Both Gdansk 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 Gdansk, 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?)
Salt-washed, industrial-chic and filled with hipsters, Gdansk is one of the most happening cities in Poland. It sits on the edge of the Baltic Sea, proudly showcasing its merchant guilds and mansions, a leftover from the years when this was one of the richest ports in the Hanseatic League.
Like most Polish cities, the focal point is an immersive Old Town (also called the Main City) that beats with life and cafés and boutique shops.
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? Budapest
Which one would I recommend to my parents? Budapest
Which location for my 19-year-old cousin? Budapest
Which for my food obsessed friend? Budapest
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.
Gdansk can be done in just a couple of days, but don't expect that to be enough to do everything. You'll likely want to linger longer, if only to beachcomb the Baltic coast, explore the other corners of the Tri-City (Gdansk is just one of three individual towns that are joined together), and sample as many of the cool hipster bars as you can.
Still, city breaks are very much doable here. Just 48 or 72 hours is ample for checking off the historic sights in the centre, the fascinating dockyards monuments, and to get a feel for the unique fusion of Slavic-Germanic architecture that abounds. Expect to do a lot of walking, though, and be ready to hop on inner-city trains and trams to get from A to B.
During the summertime, you could opt to do as thousands of Polish locals do and extend your Gdansk holiday to a week or two. That'll let you head out to the coast and the beaches. They can be surprisingly stunning, especially along the breezy Hel headland.
Gdansk is surely at its best in the warmer months. Between May and September is when most travellers come. They get to enjoy all the al fresco bars along the old port. They can wander the Old Town without worrying (too much, at least) about rain. They can hit the open-air terraces to taste pierogi dumplings. The weather is a little milder than inland Poland thanks to the tempering effect of the Baltic Sea. Average highs in July are in the low 20s, but that's enough to bring crowds to the beaches of Sopot and the north coast.
The winter in Gdansk can be brutal. The Baltic magnetises icy storms and cold winds across the shoreline and the city. It's a time to get cosy in cute cafes and sip warm beers (yes, that's a thing here), but be certain to pack the thermal leggings and snow coats.
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.
Gdansk has got loads going for it on the travel front. Melding enthralling medieval history with sobering tales of wartime and the proud trade union movement, it's a gem for those looking to unravel the history of Central-Eastern Europe. Shoppers get to delve into Amber shops galore – the city is hailed as one of the best places in the world to buy the glowing fossil. Hedonists get everything from basement bars to wild clubs in old bunkers that stay open all night. Sightseers need only look to the historic Old Town and its grand churches and squares.
Adding to all that, Gdansk has beaches. A quick train to Sopot will reveal one of the nicest in the region, with a long pier that juts out into the Baltic. A little further and you can get to Puck, which sits at the base of what is arguably Poland's finest length of coastline.
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 Gdansk
Gdansk has big-name sights like the iconic dockyards and its Old Town. But it also has secrets up its millennia-old sleeve. This 48-hour itinerary covers both, with a little bit of partying and beachside living thrown in for good measure…
The interactive map below shows a suggested route for the 48 hours in Gdansk, with day 1 highlighted in green and day two in yellow.
Day 1: Make for Cafe Libertas for breakfast. It's a popular spot with fruit bowls and artisan coffee that will fuel you up right in the heart of the Old Town. Stepping outside the door, you'll find quaint Chlebnicka street, which you can stroll between grand townhouses with Flemish-inspired façades.
At one end is Chlebnicka Gate, still flaunting its original medieval crest from 1450. Beyond is the riverside and the iconic Żuraw Crane. Now a branch of the National Maritime Museum, it's a great detour to make if you want to learn all about the history of shipbuilding in Gdansk.
Day 2: Morning of Day 2 takes you out to the legendary Gdansk Shipyards. If you haven't heard of these already, then buckle in for a history lesson in the fall of Communism. It was here, in 1980, that the powerful Solidarity movement first took route under the leadership of Lech Wałęsa. It would go on to fuel revolutions across the Eastern Bloc, which finished with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Russian dominion in Europe.
There's nowhere better to uncover all that than at the European Solidarity Centre. A visit is likely to take a few hours, especially if you want to drop by the striking Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers of 1970 next door. For the afternoon, it's time to explore the Tri-City.
That means hopping on the SKM railway line from Gdańsk Główny. The ride to Sopot is only 15 minutes. It takes you to a lively resort area that's positively brimming with bars and eateries. It's also on the beach, so you might want to spend the evening here, moving between the music venues to famous Sopot Pier.
Getting to Gdansk by plane is easy because of the countless short-haul and low-cost carriers that now fly into the local Lech Wałęsa Airport. A mere nine miles outside of the centre, you can get to the terminals on the 210 bus from the main train station. There are often problems with scam taxi fares to and from the airport, so always agree a rough price beforehand (the normal rate is between 60-80 PLN).
The best location for a hotel in Gdansk is certainly in the Old Town area. There, you'll get boutique lodgings and stylish aparthotels set in centuries-old buildings. An alternative for those who favour beaches and nightlife would be to bed down in Sopot, where resort hotels with swimming pools and stylish restaurants are the norm.
Gdansk is among the most liberal and welcoming of Polish cities. It's got a vibrant LGBT scene and incidents of racism and crime are relatively rare. Still, there are still tensions in Poland and it's wise to be on your guard, especially if out at night in the bars of the Old Town.
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.