Baths, bars and bridges: 23 things to do in Budapest

It's been knocked down, it's been rebuilt again - which makes Budapest's story as one of Europe's best-looking cities so remarkable. Hungary's capital was once two separate places divided by the wide River Danube. And if you're still not sure which is which: Buda is hilly and Pest is flat. Despite its difficult history, Budapest - or the Pearl of the Danube - has been recognised as having one of the most outstanding urban landscapes in the world. And it's not just the heated springs that make Budapest one of the hottest draws on the continent. Here's 22 other reasons to visit.

Szecheyni baths
Szecheyni baths

1. Get soaked - in a good way

The number one thing to do in Budapest is go to the Szechenyi Spa BathsThe spa scene is huge here thanks to the unusual presence of 80 geothermal springs under the city, which includes the largest thermal water cave system in the world  (Molnar Janos is the biggest cave). Many of the current spas date back hundreds of years, but they've had major refurbishments so expect all mod cons - you can also get a massage. The city also has several outdoor swimming pools - see this spa and pool map to find one.

2. Go to the spas at night

They're open late and the water is still a temperate 38 degrees. Sometimes there are even pool parties during the summer - check the website for events. 

3. Cruise along the river Danube

Are party boats cheesy? Maybe. But that still doesn't mean they're not a good laugh  - and the Danube has to be one of the best rivers to cruise down at night. If you're after something a little more relaxed or romantic, then the dinner cruises are a good way to see the sights.

Budapest
Street food court in the ruin bars area

4. Go drinking in a "ruin pub"

Budapest has lots of "ruin pubs" - derelict and disused spaces transformed into modern watering holes. They're on rooftops, in basements or former factories. To see as many as possible, take a walking tour - or here are some to find:

  • The Szimpla Ruin Pub is set over several floors with hidden nooks, the beer is cheap and it's really fun. Every Sunday it becomes a farmers' market.
  • Right next to the Szimpla pub is street food hub Karavan, it’s like a mini Shoreditch-esque pop up.
  • Or the Old Mans Music Pub in District 7 with its Ronnie Scotts-type atmosphere is also a good shout. It has live music, great food every night and stays open until 4am.

5. Dance all night at a super club

Budapest has seen a rise in the number of super clubs lately - they're a step up from your average nightclub. Join the beautiful people at the Secret Room - they go on until sunrise there. The Buddha Bar is also very plush.

Budapest Opera House © budapestinfo.hu
Budapest Opera House © budapestinfo.hu

6. See some stylish live action

The historic Hungarian State Opera House doesn't just do opera. It also puts on festivals, musicals, plays and other cultural highlights. The building is a marvel in marble, with a grand foyer leading to vast staircases - coming down them will make you feel like Cinderella.

7. Get stuck into the local grub

Make sure you find somewhere to try the Lángos - a plate-sized sheet of fried dough that is usually smothered with sour cream and cheese. If you've got a sweet tooth, the Chimney Cakes (Kürtőskalács) are a treat to munch on while you mooch about. The Great Market Hall is a huge indoor market with food on the ground floor and textiles and local crafts on the top floor. It’s the best place to pick up your paprika. And Százéves Étterem is the oldest restaurant in Pest - and its decor makes you feel like you've stepped back to its opening night. They've usually got musicians playing as you eat and the food is outstanding - especially the goulash.

Budapest
City Market © budapestinfo.hu

8. Become a coffee snob

If you're someone who judges a city on the quality of its caffeine, good news. Budapest has a long association with good coffee. You'll find upmarket cafes sitting alongside the more traditional coffee shops. Try Blue Bird Roastery - it's hidden down the back streets of the city’s Jewish Quarter and serves up decent single origin coffee.

Budapest Castle Fishermens Bastion © budapestinfo.hu
Budapest Castle Fishermens Bastion © budapestinfo.hu

9. Visit the imposing Buda Castle

Buda Castle gazes down over the city from the top of a hill. It's a big place, but one thing you might want to zone in on sits in a casket in St. Stephen's BasilicaClue: it's got five fingers, and once belonged to St. Stephen - the first King of Hungary - himself. Underneath the castle is the Faust Wine Cellar - they do tours and tastings if you want to try some local wine (the castle also has a wine festival in September). Not got the legs for the hill? The Funicular will take you to the top by tram car. Expect a queue but it goes down pretty fast.

10. Take in the views from Fisherman's Bastion

To parrot their own description, these towers are "like the logo of Walt Disney films, only nicer and older". But the main draw is what you can see from here - namely Instagram-ready shots of Budapest's skyline.

Budapest
View from Budapest Castle © budapestinfo.hu

11. Wander down Andrássy Avenue

This street is a good example of what Budapest life was like at the end of the 19th century. It's so beautiful that they didn't want the road and its surroundings sullied by public transport. So they created the Millennium Underground system - which is the second oldest in the world after London's Tube.

12. Walk across Budapest's nine bridges

The most famous is undoubtedly the Chain Bridge, proudly guarded by its lions (which somehow survived severe bombing). It was the first bridge to unite Buda with Pest in 1849, and also had to be rebuilt following its near total devastation after World War II.

Budapest Parliament © budapestinfo.hu
Budapest Parliament © budapestinfo.hu

13. See a prettier, cleaner version of London's Houses of Parliament

The Hungarian Parliament Building puts its UK counterpart to shame. They really went all out: it's built using only Hungarian materials - and even some real gold. Check the website for tickets and visiting hours, as they are restricted when the National Assembly is sitting.

14. Have some playtime on Margaret Island

Margit-Sziget is a big island that sits in the middle of the Danube. It used to be a religious retreat, but now its packed full of parks and other amusements - including a tiny zoo. The Musical Fountain is fun - you can see the shows between March and October - with the usual random line up of classical music and cheesy pop. You'll probably think that Vajdahunyad Castle is an ancient monument - but it is in fact a pastiche on fantasy architecture in Hungary - and was only built in 1896. The major event on this island is Sziget Festival in August - they smash it off the park with global headliners and art installations.

Budapest
The Chain Bridge and Buda Castle at night © budapestinfo.hu

15. Walk along the water

There's something calming about a stroll along a river and Budapest really delivers. In fact the river really comes into its own at nightfall, when the buildings and bridges are lit up after sunset. If you’re on Pest side, you can look over to see Buda Castle. You'll have to book ahead if you want to eat at one of the riverside restaurants with great views in peak season, like the Trattoria Toscana Restaurant or Taverna Dionysos - everyone's after a cracking spot for dinner.

16. Footwear against fascism: see how shoes make a poignant tribute

On the Pest side of the Danube river, you''ll find sixty pairs of seemingly abandoned iron shoes. The 1940s-style footwear symbolises a dark time in the city during World War II, when Jews in Budapest were killed on the banks of the river. Now the Shoes on the Danube memorial acts as a stark reminder and a place for the victims families to come and put flowers down and light candles.

Shoes-on-the-Danube
Shoes-on-the-Danube

17. Visit the largest Synagogue in Europe...

The Dohany Street Synagogue is second only to New York in being the biggest in the world. Its onion domes and turrets have inspired countless Synagogues built since. Zoom in to see the details like stone tablets, rose windows and stars decorating the building. You can also discover more about the Jewish Quarter in the neighbouring Hungarian Jewish Museum and Holocaust Memorial Room.

18. ...the biggest cemetery in Europe...

Kerepesi Cemetery has presidents, prime ministers and poets buried among the grave stones and statues. While it's closed to burials now, you can stroll around the huge grounds and pay your respects at the striking mausoleums.

19. ...and the oldest public park in the world

To get into City Park (Városliget), find the main entrance at Heroes Square (Hősök Tere). Inside, you'll find a zoo, museums, an ice rink, palm house and castle within the grounds.

Budapest
City Park - boats on the lake © budapestinfo.hu

20. Learn about Hungary's dark past in the House of Terror

Despite the name, this is actually a serious museum devoted to those who lost their lives fighting for freedom during two bloody regimes in Hungary's history. Unusually, it also doubles as a memorial, as many of the people commemorated there had actually been tortured and killed in the building that now houses the museum.

21. Get to know the country as a whole

You'll find the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest - it covers 2,500 years of history.

22. Become a pinball wizard

If you thought pinball machines were a relatively new invention, with one flick of the thumb the Flipper Muzeum turns that idea on its head. They've got more than a hundred pinball machines, with the earliest dating back to late 19th century. But this is more than a museum - you can actually play on the machines - get ready to embrace the sparkles, pinging of balls and crazy sound effects for a few hours.

The interactive exhibition of Budapest Pinball Museum
The interactive exhibition of Budapest Pinball Museum (C) Budapest Pinball Museum

23. Visit Budapest's version of Oxford Street

Wander the length of Váci Street (Váci utca) if you fancy a bit of brand name shopping. Dive down the side streets off the main drag to find more of the independent and specialist shops. From spring through to summer you can visit the monthly WAMP design market in Erzsébet Square, if you want something a little more cutting edge.

Essential information

Hungary is another country that hasn't signed up for the EURO, despite being a member of the European Union. So make sure you pick up some Hungarian Forints before you go. Check the exchange rates first - but roughly speaking £10 is equal to around 3,600 HUFs.

When's the best time to visit Budapest?

Christmas markets
Christmas markets

Budapest is a good all-year-round city.

  • In winter you've got a decent chance of snow, particularly in January, and their massive Christmas markets make December a big draw.
  • Spring has Easter celebrations and the city will be either in full bloom or heading that way. The festival season starts to heat up in May.
  • Summer temperatures start in the low 20s and can average up to the late 20s in July and August.
  • They also have managed to come up with a whole programme of festivals which you can time your trip for.
  • A city with this many trees has got to be a decent bet for an autumn trip - come see the city change colour.

Getting around the city

You can buy the Budapest Card - an all-inclusive travel card with free entry to attractions and other discounts. There's a metro, bus and tram system to get around the city - find ticket information and prices at Budapest Transport (BKK).

Deak ter Tram terminal © budapestinfo.hu
Deak ter Tram terminal © budapestinfo.hu

Getting there

Fly: Budapest is around two and a half hours from London airports - find the latest deals on flights to Budapest.

Staying there

Make a weekend of it. We've got plenty of hotels in Budapest to choose from. Sometimes it can be cheaper to book a Budapest city break package where you get your flight and hotel combined.

What would you do on a weekend in Budapest?

Let us know what your favourite things to do in Budapest are. Don't keep it to yourself,  share your top travel tips by leaving a comment below.

Images in the main supplied by budapestinfo.hu