The mighty Danube River runs through the middle, passing under eight bridges, including the famous Chain Bridge.
Rising up on the western side, the magnificent old town and castle of Buda show the wealth that has flowed down these waters over history.
On the eastern side of Pest, the grand boulevards that have led to the moniker ‘the Paris of the East’ are lined with Neo-Renaissance town houses. In the side streets are the gritty reminders of some unpleasant history, and the urban rejuvenation that’s bringing new life to these neighbourhoods.
There are layers upon layers and it’s for this reason that you’ll find so many things to do in Budapest. Amongst all of the city’s stories is something for everyone – and anyone will be able to find a great range of activities to fill at least a few days.
I’ve visited Budapest a few times in the recent years and it’s become one of my favourite European cities. Each time I come, I head to a few of my comfortable favourites – but I also explore a new part of the city.
If you’re visiting Budapest yourself, you may not know quite where to start. That’s why I want to help out and share some of my favourite things to Budapest. I’ll also give you some tips on how you can put together a Budapest itinerary for two days or so.
I’ve put together a map of the best things to do in Budapest, so have a look to orientate yourself.
Now, let’s get started.
The most important part of Budapest historically is Buda Castle, the enormous complex that was once the home of the Hungarian kings. You can’t miss it and, looking over from the Pest side, it dominates the hill.
It was first built in 1265 but most of what you see now is the Baroque palace from the 18th century. Since then, it has become a sprawling cultural centre with various museums.
It’s worth just walking around the outside and seeing the architecture, to get a sense of the imposing castle. Also, the views are fantastic so it’s a good place to start a visit and get your bearings.
If you have more time, you could visit the large Hungarian National Gallery or Budapest History Museum, which are now housed within the castle buildings
From Buda Castle, you can wander further across Castle Hill, along the cobblestoned streets and past the baroque houses, until you reach the imposing Matthias Church.
It was built in the 14th century and restored in the 19th century and is famous, in part, for the beautiful tiled roof that you can see for free from the outside.
You need to pay to go inside but it’s worth it if you’re interested in seeing the interior decorations and the included Matthias Church Collection of Ecclesiastical Art, which has artefacts from when coronations were held here.
Behind Matthias Church is the Fisherman’s Bastion, a large terrace that has become one of the most famous sights in Budapest.
There’s no particular reason why it is so famous other than the incredible views it offers and the photo opportunities with the curved windows and doorways in the foreground. But I think that’s good enough.
It’s free to explore the terrace and take pictures but there is a part of the bastion that you need to buy a ticket to access, including walking between some of the seven towers. There’s also a cafe/restaurant at the top.
If there is one building that Budapest is known for, it’s the stunning Hungarian Parliament, that sits by the Danube on the Pest side of the city. It was opened in 1902 and has 691 rooms.
From the outside, it’s the jagged edges, thin towers, and large red dome that define its shape. Architecturally, it’s a mix of neo-Gothic, neo-Romanesque, and neo-Baroque styles.
You can go on a guided tour to see some of the inside of the building but it would be worth booking in advance to guarantee a spot because unsurprisingly they are very popular.
St Stephen’s Basilica
The Hungarian Parliament is one of the two tallest buildings in Budapest, at 96 metres high. The other is the nearby St Stephen’s Basilica, the most important church in the country. It’s no coincidence they are the same height – it’s to show the balance between church and state.
St Stephen’s Basilica is relatively new, having only been opened in 1905, and is designed in the neo-Classical style. The interior is richly-decorated, in particular the interior of the impressive dome.
It’s free to go inside the church but you can pay a small amount to go up to the observation deck.
Aside from the main sights I’ve already mentioned, there are lots of other smaller historical attractions that are worth seeing (at least from the outside).
Unless you know the city well, one of the best things to do in Budapest is take a walking tour to see more of the sites and get a better understanding of them.
There are lots of options – including free ones – so you can find something that suits your interests. I would recommend a walking tour that takes you past sights on the Danube like the Chain Bridge if you want to see more of the main landmarks.
Dohany Street Synagogue
Like many of Europe’s capital cities, Budapest has a strong Jewish history… and it’s not a particularly happy one unfortunately.
By the early 1900s, the Jewish community was intertwined in the cultural and professional fabric of the city, even if there was still a lot of discrimination. But when the Germans occupied Hungary in 1944, almost half a million Jews were deported, many to the death camp of Auschwitz. A third of the people killed there were Hungarian.
The Jewish Quarter in Budapest is now one of the most interesting parts of the city, and I’ll explain why in a second. But first I want to mention the Jewish Heritage here and why it’s worth seeing some of that when you visit Budapest.
In particular, it’s worth visiting the Dohany Street Synagogue (also known as the Great Synagogue). It’s the largest synagogue in Europe and the design is based on Islamic styles from North Africa.
There is also a Jewish Museum on the site that gives more information about the district’s history.
The Jewish Quarter
After the Second World War, the Jewish Quarter in Budapest (also known as the seventh district, Budapest VII) became a slum for decades.
It wasn’t until about the turn of the century that the fortunes of the area began to improve. The cheap property that the district offered was suddenly in demand by two competing groups – hipsters and developers.
So, from about 2000 onwards, modern apartment buildings began to be constructed, cool new restaurants and cafes were opened, street art was painted on the walls, and the whole area became cool.
This is my favourite part of Budapest and where I always stay (and eat most of my meals). I would suggest you have a wander through to see some of the art and the shops, and stop for a drink or a bite to eat.
It’s also one of the most interesting parts of Budapest to take a tour and learn a bit more about the history and the gentrification.
Within the Jewish Quarter, the most prominent symbols of the cultural revival are the ruin bars. The first of these bars was Szimpla Kert, which opened in a derelict building in 2002. Since then, more than a dozen more have popped up.
The original idea was that abandoned spaces could be easily used to bring life to a neighbourhood, just by serving simple food and drink. Since then, the stripped-back look has become a style in itself.
It’s worth having a look at Szimpla Kert but it’s just full of tourists these days and has lost its original atmosphere.
Instead, I would recommend having an afternoon drink at my favourite ruin bar, Koleves Kert. Right next to it are Mika Kert and Ellato Kert, which you could also try to see the variety on offer.
And my other favourite (particularly for the early evening) is Ankert, which I think has the best setting.
Speaking of having a drink in the evening, the other thing I would suggest as an option is a Budapest night cruise on the Danube. The city really does look different after dark, with the bridges and the main landmarks all lit up.
You’ll get a great view from the water and there are lots of different options to take a cruise – from short trips to ones that go for many hours. You can join the young crowd on the booze cruise, or have a sophisticated dinner, or just go a basic boat for the sights.
House of Terror
I’ve already mentioned how the horrors of the Second World War reached Budapest – but this wasn’t the end of things. When the war ended, the Soviet occupation of the city began and brought its own terrors.
The story of this time is told at an excellent museum called the House of Terror, in the building which was the headquarters of the State Security Authority, run by Soviet puppets.
Visiting the House of Terror is a poignant experience. It may not seem like the kind of thing you want to do on a fun holiday in Budapest but I think it’s extremely worthwhile. It is, after all, important to understand our history.
Another sight from the communist era is Memento Park – which is, thankfully, a bit more lighthearted. It’s an open-air museum that has statues of Soviet leaders like Lenin and Marx, as well as Hungarian figures.
It’s a little bit outside of the centre of the city but you can get to Memento Park from central Budapest by public transport. If you’re short of time, it may not be worth the effort, but it’s an interesting little excursion for those who like history or kitsch.
Hospital in the Rock
Back in the city, another interesting landmark from wartime Budapest is the Hospital in the Rock. It was built beneath Castle Hill in a section of naturally-formed caves. (I’ll talk more soon about Budapest’s caves).
These tunnels and caves were first connected and fortified as an air raid shelter in the lead-up to the Second World War. During the war, it was used as a hospital and then again during the 1956 revolution.
In the 1950s and 1960s, with the Cold War a real threat, the space was upgraded and turned into a nuclear bunker.
It is now a museum and you can go inside to see exhibits that tell the story of the different ways this unique space has been used.
If you’re interested in doing a bit of shopping (window or otherwise), then the most famous street in Budapest is Andrássy Avenue. You’ll find lots of major brands here with the flagship stores.
Andrássy Avenue is lined with impressive neo-Renaissance townhouses and it’s worth taking a stroll even if you’re not interested in shopping. As well as the House of Terror, which I’ve already mentioned, you’ll find some other significant buildings. The most important of them is probably the State Opera House.
At the end of Andrássy Avenue is Heroes Square, with its enormous statue complex. If you’re able to walk all the way up here, you can then continue on into Budapest City Park.
Great Market Hall
For a different kind of shopping, head to the Great Market Hall (also known as the Central Market Hall) to find local crafts and delicacies. Opened in 1897, this is the oldest and largest indoor market in Budapest.
It is a bit touristy, as you might expect, so you won’t find cheap prices and there’s a chance you’ll be ripped off. But locals definitely come here to do their shopping and eat at the market stalls.
It’s a good place to grab lunch or a snack if you want to try some local Hungarian food and are not too sure where else to go in the city.
One of the things that Budapest is best known for are the thermal baths – and with good reason. They bring something so special to the city and give Budapest a unique edge over other similar European capitals.
The warm water, full of minerals, simmers just below the surface of the city. Since Roman times, it’s been used for thermal baths and there are about a dozen these days. What I love about visiting the baths is that there’s a real variety, each one with its own characteristics.
This is one of the best things to do in Budapest and I hope you can find the time to see at least one of the thermal baths here.
If you only have time to visit one, I would recommend going to Széchenyi, which is the most famous and has lots of tourists but with good reason – the building is beautiful, there are large outdoor pools, and a long series of indoor baths.
Gellert Baths is the next most popular but I don’t think it’s as impressive as Széchenyi and it doesn’t have as large an outdoor area. For something smaller and more intimate, try Rudas.
On a warm day, though, I would suggest going to Palatinus on Margaret Island, which is more like a sports complex and even has waterslides (it’s also good for the family).
Speaking of Margaret Island, this large area in the middle of the Danube can be an attraction in its own right. As well as the baths, there’s a running track around the outside, lots of bike paths, and landscaped park areas.
There’s also a fountain that performs in sync with music, and there are some cafes and restaurants. You’ll even find some medieval ruins.
I wouldn’t suggest going out of your way to visit Margaret Island but it’s a beautiful escape from the busy city streets if you feel like a walk, cycle, or picnic.
Finally, I want to tell you a bit about the caving in the city, because this is definitely one of the strangest things to do in Budapest. But it does make sense when you learn a bit more about it.
The same thermal waters that created the famous baths of Budapest also made the caves. As it flowed just below the surface for thousands of years, it gradually wore about the rock to leave these long underground passages.
There are some Budapest caves that are easy to access in Castle Hill. But you need to go just out of the centre to find the best ones. Head to the Palvogyi Cave or the Szemlohegyi Cave to get the best experience.
Both caves go on for kilometres but you’ll be able to access just a small section on a guided tour that takes about an hour for each. (You can get a ticket for just one or buy a combined ticket for both). There are beautiful formations inside and some real natural wonders.
There’s no climbing involved – you can just go in your street clothes – and it’s accessible for most people. A steep set of stairs is the hardest thing you’ll come across.
Anyway, I hope you’ve found this list of suggestions helpful. If you’ve got any other place you would like to recommend, please let me know in the comments section below!
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN BUDAPEST
I think the best area to stay in Budapest is in the Jewish Quarter or closer to the Danube.
There are some great hostels in Budapest but Wombats has the best combo of style and location.
The best value hotels can book out early but you can get good deals at Roombach Hotel Budapest Center.
With a cool design, Hotel Memories OldTown has thought of everything – including a pillow menu.
Some of the 5-star hotels in Budapest feel rather dated, but Aria Hotel has a fresh luxurious atmosphere.