A vibrant cosmopolitan city in the heart of central Europe, Budapest holds something spectacular for every type of traveler. From its famous thermal baths to its world-class museums and UNESCO World Heritage sites, the historical Hungarian capital has many layers; in fact, travelers could spend months in this lovely city without exhausting their list of things to see. But to help you plan your visit, here are several ideas on what to do in Budapest!
1. Walk across the historic Széchenyi Chain Bridge
Though it’s officially called “Budapest,” the city is actually divided into two sections: Buda and Pest. The mighty Danube River divides the hilly Buda from the relatively flat Pest, which are connected by the impressive 19th-century Széchenyi Chain Bridge. Originally built in the 1800s, the 1,250-foot-long suspension bridge was the first of its kind to connect the two sides of Budapest city. Though it was almost completely destroyed during World War II, the bridge today still retains its original pillars, as well as the stone lions that sit at both sides of its entrance.
Stroll or bike across this beautiful bridge and take in the stunning landmarks of both sides of the Danube in both Buda and Pest.
2. Explore Castle Hill
Commonly recommended as one of the top places to explore in Budapest, Castle Hill district is brimming with historical attractions and romantic panoramic vistas. Situated atop the hilly west bank of the Danube River on the Buda side of the city, this UNESCO World Heritage site is full of crooked cobblestone streets, fabulous architecture, and delightful cafes and restaurants. You could take a full day to explore the main points of interest in this district, including Buda Castle (the 13th-century royal palace that once housed Hungarian royalty), Matthias Church (named for King Matthias Corvinus who was married at this stunning site twice), Sandor Palace (the Prime Minister’s primary residence up until 1944), and Fisherman’s Bastion (a breathtaking neo-Gothic terrace that looks like it was taken directly from a fairy tale).
3. Soak in a quintessential Budapest thermal bath
Budapest is often referred to as the “City of Spas [or Baths]” — and for a good reason! The city is the only capital in Europe that flows with underground thermal waters, famed for their healing properties. Thus, it is no surprise that the city is full of public, historic Turkish baths that date all the way back to the 16th century.
One of the most famous of these baths, the Széchenyi Baths, are the largest of their kind in Europe. From outdoor pools to indoor thermal and steam baths, Széchenyi has plenty to offer for a full- or half-day experience. To take it to the next level, you can book some spa services and luxury treatments, as well!
4. Take a river cruise along the Danube
Get a different perspective of the city by taking a relaxing cruise along the iconic river. Budapest offers a variety of sightseeing cruises along the Danube, allowing visitors to enjoy a relaxing day (or just a few hours) to take in the spectacular views of the city. Take the time to note Buda and Pest’s incredible contrasts and famous landmarks.
5. Get a taste of local flavors at the Great Hall Market
If you love beautiful architecture, delicious food, and great people watching, then the Great Hall Market is the place for you! Built in the late 1800s, this neo-Gothic tunnel has been turned into a giant market full of local produce and handicrafts. Spend a few hours exploring this epic market’s three floors, and get a taste of the local culture and delicious Hungarian dishes.
6. Bask in the tranquility of Margaret Island
Looking for some peace and quiet? Then head over to Margaret Island. This 1.5 mile-long island along the Danube is arguably Budapest’s most impressive green space. Linked to both Buda and Pest through bridges on either side, Margaret Island contains a lovely rose garden, small waterfalls, luxurious Japanese gardens, and a stunning musical fountain near the Margaret Bridge. If you are visiting Budapest in the summer months, grab a book and sunbathe in the parks, or meander through the handful of small cafes and little zoo for a relaxing and tranquil day outside.
7. Visit the shoes on the Danube Bank
60 pairs of cast iron shoes lie alongside the bank of the Danube River as a commemoration of the roughly 3,500 Hungarians (including more than 800 Jews) who were killed by the fascists in Budapest during World War II. During the war, these victims were ordered to take off their shoes before they were shot by fascist militiamen, their bodies falling into the river.
Take a moment to take in the impressive and heartbreaking site to pay homage to all those who lost their lives in the war. It is an impactful experience that you will take home with you.
8. Visit St. Stephen’s Basilica
As the largest church in Budapest (it can hold more than 8,500 people!) St. Stephen’s Basilica is one of the city’s most iconic structures. Wander through the ornate building, admiring the religious reliefs and even getting a glimpse of St. Stephen himself: the mummified right hand of the first King of Hungary is kept in a case alongside the main altar. Once you get your fill of wandering through the main structure, be sure to climb upstairs to take in the beautiful sites from the top of the cupola!
9. Explore the edgy, cool culture of the Jewish Quarter
Packed with modern restaurants, cafes, and edgy bars, the Jewish Quarter holds some of the best food spots in the city. Even if the bar scene isn’t your cup of tea, you will most certainly want to check out the Szimpla Kert, the city’s most famous ‘ruin bar’ (pictured above). A huge building with an open courtyard, a maze of rooms, and tons of funky furniture and artwork, the Szimpla Kert will give you a taste of the modern youth culture of the city (and is, therefore, a great place to people watch, as well!). A trip to the Jewish Quarter (and to the Szimpla Kert, specifically) is an experience to behold for every traveler to this city!
10. Visit the House of Terror Museum
Even if you are not a history buff, you’ll want to take the time to visit this jarring and informative museum located on the Pest side of the city. After all, the House of Terror is not your average, run-of-the-mill history museum. Once the headquarters of the Hungarian Secret Police (similar to the KGB in Russia), the Terror Museum contains countless exhibitions that document the key events that shaped Hungary’s history, including the Stalinist and fascist regimes. During those dark times, the building served as the central location for brutal interrogations and torture of political dissidents. Today, its exhibits serve to educate the public on the city’s history — not only to honor the victims, but to make sure we prevent such events from occurring again in our lifetimes.
With so much history, culture, and beauty, it can be hard to choose what to do in Budapest— but with these tips, you will be sure to have an incredible (and transformative) experience in this iconic Central European capital!
What will be your first stop in Budapest? Let us know in the comments — and to begin planning your trip to Budapest, take a look at our Eastern Europe Expedition!