Budapest is the capital of Hungary and also known as ‘The Pearl of the Danube’ – a title the city rightfully carries with pride. Buda and Pest used to be two separate cities and were divided by the Danube. The two were joined together in 1873 to form one big capital known as present day Budapest.
Budapest is one of those cities that manages to take your breath away every time you visit it. Aside from the natural beauty that seeps through the city in the form of the majestic Danube River and gorgeous green spaces, the buildings themselves also add to the air of sumptuousness. Budapest is also considered by many to be the ‘Paris of the East’. Not only is this beautiful city one of the most culturally important metropolises in Eastern Europe, it’s also home to numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
I’ve been to Budapest various times, mainly because I was involved in a European Union project some years ago and the coordinator of that project was a Hungarian company. On one occasion, I flew to Vienna and hired a car from there before heading over to Budapest via Slovakia’s capital Bratislava, where I stopped for a couple of hours. On other occasions, I arrived in Budapest by bus from North Macedonia’s capital city Skopje, but that’s another story, which you can read here!
Straddling the River Danube, Budapest is famous for its thermal springs, some of which have been used for therapeutic purposes since prehistory. In fact, Budapest has so many things to do that you’ll want to spend at least a few days exploring this dynamic city. Popular attractions range from impressive architecture and poignant reminders of 20th-century history to its vibrant cultural and entertainment scene, with everything from street buskers to classical concerts in beautiful churches.
Budapest is an incredible city for all kinds of cultural programmes. From galleries and museums, to the opera and theatre, to live music, folk dancing, movie screenings and special events, it seems that any day of the week it’s hard to pick from all of the cultural offerings. Budapest is also a shopper’s paradise, from the traditional wares and foodstuffs available at the grand old Central Market Hall to Vaci Street, noted for its mix of luxury boutique stores and big brand names.
In Budapest, your attention is caught by intriguing details at almost every turn; you find yourself unknowingly heading towards colourful street art or an opulent Neo-Classical façade, and drawn into grand cafés by the aroma of freshly brewed coffee and the sight of elaborate cakes. It may take weeks, years or even a lifetime to fully explore Budapest’s multi-faceted personality, but here are a few places, in no particular order, that you should definitely visit!
1. Parliament Building
Many consider this parliament building the most beautiful parliament in the world. You can get the best view if you are standing on the opposite side of the river, or from the boat when you take the river cruise. Don’t miss out to see it in the evening after it lights up when it is the most stunning.
This incredible building was built in the Gothic Revival style, and it was finished in 1902. The Hungarian name Országház means “House of the Country” or “House of the Nation”, symbolically. It is the largest building in the country and consists of hundreds of offices.
2. St. Stephen’s Basilica
Budapest’s St. Stephen’s Basilica (Szent István-bazilika) is a popular attraction for its impressive architecture, the beauty of its interior, and the panoramic views from its dome. The cathedral is dedicated to St. Stephen, Hungary’s holy king and the founder of the Hungarian state, and construction began in 1851, but after several construction setbacks–including the collapse of its unfinished dome–it was not dedicated until 1905.
The roof, towers, and external walls were badly damaged in World War II, and the church’s precious mosaics fell from the walls. However, these were successfully restored to their original place and are the highlight of the richly decorated interior. The most impressive of these, the five-part Venetian mosaic is in the sanctuary and represents the allegories of the mass. The cathedral’s most precious holy relic, the mummified right hand of the church’s patron saint, the first king of Hungary, is displayed under glass in the chapel to the left of the high altar. One of the best things to do here, if time permits, is to take one of the two lifts that carry visitors up to the dome for sweeping 360-degree views over the city and the Danube (alternatively, you can climb the 364 steps).
3. Heroes’ Square
At the end of Andrássy Avenue, you will find the magnificent Heroes’ Square. It features depictions of the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars, a huge monument that is best seen from afar because of its size. These heroes are believed to be the ones who brought Hungarians from central Asia to the Carpathian Basin. The dominant landscape of the square is the central pillar and on top of it is the statue of Archangel Gabriel holding a Hungarian crown. On both sides, there are different historical figures from the Hungarian past. The best is to Google the names of these figures ahead of time or while you are standing there.
4. Central Market Hall
The Great Market Hall is the main marketplace in Budapest. Locals are daily buying groceries here, but it can be swamped with tourists too. You can buy fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese, meat, and much more. The groceries are sold on the lower floors, and handmade souvenirs are found on the upper floors. Here you can get chess boards, jewellery, glassware, leather products, and more. The building was finished in 1897, and it is located in the heart of the city. If you want to experience this market with a guide there are plenty of tours available, including food tasting tours, photo tours, and history tours.
5. Gellért Baths
One of the grandest spas in the city is the Gellert Bath and Spa centre, which includes an open-air pool (which turns into a wave pool), an effervescent swimming pool, a Finnish sauna, and a range of other saunas and plunge pools. Massages and other spa treatments are also available at an extra fee. The complex was originally built between 1912 and 1918 in the Art Nouveau style, but it sustained serious damage during World War II. The whole spa was extensively renovated in 2008 to bring the baths back to their former glory. The baths are open all week for mixed bathing.
6. Margaret Island
Margaret island is a green oasis in the middle of the city, surrounded by the Danube. It is 2.5 km long and it is covered in parkland, walking paths, and recreational facilities anyone can use. You can rent pedal carts, golf carts, electric vehicles, or bicycles if you want to explore the island. Another way is to walk or run on a 5.5 km long running track. Interesting places to see on the island are the musical fountain that moves as the classical music plays, and the medieval ruins. To get the best view of the island and the city you can climb the water tower, built in 1911 in the Art Nouveau style.
The island is easy to access, you can walk or take a tram to get there. For fans of walking, a visit to the Rose garden and Japanese Garden is a must. You can enjoy the amazing smell of flowers, meditate or read a book away from the city crowd. It’s incredible how many amazing things can fit on this small island.
7. Buda Castle Funicular
Buda Castle Funicular is the second oldest funicular of its kind in the world, and it was built in 1870. It is completely operated by a system of weights and counterweights that help raise or lower the carriages. It is a fast and most interesting way to go up the hill, and it offers beautiful views of the river.
When you finish the walk on the promenade, go over to the Chain Bridge, which opened in 1849, after the Hungarian Revolution. This prominent construction has attracted visitors from all around the world. For those couples that love romantic walks, crossing this bridge can be a highlight of the trip to Budapest. Even though it takes only a few minutes to walk across the bridge, you can take your time and soak in the views, sunsets, and wind.
8. Andrássy Avenue
Andrássy Avenue is to Budapest what Champs-Élysées is to Paris, a huge boulevard in the city centre with popular restaurants, stores, and busy traffic. This street starts at Erzsébet Square in central Pest and goes all the way to Heroes Square. Since 2002, this street has been declared a World Heritage Site. In this street, you will see a lot of embassies, mansions, townhouses, and even the Hungarian National Opera House. The afternoons and evenings in this boulevard are very busy with many pedestrians walking down the street, shopping, and visiting bars. If you want to avoid the crowd you can use the metro which has several stops on this street.
9. Matthias Church
Matthias Church, also known as The Church of Our Lady (Nagyboldogasszony-templom), is a prominent landmark on Castle Hill. It was completed in 1269, and its magnificent south doorway with its relief depicting the Death of Mary was added in the 1300s. During the Turkish occupation of 1541-1699, the church was used as a mosque, and was later renovated in the Baroque style. It has been the scene of several historic events, including the coronation of King Charles I of Hungary in 1309 and the coronation of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and his consort Elisabeth (Sissy) as rulers of Hungary. It was for this event that Franz Liszt composed his coronation mass.
10. Gellért Hill
Another of Budapest’s most striking features is the panoramic Gellért Hill (Gellért-hegy), a 235-metre block of dolomite that falls steeply down to the Danube. It’s here along the hill’s geological fault line that several of the city’s most famous medicinal springs emerge to supply the Gellért Spa and Rudas Baths, which have lured visitors from far and wide since the 13th century. The Rudas Baths are one of a handful of buildings remaining from the Turkish occupation, and are among the few original Turkish bathhouses in the world still in use that date back to the 1600s.
11. Fisherman’s Bastion
The most picturesque place in Budapest is Fisherman’s Bastion. Although it looks older, it was built during the late 19th century as a panoramic viewing platform for the city. The building resembles medieval castles and it belongs to the neo-Gothic style.
The name comes from the Guild of Fishermen, which once was the first line of defence for the city. Seven towers represent seven historic Magyar tribes that were founders of today’s Hungary. It is certainly one of the best viewing points in the city, and especially beautiful at sunsets. There is a café in the Bastion, and also a small chapel. The entrance is free of charge.
12. Castle Hill
Towering over the Danube, Budapest’s Castle Hill (Várhegy) contains many of the city’s most important medieval monuments and museums. Topping the list of these impressive structures is the 18th-century Buda Castle (Budavári Palota), a massive 200-room palace that replaced a 13th-century castle built to protect the stronghold from Mongol and Tartar attacks.
Although badly damaged in World War II, much of the exterior has been restored, along with sections of the interior, which now houses a number of important museums. These include the Hungarian National Gallery in the main wing, while in the south wing, the Budapest History Museum occupies four floors.
In front of the castle, overlooking the Danube, stands a bronze equestrian statue of Prince Eugene of Savoy, a hero of Turkish attacks on the city. Castle Hill is worth exploring for its medieval lanes and it Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque architecture. This entire historic complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Like much of the city, Buda Castle is spectacularly illuminated at night, and the castle courtyards remain open 24 hours a day. You can reach the castle on the restored historic Castle Funicular Railway, which departs from the Buda end of the Chain Bridge.
13. Take a trip to Lake Balaton
Dubbed as the Hungarian Sea, about 50 miles long lake with charming little towns, rustic villages, resort towns, and vineyards stretched along its shorelines, Lake Balaton is Hungary’s and central Europe’s largest freshwater lake. And Lake Balaton is just over an hour’s drive from Budapest.
Lake Balaton is Hungary’s second most visited destination after Budapest for a good reason as Hungarians flock here every summer for some outdoor fun. Unfortunately for me, I visited in the dead of winter and the lake was frozen over!
I’ve visited Budapest various times, and the more I discover about it, the more I fall in love with it. The epitome of European charm, this place is teeming with gorgeous architecture, delicious street food, a rich history and a uniqueness that other cities just can’t compare to. From its thermal baths to its buzzing ruin bars, underground caves to Neolithic castles, the capital of Hungary has a little something for everyone. I guarantee you’ll fall in love with the place!