[updated August 2019]
There are many reasons to visit Budapest — Roman baths, architecture, & the second largest synagogue in the world. I fell for the progressive vibe of this culture-rich city. Here are the best things to do in Budapest from myself and some fellow travel bloggers.
After a restless, noisy ride on an overnight train, in a car I shared with a rather large, snoring Hungarian woman, I arrived un-refreshed in Budapest. But no time to rest as now it was time for me to hit the ground running and discover the best things to do in Budapest.
This city of nearly 2 million straddles Europe’s mighty Danube River with nine stately bridges connecting the two sides. It originally was three separate cities: Obuda, Buda, and Pest. Buda is built on the hills of the western side, while the considerably larger Pest spreads out flat as a pancake on the river’s opposite bank.
Over the years, it has belonged to many — Romans, Turks, Hapsburg-Austrians, Soviets — and it was not until 1991, when the last Soviet troops left the country, that Hungary began to rebuild its full market economy and Budapest became the thriving modern city that it is today.
The Best Things to Do in Budapest
During my visit, summer was in full swing here complete with outdoor festivals, live music, and even fireworks rocketing off from several bridges in a wonderful spectacle celebrating their first King during the national holiday of St. Stephen’s Day.
Two things I’d noticed in Eastern Europe and Budapest in particular that I hadn’t seen for awhile (as I worked my way around the world from East to West):
1. Women are wearing shorts, in many cases ‘short shorts.’ It is definitely a less conservative, more free atmosphere than most countries to the east.
2. Many people are on two wheels around the city — not just for transport, like all over Asia, but for exercise and leisure. Hungary now has more than 2500 kilometers of bike lanes around the country, many of which are in Budapest.
Budapest Bike Tour
To get an overview of the city, I took a four-hour bike tour. This is really one of the best things to do in Budapest because it gives you a great overview of the city and feels like a local way to take it all in.
We pedaled high atop the ‘Buda’ side of the city to what is known as ‘Castle Hill,’ a UNESCO-designated ‘hood bursting with history, narrow cobblestone streets, a 13th-century church, and, of course the Royal Palace.
Back down the hill and across the Danube one of the main thoroughfares of Pest is Andrássy street. This grand boulevard, in the same vein as the Champs-Elysees, extends over a mile, getting grander, greener, and less commercial the farther down it goes. Like much of Pest, the boulevard was constructed in the late 19th century, and its pedigree shows.
Underneath it lies the European continent’s first metro line, opened in 1896, while above ground are scores of gorgeous late 19th century buildings. The street ends with a bang at Heroes’ Square chock full of grand statues perched high atop Greek and Roman columns.
Take a Bath in Budapest
For a nice reprieve from the hot days of sightseeing, I made a trip to one of Budapest’s dozen or so baths. There are about one hundred natural hot springs all around the area feeding natural ‘spas’ that have been used since the time of the ancient Romans. One of the nicest is Gellert Baths. It is basically a beautiful complex of several pools of varying temperatures where you can soak in the medicinal waters and laze the day away on lounge chair.
Thermal baths are an essential part of Hungarian culture. If you visit one spa in Budapest, let it be Szechenyi Baths for authenticity and fun of bathing in outdoor pools.
Szechenyi Baths has 18 pools and nine saunas or steam rooms. Three stunning outdoor swimming pools stay open all year round. Visiting Szechenyi Baths in winter is an unforgettable experience. Picture soaking in steaming hot, thermal water on a crisp, snowy day. Local men play chess calmly while snow lands on their bare hands, while tourists prefer to play in the whirlpool area with only their head upon the warm water. Pool temperatures vary between 20C and 38C.
Szechenyi Baths is located by City Park on the Pest side. Book your tickets in advance to skip the long lines. Bring your own swimming suit, towel, flip flops, and water bottle. There are indoor café and outdoor kiosk by the pools selling hot and cold drinks. Day ticket with a locker cost 5700 Ft and slightly more with a private changing cabin. Massages are available at a separate cost.
Recommended by Niina Lehikoinen of Bizarre Globe Hopper.
As many already know, Budapest is divided by the river Danube into two parts, namely Buda and Pest. The former is my favourite when it comes to having a walk in the city. I like visiting the castle and getting lost in the old streets of the hill.
But the very best highlight of Buda is Matthias Church. Located in Szemantharomsag ter, it stands in front of the likewise famous Fisherman’s Bastion.
Originally built in the thirteenth century and named after the Virgin Mary, the church took its current name from King Matthias, who rebuilt it in the fifteenth century. Both his weddings were later celebrated here. The church was part of many important events of the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including coronations and royal weddings.
Famous composer Franz Liszt wrote and directed the music for the coronation of Franz Joseph in 1867. The acoustics of the church are perfect and there are pipe organ concerts all year.
But the best part of the church is outside. Arriving from an old paved road surrounded by historical buildings, you can see the building at the end. You will immediately recognize the eighty meters-tall tower and the tiles that create beautiful drawings on the roof. Once in front of the church, try and spot a crow, symbol of King Matthias.
Recommended by Mario Migliore of Rest and Recuperation.
Danube River Cruise
One of the best things to include on your Budapest itinerary is take a cruise down the Danube River which splits Buda and Pest — and it’s even better if you cruise at sunset or at night!
I suggest picking a boat cruise where you can depart just as the sun is setting, so that you can see all the beautiful colors in the sky reflected in the water and the lights come on all across Budapest. By the end of your Danube river cruise, everything should be all lit up and you’ll see Budapest glittering from the water — the Budapest Parliament House is especially beautiful from the water at night. A night cruise lasts anywhere from 1-2 hours and costs as little as $10 USD, with more luxurious tours with drinks or even dinner costing more like $80 USD for a candlelit dinner cruise. Some of the buildings and landmarks you’ll pass on your cruise include the Gellert Baths, the Parliament House, the Szechenyi Chain Bridge, and the Liberty Bridge.
Recommended by Allison Green of Sofiaadventures.com.
Another great way to see Budapest is on a longer European river cruise. You can take the Viking Grand European Tour River Cruise which starts in Budapest on the Danube and then connects up with the Rhine river and ends in Amsterdam.
A Street Art Tour
I am a huge fan of street art and was surprised to find that Budapest is bursting with fabulous murals, statues and unusual street art all over the city.
The best area to find most of the street art in Budapest is in the Jewish Quarter. I took a free street art tour arranged through my hostel, but there are other street art tours you can join. You can just as easily walk around on your own if you don’t want to know the meaning behind the artwork, but I would suggest taking a tour if you can.
Some of the street art has important messages, like a colourful mural to commemorate the people who helped thousands of Jews escape the holocaust by giving them fake passports. Other murals show a famous Hungarian footballer, a map of Budapest and a Rubik’s cube – one of the best-known Hungarian inventions.
The street art isn’t just about murals though, there are also lots of tiny bronze sculptures all around the city, which are easily missed if you don’t know what to look for. I had a lot of fun hunting down the sculptures, including a man with a bicycle, Hungarian cartoon characters, a tank and another Rubik’s cube!
Recommended by Claire Sturzaker, Tales of a Backpacker
Budapest’s Ruin Bars
Concentrated in district VII, Budapest ruin bars are some of the most unique places to see in the city. These once abandoned buildings have been transformed into a mix of bars, restaurants, creative centers, and generally fun places to hang out.
Each ruin bar has an ambiance all its own. From funky to taqueria to outdoor garden party, there is a wide variety to choose from, so it’s not hard for visitors to find one that’s appealing.
The most famous ruin pub is Szimpla Kert. Its eclectic décor includes disco balls, old computer monitors, and lots of other seemingly random items stuck on the walls. You can enjoy your drinks and bites to eat sitting in an old Trabant parked in the courtyard or perched on a pommel horse near the door. In addition to its typical bar business, Szimpla was designed as a community space and hosts movie screenings, special events, and a weekly market.
If Szimpla’s unconventional vibe doesn’t appeal to you, consider visiting Mazel Tov, which has lots of skylights and greenery that make it feel more like a chic café than “ruined” bar. Alternatively, enjoy the hammock swings at Koleves Kert, try the tacos at Ellato Kert, or explore one of the other numerous options.
Recommended by Laura Longwell of the Travel Addicts.
Budapest’s Central Market Hall
A visit to the iconic Central Market Hall is a must-do in Budapest. Also known as The Great Hall or Nagycsarnok in Hungarian, the city’s biggest enclosed food market was built in 1897 and restored in 1994.
As you approach from the Danube Embankment, the first thing you notice is the market’s sparkling roof. It’s made from Zsolnay tiles, the same kind that decorate churches in Vienna, Zagreb, Novi Sad, and other cities in the region. This, plus the high interior ceilings, give the Market Hall the nickname ‘Cathedral in iron’. But the only thing being worshipped here is delicious Hungarian food!
The hall originally had a canal running through its center so that barges could deliver produce to stallholders directly. Now, a wide walkway runs through the middle of the atrium. Vendors are spread over three floors and trade in fresh fruit and veg, cheese, preserved meats and wine.
Look out for Hungarian pickles, sausages, quark, local produce such as wax peppers, and stalls decorated with mountains of sweet paprika or strung with an impossible number of salami sticks. Spice packets and embroidered kitchen textiles make for great souvenirs.
On the upper floor, you’ll find a line of cafes cooking up langos (see below!), goulash and other snacks for hungry shoppers.
The best way to get to the market is by taking tram 2 to Liberty Bridge. Everything is undercover, making it a great activity for rainy afternoons or hot summer days. It’s open Monday to Saturday from 6am (closed Sundays). Saturday, when most locals do their shopping, is considered the best day to visit for people-watching. Entrance is free, or you can book an official market tour, which start from 18 Euros.
Recommended by Emily of Wander-Lush.
Eat Langos at Retro
When people hear traditional Hungarian food, the first thing they think of is goulash. It’s the delicious dish the Hungarians have given to the world.
There’s another Hungarian dish, lesser known than goulash that is uniquely Hungarian. Often referred to as “Communist pizza,” langos should be at the top of any list of best cheap eats in Budapest. With many cheap eats options in the city, nothing says Hungarian street food like langos.
So what is langos? Langos is a circular dough that is deep-fried and topped with shredded cheese and gooey sour cream. Popular all times of the day, but especially at late night, langos is the perfect dish to eat on the go.
Today, many places have started to get creative and you can find langos topped with all sorts of tastiness – even Nutella. Traditionally topped with only cheese, savory toppings now include ham and garlic butter – both yum!
One of the best places to sample langos is Retro. Retro is a food stand near the Arany Janos metro station specializing in langos. A traditional langos topped with sour cream and cheese costs 490 Hungarian Forint or $1.50. They are open in the wee hours of the morning for people exploring the Budapest Ruin Bars.
Recommended by Amber Hoffman from Food And Drink Destinations.
New York Café Budapest
As mentioned above, Budapest is split into Buda and Pest, with the stunning river Danube running through it. Buda is the highlight for many travelers as most of the UNESCO Heritage sites are located there. But don’t leave out the Pest area from your Budapest Itinerary – you can’t miss the stunning New York Café Budapest.
New York Café is a heritage restaurant that has witnessed so many pages of history. Opening in 1894, the café has seen many historical events in Budapest and finally in the 20th century, it was re-vamped to be a popular hang out place for the writers and artists. <
Having gone through two World Wars and many internal uprisings, it’s quite a special place that has still retained its grandeur and luxurious feel.
It’s good to note though that food items from the New York Café are not typically “budget” friendly. For a cappuccino you can expect to spend 5 euros. However, a cappuccino and a slice of cake is worth it to enjoy a lovely evening, a date night, or even just to snap that instragammable photo!
Recommended by Mayuri of To Some Place New.
On my round the world trip, as I got farther west into Europe (coming from the east), I started to notice a greater mix of cultures and ethnicities than I’d seen in many countries in South America, Southeast Asia, and Turkey.
And I was finally in a place where I completely blended in. Hungary was also a place where the Jews of the 20th century blended in. It was progressive in the fact that Jews here were part of society like anyone else and were simply considered Hungarian and were assimilated into the fabric of life.
That’s why it was all the more shocking for them when the horrors of the Nazis finally reached Hungary toward the end of WWII.
Built in 1859, the Dohány Street Synagogue, also known as the Great Synagogue, in Budapest is Europe’s largest synagogue and the second largest in the world (after Temple Emanuel in New York City). It holds 3000 people seated and can swell to 6000 during the high holy days when it is standing room only.
During WWII, the Gestapo literally housed its local headquarters inside the temple which ironically is one of the reasons the building itself survived.
Check here for ideas on where to stay in Budapest.
The Hungarian Nazi party, the Arrow Cross, seized control over the country in October 1944. For a chilling view into this time, I highly recommend visiting the Terror House Museum. It was one of the most powerful museums I’ve ever visited. With sights, sounds and various media, the museum takes you through the dark times when Hungary was under Nazi and Communist rule.
The new government began slaughtering the Jews immediately, killing 600 people in the first days… and eventually 600,000. Papers and certificates allowing Jews to stay and work in the city were no longer valid.
50,000 Jewish men were forced on a death march to dig fortifications against the approaching Soviet army. The area surrounding the synagogue became the ‘Jewish Ghetto,’ similar to many all over Europe at the time, where about 70,000 Jews were forced to live in a very small area behind a fence and could not leave. In all, over 50% of the Jews of Budapest perished in the Holocaust. At its height, the Jewish population of Hungary numbered close to one million, but the Holocaust and emigration has reduced that to around 100,000, most of whom live in Budapest and its suburbs.
It wasn’t until 1991 that the reconstruction and renovation work was done in the Great Synagogue; thanks in large part to American actor Tony Curtis (born as Bernard Schwartz) whose Jewish father had left his home country of Hungary to find a better life in America. Today, Budapest has the third largest Jewish community in Europe after France and the UK with about 100,000 people.
Memento Park is an incredible open air museum located a little outside the center of Budapest. After the fall of communism in Hungary the people were left with countless soviet era propaganda statues and iconography. Instead of simply destroying these sculptures the decision was made to display them in an open air museum and Memento Park was born.
It’s important to acknowledge that the park is not a celebration of Communism, but instead the celebration of the fall of communism in Hungary.
The park is full of huge bronze and stone statues. A replica of the remains of Stalin’s boots sit at the entrance. One of the most famous statue’s in the park is the Republic of Councils Monument, commonly referred to as the Cloakroom attendant.
There are some interesting things to do at Memento park. An old Trabi car at the entrance is a popular spot for photos. Or one can dial in on a phone and listen to the communist hotline which replays speeches of communist leaders. The gift shop is another highlight and sells unique items relating to the communist era.
Due to its location, the easiest way to visit Memento Park by taxi. A more fun option is to hire scooters from the city centre like we did. There is also a bus which goes once a day from downtown Budapest at 11am each day.
Recommended by Elaine & David of Show Them The Globe.
One of the most amusing things I did while in Budapest was the Trabi Retro Tour! What is a Trabi? A Trabi is short for Trabant – a mini East German car. Think Berlin in the 1950s. These cars are the symbol of East German Communism. With over 3 million of these petite cars built from the 1950s to the 1990s, the model of the vehicle barely changed at all in over 40 years! But more than that, they are so much fun to ride around Budapest in! The waves, stares, and photographs taken of you and your group as 10 Trabants in a convoy drive down the streets of Budapest will entertain you as well!
This tour is great for a group of people, as Go Trabi Tours has a fleet of them – in fact, the largest collection of them in Europe in every color and size under the sun! So once they pick your group up, you are off on a RETRO tour of Budapest, seeing everything that reminds you of the old communist-era from the past. “Pit stops” include places like the Trabant Retro Lounge & Bar, famous ruin bars, and even Momento Park – which is the place where communist statues go to die! This is a great way to spend a few hours in Budapest and learn a bit of history at the same time.
Go Trabi Tours – Cost 99 Euros for 1 ½ hours
Recommended by Dr. Cacinda Maloney of PointsandTravel.com.
Golden Eagle Pharmacy Museum
The collection on display in the first room shows important documents used in the old pharmacy, often coming from other countries, too, and several tools used in the profession. Some of the objects on display are scales, finely decorated bowls and glass jars for herbs and concoctions, mortars, books, and the counter for selling the products as well as the drawers to keep them.
I really loved this city. There’s so much to see and do, I definitely would like to return. Head here for some more ideas on the best things to do in Budapest.