Budapest is one of my favourite short break cities in Europe – it’s easily accessible from Vienna and still, despite having visited it numerous times, I consider it full of mysteries and unexplored places.
Budapest is a city for everyone: solo travellers, foodies, budget travellers, digital nomads, weekend visitors, festival goers, history lovers, couples and many more. Also for introverts! Despite its popularity, it’s big enough to accommodate crowd-disliking people like me.
This post has a complete list of my sightseeing tips and restaurants in Budapest that will send any foodie into #foodheaven. Hope you will find it useful!
#1 Essential tips for visiting Budapest
When to visit – I prefer visiting in autumn when the summer crowds dissipate and the winter season with its Christmas markets has not started yet. If you are an introvert, do not go to Budapest in the summer, specifically avoiding August because of one of the biggest music festivals in Europe happening in Budapest on the Margaret Island – Sziget Festival. It gets really bad between June – August. I do recommend visiting Budapest in late January – it looks magical covered in the snow.
English – You will be okay in hostels, hotels, most restaurants, cafes and museums. We had some funny situations (Me: I suffer from lactose intolerance, do you have soy milk? Yes? Ok, will have soy milk latte. Waiter, 10 mins later: *brings soy milk latte* with a big dollop of whipped cream*). It’s going to be more difficult in the regular stores, but wherever tourists are regular, someone will help you out.
Currency exchange – I suggest you pay with your credit card at the hotel and take money out of your debit account from a cashpoint choosing ‘Without DCC (“dynamic currency conversion”)’ option. DCC means that the bank will be choosing your currency conversion rate, which almost guarantees you will lose money. Always pay in local currency – you will be charged a small fee by your bank but in the end, the conversion rate will not be atrocious. Read more about DCC here. Be aware of the currency exchange scams: avoid street exchange (it’s illegal in Hungary) and the bright orange Interchange currency exchange shops, present even at the airport, which are notorious for ripping off tourists.
Tap water in Budapest is drinkable – The same goes for fountains distributed around the city. If you will be in Budapest in the summer, don’t accept the single-use small plastic bags with water distributed by volunteers when it gets really hot – they will be littering the streets at the end of each day, I have seen it. Simply grab a refillable bottle and refill. You can view the map of fountains, hydrants that allow access to drinking water thanks to the Ivócsap Projekt (“ReHydrant Project” in English) and places that will refill your bottles here.
Don’t buy the Budapest Card, unless you want to do a museum marathon – Not worth it, especially that in general, Budapest is really affordable. Do buy a public transport ticket. The Hungarian capital’s subway system is the oldest electrified underground railway system on the European continent, and the third-oldest electrically operated underground railway in the world (Wikipedia). The stations of Yellow line M1 are one of the attractions. 24-hour Budapest-travelcard costs 1 650 HUF, which is EUR 5.30. The tickets with set dates do not require validation (the time and date are printed on the ticket) but the single-use ones do. The validating machines are usually placed at the entrance to the station. You need to present a valid ticket to the inspector even if you are not on the train – I got checked a couple of times, including by a group of ticket controllers when waiting to board the subway. In the last instance, I dropped my rucksack out of stress, then bent down to pick it up and knocked over a trash can, then knocked over our suitcase when straightening up, which caused the controller to wave me forward without looking at my pass, while crying with laughter. Tip: make a fool out of yourself if your ticket is not valid. This notice about public transport fines in English might be helpful.
For more tips on travel in Budapest, view this article on Budapest by Locals.
Biking – If you are feeling comfortable to bike around Budapest, rent a bicycle. We used Dynamobike which is a bike rental & bakery in one. More about Dynamobike below.
Buy alcohol before 10 pm if you plan to drink at home – in Hungary, it is illegal to sell alcohol after 22:00.
Be careful & respectful – While Budapest is a friendly and history-rich city, remember about the locals and remember that being a tourist is not always welcome. Behave yourself and protect yourself from scams. This is one of the most useful posts I have read on the topic.
Where not to stay -> Do not stay at West Side Hostel. My boyfriend had a valuable item stolen from our cupboard and the stay was plain uncomfortable. Cheap but so not worth it.
Take into consideration that locals in Budapest are suffering from increased rental prices and low availability of flats, which are prepped for Airbnb and holiday rental. If you can, make sure your stay is something more than only a low-cost to you. Oh, if you want peace and quiet, don’t stay in the party district – the VII district. Check out this helpful guide to neighbourhoods in Budapest.
#3 Things to do in Budapest
Wondering what to do and see in Budapest? This is my list of very relaxed and history-rich activities only. No partying included, soz!
Free Walking Tours – This is the best way to get to know the rich history of Budapest. It will take you to all the must-sees that every tourist should really visit regardless of the length of their stay so I won’t list all of the points covered on the tour here. We did all the original one, the Jewish district one and the Communism one. Really worth going. Remember to tip handsomely! These guys are doing an amazing job.
Castle Hill (Várhegy) – If you take the Free Walking Tour, you will definitely visit the Castle Hill. If not, just head down the busy Chain Bridge (Széchenyi lánchíd) and climb up the stairs to reach one of the most beautiful areas in Budapest. You will see the Fishermen’s Bastion, and Sándor Palace (Sándor Palota) sometimes called ‘The White House’, where resides the current president of Hungary. You can see the guards changing every hour from Monday to Friday – here’s a video of recorded by one of the tourists.
Visit Terror Háza Múzeum, House of Terror – It contains exhibits related to the fascist and communist regimes in 20th-century Hungary and is also a memorial to the victims of these regimes, including those detained, interrogated, tortured or killed in the building.
Hungarian Museum of Photography – Beautiful collection of photographs from prominent Hungarian photographers. I like this place for exhibitions showing scenes from regular lives and frozen in time snippets of Hungarian culture.
Thermal Baths – You cannot skip Budapest’s thermal baths. We went to Széchenyi Baths and I don’t recommend them as the place is usually really crowded and the baths themselves are really old. You can read this helpful article on Lonely Planet about Turkish baths in Budapest. Remember to bring flip flops!
Hungarian Parliament tour – This one of the biggest buildings in Budapest is a sight to behold. The tours that last up to 15 mins are actually pretty disappointing – I felt rushed through and did not get to explore a lot. Still, the beautiful architecture, elements made of real golds, little remnants of the time gone (like wooden cigarette holders on windowsills) are worth seeing. Book the tickets online or go early to the ticket office as there are limited numbers of tickets available each day.
Ruin bars are the modern symbol of Budapest. Szimpla Kert is the first, the oldest and most famous one therefore not the right place for an introvert. When night comes, it’s difficult to cope with the crowds and the noise. We also visited Anker’t and Mazel Tov, which is a bit more stylish and serves delicious hummus. Also, check out this article by The Times – Eight of the best ruin bars in Budapest.
Speaking of biking – We biked on both the Buda and Pests sides in the middle of traffic and it can get really crazy, especially when it gets warmer and roadworks kick off. This is why I recommend biking down the Danubian riverbank and going away from the centre of Budapest. You can ask at Dynamobike for recommendations.
The Citadella – If you are after the best panorama of Budapest you need to climb up the Gellért Hill. At the very top sits the Citadella, a fortress built in 1851 by Julius Jacob von Haynau, a commander of the Austrian Empire. It’s steep in places but take your time and enjoy the greenery!
#4 What to eat in Budapest
Feeling hungary? (Sorry, I had to). Hungarian cuisine isn’t amongst the healthiest in the world but it really is delicious! Goulash, lángos, paprikás, trdelnik – you just have to try them all. By the way, traditional Hungarian cuisine is not vegetarian and definitely not vegan-friendly, but there are still plenty of very cool plant diet friendly places in the city.
Tipping in Budapest – Most restaurants will have a service charge included in the bill (the notice will be usually somewhere on the menu), if not then you should tip between 10% – 15% of the cost of your meal. We still left some extra cash wherever we went because my boyfriend is from Vienna. When you hand the waiter your money, don’t say ‘Thank you’ if you need some change back, otherwise they will assume you don’t want any.
Breakfast – For a good selection of sandwiches, juices and other breakfast foods, go to Fruccola. They have a couple of locations. I also recommend à table!, a cute French bistro. Quick bite – only Dzsem. It’s a really small pastry store so grab some delicious baked goods (they have bagels!) and set off on your adventure. For something more refined, visit Cafe Central (Centrál Kávéház és Étterem 1887) with its Art Nouveau flair and very polite service. Something more hipster? Go to London Coffee Society – small but has a strong British vibe. And you will get avocado on toast!
Coffee break? Budapest has a booming specialty coffee scene. You need to go to Espresso Embassy. The best coffee spot from top-level baristas in Budapest. There is also My Little Melbourne Coffee and Brew Bar for some excellent coffee and homemade goods. If you will be visiting the Parliament, go to Pazar Coffee – it’s a tiny coffee store but you will learn the drinks and food options (also have plant milk!) seem unlimited! I recommend the iced coffee. Other honourable mentions are Fekete, Madal Cafe, and Coyote Coffee & Deli.
Lunchtime will have you spoiled for choice. To try the traditional Hungarian food go to the top floor of the Central Market Hall. Just be warned, it gets really busy around lunchtime. If you buy langos, a fried flatbread with savoury toppings, go for the traditional one with cheese, sour cream, marinated peppers. Langos with Nutella and bananas or jam were created for tourists. Paprika Jancsi Restaurant serves very good goulash. You have to try Púder Bárszínház és Galéria – their food is a fusion of old and new served with a lot of creativity. Not to mention the ruin bar feel!
For a typical and very cheap Hungarian food, go to one of the canteens. We were taken to Budavári Mátyás Étterem on the Castle Hill after the Free Walking Tour and probably had the best paprikas to date. The issue is the service does not speak English.
In terms of vegetarian/vegan places I recommend: Vega City, which, does a creative twist on Hungarian cuisine; Govinda, which will not disappoint fans of Indian food, and Napfényes Étterem és Cukrászda, which also serves raw food.
If you are looking for dessert, I have four places for you. First of all, try trdelnik, also known as chimney cake. The best ones are served from small shops in the street and also from the shop at the Castle Hill, which is run by a lovely old lady. Ahoy Chocolate and Lemonade Bar, which is everything that the name says. In the Jewish district, you can also try a traditional Hungarian Jewish cake, Rachel’s Flodni, at Noah’s Patisserie Café. Finally, you have to go to Szamos cafe, founded in 1935 by Mátyás Szamos, which is a Hungarian confectionery famous for marzipan creations. Szamos also has a chocolate museum, definitely something for foodies.
#5 What to bring back from Budapest?
If you are shopping for souvenirs in Budapest, my first advice is to not go to any tourist store you see and to skip buying alcohol from the Great Market Hall – it’s completely overpriced. For food souvenirs, go to the supermarket!
Paprika Powder – this is a classic. You can get the regular variety sold in plastic bags or slightly more expensive in fabric bags or tins. According to Budapest by Locals, you can find 8 brands of the spice varying in colour and pungency in the shops :
- Special quality (Különleges) – this is the mildest of all and has the most vibrant red colour
- Delicate (csípősmentes csemege)-mild with rich flavour,
- Exquisite delicate (csemege) –slightly more pungent than the Delicate,
- Pungent Exquisite delicate (csípős csemege), even more pungent
- Noble sweet (édesnemes) – the most common type, slightly pungent with bright red colour,
- Half-sweet (félédes) – a medium-pungent
- Rose (rózsa) – light red colour, mildly pungent
- Hot (erős) – the hottest of all paprikas, light brown-orange colour
Alcohol – Pálinka (a traditional Hungarian fruit spirit), Unicum (a Hungarian herbal liqueur or bitters, drunk as a digestif and apéritif), or fruity Tokaj wine.
Traditional Hungarian sweets such as anything by the Hungarian leading brand of hard candy Negro (named after the inventor, Pietro Negro), Kojak (a chocolate-covered lollipop named in honour of the iconic TV show), or one of the retro-looking chocolate creations like Balaton or Sport chocolate bars.
Budapest has many amazing second-hand stores! Check out this guide by We Love Budapest.
Hope you will find my Guide to Budapest helpful! If you need more tips I really recommend this Long Guide to Budapest on Reddit.