Budapest, the capital of Hungary, is one of my favourite cities in eastern Europe. Divided into two parts, Buda and Pest, by the Danube river, both parts of the city have a unique character and are easy to explore on foot and public transport. There are many things to do in Budapest, from simply strolling around to admire the many architectural styles to soaking in a hot thermal bath and mingling with locals at one of the ruin bars. The city can trace its history back to Roman times and over the centuries has seen many powers, such as the Mongols and Ottomans, come and go. In the 15th and 19th centuries, the city was an important centre of culture in Europe. During the Cold War, under the realm of the Soviet Union, Hungary became a Communist People’s Republic, a status which ended in 1991. The legacy of this long and often tempestuous history can still be seen today, making Budapest a great city to visit for those interested in European history and culture.
Things to do in Budapest
There are countless things to do in Budapest (map) but I’ve chosen twelve which I would not hesitate to recommend, especially if it’s your first time in Budapest.
1. Stroll around the Castle Hill quarter
The Castle Hill quarter is one of the major touristic highlights in Budapest. Home to the grand Buda Castle (a massive 18th century palace complex in the baroque style) and other iconic monuments such as the Fisherman’s Bastion and the Matthias Church, the Castle Hill quarter shouldn’t be missed for a variety of reasons. The many architectural styles, from medieval to baroque and neoclassical, is a joy to see. In addition, the panoramic views of the Danube river and Pest are simply stunning.
- Join a guided tour of Buda Castle with a historian.
- Join a walking tour of the Castle Hill district, including a visit to the Matthias Church.
To avoid the crowds, I recommend visiting in the early mornings or late-afternoons/early-evenings. In the evenings, you’ll get to see the beautifully-lit buildings such as the Buda Castle as well as the Parliament Building across the river. Furthermore, most tourists congregate around the castle and the Holy Trinity Square/Fisherman’s Bastion. Leaving these areas behind, you’ll find quiet streets and shady lanes lined by beautiful houses.
2. Soak in a historic thermal bath
It’s said that people started to settle in what is now Budapest because of the abundance of thermal springs. The first baths were constructed around the 2nd century AD during the Roman times, but it wasn’t till the Turks occupied the city in the 16th century that the city’s most beautiful baths were built and the thermal bath culture blossomed. The Budapest thermal baths quickly became a place to relax and socialise. Two baths built by the Turks still exist today: Rudas (my favourite) and Király. In addition, there are other famous thermal baths to visit, particularly Gellért and Széchenyi. Visiting one of these baths is definitely one of the most relaxing things to do in Budapest!
- Buy a skip-the-line full-day pass for Szechényi Baths
- Buy a skip-the-line full day pass + VIP massage at Gellért Spa
3. Visit the Hungarian Parliament building
Opened in 1902, the Hungarian Parliament Building is an impressive sight, both outside and inside. As such, a visit to this building is another must-do in Budapest. I recommend joining a tour of the Parliament Building to truly appreciate its history and magnificent architectural details.
4. Learn about the city’s Communist past
For more than 40 years, Hungary was a Communist People’s Republic under the Soviets’ sphere of influence. I’ve been on two history tours in Budapest and enjoyed listening to the guides vividly describing their childhood during the Communist era. Aside from a history tour, one museum to visit is the House of Terror, which is housed in the former headquarters of the Soviet-led State Security Authority, and is dedicated to those who perished during the fascist regimes in the 20th century.
- Join a guided tour of Budapest in Communist times
- Join a half-day tour of life behind the Iron Curtain, including a visit to the House of Terror.
5. Marvel at the eclectic architecture
One of my favourite things to do in Budapest is to walk around and marvel at the many architectural styles. If you look closely, you’ll spot many examples of medieval, Baroque, Ottoman, Gothic, Renaissance, right up to Art Nouveau styles. There are even Roman ruins which can be visited (Aquincum, 3rd District). Budapest truly is an architectural paradise!
Many Gothic or Gothic-inspired examples can be found in the Castle Hill quarter such as the Matthias Church. Renaissance and neo-Classical examples include the National Academy of Sciences, Budapest Opera House and St. Stephens Basilica. You’ll find examples of 16th century Ottoman architecture at the Rudas and Király baths, whilst typical Baroque buildings include Buda Castle and Széchenyi baths.
You’ll also find various examples of Romantic architecture from the late-19th century. The best examples include the Western (Nyugati) and Eastern (Keleti) railway stations and the Great Synagogue.
If you love Art Nouveau architecture (like I do), then you have to visit the Gellért baths and the Museum of Applied Arts (with its incredible roof!).
Join a 3-hour Art Nouveau tour.
6. Join a Danube river cruise
A river cruise is a lovely way to see Budapest as many of its most famous monuments can be found along the banks of the Danube river. In the evenings, the monuments on Castle Hill, the bridges across the Danube and the Parliament Building are bathed in light, making an evening cruise especially attractive. Book a dinner cruise on the Danube.
7. Discover the historic cafés of Budapest
The café culture flourished in Budapest in the late-19th century. During this period, beautiful cafés with ornate interiors became the social hubs for the city’s aristocrats, poets, writers and intellectuals. Some of the cafés that are absolutely worth a visit include Gerbeaud Cafe, Urania Café, Central Café, Museum Café and New York Café. Drop by for a coffee and cake in the early mornings or late-afternoons to see the exquisite interiors of these cafés. If you plan to have a meal, reservations are recommended.
Join a walking guided tour of historic Budapest cafés with an art historian.
8. Have a drink at one of the amazing ruin or retro bars
Budapest has a plethora of bars but two concepts truly stand out: the ruin bars and retro bars. The ruin bars of Budapest rose to prominence with the iconic Szimpla Bar. After World War II, District 7 (the old Jewish quarter) was more or less abandoned, making it the perfect breeding ground for an underground scene. Since the opening of Szimpla Kert, numerous ruin bars have opened in District 7 and the neighbouring areas, making a ruin-bar-hop a fun thing to do in Budapest. Aside from Szimpla Kert, other ruin bars in Districts 6 & 7 include Anker’t, Ellátó Kert, Instant, Fogasház and Doboz. On the Buda side, check out Szatyor Bar (District 11).
Join a 3-hour ruin bar discovery tour.
The retro bars are a delight for those born in the 1960’s – 1980’s as they’re packed with design elements and paraphernalia from that period. We may have grown up in different places around the world but I’m pretty sure a visit to one of the retro bars will feel like a nostalgic trip back to our childhood days for many. Retro bars/cafés to visit include Trabant’60 Retro Bar & Lounge, Csendes Vintage Bar and Ibolya Espresso.
One more bar tip: if you love a good cocktail, check out the Tuk Tuk Bar. This cosy, design bar offers great service and terrific cocktails!
9. Gawk at the splendour of the Great Synagogue
The Dohány Street Synagogue or Great Synagogue in District 7 is the largest synagogue in Europe. A stunning example of Romantic architecture from the 19th century (with prominent Moorish influences), the Great Synagogue is another of my favourite buildings in Budapest. I recommend joining a tour of the Jewish district which includes admission to the Great Synagogue. Get skip-the-line tickets to the Great Synagogue.
10. Hop on one of the world’s oldest metro lines
The Millennium Underground Railway or Metro Line 1 is the oldest metro line in Budapest and the third oldest metro line in the world. Completed in 1896, the M1 line connects Andrássy út in the centre of Pest with Városliget or City Park. It’s a rickety ride but it’s really amazing once you think how old this metro is! Get off at the City Park and visit the Heroes Square, a UNESCO World Heritage site) and the lakeside Vajdahunyad Castle.
11. Experience a concert in one of the city’s historic buildings
The city of Franz Liszt, Budapest is famous for its musical contributions to classical music. Many concerts are held throughout the city every day but join a concert at one of the historic buildings such as the St. Stephens Basilica or the Danube Palace for an enchanting experience.
- Attend a classical music concert at St. Stephens Basilica
- Listen to an organ concert at St. Stephens Basilica
- Attend a classical music concert in the Matthias Church on Castle Hill
- Get tickets for the Budapest Gala Concert.
12. Go caving!
Budapest is probably the only capital city in the world with a large network of natural caves under its streets! Formed by the mineral waters that feed the thermal baths, there are various cave systems which can be visited. If you’re feeling adventurous, join a guided walk through one of the cave systems, with their strange formations, rock pools and cavernous spaces. These are the Castle Cave (under Buda Castle), the Pálvölgyi Cave and the Szemlőhegyi Cave. If you’re an avid scuba diver, you can even go cave-diving at Molnár János Cave, across the road from the Lukacs Baths.
Join an underground caving adventure in Budapest.
There you have it: my top things to do in Budapest! I hope you enjoy your visit to this fabulous city. Ok, one more tip: if you enjoy strolling around markets, check out the Great Market Hall or Central Market at Vámház krt. 1-3 in Pest. Another gorgeous piece of architecture, this market is a joy to explore! While you’re there, make sure to try some of the Hungarian dishes or snacks.
One more foodie tip: for some culinary indulgence, book a table at Borkonyha Winekitchen, a Michelin-starred restaurant in District 5 that serves contemporary cuisine and has an excellent wine list featuring many Hungarian wines.
Read about my Danube river cruise with Avalon Waterways from Budapest to Linz.
Read about my Danube river cruise with Viking Cruises from Budapest to Nuremberg.