The Hungarian capital has everything from art and culture to ruin-bars and blissful spas. Besides, as everywhere else in Hungary, food is delicious. Budapest is one of the most exciting cities in Europe, with many different tourist attractions and things to do. Even if you plan to stay for a weekend or an extended city break, it’s impossible to get bored. We’ve been in Budapest four times already and still have plenty of things on our to do list.
Where to stay in Budapest?
Budapest is a large city divided in two parts, Buda and Pest. It would be useful to stay in a hotel close to the action. It is much easier to get to the city center for a quick snack or a glass of wine without worrying about driving or the hour when time flies by in a ruin bar. Breakfast included also comes in pretty handy. Here are some nice options for every budget:
Find more deals on Budapest hotels and apartments here.
Make your trip easier with Budapest City Card
Budapest city card helps you save money by offering unlimited public transport and free access or discounts to the main attractions in Budapest. The validity of the card varies between 1 and 5 days and there are two options, regular and plus. You can compare the two here. Here are some of the benefits of the card holders:
- a free kürtőskalács at Molnar’s cafe
- 20% off Szechenyi and Rudas baths entrance fees
- a boat cruise on the Legendary Duna Bella
- access to Lukacs Baths
- free entrance to Matthias Church
- admission on the Buda Funicular and the Budapest Castle Bus
- free admission to the Castle Museum
- a Cityrama walking tour of Buda
If you plan to visit several museums and attractions on the list, make your life easier and buy the Budapest Card before your trip.
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Top 15 Must-Visit Attractions and Things to Do in Budapest
1. Buda Castle – must-visit attractions in Budapest
You’ll probably spend most of your time in Pest, but Buda is definitely a must-see also. Here stand some of the best sites in town, the Budapest Castle, Matthias Church and the Instagramable fishermen’s bastion, that resembles the walls of a cidatelle. The hill will also offer you some stunning panoramic views over the Pest side and the beautiful Parliament building. While I do recommend you enter Matthias Church, I’d skip the tower as the steps are steep and narrow and I didn’t find the view better then the one from the terrace of the bastion.
2. Visit the Parliament building – things to do in Budapest
The first time I visited Budapest, the parliament building was closed to the public and I couldn’t visit it. This time, an inside tour was high on my list, but I almost missed it because I hadn’t booked in advance. We were lucky this time, but don’t make my mistake and buy your tickets a few days before the actual visit. With 691 rooms and 365 Gothic turrets, it’s the most memorable building in Budapest and an architectural gem. The tour takes around 40 minutes, but get there before the actual start time because you’ll have to print your tickets first at the reception and check-in. At the end, you can also watch a few films about the history of the building and its maintenance.
3. Take a guided tour of the Dohany Great Synagogue – things to do in Budapest
This is the biggest synagogue in Europe and the second one in the world, after New York. But besides the records, I truly believe you should visit it because of the guided tour. Our guide provided us with a lot of information about Jews, their history in Hungary, Europe and beyond. He also explained us the differences between a traditional synagogue and a neolog one, that resembles more a Catholic church.
As a fun fact, the main conflict between the two groups was the organ, that even today is played by a non-Jew person. The guide also taught us how to recognize a functional synagogue and the role of the Torah.
I loved the tour for all the information, but I also suggest visiting the old synagogue close by for a more traditional view.
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4. St. Stephen’s Basilica – best attractions in Budapest
Visiting the inside of St. Stephen’s Basilica was not on top of my to do list, but after reading about their roof terrace that offers panoramic views of the city and the square below, we decided to give it a chance. (Especially as the tower at Mattias church was a disappointment for us.) This time we went up by elevator, which is included in the price. The views were also better, as the church is right in the middle of the city. At the end, we also decided to enter the church, which was much bigger and more beautiful than we had initially expected.
You can also attend an organ music concert in the majestic St. Stephen’s Basilica! Its acoustic is perfect.
5. Take a Danube River Cruise – things to do in Budapest
Danube is an important part of the city and a cruise along it rewards visitors with some of the most beautiful sights in Budapest. I went on a river cruise in summer, but I also saw the boats floating by in winter. They are covered and heated, so that guests feel comfortable even on a cold day. Audio guides in several languages are also provided.
6. Go ruin bar hopping
Budapest developed a real ruin bar culture over the past few years. Formerly dilapidated buildinga, with a mix of indoor and outdoor space, were extravagantly decorated and now attract masses of curious people looking for cheap drinks and fun. The oldest ruin bar in Szimpla Kert. If you get hungry, you might want to try Mazel Tov, a ruin bar with an Israeli restaurant well-known by locals for its fantastic food. Check out this article to find out which are the best ruin bars you should check out now.
If you want to have even more fun, join a ruin bar tour with a local!
7. Szechenyi Baths – main tourist attractions in Budapest
Budapest is a city of thermal baths. There are several to choose from, but there are two major tourist magnets, Szechenyi and Gellert baths. While they might not be very organized or modern, I still think it is one of the top things to do in Budapest, especially in winter. Can you imagine a better way to end a fun but cold day than soaking in steaming water under the starry sky?
Széchenyi baths are the biggest and the most popular. There are several saunas, steam baths, indoor and outdoor pools of various temperatures. Don’t forget to bring your flip-flops and towels as you can’t rent them there, but only buy.
Skip the line with this pre-paid entry ticket that also includes a palinka tasting.
8. Sample the local food: kurtos, langos and goulash
No trip to a new country is complete without sampling the local food and Hungary shouldn’t be an exception. In fact, one of the most important parts of a trip to Budapest is the food. Traditional Hungarian food is tasty and meat lovers should be prepared for a real feast, but vegetarians will also have a few options.
Goulash – can be cooked as a soup or a stew. The original version contains beef and a lot of paprika. It’s a perfect dish to warm up on a chilly day. It is often served in bread bowls.
Chicken paprikash – another paprika-based dish, but this time with chicken.
Hurkas – this is a kind of sausage that not many people would try. One of the original versions contains pork blood and rice. While this sounds bad, the one with pork liver and rice dipped in horseradish sauce is not that horrible.
Stuffed cabbage – this dish is disputed as traditional by many countries. Romania, Serbia and Hungary are just some of them. Sour cabbage leaves are filled with rice and minced meat seasoned with paprika and topped with sour cream.
Duck and red cabbage – this is another Hungarian gastronomy staple, especially if you add a potato pancake next to it.
Langos – a delicious snack good at any time even for vegetarians. Make sure the dough is freshly fried and add garlic, sour cream and cheese on it. If you visit St. Stephen’s Basilica market (and of course you will), you might also want to check out Retro Langos, especially if you’re not a vegetarian, as they have many more “meaty” toppings to choose from.
Kürtőskalács – you can leave Hungary without trying a kürtőskalács (better known as a chimney cake). This is a sweet pastry roasted over charcoals, caramelized and rolled in cinnamon, crushed walnuts, coconut flakes or raspberry. I personally think ice cream or chocolate ruins it, as it changes its texture, and I love it as a breakfast replacement. But this is just my opinion.
Beigli – a traditional walnut or poppy seeds roll served in many Hungarian families at Christmas and Easter as a special treat for generations.
9. Wander around the City Park and go ice skating on Europe’s largest outdoor ice skating rink in winter
A little farther away from the city center, but right next to Szechenyi Baths lies the City Park, one of the green lungs of Budapest and a favorite among the locals when the weather is nice. In the park, you can also see Vajdahunyad Castle, that’s said to resemble the Huniade Castle in Hunedoara.
The Christmas markets in Budapest are beautiful, but even if some of them have an ice rink, it’s usually too small to move around. For an ice skating experience in Budapest, your best bet is the City Park Ice Rink. This one is huge, has an old tradition and a romantic setting. It was first opened in December 1876 and since then it became one of the locals’ favorite winter activities. In the evening, the sparkling lights and the view of the Vajdahunyad Castle make gliding here a magical thing to do. It’s also considered the largest ice skating rink in Europe. The rink is usually open from November until February. Don’t worry if you didn’t bring your skates, as you can rent a pair right there.
The city park is close to Szechenyi Baths and Heroes’ Square, two other places you might want to check out.
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10. Heroes Square – main attractions in Budapest
Heroes’ Square marks the end of the elegant Andrássy Avenue. It feels more like a memorial than a traditional square. Its arcades are filled with statues of Hungarians kings and historical figures. In the center, stands a pillar topped by a statue of Angel Gabriel holding the Hungarian crown. At the bottom of it, there’s the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The impressive buildings on the sides of the square are art galleries.
11. Gellert Hill – best attractions in Budapest
The Liberty Statue on Gellert Hill can be seen from both sides of the Danube from far away. It is one of the fer Communist statues that remained in situ after the transition to democracy. The statue was set on the hill in 1947 to commemorate the Soviet soldiers that died while liberating Hungary. But it now honors all those who lost their lives fighting for the independence of Hungary. Even today, it is one of the most emblematic sights in the city.
The views from the top of the hill, just underneath the statue, are some of the best in Budapest. The ruins of the citadelle are on the same hill and one can visit them.
12. Take a tour of the Hospital in the Rock
The underground hospital was founded in the Second World War by merging several natural caves under Castle Hill by manmade tunnels. Later on, it was used again during the Revolution in 1956. After that, a part of it was converted into a potential nuclear bunker, fortunately never used.
For decades the entire site was kept as a secret. But now one can tour it accompanied by a guide. The underground hospital was enhanced with wax figures in order to better reproduce the atmosphere and make it easier for the visitors to understand what medicine was like in the ’40s and ’50s.
It is one of the most unusual attraction in Budapest and one that should not be missed by anybody interested in history.
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13. Pinball Museum – attractions in Budapest
For a fun and at the same time unique evening in Budapest, head to the Flippermuseum or Pinball museum. In a basement, there’s a collection of around 140 vintage arcade machines and old-school games. Some of them date back to the 1880s. If you’ve played pinball on a computer in childhood, but never saw a real one, this is a great opportunity to see lots of them. Each one has its unique design and rules.
Once you pay the entry fee, you can stay as long as you like, leave and reenter for an entire day. And you can play on as many of them as you like. It’s not very crowded either and there seemed to be many locals on a cheerful evening out. We can also say it was pretty cheap for all the fun we had there.
14. Try an Unicum distillery tour and tasting – things to do in Budapest
Unicum is the traditional drink of Hungary. It was invented in 1783 by Dr. Zwack and is made by distilling 40 different herbs and condiments from around the world. When he presented it to the emperor, the legend says that he exclaimed “Dr. Zwack, das ist ein Unicum”, giving the unique drink its name.
The distillery is pretty old and it is still run by the Zwack family successors. But the family had some difficult times, especially during the war. The distillery was taken by the state and a part of the family left to America.
On a tour of the distillery you can find out the history of the drink and the Zwack family and taste the 4 different types of Unicum made today: original, with plums, with coffee and with sweet Tokaj wine. What you won’t find out is the recipe, as nobody except the family members knows it. It’s a rather strange drink, that might not suit your tastes, but it’s part of the Hungarian culture and a nice tour.
15. A half-day trip from Budapest to Szentendre
Just 40 minutes from the center of Budapest, lies Szentendre, a lovely village with cobblestone streets and colorful houses. This is a perfect half a day trip from Budapest. The area is known for local artists and craft producers. This is the place where you’ll find iconic Hungarian souvenirs and unique pieces. There are also several small restaurants and cozy cafes where you can eat traditional dishes and have a drink.
Walk along the narrow, cobbled streets and discover boutique shops and handicrafts. It has many baroque buildings, churches, and colorful houses. If you have time, you can also visit the marzipan or the miniatures museum. Don’t miss the opportunity to sample some strawberry wine and maybe buy a bottle for home.
As you can see, there are many tourist attractions and things to do in Budapest. Enough to fill up more than one city break in Budapest. We’re aware that we left out many of them, some intentionally and some because we didn’t get to check them out yet either. But there’s one more reason to visit Budapest again and enjoy what it has to offer.
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