If only we had endless time and endless money to see all the places we wanted to see, exactly when we wanted to see them. Alas, sometimes we’re granted only a slice of time in a new place. If you only have twenty four hours to spend in beautiful Budapest, here’s a round up of highlights to hit in Hungary’s divided primate city.
9 a.m.: I recommend you skimp on breakfast so as to be able to splurge on lunch and dinner later – a visit to a corner pastry and coffee shop yields a kakós csiga (a chocolate-sprinkled snail roll) and a passable cappuccino.
10 a.m. Don’t waste precious sightseeing hours underground on the metro or putzing around on foot; take one of Budapest’s many bright yellow tram lines. The Budapest tram system has more than 30 lines. The most tourist-friendly lines are the 4, 6, 47, 49 and the number 2, which runs alongside the Danube River and passes Castle Hill, Gellert Hill, and the Parliament. The trams run from 4:30 a.m. to 11:10 p.m, with the exception of the number 6, which runs every 15 minutes all night long. Take the Number 2 tram into the centrum and get off at the Vigado tér stop.
10:30 a.m. Hop off the tram at Vigado tér and say how do you do to the statues. Then, take a right at Váci Utca and head towards Vörösmarty tér for shopping and people watching. During Easter season, this lively square also hosts a lovely Easter markets, full of kiosks offering artisan goods and delicious foods. Note: though it is a delicacy native to Budapest, we do not recommend the rooster testicle stew unless you have a cast iron stomach.
12:00 p.m. Lunch at Cafe Gerbaud. In operation since 1858, Gerbaud is one of Hungary’s most traditional and beautiful coffee houses. Enjoy sweets, as well as lunch and dinner. The menu is full of continental-meets-Hungarian flavor, but may we suggest the veal stew-filled hortobágyi palacsinta pancake? Drool.
1:00 p.m. Head back through Váci Utca and walk along the Danube until you hit the famous Chain Bridge. Cross, while taking in the majesty of the Danube River, as well as the massive chains holding up the first permanent crossing point between Buda and Pest. At the end of the bridge, find Castle Hill. You can opt to make the ascent by foot or by cable car. Note: spend money on the cable car only if you are tall enough to see over the car’s sloping roof – for those of us under 5 feet tall, it’s Hungarian forints down the drain.
1:30 p.m. You’ve made it to Castle Hill! Tons to see here, and not all that much time. First things first; immediately to your left will be the Royal Palace, which also houses the National Gallery and the National Széchényi Library. The Hungarian royal family has never actually occupied the Royal Palace, but – in the centuries of invasions and wars – the palace has undergone a royal amount of reconstruction. Pass through the front gate – adorned by a giant sculpture of a mythical turul bird – and get your culture on. The statue of András Hadik – a renowned Hussar general – is a striking focal point to the palace grounds.
3:00 p.m. Leave the Palace grounds and follow the winding street away from the palace. Pass the guards – no, they won’t laugh if you tickle them – and head through Vienna Gate and then down a charming street towards Matthias Church. The name Matthias (Mátyás) will become familiar to you in Hungary – in the middle ages, King Mátyás was quite possibly the world’s most perfect ruler – giving to the poor and governing justly. His church on Castle Hill is a sumptuous piece of religious architecture, its roof covered with gorgeous tilework.
4:00 Make your way to the Fishermen’s Bastion (Halászbástya). The view from this 19th century lookout bastion is absolutely breathtaking.
Grab a Hungarian-style ice cream or a pretzel from a man in traditional dress. Listen to some live Roma music. Look down on the Danube; the building with the red roof is the Parliament.
[photo of Budapest view with Parliament. Caption: Hey, kids! It's the Parliament!]
5:00 p.m. Make your way down from the top of Castle Hill through the footpaths and stay on the Buda side of the Danube, heading towards the Liberty Bridge and the Gellert Baths and Spa. Eighty percent of Hungary is bubbling with thermal waters and spa culture has thrived since the Roman times. The Gellert Spa is a luxurious way to work out the kinks in your system. Soak in the waters or even opt for massage and spa treatments. A tad pricey at 4100 FT for an adult ticket (around $20), plus additional fees for additional treatments, but the relaxation is well worth it. When in Budapest…
7:30 p.m. Dinner on the Danube, at the Amstel River Cafe. Sure, it might be a bit cheesy/touristy to eat at a restaurant so close to the Danube but if you’ve only got 24 hours in Budapest, you don’t have time to play it cool. Cozy place, lovely atmosphere, economical, great food.
9:00 p.m. Nightcap. Head to Király Utca – a fashionable pedestrian street – to check out the nightlife, as some of the old buildings have been transformed into bars and clubs. Kuplung, for example, is a former mechanics’ garage that now houses cultural events and, after hours, turns into a bar. Enjoy a strong aperitif to help digest the evening’s heavy food, like Unicum or pálinka. Or, if you’re feeling particularly brave, head to AbSzint on Andrassy Utca – a place where every aspect of absinthe culture is appreciated and practiced.
12:00 a.m. Take the opportunity to explore the sights without the panic of the daytime crowd – pass through Király Utca or walk along the Danube River and stop to chat with the Kiskiralylany Szobor (Little Princess) statue, perched on the rail at Vigado tér tram stop. Look up at the full moon over Buda Castle.
If you like this post, check out my list of 10 Things to Put in your Mouth in Hungary.