24 hours in Budapest: Your guide to Hungary's capital

Budapest is pretty, quirky, fun, relatively inexpensive and packed with attractions

A picture is taken on February 8, 2010 shows the Matthias Church and the statue of the first Hungarian king, St. Istvan (Stephan), on top of the hill of Buda Palace in the Hungarian capital Budapest.  AFP PHOTO / ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP PHOTO / ATTILA KISBENEDEK

Few European cities are better all-rounders than Budapest. It’s pretty, quirky, fun, relatively inexpensive and packed with attractions. It can also be what you want it to be – Buda on the left bank of the Danube is relatively serene and historic, while Pest on the right bank has much more energy about it. There are chilled-out pockets, grand old cafés, riverbank strolls and seriously knock-out architecture to throw into the mix, too.

07.30: Go for a dip

One of the key things that sets Budapest apart is the thermal springs dotted around the city, which make for marvellous spa complexes. The biggest of these is the Szechenyi Baths in the grandstanding, monument-packed City Park. Built in 1913, and looking for all the world like someone has put a series of pools outside a palace, Szechenyi is a mammoth enterprise.

Szechenyi Thermal Baths, Budapest, Hungary

There are 15 of said pools indoors, and three outdoors – the latter of which are more enjoyable on a summer’s day. All are heated to different temperatures, and part of the enjoyment comes from the people-watching. You’ll often see old men at the edge of the pool, playing chess. The pricing system is somewhat bewildering, depending on time of day and whether you want locker, cabin, towel and swimming cap rental, but starts at 4,900 forints (Dh69).

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10.00: A history lesson

With a name like 'the House of Terror', you don't go in expecting light-hearted relief. A stroll down glamorous Andrassy útca from the baths, this museum unflinchingly digs in to Hungary's unfortunate recent past torn between the Nazis and Soviet control. Going just after opening avoids the worst of the crowds, and that allows a bit more space to take in tales of mass deportations, overbearing secret police surveillance and nationalist resistance. What's really impressive is the presentation – including a multi-story wall made up of photos of victims, benches made from copies of documents and one room that's turned into a giant map of Siberian gulags, with artefacts found in each one displayed in the right geographic spot.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Oscar Gonzalez/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock (4962730e)
The House of Terror (Terror Háza) is a museum in Budapest that contains items related to the fascist and communist dictatorial regimes of Hungary's past. Exhibits commemorate those victims detained, interrogated, tortured or executed in the building.
The House of Terror museum in Budapest, Hungary - 07 Aug 2015

12.30: Caravan choices

The Erzsébetváros area, just south of Andrassy útca, is the buzziest part of Budapest, with lots of genuinely distinctive nightlife options, and a good selection of spots to eat too. It's not quite as thriving during the day, but Street Food Karavan on Kazinczy útca is a great example of what's going on. Several permanently moored food trucks have assembled in one place, allowing you to choose from Japanese-style burgers made with rice patties, paneer dishes, traditional goulash in bread bowls and carb-heavy pasta dishes. Most options are under 2,000 forints. (Dh28)

13.30: Buda blitz

With Pest dipped into, it’s time to spend the afternoon on the other side of the Danube. Buda’s Castle District is heavily prettified, particularly the area around the Fisherman’s Bastion – a neo-Gothic viewing platform with rather impressive views over the river towards the superlative red-domed Parliament Building.

Nearby is the Matthias Church, which has the most gorgeous multi-coloured mosaic roof imaginable, and is more than happy to pose for pictures.

The castle itself is a little more austere and dog-eared but contains a range of interesting options, including a Royal Palace in a country that no longer has any royals to occupy it.

Visitors walk in the hall of the Pablo Picasso's exhibition, the 'Transfiguration', in the Hungarian National Gallery on April 20, 2016 in Budapest.    
Over a hundred paintings, drawings, sculptures and other artworks present every period of Picasso's career, the constant transfigurations in his portrayal of the human figure. The exhibition will be open for publc on April 22.  / AFP PHOTO / ATTILA KISBENEDEK / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY MENTION OF THE ARTIST UPON PUBLICATION - TO ILLUSTRATE THE EVENT AS SPECIFIED IN THE CAPTION

The Hungarian National Gallery is a who's who of Hungarian art and the Castle Museum takes a somewhat dry look at Budapest's history.

For something rather different, try the Hospital In The Rock, a network of caves used as a hospital during World II and a nuclear bomb shelter after that.

17.00: Island time

With both sides of the river visited, it’s only fair to spend a bit of time on the island in the middle. Margaret Island is a gorgeous place to stroll away the early evening, with dancing fountains, rose gardens, hireable bikes and centuries-old ruins part of a winning mix. It’s Budapest at its most summery, green and relaxed.

19.30: Traditional feast

Százéves Étterem proudly boasts that it is the oldest restaurant in Budapest, and does a fine line in Central European hearty classics – such as the delicious garlic-covered goose leg with braised cabbage and roasted potatoes for 3,590 forints (Dh51). A love-it-or-hate-it factor is the gypsy-esque live music. It's much higher quality than it needs to be, but there's a separate room for those who don't buy into the whole string trio by the table thing.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Patrick Frilet/REX/Shutterstock (397982aw)
The 'Etterem' boat restaurant on the river Danube, Budapest, Hungary

Rest your head

Occupying a grand 19th century building, the Buddha Bar Hotel offers seductive, sumptuous design inside, with oriental stone statues, and backlit, red, peacock motif walls. Furnishings err towards the shimmery and flamboyant, and it's high-tech down to the heated toilet seats. Rooms cost from €180 (Dh790).

Getting there

Emirates flies direct to Budapest from Dubai, with economy class return fares costing from Dh2,825.