The first time I spent three days in Budapest, I was 19. I have Hungarian ancestry, and my parents, sisters, grandparents and I came to explore our family roots as part of a larger trip that also included Prague and Vienna. Though I later went on to live in Prague for two years (and it remains my favorite place in the world), as a tourist on that first trip, Budapest is the city that stood out to me for its gorgeous river views, stunning architecture and magical corners.
But there’s much more to Budapest than old-world charm. Recently, coming back to this city as an adult traveler with my own itinerary became one of my top travel priorities, and I got the chance to make it happen after a work trip to Munich last fall.
GETTING TO BUDAPEST
I flew to Budapest from Munich, Germany on Lufthansa, which was a super easy flight of only an hour or so. But if I’d been coming from the U.S., I likely would have tried to snag a spot on American Airlines’ new non-stop flight between Philadelphia and Budapest. If I have to change planes on the way to a European destination, I personally much prefer to do it in the U.S. before my trans-Atlantic flight rather than in Europe.
For info on how I booked my flights for free, see the “Miles Math” section below!
I stayed the first night of my trip at the Hilton Budapest, and if there’s a better location in the city, I can’t imagine what it would be. The hotel is just steps from Buda Castle, Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion, some of the most beautiful sights in the city. But almost more importantly, it squarely overlooks the most magnificent of all: the Hungarian Parliament Building. I felt giddy every time I looked out the window, and that’s to say nothing of the hotel itself! Accommodations were comfortable and the service was excellent. Can’t recommend this hotel enough!
Unfortunately, the Hilton had no availability for my second night in town, and I had planned to stay at the Lánchíd 19, a member of Design Hotels that’s bookable through Marriott. I had a bad experience shortly after check-in and instead ended up moving to the Courtyard Budapest City Center. It was cheap in points the hotel upgraded me to a gigantic suite, but the accommodations themselves were nothing special. I’d say it’s a great option for business travel but for a vacation, I would personally seek out something with a little more character.
As a vegetarian, Budapest was a little more difficult for me than most cities, but I still managed to have some really memorable dining experiences. The first was at MÁK Bistro, a Hungarian restaurant with a young phenom chef and a clear Scandinavian influence. The three-course lunch menu, featuring sunchoke consommé and spinach risotto, was perfect after running around for hours sightseeing in the freezing wind.
Mazel Tov, located in the city’s Jewish quarter, was decidedly the hippest restaurant I visited. The trendy space, adorned with greenery and string lights, was buzzing when I visited on a weeknight, and the menu showed off the diversity associated with Israeli cooking. A playful cocktail list helped make for a fun night out, even on my own!
For my last lunch in town, I explored the fine dining scene at Borkonyha Winekitchen, a Michelin-starred spot serving up a five-course tasting menu. Everything I tried was fantastic and artfully prepared, including a parade of deserts that just kept on coming! If you don’t mind spending a little extra for a memorable meal, this is a prime place to do it.
I feel like I was constantly popping into coffee shops to escape the wind and find something warm to hold, and the most memorable of the bunch was Dorado Café. This coffee shop is minimalist but homey, the staff is super friendly and the offerings are solid!
While I didn’t frequent one of Budapest’s famous ruin pubs—eclectic bars sprung up in formerly dilapidated buildings—in the evening, I did walk through the original, Szimpla, in the daytime. With quirky decor and shabby, mismatched furniture spanning multiple rooms, it was easy to imagine it as staple of Budapest’s nightlife scene, even in the middle of the day. While Szimpla started the trend, there are tons of other ruin pubs around the city, so if you’re looking for something more off-the-beaten track, it shouldn’t be too hard to find.
With just three days in the city and some pretty terrible weather, I didn’t get to explore as thoroughly as I would have liked. But I maximized my time by taking a two free walking tours, both of which I really enjoyed. The first covered most of the city’s well-known tourist sites: the Chain Bridge, St. Stephen’s Basilica, the castle district and more were all on the agenda, which served as a perfect introduction to the city. On my last day, I did the Jewish District Walk, which took us to Budapest’s grand Dohány Street Synagogue and others, as well as to the run pub Szimpla.
Outside of the walking tour, I spent a lot of time on my own near Buda Castle, Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church thanks to the Hilton’s location practically just around the corner. The views from that part of the city are just so breathtaking thanks to the river and Parliament below. Between Buda and Pest, Buda is the ritzier side of the city, and its pretty architecture and charming streets make it a great place to wander.
Last but not least, I visited a Hungarian bathhouse, something I had never done before. I love being in the water, particularly if it’s warm, so my trip to the Neo-Baroque Széchenyi Thermal Baths was definitely the highlight of my trip. While it was rainy and cold outside, the outdoor baths were the perfect temperature, making it a great activity for a gloomy day. I could have stayed all day!
With more time, I would have loved to see another of Budapest’s bathhouses. The Gellért Baths look beautiful and going to an indoors bathhouse seems like it would provide a different experience than the one I had. Those particular baths are also up on a hill with a great view overlooking the Danube!
On this trip, I also somehow also never made it over to Heroes’ Square, one of the city’s main attractions, to see its famous memorial and statue complex.
Because Lufthansa, like United, is a member of Star Alliance, I was able to use my United miles to book my flights. I snapped up a round-trip for just 8,000 miles each way, which felt like a steal for an itinerary that was ringing up at well into the $300s. I ended up having to shell out $76.60 on taxes and fees, which made me even happier to avoid paying the fare!
The Hilton was also a total bargain in both cash and points. Rooms can go for well under $200, which is unbelievable to me considering the prime location and quality of the rooms! Still, I chose to redeem points for the stay, as I was at the end of a long Eurotrip that had already taken a toll on my wallet. The room was just 40,o00 per night, and while Hilton award stays fluctuate in price on a day-by-day basis, 40,000 is definitely on the lower end of what you’ll generally find for a hotel this nice.
For more on earning and using points and miles to travel for free, visit the 52 Cities free resource library or register to join me on my points and miles masterclass! And if you’re looking for more on Budapest, check out this perfect itinerary for first-timers, more on my stay at the Hilton, and my review of the Széchenyi thermal baths!
What would you do with 3 days in Budapest? Let me know in the comments! >>
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