There are few cities in Europe that still hold a sense of mystique, promises of the nostalgic days where opulent journeys via the Orient Express were the way to travel.
We love stopping off in cities where the Ottomans left their mark with their fezzes and mineral baths, where artists and musicians would congregate to create the next masterpiece or just drink and smoke the afternoon away, where spending the day at outdoor cafes told the world that you were Bohemian.
Budapest still holds that allure, and for good reason. Just walking down the boulevards and seeing the amazing baroque architecture starts to transport you back to those days of old.
We love this city, and after being there a few times, we’ve compiled our list of the best things to do, see, and of course eat in Budapest! The thing is, though, to get the most out of this city you might want to check out this Budapest in 5 days itinerary as well.
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What Are The Best Things To Do In Budapest?
Walk Around the Iconic Parliament Building
This shimmering white palace-like building in Budapest’s 5th District is one of the most well-known in Budapest. The Hungarian Parliament is surrounded by green space and sculptures. It’s a great place to gawk, but it’s so reflective that you will need your sunglasses!
Address: H-1055 Budapest, Kossuth tér 1-3.
Ride the River
The Danube. The second longest river in Europe, it has always provided an economic reason for the cities along it to thrive. Because of this mighty river and the defensive hills of Buda, Aquincum was founded in 35 BC by the Romans and continued to grow throughout the centuries. The Budapest, as we know it, combined three communities in 1873. At any rate, there is no argument that the Danube continues to be a vital part of the city. There are many ways to take a ride on the river, either by private boat, dinner cruise, or even by taxi. A dinner cruise is the most romantic and seeing the lights shine on the river is breath-taking, but taking a taxi is so cheap you can do it multiple times seeing the river in all lights. It’s one of the best ways to get photos of the city (if you want more photography spots for Budapest check this out).
Visit the Baths
The mineral rich waters in and around Budapest have been famous for centuries, leading to the nickname “City of Baths”. The Ottomans knew what they were doing when they built all of their beautiful baths in the city, and the tradition just continued after they left. Our favorite is the art-deco Gellert bath with its selection of pools with varying temperatures. There’s even a wave pool for the young and young at heart. Every trip we want to visit a different bath since they are all so unique. Check prices or book your next stay at the Gellert, right now!
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See the Changing of the Guards at Buda Castle
Every hour, the guards go through a short ceremony, so no matter when you visit, make sure you stop by to see them. This tradition was abolished during the Soviet rule, and it has only been since 2003 that the tradition has been revived. The Buda castle grounds also host a few cafes, a history museum, and the National Gallery, so it’s a great place to spend a few hours. We went during winter, which was perfect, because it was too cold to be outside for long. I would definitely head up here during the rain as well, and save some of the other sights for fine weather.
Address: Szent György tér 2. Take Tram 2.
Take the Funicular up Castle Hill
At the end of the Chain Bridge is the funicular. Living in Germany and traveling all around Europe, Jim and I always try to find a funicular up to a great view of the city! The Budavári Sikló takes you up to the castle and an expansive viewpoint to see the city laid out before you. It’s a great spot to get a panoramic shot of the cityscape, especially at night. The funicular was built and opened in 1870, but was destroyed in the Second World War. After extensive renovations and reconstruction it was reopened in 1986 matching, as closely as possible the original design.
Address: 1072 Budapest, Akácfa u. 15. Take tram 2.
Go for a Ride on the Children’s Railway
From selling the tickets, to changing the tracks, waving the flags, herding the passengers, and even selling souvenirs, just about every job on the Budapest Children’s train is done by the students. Of course they are not allowed to drive the train, so the engineer not only drives but he oversees the children and teaches them all about locomotion.
To get there: Take the 56, 56A, 59B, or 61 tram or the 61 bus to Hűvösvölgy stop then ride the children’s railway to Széchenyi-hegy, Gyermekvasút where you can take the 60 tram back into town.
One of the most popular Hungarian snack foods, lángos is making its way across Europe and you can try them in many fairs and festivals. We had ours on the top floor of the Great Market Hall, which has quite a few amazing and inexpensive places to eat. Lángos is basically fried bread. We would sell it in the states with powdered sugar on it at fairs, but in Hungary it has mostly savory toppings. I had one with my two favorite food groups: cheese and sour cream! It was pretty darn good!
Relive the Days of the Bohemian Artist
Grab a seat at a coffee salon – Budapest has a long history of people lounging in coffee shops. It used to be the de rigeur for any Bohemian, be they artists, musicians, or writers. The coffee shops are decked out in baroque splendor, and sitting down in jeans made me feel underdressed. The cases of pastries and chocolates made my head twirl, but we rose to the occasion and ordered a cake and coffee in the Gerbeaud Cafe. In this 150 year old cafe, one of the oldest and most famous in Europe, you can truly experience the splendor and opulence of the past. Stop in for a slice of the world famous Gerbeaud cake. You won’t be disappointed.
Address: 1051 Budapest Vörösmarty tér 7-8.
Explore Hungarian Cuisine and Culture Through Cooking
Take a cooking lesson at Chef Parade. This is my new favorite thing to do in any new country, learning to cook a few local dishes. Thanks to Anna, our instructor, we loved every minute of it. Over the course of our three hour class we made chicken paprikash and Hungarian strudel, chatted in the kitchen with our instructor about life in communist Hungary, and then enjoyed our delicious meal. Yum!
Address: Budapest, Páva u. 13.
Eat or drink at a Ruin Bar
In the old Jewish section of town, there are plenty of run-down buildings that are being repurposed as bars and eateries. Erika picked one out, the Mazel Tov, and we had a fabulous lunch of falafel, hummus, and shakshuka. The ambience was great, and we loved listening to the live music as well. There were a few other tourists there, but a university had held its graduation and the Mazel Tov was filled with families celebrating their graduating children.
Address: Akacfa Utca 47.
Visit the Great Synagogue
The 19th century Dohány Street Synagogue is one of the largest in Europe seating almost 3,000 people, and it’s well worth a stop on your itinerary. Built in the Byzantine-Moorish style, it is a masterpiece of nineteenth century architecture, richly decorated inside and out. The synagogue also houses the Jewish museum displaying religious artifacts, a holocaust memorial, and art exhibits. This is an informative starting point for learning more about Jewish Budapest.
Address: Dohány u. 2.
Take a Gander at Heroes Square
We first checked out Heroes Square with some Hungarian friends who told us many facts and stories from Hungary’s turbulent past. The highlights here are the Millenium Monument and the Seven Chieftains of Magyar. On the outer edges of the square you’ll find the Museum of Fine Arts and the Palace of Art, both worth a visit as well. The tram system runs underground here in the oldest line of the subway system on line 1, the yellow line. This is the oldest continually running subway system in Europe and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Take in the View from Fisherman’s Bastion
At the top of Buda hill, you can wander down to this fantastical fortress. There’s not much to do but take photos, look at the view and chase the pigeons, but for some reason it’s one of my favorite spots in Budapest. The water traffic down below looks like little toys floating up and down the river.
Go to Church
The St. Matthew’s (Matthias) Church is not far from Fisherman’s Bastion and the interior is ornate, but unlike many churches I’ve seen before. The painting is unique with stylized shapes cascading down the pillars.
Address: Szentháromság tér 2.
Listen to the Choir at a Cathedral
We wandered into St. Stephen’s Basilica on a wet, Sunday morning, There’s something about listening to a choir sing while you dry out a little really lifts your spirits. The incredible decorations and sumptuos appointments will grab your attention and you’ll forget all about the cold rain outside.
Buy Some Fried Pork Skin in the Great Market
The truth is you can buy just about anything you like, because the Great Market Hall has it all from produce to souvenirs, juice and cocktail bars, to sit down restaurants. Covering over 10,000 square meters over three levels, you really can find anything Hungarian here that you could imagine. One lady told us that a popular dinner item is rooster’s testicles, and yes, you can buy them there…if you dare.
Address: Address: Vámház krt. 1-3., district IX., Pest end of Liberty Bridge, take trams 2, 47, or 49.
Eat a Hearty Bowl of Fisherman’s Soup
Very popular and typical in Hungary is the Fisherman’s Soup (Halászlé) which is based on a carp bouillon and contains pieces of carp, catfish, sturgeon and pike or perch. There are different types of Fish Soup in Hungary from different regions who are all fighting for the best recipe and the claim of the original Fish Soup (yes there are festivals for that as well). You need to try it yourself and decide which one tastes best. Our favorite halászlé was aboard the restaurant ship, Vén Hajó, docked along the banks of the Danube between the Chain and Elisabeth bridges.
Walk Along the Danube for Spectacular Views
Along the mighty Danube, the economic center of the city, there are miles of riverside sidewalks adorned with statues and gardens. There are also cafes, shops, memorials, and beautiful buildings like the iconic parliament building that sit on the banks of the river. You can’t go wrong taking a walk. It would be best to walk at sunset to capture some great shots. One of the most poignant and moving memorials along the river is the Shoes on the Danube Bank, honoring those who were massacred along the river banks during World War Two. There are plenty of beautiful hikes in and outside of the city!
Go for a Jog on Margaret Island
In the middle Ages it was called the Island of Rabbits (Nyulak szigete) because it functioned as a royal hunting reserve. Now, it is a special place where there are paths for running or walking. Many people go there to play sports and get fit or just walk in nature. It is a quiet retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life, and there are spas there that would also help you to relax.
That should keep you busy, if you are in Budapest a couple of days, but if you have more time you can always check out the 50 Things You Must Do in Budapest and start checking them off as you train travel through Eastern Europe.
Have you been to Budapest? What is your favorite spot?
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