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Budapest or Copenhagen; a vs city comparison and travel guide

Both Budapest and Copenhagen are fantastic cities, but which is better for your city-break or holiday?

We understand your dilemma. There is a wealth of information about both cities, but little stating which is the better destination and more suited for your trip.
This article will provide our unbiased opinions, and hopefully help you to choose the best city to visit.

The article is divided into the following sections, and can be jumped to using the underlined links:
1) Introductions -
2) City scores -
3) Which one should I, friends, or family visit? -
4) When to visit and weather -
5) Who is the city suited for? -
6) The perfect 48hours (with map) -
7) Tourism details (where to stay? airport details?)

Introduction to Copenhagen and Budapest

Sleek yet historic, gritty yet creative, Copenhagen fuses all the contradictions of Scandinavia in one darn loveable city. Yes, it's pricy. But your money buys quality in these parts, whether that's the crispy Danish pastry in the morning, the single-origin coffee beans, or those craft beers in the independent drinkeries. On top of all that comes a town laced with fairy-tale vibes.
Once the home of Hans Christian Andersen, the city's Indre By – the historic core – is all weaving cobbled lanes and flower-strewn cottages from centuries gone by.

Meanwhile, over in districts like Christianshavn and Vesterbro, there's a buzz and energy about proceedings. Jazz bars, sculpture galleries, artisan collectives – there's all sorts popping up around the stone quaysides and tenement blocks. Don't forget that this capital is the veritable home of New Nordic cooking, putting foraged foods and mind-boggling flavour combos front and centre…

High-level summary for Budapest and Copenhagen

Summary
Which city would I go to?
Copenhagen
Which one would I recommend to my parents?Copenhagen
Which location for my 19-year-old cousin?
Budapest (Copenhagen is too expensive for him!)
Which for my food obsessed friend?Copenhagen
Note: The above comparison does not consider the weather, and assumes travel at the best time of year (which is detailed later in this article)

The following sections compare the two cities and considers; how long to spend in them, when to visit, and provides suggested 48hours in each city (along with an interactive map). The final section is tourism practicalities and includes which airport to fly into, what district to be based in and how best to explore the city.
We hope that you find all of this information useful, in planning your next exciting trip!

Destination details

How long to spend in the city?

Fly-in visits for three days are enough to check off the major must-see sights of Budapest. This is a compact capital with good underground and bus links. You can get easily get across town – going from Buda Castle on one side of the city all the way to the Széchenyi Thermal Baths at the other takes less than an hour on public transport.

That said, Budapest has plenty of hidden secrets up its sleeve. You could easily while away a whole week enjoying cheap happy hours in the ruin bars, bathing in the Art Deco spas, and visiting islands up the Danube. If you're coming in summer, you could also extend a stay to include the art galleries and cobbled lanes of Szentendre, the mineral-rich waters of Lake Balaton, and the rustic Tokaj wine country to the east.

There are two sides to Copenhagen. There's the side that most visitors will aim to see, and that's all neatly packaged up for a quick two- or three-day break. Then there's the more local side. That can take weeks, or even months to enjoy to the fullest.
The upshot is that everything from short fly-in city breaks to longer jaunts are doable in the Danish capital – there's enough to keep you going, provided you've got the money to keep going!

In addition, it's worth thinking about what out-of-town excursions you might want to do from Copenhagen. These will inevitably add some time to the trip but are also downright tempting. The likes of the ancient Viking capital of Roskilde, and the Swedish city of Malmo, are both on the menu.

Copenhagen’s weather is not as dismal as most visitors initially presume, and not cold as the other Scandinavian countries it is often mentally lumped with.

Summer is Copenhagen's most beloved season. It's easy to see why. Scandinavia emerges from its casing of snow and ice to become a real outdoorsy gem. In the capital, that means the canal-side cafes of Christianshavn come alive with al fresco drinkers and the breweries spill into leafy gardens. This is also the time to enjoy the famous Brygge Harbour Bath and the other marina swimming spots in full swing.

Spring and autumn make good alternatives, particularly if you're on a tight budget. Already high prices can soar in Copenhagen during the summer months, and the streets of the Indre By get busy to boot. Winter has a peak around Christmas, when the Tivoli festive market starts smelling of gingerbread and mulled wine. It's cheaper in January though, and still likely to have enchanting snow cover.

Late spring and early autumn are when locals often say Budapest is at its best. Temperatures average around 23-25 degrees in May and September. There's not an overload of rain then either. And it's perfect for avoiding the crowds of midsummer city breakers that come during the European holidays.

There's also something to be said for visiting Budapest in the midst of winter. Mercury plummets between November and March, and it's not uncommon to see the Danube freeze over with huge chunks of ice. What's more, the tenements and side streets of the Jewish Quarter and the historic Inner City areas ooze atmosphere on cold, snowy days. Just be sure to pack the thermals!

Budapest's layers of history combine with a sleepless nightlife scene, making this European capital a great pick for a whole host of travellers. The backpacking crowd can make for the Jewish Quarter's ruin bars and glug uber-cheap Hungarian beers in bohemian courtyards.
More culturally aligned visitors might prefer to unearth the past of the Hungarian empire on the grounds of Buda Castle, or pay their respects at the haunting House of Terror museum that chronicles the dark days of Stasi rule.

You might not feel totally at home here if you're a big fan of beaches and sun. Budapest is a landlocked city in a landlocked country, so the ocean is never near. Hungary's capital isn't the greenest of towns, either. There are parks, but they're really on the outskirts. It's very much an urban destination.

Copenhagen is tailor-made for creative, 30s-something city slickers. Bohemian cafes meet cutting-edge beer halls and restaurants that are breaking the mould, while workshops, design studios, and galleries cram the old town. If you're culturally engaged and enjoy places that fuse the old and the new, you could hardly do any better.

Copenhagen is famously expensive. Expect to pay around the 60kr mark (€8/$9) for a beer in most places – and even that's a decent deal! Hotels will cost a lot, no matter the season, and eating out is off the cards for anyone on a shoestring budget.
You can mitigate that if you picnic and dodge the pubs, but it's not really the place for travelers watching the pennies.

48hours in Budapest

Day 1: Start on the Pest side of the city. That's home to the huge Dohány Street Synagogue. It's one of the great landmarks of Budapest and reigns as the largest synagogue in Europe. From there, head to the wide boulevard of Andrássy, a spectacular thoroughfare and UNESCO site that's lined with Neo-Classical mansions.

Visit the House of Terror museum on one end to unravel the haunting past of Communist rule in Hungary. Then, go for a hard-earned spa session in the famous Art Deco baths of Széchenyi. Dinner can be nothing less than a paprika-smoked goulash in Gettó Gulyás, followed by a beer in the mind-boggling art gallery come bar that is Szimpla Kert.

Budapest Pest cathedral

Pest cathedral

Day 2: Breakfast in the Central Market Hall that dates from 1897. Grab some sweet Hungarian pastries and then hop across the Danube on the handsome Liberty Bridge. In front of you, the elegant Gellért Baths are an optional stop. Or, push on up to the Fisherman's Bastion and the Citadella. These were once defensive outposts where Hungarian armies protected their capital. These days, they have stunning views of the Danube. A walk to the north takes you to the Castle District. You can tour the grounds and take in the architecture, or go inside for regal court rooms. Be sure to take some photos of the imposing Hungarian Parliament Building across the water. Finally, drop back into Pest for dinner in the Inner City. That area has everything from Tex-Mex joints to smoky 1930s speakeasies.

Copenhagen offers so much for a fun-packed 48 hours. Below is an interactive tour map - day 1 is highlighted in green and day 2 in yellow.

Day 1: Begin the first day in the Rådhuspladsen, where the ochre-tinged walls of the City Hall dominate the skyline. This is a beating hub of the city, and you might find concert stages or markets taking place on the plaza. The bustling shopping street of Strøget starts here. Hit that to move between high-street retailers and lively pubs. The walk will take you all the way to Nyhavn.

This is a charming, historic area with 17th-century canals. The painted houses are a favourite with photographers, and you can opt to do a canal boat tour from the docks. Lunchtime is over in the Bridge Street Kitchen. Sprawling across Greenlandic Trade Square, it's a casual food mecca, with hotdogs mixing with falafel pitas and sourdough pizza breads.

Full? Good – Christiania awaits. This gritty artist community come squat is a unique bohemian commune. There are some pushy drug dealers and lots of tourists, but it's worth a stop. The spire of the lovely Church of Our Saviour is sure to pull you down to one end of the area, before hopping back over to Slotsholmen for a sighting of the grand Christiansborg Palace, the home of the Danish parliament.

Latin Quarter Copenhagen

The side streets of the Latin Quarter (Latinerkvarteret) are a joy to explore

Day 2: If it's sunny, there's never a better way to kick-off a day in Copenhagen than down on the marina. Free to enter and bustling with life, the Brygge Harbour Bath lets you swim in the refreshing waters of the Baltic Sea right in the heart of town.
Dry off and then grab a Danish pastry on your way up to the Indre By, where you can get lost in weaving lanes of cobblestone. The vast Rosenborg Slot sits at the far end of the district. A mighty palace from the 1600s, it's packed with art and can take a few hours to explore.

Nearby Torvehallerne will do nicely for food, with its array of local Scandi dishes. A hop across the water to hipster Nørrebro is great if you're craving a beer or a coffee – Brus is a good option.
Then head back south to Frederiksstaden district. It's crowned by the Rococo Amalienborg Palace, sports stunning churches, and buts up to the old town, where you'll find loads of bars and eateries to cap off the evening.

Talking of the airport, Budapest Airport sits around 22 kilometers from the city center. You can get to and from the terminals using the dedicated express bus (€2) or by train (€2.70). Both options take between 30-40 minutes. Be sure to buy tickets at machines by the stops – they're more expensive when purchased direct from drivers.

When it comes to picking hotels in Budapest, you're best off focussing on the Pest side of the city. That's where the bulk of the best lodgings are located. Being in the Jewish Quarter can be noisy, but perfect if you want to hit the nightlife of Szimpla and the other ruin bars. The Inner City area is charming and quieter, with some boutique options. Meanwhile, Újlipótváros is a local's favourite, with its cool cafés and art galleries and sleek Airbnbs.

Budapest is largely safe and crime statistics are in line with European norms. Some well-known scams include taxi drivers who overcharge and sellers of fake goods. Pickpocketing is also a rare but real problem. Just be aware of your personal possessions and be vigilante, especially when on public transportation.

Price wise, Budapest is surely up there with the cheapest of European capitals. A large beer can cost as little as 500 HUF (€1.50). Food in a midrange restaurant will set you back between 2,000 HUF and 3,000 HUF (€6-9). Nights in hotels are noticeably less than in nearby Vienna, too.

Copenhagen has many hotels and accommodation options, but the city has one of highest occupancy rates of Europe (a yearly average of 81%). That means booking early is key. We'd recommend trying to score somewhere in the Indre By area.
The old core, it's close to all the main sights. If you're on a tighter budget, going north to Nørrebro might offer a few extra deals. Meanwhile, the Vesterbro district is an up and coming area, which is trendy and a touch edgy. Frederiksstaden is a more refined and contains many of the smarter hotels.

If you want to get around like a real CPH local, then there's nothing for it but to rent a bike. These are cheap and easy to find in pretty much any area of town. A full day's cycling should cost around 150 DKK (£22).

Copenhagen is a very safe city, especially for a capital. People are often eager to help and there are good public services in general. Be more wary if you're venturing off the beaten track. Certain corners of Nørrebro and Christiania can be sketchy, particularly after dark.

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