Best Three Days in Budapest Itinerary + Amazing Day Trips Options
Updated: Aug 30
Here's my recommended itinerary for spending 3 perfect days in Budapest Hungary. Three days in Budapest is a goodly amount of time to thoroughly cover the amazing sites in this wonderful Central European city.
If you have extra time, Budapest also makes a great base for day trips in area. And I give you 5 day trip options from Budapest.
Budapest is the perfect long weekend getaway in Europe. In this Budapest itinerary, you'll visit all the must see attractions and landmarks, hit a few museums and architectural wonders, and indulge in the hedonistic thermal baths and unique Hungarian cuisine.
Overview of Budpest
Beautiful Budapest has a romantic and exotic reputation. It's a key stop on the vaunted Danube River, a hot European city break, and dubbed the "Paris of the East" and the "Pearl of the Danube."
Budapest is picturesquely divided in two by the Danube, with Buda on the west and Pest on the east. It has a sense of expansive grandeur, and opulent interiors from the bygone Austro-Hungarian Empire era. Both sides of the city have different personalities and offer different cultural experiences.
Buda is charming, classy, and quiet. It's filled with museums, castles, and elegant homes on cobbled streets. Pest is wilder and cosmopolitan, and where most of the tourist sites and ruin bars are located. Both are beautiful at night, illuminated by lights and cradled by the Danube.
Budapest beguiles with a heady mixture of flamboyant late 19th century architecture, a hip restaurant scene, and steamy thermal baths.
To really appreciate Budapest, I think you need adequate time to let its (sometimes hidden) charms percolate and go behind its concrete facades. In three days, however, you can see the main must visit sites and landmarks. And imbibe some delicious wine that you likely can't pronounce.
Overview of 3 Day Budapest Itinerary
Day 1: Central Market Hall, Fisherman's Bastion, Matthias Church, Buda Castle, Chain Bridge, St. Stephen's Cathedral, Ruin Bars
Day 2: Parliament, Dohany Street Synagogue, New York Cafe, Gellert Hill, Gellert Baths, High Note Sky Bar
Day 3: Andrassy Boulevard, Opera House, House of Terror, Heroes Square, Vajdahunyad Castle, Danube River Cruise
UNESCO Sites: Buda Castle district, Budapest’s Danube banks, and Andrássy Avenue
Day Trip Options: Royal Palace of Gödöllő, Esztergom, Eger, Gyor, and Bratislava.
A Short History of Budapest
Budapest was first ruled by Asian-descended Magyar (pronounced mud-jar) tribes. The nomadic people settled in Budapest in 896. They adopted Christianity.
In the mid 15th century, Budapest got its first native Hungarian king, Mattias Corvinus. His son of the same name became a beloved and quintessential Renaissance king. Jr. was a shrewd military tactician as well.
But he died young, and the Ottoman Empire took over Budapest in the 16th century. The Hapsburgs "liberated" Budapest, but essentially kept it for themselves.
Budapest really got going after the 1867 Austro-Hungarian Compromise, which was negotiated in part by Budapest's favorite daughter Empress Sisi. With increased wealth, came an urban boom where Budapest tried to emulate and exceed Vienna.
Austrians and Hungarians are obsessed with the Empress Elizabeth, nicknamed, Sisi. She was the complex wife of Emperor Franz Joseph from the Wittelsbach dynasty of Bavaria.
Sisi was a frequent traveler who fell in love with Hungarian culture. Sisi even learned the exceedingly difficult Hungarian language, with its exceedingly looooong words.
As Queen of Hungary, Sisi was revered. She's also got a Budapest bridge named after her and other sculptures around the city.
1896 was Budapest's big year, marking the 1,000 year anniversary of the Magyars’ arrival in the region. Budapest used the date to splash out on building the monuments you see today.
During WWII, Hungary was allied with Nazi Germany. Hungary was an unfortunate buffer between the west and the Soviet Union, with only half hearted support for Hitler.
In 1944, Hitler installed his own Nazi surrogates in Budapest. The persecution of Budapest's Jews began. During the Siege of Budapest, many of city's buildings and bridges were destroyed. They had to be reconstructed from scratch.
All this war and conflict means that Budapest isn't really architecturally ancient, though it has a rich history and vintage-y look. This isn't a knock on Budapest necessarily, just something you should know if you love all things authentically ancient and medieval.
After WWII, the Soviets claimed the ruins of Budapest. They installed a post-war government dominated by Communists. But it wasn't terribly popular.
In 1956, as part of the world's de-Salinization, Hungary staged a major uprising against the Soviet Union, with a spontaneous and improvised guerilla insurgence. Protesters demanded the withdrawal of Soviet troops. They lost.
The ensuing brutal suppression from Moscow was a sign that Eastern Europeans weren't necessarily choosing Communism. In 1989, the Communist state in Hungary was dismantled. Budapest began a transition to multi-party democracy.
In 2004, Hungary joined the European Union. Decades on, Hungarians have put the East-West history behind them and view themselves as Central Europeans. But the unique and dramatic history still fascinates tourists.
Must See Attractions in Budapest in 3 Days
Here are the best things to do and see in Budapest, to make the most of your three days in Budapest.
Day 1 AM: Central Market and Buda Side of Budapest
1. Central Market Hall
Start your day at the south end of Pest at Central Market Hall. Built for the millennial celebration in 1896, it's a cavernous market hall spread out on three levels. Colorful tiles line the roof.
Downstairs, you'll find all manner of foodstuffs, and every type of paprika and palinka (brandy) imaginable. Snack on a turo rudi, a cheese curd covered in chocolate. Or, get some strudels for breakfast.
Upstairs are eateries and souvenir shops. They're pricey, but better than the shops on the main drag of Vaci Utca.
2. Chain Bridge
When you're done purchasing your souvenirs, walk back toward the town center and cross the pedestrianized Chain Bridge. Széchenyi Chain Bridge is the most iconic of Budapest's many bridges. And has the advantage of being pedestrianized.
Built in the 1840s, Chain Bridge is one of the oldest suspension bridges in the world When built, it was one of the longest bridges as well. A pair of lions guard each of the abutments.
After crossing Chain Bridge, you'll land in Castle Hill on the Buda side of the Danube. The Castle district was once the seat of Hungarian royalty.
The sites are concentrated and, if you're rushed, can be covered in half a day. You can walk-escalator up the hill. Or, ride the castle hill funicular, Budavári Sikló.
This funicular works like a pendulum and is a super short ride. The cars are named Gellert and Margit and are part of Buda's UNESCO designation. But they seem like a rather pricey tourist trap.
3. Fisherman's Bastion
Amidst the warrens of medieval lanes of Castle Hill, you'll find the Neo-Romanesque terrace known as Fisherman’s Bastion, built between 1895 and 1902. It's a fantastical cliff side rampart consisting of seven fairytale lookout towers, representing the seven Maygar tribes that founded Budapest.
Fisherman's Bastion is free of charge, except for a small fee for the upper towers. It's worth it. The terrace is one of the best viewing points in Budapest.
You have panoramic views across the Danube to the Pest side. The view of the Hungarian Parliament is breathtaking.
Address: Szentháromság tér
Entry fee: free, with a fee of 600 forints for top towers
4. Matthias Church
The exotic Matthias Church in Buda won my heart -- with its majolica tiled roof, colorful interior, and frilly Neo-Gothic spire. Matthias is one of the most important churches in Hungary.
The church's real name is the Church of Our Lady of Buda. But it's nicknamed for Hungary's favorite Renaissance king who was married there twice.
Matthias Church was originally built in the 11th century, though subsequently demolished and rebuilt several times. The current building was constructed in the 14th century and renovated in the 19th century.
Once inside, you’ll be dazzled by the vaulted ceilings and unusually ornate and colorful decorations. The sumptuous church was a mosque for a time, which explains its oriental feel and vibrant colors that aren’t the norm in European churches.
The church's prize possession is a statue of Mary and Jesus from the early 16th century in the Loreto Chapel. And there's even has an Empress Sisi statue.
For nice views, you can hoof it up almost 200 steps to the top of the church tower. This is covered by a second ticket. You'll have views over both sides of the Danube.
Address: Fisherman's Bastion
Entry fee: 1,000 forints
5. Buda Castle
Buda Castle is often called the Royal Palace or the Royal Castle. It was formerly the main seat of administration for the Hungarian kings and one of Europe's swishiest palaces.
Construction began in the 14th century. In the 15th century, during Budapest's "Golden Age," King Matthias Corvinus built a Renaissance palace in the east wing, a library, observatory, living quarters, and a throne room.
During the Turkish occupation, the Buds Castle sadly fell into ruins. It was given a Baroque facelift in the 18th century. After damage during WWII, another renovation was required. As a result, the palace is large, but not terribly interesting architecturally.
The castle now houses two important museums, which showcase Hungarian history. They are the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum.
Address: Szent György tér 2
Entry price: 1,400 forints
6. Hungarian National Gallery
The Hungarian National Gallery is Budapest's fine art museum. The Budapest History Museum, on the other hand, highlights the history of Hungary over the centuries. The latter was too stodgy for even my usually unlimited museum going taste.
The Hungarian National Gallery holds over 100,000 works of Hungarian art ranging from medieval stone carvings to dramatic (and sometimes dreary) canvases by 19th century Romanticists like Károly Lotz. When I was there, there was a Surrealism Exhibit, with 100 works by Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, René Magritte, and Pablo Picasso.
The gallery has three expressionistic works by the "Hungarian Van Gogh," Tivadar Csontvary Kosztka. The artist also has a museum in his nearby hometown of Pecs.
There are tours in English. And you can even climb to the dome from the top floor for an unparalleled view of Pest. You need a special ticket for this because only 15 people are allowed in the dome at any given time.
Entry fee: Click here.
Day 1 PM:
Have lunch in Buda at Cafe Corvin or Baltazar. After lunch, head back across Chain Bridge to explore some of the sights in the Leopold district of Pest, saving the Parliament for the morning of day 2.
1. Gresham Palace
Facing Chain Bridge on the Pest side is the gorgeous Gresham Palace. It's one of the most beautiful Art Nouveau buildings in Budapest. Or anywhere really.
The palace boasts Budapest's most gorgeous interior with a dazzling mosaic floor, a Dale Chihuly chandelier, and a beautiful glass dome.
It's now owned by the Four Seasons and operates as a hotel. But tourists can wander into the luxe lobby to explore without being shooed away (at least I did). You can also have tea, cocktails, or dine there. Or even stay there.
Address: Széchenyi István tér 5-6
3. St. Stephen's Basilica
St. Stephen, also known as St. Istvan, is Budapest's largest church. It's an eclectic mix of styles, reflecting its many architects. It's similar to the basilica in Esztergom.
Head up the grand stairway. The basilica's dimly-lit but showy interior is an homage to Hungary's first king, St. Istvan. His wizened right fist is displayed in a golden bejeweled box. It's in a small chapel to the left of the main altar.
There's a separate viewing terrace reachable by 300+ stairs or by elevator + 40+ stairs. While the church is free (with a suggested donation of 200 florints), the terrace costs 600 forints. You'll see the sprawl of Budapest.
St. Stephen's Square, in front of the church, has been transformed from a former parking lot of a pretty public space. The two fountains are dedicated to St. Stephen and his wife Gizella.
The streets and lanes jutting out from the plaza are home to some of Budapest's trendiest cafes and bars. You can stop for some gelato at the adorable Gelarto Rosa.
Address: Szent István tér 1
4. Dinner and Drinks
Here's a comprehensive article discussing where to sample wine in Budapest and explaining the different varieties
For dinner, splash out on Onyx, Budapest's renowned Michelin-starred beauty in the Gerbeaud building. Amid crystal chandeliers, you'll have an old world European dining experience.
5. Late Evening: Ruins Bars
If you're a night owl, do a pub crawl of Budapest's "ruin bars." Budapest is renowned for its unique pubs in the Jewish Quarter where you can "get ruined."
These are quirky-cool drinking places in abandoned and dilapidated pre-war buildings. They feature weird interiors with mismatched furniture, eclectic art, and fairy lights.
The most popular one is Szimpla Kert. If it's too loud and crowded for you, you don't have to visit just at night. You can stop by for a drink in the day, when it's less crowded. Or, even better, go to their Sunday farmer's market.
Day 2 AM:
With its majestic location on the east bank of the Danube River, Budapest's cream colored Parliament building is easily the most stunning piece of architecture in Budapest.
Begun in 1885, it took 19 years to build. Its Neo-Gothic design is a forest of pinnacles and flying buttresses, topped by a Neo-Renaissance egg shaped dome.
Not surprisingly, the glorious pile was inspired by the Houses of Parliament in London. Not only is it the tallest structure in Budapest, it’s actually the largest in Hungary.
If you want to tour the interior -- and you should -- book a ticket online in advance. The building is open at 8:00 am. Tickets are often sold out.
There are no signs outside. But the tourist center is on the right side of the Parliament building in the basement. The marble clad interior is striking. There are eye popping staircases, intricate ceilings, and gold (84 pounds of it) everywhere.
On the 45 minute guided tour, you can admire the Main Staircase, the Dome Hall, and the Assembly Hall of the Upper House. Parliament also serves as the repository of the Hungarian crown jewels. The centerpiece is the Crown of St. Stephen, directly under the dome, protected by two dour looking guards.
The holy crown belonged to King Stephen, the first king of Hungary, who longed to make Hungary a Christian kingdom. When Pope Sylvester II heard the good news, he gifted the holy crown to Stephen. It's considered a sacred symbol in Hungary.
Address: Kossuth Lajos tér 1-3
Entry fee: Click here
Pro tip: The not-well-marked Visitor's Center is at the end of Balassi Bálint Street.
2. Shoes on the Danube: Holocaust Monument
Near Parliament, you'll find 60 pairs of iron shoes from the 1940s. Shoes on the Danube is a memorial to the people killed by Budapest’s Arrow Cross militiamen during WWII.
It was created in 2005 by film director Can Togay and sculptor Gyula Pauer. It's haunting in its simplicity and an unmissable cultural spot in Budapest.
In 1944-45, nearly 10,000 Jews were rounded up, ordered to remove their shoes, and shot so that their bodies would fall into Danube and float away. Their murderers kept their shoes, which were a valuable war time commodity. Now, you see iron shoes in all shapes and sizes.
Address: Antall József rkp
3. Pest Stroll
Then, head to the Pest area, Budapest's gritty heart. Walk through Vorosmarty Ter, an elegant square in the heart of Pest. It's named after Budapest's great Romantic poet, Mihaly Vorosmarty. His massive statue-memorial dominates the square.
Admire Gerbeaud Cafe. Peak inside or grab a cup of coffee. A few yards away, you'll see the whimsical The Little Princess statue, a photographer's favorite place. head down the pedestrianized Dek Utca, known as the "Fashion Street."
The main tourist drag through Budapest is Vaci Utca. It's very crowded and touristy, but there's some lovely architecture. This is not the place to stop for a bit to eat. It's very overpriced.
4. Dohany Street Synagogue
The Great Synagogue is a gorgeous building, located in the slowly regentrifying Jewish Quarter of the Erzsébetváros district. Built in a Moorish revival style in 1859, like you'd find at Granada's Alhambra, Dohány is the largest synagogue in Europe.
At 140 feet, it's difficult to photograph. And, be forewarned, the synagogue is closed on Saturday. There are three parts to enjoy: the ornate interior, the Hungarian Jewish Museum, and the memorial garden.
The garden has a poignant weeping willow memorial. Its leaves are inscribed with the names of 30,000 Holocaust victims. Upside down, the tree resembles a menorah.
There's a strict dress code for the synagogue. Men will have to don a small skullcap, given to you at the door. Women can't go inside with sleeveless tops, shorts, or a skirt.
Address: Dohány u. 2
Entry fees: Click here.
5. Lunch or Coffee at the New York Cafe
Located on Korut Street, New York Cafe isn't far from the synagogue. The spectacular cafe was built in the late 19th century in a Renaissance style.
The lavish cafe escaped the damage of WWII. In 1954, it was renovated and reopened. It's one of Europe's most beautiful cafes -- gold trim, sparkling chandeliers, stunning staircases, sculptural details, and fresco on the walls and ceilings. Think Versailles.
You can get coffee, Hungarian classics, chose from 16 cakes, and other multi-national goodies. Be forewarned, it's expensive.
You're paying for the cafe experience, opulent atmosphere. Make a reservation (and head to the left after entering) or be prepared to wait up to 90 minutes.
Address: Erzsébet krt. 9-11
Day 2 PM:
In the afternoon, take in the views and relax in a salty soak in the Gellert district.
1. Gellert Hill
Another amazing viewpoint in Budapest is Gellért Hill. It is named after Saint Gerard. He was a monk from Venice. Unfortunately, he was thrown to death from the hill by anti-Christian rebels and martyred.
Gellert Hill takes more effort to climb than Castle Hill does. But it's worth it. All of Budapest is before you. On the way, you'll see a memorial statue of Bishop Gellert.
Atop the hill is the uplifting Liberty Statue, erected in 1947. The statue is a woman waving a palm branch. Locals have nicknamed it the "great bottle opener."
The work celebrates Budapest's heroes who fought for the city's independence. Hungarians were the prime revolutionaries who wanted to break away from the Socialist umbrella.
Coming down from the hill, you'll find the bronze Empress Sisi statue near Liberty Bridge.
2. Thermal Baths
Hungarians say "if you poke a hole in the ground anywhere in Hungary, you'll find hot water." The Romans colonized Budapest partly because of the thermal springs. Budapest kept building baths and, by the 1920s, was known as a spa town.
Széchenyi Thermal Baths is the most elaborate, housed in an iconic local building near Heroes' Square. But it's also the most popular and crowded. And it's crowded with tourists, not just locals.
For this reason, if you're looking for a somewhat less touristy thermal bath in Budapest, I recommend the more elegant Gellért Thermal Bath. The grand hall is free to visitors, if you want a peak but not a soak.
The baths are located near the Danube at the foot of Gellért Hill. They're only open until 7:00 pm, so be sure to allot sufficient time for a pre-dinner soak.
Located in Hotel Gellért, this genteel spa complex was built in the early 1900s and renovated in 2008. There are several indoor and outdoor pools, plunge pools, and saunas.
The mosaic floors and stained glass windows are quite lovely. Go in the later alfternoon to dodge the crowds.
Address: Kelenhegyi út 4