How to spend a day in Budapest

Neogothic market halls, antique shops, thermal baths and goulash soup: discover the Hungarian capital in 24 hours.

Playing chess at Széchenyi Thermal Bath.

Photograph by Karolina Wiercigroch
By Adrian Phillips
photographs by Karolina Wiercigroch
Published 13 Jun 2022, 13:00 BST

8am: Browse the Great Market Hall

Start early (if you’re a real early bird, you can get there at 6am) with a visit to the famed Great Market Hall, the first and biggest in the city. Its neogothic architecture is a marvel in itself, while inside you’ll find a host of stalls over two levels, selling fresh food and crafts, including wooden toys and lacework. This is the place to get your Hungaricums: typical Hungarian products such as Tokaji wine, goose liver and strings of dried paprika. 

10am: Stop for cake

It’s an atmospheric 15-minute walk from the Great Market Hall up lively Váci Street — with its boutiques, souvenir shops and fountains — to Vörösmarty Square. There are often stalls here selling food and wine during festivals, and performances of traditional dance on temporary stages, but one permanent feature is Gerbeaud, Hungary’s most famous cafe. Take a table amid the walnut and marble interior, or on the square outside, and enjoy a coffee and a slice of Dobos torte, its sponge layers sandwiched between chocolate butter cream. 

11am: Go antique hunting

The market halls are the places to buy fresh Hungarian produce, but if you want something a bit more unique, then Falk Miksa Street should be your destination. Just north of the Parliament Building, this road is full of stores selling antiques and other collectables. There are more than 40 shops, galleries and auction houses in total, offering watches, clocks, jewellery, fine art, furniture, antique porcelain (keep a look out for pieces by Herend and Zsolnay, the two classic Hungarian manufacturers) and much more. 

1pm: Lunch at the Blind Crow

Make the short hop to the Jewish District for lunch at Vak Varjú. The restaurant takes its name from a traditional, crunchy-edged oven-baked flatbread; mysteriously, the words translate as ‘blind crow’. This longstanding restaurant remains as busy as ever, serving contemporary takes on classic Hungarian dishes in decent portions, alongside a range of craft beers and local wines. It’s rarely quiet, and has a colourful, quirky decor that makes it an atmospheric spot in which to refuel. 

Gerbeaud, the most famous cafe in Hungary, has occupied its current location since 1870.

Gerbeaud, the most famous cafe in Hungary, has occupied its current location since 1870.

Photograph by Karolina Wiercigroch

2.30pm: Trawl through the Hungarian National Museum

The big beast of the Eighth District is the Hungarian National Museum, the largest in the country. The building itself is famously associated with the start of the 1848 uprising against Habsburg rule, when a huge crowd gathered on its steps, demanding reform, while copies of the rallying poem ‘National Song’ by Sándor Petőfi were distributed. Inside are gorgeous frescoes, and finds dating back to prehistory. Look out for the stunning 11th-century coronation cloak of St Stephen, the founder of the Hungarian state. 

4pm: Try some wine

Hungary has a tradition of wine production that dates back to the Roman period. Things turned sour during communism, when wine was mass-produced and bull’s blood became synonymous with vinegar, but since the fall of the Iron Curtain the quality has returned. There are various places to taste and buy. Just outside Rákóczi Square Market Hall, Borháló is part of a small chain of shops specialising in Hungarian wines and pálinka, with knowledgeable staff who can help guide you through the options. 

5.30pm: Get soaked

After a day of shopping and sightseeing, ease your aches with a wallow in a thermal bath. Budapest sits on scores of thermal springs, many of them with supposed medicinal properties. The Romans, and later the Turks, built bathhouses here, and Budapest now has more than any other city in the world. The Rudas Baths have Ottoman styling, the Gellért Baths have stained glass and mosaics, while the Széchenyi Baths are the largest medicinal baths in Europe, with a range of pools, both inside and out. 

8pm: Fine dine, socialist style

Finish your day with a visit to Liszt Ferenc Square, just off the broad Andrássy Avenue. Surrounded by cafes, bars and restaurants, this remains a popular place to spend an evening, with diners and drinkers filling the tables and chairs that spill onto the pavement. This is where you’ll find Menza, a long-established restaurant with retro decor that plays on the styling of the socialist era and serves some of the city’s best Hungarian food — goulash soup, paprika chicken and more. 

Published in the June 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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