The Top Things to Do in Budapest
Whether strolling the grand residential neighborhoods and wide boulevards of the Pest side, or wandering the historic palace-studded hills of Buda on the other side of the Danube, each of Budapest’s districts offers its own charms and stories.
Budapest, Állatkerti krt. 9-11, 1146 Hungary
It’s an unforgettable experience: Getting up at the crack of dawn in mid-winter, walking through the large municipal park on the Pest side of town, checking in to the Széchenyi Thermal Bath (mostly with Hungarian pensioners because tourists usually arrive later), and slowly easing into one of its three large outdoor hot spring pools, surrounded by the golden yellow neo-Baroque palace—built in 1913 for the baths—while old men playing chess in the water. Then watch as the sun rises slowly, and your breath dissipates into the cold, crisp air. The spa has 15 indoor baths, too, as well as 10 saunas at various temperatures. This spa isn’t about being posh, it’s about easing into the kind of everyday self-care that Hungarians have known and avidly practiced for centuries. Just join them.
A huge dolomite rock rising up from Hotel Gellért at its base marks one of the earliest inhabited parts of Budapest. The citadel atop the hill was built by the Austrians in the mid-1800s to better control the unruly Hungarians after squashing the revolution (it was later used by German SS troops in World War II). Other monuments dot the verdant landscape atop the hill, which is now surrounded by posh residences. The walk up from the hotel is steep but worth it for the view once on high.
Budapest, Szentháromság tér, 1014 Hungary
Fisherman’s Bastion was built between 1895 and 1902 on Buda’s Castle Hill not to provide protection, but rather as a lookout point—and this fairy-tale castle site, with its seven spired towers representing the seven tribe of Magyar (Hungarians) that settled here in the 9th century, is all about providing stunning views of the city, the Danube, and best of all the ornate parliament building across the river. In medieval times, a guild of fishermen protected this area, giving the bastion its name, and its construction coincided with the restoration of the nearby church. You can just walk around and drink in the beauty, or pay a small fee for a walk up a tower spire, to further amplify the amazing view.
Budapest, Kossuth Lajos tér 1-3, 1055 Hungary
The splendor of this neo-Gothic parliament building—the third-largest parliament building in the world—is obvious from the outside, but consider these facts: This place has 691 interior rooms, 10 courtyards, 88 statues of Hungarian rulers on its facade, and 12.5 miles of staircases. The outside is stunning but the inside doesn’t disappoint, either: King Steven’s crown jewels are on display within, as are rooms filled with art and crafts made throughout the ages. Take a guided tour to get more context of it all, and don’t miss passing by the building at night, when it’s lit up like a Disney palace.
Budapest, Andrássy út 22, 1061 Hungary
Budapest, Hungary is brimming with art, culture and a touch of decadence. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Hungarian State Opera House on the luxurious Andrássy Way. If you don’t have the time or money to take in a concert in this opulent theatre, you can still get a dose of culture by taking one of the daily guided tours. Crane your neck to take in the ceiling murals and twinkling chandeliers while you sit in the plush velvet seats, sweep down the grand staircase of the main hall and play out your fantasies of living life at court, or just learn about the theatre, without all of the dramatic bits. Tours are offered in Hungarian, English, German, Spanish, Italian and French everyday, and Japanese several times a week. You can also stay for a mini concert in the theatre. After the tour, pop next door to the Callas Restaurant, where you can sip champagne on the terrace while admiring the Opera House’s stunning facade.
Budapest, Balatoni út - Szabadkai utca sarok, 1223 Hungary
Statues of Communist ideologues once dotted every city behind the Iron Curtain, but in the world’s rush to forget the Cold War, such monuments are hard to find these days. Not in Budapest—once East and West came together in the early 1990s, the city decided not to destroy the evidence. It rather collected about 40 monuments of figures like Vladimir Lenin, valiant soldiers, and even a huge sets of boots from a statue of Stalin, and in 1993 put them all in a park about 25 minutes by bus from Budapest’s city center. History buffs, especially, will find it worth the trek.
Budapest, Dohány u. 2, 1074 Hungary
Dominating the intriguing Jewish quarter on the Pest side of the city, the Great Synagogue is a must-see for lovers of culture in general and Europe’s Jewish history in particular. This is Europe’s largest operating synagogue (the largest, in fact, outside New York City) on Dohány Street, which was once the boundary for the Budapest Jewish Ghetto. Inside are stunning Romantic and Moorish architectural elements like rose windows and a monumental organ. Other parts of the complex include a Jewish cemetery, a small prayer area called the Heroes’ Temple, and the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives, built on the site of the home in which Theodor Herzl, the originator of modern Zionism, was born.
Budapest, Szent István tér 1, 1051 Hungary
If you happen to be meandering through Budapest, and have the urge to do a little sightseeing, St. Stephen’s Basilica is definitely a sight to see. The structure is named in honor of Stephen, the first king of Hungary. Apparently, his right hand is also housed here, but fortunately I did not come across it during my explorations. What I did come across, and what will greet you upon entering, is a dazzling array of multicolored marble columns that soar to the heavens. What is not carved in relief on the walls is gilded in gold on the ceilings. The intricacy of the floor and the meticulous attention to detail will almost make you forget to look up. Ah, but when you do, what a sight to behold! The dome of St. Stephen’s is probably one of the more awe-inspiring views in Budapest. Natural light spills in from the etched windows to illuminate the works of art that seem to float above you, all while being surrounded by an inordinate amount of gold leaf. The visual masterpiece almost makes you want to clap - it makes you want to give King Stephen a hand.
Pesti alsó rakpart
The 60 pairs of iron shoes lined up along the promenade on the Danube River’s east bank are a part of the Shoes on the Promenade Holocaust Monument. Conceived by film director Can Togay and created in period style by sculptor Gyula Pauer, the iron shoe sculptures represent the footwear that fascist Arrow Cross militiamen ordered 3,500 Budapesters, 800 of them Hungarian Jews, to remove and leave behind just before they were executed at the edge of the water in 1944. Today the sculptures serve as a subtle, touching monument that gives new meaning to the saying “put yourself in his shoes.” A long bench runs behind the monument for reflection.
Budapest, 1013 Hungary
With six thermal pools, a large swimming pool, a wellness area, and an oft-Instagrammed rooftop jacuzzi, Rudas has been a full-service spa bathhouse since its restoration and renovation in 2014. Its center, however, reveals a centuries-long history: the octagonal pool under a domed ceiling and surrounded by old stone vaults and pillars, dates to 1550, the Ottoman occupation of Budapest, and is thus literally steeped in history. Though it initially only served men, Rudas now separates genders on weekdays (Tuesdays are for women) and offers coed bathing on weekends. Tip: single-gender bathing can be fabulously pressure-free and almost spiritual; Rudas is the only place that this is still possible. And Fridays and Saturdays, Rudas stays open until 4a.m. Tickets can be booked online.
2-4 Kelenhegyi Way
Throughout Budapest are a whopping 123 therapeutic hot springs, but these, in the stately, slightly dusty Hotel Gellért (built in 1918) might be the most famous. The communal bath in the center of the hotel spa is for everyone, but the most interesting traditional spa experience is in the back thermal pools, which have been coed since 2013. Here, join Hungarian locals in pools of varied temperatures, steam baths, and saunas, and jumping into ice-cold baths in between. Everyone takes their time to not only bask in the baths but also gaze at the Art Nouveau tiling on the walls and vaulted ceilings.
Budapest, Liszt Ferenc tér 8, 1061 Hungary
This university for music was established in 1875 by, you guessed it, renowned Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. The building is of course primarily a school—but its lively in-house concert series, including chamber music, student ensemble performances and classical works for larger orchestras in several halls and spaces—assures a lot of public interaction with this place’s wonderful classical music tradition. This gorgeous, recently refurbished Art Nouveau building is packed with lovely tapestries and gold-leaf decoration, making it as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the ears.
Budapest, Liliom u. 41, 1094 Hungary
This funky venue for experimental art of all kinds—theater, visual art, dance, performance, music, even circus arts—began as a transformer station, then later sat empty for 40 years until a group of artists began squatting there in the early 1990s. The city of Budapest bought and officially renovated the spaces, opening Trafó in 1998. The wildly varied program has been going strong ever since with event spaces, an exhibition room, and even a basement club for discourse and literary nights. Expect cutting-edge performances and an intellectual, offbeat crowd.
30 Teréz körút
In an age of Hollywood blockbusters and cineplexes (even in Europe), true art-house cinemas are a dying breed; Művész on the Pest side of the city keeps the faith with a wide variety of international and vintage films shown on four screens. English films are shown with Hungarian subtitles. Alongside that are film festivals as well as a foyer with delicious old cozy sofas, magazines and books, fish tanks and wall sculptures, even arts and crafts to buy. On top of it all, the cinema houses a bustling retro cafe that attracts culture vultures beyond the usual cinephile audience.
1 Komor Marcell utca
Ludwig museums crop up frequently throughout Europe—the Ludwigs were avid German art collectors who were also generous enough to make large donations and establish institutions in places like Cologne since the late 1980s—and Budapest is no exception. The collection of this particular Ludwig Museum, like the others, focuses on art made since the 1960s. Unlike the others, it has a decidedly Hungarian focus. Rotating exhibitions feature much avant-garde and often Eastern European art not easily or often seen elsewhere. The museum itself, which is situated inside the Müpa complex, is an airy, unadorned space to view the works.
Budapest, Komor Marcell u. 1, 1095 Hungary
Known as the Palace of Arts until 2015, the modern, glassy cultural center Müpa opened in 2005 and is the premier venue in the Hungarian capital to take in cutting-edge jazz, dance, art, and more. The Bela Bartok National Concert Hall is within, as is the Ludwig Museum of Art and the Festival Theater. The building was designed to be a technical wonder for cultural production—the acoustics in the concert hall are especially lauded, and the organ in the concert hall is one of the largest such instruments in the world. See top international acts as well as Hungarian stars perform here, including the Hungarian National Philharmonic.
Budapest, Széchenyi Lánchíd, 1051 Hungary
Nothing’s more romantic than strolling across a bridge with a beloved, but this bridge means more than just amor—Széchenyi Chain Bridge was the first structure across the Danube in Hungary, built in the mid-1800s and, as a suspension bridge, a marvel of architecture and engineering at the time. Now one of seven bridges across the river, it was the first to connect Buda and Pest, shifting the flows and development of the city. Budapest natives see it like New Yorkers see the Brooklyn Bridge. Lion sculptures guard its entries, it’s lit up at night to dazzling effect, and of course it offers stunning views of the literally blue Danube.
Budapest, Hősök tere, 1146 Hungary
One of Budapest‘s most history-laden spots, the enormous Heroes’ Square is framed by art museums near the City Park. But the main focal point here is Millennium Memorial, a tall column and colonnade structure completed in 1905 that commemorates the Hungarian conquering of the area a thousand years before (hence the name) and the founding of Hungary in 1896. The statues decorating the memorial depict the seven chieftains of the Magyars, and the figure atop the column is the archangel Gabriel. Fun fact: The first underground subway in continental Europe, built in 1896, terminated here. Be sure to visit at night because the square is even more majestic when lit up.