The Hungarian capital is an impressive city with many remarkable points of interest. Its two historic parts, Buda and Pest, separated by the Danube, are very distinct in appearance – you almost get to explore two cities in one.
Buda enjoys a commanding location on the west bank of the river, with several dramatically-positioned edifices that face the river among the most eye-catching monuments in Budapest.
Royal Palace takes the top billing in Buda for its positioning and monumental appearance. Its grounds must be more impressive when the fountains are operating. There are no royal apartments to tour inside the palace. Instead, the space is given to a couple of museums, most notably, the Hungarian National Gallery.
Mátyás Church ♥♥♥ (technically, Church of Our Lady) dazzles with its brilliantly colored tiled roof. The interior of the church is no less colorful, with vivid stained-glass windows, painted walls and pillars, and other rich decorations. The acoustics of the church make it a regular location for choir singing, often in the middle of the day.
Fishermen’s Bastion ♥ is a good vantage point for views over Buda riverside and toward Pest. The views are unobstructed, but the entrance is for a fee. Similar – albeit sometimes partially obstructed – views for free can be had from other lookouts, both from inside the Castle District and away from it. For instance, also on the Buda side, on Gellért Hill, a reasonable view opens up from the monument to St Gellért ♥. The most spectacular view of all is higher on that same hill, from Citadel ♥♥ – the fortification itself is not worth the visit unless you are interested in the restaurant and nightclub located there, but the panoramic view is beyond comparison, especially after the fall of darkness.
When you are walking the pretty streets of the Castle District, you may decide to stop at the Labyrinth ♥. It is a series of caves – not a true labyrinth, as you cannot get lost, – dimly lit and sparsely decorated with statues, wall paintings, and curiosities. No more than mildly interesting for most, but the younger visitors may be fairly enchanted.
On the lower levels of Buda, such as Tabán or Víziváros, a number of minor points of interest appear to afford a pleasant wandering around.
Central Pest was built with an expressed notion of rivaling Vienna but somehow resembles Paris a bit more, with its wide boulevards, impressive squares, and nearly-uniform building height. It is a veritable treasure trough of 19th-century architecture, with many “neo-” styles, common to that era, represented throughout the town quite well. If you have the stamina and the desire, walk the entire length of Andrássy Avenue ♥♥♥, and you will encounter architectural masterpieces and delights practically every step of the way. Kossuth Square ♥♥, Liberty Square ♥♥ (Szabadság), and Roosevelt Square ♥ are also all surrounded by magnificent buildings.
The Parliament building is simply grandiose and undoubtedly the most eye-catching sight in all of Budapest. It reputedly boasts no less grandiose chambers. Getting in requires some scheduling luck (it is closed to visitors when the parliament is in session) and the extra effort of getting to the ticket booth early in the morning.
St Stephen’s Basilica ♥♥ was only completed in the early 20th century and, subsequently, lacks the atmosphere of an “old” church. But its interior is quite impressive nonetheless and the dome mosaics are absolutely splendid. You can also get to the viewing gallery under the dome (most of the way up and down is by an elevator), although the rooftop panorama falls short of truly breathtaking.
Built to emulate Vienna’s Opera, the State Opera House ♥♥ is another remarkable architectural gem, with an interior of opulence and grandeur. Guided tours are offered, but the simplest way to see it is to buy the cheapest tickets to a performance. Those go for 400 HUF (roughly $1.85 back in 2009) and actually have no view of the stage. Get in half an hour before the performance, walk around the building, check out the magnificent performance hall, and then leave if you are so inclined. Or stay for an auditory, if not visual, enjoyment. (We had some luck in that the kids were able to move into seats with good views, so we stayed for all three acts of The Swan Lake.)
There are several interesting Secessionist – the term used for the Austro-centric Art Nouveau movement – buildings in Central Pest. Among them are the Post Office Savings Bank, with its elaborate roof, and the Turkish Bank. Gresham Palace ♥, currently a Four Seasons hotel, is accessible to step in and enjoy its curvilinear forms and organic motifs; the wrought-iron gates and fancy mosaics were among the highlights.
Several churches in the city besides the two already mentioned merit attention, both in Buda and Pest. For instance, the Inner City Parish Church ♥, which dates from the 14th century, has interesting remnants of it being used as a mosque during Turkish rule.
The Great Synagogue‘s striking outward appearance makes for a greater disappointment if you cannot see its interior, but as elsewhere in the world, if you come during a Jewish holiday (or solely during Shabbat), it will not be accessible.
There are two Holocaust monuments in Budapest, commemorating the fate of Hungarian Jews during WWII. The “weeping willow” stands in the yard of the Great Synagogue. The “shoes” – a minimalist evocative memorial to people executed on the banks of the river – is on the Danube’s embankment near the parliament building. Putting “likes” next to them feels inappropriate, but I strongly recommend to anyone that you find time to view them, especially the “shoes”.
The Jewish Quarter of Budapest is not especially remarkable, although there are some fine buildings along its narrow streets, as well as a few Kosher establishments. You can see the Orthodox Synagogue there. But the unexpected highlight of the visit to the area may be the interior of a popular bar/club on Kazinczy Street, SzimplaKert (“Simple Garden”) ♥, hidden behind a crumbling façade; the bar is fancifully decorated with old furniture and household objects from 50-60 years ago.
Covered Central Market Hall ♥♥♥ is delightful in a way only a market could be. Its wide central aisle is lined with stalls that sell various delicacies, spices, sweets, and produce. More of the same is found in the side aisles. A feast for eyes and senses! The upper level is given to souvenir stalls, arts and crafts, clothing and accessories sellers, and food vendors. The Market Hall is where the pedestrian Vaci Street ♥ starts and runs parallel to the river for a couple of kilometers, lined with boutiques and restaurants. As with any street of such type, it is almost perpetually busy with people.
Taking to the hot springs should be a must-do on a Budapest visit. There is a good number of well-known baths in Budapest, most of which not only provide for pleasant relaxation but also aspire to be sights to see, in terms of architecture and decor. If you travel as a family or a mixed-gender group, keep in mind that most of these spas are true baths and, therefore, segregate the sexes either in different areas or via single-sex days. If you want to experience them without being separated, choose a “pool” instead of a “spa”. The most well-known such establishment is Széchenyi Baths ♥♥♥. The beautiful neo-Baroque complex houses a medical clinic (step into its foyer, if you have time, for a look at the stunning ceiling mosaics) and the public thermal pools, the latter not putting any restrictions on gender-mixing (obviously requiring swimming attire). There are three pools of different temperatures, the lowest at 30°C, the highest at 40°C (the hottest of all of Budapest spas), plenty of hydro-massage implements, as well as a swift-current whirlpool, infinitely popular with children.
It should be noted that soaking in warm waters for a lengthy interval has a pretty tiring effect on the body, so plan your activities accordingly. You may not be physically up to lots of walking and sightseeing after you leave the spa. On the flip side, any day of the week the pools get progressively busier towards the afternoon; the most uncrowded time to visit is in the morning on a regular workday. If you manage to leave the spa within two hours of entering it, you are issued a 10% refund.
Széchenyi Baths are located within the confines of the vast city park, Városliget. The park is fronted by the expansive Heroes Square, with the majestic Millennium Monument ♥♥ as its centerpiece. The aforementioned Andrássy Avenue ends here. Two large art galleries stand on either side of the square: the Museum of Fine Arts, with the only non-Hungarian-centric collection of art in the city (including many of the famous masters from all over Europe), and Műcsarnok Art Gallery, Hungary’s largest exhibition space, hosting mostly changing exhibitions of contemporary painting and sculpture. Both buildings are magnificent in their own right.
The park itself is not exceedingly remarkable and houses several attractions. Foremost of all, Vajdahunyad Castle ♥♥ was built in 1896 for Hungarian Millennium celebrations (the anniversary of the Magyars settling in what later became Hungary). This is not a true castle, but rather a complex of buildings illustrating various architectural styles that existed in Hungary at the time of construction. Overall, there are over 20 of Hungary’s most renowned buildings represented here. Most of the viewing is from outside, though. You can step into a small chapel (for a symbolic fee), or you can visit the Museum of Agriculture (entrance in the Baroque section of the castle).
Also within the park limits is the zoo ♥ and the Vidámpark ♥ funfair. Entrance fees are pretty negligible, and both provide an excellent diversion from sightseeing for your tired and bored offspring.
This guide is short on museum recommendations since museums were not part of our program for Budapest. An honorable mention still goes to Kogart, a gallery on Andrássy Avenue just a couple of blocks from Heroes Square, where we chanced upon a fine exhibition of Hungarian impressionists. (The gallery does not have a permanent collection.)
Numerous musical performances are being held in various venues in Budapest throughout the year. A folk dance and music concert at the Danube Palace, halfway between St Stephen’s Basilica and Roosevelt Square on Zrínyi Street, may feel a bit of a tourist trap in an adequate if not exactly remarkable venue, but the performance itself was superb, given by Rajko Folk Ensemble ♥♥, with a virtuoso play on violins and percussion, and fiery and graceful dances.
For a couple of hours over each of our first two days in Budapest, we were guided by Gabriella Török ♥♥ (link). A very nice lady who spoke excellent English, she gave us a pretty good orientation tour of the city. She is pretty open to customizing the itineraries to your liking. One location that we would not have visited without a guide is the new Palace of Arts/National Theatre complex a little bit downriver from the city center.
A boat cruise on the Danube is another popular attraction. There are several offerings of the kind alongside the river embankment; we followed the recommendation of our guide, and picked Dunayacht ♥, from Pier 10 near the Elizabeth Bridge. The cruise lasted exactly an hour and took us upriver to and around Margaret Island and back, under the accompaniment of commentary in English and German. The English recording was heavily accented, but still quite informational. Margaret Island, somewhat north of the city center, happens to be another popular park and recreation area that may be worth visiting.
A couple of other attractions for future consideration are the House of Hungarian Wines, and the archaeological area of Aquincum [further afield].
Budapest has all different types of public transportation – metro, buses, trams, trolleys – of which two specific modes are most important: tram lines to move north-south parallel to the river on the Pest side, and metro line #1 that runs under Andrássy Avenue to Városliget. Other metro lines are only marginally useful in the city center, although trams can be pretty handy anywhere in Pest.
There is a funicular to take you up to the Buda Castle near the Chain Bridge. Walking up Buda Hill is not an overly exhausting exercise, but it is still not for everyone; bus routes should provide an alternative to the funicular.
The family ticket is valid on all modes of public transportation and pays for itself after three journeys. There are regular human ticket controls at entrances to the metro stations, but none that we encountered on trams.
Accommodation-wise, any location in either Buda or Pest that is close to the river will put you within walking distance of most of the points of interest. The extensive transport options make staying somewhere outside of the city center workable as well.
As far as eating out is concerned, whether you reserve a table in advance based on online ratings or just pick a restaurant at random, it is hard to have a truly disappointing meal in Budapest. I personally prefer local vibes in less touristy areas, but sometimes sitting down in an eatery on a crowded square can have its rewards. Worthy of a specific recommendation is Café Kör (on Sas Street not far from St Stephen’s Basilica), with an interesting menu and a seemingly local vibe despite being a frequent travel forum recommendation.