Fisherman's Bastion in Budapest is a stunning neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque terrace that offers panoramic views of the city

Sitting astride the Danube River as its makes its way to the Black Sea, Budapest is one of central Europe’s most captivating cities. The river separates the two distinct halves of the Hungarian capital: older Buda, on the hilly west, has retained its cobbled streets and medieval architecture, while more modern Pest, on the flatter east, has grand boulevards and a feel of the belle epoque. Here’s how to discover both sides on a unforgettable three-day trip.

Day one

Morning: savour local produce and a riverside stroll

A tram in Budapest

Budapest's trams along the river provide picturesque views of historic landmarks, including the Parliament and Buda Castle, making commuting a scenic experience (Photo: Getty Images) 

There is no finer introduction to Budapest than to walk along the great blue river that runs through it. Winding through the Hungarian capital on its way from Germany to the Black Sea, the Danube connects many of the city's major sights.

On your first day, keep to the Pest side and start the morning at the 19th-century Great Market Hall. Pick up local delicacies such as paprika, black truffles or Hungarian wine at one of the stalls beneath its neo-Gothic ceiling, before heading north along the river. The stretch between Erzsébet Bridge and the Széchenyi Chain Bridge is particularly lovely, home to a broad cobbled esplanade known as the Promenade.

Afternoon: experience Hungarian coffee culture

Budapest high street, Hungary

Hungarian coffee culture blends tradition with modernity, offering a rich experience with iconic cafés like Gerbeaud, where locals and tourists savour aromatic brews and pastries (Photo: Getty Images)

Budapest is celebrated for its grand cafes, which first drew intellectuals, artists and writers to discuss the matters of the day in the 19th century. Get a taste of the era, and a slice of excellent cake, at the opulent Café Gerbeaud, a short walk from the river, or opt for a bespoke afternoon tea beneath the domed glass ceiling of the Kupola Lounge at the The Ritz-Carlton, Budapest or have coffee at the grand, historic Matild Café. Afterwards, continue north along the river to take a tour of the ornate Hungarian Parliament Building. The gilded, frescoed Grand Staircase is a particular highlight.

Evening: take an evening cruise along the Danube

The Danube, Budapest

The Danube River flowing through Budapest is Europe's second-longest river, dividing the city into historic Buda and bustling Pest, creating a picturesque backdrop for iconic landmarks (Photo: Getty Images)

To see the Parliament Building at its most attractive – floodlit and golden at night, its reflection twinkling in the water – have your concierge book a sunset cruise along the Danube, and spend an hour meandering upstream, cocktail in hand.

The best hotels in the city are in Pest, within walking distance of the piers from which the boats leave. Try the Hotel Dorothea, Budapest, Autograph Collection with its sleek, modern rooms; the uniquely elegant Matild Palace, A Luxury Collection HotelW Budapest, for bold styling combined with heritage features, and a peerless location opposite the city's opera house; the contemporary sophistication of The Ritz-Carlton, Budapest; or the Budapest Marriott Hotel, which offers beautiful views over the Danube.

Day two

Morning: head across the river to Budapest’s old castle

Budapest's Old Castle

Budapest's historic Buda Castle, dating back to the 13th century, crowns Castle Hill, offering panoramic views and housing cultural treasures (Photo: Getty Images)

Your second day is devoted to discovering the unique, higher-altitude charms of the Danube's Buda side. After breakfast at your hotel, you’ll be ready to make your way across the river on the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, the first bridge to connect Buda with Pest in 1849. At the other end, a vintage wooden funicular with neat gold trim brings you to the top of the Castle District in just over 90 seconds. A couple of minutes’ walk from the terminal is Buda Castle, now home to the Hungarian National Gallery and the country’s largest collection of fine art by Hungarian painters.

Afternoon: walk to a site where kings were crowned 

Budapest Old District

Budapest's Castle District encompasses medieval architecture, including Matthias Church and Fisherman's Bastion, blending history, culture, and stunning vistas (Photo: Getty Images)

A meander through the cobbled streets of the Castle District leads to many excellent lunch spots, most serving simple takes on traditional Hungarian cuisine. Déryné offers something more elevated, with dishes such as wagyu beef and oysters served in its upscale bistro-style setting. Continue to Trinity Square and Matthias Church. Once used for the coronation of Hungarian kings, the medieval building was refashioned in the 19th century and has an extraordinary tiled roof. After you’ve enjoyed the vaulted interior and the religious relics it contains, head across the square to the covered walkways of Budapest’s former fort, Fisherman’s Bastion, which offers incredible views over the river back towards Pest.

Evening: try fine dining and a drink with a view

Budapest offers breathtaking panoramic views

Budapest offers breathtaking panoramic views from vantage points like Gellért Hill, revealing the city's stunning architecture and the majestic Danube River (Photo: Marriott International)

On select evenings, Mattias Church hosts classical music concerts, so ask your concierge to arrange access. If your trip dates don’t coincide, cross back over the river for an evening of epicurean delights. DNB Budapest takes its culinary inspiration ‘from the Black Forest to the Black Sea’, serving a menu of central European dishes and wine. Or venture further around the world with the innovative Asian-fusion cuisine of Nightingale by Beefbar. End your night with a cocktail at a rooftop bar: The Duchess is a ‘secret liqueur library’ with views across Budapest’s rooftops, while The Liz & Chain Rooftop Bar looks over the river and the bridge you walked across this morning.

Day three

Morning: explore a creative district with historic roots

Ruin bar, Budapest

Budapest's ruin bars are iconic nightlife spots, repurposing abandoned buildings with eclectic decor, live music, and a vibrant atmosphere (Photo: Getty Images)

Stay on the Pest side of the Danube this morning, taking exploratory strolls around the 7th District, or Erzsébetváros, which is within easy reach of your hotel. The region has traditionally been home to Budapest’s ‘ruin bars’, which took over abandoned buildings at the start of the 21st century. The very first one – Szimpla Kert – hosts a popular farmers’ market on Sunday mornings; join the locals browsing stalls selling regional marmalade, sausages and more. This district bubbles with creativity now, with many boutiques selling high-end local fashion and design as well as antiques. It’s a good neighbourhood to pick up a unique memento of your trip.

Afternoon: indulge in a traditional or modern spa

Gellért thermal bath, Budapest

Budapest boasts numerous historic thermal spas, like Széchenyi and Gellért, offering relaxation in ornate surroundings with healing mineral waters (Photo: Getty Images)

Return to your hotel for a spot of lunch and to pick up your swimming costume. One of Budapest’s many attractions is its abundance of thermal waters, which led to the establishment of many spas in the early 20th century, drawing visitors from all over Europe.

Many still remain, including Gellért Thermal Bath, a beautiful Art Nouveau complex, with striking blue tiles, ten pools and various massage treatments. Rudas Thermal Bath is one of Budapest’s oldest, with parts dating to the 16th century; the rooftop panoramic pool is a newer addition. Complement your traditional experience with 21st-century spa culture by booking a treatment at the AWAY Spa, followed by time rejuvenating in its calming pool.

Evening: spend a night at the opera

Hungarian State Opera Roof

The Hungarian State Opera House in Budapest features a magnificent neo-Renaissance roof adorned with statues and intricate architectural details (Photo: Getty Images)

The last evening is reserved for the grandest experience: a night at the opera. Your concierge will be able to book tickets at Budapest’s historic opera house, which opened in 1885. The Hungarian State Opera has a varied programme, from performances of classical opera such as Mozart’s Don Giovanni to contemporary dance. The red-and-gold, three-storey auditorium, with its chandeliers and frescoed ceiling, is as attention-grabbing as any drama happening on stage. Guests at W Budapest can step out of the hotel and into the opera house's foyer in the blink of an eye.

A meal at Spago by Wolfgang Puck is a fitting end to both the night and your trip, with its refined ‘Californian cuisine with Hungarian accents’ a perfect finale to the time you've spent in this most unique city.

Published: March 15, 2024

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