There are plenty of 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 taste a few local treats, but I’m telling you right now, Budapest is not one of those cities. We only had 24 hours in Budapest on our trip 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, this time with Cory and Lex in tow.
As it turned out, a move to Asia meant we never got a fourth year in London, so I’ve still yet to return and properly explore Budapest, but I can at least share with you today what I have seen, which is actually quite a bit 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 in this fascinating city, but if you’ve only got 24 hours in Budapest, the following are a few things you won’t want to miss!
24 Hours in Budapest Itinerary
Cruise down the Danube at Night
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. 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 drive 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.
We cruised through Budapest on our Viking ship, but there are numerous boat tour operators offering cruises along the same route we took through the UNESCO-designated portions of the city. For the very best experience, I recommend booking a tour 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 and monuments 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 castle facade.
Check out the View from the Fisherman’s Bastion
Located on the Buda side of the river atop Castle Hill, the Fisherman’s Bastion in Budapest 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 in Budapest 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 her castle overlooking the city, you can probably skip those.
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 the usual churches and cathedrals in Europe. (I never thought I’d be one of those people for whom all churches started to look the same after awhile, but after three years traveling Europe, they definitely began 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.
Visit Buda Castle
Also on the Buda side of Budapest 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 Buda 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.
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 completely flat!) Buda might have the history and gorgeous views, but Pest has the livelier city vibe by far. It’s also a little easier to get a glimpse into daily life in Budapest on this side of the river, too. 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 had started our morning in Budapest with a bus tour of Pest before making our way over to Buda, 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!
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. This enormous 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 the 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!
How Long to Spend in Budapest
For those visiting Budapest as part of a Viking River Cruise down the Danube, there are a couple of ways you can work a little more time in the city into your schedule. The first and cheapest way is simply to arrive in Budapest as early as possible on the first day of the 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 Viking offers that provides an extra couple of days in Budapest before the 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 about 24 hours in Budapest before the boat departs for the next destination.
For everyone else visiting Budapest, 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 trip to Budapest that we didn’t get to take, that was how long I’d intended for us to stay. If you’re lucky enough to have more than 24 hours 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, taking a hike up Gellért Hill to the Citadella, visiting St Stephan’s Basilica and the Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial on the Pest side of the river, and dropping by what just might be the most beautiful cafe in the whole world – the New York Café. (Seriously, google it. It looks incredible.) 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!
This post is part of a series. If you’d like to read more about cruising the Danube with Viking River Cruises, just follow the link!
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