It’s 3pm on a scorching hot summer’s day, and I’m waist-deep in warm bath water. Despite the thousands of tourists splashing around me, I’m feeling incredibly zen. After all, the water I’m soaking in isn’t from the tap – it’s healing H2O from a thermal spring.
I’m at Szechenyi Baths in Budapest, Hungary. With its 18 indoor and outdoor pools and beautiful yellow buildings, it’s incredibly Insta-friendly, and one of the main reasons Budapest has become a regular fixture on millennials’ must-visit travel lists. But while the baths may lure them here, it doesn’t take them long to work out there’s a lot more to the capital city than just its therapeutic water.
It’s possible to do a highlights list of destinations by spending 24 hours in Budapest. If you’re headed there – even just for a day – here’s how to make the most of it.
9am: Rise And Get Some Coffee Grounds
First, coffee. Budapest has a great café culture, and a name you’ll hear again and again when talking about it is New York Café. Located inside five-star hotel New York Palace, the place drips with elegance. Think high ceilings, over-the-top gold décor and red velvet chairs.
Order the strudel slices – a layered pastry Hungary’s known for – and a cup of Hungarian coffee. It’ll set you back about $25AUD for both – big bucks for Budapest – but with the café’s buzzy vibe and rich history, it’ll be well worth it.
11am: See Some Historic Sights
After breakfast, take the underground train to Millennium Underground stop. There, you’ll find historic Heroes’ Square. Built in 1896 to mark Hungary’s thousandth anniversary, its monuments, namely its 35m-high Millennium Monument with a statue of archangel Gabriel perched at its top, make for some quality photo opps.
To the left, you’ll spy the Museum of Fine Arts and on the right, the Hall of Art. When you’re done snapping it all, walk over to adjacent City Park to stroll its leafy, lakeside paths.
1pm: Feast On Hungarian dishes And… Sushi
By now you’re likely ravenous. Luckily, it’s an ideal state to be in for what’s next: an all-you-can-eat buffet at Trofea Grill Restaurant. Shell out a mere 15 Euros, and feast on everything from sushi and customised seafood dishes to goose liver paté and Hungarian Goulash.
Wash it all down with your pick from a laundry list drinks menu that includes champagne, draught beer, wines and coffee. Cheers to this lunch steal!
3pm: Take A Dip In A Thermal Bath
As mentioned, Budapest is big on thermal baths. Hungary has about 1000 natural spring water sources scattered around it, and Budapest certainly takes advantage of them with a handful of baths – each with their own unique features. Among them, Szechenyi Baths in the City Park is the busiest and most well-known.
Despite its size, its 2500-person limit is often reached, and visitors are forced to wait until people leave before they’re allowed in. In summer, it hosts Saturday night spa parties, called ‘sparties’. If you’re after somewhere much quieter, try indoor-only Gellert Baths. If you’re on a tight budget, go to recently refurbished Irgalmasok Veli Bej Baths.
5pm: Catch Sunset Over The City
Budapest is divided into two areas – Buda and Pest – with the river Danube running in between. It’s on the Buda side at the top of Castle Hill that you’ll find Fisherman’s Bastion, called ‘Halászbástya’ in Hungarian. Built in neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque style, it looks like it’s straight out of a Disney film with fairytale towers and romantic archways framing views of the Danube and cityscape beyond.
To get to it, take your pick of three options: a slow stroll from Szell Kalman Square, a steep incline walk from Clark Adam Square or a quick Funicular bus ride from Chain Bridge.
7pm: Eat Where The Locals Do
Dinnertime! Head to Spíler BistroPub in the Jewish Quarter. A trendy bistro with a red colour theme and quality street food, it’s easy to see why it’s a locals’ favourite. Choose from starter snacks like cheese sauce-drizzled fries and crispy duck crackling before moving on to a burger, pizza or Hungarian classic main.
Among the latter, try the traditional Hungarian pasta, cooked with creamy cottage cheese and smoked bacon. Paired with a local craft beer, it should go down a treat.
10pm: Check Out A Ruin Bar
Like most everywhere in Europe, nightlife gets going late. So, by now, it should be just warming up. If you took the dinner suggestion, you’ll already be in the Jewish Quarter. It’s home to Budapest’s famous ruin bars. Once abandoned buildings and empty warehouses, they’ve long since welcomed a crowd of young creatives and in-the-know backpackers.
The most popular among them is Szimpla Kert, a two-floor former factory with a maze of rooms and bars. End your night here or kick on at one of Budapest’s many dance clubs.
The writer travelled as a guest of Topdeck on their Balkan Trail tour. This post was originally published on August 16th, 2018 and has since been updated.
(Lead image: Szimpla Kert / Facebook)
Sangeeta Kocharekar is a freelance travel writer. She grew up going on trips to India and Europe on school holidays, and hasn't stopped travelling since.