My limited but repetition-heavy travel resume meant that this trip to Europe was the first time I've had to play Tourist Bingo in awhile. By Tourist Bingo, I mean hitting all the cliches - the places on the 'Top Ten To Go and Do' lists that you'll find on your standard travel guide and where you go to get those postcard shots. I believe in doing at least some of it when I first visit a place, but I really don't like the inevitable crowds that will be present at all these places. Going to a brand new city during the actual European peak season meant that I was facing both problems at the same time, in the glaring summer heat to boot. My parents caved into the enthusiastic salesman expertise of a man selling City Sightseeing Hop On, Hop Off Tourist bus tickets. I would recommend the tourist buses for a short term stay in Budapest (even over the Budapest City Card because it saves you from the headache of figuring out public transport) but would not recommend the City Sightseeing company - the bus stops on the map were very inaccurate and the Giraffe Bus seemed to run a lot more frequently.
A brief rundown of some landmarks - what's worth visiting and what is overhyped.
It's hard to take a great wide angle photo because there will be tourists dotting the landscape, though it's not necessarily crowded. If you're not doing a guided tour or visiting the Museum of Fine Arts off to one side, I would take a short moment to gape at the impossibly gorgeous combination of teal, white sandstone and gold accents, and admire the intricacy of the sculptures, while also wondering why the horses have fake deer antlers strapped to their bridle. Then I'd take that DP and cross the bridge into the city park complex behind the square.
Worth it.Turn right when you cross the bridge beyond Heroes Square because you will find the Vajdahunyad Castle, extracted straight from every movie ever, creeping vines and pointed spires all included. It even has a bloody lake with tiny bridges and weeping willows, and I was expecting white swans but got lots of ducks instead. This was the first 'castle' we saw in Europe and to say it was right out of childhood storybooks is an understatement. It's definitely worth a quick detour. There are a few exhibitions inside the elaborate buildings (there always are) but we opted out and just spent the time walking through the castle grounds, drinking in the decor and enjoying the serenity of the lake and ducks beside the castle. This would be a top place to stop for something to eat or - for the better prepared - a summer picnic, and we saw several people doing just that.
There aren't that many cafes in the area though, so bring lunch with you if you can.
I'm not a fan of swimming pools or baths so I am biased but my experience with the Szechenyi Baths was that it was only so-so. I would definitely go there to ogle at the decor (did someone say impressive ceilings?) but if you're in a rush, it's not worth paying the entry fee - not exactly cheap - to go in and swim if you can't spare the 2hrs+ you'll need to have a proper 'experience' (the locals seem to recommend the Gellert Baths on the other side of the city over Szechenyi too). The place is a gigantic bathing complex in a beautiful domed building, filled with a huge collection of natural thermal pools, saunas, regular swimming pools and ice pools, permeated with the faint smell of sulfur (the hotter the water, the more intense the smell). That being said, a bathhouse experience is great if you just got off a 30hr flight the day before.
Hungarian bath culture means everything is a communal pool and the goal mostly appears to be soaking in baths with your swimsuits on and talking with a companion. Bring your own towels. There are a couple of pools - including the prettiest one under the dome - that are awful because they'relukewarm (38-39C). I would definitely avoid it - go straight for the hottest pools and try the wet and dry saunas because they are very intense. Be prepared to be stared at by a few people if you're Asian (that was a new experience given my Asia-only past travelling. Or maybe it was just something on my face??). The most shudder-inducing thing for the mild germaphobe in me was walking across the cold, slightly dirty tiled floors with bare feet so bring sandals/thongs/flip-flops. Schedule this part of the itinerary right before you go back to your hotel because you'll be smelling vaguely like sulfur until you have a proper shower (I don't recommend showering there).
NIGHT RIVER CRUISE
Worth it (conditional). The night river cruise is a good way to rest tired legs at the end of the day and see the beautifully illuminated Buda Castle, Hungarian Parliament and various bridges at night, on a slow-moving boat. Tickets seem to be included with tourist bus packages - I probably wouldn't pay for it specifically if you're on a tight budget, but if it is included in your tourist discounts booklet, would recommend you capitalise on those perks.
If you're thinking about using the river cruise opportunity to take photos, get there early because the seats will fill up fast, and be ready to get crowded out by everyone and their mother standing up with their phones out and getting into your photo. Strict zoom-lens material. Bring a warm jacket too.
The best part was actually listening to the rather unenthusiastic guide point out various landmarks and then proceed to talk about some unexpectedly depressing or violent factoid about it in a matter-of-fact deadpan. Some highlights: 'this bridge was blown up a lot', 'people like to commit suicide on this bridge', 'he tried to convert people to a new religion but the pagan Hungarians didn't like it so they stabbed him to death', 'then there was a period of uprisings but they all failed' (failed revolutions seemed to be a consistent thread in Hungarian history).
My favourite was story of the sculptor of the lions at Chain Bridge, Marschalko Janos, who challenged people to find something wrong with his lions and said he would commit suicide if they did. Someone pointed out the lions didn't have tongues so he committed suicide. I'm pretty sure I was the only one paying attention to her the entire ride (and laughing out loud in slight disbelief), but Hungary, I would buy a book compiling all your 'tourist fun facts'. Just sayin'.