Known as the Pearl of the Danube and the Paris of Eastern Europe, Budapest is a mecca for all kinds of travellers. Whether it be a couple on a multi-day European river cruise or young backpackers looking for a cheap place to party, the capital of Hungary has a little something for everyone to enjoy during their stay. And although I will admit that my first visit to this eastern European gem wasn’t quite what I had hoped for, I can agree that Budapest is a stunning city with a lot to offer. Here’s how to make the most out of 3 days in Budapest.
Getting To Budapest
No longer a backpacker’s secret, Budapest it becoming more and more popular as a tourist destination. As such there are a lot of options on how to arrive. Buses and trains are common and frequent from neighbouring countries. For longer distances night trains are a popular option, for example, I took a 10 hour one from Krakow, Poland. Another option is via a cruise ship or boat as the city is divided by the Danube. And, of course, Budapest has its own airport.
Getting Around Budapest
Budapest also has a good metro system made up of four lines that connect the major points of the city. Tickets can be purchased as singles, day, or multi-day passes from the machines in any of the stations (there is an English option) or from manned desks at the busier stops. Please keep an eye on your change, and if possible pay with smaller bills. I have heard stories from more than one traveller about being short-changed by the ticket sellers.
Walking is also an option, however, I wouldn’t depend entirely on this mode of transportation. Although many of the sights are within walking distance of each other the city is rather large and a couple metro rides will likely be necessary, especially if you want to make the most of your 3 days in Budapest. That being said, some of the main sights are with in walking distance and offer a scenic view of the city. Check out this self-guided walking tour of Budpest for some ideas.
Not big on using the metro? No worries, Budapest has a great hop-on-hop off bus loop as well that takes you to the main sites. Get your tickets here.
I will note that I had also been warned on both of my visits to this city, that taxis should be ordered ahead of time through a hotel, not just flagged off the street. They apparently have a reputation for overcharging tourists.
Where To Stay for 3 Days in Budapest
As mentioned above, Budapest is a large city so if you want to stay as central as possible try to find accommodation close to the river. Budapest is also divided into two sectors by the Danube river: Buda (the castle side) and Pest. Based on my experience I would recommend staying on the Pest side as it has more attractions, restaurants, and nightlife options. If you are looking for recommendations, I would suggest the following:
How to Spend 3 Days in Budapest
There is no shortage of things to do in Budapest from the touristy sites to more local finds. Personally, I loved just wandering around the city and seeing where I ended up. However, if you are more interested in tours or museums there are plenty of those to explore as well.
Whatever your travel style, there are some definite must-sees. I suggest making sure that you see the following attractions and sites during your 3 days in Budapest. Keep in mind that this city is divided into two parts (Buda and Pest) so it’s best to plan your days accordingly.
The Best Things to do in Budapest
Visit Hungarian Parliament
Arguably the most beautiful building in the city, the Hungarian Parliament is an enormous gothic structure on the Pest side of the Danube. Visitors can pay a fee to enter the buildings where they will be able to see some of the incredible interiors for themselves including treasures such as the Holy Crown of Hungary. If your wallet doesn’t allow for the extra expense of going inside, the exterior is still worth seeing. You can get some incredible views from the other side of the river.
If you do want to tour Parliament, it’s best to reserve your spot in advance. Especially in the summer. You can book your tickets here.
Shoes on the Danube memorial
Probably one of the most powerful memorials you will ever see, the Shoes on the Danube is a monument to honour the Jewish men and women who were forced to take off their shoes and line up on the river bank where they were shot to their death. The memorial is made up of 60 pairs of men’s and women’s cast iron shoes, many of which today are filled with flowers for remembrance, and a plaque reading “To the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by Arrow cross Militia men in 1944-45. Erected 16 April 2005.” The Shoes on the Danube memorial can be found about 300m south of the Hungarian Parliament on the banks of the Pest side of the Danube.
The Great Market Hall
As the largest indoor market of the city, the Great Market Hall is a fantastic place to pick up some authentic souvenirs, food items to take away, or a meal to enjoy. Located at the end of the pedestrian-only shopping street; Váci Utca, on the Pest side of the Liberty Bridge this market offers three levels filled with a number of stalls offering all types of goods. Vendors sell anything and everything from souvenir t-shirts and shot glasses, to Christmas ornaments, purses and traditional clothing, and all types of knick-knacks. Food vendors sell meat, fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, while upstairs has a food-court-style area where visitors can try some local specialities such as goulash or lángos. The market is also a great place to pick up Hungarian souvenir favourites including paprika, Tokaji wine, and hand-painted eggs. Make sure to check the market hours ahead of time (you can find them here) and note that it is not open on Sundays.
St. Stephen’s Basilica
Along with the Parliament, St. Stephen’s Basilica is one of the tallest buildings in Budapest and the city’s most important church. Popular for religious purposes and music concerts the Basilica also hosts an interesting relic: The holy right hand of St. Stephen himself. There is a nominal fee to see the relic (a button needs to be pushed to light it up) however as it is a popular attraction, chances are someone will have already paid and you can sneakily take a peek. St. Stephen’s Basilica is also on the Pest side of the river.
The Chain Bridge
The most photographed bridge in the city, the Chain bridge spans the river connecting both sides near Buda Castle. This suspension bridge, guarded by stone lions at each end, was the first bridge in Budapest to span the Danube. It is open to vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrian traffic.
Towering over the Danube on the Buda side, Buda Castle is another iconic landmark of the city. First built in 1265 this castle (also sometimes known as the Royal Palace) was added to, torn down, and rebuilt multiple times throughout history. It was last destroyed in 1944-45 by German Nazis. The reconstruction (possibly the biggest castle excavation in Europe) was completed in 1966. Today Buda castle in no longer a working palace, but is now home to museums and art. There are two ways to reach the castle which is located on the hill top. There is a funicular available for a fee, located at the base of the hill near the Chain Bridge, or you can climb the path leading up the hill. It is steep, but there are plenty of awesome photo opportunities of the Pest side if you need to take a break.
Looking straight out of a fairytale, these quirky towers once served as the lookout and were guarded by the fisherman’s guild (hence the name). Today the Fisherman’s Bastion offers some of the best panoramic views over the Danube and across to the Pest side of the city. Walking around the base is free, however, there is a fee to climb up to the towers. Fisherman’s Bastion is located close to Buda Castle on the Buda side.
Also on the Buda side by the Liberty Bridge, Gellert hill is a 235m high hill offering incredible views of the city- but only worth visiting on a clear day. Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperating when I planned to visit so locals told me not to bother, but the view from the citadel at the top is said to be stunning. Be aware that it is a rather steep climb.
Located in the middle of the Danube, Margaret Island can be reached by bridge or boat. Essentially a large park, Margaret Island is a popular recreational space for both tourists and locals alike. There are plenty of walking paths for walking, jogging, and cycling, as well as a few attractions including a small zoo, a musical fountain, the water tower which now serves as an exhibition hall, an athletics centre, and a water park.
Another nickname belonging to Budapest is ‘The City of Spas’ and there’s no doubting why with 15 public thermal baths located throughout both sides of the river. While most are co-ed and swimwear is required, some have gender only days where visitors are encouraged to go nude. The tradition of visiting the thermal baths is centuries old, but some of the bathhouses in the city have modernized themselves by having night parties with music and lights, or more playful options such as whirlpools and wave pools for children.
Each of the thermal spas is different so be sure to do your research ahead of time or visit the tourism offices for suggestions. The most popular suggestion for first-timers is the Széchenyi bath located up by Hero’s Square on the Pest side. Locals suggest this one because it has both indoor and outdoor pools and is one of the largest, not only in Budapest but in Europe. Visiting a thermal spa is an absolute must during your 3 days in Budapest, though based on my experience I would recommend finding someone to go with- it can be a little lonely on your own.
Take a River Cruise
There is no doubt that the best way to see the city is from the water, and a river cruise along the Danube is the perfect way to enjoy the cityscape. The cruises last about 1.5-2 hours and have an option commentary you can listen to through the headphones to learn more about both the Buda and Pest sides of the city. The cruise I took offered a complimentary beverage, alcoholic or non-alcoholic, during the first half and a free glass of lemonade during the second half. Depending on the time of the cruise there was also an option to get off at Margaret island for a bit and catch the next boat an hour or so later. Cruises are offered during the day and evening, although evening cruises are more expensive. Dinner and lunch cruises are also available.
Insider tip: depending on the time of year you can get the best of both worlds. I took the second last day cruise and took advantage of the chance to stop at Margaret Island. By the time I re-boarded the sun had set so I was able to see Budapest all lit up at night, without paying the additional night cruise fee.
Final Tips for 3 Days in Budapest
Budapest has a lot to do. The places I listed above are a few of my favourites, but you will find lots more. For example, if you are into partying and clubs you can’t miss the ruin bars. Or, if you are a scuba diver you may want to consider diving in the city’s cave networks. There is more than enough to keep you busy for three days in Budapest.
As I said at the beginning, the first time I was in Budapest I didn’t have the best experience. However, having since been back (the second time in the winter for the Christmas markets), I’ll admit that it has grown on me. Without a doubt, Budapest is a truly beautiful European city and spending 3 days in Budapest is a perfect introduction to the city.
A Note on Travel Insurance in Budapest
Please, do NOT travel without travel insurance! I’ve had to rely on mine multiple times. While the cost may seem annoying and better spent elsewhere, trust me when I say you’ll be sorry if you don’t have it. For just a couple bucks a day, you can save yourself a whole lot of stress and money. I like to recommend SafetyWing for travel medical insurance as they are one of the most affordable options I’ve found, plus, they are who I use and I have had great experiences with them. Learn more about the importance of travel insurance here.