There are many cities in the world where 24 hours is an adequate amount of time to see the sights and still have a little time left over to leisurely wander about and people-watch from a cozy cafe, but I’m telling you right now, Budapest is not one of those cities. We only had 24 hours in Budapest on our cruise down the Danube with Viking River Cruises and I definitely left wanting more, so much so that when I returned home from the trip, I immediately added Budapest to our to-see list for our fourth year in London. After my short “taster session” in Hungary’s capital, I was so excited at the prospect of returning again.
As it turned out, a move to Asia meant we never got a fourth year in London, so I’ve yet to return and explore thoroughly, but I can at least share with you today what I have seen, which is actually quite a lot considering the limited amount of time I had in the city. I’ve included a few recommendations at the bottom of this post for how much time I truly think you need here, but if you’ve only got 24 hours in Budapest, the following are a few things you won’t want to miss!
One Day in Budapest Itinerary
Check out the View from the Fisherman’s Bastion
First things first, you might be interested to know the city of Budapest is actually two cities (or three counting Óbuda) – Buda and Pest, bisected by the Danube River which flows through the heart of the city. Buda and Pest are quite different from each other, and for the most well-rounded day in Budapest, you’ll want to spend some time in both of them.
I suggest starting your day on the Buda side of the river where, sitting majestically atop Castle Hill, the Fisherman’s Bastion offers (arguably) the best view in the city. Not to mention, the architecture of the terrace itself is pretty amazing to see.
From the Bastion’s terrace and its seven towers, you’ll be treated to perfect, unobstructed views of the Hungarian Parliament Building, the Danube, the city of Pest, and Gellért Hill, another location known for its sweeping views of the city.
The Fisherman’s Bastion is open every day of the year and is (mostly) free to enter. There is a small charge if you’d like to go inside the upper towers, but in my opinion, the view is equally as lovely from the lower towers and turrets, so unless you’d like to pretend you’re a princess in a castle overlooking the city, you can probably skip those.
- Find the Fisherman’s Bastion on a map here.
See the Colorful Interior of Matthias Church
Situated directly beside the Fisherman’s Bastion is Matthias Church, the second largest church in Budapest after St Stephen’s Basilica.
From the outside, Matthias Church looks pretty much like every other Gothic-style cathedral, but when you walk in, it’s like a color explosion! Multicolored frescoes adorn every inch of wall space from ceiling to floor, and the floor even gets a colorful upgrade with geometric tile designs featuring flowers in varying shapes and sizes.
Matthias Church is really something to see, especially if you’ve gotten a bit bored with visiting the usual churches and cathedrals in Europe. (I never thought I’d be one of those people for whom all cathedrals started to look the same, but after three years traveling Europe, they’ve definitely begun to run together. Not this one, though!)
To worship or pray, entrance into Matthias Church is free, but if you’re visiting as a tourist, you’ll need to pay for an admission ticket. However, with your ticket you’ll be free to wander in the church as long as you like, join one of the guided tours, or visit the Museum of Ecclesiastical Art which is located in the church as well, so it’s well worth the money.
- Find Matthias Church on a map here.
Visit Buda Castle
Also located in Buda is Buda Castle, the city’s ancient royal palace and the historical seat of the Hungarian kings. We didn’t have time to go inside the castle, but we did get to walk through the palace courtyards and enjoy the view from the front of the palace. Like the Fisherman’s Bastion, thanks to its position high on Castle Hill, Buda Castle offers plenty of opportunities for photographers looking for expansive views of the city below.
Unfortunately, due to looting and damage during WWII, a ticket into Buda Castle isn’t for a tour through the palace’s royal apartments and ballrooms. Instead, what you’ll find inside Buda Castle is the Hungarian National Gallery, the Budapest History Museum, and the National Library.
The National Library offers free temporary exhibitions, but to view their permanent exhibitions or enter either of the other two museums, there is an admission charge.
- Find Buda Castle on a map here.
Explore the Streets of Pest
There is a noticeable difference between the two sides of Budapest, and I don’t just mean their geography. (Although Buda is hilly and Pest is completely flat.) To see what I mean, the next thing on your Budapest itinerary should be to cross the Széchenyi Chain Bridge over to the Pest side of the city.
Buda might have the history and gorgeous views, but Pest definitely has the livelier city vibe by far. At least from a street photography perspective, I enjoyed the Pest side of Budapest even more than the Old City of Buda. I only wish we’d had time to see more.
We began our 24 hours in Budapest with a bus tour of Pest before making our way over to the Fisherman’s Bastion, but the problem with a bus tour is that you’re watching everything pass far too quickly from behind a foggy window, so I was very thankful when we headed back over to Pest and were given a little time to roam around.
The architecture in Pest is lovely and the tram system makes it incredibly easy to get around. I completely agree with everyone who says, Visit Buda, but stay in Pest! Some areas here to check out – Danube Promenade, Heroes’ Square, Váci Street, and the streets surrounding the Great Market Hall for a glimpse into daily life in Pest.
Try Hungarian Delicacies at the Great Market Hall
While you’re exploring out and about in Pest, make sure you pay a visit to the Great Market Hall, the largest and oldest indoor market in Budapest. Also known as the Central Market Hall, this unique 19th century market is made up of three floors of fresh food vendors, delicious-smelling food stalls, and little souvenir shops.
The main floor was my favorite, offering everything from fresh produce and spices to Hungarian candies and pastries. The second floor overlooking the first is where you’ll find souvenirs and more food stalls, many selling homemade Hungarian meals to-go. And the basement floor, if you can handle the smell, is your one stop shop for fresh fish and pickled vegetables. (I stuck to the pastry section myself.)
The Great Market Hall is a popular spot for both locals and tourists alike to come for lunch, so if you’re looking to pay a visit, avoiding the lunch rush hours from 12-2pm will probably make for a more enjoyable experience. The market is free to enter, but good luck leaving without spending at least a few forint on the local dishes and delicacies served here!
- Find the Great Market Hall on a map here.
Cruise down the Danube at Night
Several bridges connect the Old City of Buda to the more modern Pest on the other side of the river, so it’s easy to walk or take public transport between the two, but for a unique look at the most famous sights on both sides of the river, a boat or ferry ride down the Danube is the way to go.
For the very best experience, I recommend booking a cruise at night. The city scenery that is by all accounts perfectly lovely by day becomes absolutely magical after the sun goes down. Buda Castle, Chain Bridge, and several other famous landmarks all light up at night, casting a warm orange glow onto the river below, but it is the Hungarian Parliament Building that you really won’t want to miss. It shines like a beacon along the river, drawing all of Budapest’s tourists towards its bright, fairytale-like facade.
We cruised down the Danube in Budapest on our Viking ship, but there are numerous boat tour operators offering river cruises along the same route we took through the UNESCO-designated portions of the city. Your hotel should be able to book one for you, but if not, there are lots of tour companies conveniently set up near Dock 7 along the Promenade to choose from. If you’d like to book ahead, this one-hour evening cruise with Legenda is highly rated, includes drinks, and leaves from Dock 7.
Budapest Travel Tips
How Long to Stay in Budapest
If you’re visiting Budapest for the first time, I’d say a minimum of 3 days/2 nights in the city would be enough to see most of its best bits without feeling completely rushed. When I was planning our return trip that we ultimately never got to take, that was how long I’d intended for us to stay.
For those visiting Budapest on a Viking River Cruise, there are a couple of ways you can work a little more time in the city into your schedule. The cheapest way is simply to arrive as early as possible on the first day of your cruise, and after dropping your bags on the ship, head out into the city to explore on your own.
The second option is to take advantage of the pre-cruise extension which tacks on a couple extra days in the city before your cruise officially begins. This option is certainly the more expensive one, but would allow for plenty of time to properly visit Budapest. Otherwise, if you arrive on the evening of the first day of the cruise like we did, you’ll only have one day in Budapest before your boat departs for the next destination.
How to Get Around
Like most of Europe’s capital cities, Budapest is highly walkable, particularly in Pest. If getting around on your own two feet isn’t your thing, though, you’ll love using public transport in this city. It’s so easy, and the buses, subways, and brightly-colored trams go everywhere.
You can purchase single tickets on any form of transport for the equivalent of $1 USD. You’ll find everything you need to know about public transportation in Budapest via this link. 24-hour and 3-day travelcards are available for purchase if you plan to use public transport frequently on your trip.
FYI – If hiking up the hill to the Fisherman’s Bastion first thing in the morning doesn’t sound like fun, there is a funicular that will take you straight to the top, and back down when you’re done visiting Castle Hill. You can find info for that here.
Other Things to Do in Budapest
If you’re lucky enough to have more than one day in Budapest, in addition to everything listed on the itinerary above, I’d also recommend…
- Having a soak in one of the famous thermal baths (Széchenyi is the most popular)
- Taking a hike up Gellért Hill to the Citadella
- Going inside St Stephan’s Basilica
- Seeing the Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial on the Pest side of the river
- Dropping by what just might be the most beautiful cafe in the whole world – the New York Café
- And taking a tour of the Hungarian Parliament Building
These were just a few of the things I had hoped to do on my return visit. One day, Budapest, I’ll be back for you!
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