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Wroclaw or Budapest; a city comparison and tourism travel guide

Both Wroclaw 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 Wroclaw, 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 Wroclaw and Budapest

Wroclaw (spelt Wrocław in Polish) is the historical capital of the Silesia region. It's been ruled and fought over and shaped by countless tribes and peoples, from the warring Slavs of the first millennium to the Habsburg emperors to the Prussian generals of the 1800s.

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 Wroclaw and Budapest

Summary
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.

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.

Wroclaw isn't a big place. Yes, it's one of the largest cities in Poland, but its Old Town is still eminently walkable. There's also a nifty tram network that can whiz you around the main sights for just a few zloty here and there. All that means you should only need a day or two to explore the whole place. The presence of a dedicated airport also makes Wroclaw a prime candidate for a fly-in, fly-out weekend away.

Longer trips to Wroclaw should be supplemented with day outings – there's probably not enough in the town to sustain week-long visits. Get out and you have the wooded mountains of Karpacz (one of the larger Polish ski resorts), the Game of Thrones castles of the Eagles Nest Trail, and the holy Catholic pilgrimage site of Jasna Góra.

Unless you're a fan of air pollution and sub-zero temperatures, Wroclaw is not the place to be in the winter. The whole of south Poland gets cold between November and March – really cold. We're talking minus 10 degrees regularly, with sudden snowfalls and freeing rain. Of course, when there is a dusting of the white stuff, the Old Town of Wroclaw can look wonderful, but recent winters haven't been so promising.

For sightseeing and enjoying the student buzz of the town, it's probably better to hold off until May. That's when the weather really starts getting good. You might have chilly evenings, but you should be able to don the shorts and t-shirts for your wanders through the city. What's more, the local university is in session, so the bars will be lively and vibrant.

Summer sees the students go home and the tourists arrive. It's a reliable period for weather, even if you have to deal with the occasional thunderstorm around early afternoon. September is just as nice, if not even better. That's when the trees of the island parks in Wroclaw start to change to yellow and ochre, lending a romantic atmosphere to the Silesian capital.

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.

If you're the sort of traveller that loves to find off-the-beaten-track cities that don't necessarily have big-name sights, then Wroclaw is sure to be right up your alley. It's not as well known as other towns in Poland but comes with local vibes and interesting neighborhoods. It's also a student city, which means the nightlife can get pumping during term times (September to December and January to June).

Wroclaw has something for those who like the great outdoors, too. Not only is it a green place with lots of parks and riverside areas to explore, but the mountains of the Karpacz and the Czech borderlands are only a short drive to the south. They've got hiking, skiing, spa towns and more.

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.

48hours in Wroclaw
Two days is all that's needed to explore Wroclaw from top to bottom. Most of your time will be spent in the charming Old Town area, but a few jaunts to parklands and other districts can combine with lively nights on the beer to boot…
The interactive map below shows a suggested route for the 48 hours in Wroclaw, with day 1 highlighted in green and day two in yellow.

Day 1: Every history lover, people watcher, foodie and sightseer will want to see the Stare Miasto district. That's the Wroclaw Old Town; the piece de resistance of this southern city. It begins around the wide boulevard of Piłsudskiego, passing through a few blocks of Soviet-era tenements before hitting the historic area proper. That starts in earnest by the Fosa Miejska, a centuries-old moat that was part of the town's medieval fortifications until it was destroyed by Jérôme Bonaparte, the brother of Napoleon.

On the left as you make for the heart of the quarter is the elegant Wrocław Opera House, while the leafy walks of Park Staromiejski are the perfect place to go for a picnic in the summer. Keep going north and you'll eventually arrive at the Rynek. This is the beating kernel of the Old Town, where you'll find the most amazing sights of all.

The Gothic-styled Old City Hall draws the eye first, followed by the German-built housing blocks of 1931 – considered by the locals to be among the ugliest in town! Be sure to check out the narrow alleys that weave through the middle of the square at the Sukiennice. Also keep the eyes peeled for the little dwarf statues that dot the plaza. They're a kitschy addition to the cityscape that you'll find on many random street corners.

As the afternoon turns into evening, consider settling in for a beer tasting at the hearty Spiż microbrewery. Or, head for Setka, where Communist paraphernalia adorns the walls and you can sample potent vodka with pickled herring.

Most Tumski Bridge Wroclaw

The Most Tumski Bridge, where romantics leave love locks attached to the rails and throw the key in to the Odra River. To the rear is the spire of the Bartholomew’s church and the twin spires of the cathedral

Day 2: With the Old Town done and dusted, Day 2 starts with explorations of the outlying islands on the Oder River. There are loads to get through, but the chart-topper that gets us rolling is the iconic Ostrów Tumski. Walk over the pretty bridges to that and you'll find yourself in the oldest part of Wroclaw. The twin spires of high Wrocław Cathedral dominate the skyline, heralding the grandest church in town. Delve in for a peek at the beautiful stained-glass windows and the high vaulted apses.

From there, hop over to Słodowa Island. This is especially fun during the summer months, thanks to the groups of local students and youngsters who sit with BBQ grills by the riverside. Wyspa Piasek is also worth a pitstop, thanks to its handsome chain bridges and cobbled roads.

For the afternoon, catch tram 2, 4, or 10 from the Old Town to Centennial Hall. A whopping great big UNESCO World Heritage Site, it's considered to be a masterstroke of concrete architecture, touting a dome that mimics the Parthenon of Rome. Alongside that are lovely gardens that hit a zenith with the chilled Ogród Japoński – the perfect place to meditate and mull the historic wonders of Wroclaw.

The ever-expanding Wrocław–Copernicus Airport is now served by loads of routes coming from across Poland and Europe. It's even possible to arrive on long-haul connecting flights thanks to Poland's flag-carrying LOT airline. There's a bus that leaves the terminals for the centre of town every 20 minutes throughout the day. Tickets cost 3 PLN and the ride is around half an hour.

To get out to the Centennial Hall, Wroclaw Zoo, or other districts, you can make use of the efficient tram network. Buy tickets at the MPK Wroclaw machines at any bus or tram stop and then validate them as you board. Basic fares cost 3 PLN per ride, but you can also score passes for several days using the Urbancard website.

Hotels in Wroclaw are generally all located within the ring road of Piłsudskiego. Roughly speaking, the closer you get to the Rynek square the better the location, though staying right on the main plaza might be noisy at night. There are also some lovely boutique stays and B&Bs to find north of the Oder River.

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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