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.

The River Danube

The sights

The baths

The food & drinks

The nightlife

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?

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).

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.

The River Danube

The River Danube plays a huge part in the life and history of the city – as well as being one of the most popular options for Budapest activities. A great way to get your bearings upon arrival, taking a leisurely stroll along the riverbank affords you lots of opportunities for some Budapest sightseeing.

Whichever side you choose to wander down, you’ll find wonderful vistas aplenty. The Pest side of the river reveals some of the city’s grand landscapes featuring the great classical and neo-classical buildings which house the thermal baths. And if you arch your neck a little higher, you’ll spot the iconic Buda Castle. On the Buda side, you’ll see steeples and spires and some fine art-nouveau mansions.

Should you ever get bored with one side of the city, just take one of the many beautiful bridges which lead you across the river. Many of these are also closely associated with the city’s heritage. Both the Chain and Liberty bridges, for example, are must-see sights which are well worth a visit.

Best for:
Understanding Buda and Pest.

1. 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.

2. Walk along the water after sunset

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.

3. 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.

The sights

The outstanding Jewish Quarter is a great place to visit if you want to extend your cultural horizons during your stay in Budapest. Boasting statuesque synagogues, street food, ruin bars, and some striking art-nouveau architecture, it’s one of the best places in the city to explore on foot. Buda Castle is a must-see for history lovers and panoramic sight-seekers alike. In fact, taking a ride up there on the popular funicular will satisfy both these options in one afternoon. And if you go towards the end of the day as the sun is setting, you’ll get even more stunning pictures for your Instagram post. 

Best for:
Those planning a sight-seeing itinerary.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. See the stunning Hungarian Parliament Building

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.

9. 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.

10. 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.

11. ...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.

12. ...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.

13. Tour the city's various museums

The pinball wizards among you can chill out with a visit to the Flippermúzeum entirely dedicated to pinball machines. But if you’re more into history, the House of Terror is the former headquarters of the secret police. This fascinating destination chronicles life in Budapest under both the communist and fascist regimes. You'll also find the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest - it covers 2,500 years of history.

The baths

"As with so many major European cities, Budapest has gathered quite a few nicknames over the years. And like all nicknames, some can seem a little generous while others can sound rather forced. But when it comes to the Hungarian capital being christened the ‘City of Baths’, we think you’ll agree it’s pretty accurate. Bathing culture is a big part of Budapest’s identity, and always a major reason why many people choose to visit. If that’s high on your list of priorities, you may also be wondering where to stay in Budapest. You’ll probably want to stay on the Buda side of the city where there are several major baths. The Szechenyi Baths, the Gellert Baths, and the Veli Bej Baths are among the most popular choices. "

Best for: Relaxing in style.

14. 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.

15. 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. 

The food & drinks

Just as Hungary’s history is full of rich texture and interesting tales, Hungarian food consists of outstanding dishes and street food you’d be mad not to try. And with so many tasty options on offer – you’d kick yourself for leaving Budapest without trying as many as possible.

Best for: Foodies.

16. 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.

17. 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.

The nightlife

Those looking to have a good time in the evenings will want to stay in the Pest area of the city. In terms of its cultural heartbeat, this is where you’ll find the majority of the city’s clubs and ruin bars. Those wondering what to do in Budapest will find a tour of the various ruin bars a most rewarding option – with each one offering its own unique environment and ambient vibe.

Best for: Dedicated night owls.

18. 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.
  • Szimpla Kert, the city’s original and most firmly established ruin bar, really should be on your list of the activities in Budapest. Sited in a huge unfurnished cavern, it really does set the tone for your evening. The bar is full on most nights, making it a great place to meet people. It’s also a great place to try the local shot – a fruit brandy known as palinka. But go easy unless you’re planning a big celebration.
  • Filter Klub is your go-to ruin bar if you want to hear some rock 'n' roll, Grandio is part hostel and part bar, Mazel Tov in the Jewish Quarter provides a scenic courtyard garden, and the Corvin Club is an abandoned department store offering rooftop views.

19. 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.

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