Budapest is the capital of Hungary that combines two cities on each side of the River Danube – Buda and Pest. The 19th century Chain Bridge connects the hilly Buda district with flat Pest. Today, it’s the 10th most populous city in the European Union and the country’s history, art and political center. Hence, the following is a 2-day city walk itinerary exploring some of the most iconic landmarks in Budapest (I am sure you must know at least some of them). I cover Buda and Pest district each day and feel free to expand your list or extend your stay based on this blueprint.
Day 1 – Pest
I started with Pest first because this is the eastern, flat and the main city of the capital – it takes about ⅔ of the city’s territory and most hotels, restaurants, and shops are located on the Andrássy Avenue and beyond. Most of the places I visited are basically located close to the Avenue, and the best way, I say, to commune between these places, is taking Metro Line M1.
Metro Line M1
Metro Line M1 is a short metro line (only 4.4 km) in Budapest with only 11 stops, but the second oldest urban underground metro systems in the world after London Underground. Known as “the small underground” locally, their service is rather effective in the city center under the AndrássyAvenue from Vörösmarty Square to Mexikói út. Like many old subway systems, their yellow trains are actually small and compact; the stations are only about 1 minute apart. Lots of the city’s landmarks on Pest are on the line including the Vigadó Concert Hall, Café Gerbeaud, Underground Railway Museum, St. Stephen’s Basilica, Hungarian State Opera House, House of Terror, Museum of Fine Arts, Hall of Exhibitions, City Park, Heroes Square, Széchenyi thermal bath, and Zoo and Botanical Garden.
Don’t run into the platform so quick if you need to buy a ticket because the machines are situated on the ground.
Széchenyi Thermal Bath
So that’s what we did. We headed out from our apartment to the Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út station and headed to our first stop of day 1 – Széchenyi Thermal Bath. It is one of the largest and most popular bath complexes in Budapest. Thermal medicinal bath has been a tradition in Hungary: the bath draws water from two thermal springs at a temperature of 74 to 77°C, which is rich in sulfate, calcium, magnesium, bicarbonate, metaboric acid and fluoride. It is believed that the high-quality bath has healing effects, the rich mineral composition is great for damaged joints, and treats degenerative diseases, chronic and semi-acute arthritis, neuralgia, back pain and such.
While it might be a tag too hot to go to thermal baths in summer, it is quite nice to soak in hot water during winter. The Széchenyi thermal bath is dominated by Neo-Baroque and Neo-Renaissance style architecture and features water metaphors and water allegories in its rich decorations. At least I felt refreshed after a hot bath admiring the aesthetically beautiful sculptures.
There are different spa packages (and so you could enter the bath anytime, anyway): Basic package includes a daily ticket, disposable bath towel, disposable bathrobe, slippers, swimming cap, hair rubber, and shower gel (~50EUR). For ~20EUR extra, the bath offers upgraded shower gel, spa shampoo, and massage cream. For a total of ~100EUR, visitors could also enjoy a 45 mins aroma or thermal massage and access to the upgraded cabin entrance.
The Széchenyi thermal bath is located in City Park and surrounded by many other attractions worth exploring. If you have more time, catch a show at the Fővárosi Circus, take a walk in the Budapest Zoo & Botanical Garden, have a stroll in the Vajdahunyad Castle, enjoy lunch at Gundel, visit the Museum of Fine Arts and Kunsthalle, and take a picture at the Heroes’ Square!
House of Terror
Another important attraction in the city is the House of Terror – Museum & memorial to political victims. Today, the “House of Terror” is a museum, but it was a site of two shameful and tragic periods in Hungary’s 20th-century history. In 1944, during the domination of the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party, the house is known as the “house of Loyalty”, which is served as a headquarter of the Hungarian Nazis. Between 1945 and 1956, the notorious communist terror organizations, the AVO and its successor, the AVH, took up residence in this house.
The House of Terror is located on Andrássy Avenue and commemorates the victims of terror, but it is also a memento, reminding us of the dreadful acts of terrorist dictatorships. The museum showcases images, interview videos, newsreel footages and visual exhibits to tell the audience about the lives during socialism terror after WWII.
The rooms are vividly designed with a powerful visual impact. Being in the house I felt gruesome as I imagine how people’s lives and freedom are disrupted. The people’s food supply was controlled and they were forced to show loyalty to the leader. It was horrible to see how people are terrified under dictatorship and luckily it was finally changed.
The exhibit is only in Hungarian and if you would want to learn about history and have a better understanding of that time, take an audio tour.
We walked toward the waterfront and take a stroll around the city center afterward. The artist Cafe is a famous Neo-renaissance cafe located right across the Hungarian State Opera. Admire its elegant architecture and frescoes. Hop on the wheel in Erzsébet Square, and walk around the St. Stephen’s Basilica.
Café Gerbeaud is located on Vörösmarty Square – the grand, high-ceiling dining room is decorated with chandeliers and Hungarian bistro dishes. It is one of the greatest and most traditional coffeehouses in Europe. In 2009, the second confectionery is opened in Tokyo, Japan. The cafe’s specialties include Esterházy and Dobos cakes, and all kinds of cream cakes.
Day 2 – Buda
We already had a good look of Buda from Pest on Day 1, and we couldn’t wait to explore Buda on day 2. Buda is hilly, and where the two most well-known Budapest landmarks are located: Fisherman’s Bastion, and the Buda Castle.
Some might take a sightseeing River Cruise and sail down the River Danube, there might not be enough time for a 2-day visit. Instead, we took the metro to Batthyány Square and the waterfront offers a great view of the main facade of the Budapest Parliament. The Parliament Building is the seat of the National Assembly of Hungary. It is the most notable landmark with its neo-Gothic style, designed by Hungarian architect Imre Steindi and opened in 1902.
The huge building is one of the finest examples of Gothic Revival and Renaissance Revival architecture – it is striking and impressive on its own standing on the edge of the river Danube in the heart of Budapest. It is more striking up close, the exquisite details and decor are marvelous to over 70,000 annual visitors who visited the site – the parliament tickets can be difficult to secure due to its high popularity. The guided tour can help you get the most of the visit as it has over 700 rooms and can be intimidating to tour on your own.
Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church
We walked up to the Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church after breakfast and took some pictures of the Parliament. A bastion is a projecting part of a fortification built at an angle to the line of a wall – it served as a neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque style lookout in the past, and as a terrace overlooking the city’s skyline in the present. The design and construction of the Bastion were completed rather recently between 1895 and 1902 on the plans of Frigyes Schulek.
Spots of interests in the Matthias Church include Main Altar, Three Large Glass Windows, Portal of Mary, Coat-of-arms of King Matthias, Historical, Faces on the Capitals, Historical Faces on the Capitals, Loreto Chapel, Fresco – The Midday Bells, Saint Emeric Chapel, Tomb of King Bela III, Saint Ladislaus Chapel, Saint Stephen (Gara) Chapel, and Royal Oratory. All these spots showcase arts from Rome and all around Europe, and frescos depicting stories and important figures of Hungarian church.
There are seven towers at the bastion that represent the seven Magyar tribes that settled in the Carpathian Basin in 895. The terrace offers an unobstructed view of Pest, where the Parliament and Chain Bridge are in clear sight on a sunny day. If you want to have an even better panoramic view of the city, head to the roof of the Matthias Church.
Interesting Facts: The total height of the Matthias Tower is 78.16 meters. The number of stairs leading up to the panorama terrace is: 197. In the tower, there are 6 bells altogether, placed at two levels, with 4 bells on the lower level and 2 on the upper level.
The tower offers access in limited time sections. On the top of the Matthias tower not only I could see the entire Budapest, but also the beautiful roofing of the Matthias Church. The roofing has gained its present form by the end of the 19th century. During the latest renovation in 2006 damages caused by leakage and falling, crumbled carved stone pieces were repaired.
The Matthias Church is a Roman Catholic church originally completed in 1015. It was the second-largest church of medieval Buda and the seventh-largest of the medieval Hungarian Kingdom. However, check your calendar if you would like to enter the church because once a year, on Holy Saturday, the church can only be visited by worshippers.
Tower of the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene
This tower is a short walk away from the Matthias Church and it was built in the 13th century. While the Matthias Church was for the use of Buda’s German citizens, it is originally served as the parish church for the Hungarian citizens of the town.
Buda Castle and Hungarian National Gallery
The Buda castle is a historic castle and palace complex of the Hungarian kings in Budapest. It was completed in 2165, but the massive Baroque palace today occupying most of the site was built between 1749 and 1769. The complex in the past was referred to as either the Royal Palace or the Royal Castle. Today the castle, often referred to as the Royal Palace, is home to a number of cultural institutions, including the National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum.
I visited the National Gallery. The museum is not small, and not only houses Medieval, Renaissance, contemporary, Gothic, and Baroque Hungarian art but also hosts temporary and permanent art exhibitions.
Széchenyi Chain Bridge
To end our day in Buda we walked down the Buda Castle and the Chain Bridge is just nearby. The bridge also led to the Buda Hill funicular, a historic railway built in 1870 that connects the Adam Clark Square and the Buda Castle.
The Széchenyi Chain Bridge, or just the “Chain Bridge”, is the first permanent bridge of Budapest. It took almost 10 years to build, and the opening ceremony of the Chain Bridge in the city was on Nov 20, 1849. The bridge has only two car lanes but it has a pedestrian walkway, take a walk on both sides of the bridge where you could see the best of Budapest along the River Danube.