Does your next holiday include a stop in the fascinating capital city of Hungary? If not, get it on your itinerary, stat! Budapest boasts European charm while maintaining the slight grittiness that makes it so unique. Straddling the Danube River with monumental bridges and a modern public transportation system linking its two distinct sides, Buda and Pest, the city is quickly shedding its communist past and emerging as a top European destination. Here are our insider picks for what to eat, see and do when you have just 48 hours to explore spectacular Budapest!
Every trip to Budapest must include a market visit. The most famous (and most popular) market is Central Market Hall. The building itself is worth the trip, but the prepared foods served on the second level are a worthy reason to visit on their own. Here you can try every famous Hungarian food, such as langos, fried dough traditionally topped with sour cream, cheese and garlic. Don’t forget about the smaller markets, which can be found all over the city. Follow any Hungarian with a basket in hand and you’re likely to find a market with fresh Hungarian food!
Popular restaurant Mazel Tov aims for a garden party vibe in the center of Budapest’s Jewish district. Mazel Tov offers Mediterranean plates with plenty of vegetarian options. Most nights, live music sets the tone for the late night crowd. As with most Budapest restaurants, getting a reservation is recommended. Budapest locals go out every night of the week, so restaurants and bars fill up quickly.
Soups and sandwiches don’t usually have cult followings, but Bors GasztroBár has inspired such a following with their creative soups and sandwiches that it seems there is a permanent line out the door. Don’t be deterred — the line moves quickly and you’ll be in and out of the Star Wars-themed shop and planning your next visit in no time.
KonyvBar & Restaurant’s concept is every bookworm and foodie’s dream come true. Each week, they cook a book. The menus are thoughtful and are offered as a full tasting menu or à la carte. Recent menus included green tea-marinated chicken breast inspired by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and duck breast with chocolate sauce inspired by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.
Dine with locals at Eat & Meet. Suzie and her parents are local Hungarians who welcome guests to their home for an authentic Hungarian meal, with insight into Hungarian cuisine, culture and, of course, wine. Eat & Meet’s dinners are attended by visitors from around the world, so you’ll have the chance to share a meal and converse with people from a variety of cultures.
Daily dessert is a vacation necessity and Budapest has endless dessert offerings. Kürtőskalács, or chimney cake, is made of dough wrapped around a tube (shaped like a chimney!), cooked over charcoals and rolled in walnuts or cinnamon. They can be found all over the city at outdoor stands. As for the rest of the cakes in Budapest, well, you’ll just have to try them all! Eszterházy, Dobos torta and Krémes are just a few of the sublimely exquisite dessert offerings available at pastry shops like Auguszt Cukrászda, which dates back to 1870.
Many people don’t realize how stunning Budapest is until they see it for themselves. The hike to the top of Gellert Hill is rewarded with panoramic views of the city. The hill is lined with various paths, so you can choose between a more winding approach or a more direct steep path. The Citadella, a military fortress built by the Habsburgs in the 1850s, sits at the top of the hill. The hill is also home to a beautiful park, so it’s the perfect spot for a post-hike picnic.
For a uniquely Budapest night-life experience, head to the ruin pubs. Szimpla and Instant are the biggest and most well-known, but smaller ruin pubs can be found throughout the city. If you’re not into nightlife, Szimpla opens at noon and an afternoon coffee or drink is the perfect opportunity to appreciate the decor without the crowds. (Insider tip: Szimpla’s hot chocolate is surprisingly decadent and can be spiked with Bailey’s or Jameson.)
Book tickets in advance for a Parliament tour. You’ll skip the line and will get to tour arguably the most beautiful building in Budapest. The Holy Crown of Hungary is housed in the Parliament building, but the most unique feature may be the built-in cigar holders for members of Parliament.
For a totally different museum experience, check out Pinball Museum Budapest. The museum houses 130 pinball machines and for a small admission fee, you can be a pinball wizard for as long as you’d like!
Hop on, hop off city tours are often cringe-worthy, but the hop on, hop off river cruises in Budapest offer a fun, cheap way to float down the Danube and learn more about Budapest’s history. Sailing the Danube at night is especially recommended for a magical view!
Fisherman’s Bastion is a panoramic viewing terrace overlooking the Danube, with a perfectly-framed view of the Parliament building across the Danube. The terrace’s architecture gives off the vibe of a fairy-tale castle and besides the upper towers, it’s free to visit.
Thermal bathing is a deep-rooted part of Hungarian culture thanks to the many natural thermal waters that flow through the country. The most impressive thermal baths are Gellert and Szechenyi. Rudas’ rooftop bath offers a view overlooking the Danube. Visit late night to see the bridges lit up for the evening.
Unicum is a Hungarian herbal liqueur made according to a secret recipe dating back to 1790. Visit The Zwack Museum and Heritage Centre to learn about the history of the Zwack family, the makers of Unicum, and to see the museum’s collection of 17,000 miniature bottles. The entry ticket also includes an Unicum tasting. Egészségedre!
Szamos is known for its chocolates, marzipan and pastries. Dive deeper into the action with a chocolate-making course. Make bonbons or truffles and if you don’t eat them all first, take some home as a handmade souvenir.
Thrill-seekers can thank Budapest’s thermal waters for the network of caves beneath the city. Caving tours are family-friendly and require no previous caving experience. Just be sure to get in touch via email before you go to book your tour.
Ecseri flea market is on the outskirts of the city, but can be reached by bus and is worth the trip for anyone who loves hunting for a bargain or exploring a treasure trove of secondhand and antique items. Saturday is the best day to go. Arrive early and don’t be afraid to haggle for a better price.
If lush plants are your thing, Eötvös Loránd University’s botanic garden is a green haven right in the middle of district VIII. The garden’s collection includes tropical plants, succulents and an arboretum.
48 hours is plenty of time to experience the diversity that Budapest has to offer. Thanks to Budapest's walkability, efficient public transportation system and public bike system, visitors can see much of the city in a short amount of time. That doesn't mean you should be in a hurry though. The most important piece of advice we can offer for enjoying Budapest? Linger often and savour the many special moments of your time in this magical capital.
Ready to get your Budapest on?