Posted: 1/13/2020 | January 13th, 2020
I’ve always had a love affair Budapest (though the city may not know it). Growing up, Budapest seemed like this historic yet mysterious place closed off by the Soviets but filled with historic grandeur. When I first visited, the gritty, rundown streets charmed me. Budapest felt edgy in sharp contrast to, say, Prague’s more sanitized history. IT was a city of underground bars in abandoned buildings, hearty food, and serious people.
Over the years, I’ve seen the city change as the tourists visit in droves. And, while no longer as edgy (those ruin bars are no longer hidden), Budapest is still something else. It offers some of the best nightlife in Europe, tons of spas and hot springs, stunning historic buildings and museums, and lots of green space.
Budapest is a city with layers. No matter what you’re interested in, you’ll be able to find it here. To help you make the most out of your next trip, here are my top 24 things to see and do in Budapest.
1. Take a Free Walking Tour
Whenever I arrive in a new destination, I always take a free walking tour. It’s a budget-friendly way to see the main sights, learn about the destination, and ask any questions you have to a local expert. They’re a quick and easy way to get an overview of a city, which will help you plan the rest of your trip. Budapest has a number of good free tours available. Here are a few you can check out to get started:
2. Soak at the Baths
Budapest is known for its thermal spa baths (it’s one of the best things about this city). You’ll find more than 100 mineral hot springs here, many dating back to the Roman Empire.
The most popular is the Széchenyi Baths in City Park. With 18 pools, it’s the largest and most famous in Europe. The historic buildings that house the spa were built in 1913, and it’s a popular spot for locals and tourists alike. Don’t forget your bathing suit and flip-flops (you can rent towels and lockers).
Állatkerti krt. 9-11, +36 1-363-3210, www.szechenyifurdo.hu. Open daily 6am-10pm. Admission starts at 4,900 HUF.
3. Ruin Bars
The nightlife in Budapest is one of the best in Europe — and ruin bars are a big reason why. Located in the old Jewish Quarter, much of the neighborhood was left to decay after World War II. During the 90s, bars began to appear in the abandoned buildings in the area. Now, this underground scene is well on the map. But that doesn’t make this eclectic, arty, and funky spaces any less fun. Szimpla Kert, Instant, and Fogasház are my three favorites but, for a more detailed list of what’s hot right now, check out my post on the best ruin bars in Budapest!
4. Castle Hill
This historic area is home to baroque houses and Habsburg monuments. Cobblestone streets and narrow alleys that hark back to the city’s medieval roots parallel panoramic views of Pest and the Danube. This section of the city is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with the Old Town in the north and the massive palace to the south, which dates to the 13th century.
6. Buda Castle
In the Castle Hill area, you’ll also find Buda Castle (it’s more of a palace complex than anything else). The original complex was constructed in the 13th century, however, the huge Baroque palace that exists today was actually built between 1749-1769. Originally intended for the nobility, the palace was looted by the Nazis (and then the Soviets) during World War II.
Fun fact: Beneath the castle, Vlad the Impaler (colloquially known as Count Dracula) was imprisoned for 14 years. In the dungeon area, there is also a labyrinth that tourists used to be able to explore — in the dark, no less — though it’s now closed. You’ll also find some museums here as well (see below).
Szent György tér 2, +36 1 458 3000, budacastlebudapest.com. The courtyards are open 24/7 while the castle is open daily from 10am-8pm.
5. Hospital in the Rock
This museum served as a hospital, bomb shelter, prison, and nuclear bunker. Here you’ll learn about the impacts that World War II, the 1956 revolution, and the Cold War had on the city and its people. Opened in 2008, it’s one of the most popular attractions in town. Admission includes a one-hour guided tour of the museums, which has all sorts of wax figures, tools, equipment, and furnishings.
Lovas ut 4/c , +36 70 701 0101, sziklakorhaz.eu/en. Open daily 10am-8pm. Admission is 4,000 HUF.
6. Hungarian National Gallery
Opened in 1957, this museum focuses on Hungarian artists and history (of which I knew very little before my first visit). The gallery is located in Buda Castle, home to paintings and sculptures from the renaissance and middle ages, including wooden altarpieces from the 1400s. You can also tour the building’s massive dome. The gallery hosts rotating temporary exhibits too so check the website to find out what’s on during your visit.
1014 Budapest, +36 20 439 7325, mng.hu. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-6pm (last tickets sold at 5pm). Admission is 1,800 HUF and audio guides are available for 800 HUF.
7. Budapest History Museum
This museum covers four floors of Buda Castle and provides a comprehensive overview of the city’s entire history. It’s a must for anyone looking to get a more detailed look at the city’s 2,000-year past. My favorite exhibit was the “1,000 Years of Budapest” display. Be sure to get the audio guide as it provides a lot of good supplemental information. It’s worth the cost.
+36 1 487 8800 , budacastlebudapest.com/budapest-history-museum. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-4pm (6pm in the summer). Admission varies by season (2,000-2,400 HUF). An audio guide is available for 1,200 HUF. Admission is free on national holidays.
8. The Cave Church
In the 1920s, Catholic monks built this church in a large cave system that had been previously used by a hermit monk. Known as Saint Ivan’s Cave, the cave was used as a hospital during World War II. When the communists came to power after the war, they covered the entrance in concrete and executed the head monk. In 1989, as the Iron Curtain fell, the church was reopened and is now a popular place for tourists as well as a place of worship for locals. Get the audio guide to make the most out of your visit. There is a lot of history here.
Sziklatemlom út Gellért Hill, sziklatemplom.hu/web/fooldal.html. Open Monday-Saturday 9:30am-7:30pm. Admission is 600 HUF.
9. Matthias Church
This neo-Gothic Roman Catholic church is one of the most unique churches in Europe. I’ve literally seen hundreds of churches and cathedrals across the continent and this is one of the most original. The original church in this spot was built in the 11th century, though nothing remains of it (the current building was constructed in the 14th century and was heavily renovated in the 19th century).
During the Turkish invasion of the 16th century, it was converted to a mosque, which is why its vibrant colors and designs that aren’t common in European churches (the church has a colorful roof that almost makes it look like it was built from Lego). Once inside, you’ll see the huge vaulted ceilings and ornate décor.
Szentháromság tér 2, +36 1 355 5657, matyas-templom.hu. Open 9am-5pm on weekdays, 9am-1pm on Saturdays, and 1pm-5pm on Sundays. Admission is 1,800 HUF. Guided tours are available for 2,500 HUF.
10. Fisherman’s Bastion
Built between 1895 and 1902, this terrace is comprised of seven towers that look out over the river. Each one is meant to represent one of the seven Hungarian tribes that founded the city. The terrace was designed by the same architect who created the Matthias Church and provides stunning panoramic views across the Danube River. Competing legends say that the name comes from either the fact that the terrace overlooks the old fishermen’s guild or that the fishermen’s guild was responsible for protecting that area of the wall. No one is quite certain which is right.
Szentháromság tér, +36 1 458 3030, fishermansbastion.com. Open daily 9am-11pm. Admission is free, with an additional charge of 1,000 HUF to visit the upper turrets.
11. Hungarian Presidential Palace
The Hungarian Presidental Palace has been the workplace of the president since 2003. Known as Sándor-palota (Alexander Palace), it’s not nearly as impressive as the surrounding buildings, but if you time your visit right you can see the changing of the guard ceremony at the top of each hour from 9am-5pm (excluding Sundays). Sometimes the palace will be open for tours (but this rarely happens so don’t get your hopes up).
Szent György tér 1-2, +36 1 224 5000. Admission to the changing of the guard is free.
12. Buda Tower
This reconstructed “tower” is all that remains of the Church of Mary Magdalene, which was originally built in the 13th century but was destroyed during World War II. When the Turks occupied the city between 1541-1699, the church was converted into a mosque. It reopened in 2017 and you can now climb the 172 steps that lead to the top. That said, the views from Castle Hill are just as good — and free — so I’d skip climbing the steps and just admire this historic tower from the outside.
Kapisztrán tér 6, budatower.hu/en. Open daily 10am-6pm (but only on the weekends in January and February). Admission is 1,500 HUF.
13. Walk Across the Chain Bridge
The Széchenyi Chain Bridge connects Buda with Pest and is a wrought-iron and stone suspension bridge. The bridge originally opened in 1849 but was damaged during World War II and had to be rebuilt. Spend some time strolling across the bridge and taking in the view. Don’t miss Gresham Palace, located on the Pest side. It’s an Art Nouveau building that is now a luxurious Four Seasons hotel.
14. Visit Parliament
Built in 1902, this is the largest building in the country and home to the national assembly. This massive structure — which covers over 18,000 square meters — took almost 20 years to build. You can take guided tours of the building where you can learn about the history of the city and how the government of the country works. (If you plan to visit, purchase your tickets in advance as the lines can get quite long.)
Kossuth Lajos tér 1-3, +36 1 441 4000, parlament.hu. Open daily 8am-6pm. Admission is 6,000 HUF.
15. Stroll Along the Danube
After visiting Parliament, take a walk along the river. Head south to check out the promenade and its many green spaces and sculptures, including the sobering “Shoes on the Danube Bank,” a memorial honoring the Jews who were shot here during World War II. If you have a book or just want to take in the view, this is a reflective place to stop and relax.
16. Great Market Hall
This is the oldest and largest indoor market in the country. Built in 1897, you’ll find mostly produce, meats, baked goods, and candy on the ground floor while the upper floor is home to restaurants and souvenir shops. It has a lot of traditional places to eat, so be sure to walk around and explore first. Yes, it’s touristy (it’s the central market, after all), but I still found the food quite good (and affordable). Even if you don’t plan on buying anything, it’s still worth a quick visit to walk around.
Vámház körút 1–3. Open Monday 6am-5pm, Tuesday-Friday 6am-6pm , and Saturday 6am-3pm. Closed on Sundays. Admission is free.
17. St. Stephen’s Basilica
This is the largest church in Hungary. Named after Hungary’s first king, the church is comprised of ornate architecture, gorgeous artwork, and is crowned by a massive dome. It was completed in 1905 after taking 50 years to build. Be sure to check out all the little chapels as well as the reliquary that is (allegedly) home to St. Stephen’s mummified right hand.
Szent István tér 1, +36 1 311 0839, bazilika.biz. Open weekdays 9am-5pm, Saturday 9am-1pm, and Sunday 1pm-5pm. Entry to the basilica is by donation, though it’s 600 HUF per person for the tower/observation deck.
18. Dohány Street Synagogue
Also known as the Great Synagogue, this is the second-largest synagogue in the world (it seats 3,000 people). Built in 1854, the synagogue offers guided tours that shed light on the building and its place in the city’s history. You’ll learn all about the construction of the synagogue, Jewish life in the city, and much more. As a follow-up to your visit, check out Wallenberg Memorial Park (right behind the synagogue) and the nearby Hungarian Jewish Museum.
Dohány u. 2, +36 1-343-0420. Hours vary from month to month; call ahead for details. Admission is 4,000 HUF.
19. Gellért Hill
Gellért Hill, just south of Castle Hill, is the best place to watch the sunset (if you go for the sunset, take a flashlight for the trip home). There are also several monuments on the hill, such as the Liberty Statue, a bronze statue was erected in 1947 to celebrate the liberating Soviet forces who defeated the Nazis; the Statue of Queen Elisabeth, the Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary who married Franz Joseph I; and the Statue of King Saint Stephen, Hungary’s first king, who helped establish the country as a Christian nation and provided a period of relative peace and stability.
20. The Museum of Terror
Life in Budapest under the fascist and communist regimes was brutal. The building that houses this museum was used by the ÁVH (Secret Police) and Arrow Cross Party (the Hungarian Nazi party) during their reigns of terror. Over 700,000 Hungarians were killed or imprisoned by the Soviets, and the museum does an excellent and moving job of highlighting just how terrible their daily lives were. The museum’s permanent exhibits are spread over four floors and house all sorts of propaganda, weapons, and informative multimedia displays. They also host temporary exhibits too (for information on those, check the website for the most up-to-date information).
Andrássy út 60, +36 (1) 374 26 00, terrorhaza.hu/en. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-6pm. Admission is 3,000 HUF.
21. Heroes’ Square
Heroe’s Square (Hosök Tere) is the largest square in Hungary. Here you’ll find statues of Hungarian kings and other historical figures, including the seven chiefs who led the Magyars (modern-day Hungarians) in the 9th century. The monument was built in 1896 to celebrate Hungary’s 1,000th anniversary and originally included Hapsburg monuments (as the Hapsburgs ruled the country at that time). The square is also home to the Millennium Monument, a large stone cenotaph dedicate to those who gave their life for Hungary’s independence.
22. Go Island-Hopping
There are a few islands on the Danube that you can visit to escape the city. The most popular is Margaret Island. It’s connected by the Margaret and Árpád Bridges and has a large park, swimming pools, and a musical fountain. Óbuda Island is known for its outdoor activities, including wakeboarding, jet skiing, and golf (there’s a driving range here). In August, they host the Sziget Festival of music and culture.
23. The House of Houdini
Born in 1874, Harry Houdini was a famous escape artist and illusionist. He was best known for his elaborate and sensational escape tricks, including escapes handcuffs, chains, and even a grave where he was buried alive! Born in Hungary, this is the only museum in Europe dedicated to the Budapest native. The museum, which requires you to solve a small mystery before you can even visit, is home to original Houdini props and pieces of memorabilia, as well as props from the Houdini film starring Adrien Brody.
11 Dísz Square, +36 1-951-8066, houseofhoudinibudapest.com. Open daily from 10am-7pm Admission is 2,600.
24. Educate yourself as you walk!
Beyond exploring on your own or taking a free walking tour, Budapest has tons of other tours worth checking out from in-depth niche walking tours, to food tours, historical tours, and pub crawls. While they aren’t free, you’ll get to learn much more about the city, its past, and its culture. Here are a few companies worth checking out:
From its wild ruin bars to its relaxing spas, Budapest offers everything you can find in Western Europe — but for a fraction of the price. Plus, it also sees a fraction of the crowds you’ll find in cities like London, Paris, and Prague.
With tons to see and do and budget-friendly prices, it should come as no surprise that Budapest keeps becoming more and more popular.
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Book Your Trip to Budapest: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Find a cheap flight by using Skyscanner or Momondo. They are my two favorite search engines, because they search websites and airlines around the globe, so you always know no stone is being left unturned.
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld as they have the largest inventory. If you want to stay elsewhere, use Booking.com as it consistently returns the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels. My favorite places to stay in Budapest are:
- Retox – A big party hostel located next to Budapest’s biggest nightlife area. This one is for serious partiers!
- Carpe Noctem – The staff here will end up feeling like family, and there are organized trips out on the town every night.
- Wombats – Another party spot, but it’s clean and comfortable, and one of my all-time favorites.
- Hostel One – Great rooms, great staff, and plenty of common space to socialize in. The staff will even cook for you!
- Big Fish – This hostel is located right on the main boulevard of Budapest. It has new beds, a huge kitchen, and a cozy common room!
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it, as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. I’ve been using World Nomads for ten years. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
- World Nomads (for everyone below 70)
- Insure My Trip (for those over 70)
Looking for the best companies to save money with?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel! I list all the ones I use to save money — and I think they will help you too!
Photo Credit: 3, 8 – Visions of Domino
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