Both Warsaw 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 website will provide our unbiased opinions of Budapest and Warsaw, 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?)
At once cutting-edge and steeped in history, vibrant and packed with chilled-out parks, Warsaw is the beating heart of modern Poland.
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? Warsaw
Which one would I recommend to my parents? Warsaw
Which location for my 19-year-old cousin? Budapest
Which for my food obsessed friend? Warsaw
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.
Warsaw can be done quickly. Just a few days is all you'll need to see the Old Town, the Palace of Culture and Science, the grand parks, and the main museums. To squeeze the lot in, you'll need to make use of the extensive public tram and bus networks. It might be worth considering a 72-hour (36 PLN) ticket, which you can buy at newsagent kiosks.
Of course, if you've got extra time to spare, Warsaw will always be able to fill it. Once you've checked off the main attractions, there are stacks of more local sights, eateries, and activities to get stuck into. They include café hopping down in hipster Mokotow, tasting ethnic foods in multicultural Praga, and even day outings to the Kampinos Forest or the post-industrial city of Łódź.
If you don't want to wrap yourself up in cotton wool and thermals every time you step outside, it might be best to avoid the winter months in Warsaw. From November to December, below-zero temperatures are normal in the Polish capital, along with icy rain, sleet and snow.
Most locals often say that spring and early autumn are the sweet spots. While summer's warm, it can often be humid, and there's no beach or ocean nearby to help you cool off. Months like April and May see milder days and cool nights, while September is prime time to wander the famous parks of Warsaw, as the trees begin to change colour and glow orange, ochre and yellow.
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.
Warsaw really charms those who love fast-paced, buzzing capital cities. While the Old Town is a stunner, it's not the main show. Instead, you'll spend your hours exploring vibrant and lived-in neighborhoods that burst with fusion eats and fine dining. You'll embark on craft beer tours and have artisan breakfasts in kitschy cafes.
On the flip side, there's some seriously immersive history. The Warsaw Uprising Museum and the POLIN exhibitions are fine introductions to the struggle of the Polish people and Polish Jews during Nazi occupation. You've got the 800,000 pieces of the acclaimed National Museum to get through. And there are grand parks with Chinese gardens and monuments of Chopin.
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.
48hours in Warsaw
This perfect first 48 hours offers a fun-filled and exciting introduction to life in the Polish capital. It's a cocktail of wartime history, art, and – of course – good old Slavic beer.
Day 1: Hit the Old Town of Warsaw as early as you can. That way, you'll avoid the crowds, and – on a sunny day – get to catch the gilded medieval-style frontispieces in some perfect photography light. You certainly won't want to miss a moment on grand Plac Zamkowy (Castle Square).
The Royal Castle that gives it the name is the star of the show, with its orange-tinged exteriors and Baroque domes. It, like the whole rest of the Old Town, is actually deceptively new. The entire district had to be rebuilt from ruins in the wake of WWII.
Wait for the folk from the Free Walking Tour under Zygmunt's Column. Their two-hour odyssey through this part of the capital really digs down into the unique mosaic of architecture. After that's done, you can hit Nowy Swiat and follow the route Polish monarchs once took in and out of the city. It's now a buzzing modern thoroughfare with dumpling taverns and beer halls (perfect for lunch).
Follow it all the way south and hop a few more blocks and you'll soon be in Łazienki Park. It's an icon of the metropolis. An evening stroll here could start with a vision of the huge Chopin statue and end with a sighting of the Classicist Temple of Diana. For dinner, where better than hipster Mokotow? The district has everything from Tex-Mex to stylish sushi bars.
The Warsaw Barbican (barbakan warszawski) dates from 1540, and was part of the fortifications that encircle the city
Day 2: A selfie stop outside of the iconic Palace of Culture and Science starts day two with a bout of Soviet architecture. A 237-metre spire of a building, it was a personal gift to Poland by one Joseph Stalin. From there, a few trams stops can whisk you over to the Warsaw Uprising Museum. The enthralling exhibits of that showcase the heroic efforts of Poland's underground resistance during the fight against the Nazis.
Afterwards, make straight for the riverside and the leafy Vistula Boulevards. They're a hubbub of life in the summer months. Dog walkers meet buskers and street entertainers right by the water. (An optional drop into the family-friendly Copernicus Science Centre is a great addition if the rain's a-pouring). For the evening, hip and elegant Praga awaits. That's arguably Warsaw's most stylish area, with Lebanese kitchens giving way to bohemian bars and cool coffee shops.
Warsaw has two international airports. There's the larger Warsaw Frederic Chopin Airport, which can be reached by direct train from Warsaw's main station on line S2 or S3. The smaller Warsaw Modlin International Airport is a hub for European low-cost carriers. To go from terminal to city from there, you can ride the private Modlinbus, or catch the loop train that goes to both airports and then Warszawa Centralna.
A big Polish presence and a welcoming local vibe means there's rarely trouble for tourists in WarsawPickpockets, angry bouncers in clubs, and the classic European taxi scammers are the most common frustrations beyond that. .
When it comes to picking a hotel, it's typically best to be on the western side of the Vistula River. Some of the very best accommodation choices hide amid the cobbled lanes and squares of the Old Town. Others sit within walking distance, by Mirow or the Palace of Culture and Science. Being on the far side of the river means finding some cool aparthotels in local's favourite Praga.
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.