Once a destination that flew under the tourist radar, savvy travellers have now clued into Budapest — Boo-dah-pesht, as it’s pronounced locally.
The Hungarian capital is physically split in two by the glittering Danube River, which also defines a split in the city’s personality. On one side of the river lies leafy Buda, with its undulating hills, historic castle district, and refined museums and galleries. On the other side, larger, grittier Pest is home to many top attractions, shopping options, endless eccentric bars and cafes, and pulsating nightlife.
This Budapest city guide is packed with ideas for things to see and do. Enjoy your visit.
Watch our video of ten great things to do on a Danube River Cruise:
Cruising the great rivers of Europe is what holiday dreams are made of. Along the way you’ll see grand hilltop castles and chateaus, and visit medieval towns and atmospheric old-world cities. And unlike doing a coach tour of Europe, the big attraction of a river cruise is that you only have to unpack once.
Budapest for history lovers
Hungary’s history is vast, varied and full of epic tales.
The city was conquered by the Romans, invaded by the Mongols, and captured by the Turks. It served as the second capital of the great Austro-Hungarian empire, and was occupied by the Soviets. Each of these historic chapters left an indelible mark, making Budapest — officially unified in 1873 — what it is today: a city of ornate architecture, heavy with diverse culinary and cultural influences.
Don’t miss the opportunity to visit the stunning Hungarian Parliament Building — a neo-gothic structure that was completed in the early 1900s. It’s the largest building in the city and sits on the bank of the Danube.
The city saw a violent chapter of anti-Semitic acts during World War II, including the deportation of thousands of Jews to Nazi concentration camps. In 1944 the fascist Arrow Cross party brutally forced the city’s remaining Hungarian-Jewish population into a walled-off ghetto and systematically murdered an estimated 20,000 people. The Shoes on the Danube Bank is a poignant tribute to the Jewish victims, while the Tree of Life monument located in the courtyard of the Dohány Street Great Synagogue — the largest synagogue in Europe and one of the city’s top ten tourist sites — bears the names of victims inscribed on its metallic leaves.
Top cultural activities in Budapest
For cultural things to do in Budapest, start on the Buda side of the Danube for an unrivalled panorama of the city from Buda Castle.
Next, cross over the impressive Széchenyi Chain Bridge (flanked by majestic life-like stone lions) to vibrant Pest. Amble down Andrássy Avenue, which is lined with magnificent buildings. Take in imposing Heroes’ Square and the stately Hungarian State Opera House.
While visiting old ruins is nothing out of the ordinary for travellers, the concept takes on new meaning in Budapest. Here, ‘ruins’ (romkocsma) are essentially pubs housed in abandoned, decrepit buildings. They’re largely concentrated in the Jewish Quarter and filled with quirky knick-knacks to create a frenzied visual feast. Try and visit at least one ruin during your stay in the city (if you have no idea where to look, join a guided tour and visit several).
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Great places to eat in Budapest
Budapest has had a gastronomic resurgence of late.
Traditional Hungarian fare of hearty goulash (more a soup than a stew), paprika chicken (served with a type of egg noodle called nokedli), and lángos (pastry topped with sour cream and cheese) mix with Jewish kosher cuisine, making for an exotic culinary adventure.
Spend some time exploring the splendid Central Market Hall (also known as the Great Market Hall) — the largest indoor market in Budapest. Peruse the array of local produce on offer at ground level, before heading upstairs to Fakanál Restaurant to enjoy an authentic Hungarian feast in a relaxed environment.
Leave room for dessert, because you won’t be able to resist the tempting pastries and cakes on offer at Auguszt Cukrászda bakery. Taste-test the rétes (traditional strudel with various fillings) and kürtőskalács (baked sweet dough rolled in sugar).
Where to shop in Budapest
Budapest’s main shopping promenades are found on the Pest side of the river.
The main strip runs along Váci Street — a pedestrian thoroughfare, which is lined with fashion stores, souvenir shops, cafes and restaurants.
Király Street, known as Budapest’s design hub, is also popular with shoppers and features trendy boutiques and contemporary galleries.
There are also plenty of vintage flea markets to rummage around in for hidden gems. You’re bound to find that elusive treasure you’ve been searching for at the Ecseri Flea Market.
Ways to relax in Budapest
Known as the ‘city of spas’, no trip to Budapest would be complete without spending a few hours soaking in the medicinal hot spring waters of one of the city’s thermal baths.
The largest spa is the Neo-Baroque style Széchenyi Baths, which has fifteen indoor baths and three outdoor pools. Pampering spa treatments such as massages and facials are also available. A word of warning: it gets super busy here during peak periods.
If you’re after a more intimate experience, visit the Gellért Baths. This spa is famous for its Art Nouveau furnishings and exquisite mosaic detailing. It’s often touted as the most photographed spa in Budapest — and for good reason!
And finally, there’s no more relaxing way to take in the beauty of Budapest than by drifting through the city centre on the Danube River. Do a day cruise, or push the boat out on a dinner cruise with the twinkling city lights as a backdrop.
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Do you have any tips to add to our Budapest city guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Camha Pham is a freelance writer and editor who has recently swapped the cosmopolitan laneways of Melbourne for the sunny beaches of Perth. Struck with the wanderlust bug from an early age, she has travelled extensively through Asia, Europe, and parts of North America. When she isn’t travelling, Camha is planning her next adventure and loves nothing more than the thrill of exploring new destinations and learning about other cultures. Travel highlights to date include chasing waterfalls in enchanting Iceland, hot-air ballooning over the lunar-like landscape of Cappadocia, and accepting a surprise marriage proposal at the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto!