Budapest is one of the most popular European cities for weekend breaks – understandably so. Low cost and overflowing with culture and good food, it has everything a visitor could want. It’s impossible to take in everything the city offers in just one short visit, and I’m already planning my return, but there are some outstanding sights and experiences you should put high on your must see list. Here’s my personal top 15 things to do in Budapest.
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1/ Explore the Var district
The city’s castle district – as well as being very hilly – is insanely beautiful. Fit, explorer types will enjoy the challenge of climbing to the top of Castle Hill, but the more relaxed amongst you may prefer to take the funicular route. Be warned, however, there is often a wait of up to an hour for the short ride up. For a small cost, you can also save your legs with a taxi ride, or do as we did, and use the hop-on-hop-off bus to get to the top.
This area is wonderful to explore, with cute little side streets filled with ornate doorways and windows leading you to the palace; which is currently home to the National Gallery, as well as the Fisherman’s Bastion and Matyas Church.
There are also lots of lovely restaurants and cafes to stop off for refreshments in the area including Ruszwurm – a gingerbread shop in the Middle Ages, it’s been a renowned patisserie since 1827.
Once you’ve had your fill of the sights and taken your photos of the city (the Var offers one of the best viewpoints in Budapest), I recommend taking a slow walk back down, as there’s some lovely little shops on the way. We came across a crazy knick-knack shop that offered guests hot drinks so we sat with some locals and talked about the city over a lovely cuppa.
2/ Step back in time at the Hospital in the Rock
The Buda side of the city is riddled with underground caves, used in the old days as cellars by those that lived here. Over time these caves were joined together to create a massive complex that was turned into a military hospital in 1941, and later became a nuclear bunker.
Now a museum, you can take a guided tour through the tunnels, set up to look as they would have during their time as a hospital. Guides tell you how the hospital had to deal with the Siege of Budapest, when the hospital, designed for 60 patients at one time, had to deal with hundreds, and nurses and doctors would have to treat wounded lying in the corridors. It was amazing what these men and women endured.
Later, during the Cold War the hospital became a secret nuclear bunker, empty aside from a caretaking family who lived there, away from sunlight, for a long, long time. The children would ride their bikes through the corridors, and with its creepy feel, all I could imagine was Jack Torrance and his family in The Shining *shivers*.
The second part of the tour takes you into the bunker section of the tunnels, set up in preparation for a nuclear war. The tour ends with you being given the chance to set off the air raid siren – be prepared, it’s bloody loud.
The caves are permanently at a cool 15 degrees, even in summer, so I recommend binging something to wrap up in, but if you forget you can borrow one of several original army coats during your tour.
Much of the original supplies are still here you see, and you can even buy old cold and world war memorabilia here including original cutlery, gas masks and even medical syringes. Personally I liked the fluffy ‘germ’ toys you could buy – not many people could say they came back from Budapest with ‘the clap’!
3/ Visit the churches
Beautiful churches can be found all over the city, but two of the most famous in Budapest are Matyas Church and St Stephen’s Basilica.
Just behind the Fisherman’s Bastion in the Var district is Matyas Church – it can’t be missed thanks to its shiny diamond patterned tiled roof, which reflects the sun. Destroyed during World War II, what you see today is a laborious reconstruction that was built around the parts of the original church that survived. Worth taking a wander inside to see the frescoes, you’ll also find a small museum full of artefacts including the mummified foot of St Janos. Nice.
St Stephen’s, a short walk from the Pest riverside, is known as the church that took forever to complete, as it took over 50 years to build. Recently restored, you can imagine this would have been just how it looked back then. Although free to enter donations are welcomed, so much so that a gruff looking priest stands at the doorway to remind you – dare you walk past him without offering up the requested 200 Forints?
The basilica’s viewing platform offers amazing views over the city, but for those who’d rather avoid the 300+ stairs, you’ll be happy to know there’s an option to cheat and take the lift up.
4/ Eat Hungarian delicacies
If you’re looking for great things to do in Budapest then you should eat like the locals! Goulash is available pretty much everywhere, but I especially recommend the garlic soup, often served in a bread bowl. Absolutely wonderful!
If you’re more of a sweet tooth then I challenge you to take on a traditional Hungarian cream slice – basically a massive slab of cream topped and bottomed with a thin wafer. Freshly-made lemonade is also in abundance across the city, which can be flavoured with fruits of your choice. My favourite was the orange – so refreshing!
5/ Visit Parliament
This amazing building has to be seen to be believed. Stretching over 260m along the Danube’s embankment, this jaw-dropping piece of architecture puts my beloved Houses of Parliament to shame.
Not only can you gawk at its exterior, there is also an option to take a tour inside the building. I recommend booking in advance – we visited in May and tried to book tickets the week before and only one slot was available, 8am. As much as I’d have loved to explore this beautiful building, this was my holiday and I made the decision to have a well-deserved lie in. However, I’m using this bad planning as a brilliant excuse to go back…
6/ Pay your respects at the Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial
A beautiful but sombre piece of artwork greets those who visit the Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial.
60 pairs of iron shoes represent the Jews shot by militia during World War II. Ordered to take off their shoes, they were shot by the edge of the river so their bodies would fall into the water and be washed away. One of the way too many awful stories to come from that era, this is a beautiful way to remember them.
7/ Take a dip in the thermal baths
Known as a spa city, Budapest has a plethora of thermal baths for you to unwind in. All different in style and what they offer, it’s worth checking out a couple during your stay if you have the opportunity.
The most popular are Gellért and Széchenyi, so these are a great place to start if you want to get a feel for what’s on offer. If this takes your fancy, be sure to check out our first timer’s guide to the Budapest spa experience, coming very soon!
8/ Get your game on at the Pinball Museum
Perfect for a rainy day, Budapest has its very own pinball museum. For 2500 Forint you can explore the cavern of retro game machines and play to your hearts content. The gamer in me is so excited by this place!
9/ Ride Tram 2
Tram 2 has made it into Lonely Planet’s top 10 tram journeys, so it’s gotta be worth a ride. It offers some great views along the Danube, and if you’ve been walking a lot it’ll give your tired feet a well-earned rest.
10/ Check out the local markets
The Great Market Hall is well worth a trip for the architecture alone. Inside, this expansive space is abuzz with locals and tourists squeezing up and down the market’s aisles. Downstairs the locals come to pick up fresh fruit and veg, with the sellers making some extra cash by selling gift packs of paprika clearly aimed at tourists, while upstairs tight pathways are crammed with tourist ‘tat’ – this is the place to buy overpriced Budapest memorabilia, but even so it’s fun to wander round and there’s some great food stalls up top serving filling local dishes.
11/ Have a drink in a ruin bar (or two, three…)
Budapest’s ruin bars have to be seen to be believed. They remind me of how the old warehouse parties in the UK used to look – dishevelled old buildings, brought back to life with fairy lights and kitsch decorations. Each ruin pub is unique, with its own vibe and look, and within each there are often many different rooms, for hookahs, games, dancing etc. At night they’re party-central, but during the day they’re also busy, but with a much quieter crowd enjoying drinks with friends.
Find out more about the city’s ruin bars in an upcoming post.
12/ Go people watching in one of the beautiful coffee houses
Budapest is renowned for its cafés overflowing with classical beauty. Although some are overpriced, they’re still worth visiting even just for a quick drink, to take in the ambience.
New York Café is one of the most famous, and once you see it you’ll understand why. Opened in 1894 it was designed in the Italian renaissance and baroque style, with everything made of marble, bronze, silk and velvet. Opulent, darling! It was closed for a period of time, but in the noughties it was given a new lease of life, and renovated to its former glory.
A lot of people recommend stopping here just for a drink as the food isn’t that great for the money you pay and service can be quite poor. We decided to come for breakfast and found the food was OK, but definitely overpriced. If you choose to come this time of day, I greatly recommend choosing the buffet option – for €25 you can eat all you want. If you choose off the menu you’ll probably discover in the end you’ll probably be paying about the same amount for a lot less food.
13/ Take a river cruise
Well worth doing, a river cruise is a wonderful way to sit back and take in the city’s architectural masterpieces. With beautiful bridges crossing the river and amazing buildings dotting both sides of the riverbank it’s a jaw-dropping view.
The best time of day to go is of course for sunset, but I recommend planning ahead and doing your research. Boats get booked up far ahead and there are loads of companies offering a variety of options. Dinner, all you can drink, hop on, hop off; there’s lots to choose from so make sure you work out ahead of time what you want to do and book your time slot.
We thought we’d rock up on the evening, and learnt the hard way that wasn’t a good idea. We ended up walking a lot to find a free boat and then were sold something other than what we wanted. Eventually we got our seat and took a ride, but we ended up being stuck inside and sadly missed sunset. What a rookie error!
14/ Have a cuppa with a cat!
Yes, Budapest has a cat café. Actually, it has two! I made time to pop into one on my last day, to drown my sorrows over leaving with a slice of cake and a cup of tea with some furry friends.
I believe I visited the smaller of the two, near to the Széchenyi baths in City Park, where you pay a set fee for ‘all you can drink’ and a slice of cake. The cats roam freely around the café, which is scattered with toys and beds for them, and you can see from the way the staff interact with them, and their own behaviour that they’re well looked after here.
You can pick up toys and play with the cats – if they’re interested, that is – but there’s also board and card games scattered around for you to play in this relaxed, student digs style set-up. I enjoyed watching the regal Maine Coon rule the roost and I made friends with a beautiful Bengal who decided to come and sit on my lap. I was one very happy cat lady.
15/ Have afternoon tea (of course)
Finally, I couldn’t complete this list of things to do in Budapest without mentioning afternoon tea! As it’s my goal to have afternoon tea in every city I visit, I was on the look out for somewhere amazing to go during my stay in Budapest.
I came across the Four Season’s Gresham Palace and was not disappointed. It offers a special Herend Afternoon Tea experience, set in a gorgeous art nouveau backdrop. I’ll be writing my full review very soon, so be sure to come back and check it out.
Oh, and if you’re looking for even more inspiration you might want to visit our friend Emily’s blog – the Cosy Traveller. She recently wrote her own ‘Ultimate things to do in Budapest’ list!