From Must-See Sights to Hidden Gems – What Do in Budapest
First things first: You are probably pronouncing it wrong. The two cities are called Buda and Pest and are pronounced: “Boo-da-pesht” Yes, they are two cities. Didn’t know that either, did you? Na, I am just giving you a hard time 😉 But if you know these two things before you go to Budapest, the locals will love just a tad bit more. But let’s move on to the even more important things to know before you go: What to do in Budapest?
I just returned from a quick 3-day visit and I have to say that Budapest is one of my favorite cities in Europe. It is oozing with free-spirited creativity, history, and culture that you makes you want to sit in a cafe, think deep thoughts, and write poetry instead of diddling on Facebook.
Budapest is glamorous. It’s buildings and boulevards have dusted off the greyness of their semi-recent past and are now shining with a new sparkle. The city is modern, no doubt, but it hasn’t lost the splendor of its past. As you watch the city pass from your seat in a rattling tram car, you might catch yourself as your vision turns to sepia and instead of cars, your mind shows you horse-drawn carriages and women in lacy petticoats.
If it is your first time in Budapest, your itinerary will be full. There are so many sights that simply are a Must-See. But there are equally many hidden gems that are a little less touristy and are a great way to personalize your trip or fill an extra day.
What To Do in Budapest – Must-See Sights
Fisherbastion and Buda Castle
Towering over the city, the Fisherbastion and Buda Castle are one of the most iconic and photographed sights of Budapest. My favorite is the Fisherbastion. Its white towers, walls, and stairs look like you entered Sleeping Beauty’s castle and the view from there is simply spectacular, overlooking the Danube river and Pest.
The Hungarian Parliament is probably one of the most well-known Parliament buildings in the world.The Parliaments’ white Gothic Revival facade with the red-roofed dome looks elegant and sophisticated. Right on the Danube river, its reflection sparkles in the water – especially glamorous at night – and is a favorite motif for photographers.
It is a majestic building for a proud people that hasn’t always had it easy. But when you mention the Parliament building, you can see the pride in people’s eyes: Pride of their independence, their history with all its ups and downs and pride of this gorgeous building that is admired by locals and visitors from all over the world alike.
When you visit Hungary, one name (besides Attila the Hun) keeps popping up all over: Count István Széchenyi de Sárvár-Felsővidék, also known as the “Greatest Hungarian”. He was a modernist and albeit a nobleman himself, he fought for modernist ideas, such as giving up feudal privileges and fighting against racism and nationalism in multi-cultural Hungary.
All over the country, you will find buildings, streets, and parks named after Széchenyi, but one of the most well-known and instantly recognizable ones is the Széchenyi Bridge in Budapest. Spanning the Danube from Buda to Pest, this iconic Bridge not only connects the two cities, it is also a symbol of Széchenyi’s work. He was a builder of bridges, literally (he lobbied for the first bridge between Buda and Pest) and figuratively as he built, equalized, and strengthened relationships between nobility and the general population, and built up trading routes with Constantinople and the Balkans.
Margaret Island – Margitsziget
This island in the middle of the Danube river is the recreational heart of the city. Locals and tourists stroll, bike, and jog along the winding paths through the parks. The grass is dotted by people having picnics, children playing and dogs catching sticks. There are sports facilities like public pools and tennis courts if you want to be active. If you are looking for something more leisurely, take a seat at the music fountain and enjoy the show. Margitsziget, as Margaret Island is called in Hungarian, will give you a nice little getaway from the busy city.
I told you his name will pop up all over the place. Széchenyi Baths is just one of many baths in Budapest. Public baths and taking waters are a very popular past time in Budapest, hence the city’s nickname “City of Spas”. 118 natural thermal springs bring healing hot waters to the many baths and spas in Budapest.
On my visit to Széchenyi Baths, I indulged in a Beer Spa. At first, I thought I would be bathing in actual beer, but it is merely a bath with beer ingredients like hops, yeast and malt extract. It was still great and the best part certainly was the access to my own beer tab. I have to warn you though: The alcohol goes straight to your head if you are sitting in hot water. Drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids before and after and relax in one of the many indoor and outdoor pools.
Liberty Squares is probably one of the most interesting squares in the world. The symbolism and strategic placement of the buildings, statues, and monuments on this square is so strong, it could fill a whole new Dan Brown novel. The Memorial for the Fallen Soviet Soldiers is in the center of the square, guarded by the US Embassy and a very authoritative looking Reagan statue blocks the way to the Hungarian Parliament.
At the end of Liberty square, you find yet another controversial memorial and its unofficial protest counterpart: The Monument of German occupation. It depicts the innocent Arcangel Gabriel (Hungary) under attack of a huge bronze eagle (Germany).
The unofficial counter-monument is a fence, where people leave letters, photos, flowers, candles, and personal items to remember the almost 500,000 Jews who lost their lives also with the help of the Hungarian authorities. If you are interested in the history of Hungary during WWII, you can read more about it here. For more information about how Hungarians feel about this monument, you can find out more here.
Home to the largest synagogue in Europe, the Jewish Quarter of Budapest took a long time to rise from its ashes after World War II. Abandoned grey buildings and factories were the characteristics of the area. But just after the turn of the century, the Phoenix awakened. An old factory building was turned into a ruin bar complex. The pulsing nightlife attracted locals and tourists alike, which led to an influx of hip restaurants, artsy boutiques, and other symptoms of gentrification.
What I found extremely interesting during my visit were the contrasting yet symbiotic cultures that thrive next to each other in this area. On the one hand, you have the traditional Jewish culture that is very visual in this area of course. On the other hand, you have the Hipster culture. You’ll find religious bookstores next to vegan food trucks, Craft Beer gastropubs across the street from Jewish cultural centers. I highly recommend strolling through this area when you visit Budapest.
I already mentioned how the opening of a ruin bar in the Jewish Quarter catalyzed its gentrification. But what exactly are ruin bars? It all began with Szimpla Kert. A group of friends stalled the teardown of an old, abandoned building by creating a little pop-up bar with free movie screenings during the summer of 2004. Think hand-me-down couches and makeshift bars with the feel of hanging out at a friend’s garage turned party-room. The concept took off like wildfire and the entrepreneurial friends decided to make it a permanent establishment. Now a visit to the Ruin Bars is a must, when you are in Budapest, even if you just check them out and take photos of them during the day.
Great Market Hall
The Great Market Hall is a Foodie Lover’s dream. And if you are looking for souvenirs, this is also a good place.
On the street level, you will find farm fresh produce, fresh meat and fish, Hungarian specialties like Fois Gras and cured meats, Hungarian paprika, Tokaj wines and other delicacies. If strolling around the stalls makes your mouth water, head upstairs, where you will find food stalls offering traditional Hungarian meals like Langos and Gulyás (Goulash).
After your meal, take a look at some of the traditional handicrafts. Handpainted wooden knickknacks, intricate embroidery, and delicate porcelain are unique souvenir ideas to bring home to your loved ones, or to remind you of your time in Budapest after your trip.
Experience Budapest’s Cafe Culture
Remember when I said that Budapest makes you want to sit in a Cafe, think deep thoughts, and write poetry? Maybe it is because this is what people have done this here for centuries.
Coffeehouses were an important part of the writer scene in Budapest. They were the second home for writers and philosophers, where they would hang out, share thoughts, discuss and refine their latest ideas. These cafes were a petri dish for creativity and culture. And it still lingers in the air, it seems.
What to do in Budapest – Recommended City Tours
I have to admit that I am usually not a big fan of city tours. However, what I do like are specialty tours, like food tours, photography tours, or other interest-based tours. Most of the time, you get a good general overview of the city, its main sights, and its history (so you don’t feel guilty for not having at least driven by the top attractions). But then you get to enjoy the city from a more custom point of view that lets you experience your passion, interest, or hobby in this new location.
In Budapest, I did two custom tours and they were both really great. If these tours don’t reflect your interests, I would recommend you check out Viator. They have many specialized tours in Budapest and I am sure you will find something that will peak your interest.
Underguide Budapest Tour
Underguide Budapest offers a different approach to tours. Instead of giving tourists the same old boring city tour, they create custom experiences for their clients. Yes, you’ll get to see the main sights of Budapest and learn about some of the most important historical facts about the city. But your guide will show you the real, every-day Budapest as well. For me, it felt like a friend showing me around the city.
My guide told me about herself and her life in Budapest. She shared her hobbies and what she is passionate about. So on top of checking of the tourist attractions and learning about the city’s history, I also ate lunch at a street food plaza in the Jewish Quarter, chitchatted with her over coffee and cake in a small coffee shop, and visited a community workspace for artists.
Budapest Craft Beer Tour
Hungary is not a beer country. Hungarians drink wine. I like both, but as I brew beer at home, I love to visit breweries and learn about the local beer when I travel. Expecting a wine-centric culture in Hungary, I was surprised to see a flourishing Craft Beer Scene in Budapest.
On my last night in Budapest, I met up with my guide Levi and he showed me some of the cool new brewpubs and craft beer bars around town. Levi is well-known in the Craft Beer world of Budapest. He knows the brewers and bar owners, can recommend some of the best beers according to your taste and teach you about the ingredients, brewing process and other interesting facts about the Craft Beer scene in Budapest. Oh, and of course you will get to try plenty of beers and visit multiple bars & breweries during this tour. The Saison Wit by Horizont was one of my favorites of the night.
What to do in Budapest – Restaurants
Modern Hungarian with a 60s twist. I had pan-fried goat cheese on a bed of beets and arugula as a starter and a stuffed cornish hen with truffles for my main dish. I also enjoyed the homemade lemonade and I wish I could have tried all of their interesting-sounding flavors.
This restaurant is located very centrally and has great traditional Hungarian food. What makes this restaurant so special is the ethnographic museum in the basement. It will show you all element of Hungarian peasant life, from traditional clothing to home goods, farming equipment and other things of everyday life in rural Hungary.
When you visit the Castle complex and the Fisherbastion, I highly recommend Pest Buda, yes, I would even go so far that you time your visit there, so it coincides with a mealtime. I had some of the best food here during my trip to Budapest, including the best Pumpkin soup I have ever had. Do not leave here without trying their Arany Galushka: fluffy yeast dumplings coated in sugar and nuts served with a light and airy vanilla custard. My mouth still waters when I think about this dish! Oh, and you can even stay overnight. See below for more information!
Located in the Jewish Quarter, Getto Gulyas is a favorite for locals and tourists alike. Make reservations or be prepared to wait, but the hassle and patience are definitely worth it. Their Paprika Chicken is dreamy!
Street Food Karavan
Also located in the Jewish Quarter, the Street Food Karavan is a food truck aficionados paradise and the perfect place to try some Hungarian street food. Try Langos, the deep-fried flatbread and covered with sour cream, cheese, and garlic. But you also get lighter and healthier fare here, and there are even some vegan options available.
Here are some more Budapest Restaurant recommendations.
What to Do in Budapest – Hotels
No, this is not The Grand Budapest Hotel, but it could easily be the backdrop for another Wes Anderson movie. It is located in a quiet neighborhood in Pest and offers splendid views of the Parliament and the Castle Complex. While it is a bit outside of the city center, it is well connected with public transportation. The tram is just across the street and the bus stops right in front of the hotel. The interior is retro-classic but offers all the amenities like wifi and air conditioning.
This boutique hotel is a stunning property located just next to the Fisherbastion. Each room is unique and exquisitely decorated. One of their suites even has its own private rooftop garden. The only downside? It only has a handful of rooms and they are booked out months in advance. So if you want to stay here, you need to hurry and book now!
For more hotel recommendations, please take a look at our Editor’s Guide on Where to Stay in Budapest.
Things to do in Budapest was written by Maria Haase – Editor at EuropeUpClose.com.
I also want to give a big THANK YOU to Hungarian Tourism for making this trip possible and inviting me to explore your beautiful capital. I had a wonderful time and can’t wait to visit Hungary again!
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