reach St. Stephen’s Basilica by metro (blue line M3, Arany Janos Utca stop).
The entrance is free of charge, but donations are welcome. If you want to climb to the top of the tower, you’ll have to pay a small fee. There’s an elevator, so you don’t have to climb all those stairs if you don’t want to.
I’d also consider attending an organ concert in the cathedral. Here’s one you might enjoy.
The Budapest Opera House
The Hungarian State Opera House is located on Andrassy Avenue and it is one of the most instagrammable spots in Budapest. It is on the M1 metro line (Opera stop). However, you can reach it on foot from Deak Square in about 15 minutes.
You can visit the Opera House as part of this 2.5 hours walking tour of Budapest.
If time allows, you can also buy a ticket to a concert and enjoy this Neo-classical building to the full.
There’s also the option to visit the interior of the opera house by your own, within the opening hours (Monday to Saturday from 11am until 5 pm or until the beginning of the show, if any). Sunday and holidays, the building is open to the public from 4 p.m. until the beginning of the show.
The Budapest Parliament
The Parliament is perhaps the most photographed building in Budapest. You’ll find it on every Budapest sightseeing map. What I first saw this Neo-Gothic building, I simply couldn’t take my eyes of it for a very long time.
The building is in Pest, on the river bank. If you want to photograph it, you’ll need to find a spot on the Buda bank of the Danube. Walk along the promenade to find the best angles. For best results, bring a tripod and get there by the golden hour, just before sunset. Wait until nightfall, so that you can also take advantage of the blue hour.
If you want to visit the Parliament building, take a look at this 1-hour guided tour with pick-up at your hotel in Budapest. You can also visit the building by yourself, but you’ll have to do the line and you won’t benefit from professional guides.
The Jewish Quarter and the Ruin Bars
The Jewish Quarter is in District VII and it features some of the most beautiful buildings of Budapest. The New York Cafe is one of the things to see in Budapest, even if you won’t want to stop for a coffee and a treat. The fairy tale atmosphere is magic. I can’t say anything about the food quality, as I haven’t tried any of their pastries.
As this neighborhood is full of history and culture, I’d recommend that you take a guided tour to enable you discover the Jewish heritage of Budapest. This tour, here, could be an interesting option, as it is lead by a local historian. You’ll see the Great Synagogue (only on the outside), the Carl Lutz Memorial Park, and the Rumbach Street Synagogue. You’ll also stop for a coffee at one of the best ruin bars of Budapest.
If you want to drink your night out like a Budapest local, take a look at this 3-hour ruin bars tour. You’ll walk the streets of Budapest to discover some amazing graffiti street art, and you’ll stop at no less than five or six ruin pubs along the way. Your ticket includes a drink at four of the pubs. If you need more than this to quench your thirst, you’ll have to pay for your other drinks.
The Szechenyi Thermal Bath is my top choice. The baths are in a very old building dating back from the Turkish occupation time (600 years ago and the building still looks impressive).
The location is easy to reach, as it is on the M1 metro line (Szechenyi Furdo stop). If you want, you can walk along the Andrassy Avenue until you reach Oktogon Square, then take The Grand Boulevard and walk until you get past The Heroes’ Square. From there, you only have a short walk to the City Park, where the thermal baths are.
Book your skip the line full-day entry to Szechenyi Bath in Budapest here.
If you don’t want to spend a full day inside, you can show up in the evening. After 7pm, you’ll still get almost three hours of leisure. Besides, it will cost you less than a full day ticket.
Gellert Bath isn’t too bad, either. Located on the Gellert Hill, this thermal complex is also in a beautiful building with stylish adornments. However, the baths are smaller than Szechenyi and there are fewer pools and saunas.
Where To Stay in Budapest?
I’ve stayed in many Budapest hotels during my trips to the beautiful capital city of Hungary.
While most of them were decent and offered good value for money, one of them provided a remarkable experience: this was the Corinthia Hotel, on the Grand Boulevard. I’ve chosen it because it was close enough to walk to the Szechenyi Thermal Baths. However, I was soon to discover it was also a great choice in terms of comfort and leisure. It was also very close to the downtown Budapest area, so we have a wide selection of bars, pubs, and restaurants to choose from by night.
If you want a hotel with river view in Budapest, check out Hotel Sofitel Chain Bridge, located just on the riverfront, nearby the chain bridge, on the Pest side of the city.
What To Pack for Budapest?
The most important thing to pack for Budapest is a good pair of walking shoes. You’ll use them a lot, so make sure they are comfortable.
Casual outfits that match the season would be just fine. You don’t need to be the most elegant person walking on the streets of Budapest, as local are quite laid back.
If you want to enter churches and synagogues, make sure you wear decent clothing, cover your knees and your shoulders and you should be fine.
By all means, pack your swimming suit, if you don’t want to buy one there! As far as I remember, there are swimming suits available to rent at Szechenyi Baths, but I’d rather bring my own.