If you're going to be pressed for time in Budapest but still want to cover the best the city has to offer, here are 5 absolute must-do's that you should squeeze into your itinerary no matter what! This list combines some touristy and some offbeat things to give you a good flavor of the city in one day.
Morning: Visit the Szechenyi Baths
You can't come to Budapest and not visit the thermal baths! There are several spread across the city, but the most famous and most beautiful are the Szechenyi Baths on the Pest side of the city - bright yellow neo-baroque buildings surrounding equally bright blue pools. The baths open at 6:00am everyday, so you can start your day off as early as you'd like. You can also get massages here for super cheap - don't miss it! After spending a few hours relaxing in the baths, grab some lunch along the Pest side of the Danube: there are lots of restaurants around.
Word of caution: the outdoor baths have different temperatures. One side is cooler, the other is warmer. Check the temperatures before going in!
Time required: 2-3 hours
Afternoon: Visit Fisherman's Bastion & Matthias Church
If you only have time to visit one of all the major sights that Budapest has to offer, it should be this! Walk across the Danube to the Buda side of town and spend some time at the Fisherman's Bastion & Matthias Church complex. It's absolutely gorgeous and offers stunning panoramic views of the city. There's a café right there, so you can sip on some coffee while admiring the scene - the colorful tile work on the roof of the Matthias Church is sure to leave you spellbound.
Time required: 1-2 hours
Evening (pre-dinner): Get a drink at Szimpla Kert, the best ruin bar in Budapest
Budapest is famous for its ruin bars: old, dilapidated buildings have been converted into bars by bringing together an eclectic mix of furniture and accessories. The best one in town is Szimpla Kert! If you're feeling adventurous, try out some Palinka: an Eastern European fruit brandy shot - warning: it's pretty damn strong!
If you have more time, you can also check out Ellato Kert & Taqueria, which was the next ruin bar on our list.
Time required: ~2 hours
Dinner: Have a Greek meal along the Danube at Dionysos Taverna
One of my favorite meals in Budapest! This is an adorable Greek restaurant that makes you feel like you're in Santorini: blue and white walls and doors, little balconies, a small outdoor patio overlooking the Danube and excellent Greek cuisine. It's very close to where the night cruises leave from, so you don't have to rush your dinner.
What to order: Tzatziki (so creamy and garlicky), Grilled Halloumi Cheese and Spicy Rice
Time required: ~2 hours
Night: Take a cruise along the Danube
Nothing compares to how gorgeous Budapest looks along the Danube at night. Make sure to choose a time that's just around sunset (this will differ depending on the time of year you're visiting) so you get to see the monuments light up. All the important buildings are along the Danube (on both the Buda and Pest sides), including the Parliament building, the Buda castle and several museums and universities, making the entire experience even grander.
Which cruise to choose? There's a range of different cruise options from dinner cruises to party cruises, at all times of the day. We chose a basic 1-hour night cruise ( Legenda Cruises) that provided a complimentary drink and audio guides. If there's one thing you do in Budapest, it should be this!
Time required: 1 hour
Here's a map with these 5 spots marked out, to help you navigate through the day!
My two cents: Budapest really deserves at least 3 days!! If you can, don't miss out on what this beautiful city has to offer by visiting for just a day!