From soaking in muscle-melting waters at centuries-old thermal baths to romantic meeting points above the city or traveling back in time at a 19th-century coffeehouse, there are plenty of fantastic experiences to be had in Budapest.
Here are some of the best things to do on a trip to Hungary’s vibrant capital.
Visit Budapest’s neo-Gothic Parliament building
Budapest’s neo-Gothic Parliament building dominates the curve of the Danube and is a true postcard superstar. It houses the Holy Crown (used to crown the country’s monarchs since the 12th century), as well as other royal jewels. English guided tours are available, but it’s best to book ahead.
Not too far from Parliament, you’ll find one of the city’s most moving memorials – the Shoes on the Danube. The poignant monument honors the victims of the Holocaust who were marched to the riverbank on a dark winter’s day and ordered to remove their shoes before being shot and falling into the fast-flowing river beneath.
Soak at one of the city’s incredible thermal spas
Budapest sits on a patchwork of thermal springs – mineral-rich water spouts from the ground – hence the abundance of thermal spas, many dating back to Turkish times. These waters are said to be capable of curing just about anything, and soaking in a thermal pool is an unmissable Budapest experience.
The world-famous Széchenyi Baths is the biggest spa complex in Europe, and while the location is certainly a “tourist trap”, its majestic architectural elements and outside pools still make it an unmissable place to visit.
But if you prefer more peaceful plunging and stunningly colorful ceramic tiles, Szechenyi Baths and Gellért Baths (temporarily closed for renovations beginning September 1, 2022) are fabulous choices. Other spas dotted throughout Budapest also hold special amenities, such as a rooftop hot tub at Rudas Baths or a private bath at Király.
Explore the Castle District
The Buda side’s rolling hills are crowned by the former Royal Palace, one of the city’s most emblematic landmarks. Razed and rebuilt several times through the ages, today it houses the Hungarian Natural Gallery and major temporary exhibitions.
Other iconic landmarks, such as Fishermen’s Bastion with an unparalleled panorama to Pest’s skyline over the Danube. The gothic Matthias Church is steps away on twisting cobble-stoned streets.
For coffee and cake, be sure to stop by Ruszwurm, the longest-running confectionery in Hungary. For a quirky experience, visit the Hospital in the Rock Museum, which was once a functioning hospital beneath the Royal Palace. The vintage funicular – one of the oldest funicular railways in the world – whisks you up to the palace in minutes. Alternatively, hop on Bus 16, which has many stops throughout the city or just hike up (it’s not as far as it seems, we promise).
Take a ride through downtown on Tram 2
Frequently cited as the most panoramic tram journey in the world, Tram 2 travels all along the Danube shore between the Margaret Bridge (Jászai Mari tér) and south Pest. It chugs alongside everything you need to see in downtown, all for the price of a regular public transport ticket.
A boat trip serves as a lovely alternative. If you don’t want to spend money on a sightseeing cruise, you can use the public boats with a regular transport ticket.
See the religious relics of the Basilica
The ornate St Stephen’s Basilica is the city’s biggest church, found steps away from Deák Square. The Basilica hides inside the country’s most revered (and eerie) religious relics – the embalmed right hand of St Stephen, the founding king of Hungary. Climb the 193 steps (or take the lift) to the basilica’s dome for some of the best views of Budapest.
Stroll along Andrássy Avenue and City Park
Full of fancy shops, cafes and gorgeous buildings, tree-lined Andrássy Avenue is Budapest’s version of the Champs Élysées. It begins behind the basilica and stretches all the way to Heroes’ Square, one of the city’s most famous monuments. Along the way, you’ll see the Hungarian State Opera and the harrowing House of Terror Museum, the former headquarters of the secret police, where victims of cruel regimes were once tortured.
The Millennium Underground, the oldest metro in continental Europe, runs the whole length of Andrássy should you find the walk too long. Where the avenue ends, City Park begins. The Pest side’s biggest park is home to a rowboat-filled lake, which is an ice rink in winter, fairy-tale Vajdahunyad Castle and Széchenyi Baths.
Have a coffee at a historical coffeehouse
Budapest’s coffee-drinking culture dates back centuries, and its classic coffeehouses are a sight to behold. Many were cradles of culture and haunts for Hungary’s literary greats. The most prominent is New York Café, once chosen as the most beautiful coffeehouse in the world, where gilded and marble surfaces, crimson colors, crystals, frescoes, chandeliers and often live Hungarian music bring back that fin-de-siècle finesse. Gerbeaud Café, Hadik or Centrál are equally great choices for a trip back in time.
See the city from a viewpoint or rooftop bar
With the curving Danube, beautiful bridges, stunning landmarks and a fin-de-siécle façade, Budapest is especially beautiful – and photogenic – from up above. If you fancy a bit of a walk, climb up to the Citadella and Budapest’s Statue of Liberty on Gellért Hill for a rewarding view. If you’d rather sit back with a drink and enjoy a front-row seat to all of Budapest, try any of the city’s many rooftop bars. Note: Several areas of the Citadella are currently under renovation until late 2022 or 2023 and are closed to guests at this time.
Spend a day on Margaret Island
Margaret Island is Budapest’s biggest green oasis – accessible by foot from the middle of yellow Margaret Bridge. The whole island is a huge park, home to the ruin of a medieval church, a lovely Japanese garden, century-old towering trees and endless picnics.
The centerpiece is a large fountain that lights up and “dances” to music every hour from spring to winter – the 9pm show is enhanced with a multimedia screening that displays images of Hungary’s greats projected onto a water curtain.
See the distinctive architecture of the Great Synagogue
The largest Jewish place of worship outside New York City, the Moorish-style Great Synagogue is one of Budapest’s most eye-catching buildings. Built in 1859, the distinctive structure, with its crenellated red-and-yellow glazed-brick facade and two enormous towers, stands next to the Hungarian Jewish Museum. In the courtyard is the poignant Holocaust Tree of Life Memorial, designed by sculptor Imre Varga.
Experience the best nightlife at ruin pubs and garden clubs
Budapest’s nightlife is world famous and a visit during the long, hot summer is not complete without an evening in one of the city’s many so-called kertek, literally “gardens” but in Budapest any outdoor spot that has been converted into an entertainment zone. These often rough-and-ready venues, including courtyards, rooftops and romkocsmák (ruin pubs) that rise phoenix-like from abandoned buildings, can change from year to year and are seasonal, but some of the more successful ones, like Szimpla Kert, are now permanent and open year-round.
Explore history in Memento Park
Containing statues and other memorials from the communist past, Memento Park can only be described as a cemetery of socialist mistakes, or a well-manicured trash heap of history. In southern Buda, it’s home to about four-dozen statues, busts and plaques of Lenin, Marx and home-grown henchmen like Béla Kun. Ogle the socialist-realist “art” and try to imagine that some of the monstrosities were still being erected in the late 1980s and in place until the early 1990s.
Ride the rails in the Buda Hills
They may be short on sights – though Béla Bartók’s house, where he spent his final year in Hungary, is open to visitors here – but the Buda Hills are a very welcome respite from the hot, dusty city in the warmer months. Perhaps their biggest draws are their unusual forms of transport: a narrow-gauge cog railway dating from the late 19th century will get you up into the hills, a train run by children takes you across them and a chairlift will glide you back down to terra firma.