I’m a little nervous about sharing this post on Budapest and the Castle District. Every once in a while I get comments from people saying that it’s silly to only spend 24 hours in a big city like Paris or London. It doesn’t matter how many times I say that I plan my itineraries 24 hours at a time, and I agree you shouldn’t spend only 24 hours in a big city. Some people don’t read the disclaimers.
Well, Budapest is definitely a city you shouldn’t spend only 24 hours in. From the Castle District to the Danube River, to the House of Terror, it is simply too full of must visit destinations.
But for this 24 hours in Budapest, we’re going to have an amazing time hitting the highlights of Hungary’s capital. We’ll start with a guided tour of the Castle District and pastry with a local. Then we’ll go out and explore this gorgeous city on our own! Finally, we’ll sup on some of the best fine dining in Budapest! Ready or not, here we go!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours in Budapest.
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24 Hours in Budapest
Where to Stay?
Because Budapest has become such a popular tourist destination, hotels in the city can be very expensive. Remember that Budapest is really a combination of two cities. If you’re looking at Google Maps, Buda will be on the left hand side of the Danube, and Pest is on the right. When I was looking at hotels, the ones in Pest were cheaper, though I suppose that could always change.
I recommend staying at the Fig Tree House Budapest in Pest. The rooms are adorable, there’s a great free breakfast, and the staff couldn’t be more helpful. I had an early morning flight back to the United States, and the front desk arranged for a cheap taxi to the airport, and they packed a free and tasty breakfast for me. It’s not near main attractions like the Castle District but there’s public transportation nearby that will get you there quickly.
24 Hours in Budapest
Morning: Buda Castle Explorer
Usually the first thing I do when I arrive in an unfamiliar city is take a walking tour with a local guide. It’s the best way to get your bearings and also some expert advice on what to do. That way when you go wandering on your own, you won’t be 100 percent clueless. I always like Urban Adventure tours because they never have more than 12 people, and they never cancel the tour even if only one person books.
So it’s a great idea to kick off your 24 hours in Budapest with the Buda Castle Explorer tour. You’ll get to see the most famous sights in Buda, like the Castle District, but you’ll also find a few hidden gems. I don’t want to spoil all the tour’s secrets. So I’m going to limit myself to…
approximately top 5: budapest castle district
1) church of saint mary magdalene
One of the first stops on the tour was at one of the oldest places in the Castle District. It was built in the medieval times, but now only parts of the church, like the tower, remain standing. The history of this church basically takes you through the entire history of Budapest.
After Hungary was invaded by the Ottoman Turks, it was turned into a mosque. Then, after the Ottomans left Hungary, it was turned back into a church. It was damaged during WWII, and then finally destroyed during the Communist period. Now it is left standing as a monument to basically everything that has ever happened in Hungary.
This church seemed like a good place for my guide to explain who the Hungarians are. I will call him Alfred in honor of Jimmy Stewart’s character in Shop Around the Corner, which is set in Hungary. Unlike many of their neighbors, Hungarians aren’t Slavs. Their language is not related to Slavic languages at all. And Hungarians call themselves Magyars. But there’s a lot of debate about who Hungarians really are, where they come from, and how they got to Hungary.
There’s also a lot of debate in Hungary today about the amount of immigrants that Hungary should admit. Hungary currently has a very right-wing, anti-immigration government. Because I am American, Tony joked that Viktor Orban ran on the slogan “Make Hungary Great Again”. It’s interesting that so many countries have this notion of a mythic past in which their country was great, and they need a strong man to help them get back there. In practice, this idea usually doesn’t work out that well.
2) museum of music history
We didn’t actually get to go inside the Museum of Music History on this tour. But it sounds like a fascinating place, and sometimes there are concerts in the building which are included with the price of admission. But we were here to discuss the fascinating history of this building.
If the Museum of Music History looks especially impressive on the outside, that’s because it’s in a former palace. As I mentioned earlier, Hungary went through a Communist period from the end of World War II to the 1990s. Under Communism, property was confiscated from wealthy families, like the family that owned this palace. After the fall of Communism, it was often difficult to determine who had owned which confiscated building or how to give it back to them.
In the case of the family that owned this building, the palace was not returned to them. Instead it was turned into a Museum of Hungarian Music History, honoring such luminaries as Lizst and Bartok. But the members of the family get to visit the museum for free, as long as they give advance notice. I feel like I’d rather have a palace than free museum admission, but maybe this is why I’m not Hungarian nobility.
3) koller gallery
The Koller Gallery isn’t open every day, so it’s possible you’ll have to skip it on this tour. But if you do, please come back another day! It’s such a beautiful spot for peace and quiet in the Castle District. The Koller exhibits contemporary fine art, which is available for purchase if you are rolling in the stuff.
If like me, you are not, enjoy the charming sculpture garden. Imagine getting these beauties all to yourself.
And ignore this creepy girl standing in the corner. She’s probably harmless. The Koller Gallery has a fascinating history, just like everything else in Budapest. It was founded by György Koller under the Communist period. Free artistic expression was discouraged by the government, so his business was temporarily banned, but he kept going anyway. Imagine being so brave! I practically break down and cry if a lunatic looks at me cross-eyed on the subway.
This building was once the studio of the late Hungarian-Italian artist Amerigo Tot. You’ll get to see some of his pieces on the tour, but I’m not going to publish photos of it for copyright reasons. But there’s no copyright on the sick views of the Danube and the Castle District from Tot’s window. Enjoy! (Tot lived an amazing life. Among other things, he played one of Al Pacino’s security guard’s in The Godfather. Te salut, Amerigo Tot!)
So what exactly are we looking at here? Would you believe me if I said a Hilton? Hilton wanted to build a posh hotel in the Castle District, but the ruins of a Dominican Cloister were already in the spot on which they wanted to build. So they had to incorporate the ruins into the design for their building.
In this photo, it’s a little more clear that the cloisters are part of a more modern building. Alfred said that some people like the building, some don’t. I personally think it looks awesome. And now that I said that, I think I deserve a free room. Are you listening, Hilton Budapest?
5) matthias Church
You really can’t visit the Castle District without stopping at the stunning Matthias Church. Alfred gave me a very thorough tour of the interior, so I learned many of its hidden secrets and ways. I don’t want to spoil them all, but I will mention that Alfred said it was a very nationalist church. It is full of scenes from Hungarian history. The two most famous Hungarian kings, Stephen and Matthias, get a lot of face time in these paintings.
I got a special bonus when I visited Saint Matthias because they were displaying beautiful replicas of the crown and regalia of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I can’t guarantee they’ll be there when you visit, but if they are, don’t miss them.
These once belonged to the ruler of Austria-Hungary, and my favorite mustache, Franz Josef. I had learned all about FJ in Vienna, but I was surprised to see so much about him in Budapest, even though of course you can’t have Austria-Hungary without Hungary.
Alfred explained that Franz Josef had worked very hard to get Hungarians to love him. He had even “proved” that he was descended from Hungarian kings. The King List is on the walls of Matthias Church. I use the word “proved” in quotation marks because who knows if Frank Josef and his mustache were really Hungarian. But now I know the secret to becoming popular in Hungary! Just tell everyone you are descended from Hungarian kings, and they’ll love you too!
6) hungarian cream cake
Do you know what I’m sure is descended from Hungarian kings? This scrumptious cream cake. For our last stop on the tour, I got a pastry for my very own, and this is what I chose. Alfred said that pastries are so popular in Hungary, every year the country votes on a “Cake of the Year”. That’s not a joke! It’s very real. Very well, Hungarian nationalists, you’ve convinced me. Any country that has a Cake of the Year is the greatest country of the world.
Anyway, my tip for you here is to eat as many of these cream cakes as the laws of Hungary will allow. You can find similar cakes in Slovenia too, which was also part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Eat them too.
24 Hours in Budapest
I did something a little daring after the tour was over. After I enjoy an excellent walking tour, I always have an urge to go explore on my own. So I took the Number 16 bus for a short while and got off on a random stop. Then I wandered around Budapest for a while on my own, meandering back towards my dinner reservation in the Castle District, without a strict plan, just bopping into anything that struck my fancy. It was very fun. Always give yourself some unstructured exploring time in any city.
But of course you’re reading this blog because you want some structure! I won’t leave you hanging! Instead I’ll give you some tips for exploring Budapest with…
three fun facts: 24 hours in Budapest
24 hour treat: bamba Marha burger
According to their website, Bamba Marha has the best burger in Budapest. Well, I have not even eaten most of the burgers in Budapest, but I can tell you that the burgers at Bamba Marha are very delicious. In fact, I think they have delicious hipster burgers in every city in Eastern Europe at this point. Stalin must be turning over in his grave.
I recommend the cheeseburger and the yummy spiced fries. You could tell the ingredients were all fresh and organic; this is no fast food chain. Also the staff seemed very excited to speak English, which was adorable. I felt it would be the polite thing to not mangle the poor Hungarian language, so I stuck to English.
1) what’s the most famous sight in budapest?
It’s not any of the castles or monuments, Internet Stranger! The most can’t miss sight is the blue Danube River that divides Buda and Pest. Fortunately I think it’s physically impossible to visit Budapest without seeing the Danube. But if you do spend at least 24 hours in Budapest and you don’t see the Danube, you are doing it all wrong.
If the weather is nice, and for me it was nice every day in Budapest, really take your time and walk up and down the river. This is the Danube! The river that has inspired countless musicians, artists, and writers! Do you know how many artists have been inspired by the East River in my hometown of New York? No one except this weird guy Arthur who lived on my street and thought the CIA was trying to poison his dog.
There are obviously many bridges across the Danube, but my favorite is the green art nouveau Liberty Bridge. This is the shortest bridge across the Danube. It used to be named after Franz Josef, so in my head, it is the Mustache Bridge. (Please Google Franz Josef if you don’t understand why I keep talking about his mustache. You’re welcome!)
2) what’s your favorite museum in budapest?
I say it’s the Hospital in the Rock! You might be a little confused because hospitals are not museums. Ordinarily you are correct, Internet Stranger! But the Hospital in the Rock was a combination secret military hospital/bunker, and now it has been turned into a Castle District museum about Hungary during World War II and the Communist period.
How often do you get to visit Hungarian Secret Military Hospitals? If the answer is every day, then please email me so we can be friends because you obviously have a cooler life than I do.
Photo taking is strictly forbidden in the Hospital in the Rock. But they couldn’t stop me from photographing the exterior! You can only go through the hospital on a timed, guided tour, but I wouldn’t really want to tour a secret, underground Hungarian military hospital on my own anyway. Especially since there are bloody dolls dressed as mortally wounded people undergoing operation. (Not a joke.)
I would have thought Hungary would be starting secret military hospitals under Communism, but this hospital started in World War II. During WWII, Hungary was kind of a mess. They were a member of the Axis Powers, but they tried signing a deal with the Allies towards the end of the war. The Nazis got mad and rather predictably occupied the country.
Then the Soviets besieged the city, which lasted for several months. As we all know, you should never try to outsiege the Russians, and the Hungarians surrendered. But the Hospital in the Rock got most of its use as a hospital during the siege. It was closed for a while and then turned to a nuclear bunker. (Please don’t ask me if it was ever used. I hope you know that there was never a nuclear attack on Hungary.)
3) where’s the best place to watch the sunset?
That’s clearly the top of Fisherman’s Bastion! How clever to have a historic viewing terrace set up so nicely in the Castle District. This is the second best idea in Budapest, after those cream cakes. Fisherman’s Bastion looks like a place where Daenerys would stand in Game of Thrones and throw dragon fire at people. But in fact it was never used as fortification. It has always just been a charming viewing terrace.
You can pay different amounts for Fisherman’s Bastion depending on your amount of time/budget. There are free viewing points, but those are very crowded. If you want to see the top turrets, you have to pay. I think it’s worth it, but your mileage may vary.
One last tip! Don’t just look at the gorgeous views of the Danube! There are many fascinating details on the walls of Fisherman’s Bastion. I especially like this cutie-pie dragon pictured above. Remember, this isn’t a real medieval wall. It’s more like an ironic Hungarian medieval wall, and how often do you get to see those?
24 Hours in Budapest
Evening: Dinner at Arany Kaviar
If I get to enjoy at least two dinners in a city, and I usually do, I like to make one evening fancy-pants and the other evening casual-pants. Tomorrow we’ll go low-key, but tonight we do it up, Russian-styles, staying in the Castle District at Arany Kaviar. It’s a Russian-Hungarian restaurant, which I did not know was a thing. It’s also recommended by the Michelin guide, which is proof enough that it is VFD. (Very Fancy Definitely.)
I regret that you might not have my adorable waiter, who was training for his sommelier exam. This meant that he was shadowed by a sober, older Hungarian gentleman who hung on his every word about my Hungarian wines. (Hungarian wines are delicious, PS. Please drink all of them.) But you can try their delectable tasting menu and feast on all of the following treats:
approximately top 5: arany kaviar
You have to start with caviar. It’s in the name of the restaurant! This caviar came on top of an oyster, so double the decadence!
2) stroganoff salad
The theme of this tasting menu seemed to be Russian Classics with a Twist. You’ve had heavy beef Stroganoff before. But have you ever had it in a salad form? Or with smoked duck breast? I like this idea of taking a heavy dish and making it lighter and more healthy. Next time someone should make chicken pot pie salad.
My quest to eat every dumpling in Eastern Europe continues with these pelmenis! They were truly light as my heart will be when Hilton Budapest gives me that free room. The twist here is that the pelmenis were stuffed with rich boar meat. But my favorite part of the dish was actually the tomatoes. They tasted like summer exploded in my mouth.
4) instant borscht?
This was my favorite twist of the night. The borscht was brought to my table, but it just looked like ruby-red gelatin. Then the waiter poured hot liquid over it, and voila! It was borscht. But it tasted just as delicious as regular borscht. I think making instant food at a fine dining table should catch on world wide. Next, they should just prepare instant mac and cheese at your table. I’m sure everyone will love that.
Yay! It’s a two for one Eastern European dumpling night! Although this is really a piroshki, which is a bun filled with things. This one has been filled with venison, so it’s as fancy as a piroshki can be. Apparently eating game is popular in Hungary. That makes sense. I bet Franz Josef and his mustache loved game.
The twist here is that the dessert, Russian pancakes called syrniki, were served with dill ice cream. Of course dill is often used in Baltic cuisine, but not normally in ice cream. But I was most excited to eat a type of pancake I’d never tried. I was told they were like blini, but fluffier. I don’t believe anyone in this world has ever said no to a fluffier pancake!
That’s a Perfect 24 Hours with the Castle District!
What would you do in the Castle District? What is better, the Hospital in the Rock or a cream cake? And when is Hilton sending me that free room? Please leave your thoughts below!