Bridges, Spas and Bars: 3 Days in Budapest - Eastern Europe's Rival to Paris

Budapest – Eastern Europe’s Rival to Paris – has bridges, bars and spas a plenty, but there is a lot more to discover there even on a short 3 day trip.  

I made my trip to the city in June with my daughter.  Read on for itinerary suggestions and plenty of practical tips to help you plan and get the most out of your own trip to Budapest.

Budapest - A Tale of Two Cities

Before unification in 1873, Buda and Pest were 2 separate cities separated by the Danube River.

On the right bank of the Danube sits hilly, leafy Buda, the site of the Old Town, Castle Hill and Gellért Hill.  Hungarian kings made Buda Castle (the Royal Palace) their home for over 7 centuries.  Today, Buda is a lovely place to stroll around and its hills gives you the best views of the city.

Pest (pronounced  Pesht: in Hungarian, every S in a word is pronounced with an SH sound) spreads itself along the left bank of the Danube River,  It is much flatter than Buda and very compact and walkable.  Many of the famous bars and spas of Budapest are located here and so it makes a lot of sense to make your base in Pest and visit Buda rather than the other way around.

Navigating your way between the two cities across the Danube River – which you will discover is “blond” in colour (rather than blue) – is all part of the fun of visiting Budapest.

The 8 Bridges of Budapest

Budapest currently has 8 bridges across the Danube River.  Running from North to South, the 8 bridges are: Megyeri Bridge, Árpád Bridge, Margaret Bridge, Széchenyi Chain Bridge, Elizabeth Bridge, Liberty Bridge, Petőfi Bridge, and Rákóczi Bridge.

Széchenyi Chain Bridge is easily the most famous and walking from Pest to Buda is really a rite of passage for any visitor to the city.  It has become something of an icon for the city – Budapest’s equivalent of the Eiffel Tower.

Széchenyi Chain Bridge Budapest
Széchenyi Chain Bridge Budapest

The photo above is taken from the Pest side of the Chain Bridge.  On the left hand side, you can see the funicular that takes you to the top of Castle Hill in Buda.  Annoyingly, there is no one way ticket option.  At the time of writing, it will cost you 4,000 HUF (around £8)  for a return journey.  The journey is brief but fun and saves you a long, steep walk.   Cars depart every 10 minutes throughout the day, so any queues disappear quickly.

Széchenyi Chain Bridge Budapest

All Budapest’s bridges are walkable and give you lovely views of the city.  You could spend a happy day just walking them all, picking up a selection of Hungarian street food picnic delicacies en route to keep you going?

There will soon be a ninth bridge in the up and coming southern area of Budapest too.  Budapest is an expanding city.

Be a Water Baby - Explore Budapest's Spas

Budapest is unique.  It is the world’s only capital city to have more than 120 mineral rich thermal springs gushing deep below its streets.  Since Roman times, Budapest has taken every advantage from this natural attraction welcoming millions of visitors – tourists and locals alike – to come and  “take the waters”.

There are more than a dozen opportunities to be a water baby in Budapest.  The best known thermal baths are Széchenyl Baths, located in the large green peaceful oasis of City Park (Városliget) area of Budapest.

Széchenyl Baths

Széchenyi Thermal Bath Budapest
Széchenyi Thermal Baths Budapest - Photo Credit yoav-aziz-iv0wL3hEGlg-unsplash

Built in 1913, the Széchenyi Baths are immense.  There are 3 outdoor swimming pool (one reserved for lane swimming), a dozen thermal baths and also a steamroom/sauna area.  It was fun to visit and experience the lazy river whirlpool in the centre and play in all the bubbles and spouts of the adventure pool area for a while.  People even play chess on large floating  boards here.  it is a place to hang out, chill and relax – but it is popular, so don’t expect it to be quiet (despite the signs) or to have it to yourself.  If you are brave enough, they have “Sparty” nights here too.

Although it is old, it was pretty clean and in places felt more like a sanatorium than a public swimming baths.

Gellért Baths

Gellért Bathslocated at the foot of Gellért Hill at the Buda end of the Liberty Bridge – has a totally different feel to it.  It is housed in an Art Nouveau Palace and so the architecture is way more extravagant than Széchenyl Baths

Gellért Baths Budapest
Gellért Baths Budapest
Gellért Baths Budapest
Gellért Baths Budapest
Gellért Baths Budapest

The thermal soaking pools at Gellért are really warm – up to 40 degrees centigrade.  For the classic experience, you should probably combine a warm soak with an exercise in the lane swimming pool and a quick plunge into the cold pool.  I opted out of the ice cold plunge.  Massages are available to book at both baths – follow the links to the websites for current availability/prices.

Gellért Baths Budapest

Lane swimming in the indoor pool at Gellért under the opulent glass domes ceiling is rather like exercising in a cathedral?!  We were the only two people lane swimming when we visited – glad we packed our swim hats!

Are There Other Spa Baths in Budapest?

Budapest isn’t all about the Széchenyi and Gellért thermal spa baths.  Bathing has a long history in Budapest.  You can also experience Turkish baths here.

Rudas Bath is a Turkish Bath originally built in the 16th Century  and has a rooftop hot tub.  There are restrictions on mixed sex bathing – check the website for current details.

If you want to actually drink the mineral waters, then visit Lukcas Baths where there is a drinking hall.  Yet another option is Veli Bej Spa.

If public bathing isn’t for you, then many of Budapest’s finest hotels have state of the art spas so you can get a feel for the thermal bathing experience – but there’s nothing like experiencing the real thing – right?

Visiting the Thermal Baths in Budapest - Tips for Future Travellers

Here are a few tips to help you prepare for your trip to the thermal baths of Budapest.

How Much Does it Cost to visit Budapest's Thermal Spa Baths?

At Széchenyi, a day ticket will set you back around £25 (a bit more at the weekend) which gives you a locker and an electronic wristband to operate the turnstiles (which you post back as you leave).  

You can hire a private changing cubicle where you can leave your things locked away while you swim.  They are easily big enough for 2 to share.  If you don’t hire a private cubicle, then you will need to change in public, gendered locker rooms.

Buying advance tickets on line gives you fast track skip-the-line access, but when we went in June, there was never a queue at any of the baths.  Entry times are quite restricted with these tickets too.  In my view, it is cheaper to pay on the day rather than book on line.

At Gellért, this is definitely the case.  An online ticket with a private cubicle costs £32 euros per person.  Buying a ticket on the day costs 10,500 HUF (around £21) and you can rent a cubicle to share for only 1,000 HUF (£2).

Gellért Baths Budapest Pricelist
Gellért Baths Budapest Pricelist
Széchenyi Thermal Bath Changing Cubicles
Széchenyi Thermal Bath Changing Cubicles
Gellért Baths Budapest Changing Rooms
Gellért Baths Budapest Changing Rooms
Budapest Thermal Baths - Bring a Swimming Hat!
Bring a Swimming Hat!
Gellért Baths Budapest Changing Rooms
Gellért Baths Budapest Changing Cubicles

What Do I Need to Bring with Me to Visit the Thermal Baths?

  1. Bathing suit – nude bathing is not allowed.
  2. Flip flops – “slippers” are obligatory – you will have to hire them otherwise.
  3. A towel.
  4. A swim hat – you can’t do lane swimming without one and you will have to hire one if you don’t bring it with you.
  5. Soap/shower supplies – so you can shower properly after your experience.  There are several notices around explaining how  human pathogens can flourish in warm water…
  6. A hair tie back if you have long hair – you will be whistled at otherwise by the bath attendants.
  7. Consider sunscreen and a hat if you are using the outdoor pools in very warm weather – there is no shelter.
  8. Swim bag – to pack up all your wet stuff afterwards.
  9. Leave your valuables at home.  The lockers/cabins do have  keys, but there are several notices explaining that no responsibility will be taken for any thefts unless you have also hired a safe box.

Budapest's Bars

So – when you have walked the bridges and explored all the spas, it has to be time to hit the bars?  Budapest does bars like no other city and it is definitely another Must Do to visit one or two of the romkocsma (ruin bars) during your stay.

The story of how the ruin bars were born is an interesting one.  In the early 2000’s, the Jewish Quarter in downtown Pest had several rather sad looking neglected courtyards, surrounded by empty pre war apartment buildings which had fallen into disrepair.  Enterprising locals started to string up a few fairy lights, pick up an eclectic mix of furniture etc. from skips and tips and add a selection of incongruous junk shop artefacts to brighten the place up a bit.  Add a bar and hey presto – a new drinking concept was born!  It worked a treat – these days tourists and locals alike flock to the romkocsma to enjoy an evening’s entertainment that is unique to Budapest.

Csendes Létterem Ruin Bar Budapest
Csendes Létterem Ruin Bar Budapest
Csendes Létterem Ruin Bar Budapest

We visited a couple:  Szimpla Kert (because it has the reputation of being the king of Budapest’s ruin bars) and  Csendes Létterem (because it was the nearest to our hotel!) My favourite of the two was definitely  Csendes Létterem – maybe because of the very budget friendly prices there (£3.20 for a double gin) and the fact that it was actually quiet when we visited (7pm – 7.30pm).

Csendes Létterem Ruin Bar Price List
Csendes Létterem Ruin Bar Price List
Szimpla Kert Ruin Bar Budapest
Szimpla Kert Ruin Bar Budapest
Szimpla Kert Ruin Bar Budapest
Szimpla Kert Ruin Bar Budapest
Csendes Létterem Ruin Bar Toilets
Csendes Létterem Ruin Bar Toilets
Szimpla Kert Ruin Bar Budapest Entry Restrictions
Szimpla Kert Ruin Bar Budapest Entry Restrictions
Szimpla Kert Ruin Bar Budapest Toilets

Don’t expect too  much from the toilets at any of the ruin bars you visit!

If you want the lowdown on all the other options, this article from Time Out provides a good round up.

Other Budapest "Must Dos"

Apart from walking the bridges, visiting a spa (or two) and experiencing the ruin bars, what else is there to do in Budapest?  In 3 days, you will have to make some choices because it just is not possible to visit all the sites the city has to offer in any depth in that time.  Any “Must Do” list is personal and yours will obviously depend on your own special interests and budget.  

There are a few sites though that – in my view – you would really be missing out if you went to Budapest and didn’t make enough time to fit them into your itinerary:

  • The Shoes on the Danube Monument
  • The House of Terror Museum
  • Matthias Church

The Shoes on the Danube Promenade Memorial

You cannot fail to moved by the 60 pairs of abandoned  iron shoes that are attached to the stone bank of the Danube River to commemorate the 3,500 people (800 of them Jewish) that were mercilessly shot into the river by the Arrow Cross militia in 1944-45 so that their bodies would be carried away to oblivion.   

Their shoes had some value, so were retained.  The laces were removed first and used to tie 2-3 victims together before being shot so that those who didn’t die instantly would then perish as they floated away in the icy water with no hope of being able to free themselves.  So sad, so shocking, so hard to believe that human beings could be this cruel to one another?

The Shoes on the Danube Promenade Memorial Budapest
The Shoes on the Danube Promenade Memorial Budapest

The memorial as a whole is arresting, but the individual shoes are true works of art.  Each pair is a tribute to the man, woman or child that might have worn them.  Every shoe has its own character and detail and each has its own story to tell of the person they once belonged to – a story that was forced to end in such an abrupt, brutal and tragic way.

Shoes are something we all wear – a part of every day life.  So the memorial is a fitting one – it reminds us that this could happen to any one of us or to our own families.

Many of the shoes are now decorated with yellow and some blue ribbons – a poignant reminder that such atrocities are still happening in the modern world and that the lessons of history remain to be learned.

The House of Terror Museum

Whilst you are enjoying the vibrant atmosphere of the modern city of Budapest, soaking in its spas and enjoying the vibe of its bars, it is only right to pause for a while and reflect on the difficult history that is still very much a part of Hungary and it’s capital city.

The House of Terror Museum is located at 60 Andrássy Avenue – the building that was once the headquarters of the Hungarian secret police both under the wartime fascist regime and the communist regime which followed it.  It is worth remembering that the communist regime lasted right up until 1989, so affecting the lives and memories of many living Hungarians.  This is not ancient history – it is very much modern history and still has a very powerful impact on many people lives today.

The Museum’s exhibits spare no details about the brutality of both of the repressive regimes and the video evidence from survivors is harrowing to watch.  Photos are not allowed, so you will need to visit if you want to inform yourself about Budapest’s history first hand.  The difficulties of daily life for ordinary people under both regimes and the hardship and torture suffered by those punished and murdered for being an “enemy of the state” is truly shocking.  The Museum does an excellent job of keeping the memory alive “Lest We Forget” how people were treated in this beleaguered  country.

As with many other sites in Budapest, the Museum is not open on Mondays.  On other days, it opens at 10am and closes at 6pm (last tickets 5.30 pm).  The audio guide is well worth having – the museum tour would be quite hard to follow without it.

Matthias Church

I include Matthias Church in my list of Must Dos because it is just such a unique building.  The colourful mosaic roof tiles can be seen for miles around, but you really need to buy a ticket to visit inside so you can admire and appreciate the chruch’s colourful interior too.

Matthias Church Budapest
Matthias Church Budapest
Matthias Church Budapest - Roof
Matthias Church Budapest - Roof
Matthias Church Budapest Roof Tiles
Matthias Church Budapest Roof Tiles
Matthias Church Budapest Interior Columns
Matthias Church Budapest Interior Columns

You can climb the 199 steep spiral steps to the tower (requiring a second entry ticket – hourly tours only leaving on the half hour), but the views from neighbouring Fisherman’s Bastion (free) are really just as good.

Budapest - An Itinerary for a 3 Day Visit

As you can see from all the information above, there is a LOT to see in Budapest.  It is often the case with a City Break that you have to cram everything into 3 days or so maximum. That is a shame for Budapest, because I think you could allow yourself a 5-6 day break and not run out of things to do here.  You could take a day walking the bridges.  You could take a day exploring the spas.  You would still have all the museums, parks and gardens, art galleries and iconic buildings left to explore – and that is without exploring the environs of Budapest, which also seem to have a lot to offer.

If you are trying to fit everything into 3 days – as we were – then our itinerary may be of use to you.  I do hope so – because that is what LovetoWander is all about!

LovetoWander 3 Days in Budapest Itinerary

We visited on a mother daughter trip in early June.  The itinerary we followed is set out below in the hope that  you find it useful for planning your own trip to Budapest.  Here are a few top tips to get you started:

  • Avoid weekends if you can.  The prices go up and so do the crowds.
  • Try to avoid Mondays too because many museums and other sites are closed on Mondays.
  • Also avoid visiting during the middle of the Summer.  It can get uncomfortably hot  in Budapest in high Summer and you will have to pay more for your accommodation in the height of the school holiday season too.

Day 1 - Tuesday

Morning

9.30 am - Private Tuk Tuk Tour

A Private Tuk Tuk Tour is a is a great way to orientate yourself and tick off all the main sights in a short space of time.  We managed to pack a huge number of sites into a 4 hour half day tour without feeling exhausted at the end of it.  The Tuk Tuk can pick you up at your hotel and is great at nipping into little spaces to get you close to all the main attractions and save your walking energy for later in the trip.

A private tour means you have a knowledgeable local guide at your disposal for a whole half day too, so you can tailor the tour to meet your own interests and ask whatever questions you like along the way.  

If you haven’t already planned your itinerary, then this is a really good way of deciding which sites you want to go back and spend more time exploring.  If you have only a very short time in Budapest, then it is probably the best way to get a feel for the whole of the City.

Private Tuk Tuk Tour of Budapest

On our trip, we visited:

  1. Andrassy Avenue
  2. Városliget
  3. Chimney Cake Stall
  4. Hungarian State Opera House
  5. Heroes’ Square – noted for its iconic statue complex featuring the Seven chieftains of the Magyars and other important Hungarian national leaders, as well as the Memorial Stone of Heroes.
  6. Szechenyi Baths
  7. Jewish Quarter.
  8. The Great Market Hall or Central Market Hall
  9. Liberty Bridge
  10. Gellert Thermal Bath and Swimming Pool
  11. The Citadella – a fortification located upon the top of Gellért Hill with great views over the City.
  12. The Liberty Statue, commemorating those who sacrificed their lives for the independence, freedom, and prosperity of Hungary.
  13. The Garden of Philosophers  – a poignant group of statues of religious leaders and philosophers who stand together aiming for a better understanding of one another
  14. Buda Castle/Castle Hill which contains some of Budapest’s most important medieval monuments and museums and is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
  15. Fisherman’s Bastion
  16. Matthias Church
  17. Margaret Bridge
  18. Shoes on the Danube Bank
  19. Hungarian Parliament Building – We asked to be dropped off here.
Private Tuk Tuk Tour of Budapest

Lunch

If your chimney cake hasn’t filled you up sufficiently, there are plenty of places around the Parliament Building for a quick bite of lunch before continuing your sightseeing activities.

Afternoon

Revisit the Shoes on the Danube Memorial (see above) – this really does merit some of your precious time in Budapest.

Visit the Parliament Building – it is Hungary’s largest building and has become an iconic symbol of Budapest.  You do need to book in advance on line though  as there are limited tickets available on the day.  Tours run at 10/12/1/2/3.  We viewed from the outside only. 

Hungarian Parliament Building - Budapest
Hungarian Parliament Building - Budapest

Váci Street – A mix of restaurants, small shops and modern department stores and shopping arcades.

Városliget City Park – Plenty of options for refreshment available.

Evening

Drinks: Cséndes Letteren Ruin Bar

Dinner:  Spago Restaurant by Wolfgang Puck A Michelin quality fine dining restaurant.  You can enjoy a view of the kitchen as a series of sumptuous and beautifully prepared dishes are served to you.

Spago by Wolfgang Puck Restaurant Budapest - Bar Area
Spago by Wolfgang Puck Restaurant Budapest - Bar Area
Spago by Wolfgang Puck Restaurant Budapest - Menu
Spago by Wolfgang Puck Restaurant Budapest - Menu
Spago by Wolfgang Puck - Fine Dining Restaurant Budapest
Spago by Wolfgang Puck - Fine Dining Restaurant

10 pm – Danube Night River Cruise – No link included as this was a “Give it a Miss” element of our trip quite frankly,  You could have seen better views of the beautiful city lights at night by walking across a couple of the bridges and back?!  The city is extraordinarily beautiful at night though and does merit devoting some time after dark to soak up the magic of the lights and give yourself a very different perspective of the city.

Danube Night River Cruise Budapest
Danube Night River Cruise Budapest

Day 2 - Wednesday

Morning

10 am – House of Terror Museum (see above)

Lunch

There are plenty of light lunch options around the peaceful Városliget Lake area.

‎⁨Városliget⁩ Budapest
‎⁨Városliget⁩ Budapest

Afternoon

3pm – 5pm – Széchenyl Baths

Evening

Drinks:  Szimpla Kert Ruin Bar

Dinner:  Véndiàk

A tempting cocktail menu and a great place to try the traditional Hungarian goulash dish,

Hungarian Goulash - Véndiák Restaurant Budapest
Hungarian Goulash - Véndiák Restaurant

Day 3 - Thursday

Morning

From Pest, take the “Must Do” stroll across the Danube River on the Chain Bridge and ride the funicular up to the top of Castle Hill in minutes.

Explore the Castle Hill, Old Town and Buda Castle Area.

11.30 – Take a tour of the Towers of St. Matthias Church and afterwards, spend some time inside the church admiring its colourful interior (see above).

Take in the (free) great city views from Fisherman’s Bastion.

Lunch

Hope for a table at Ruszwurm Confectionery, a tiny patisserie that has stood the test of time since 1827.  They make all their own cakes and display them beautifully on cherry wood inlaid counters and glass and mahogany display cabinets.  Be sure to sample their famous Dobos Torta  (a layered chocolate-and-cream cake with a caramelized brown sugar top) and their classic Ruszwurm Cake (a creamy mix of a cooked egg cream with vanilla mixed with whipped cream).

Ruszwurm Patisserie Budapest
Ruszwurm Patisserie Budapest
Ruszwurm Patisserie - Dobos Torta
Ruszwurm Patisserie - Dobos Torta
Ruszwurm Patisserie Budapest
Ruszwurm Patisserie Budapest
Ruszwurm's Classic Creamy Cake
Ruszwurm's Classic Creamy Cake

Afternoon

Relax a while in Holy Trinity Park

Cross the Danube via Liberty Bridge and visit the Central Market Hall.  It looks rather like a railway station but contains a tempting variety of local Hungarian specialties.  

Look out for paprika, sausage/salami in all varieties and – of course – Unicum – the traditional Hungarian herb liqueur usually served as an aperitif or with coffee. 

Central Market Hall Budapest
Central Market Hall Budapest
Central Market Hall Budapest
Unicum Herbal Liqueur - Budapest
Unicum Herbal Liqueur - Budapest

A short stroll back across Liberty Bridge will bring you to Gellért Baths where you can spend the afternoon relaxing after the morning’s sightseeing (see above).

Evening

Drinks:  Belváros area – Dob Utca

Dinner:  Remma’s Bistro

Local Hungarian dishes served with a smile.  What more do you need?!

Foodie Firsts

There are a couple of Budapest Foodie Firsts which I just can’t leave without sharing with you.

Chimney Cakes

The Chimney Cake – traditionally called Kürtőskalács – is the official dessert of Hungary. These delicious hand rolled, hollow, sweet pastries are best enjoyed freshly baked while they are still hot.  Just choose your preferred topping.  Simply Scrumptious! 

Chimney Cake Stall Városliget Budapest
Chimney Cake Stall Városliget Budapest
Traditional Chimney Cake Stall - Budapest
Cinnamon Chimney Cake - Budapest
Cinnamon Chimney Cake - Best Eaten Hot!

Langos

A deep fried potato cake topped with – at its most basic –  sour cream, garlic and cheese, but you can choose other toppings.  I had to wave the white surrender flag when I tried this to be honest – even sharing one was way too much for me.  Locals love to eat them rolled up  and probably wouldn’t dream of sharing one!

Langos - Hungarian Specialty of Budapest
Langos - Hungarian Specialty of Budapest
Langos - Hungarian Specialty of Budapest

Where We Stayed - Accommodation Review

We based ourselves at the Museum Hotel in Downtown Pest for our 3 day trip .  The location was good – we did the whole of the itinerary above on foot from the hotel.  The rooms are quiet and cool and the breakfast buffet was adequate.  You can ask for teabags and milk at the bar (always a bonus in my book!).  There is also a small gym area (to work off any over indulgence and leave yourself with a clear conscience for the day ahead) and a relaxing spa pool area.

Museum Hotel Budapest
Museum Hotel Budapest - Ground Floor Room 010
Tips for Future Travellers

Getting to the hotel from Budapest Airport was easy using the efficient MinBud shuttle service – reliable, much cheaper than a taxi and very easy to book on line in advance.

Glad I Packed

  • Swim Hat, Flip Flops, Several Swimsuits, Towel, Waterproof Tote Bag
  • Comfortable Walking Shoes – we walked an average of 25,000 steps a day.
  • A Rain Coat and an umbrella – useful for the odd shower and one cool evening

You Might Also Like

The links below are some of the other Mother Daughter trips that we have enjoyed together recently that might also be of interest to you.