What To Do In Budapest
View of the “Pest” side of Budapest, with the Chain Bridge connecting the “Buda” part, as seen from the Buda Castle.
From the most impressive sights to see, to the best places to eat, here are our top 15 picks of what to do in Budapest.
Take a break from sightseeing (mostly on the “Pesh” side) by walking through the rural/residential side of Budapest.
Parliament standing tall and proud right along the Danube River. Be sure to reserve tickets if you want a tour of this place.
Divided by the snaking Danube River into “Buda” and “Pest”, the Hungarian capital is one of Europe’s most visited tourist cities. It combines spectacular architecture with an engaging history, and a few days spent exploring its churches, squares, and landmark buildings is a “must” for anyone visiting the region.
In November of 2012 we traveled to Central Europe and spent three days touring Budapest and its surroundings. With the festive lights in full display and a fantastic guide by our side, the city left a strong impression on us. Here we want to share our top picks for what to do in Budapest to help you plan your stay.
1. Witness the magnificence of St. Stephen’s Basilica.
Outside of St. Stephen’s Basilica, open daily excerpt during certain parts of the weekends, with free admission.
Named in honor of Hungary’s first king, Saint Stephen I of Hungary (975-1038), the St. Stephen’s Basilica is undeniably one of Budapest’s most impressive landmarks. It stands at exactly the same height as the Hungarian Parliament Building (96 meters), symbolizing that worldly and spiritual thinking have the same importance, and no building is allowed to be built taller in Budapest today!
After taking in its stunning Neo-Classical facade from St. Stephen’s Square, you can enter the basilica itself (where the mummified right hand of St. Stephen is housed) and climb up to the cupola for incredible views across Budapest. St Stephen’s Basilica is open to tourists daily, but closed on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings. Admission is free, except if you want to climb up to the cupola!
2. Explore the diverse architecture of City Park’s Vajdahunyad Castle.
Part of Vajdahunyad Castle, which resides in City Park. Spend a few hours in the morning here for a more quiet and peaceful experience of Budapest.
Designed as part of the Millennial Exhibition that celebrated 1,000 years since the Hungarian Conquest of the Carpathian Basin in 895, Vajdahunyad Castle is an intriguing mix of architectural styles from across the Hungarian Kingdom. From Romanesque to Gothic, Renaissance to Baroque, it was initially constructed from just cardboard and wood, but its popularity led to it being rebuilt from more durable stone and brick at the start of the 20th century.
Vajdahunyad Castle is located in sprawling City Park, which is also home to the Transport Museum of Budapest, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Széchenyi Medicinal Baths, and the Zoological and Botanical Garden, making it well worth a day’s exploration. If you’re visiting Vajdahunyad Castle, don’t miss the famous “Anonymus” statue by sculptor Miklós Ligeti of the unknown chronicler who wrote “Deeds of the Hungarians” in the 13th century.
3. Have a medicinal soak at the Szechenyi thermal baths.
One of the most famous thermal baths in not only Budapest, but all of Europe: Széchenyi Medicinal Bath.
If you’re visiting City Park, then a soak in the famous Széchenyi Medicinal Bath should be high on your list. Conceived in the late 19th century, it boasts gorgeous Neo-Baroque architecture and stunning ceiling frescoes, and its thermal spring waters contain a therapeutic blend of minerals at enticingly warm temperatures.
There are 18 different pools to choose from (3 outdoor and 15 indoor), sauna and steam cabins, as well as both massage and facial treatments available. You can purchase fast track tickets online starting at $20USD for a full day (including a changing cabin), or if you’re looking for what to do in Budapest after dark, you can join one of their pool parties (10:30PM to 3AM) for around $40USD. If you’re not up for getting wet, but still want to tour the Szechenyi baths, then you can do so for around $6USD.
4. Tour the Jewish Quarter and witness the Great Dohany Street Synagogue.
Known as Europe’s largest synagogue, the Great Dohany Street Synagogue is a must visit if you’re in the Jewish Quarter.
Discover Budapest’s rich Jewish heritage on an afternoon spent exploring its Jewish Quarter. Dotted with synagogues, memorials, and unique architecture, it was here that Budapest’s Jewish community were confined in a “ghetto” during the horrors of World War II. Wander the bustling streets, then learn about what life was like for Jews during the Hungarian holocaust at the Jewish Museum.
Don’t miss the chance to visit the Dohany Street Synagogue – Europe’s largest synagogue and one of Budapest’s most impressive architectural landmarks. It blends both Romantic and Moorish architectural elements and its highly ornate interior includes gorgeous rose windows and an impressive organ. Explore the Hungarian Jewish Museum as well as a Holocaust Memorial Room, then pay your respects at the Holocaust Memorial “tree of life”, which stands over the mass graves of those murdered by the Nazis during World War II.
5. Indulge in a fine dining experience Gundel.
Having heard of this restaurant while planning our trip, we dined at Gundel on the first evening of our time in Budapest.
One of Budapest’s longest-established and most highly revered restaurants is Gundel, with everyone from the Clintons to Pope John Paul II having dined here. Feast on traditional Hungarian cuisine while being serenaded by a string quartet, and soak up the fine dining atmosphere and excellent service.
It was named for the Hungarian restaurateur, Károly Gundel, who was attributed with “taming” Hungarian cuisine, and has been hailed with multiple awards over its many years. Gundel is open for both lunch and dinner, with an all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch, and reservations are highly recommended.
6. Take a guided tour of the magnificent Budapest Parliament.
About to tour Parliament with our guide, which is a requirement if you’re looking to explore the inside of this place.
Stretching between the Chain Bridge and Margaret Bridge on the Pest side of the Danube River, the Budapest Parliament is one of the largest in Europe. To take in its stunning Gothic Revival architecture, the best views are from Gellért Hill and Castle Hill on the opposite bank, but you can also take a 45-minute guided tour to see its sumptuous interior.
Witness the Holy Crown of Hungary in the stunning cupola hall and wander along its elegant hallways, all whilst learning about the significance of this spectacular building.
You must have a guide to visit the Parliament and there are a limited number of places available each day, so you need to book tickets in advance to secure a spot.
7. Treat yourself to afternoon tea at the New York Cafe.
If you’re into sweets and need a break in between all the sightseeing, then consider stopping by the New York Cafe, located inside the luxurious Boscolo Budapest Hotel.
Once the official offices of the Nyugat magazine, the New York Café has been an integral part of Budapest’s literary society since the late 19th century. It is located on the ground floor of the luxury Boscolo Budapest Hotel and features ornate ceiling frescoes, elegant Venetian lamps, and gold plated stuccoes on its grandiose columns.
Stepping inside the New York Café is entering into Hungarian history, where prominent painters, actors, and intellectuals once came to philosophize. Today it is one of Budapest’s gastronomic landmarks and a great place to indulge in coffee and afternoon tea within luxurious surrounds. If you can’t decide what to order from their extensive menu, we highly recommend the dessert sampler platter!
8. Soak up the nationalistic pride at Heroes’ Square.
No tour of Budapest is complete without a visit to Heroes’ Square. This is a place worth checking out both in the day and night time.
With the Millennium Memorial at its center, Heroes’ Square (or Hősök tere) honors Hungary’s national leaders and has been the site of numerous important political events during the country’s history. It was built at the end of the 19th century when Hungary was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and in addition to statues of the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars, its initial design included ruling members of the Habsburg family.
Witness the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which honors Hungary’s fallen soldiers, then take in the spectacular architecture of the Museum of Fine Arts and Palace of Art that flank Heroes’ Square.
9. Head out after dark for a nighttime photo tour.
If you’re into photography, go on a nighttime photo tour and capture some of Budapest’s most popular sites after dusk, like Fisherman’s Bastion here.
While Budapest is beautiful by day, it’s absolutely stunning at night. Many of its most famous historic sights are elegantly illuminated, such as Heroes’ Square and St Stephen’s Basilica, and the panoramic cityscape from the elevated Fisherman’s Bastion is particularly impressive. If you’re into photography, then the nighttime brings with it great potential. Head to the Chain Bridge to capture the moving lights of its traffic and try some long exposures incorporating the reflections in the Danube River.
10. Get your American fix at Liberty Square.
Another important historical area in Budapest is Liberty Square, home to a monument dedicated to the liberation of Hungary in World War II.
Located in Budapest’s Lipótváros neighborhood is Liberty Square, home to not only the United States Embassy, but also monuments for Ronald Reagan and Harry Hill Bandholtz. The latter was a US representative of the Inter-Allied Military Mission in Hungary during World War I and was praised for stopping Romanian soldiers attempting to loot Transylvanian treasures from the National Museum.
There’s some beautiful Art Nouveau architecture in the surrounding buildings, as well as a monument dedicated to the Soviet liberation of Hungary in World War II from the clutch of Nazi Germany.
11. Take a day trip out to the beautiful Danube Bend.
We recommend taking a day tour to the Danube Bend and the town of Esztergom, where a famous basilica and various medieval structures lie.
Escape the bustle of Budapest to explore the rolling hills and quaint towns of the Danube Bend, which forms the border between Hungary and Slovakia. Backed by the Transdanubian and North Hungarian Mountains, the town of Esztergom is renowned for its 19th century Basilica – the seat of the Catholic Church and Hungary’s largest building.
You can head underground to wine taste in Esztergom’s cave-like cellars and take in the sweeping vistas across the Danube Bend itself. If you are traveling out to the Danube Bend, then don’t miss a visit to the medieval citadel of Visegrad with its impressive fortified stone walls!
12. Explore the charming “town of artists” at Szentendre.
On the way to or from the Danube Bend, visit the “town of artists” Szentendre, filled with several shops, museums, and artisans.
Home to museums, art galleries, and artisan workshops, the charming “town of artists”, Szentendre, boasts a spectacular location at the base of the Pilis Hills. It’s a really pleasant place to wander, with colorful buildings, cobblestone streets, and plenty of unique and quirky boutiques to poke you head into. Soak up the atmosphere in the main square, surrounded by historic buildings, and admire the elaborate Baroque-rococo architecture of the Greek Orthodox Blagovestenska Church.
13. Pay your respects at the “Shoes on the Danube Bank”.
A heartbreaking attraction of Budapest are the metallic shoes along the Danube Bank, reminding us of the unfathomable incidents that took place during WW II.
One of Budapest’s most poignant landmarks is “The Shoes on the Danube Bank” – a memorial that honors the jews killed during World War II by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen. It is located on the eastern bank (Pest side) of the Danube River and features 60 pairs of shoes, cast in iron, which were designed by sculptor Gyula Pauer and film director Can Togay.
Men, women, and children were ordered to take off their shoes and shot, so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried downstream with the current. Most heartbreaking of all are the tiny shoes representing the children who lost their lives in this horrific way.
14. Sample Hungarian specialties at the Central Market Hall.
If you’re curious about Hungarian cuisine and gastronomy, visit Central Market Hall, where you’ll get quite an elaborate taste of what’s available!
Delve into Budapest’s gastronomy at the Great Central Market Hall, Nagycsarnok, located at the end of the Szabadság Bridge on the Pest side of the Danube River. Built in 1897, it features three floors of fresh fruit, vegetables, meats, cheeses, and fish, many with a distinctly Hungarian twist. After soaking up the lively ambiance of this historic market, head upstairs where you can feast on home style meals and Hungarian snacks.
15. Explore the UNESCO World Heritage listed Buda Castle complex.
The prominent Buda Castle on top of a hill, overlooking the Danube River and the city down below.
Sprawling across a hilltop on the Buda side of the Danube River, the Buda Castle complex is home to some of Budapest’s most spectacular architecture, as well as some of its most outstanding city views. You can wander along its 13th century cobblestone streets, lined with elegant Baroque-style houses, and witness the famed Matthias Church and Neo-Gothic Fisherman’s Bastion.
The entire complex has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is easily accessed along the historic Budapest Castle Hill Funicular which ascends from the Chain Bridge below.
16. Walk along the Chain Bridge at night.
A perfect way to end your day tour of Budapest is to walk along the Chain Bridge and observe the myriad of cars and buses that come by.
Spanning the Danube River and connecting Buda with Pest, the Széchenyi Chain Bridge was built in the early 19th century as the first permanent bridge to span the Danube. It was considered one of the modern world’s engineering wonders when it was first opened in 1849 and became a symbol of national awakening as it elevated the country’s economic potential, as well as its cultural and social life.
While you can walk across it at any time of the day, by night it is particularly captivating when the lights of Budapest reflect beautifully in the river waters on both sides.
We hope you enjoy our favorite places to visit and things to do/see/eat in Budapest!
This selection of what to do in Budapest really just scratches the surface and you could easily spend an entire week in the city, not to mention day tripping to its surrounding towns and villages. From soaking up its diverse architectural styles to sampling its excellent choice of restaurants, this cultural hub has an intoxicating energy within its gorgeous historical setting.
If you’re planning a trip to Hungary and want to know more about our experiences or want to share what you think are the best things to do in Budapest, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!