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Budapest or Rome; a vs city comparison and travel guide

Both Budapest and Rome 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 Rome and Budapest

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.

High-level summary for Budapest and Rome

Summary
Which city would I go to?
Rome
Which one would I recommend to my parents?
Rome
Which location for my 19-year-old cousin?
Budapest
Which for my food obsessed friend?
Rome
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?

Considering the sheer number of outstanding tourist attractions, Rome can be seen within two days. Three days allows for a more enjoyable visit to Rome, with time to absorb the culture. There can be long queues for the Sistine Chapel and the Colosseum, so starting early in the day is essential for a two-day visit.

There are good day trips from Rome including the Roman ruins of Ostia Antica or the historic town Tivoli. Rome has excellent intercity trains, and it is possible to visit Florence or Naples, or even Pompeii (2 hours by train) as day trips.

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.

Most visitors head to Rome in the hot, humid and crowded summer months of July and August. Early spring or autumn are a much better time of year, and provides a much more agreeable climate, without the throngs of tourists. To truly avoid the crowds, consider November to March, but there is always the slight chance of rain and it can be chilly. Even if it does rain, head indoors for a long lunch.

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.

Rome’s appeal is ageless and timeless. It is no matter if you are going there for the perfect Instagram post of the Colosseum or on a religious pilgrim to the Vatican, the city will not disappoint.

Sadly, the years of austerity and political mismanagement are starting to wear through Rome, with an unkept and unloved mentality decaying around the edges of the city.

Rome in 48 hours
Below is an interactive map for 48 hours in Rome; day 1 is highlighted in green and day 2 in yellow, with optional sights in grey.

Begin at the icon of Rome, the Colosseum, but also explore the Foro Romano with its many excellent Roman ruins. On the way to the historic centre of Rome passes the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument, with its amazing viewpoint. For the afternoon explore the charismatic centre of Rome, taking in the Piazza Navona, the Fontana di Trevi and Piazza Colonna and the Pantheon. For the evening head to the Trastevere district on the western banks of the Tiber, for bars, late food and lively experience.

Start early on the second day to avoid the queues for the Sistine Chapel and Saint Paul’s Basilica. From the Vatican City, follow the River Tiber past the Castel Sant'Angelo, Mausoleo di Augusto to the Piazza del Popolo. For the afternoon explore the Villa Borghese park, before heading down the Via del Babuino, past the Spanish steps and into the Trevi district for a delicious meal. Before finishing in Rome part take in the tradition of passeggiata, an evening stroll wearing your finest clothes.

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.

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.

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