Ultimate Three Day Itinerary for Budapest
Budapest, the capital of Hungary, often referred to as the Pearl of the Danube, or the Paris of the East is a short 2 hour 30-minute flight from the UK and is one of Europe’s most popular cities for a three-night break.
I adore the history and architecture of Eastern European cities and having visited Prague, Ljubljana, Gdansk and Tallinn, had my sights set on travelling to Budapest to discover her unique charm and character.
If you are wondering whether three days in Budapest is the right amount of time I would say it is perfect. My complete Budapest itinerary will help you to navigate the city and give you time in Budapest to see all the famous Hungarian sights at a leisurely pace.
Buda and Pest Explained
Budapest was split down the middle by the Danube River until the two sides were joined together by bridge crossings in the late 19th century creating the city of Budapest.
On one side of the river is Buda, the hilly part of Budapest and known as the Castle District. Buda is home to must-see Budapest attractions, including 700-year old St Matthias Church, Fisherman’s Bastion and Buda Castle, possibly making it the most popular area in Budapest for tourists to explore.
Pest is on the opposite side of the Danube and home to the incredible Hungarian Parliament building. Pest is a more modern part of Budapest and flatter than its neighbour.
This is where you will find luxury hotels and Michelin star restaurants alongside historic landmarks such as St Stephens Basilica and the Dohány Street Synagogue. Pest is a mix of the old and the new with a more contemporary feel than Buda. It is also the place for Budapest’s famous nightlife and ruin bars.
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Trip Overview – A Three Day Itinerary for Budapest
First Day (afternoon flight arrival) Explore the streets of Pest – New York Cafe – Shoes on the Danube – Opera House – St Stephen’s Basilica – Dohány Street Synagogue -River Danube Night Cruise
Second Day Explore Buda Old Town – Chain Bridge – Fisherman’s Bastion – Buda Castle – St Matthias Church – Fine Dining at COSTES.
Third Day Széchenyi Spa – City Park – Vajdahunyad Castle – Fine Dining at New York Cafe
Fourth Day (morning) Hungarian Parliament Building Tour – St Margaret’s Island – Afternoon Flight Home
Where To Stay in Budapest
I stayed at the beautiful Anantara New York Palace in Pest for my three nights in Budapest and can highly recommend it. The spacious guest rooms wind around a central indoor atrium filled with beautiful flowers and comfy seating areas.
The five-star hotel is also home to the world’s most beautiful cafe – The New York Cafe, a famous landmark in Budapest. It serves breakfast, lunch and dinner to hotel guests and visitors, but if not staying at the hotel, make a reservation as you may find yourself on the tail-end of a massive queue of visitors, all eager to see this spectacular Budapest cafe.
Please check here for the availability and pricing of alternative hotels in Pest.
We travelled to Budapest on a direct flight from London Gatwick with Easyjet. We landed in the early afternoon, allowing us to start sightseeing in Budapest on our first afternoon in the city.
To get from the airport to the city, I booked a Budapest private taxi transfer for speed and comfort. It wasn’t expensive and eliminated waiting for the airport to city shuttle bus or train.
How To Get Around Budapest
At the beginning of our Budapest weekend getaway, we picked up the official Budapest Card. The card is an excellent way of seeing all the best attractions in Budapest and can cover from one day up to five days, depending on how long you are planning to stay in Budapest.
The Budapest card will give free or discounted entry to over 30 of the best Budapest attractions and tours, and you can buy one online before you arrive. The ticket also allows you to use public transport for free.
The Budapest Hop on Hop Off Bus is another excellent way of seeing the top sights in Budapest during your trip to Budapest.
Or take a turn around Budapest on two wheels!
One of the cheap things to do in Budapest is to hop aboard Tram #2, which runs alongside the Danube on the Pest side. It is an excellent way to see some of the attractions in Budapest without spending too much. Another cheap idea is to join a free walking tour of Budapest although these walking tours are not completely free and are reliant on tips at the end of the tour.
The top Budapest sights are spread out over the city, so when planning your Budapest itinerary, be sure to plan to do the Pest and Buda sides on different days.
What to See and Do in Budapest
Travel Itinerary of the best things to do in Budapest in 3 Days
Day One – Afternoon
Whenever we arrive in a European city, we love to wander through its streets with no plan. It is a time to acquaint ourselves with the area we are staying in and to make a mental note of nearby restaurants, coffee shops, open spaces and tourist attractions.
By doing this, we often stumble on things that aren’t on the tourist trails, which give a different perspective to the city we are visiting, and even though I am an avid planner, I always make time to go with the flow when I first set foot in a new country.
Our first afternoon in Budapest was no different. We strolled through her streets and took in the architectural delights of her buildings, some in a pristine condition and others with crumbling facades and daubed in graffiti, portraying her Communist past.
Budapest is one of Europe’s top cities to see street art, and visitors can book a guided street art tour to understand more about urban culture in Budapest. There is also an Art Nouveau guided tour of Budapest.
We discovered that many of the crumbling buildings we were passing had been re-invented as Budapest’s Ruin Bars, places to hang out, enjoy a few beers and listen to local musicians. We didn’t visit any ourselves, but they are one of the popular attractions in Budapest, especially for younger visitors to the city.
One of the most famous ruin bars in Budapest’s Jewish Quarter is Szimpla Kert, known for its eclectic vibe and outlandish decor. However, things calm down on a Sunday, when it turns into Szimpla Farmers Market!
Budapest Bronze Statues
One of the things we kept noticing dotted around the city were bronze statues. The subjects ranged from political and historical figures to TV stars and fictional characters.
A local tradition is that rubbing these bronze Budapest statues will bring you luck. Evidence of this ‘good luck’ rubbing is the gleaming areas on some figures. Two of my favourites were the ‘Fat Policeman’ located by St Stephen’s Basilica and the ‘Little Princess’ situated by the Danube River.
A stone’s throw from the Little Princess statue is the beautiful Gerbeaud Cafe, an institution in Budapest since 1858. Visitors can enjoy mouthwatering pastries, cakes and hand-made chocolates in an olde-world setting complete with chandeliers!
St Stephen’s Basilica
St Stephen’s Basilica is one of Hungary’s most important religious buildings and one of the most frequently photographed Hungarian tourist attractions. Visitors can see the thousand year old, ‘Holy Right’ mummified hand of Stephen, Hungary’s first king.
In August, the Hungarian people celebrate St Stephen’s Day when the royal hand is taken out of the Basilica to be part of the celebration parade.
The streets surrounding St Stephens Basilica are bursting with cafes and restaurants and one of our cool finds was an ice cream shop called Gelata Rosa, famous for its rose-shaped ice cream. We had already seen this kind of ice cream art in Venice and Seville but it’s one of those cool things in Budapest that we just had to have.
After our ice cream, we walked to Liberty Square, a lovely green area with a cafe at its centre. Liberty Square also houses the American Embassy which explains why there are two bronze figures nearby of Ronald Reagan and George Bush; not something I expected to see in Budapest!
See if you can find a bronze ‘Kermit the Frog’ hidden in the park.
Dohány Street Synagogue
The next highlight we found as we wandered around Pest was Europe’s largest synagogue on Dohány Street in Budapest’s Jewish Quarter. It is ornate and a stunning piece of architecture in Budapest, which also houses the Hungarian Jewish Museum. Being designed in the Moorish Revival style reminded me of one of the Jewish Synagogue Museums that I have visited in Prague.
In the garden is a metal weeping willow tree. On its leaves are the names of 30,000 Holocaust victims, a poignant memorial to the lives lost in the atrocities.
If you are interested in discovering more about Hungarian Jewish history, there is a fascinating Jewish heritage walking tour in Budapest. It covers the Dohany Street Synagogue, the Jewish Museum, the Holocaust Cemetery, and the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park.
Shoes on the Danube
One of the most poignant bronze pieces we came across is ‘Shoes On The Danube’. The 60 pairs of bronze shoes represent the many Hungarian Jews that were lined up along the river during WW2 and shot by Budapest’s far-right nationalist Arrow Cross Party, who shared Nazi ideologies.
The innocent victims would then fall into the river leaving only their shoes as proof of their existence; they were often worn by the militiamen or sold. This tribute is a must-see in Budapest and a moving reminder of the atrocities of the Holocaust.
You will find this emotive Hungarian memorial on the Pest side of the Danube near Hungary’s Parliament Building.
Hungarian State Opera House
After viewing this moving memorial we took a leisurely 15-minute stroll back to Unesco listed Andrassy Street, the hub of Pest and home to hotels, designer labels and eateries including a Cat cafe, where you can enjoy coffee surrounded by a litter of kittens and cats! Walk its length and you will reach the Unesco site of Heroes Square.
We were more interested in the beautifully ornate Hungarian State Opera House, than the cat cafe, but we weren’t there for the arts. Instead, we had coffee and cake at the totally opulent Opera Cafe Budapest; a special place to finish off our first afternoon of sightseeing in Budapest.
Day One – Evening
Budapest Evening River Cruise
One way to see the sights of Budapest at night is to book an evening river cruise. On our first evening in Budapest, we decided to do this activity to familiarise ourselves with the two sides of the city, Buda and Pest, from the vantage point of the River Danube.
Our group met at the cruise jetty near St Stephen’s Basilica, the largest church in Budapest and a national landmark. We thought that it looked awesome lit up against the night sky.
You can book tickets for your Budapest Danube River Cruise here.
Once aboard, we were given a welcome drink and music was played. We wound our way along the Danube river and past the illuminated Hungarian Parliament, possibly the most important building in Hungary.
Our cruise continued along the waterway, allowing us to view famous sights in Budapest, including Buda Castle and the Chain Bridge. The cruise was a highlight of our short break to Budapest and one I would recommend.
Day Two – Morning
Exploring Buda Old Town
After another fantastic breakfast at the New York Palace Hotel, we headed across Budapest’s Chain Bridge from Széchenyi Square in Pest to explore the historic sights of Buda. The main crowd-pleasers are Buda Castle, Fisherman’s Bastion, and St Matthias Church, and we were ready to check them out.
The chain bridge was the first bridge built in the Hungarian capital to join Buda and Pest and is one of Budapest’s best-known landmarks.
We arrived at the foot of the Castle Hill Funicular, another historic Budapest attraction in its own right. The funicular was opened in 1870 and has been transporting weary visitors up the hill to Buda Castle and Fisherman’s Bastion for over 100 years. On our visit the queues were long, so we climbed up the steps to reach the top; it wasn’t as bad as I had heard!
At the top of Castle Hill, our reward was the most sensational panoramic view across Budapest and the Danube River. We captured some great shots of Budapest from this point, including the chain bridge and some of Budapest’s more prominent buildings. I think this is probably the best place in Budapest to capture the essence of Hungary’s capital city.
Budapest’s Castle Quarter
The Castle Quarter is the touristy part of Buda and is an easy place to get around. Even so, you may like to know a little more of the history behind these Budapest landmarks rather than wondering what they are and why they are there. Let’s face it, who would have thought Fisherman’s Bastion was built as a Hungarian memorial and not some strategic defence post!
These Castle Quarter Guided Tours will highlight all the best things to see in Buda by an expert.
If you have seen the images of a cream-coloured fairytale turreted building in Budapest, that is Fisherman’s Bastion. It is one of the most visited attractions in Budapest and was high on my three day Budapest itinerary must-see list.
Fisherman’s Bastion was built between 1895 and 1902 to celebrate the 1000th birthday of the Hungarian state and was part of a group of memorial structures, including Heroes Square and Vajdahunyad Castle.
The dramatic stone stairs leading up to Fisherman’s Bastion from the main road give some idea of how the original architect wanted this iconic Budapest structure to represent the grandeur of Hungary’s medieval history. In my view, he certainly achieved his goal.
We walked up into the turrets for a sensational view back across to Pest on our visit. From here you can also access a medieval chapel that was discovered by builders during the construction of Fisherman’s Bastion.
St Matthias Church
This 700-year old Gothic-style Roman Catholic church stands majestically in front of Fisherman’s Bastion and is one of the highlights of Budapest. With its unmistakable colourful roof tiles and its beautiful stained glass windows, it is worth seeing the inside of the church.
There is a small entry fee, and visitors can buy tickets online before a visit. You can also book a ticket for the classical music concert at St Matthias Church which, by all accounts, is said to be pretty remarkable.
One of the things you can see just outside St. Matthias Church is the bronze statue of St. Stephen, the first King of Hungary (1000-1038). You can find more out about St Stephen inside the Basilica in Pest.
Take time to wander away from the main tourist area at Fisherman’s Bastion and discover a quieter side of Buda. We found a lovely local cafe and enjoyed coffee and cake away from the madding crowds!
From Fisherman’s Bastion, we made our way through the castle grounds to the Buda Castle complex, consisting of several historical buildings housing the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum.
The architecture in this area is incredible, and even if you don’t go inside any of the buildings, you will get an idea of how important they were, and are, from their facades.
The actual size of the castle complex is hard to appreciate from up close, which is why a Danube riverboat cruise is such a great way of seeing the scale of Budapest’s most important attractions from a distance.
Take time to visit The Hospital in the Rock Nuclear Bunker Museum in the caverns under Buda Castle. Originally created in the 1930s, in preparation for the Second World War and used as a wartime hospital.
To finish off your time in the Castle Quarter, why not relax in the park on Castle Hill. Just be warned that it can get hot in Budapest, and I ended up with heatstroke even in April. Make sure to stay hydrated during your sightseeing in Budapest and wear a hat!
When we had finished sightseeing in Buda, we crossed back over the Széchenyi Chain Bridge and treated ourselves to a glass of wine at Budapest’s most prestigious Art Nouveau building, The Gresham Palace Hotel. If you want to splash the cash on a luxury stay in Budapest, the Four Seasons Gresham Palace Hotel is the best of the best.
Day Two – Evening
Dining at COSTES Michelin Star Restaurant
With so many excellent Michelin restaurants in Budapest, choosing which one to visit can be tricky. The restaurant COSTES was our first choice, and we were not disappointed. We opted for the tasting menu with wine pairing, and the design, presentation and flavours of each dish were exquisite.
COSTES is the perfect restaurant for food fans to appreciate but happens to be one of Budapest’s most popular restaurants, so reservations need to be booked up well in advance.
Day Three – Morning
Budapest is central Europe’s spa capital, so you can’t visit the city without experiencing the magical thermal baths for yourself. Thermal baths often referred to as spas, have naturally warmed waters, believed to contain beneficial minerals with unique health-giving properties.
There are various thermal spas in Budapest to visit. Still, the Széchenyi Baths in City Park are Budapest’s most famous baths, easily recognised by their bright yellow interior buildings. These thermal baths look more like a museum than a spa from the outside, and we nearly walked past them!
To reach the thermal baths in City Park is a simple bus ride from the city centre and then a short walk. You can pre-book tickets here for entry to Széchenyi Spa Baths.
Once inside Széchenyi spa, you will find thirteen indoor pools varying in temperature (and smell!) and three huge outdoor pools. The odour I refer to is from the natural minerals in the waters and is akin to sulphur.
When I first entered the indoor complex, the smell was bad, but I soon adapted to it. There are several saunas and steam rooms indoors, and if the mood takes you, you can book yourself in for a massage. One of the saunas we entered was so hot we literally had to run back out again – it was either malfunctioning or we just aren’t tough enough to withstand Hungarian saunas!
On my visit, the staff looked quite foreboding dressed in clinical white uniforms, shouting instructions out in Hungarian to the visitors; sadly, none of the tourists had a clue what they were saying, so we all just went with the flow!
Play chess in the Széchenyi Spa
We stayed at the baths for a few hours, which was enough, as it started getting busy with visitors more interested in getting ‘that photo’ for Instagram than relaxing.
It was interesting to see the elderly Hungarian gentlemen playing chess in the pool (yes, there are chess boards engraved into stone tables in the water) who I imagine have been playing in the same spot since their youth.
This kind of scene makes travelling to new countries so rewarding, and I’m glad I got the chance to witness this cultural activity in Budapest.
Two other thermal spa baths in Budapest with the same old-world charm as the Széchenyi Spa are the Lukács Baths and the Gellért Baths in Buda. Budapest’s oldest open-air spa and pool complex is the art-deco inspired Palatinus Baths on Margaret Island.
There is also a popular medieval Turkish bath in Budapest, Rudas Baths, which attracts visitors for its late opening times on Friday and Saturday of 10 pm to 4 am; one for the night-owls!
Angie’s Top Tip:
Check out Széchenyi Garden Restaurant, next to Széchenyi Spa, a lovely spot for a lunch after a morning spa visit.
City Park and Vajdahunyad Castle
After our time in the Széchenyi Spa, we decided to stroll around the park and find its hidden treasures. City Park is a well-kept green area, often overlooked by Budapest’s more popular tourist spots. Its main entrance is in Heroes’ Square, a Unesco World Heritage site and Budapest’s most significant and symbolic square. Its statues commemorate the leaders of the seven tribes of the Hungarians and other leaders.
What first caught my eye was Vajdahunyad Castle, built on an island accessed via a bridge. To find a castle in the park was unexpected, especially one that looked like a cross between Dracula and Sleeping Beauty’s castles.
Like many landmarks in Budapest, the castle was built in 1896 as a monument to celebrate the Millennial Exhibition and not, as might be expected, built for a king. Whatever the reason for its existence, I thought it was a pretty unique building in a lovely location.
City Park also has a boating lake, which on our visit looked very popular with the locals, and several impressive buildings housing a few of Budapest’s museums. So, if you are looking for a park in Budapest to visit, this is it!
Discover More Fairytale Castles in Europe
We came across this statue in the park and found it quite sinister, with the hood covering the face. I am always curious for information and, on doing my research, found out that this statue is of Anonymus – the notary of a Hungarian king and one of the most mysterious characters in Hungarian history.
Tradition tells that modern writers can take inspiration from the statue of Anonymus by touching the pen, which is why it is now gleaming. This is another example of the Hungarian belief of rubbing certain statues for good luck.
Day Three – Evening
Fine Dining at the New York Cafe
Back in the New York Palace Hotel, we had a reservation for dinner in The Salon Restaurant, one of Budapest’s best restaurants, which serves modern interpretations of traditional Hungarian dishes from an à la carte menu. The mouth-watering five-course tasting and wine pairing menu was a great choice, and my husband still says it was one of his best-ever meals.
Dining at the Salon Restaurant is an event in its own right, so put aside a few hours to immerse yourself in the experience.
Day Four – Morning
Hungarian Parliament Building Tour
On our last morning in Budapest, we had a few hours to spare before our flight home and had booked a morning tour of Budapest’s parliament building.
The magnificent neo-Gothic building that houses Hungary’s Parliament sits in Pest, on the curve of the Danube, and is one of the most popular visitor destinations in Budapest.
It also happens to be the largest building in Hungary and the world’s third-largest parliament building and, after seeing it illuminated at night, we wanted to get a look inside.
Entering the building, we encountered tight security and had to show our passports alongside our entry tickets. Once inside, an English speaking guide told us all about Budapest’s Parliament Building, from its past to present history.
Like many parliament buildings, including the Houses of Westminster in London, the interior was as stunning as the exterior with incredible frescoed ceilings, priceless paintings, ornate fixtures and historical artefacts.
The Hungarian crown jewels are held in the parliament building with the most prized possession on display being the Holy Crown of Hungary, used since the 12th century to crown Hungary’s monarchs.
The incredible sixteen-sided central hall is one of the most famous parts of Budapest’s parliament building. It reminded me of the interior of a cathedral with its golden decor and wooden lectern and benches.
If you are wondering whether a tour around the inside of the parliament building is worth doing, then I think these pictures will show you that it is a must for any Budapest itinerary.
If you want to learn more about the Hungarian Parliament and other interesting landmarks in Budapest, you may like to book a walking tour of Budapest to familiarise yourself with the city.
St Margaret’s Island
After we visited Parliament, we headed to nearby Margaret’s Island. We found the entrance to the island halfway across the Margaret Bridge and spent some time wandering around this leafy area. We noticed that it was popular with locals to exercise, walk, and relax, away from Budapest’s busy city centre. If you have time on your weekend Budapest itinerary, this is an excellent place to people watch.
In 1921, the first thermal baths in Budapest opened on Margaret’s Island. Palatinus Thermal Baths are still in operation and were revamped in 2017. There is also a Japanese garden on the island and the Ensana Thermal four-star luxury spa hotel for guests who want to book a unique place to stay in Budapest.
One of the great free things to do in Budapest at night is to watch the Margaret Island musical fountain come to life. At 9 pm each evening, a musical show is put on by Budapest’s dancing fountains, complete with lights and coordinated music. The musical fountains also dance during the day, on the hour starting at 11 am.
Sightseeing in Budapest
The attractions I have listed in this post are some of the most popular tourist sights to see in Budapest on a three-night city break. If you have longer, you could add a few more onto your Budapest travel itinerary, including:
Gellért Hill in Buda – If you feel energetic, start your hill hike by Margaret’s Bridge or take one of the easier options of bus or taxi. At the top, admire the incredible statue of St Gellért, one of Hungary’s patron saints, that looks out over the surrounding landscape and Danube River.
Great Market Hall in Pest– Wander around Budapest’s neo-Gothic central market stall and watch the vendors sell their produce and souvenirs. Open every day except Sunday; this is an excellent place to visit in Budapest on a rainy day.
House of Terror in Pest – if you want to know more about the horrors rained down on Budapest from fascist and communist regimes, then this is the place for you. You can book a guided tour of AVO, the Communist secret police and learn about the shocking atrocities carried out here by the secret police.
Best Food Tours in Budapest
One of the great things to do in any new country is to book a food tour and discover local dishes. Here are some of the best food tours in Budapest.
Best Day Trips from Budapest
If you are spending longer than three days in Budapest, here are some of the best day trips from Budapest for you to book.
I hope you have found my three-night itinerary for visiting Budapest helpful. You may also like to read some of my short break itineraries covering other beautiful cities in Europe:
Travel Resources to Help You Plan Your Trip
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