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Both Madrid and Budapest 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?)
Straddling the snaking Danube in the very heart of Europe is Budapest, the buzzing capital of Hungary. The largest city in the country, it's split into Buda (in the west) and Pest (in the east). They're joined by grand 19th-century chain bridges to form a continuous metropolis that's home to more than 1.7 million people.
Budapest magnetizes visitors with a mixture of rich history, bold architectural sites, café culture, urban spas and vibrant nightlife. Look one way and you'll see the elaborate Habsburg-era palaces that crown Buda Hill.
Look another and you find steaming bathhouses smelling of sulphur. And that's not even mentioning the heady ruin bars, the colossal Dohány Street Synagogue, and the wide boulevards left over from Communist times.
Which city would I go to?
Which one would I recommend to my parents?
Which location for my 19-year-old cousin?
Which for my food obsessed friend?
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!
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.
For Madrid, the length of stay greatly depends on how much you want to devote to visit the three famed art galleries (Prado Museum, Thyssen-Bornemisza and Reina Sofía), or immerse into Spanish culture. The city can be seen in two days of sightseeing, and a third day is often given to the galleries.
There are many outstanding day trips from Madrid and a trip can be easily extended to 5 or 6 days. A selection of the best day trips includes the medieval town of Segovia, charming Toledo, and the magnificent El Escorial. Madrid makes for a good base from which to explore the region, and is served by inexpensive public transport
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!
The major consideration for Madrid, is to avoid August, when the entire city shuts down (most restaurants, cafes and independent shops) and everyone heads to the coastal towns. Late spring and early autumn (Jun/July and September) are the best seasons.
Madrid can be surprisingly chilly in the winter, but is comparatively dry to the rest of Europe. As Madrid is in the centre of the Iberian Peninsula it tends to get more extreme weather than the coastal cities.
Madrid is one of the finest cities in Europe. The city may not have the iconic monuments and attention-grabbing tourist attractions, but in reality, there is a lot to see during a city break.
Much of Madrid’s tourist literature focuses on the museums and galleries (which are world-class), but this should not deter you; this is a fun-loving city, which has the best nightlife in Europe. No matter your style of trip, there will be something to love about the Spanish capital.
Madrid excels as a long-stay destination, and if you are able to work here, the city offers perfect work/life balance.
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.
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.
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.
48 hours in Madrid is not just the sights but also the atmosphere of the city. Below is an interactive tour map - day 1 is highlighted in green and day 2 in yellow, with optional sights marked grey.
Begin in the Puerta del Sol, then wander through charming streets of the El Madrid de los Austrias, which is the oldest section of the city. This leads to the Palacio Real, surrounded by its formal gardens and the Catedral de la Almudena to the south.
For the last part of the day explore the La Latina district and have a delicious tapas meal at one of the restaurants along the Cava Alta or Cava Baja. La Latina boasts numerous bars and is always a great place to start a night in Madrid.
The Gran Vía is the bustling main avenue of Madrid
The morning of the second focuses on the three art-museums, the Prado Museum, Thyssen-Bornemisza and Reina Sofía. Close to the museums is the pretty the El Retiro Park.
For the afternoon head down the Gran Vía, the main shopping street of Madrid, and visit the Malasaña district, with its artisan vibe, independent shops and trendy nightlife. For sunset watch it at the Templo de Debod, and then head back to Malasaña for a memorable meal and evening.
For your first visit, you would want to be based in the Centro or Retiro districts, and this will limit accommodation options. If you do wish a more remote, budget option always ensure it is close to a metro station. While exploring Madrid, you will do a surprising amount of walking.
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.