What’s a Budapest river cruise on the Danube really like?

Cutting through the city of Budapest, the Danube River has all the best views of Hungary’s capital, and a river cruise shows you everything. But what’s it really like on board? Here’s what we found.

Budapest river cruise on the Danube - what's it really like on board

I’ve always wanted to see the Danube. I’ve also always wanted to go to Budapest.

When we moved back to Sydney in our 20s, Christina and I used to go to a little cafe in Surry Hills that had a huge photo of Budapest on a wall.

The river sparkled behind the incredible Parliament Building with its Gothic Revival arches, domes and needle spires. And across the Danube, on the Buda side, loomed the steep embankment and steepled church of Fisherman’s Bastion.

That image has stayed with us and was a driving component in our visit to Budapest.

Funny where travel inspiration comes from, isn’t it?

When we finally made it to Budapest with the flowing waters of the Danube right in front of us, we knew the best way to see this fascinating city of empires would be from the river.

Which Budapest river cruise is best?

A quick search will show you there are dozens of Danube cruises in Budapest. And every company has a million variations too.

Thanks to our hotel concierge, we narrowed our options down to two different cruise companies:

A Dinner-and-Cruise company and a Drink-and-Cruise firm, both of which run evening cruises.

We went with the Drink-And-Cruise option, but not for the reasons you might think. Here’s what we found:

Dinner and Cruise option

– only runs for 90 minutes
– is a seated dinner, which means less freedom to move about the ship and see the view
– takes away an opportunity to find a cool dinner spot somewhere in the city (of which there millions) where the food is probably better
– costs HUF20,000 / €50 each, and that doesn’t include drinks

Drinks and Cruise option

– runs for two hours
– has a dinner option if you want it, but otherwise you can choose from five different drinks packages
– costs range between HUF6,900 to HUF13,500 (€18-€35). The buffet dinner cruise is HUF19,500 and the Hungarian dinner option is HUF15,900.
– the ship is an old paddle steamer, which adds a bit of atmosphere to the evening

Budapest river cruise on the Danube - Hungarian Parliament Building at night

As you can see, on paper the Drinks and Cruise option wins on most fronts, plus when you go for the Open Bar drinks option, you have free run of the beverage situation too.

Other drinks packages limit you to a couple of cocktails, only wine or only beer. There’s also a Hungarian Tokaji Aszu (traditional dessert wine) package, where you get one glass of Hungarian sweet-wine.

What was the Drinks And Cruise experience like?

We joined the queue on the dock of the Danube and waited for our turn to board.

Behind us, a young English couple from Liverpool stared moodily out over the Danube—Europe’s second largest river that passes through 10 countries and travels from the Black Forest mountains in western Germany to its end at the Black Sea where it splits the borders of Romania and Ukraine.

“’s not as big as the Mersey,” the lad complained.

It was a sign of things to come.

Budapest river cruise on the Danube - lens flare over Hungary

Aboard our cruise

As we pressed forward in the line and finally crossed the gangplank to our waiting paddle steamer, we were given wrist bands, a glass of sparkling wine and ushered into the bowels of the ship with the rest of the drinks package plebs.

In a low-ceilinged room scattered with bare tables and hard plastic chairs, we joined our fellow stow-aways and were told not to leave the room until the ship was underway.

Budapest river cruise on the Danube - inside the ship with dining on top and the holding pen below

Meanwhile, guests with dining tickets were guided to their tables down wood-panelled corridors or up broad oaken staircases.

Above our heads, the sound of happy folk music started and our already undrinkable glasses of sparkling wine tasted just that much more sour. Thoughts of fleeing the ship and leaving our hundred or so cellmates to their fate passed seriously through our minds.

I’m glad we didn’t.

Before long, the ship’s engines were paddling us down the Danube and the scenery began moving by.

Escaping the claustrophobic confines of our waterline enclosure, we made our way to the upper deck and its long, deep balcony.

The night views of the city from the river will stay with us forever.

Budapest river cruise on the Danube - Hungarian Parliament Building at night

We settled in and put our gold Open Bar wristbands to good use. The tap beer—Dreher I think—was fine but the house wine was terrible.

Our seats, a bench facing the river, were perfect. Even when hordes of people came out to fill the balcony as we passed the stunning Hungarian Parliament Building, it provided some excellent people-watching opportunities.

We never went back downstairs.

Budapest river cruise on the Danube - Hungarian Parliament Building at night from behind the crowdsBudapest river cruise on the Danube - Fisherman's Bastion from behind the crowds

Would we book the same Danube River cruise in Budapest again?

In spite of the horrible welcome drink and the unpleasant conditions before we got underway, I’d still book this cruise.

The ship is lovely and gives a sense of history and old grandeur to the experience, and the route it follows shows you a lot of the highlights of riparian Budapest.

You pass under six of the city’s major bridges including the Chain Bridge. Parliament from the water at night is scintillating. It truly glows gold with its lights on its architecture.

Buda Castle and Fisherman’s Bastion up on the Hill of Buda, and the Citadella on the Gellért mountain, the Liberty Statue, the Hungarian National Gallery—Budapest is such a beautiful city.

The only thing I would change is the ticket type.

Budapest river cruise on the Danube - evening falls in Hungary

The Open Bar cruise is unnecessary and probably over-priced. But I still wouldn’t choose the dinner option for the reasons I’ve already mentioned—none of the people sitting at their tables inside seemed to be having a great time.

Instead, I would either choose the Wine Cruise, which gives you a choice of seven different wines, or the Craft Beer Cruise, which offers seven different Hungarian brews to try. Both of these options are cheaper than the Open Bar ticket too.

I’d then get to the upstairs balcony as quickly as possible and stay there.

River cruises in Budapest are popular for good reason: you get to slow down for a while and let the river take you on a journey.

It’s a wonderful way to see a place that was once divided by the mighty Danube, but that now makes the great river its centrepiece.

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