36 hours in Budapest

View from the top of the Castle Hill Funicular. Photo: Emma Freer

Budapest, Hungary is the perfect destination for a quick getaway. Plus, with its mix of Eastern and Western influences, a generous exchange rate and general walkability, the city is especially student-friendly. I travelled to Budapest this past spring break after visiting Munich and Vienna and it was my favourite of the three cities. Here are some sites (and snacks) that made the trip so great.

View from the top of the Castle Hill Funicular. Photo: Emma Freer
View from the top of the Castle Hill Funicular.
Photo: Emma Freer

Friday afternoon

If you are travelling by train, you will arrive at the main station, Keleti. Be sure to exchange your Euros for Forints (1 Euro = 311 Forints) at one of the nearby ATMs.

NB: We made the mistake of purchasing our tickets from Vienna to Budapest through the Hungarian company Máv-Start, which stipulates that you can only collect your tickets within Hungary. If you are travelling to Hungary, this is obviously a challenge. To avoid this problem, purchase your tickets from the German company OBB, which allows you to print your ticket in advance.

While there are plenty of hostels and Airbnb options available, because the exchange rate is so favorable, it is not too costly to stay in a hotel in Budapest. We stayed at one located in what used to be Budapest Ghetto.

The ghetto was only in place for three months during the winter of 1944-45, but during that time the Jewish population of Budapest shrank from 200,000 to 70,000. Because nothing and no one was allowed into or out of the ghetto, many Jewish citizens died of starvation, exposure, or disease. More than half of the ghetto residents were sent to concentration camps.

The Dohány Street Synagogue (Dohány utca 2) is the largest synagogue in Europe and is located on the border of this former ghetto. It seats 3,000 people and is built in a Moorish style. On the same site is the Jewish Cemetery, a deceptively small plot of land in which over 2,000 of those who died in the ghetto are buried.

Dohány Street Synagogue Photo: Emma Freer
Dohány Street Synagogue
Photo: Emma Freer

I wasn’t very aware of Budapest’s role in World War II, but our visit to the synagogue was both informative and moving. The building itself is also incredibly beautiful.

After visiting the synagogue, head to the Book Café (Andrássy út 39), about a fifteen-minute walk. Hidden on the top floor of a commercial bookstore, this café is decadent in setting but fairly economical in price. Plan on a leisurely lunch so you can enjoy the lush setting before heading over to the Danube River.

After lunch, amble over to the Hungarian Parliament Building. Located on the river, this building looks out onto the Buda side of the city. Walk along the riverside to the Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial. Erected in 2005, this minimalist memorial consists of 60 pairs of shoes made of iron, which commemorate the Jewish victims shot into the river by the fascist group, Arrow Cross, during the war. You’ll still find today candles and flowers left by visitors among the empty shoes.

Shoes on the Danube memorial. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Shoes on the Danube memorial.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Friday evening

For dinner, head over to Café Kor (Sas utca 17), a short walk from the memorial (be sure to make a reservation earlier in the day.) Popular amongst both tourists and locals, this traditional restaurant is always busy and the perfect spot for a more indulgent meal.

After dinner, be sure to check out the exterior of St Stephen’s Basilica, a Catholic church named for the first king of Hungary located right around the block. On the way back to your room, walk along the Danube. The whole city is lit up at night and the river provides the perfect path between its two sides (Buda and Pest). The Chain Bridge is also at its most stunning at nighttime and impossible to miss.

St Stephen's Basilica Photo: Wikimedia Commons
St Stephen’s Basilica
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Saturday morning

Grab a delicious coffee at Fekete Kavezo (Muzeum korut 5). If it’s nice out, be sure to check out the adorable and secluded courtyard behind the shop.

Next, grab all-day metro tickets at the nearest station. (If you are traveling in a group, you can buy group tickets at a major discount.) Get off at the Heroes’ Square stop.

Heroes' Square Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Heroes’ Square
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The square itself is noted for its huge statue complex, which features various Hungarian leaders, as well as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It is bordered on either side by the Museum of Fine Arts, which is temporarily closed for renovations, and City Park, home to Széchenyi Baths.

Széchenyi Baths Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Széchenyi Baths
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Buy a day pass and change into your bathing suit before making your way through the various indoor and outdoor baths. Watch as tourists risk dropping their iPhones into the water while trying to take a good selfie and older local men play chess while tanning outside. To cap off the relaxing experience, schedule a massage at the bath spa.

Saturday afternoon

After a morning at the baths, you will be exhausted. Stop at Café Gerbeaud (Vörösmarty tér 7-8) for a sugary pick-me-up. This traditional café is gilded from top to bottom and has a dessert menu for the ages.

Don't miss out on Café Gerbeaud! Photo: Emma Freer
Don’t miss out on Café Gerbeaud!
Photo: Emma Freer

Next head back over to the Danube, cross over the Chain Bridge, and catch the funicular up to Castle Hill. Up atop the Buda side of the city, you’ll have a panoramic view of the Pest side as well as a whole new set of sites to explore, including the Sándor Palace (the president’s house), the Buda Castle and the Fisherman’s Bastion. From any of these sites, you’ll be at a perfect vantage point to see the Buda Hills, the Parliament building and the Danube from above.

The Fisherman's Bastion Photo: Emma Freer
The Fisherman’s Bastion
Photo: Emma Freer

If you have time after exploring the Buda side of the city, catch a late afternoon boat tour along the river using the morning’s metro pass.

Saturday evening

For dinner, head back toward the synagogue to Café Spinoza (Dob utca 15). Inside this charming little bistro you’ll find a jaunty piano player and old-timey movie posters. Afterwards, walk for four minutes and arrive at the bar Szimpla Kert (Kazinczy utca 14). Recommended to me on two separate occasions, this bar is nothing short of “the coolest bar in the world.” Order pálinka, a traditional Hungarian fruit brandy, and enjoy the scene.

Sunday morning

Before leaving, grab one last bite at Budapest Bagels (Baross utca 4). This unassuming, hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop sells incredible homemade bagels, filled with creative combinations (from banana and peanut butter to Parma ham with lots of fixings). Eat your bagel while people-watching from inside the shop and start planning your next trip!





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