It’s likely that I’m biased, but the truth is, Budapest is among the most beautiful cities in the world. With a history dating back to the 12th century, this gem of a city has something to offer any visitor; the Roman ruins of Aquinqum, UNESCO World Heritage sites along the Danube River, luxurious thermal baths, divine dining, and an arts and culture scene to rival any European city.
The first 24 Hours
Visit: Your first stop in Budapest should be the Buda Castle. Dating back to the 13th century, this walled castle complex is where you’ll find the Royal Palace, St Matthias Church, and the Fisherman’s Bastion – one of the city’s most recognized icons. Overlooking the Danube, the Bastion offers incredible views of the river and the bridges that cross over it, including the monumental Chain Bridge, the gothic style Parliament building, and views of the glorious Pest side of the city. Within the castle complex, you’ll also find the Labyrinth – a complex cave system once used (at different times, of course) as wine cellars, torture chambers, and even a military hospital. Today, the highlight of the Labyrinth is the Matyas Wine Fountain, with its non-stop stream of red wine. Let’s be honest, we could all use one of these in our homes!
Local: Budapest’s Art Deco style metro system provides an easy way to get around. The Millennium Underground Railway is the second-oldest in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site. For above ground travel needs, cheery yellow trams will take you all along the ring roads of Pest or along the Danube on either side of the river.
Eat: No visit is complete without a sample of Hungary’s most famous dish, gulyasleves (“goulash soup”). Beef, vegetables, and ground paprika make up this hearty staple, which can range from very spicy to mild, and is served with fresh rye bread on the side.
Drink: Pair your goulash with one of Hungary’s red wines, such as the robust Bull’s Blood. After your meal, enjoy the sweet nectar of a Tokaji Aszú dessert wine. Hungary’s location in the Carpathian Basin provides just the right climate for wine production, especially in the northeastern region of the country. Its two most well known wines are produced here and can be found on any menu in Budapest.
Visit: It would be a crime not to spend time in one of Budapest’s 15 Turkish-style thermal baths. The mineral-rich waters running through the 118 hot springs beneath the city possess healing powers for ailments ranging from asthma to joint pain. On the Buda side of the Danube, you’ll find the Gellert Baths, housed in a beautiful Art Nouveau building. After a long day of exploring the city, enjoy a soak in the 38°C (100°F) waters while marveling at the mosaic tile décor of the bath halls, followed by some “man-handling” muscle care by the hands of a brawny masseuse.
The Next 24 Hours
Visit: Along the banks of the Danube River, and not very far from the Chain Bridge, you will find 60 pairs of shoes made of cast iron. The “Shoes on the Danube Promenade” is a haunting memorial to those killed during World War II.
Eat: Visit any of Budapest’s markets and be sure to try langos – one of Hungary’s favorite snack specialties. Quite simple, yet ever so delicious, langos is a deep-fried, flat doughy pastry. It can be eaten plain, with garlic butter, or topped more fancifully with sour cream, cheese or even sweetened with sugar, jam or chocolate sauce.
Visit: For a bit of an escape from the city bustle, rent a bike, or go for a hike in the Buda Hills. Within the city limits, you can find yourself on a trail surrounded by rich forests or exploring one of the Labyrinth caves. If you prefer to save your energy, take a ride on the Children’s Railway, operated entirely by 10-14 year old children, or replace the noise of cars with the chirping of birds on a vertigo-inducing chairlift ride that lets you dangle your feet over the lush green park below.
Drink: Dating back to the middle ages, the traditional fruit brandy known as palinka comes in many flavours. My favourite is cherry, but plum, apricot, and pear tend to be the most popular. Palinka is strong (anywhere from 38-85% alcohol content) and has quite the kick. Variations made with honey are smooth and will certainly warm you up on a winter’s day.