The 3 best areas to stay in Budapest
Whenever I talk about Budapest, there is a moment of hesitation. Do I really want that more people know and visit this completely underrated jewel of a city? Actually yes, she's one of my favourites and deserves it as much as you deserve not to end up in the wrong district of Budapest.
Here are the 3 best areas to stay in the hungarian capital:
- Best Neighborhood N° 1 5th District
- Best Neighborhood N° 2 1st District
- Best Neighborhood N° 3 6th and 7th District
- OH NO! Maybe not
5th District – central & international
At night, the Budapest Parliament looks like it's from a Batman movie yet to be made: sinister despite all the illumination, clearly imperial and actually too big for this city. Sharp and karstic, it provides millions of hideouts for the birds and bats circling in the deep black sky above the building, brightly lit by the spotlights.
The Hungarian parliament is not the only sight in 5th District that seems unreal in the best sense of the word though. The inner city is located directly at the Danube and thereby provides spectacular views onto the "Buda" part of city, just across the river. It seems a little paradox, but having this vis-a-vis neighbouring district is one of the biggest assets of the 5th itself. Look at the Citadella, the Castle or Fisherman's Bastion, try it during the day or at night and you will know what I mean.
"But why shouldn't i stay on the other side of the river then in the first place?" you might ask. Not a bad idea actually, especially if you like it a little more suburban. But the modern and lively part of Budapest is clearly the inner city. If you don't want to cross a bridge for everything but sightseeing you should think about staying in 5th district.
- breathtaking views
- central location
- international flair
- good infrastructure
- other tourists
- trouble if you take a picture of the US Embassy
You won't miss anything in "Belváros-Lipótváros". If even, there will be too much of some things. Other visitors of the city and expats for example. The 5th district is the favourite area of those two groups in Budapest, and how couldn't it be? It's in the middle of everything, has the Danube promenade, spectacular views, numerous sights, great infrastructure and always feels safe. This quarter is a no brainer to be honest.
In my opinion though, the inner city being more popular and thereby a bit more expensive than other districts, is a manageable problem. Budapest is still cheaper than other central european cities and not spoiled by hordes of tourists yet. Only around the shopping street "Vaci utca" you see Prague- or Barcelona-style crowds. That's why i usually avoid that area.
There are many places that will not stress you out at all in the 5th district, like the area surrounding the parliament. It is so generously designed and dotted with parks and big public spaces that bigger groups of people spread out so well you won't really notice them. In the northern part of the district you will also find access to the "Margit-Sziget" island in the danube river. And remember not to miss any sunset at the riverbank. It's hard to beat.
Sunsets at the riverbank.
Just one of many incredible views in the 5th district.
Practical tip for 5th District
Although there are parts of 5th district that are quite okay for drivers (around parliament streets are wide, parking space is available and due to the many federal buildings security personell is around almost all the time) there are two things you should consider if you bring your car:
- There is not only a fee for parking here (buy a ticket with Forint coins at the machine nearest to your car and put it behind your windscreen), it is also quite high for Budapest standards. Parking fees are different throughout the districts of the city, and the 5th is in the most expensive category. Sometimes it's actually cheaper to use a parking garage instead!
- Big parts of the district are not or hardly open for car traffic. This sometimes results in huge detours around the inner city.
1st District – majestic, narrow & steep
If Budapest had shuttle or taxi boats like Bangkok, I bet I would always stay in 1st District. Not only is this the castle district, it also exactly faces the inner city (5th District) across the Danube river but at the same time is much more quiet and almost feels like a village. Well, mostly.
The real city life happens on the "Pest" side, no doubt about it. On the castle hill on the other side you get narrow cobbled streets, some of them steep and as breathtaking as the view from when you arrived on top of the hill. Old one and two story houses might give you the impression of a small town in the countryside, rather than one of Europe's major cities. The gigantic complex of palaces, museums and fortifications though sets the facts immediately as soon as you see it.
- spectacular views over the city
- the option to take a cable car
- narrow, quiet and steep alleys
- transferred back in time
- a lot of company if you get too near to the main sights
The castle quarter attracts a lot of tourists, that's for sure. Although you will hardly ever be alone around Matthias Church, Fihserman's Bastion and the palace, the crowds are not nearly as big as in cities like Paris, Barcelona or Rome. Just try taking one corner, getting into a small alley away from the sights and you might feel like being back in a village, 200 years ago.
Truly unique is the view you get being on top of castle hill: 360 degrees full of Austro-Hungarian city architecture on one side, green hills dotted with villas on the other, separated by the Danube river and connected by a handful of truely glorious bridges.
Take the most famous one of them, "Chain Bridge", and you get from 1st district to the inner city in a couple of minutes to have dinner or go party. And let's not forget the metro that also just needs one or two stops to cross the river. No matter what, I will still keep on dreaming of shuttle boats.
If there were shuttle boats, I would stay here every time.
1st District is the part "on the other side" of the river, facing the inner city.
Practical tip for 1st District
During winter the steep alleys and streets of the castle hill can be hard to walk and drive. If you have a couple of Euros to spend take the cable car to get from the Danube riverside on top of the hill, it's well worth the view!
6th and 7th District – exciting & versatile
Like the spine of a fish Andrássy út runs through 6th district, a classy boulevard, connecting the inner city of Budapest with the far away Heroes' Square. With every block it seems to get wider and greener until, in the end, the street is not flanked by boutiques, cinemas and opera houses anymore but by trees, villas and gardens.
But don't assume Theresa Town (6th district) and Elisabeth Town (7th district) are exclusively cultivated and wealthy. Just because the chic Anrássy út is the backbone of the two smallest districts of Budapest, that doesn't mean this area is sophisticated only. Quite the opposite. Take one turn into the smaller side streets and you might find yourself in some of the most interesting and exciting neighbourhoods of the city!
- Shabby chic and luxurious boulevards
- High culture and party people
- Hipster food
- Kosher hipster food
Let me phrase it like this: If you haven't lost orientation in the small alleys of the party district around Andrássy and Kiraly utca because it was late at night and these streets run in a weird diagonally way, you need to come back. While the main streets are full of boutiques, design stores and cultural institutions, you are never far away from the less sophisticated ways of having a good time in the southern part of the two districts. Passages full of clubs, courtyards with bars and good old penny arcades. Airhockey and beer from a paper cup or champagne and opera? It's your decision.
Deeper into the 7th district, the center of jewish life in Budapest, it doesn't stop with the contrasts. A facade, sparkling with gold and a concierge in front of it here, a vacant lot full of graffiti and hipster dudes reinterpreting traditional food somehow there, some young people observing it all in deck chairs over a beer in the middle.
There might be corners of Elisabeth Town that feel a bit rough, unpolished and charming in a more eastern european way than you are used to. But around the next corner there might be biggest synagogue of Europe, in all it's glory. It is this "as-well-as", the contrasts, that makes this two districts one of the most insteresting areas of Budapest.
It's this "as-well-as" ...
... that makes the 6th and 7th district so interesting.
Practical tip for 6th & 7th district
Alongside Andrássy út runs the oldest metro line of continental Europe, called Millenium Metro (M1, the yellow line). It operates since 1896. Practical tip: the doors of the small metro wagons close again quickly and after a very short time of being open. You better know where to get out without hesitating!
In general you don't have to be scared in Budapest, even if you happen to stumble into one of the not-so-nice areas once. Houses may look a bit run down here and there but that does not mean the neighbourhood isn't safe. But there are some rules you should follow:
- Out of the more central districts, the 8th doesn't have a very good reputation due to cases of street crime and prostitution.
- The same applies to areas directly around big train stations which you better also avoid if possible.
- The outer districts 15 to 20 are in general not interesting for visitors of Budapest. Districts 21 to 23 are far out and thereby also not very suitable for a short city trip.
How is Budapest structured?
- Budapest was formed out of three former independent towns in 1873: Buda and Óbuda on the hilly western river bank of the Danube and the flat Pest makes fot the biggest part of Budapest areawise.
- The Danube crosses the city right in the center. That's one of the reasons why the numerous bridges across the river are not only functional buildings but glorious pieces of architecture.
- There are three islands in the river that you can all access via bridges somewhere in the city area.
- Budapest has 23 districts. They are arranged in a loose clockwise inwards-out motion starting with 1st District, the castle hill.
How do I get from the airport to the city of Budapest?
Budapest has only one airport (Ferenc Liszt International Airport = BUD), so there is no confusion about where you will arrive. If you don't want to spend around 25€/USD for a taxi ride into the city (which takes roughly 30 minutes) you have the following options:
- Take the bus line "100E" that will get you to "Deák Ferenc tér" central metro station in about 35 minutes. Tickets cost around 3€/USD
- ... or take the bus line "200E" and arrive at it's final station "Kobanya-Kispest" in about 20 minutes. This station is also a metro station. The metro line M3 will get you to the inner city in 15 to 20 minutes. Attention: you have to buy two different tickets for bus and metro and you have to validate them manually. In the bus you will need Forint coins to pay for the ticket. Overall the whole ride will cost around 2€/USD.
How safe is Budapest?
Budapest is a very safe city, although it had a reputation for scams and car theft some decades ago. This, along with the notorious fraudulent taxi drivers, is mostly a thing of the past though since the city was tough on crime lately.
You should still be aware of pickpockets when near train stations, in highly frequented shopping streets and around tourist attractions. The same goes for women in the inner city telling you their story of being new to the city and searching for this one great bar and asking if you could walk them there. There is a high chance of this bar having a sinister bouncer that demands some money from you while the girl gets back to the city being all new and lost again.
8th district and parts of 9th district are considered less safe then the rest of Budapest in general.
What are typical rookie mistakes to avoid in Budapest?
- Getting into the wrong taxi: Budapest taxi drivers do not have the best reputation in general. This comes from decades of dubious practices and sometimes: fraud. Even though the market is more strictly monitored today (official taxis are always painted yellow and have to use a taximeter), there are still enough black sheep among drivers and taxi companies, with whom there are regular disputes about absurd fares.
- Quickly trying to buy cigarettes: In Hungary cigarettes are only sold in state tobacco shops to persons over 18 years of age. You recognize these shops by the lettering "Nemzeti Dohánibolt" and their characteristic design in brown combined with the Hungarian national colours. These shops sometimes seem like a time travel to the communist era.
How do I get around best in Budapest?
Public transport is exceptionally well in Budapest. Use trams or buses for shorter distances (some trams like Line 2 are real sightseeing highlights) and the metro for longer distances. The "Millenniumi Földalatti Vasút" (the yellow line M1) was opened in 1896, making it the oldest metro on the European continent.
The best way to explore Budapest is on foot though. In the inner city area, walking makes the most sense if you want to enjoy all the great perspectives and sights along the Danube (castle, parliament, citadel) and plan to cross the river on spectacular bridges. On the castle side of the city, however, you need to be in good shape for some stretches, as there is some climbing to be done.
Budapest has a well-developed bicycle rental system (BuBi) with over 2,000 bikes and 150 stations. You have to register for it either at one of the terminals or online in advance. Lime-E-scooters are also available in Budapest since 2019.
Taxi fares are regulated in Budapest and cases of fraud have become less frequent. Compared to other Central European cities, Budapest taxis are also quite cheap. To minimize risk use one of the yellow taxis of a major operator (such as Citytaxi, Bolt, Főtaxi or Tele5). Uber was banned in Budapest in 2016 and Lyft does not operate here. Instead, car sharing via DriveNow/ShareNow is available.
What are the opening hours in Budapest?
While supermarkets stay open for quite a long time in Budapest and especially in it's inner city (mostly monday to saturday between 7am and 8pm, some of them until 10pm though!) most shops don't open before 10am and close at 6pm. Closing times on saturdays can be even earlier, often it's 1pm.
Don't plan for big shopping trips on holidays and sundays in Budapest, unless you visit one of the shopping malls that are open for business monday to saturday from 9am to 9pm and from 10am to 7pm on sundays. Many restaurants don't open on sundays.
How is tipping handled in Budapest?
Who to tip: In general tipping is not expected in Budapest, but it is appreciated. Waiters, taxi drivers, tour guides and hotel personell do not depend on you tipping, but if they did a good job you should.
How much? 10% to 15% of what the bill says is a good percentage if you were happy with the service. If there is no bill (e.g. hotel personell), 300 to 500 Forint (1 to 2 USD or Euro) is good. Some restaurants charge a service fee automatially, which is usually 12,5%.
The mode: When you ask your waiter for the bill, he will bring it, hand it to you and walk away to give you a couple of minutes. Check the bill, sometimes there is a service fee added already ("szervízdíj"), then tipping is no issue anymore. If there is no service fee, you either just give the waiter the amount of money you want to pay accompanied by a "thank you!" and a nod and the waiter will understand you do not expect change. Or you just wait for him to bring the change and give him the tip directly. There are people that say you shouldn't leave change at the table but always tip directly.
What's the best time to travel to Budapest?
- May & June are ideal if you like good weather but no heat. It may rain from time to time, but since Budapest overall has a very dry climate it is never wet for long.
- July & August are by far the hottest and sunniest months of the year. Temperatures above 35ºC (95ºF) are not unusual, but it is a dry heat which makes it easier to deal with. Many locals leave Budapest for vacation during the summer months and the city hosts festivals such as the huge Sziget music festival.
- September & October are dry and beautiful autumn months. Ideal for a city trip.
- December is a wonderful, christmassy month in Budapest. Combine it with a visit to the pretty near Vienna and you will have a great old world winter time!
What are faux pas to avoid in Budapest?
Apart from the more obvious faux pas such as considering Hungarians as eastern european semi-Russians (when in fact Hungary is located in central Europe and has a very complicated relationship with Russia), there is one more subtle thing to consider:
Most Hungarians do not clink glasses when drinking beer (doing it with other drinks is fine though). While the details of the origin story for this tradition are controversial, they all revolve around the Austrians celebrating their victory over Hungarian revolutionaries in 1849 and events connected to this victory years later. Not clinking beer glasses is a kind of protest you should be aware of when visiting Budapest.