Why do The 2 Idiots recommend Budapest?
There is something so magical about Budapest, which is the capital of Hungary. Natasha knew she wanted to visit the Danube River, but she never thought the city would be as beautiful as this. Although Hungary is a part of Europe, it was occupied by the Mongols in the 13th century, which translates into country’s look and culture being slightly separate from the rest of Europe. Resting on the Danube River, the city was actually two separate cities: Buda and Pest. When they united, they became the full city you can explore today, and the tourism folks like to say you have one city with two personalities.
Buda, on the west of the river, was the Renaissance side of the city, where the Hapsburg family ruled and had its beautiful baroque palaces. High on a hill, you can still take in the romantic views of the Pest side and the Danube from the same vantage points as the royals once did. Pest, on the east, is the true Hungarian hub. It is here the restaurants and nightlife thrive, and where most of the shopping and attractions in our itinerary can be found.
We especially love Budapest at night. This is one of the best nighttime cruises you will ever experience: the buildings along the river, including the palace and parliament, are illuminated and it is simply stunning. Budapest is also renowned for its thermal baths and there are so many in the city, bring your swimsuits, even during the winter, to be sure to sample at least one.
CREATING AN IDEAL ITINERARY
Many people visit Budapest while taking a river cruise along the Danube. The city is typically the first or last stop of the cruise, and we feel it warrants more than just a few hours exploration. Definitely plan to stay a few days before or after your cruise. For those arriving by train, it can be a little cumbersome to get from the train station to your accommodations. Taxis are difficult to find and the public transportation can be confusing. From the airport, it’s much easier, and just a simple taxi for a drive under 30 minutes.
You’ll want to stay on the Pest side of the river, where the majority of the attractions, restaurants and shops can be found. It’s a bit more lively with lots to see and do. On the Buda side, it’s sleepier and more a local spot. It’s also very hilly. You’ll find tons of Airbnbs and hotel options, and the Lipotvaros neighborhood, District V, makes for a central location. With hip restaurants and hotels, it’s within steps of St. Stephen’s Basilica, the Danube, Parliament and the bridges to the Buda side. You will not need a car in Budapest, as you can walk to many of the sites. Taxis can be tricky to come by, and we experienced some fleecing when we tried them, so try an Uber instead, should you not feel up to a longer walk.
|Day 1||Walking tour of Budapest (Free)
– St. Stephen’s BasilicaCommunist building
– Cross the Danube on Szechenyi
– Go visit Pest and Castle Hill
– Royal Palace (Buda Castle)
– Matthias Church
Spend afternoon in the Buda Castle District (Varhegy)
– Fisherman’s Bastion
– Buda Castle
Take a harbor cruise in the evening and enjoy amazing Danube on the sunset cruise (Tours start as low as $15)
|Day 2||Visit Heroes Square
Spend rest of the day at City Park by Heroes Square
Walk on Andrassy Avenue
Spend evening in Jewish quarter and have dinner there
|Day 3||Visit Parliament building in the morning (Tours are 6700 HUF for adults, 3500 HUF for children)
Visit shoes on the Danube
Spend rest of the day at Margaret Island
|Day 4||Take a day trip outside of Budapest:
– Lake Heviz
– Aggtelek National Park and Baradla Cave
Day 1: Walk the Footsteps of Royalty
The best way to get acclimated to Budapest is to begin with a free walking tour of the city. The tour we followed was one of the longer walking tours we have done, about 3 hours. Beginning in Pest, we passed by the humongous St. Stephen’s Basilica. At 315 feet in height, it is one of the most photographed buildings in the world. You can climb 364 steps to the top (or take an elevator) to take in 360-degree views of the city from the cupola. (You can’t climb to the top during the tour, but you can make a return later on your own.) Right next door to the ornate building, completed in 1905, is a modest and plain Communist building. Hungary was behind the Iron Curtain and once under Communist authority; it’s interesting to see the two very different designs side by side.
After walking through the historic streets filled with shops and pedestrian areas, we walked across the Szechenyi Chain Bridge to Buda. This suspension bridge was the first permanent bridge of stone that connected the two cities. It is a climb up Castle Hill to reach the Buda Castle. You can take stairs or a funicular to the top; our tour went via the stairs but we decided carrying the stroller and Aarav up to the top would be quite a workout and we went the funicular instead. (Plus, it’s more fun for the kids!)
At the top, Buda Castle, the royal palace is an amazing site. An UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 18th-century castle replaced the former 13th-century castle that sat here as protection from the Mongols. Overlooking the Danube, the castle has 200 rooms with courtyard that are open to the public 24 hours a day.
The tour ends at Matthias Church, which reminded us of the St. Mark’s Church in Zagreb, Croatia with its beautiful tiled roof. When your tour ends, stay in the Buda Castle District and explore its buildings and attractions, where royal families used to live.
Nearby, and part of the Buda Castle district is the Fisherman’s Bastion, which looks more like a Disney castle than a lookout tower. Here, you can get more views of Pest and the Danube from free balconies (or pay to climb to the top of a turret). There is a restaurant inside that affords amazing dinner views of the illuminated buildings along the Danube and a terrace café for lunch.
Before the sun sets, head down the hill and cross the bridge back to Pest. Along the river are numerous boat tours that depart for sunset tours. We bought a ticket on the spot; there are so many and it’s easy to find space. Be sure your camera is fully charged; you’re going to want to take tons of pictures. While you take in the city with the setting sun in one direction, you’ll return in the dark, when Buda Castle, the Fisherman’s Bastion, Parliament and other iconic and beautiful buildings are lit up for the evening. It is truly magical!
Day 2: Explore Pest’s Icons
On your second day, experience a completely different side of Budapest, literally. You’ll see so much on your walking tour, but now, head to Heroes’ Square (Hosok tere). One of the city’s main squares, you cannot miss it – the open area features a massive monument and memorial for the leaders of Hungary, as well as a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The square (it’s actually rounded) sits before City Park (Park Varosliget). This massive park features Vajdahunyad Castle, the Hungarian Technical and Transportation Museum (Kozlekedesi Muzeum), walking paths, play areas, a boating lake (that becomes an ice skating rink in the winter) and a zoo. It’s a wonderful way to spend the morning or afternoon. (Although Natasha missed it because we had a fight that morning and AJ made it a daddy day with Aarav! The truth of travel!)
The park is also home to Szechenyi Baths – an ornate and bright yellow bathhouse and thermal spa with three outdoor and 15 indoor baths. It is one of the largest and most famous of thermal spas in Budapest. Hungary is known to have 1,000 thermal springs, and if Budapest if your only stop in Hungary, sampling a bath is highly recommended. (They are family friendly!)
From the park, take a walk along Andrassy Avenue, which is a beautiful street with huge trees on both side before returning to your Airbnb or hotel. In the evening, make your way to the Jewish Quarter, which today is home to intimate restaurants. It’s a very high-energy neighborhood and you’ll also find some great food here.
Day 3: Escape to the Island
Two days in Budapest could be enough, but if you can stay for a third day, we recommend visiting the Parliament Building. We missed the tour available because when we arrived, the only tour available was in Spanish and the next English tour was too late for our schedule. Check tour schedules before you go and buy your tickets in advance!
Near the Parliament building, stroll along the Danube and visit the Shoes on the Danube. On this spot during World War II, the Nazis lined up Jews on the banks of the river and shot them, allowing them to fall into the river and wash away. However, as shoes were valuable, the Jews were told to remove their shoes before they were shot. Today, a memorial features iron shoes along the river, to remind the Hungarians what took place here.
After the historic area, spend your afternoon on Margaret Island (Margitsziget). Similar to Vancouver’s Stanley Park, the island in the Danube is covered in parks and gardens. Enjoy the Rose and Japanese Gardens, take a dip at the Palatinus thermal baths, explore the ruins of a Franciscan church, and see a musical fountain that plays music four times a day and is illuminated at night. You can easily enjoy an entire day on this island, and the kids will love a chance to run and play freely.
Day 4: Day Trip in Hungary
With an extra day in Budapest, try a day trip outside of the city. There is lots to see. Each of the following is a two-hour trip outside of the city and can be entire day trips, so pick one and hire a private car to give you a tour.
If you don’t take the opportunity to enjoy a thermal spa before this day, leave the city and visit the thermal lake of Heviz. The second-largest thermal lake in the world, you can visit the thermal lake by visiting the Hotel Spa Heviz. With indoor and outdoor options, you can enjoy a quieter version of the baths found in Budapest (much less crowded).
More thermal baths can be found in Eger, which is home to a medieval fortress and fantastic views from the hilly town. Located in Northern Hungary, you can tour the Castle of Eger, which warded off a Turkish attack in the 1500s; visit the Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Apostle, built in the 1800s; and go underground and tour the City Under the City to see the large cellar network found under the town square. The region is known for making wonderful wines (who knew Hungarian wines were so good?) You can go through the Valley of the Beautiful Woman and sample wines at various wineries. Or, of course, try another thermal bath at Saliris Resort Spa Hotel, which is completely upscale and may spoil your family a bit.
Another cool excursion is to visit Aggtelek National Park and Baradla Cave. The national park features nearly 300 caves, including the largest stalactite cave found in Europe, the Baradla cave. Part of this cave is in Slovenia, and you can go deep underground to witness a true rarity.
One additional day trip is a visit to Esztergom, also on the Danube River. The capital of Hungary from the 10th through the mid-13th centuries (when it was moved to Buda), you can see the original castles and palaces from the quaint town. Be sure to visit the castle.
Hungary is a truly beautiful country and will surprise you with off-the-beaten-path cities and excursions to help you get a better sense of the country without the crowds.
- Take your good stroller, as there is a lot of walking around Budapest. You will be walking everywhere, every day.
- Hungary is super kid-friendly and kids are out late at night. We had no issues taking Aarav to a restaurant later for late-night dining.
- Use the funicular to get up to Castle Hill, it offers amazing views and is worth it, especially if you have kids.
- Carry swim clothes and your puddle jumper on you, should you come across one of the city’s thermal baths and want to give it a try.
- For the Parliament building, check timings in advance for English tours and buy tickets in advance.
- Hungary has its own currency called the Forint (HUF). Euros are accepted but it is easier to withdraw money using your ATM card to get the best deals. However, be sure to use it all before leave; it is difficult to convert the money when you get back to the States.