Everyone has lists of what to do and see in Budapest, but when my friends ask me my insider opinion, having lived in Hungary, this is what I share with them. Now, instead of sending miles long messages with links and photos, I can just send this! So here it is, my favorites of beautiful Budapest – from “must sees” to “if you have time,” ideas for solo travelers or families alike! Add a few flags to your google map. But first, tips!
As a general rule, it’s a good idea to read up on basic cultural expectations when you travel to a new country. People may be less warm and friendly than Americans are used to. It is important to know that there is a zero tolerance policy for drinking and driving (that means 0%). Also, pedestrians always have the right of way on crosswalks so slow down and pay attention! Don’t expect ice in your water, top sheets, or wash cloths. Always bring a reusable shopping back to the grocery store (and a coin if you want a cart!) and pack your own OTC meds (like Tylenol, cold medicine, etc) because you can’t buy it at a pharmacy without a prescription! On the highways you need to have purchased a vignette – see below!
If you want to avoid crowds, you’ll have to get up early. Budapest is a bustling city and it stays lively until late at night. If you want to see a place solo, plan to sightsee before 10 AM. Unlike neighboring countries, you can eat meals any time of day – restaurants are generally don’t close between lunch and dinner.
Most places take a major credit card – and even have tap to pay! It’s wonderful. It’s a good idea to have Hungarian Forint handy for the convenience of making small purchases like gelato, or, say, for a donation to enter St. Stephen’s Basilica.
There are many places to eat in Budapest where you can just step up and get a table. However, for the more popular spots, you will want to get a reservation! There are also plenty of great cafes and grab-and-go eateries (my favorite is Mlinar Bakery on Károly for burek) for quick breakfast, lunch, or picnic meals. In general, dining is much cheaper in Hungary, although in Budapest some more famous spots can get pricey. Keep in mind that water is rarely free unless you ask for tap water.
People complain about the parking in Budpapest, but if you have a car, it’s really not so bad. I recommend finding a centrally located parking garage (such as this park place under to the Four Seasons) or park on the street – there are usually lots of spots on one-way Peterdy utca. It’s free to street park on Sundays, but every other day I recommend using the “Simple – make it easy” OTP Mobil Kft payment ap. You can purchase driving vignettes for the roads, pay for parking, and many other cool things!
If you don’t have a car, you can still get around Budapest easily. I spent most of my time on foot and it’s totally manageable. You can also rent scooters and bikes, although I recommend using the VERY cheap Hungarian Uber system called Bolt. Get the ap! So worth it! Also, the Metro and bus systems in Budapest are just great. You’ll have no trouble getting from place to place!
The following are meant to inspire you to create your own self-guided tour of Budapest. To learn more, I recommend downloading the free Rick Steves Ap “Audio Europe” to listen to some great historic info to enrich your experience!
Buda Castle is located in the castle district on the Buda side of the Danube River. Crowning the hill with its big green dome, this castle stands proudly with many statues, fountains and sculptures. Overlooking the Danube, it has one of the best views of the city overlooking Pest. The palace was originally built in the 1200’s but the structure we see today was rebuilt in the mid 1700’s. Today, instead of housing the Kings of Hungary, the Hungarian National Gallery and Budapest History Museum are inside. Fun fact – this castle was the setting of Katy Perry’s music video for “Firework.” Also, during Ottoman occupation, the cave system in the hill was used to store tigers and bears!
Fisherman’s bastion & Matthias church
Also on the Buda side of the river is the Fisherman’s Bastion. This is an intricate structure that rises high above the city, peaked by the gorgeous neo-gothic colorful tiled roof of Matthias Church. The Fisherman’s Bastion was built in new-Romanesque style at the turn of the 20th century, but ground was originally broken in the 1700’s. The many archways are the perfect spot to view the Parliament Building, especially at sunset. It is free to visit the Fisherman’s Bastion, but to go to the roof (pictured below) you need a ticket. It is possible to buy a combo ticket at the booth nearby for the roof and tour Matthias Church, which is worth it! The inside surfaces are painted in bright patterns that are so unique and beautiful!
Inside Matthias Church:
St. Stephen’s Basilica
St. Stephen’s Basilica is not to be missed. It is a glorious feat of architecture you can visit for free (or a coin donation) and for a nominal fee (about $1) you can climb the tower and walk around the great dome. It’s worth it just for the views – but architecture buffs will appreciate seeing the inner workings of the dome, too. Dedicated to Stephen, the first king of Hungary, this grand basilica was built in the 1800’s and finished in 1905. Fun fact – Stephen’s right hand, mummified, is stored as a relic in the reliquary. Whatever you do, be sure to look UP!
SzéchenYi Chain Bridge
As of the writing of this post (spring 2021), the Chain Bridge is officially closed for restoration. You can still view it from the ends – the great lions are incredible – as well as the promenade near the river, but it won’t be ready for pedestrians for around two years. This is a bummer, but obviously important for the safety and longevity of the bridge. And, given that everything except the pillars collapsed and were destroyed during WWII, the Hungarian government doesn’t want to take any chances. Other bridges in the city are also impressive and a fun way to cross the Danube, but they’re less famous. Instead of the Széchenyi, try the Elizabeth Bridge, Margaret Bridge, and Liberty Bridge. Each will take you to various memorable spots in the city!
Between the Elizabeth and Liberty bridges and straight UP on the Buda side of the river is the Citadel. The highest point in the city, this is a popular spot for photos overlooking all of Budapest – especially at night! All the bridges over the Danube are visible sprawling out in front of you, and behind you are terrific statues including the Liberty Statue, honoring those who lost their lives for their country. The statue is visible from all over the city and is deceivingly large. It is absolutely worth the trek all the way up Gellért Hill to enjoy these sights! Fun fact – 1,000 years ago, a monk was martyred by being thrown off this hill into the Danube by the pagans during a revolt in 1046. The statue of St. Gérard is erected near the north side of the hill to commemorate his importance in Hungarian history.
From every angle, in any weather, at any time of day, the Budapest Parliament Building is the most impressive, recognizable icon of the city. Tours are available for this grand palatial government building, but even without a tour it’s amazing! Make sure to see it from every angle…
Dohány Street Synagogue
This very special synagogue can only be visited by tour. It is the largest synagogue in Europe! There is a large and active Jewish population in Budapest and several synagogues depending on the district, but this is the “Great” crowning glory in the city! Built in the mid 1800’s, it survived the Holocaust and Communist occupation in the 20th century, but was badly damaged. Its renovation was completed in 1991. Don’t miss the incredible Weeping Willow “Emanuel Tree” Holocaust Memorial inside.
Heroes’s Square (Hősök tere) is one of the main entrances to the Budapest City Park (like central park) and is loaded with sculptures and important symbols of Hungarian history. The Museum of Fine Arts is also located at this vast square. Pass through here on your way to locales inside the Városliget (City Park).
You simply cannot visit Budapest (or Hungary) and leave without trying a delicious, fragrant, cinnamon sugar kürtőskalács (pronounced kier-tohs kah-lahsh)! Otherwise known as a cinnamon chimney, this enormous treat is shareable – but you might want to eat it all yourself! It is made by wrapping dough around a rotisserie skewer and cooking it slowly over hot coals so the outside gets nice and crispy. Then, once cooked, it is rolled in your toppings of choice (I recommend the classic cinnamon sugar) including almonds, chocolate powder, vanilla powder, and crushed nuts. I have also seen people walk around with ice cream-filled chimneys and I can’t say I recommend this extra indulgence as the ice cream would render the chimney cake inedible, in my humble opinion. Don’t waste a good kürtőskalács by making it into an ice cream cone!
We grew to LOVE Langos (pronounced lan-goash), especially just plain old fried dough with garlic. If you’re dairy sensitive like us, the very popular sour cream and shredded cheese doused Langos can leave the tummy in a bind. This is popular as a street food, often available in markets, strands (beach areas), and as a fast food in typical venues.
You can buy them with lots of toppings, including sweet or savory. Savory is the most popular, but powdered sugar, cinnamon sugar, or Nutella drizzled all over the dough may be reminiscent for some of an elephant ear or fried dough back in the states.
Ahhhh, guylas soup. You can order this delicious, hearty, tomatoey-beef stew at nearly every single restaurant in Hungary. It is so prominent here you can often find it in border countries like Austria, Slovakia, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina! It’s a must-try, obviously, but is also a safe bet for someone who is a bit less adventurous but still wants to try the local fare. Obviously it isn’t vegetarian. It comes with bread and sometimes a red pepper paste that is famous in Hungary. Paprika is all the rage here, as is wine from the Tokaj region, so order up a glass with your soup for an extra special local treat!
Paprikás (often chicken paprikash) is a very popular dish in Hungary that I hadn’t heard of before living there. It is made with roasted chicken in various forms (sometimes with bone, sometimes without) and a paprika sour cream sauce. It is always served with yummy spätzle, or little noodle chunks. It’s creamy and delicious, and not too spicy. Our kids always loved ordering it!
Similar to paprikás but a bit spicier, pörkölt is a meat-based “stew” that is served aside spätzle and seasoned again with paprika. As you can see, these three dishes are quite similar. They’ll leave a familiar warm heat aftertaste in your mouth from the paprika but it won’t overwhelm. Simple but delicious!
It is common to find lavender flavored treats in Hungary thanks to their famous lavender fields. During the lavender season (and especially in Tihany on Lake Balaton) you can order lavender gelato, ice cream or lemonade which I love! If you’re not into floral flavors, it’s still worth a try, especially when combined with lemon! Gelarto Rosa near St. Stephen’s Square is an absolute must for gelato!
There are also several lovely little ice cream shops around the city aptly named Lavendula that serve all the Lavender treats!
The three most popular and historic thermal baths in Budapest are Széchenyi (top left), Rudas (bottom left), and Gellért. The Széchenyi is located on the Pest side in City Park and is known for it’s late night party scene. It is huge, with fascinating yellow architecture. The Rudas and Gellért Baths are a combination of the old and new. Old “Turkish” spas in the basement date back over 500 years! The newer areas are beautiful and boast modern amenities such as saunas, ice baths, and hot/cold plunges. Pay attention to timing when you visit and avoid going with kids – many of the spas have strict rules and some have single sex time slots!
These ruin bars are really popular because they are clustered together near Szimpla Kert in District VII (the Old Jewish Quarter) and have been reimagined from the ruins of old buildings. It is a decidedly artsy place with a vibe all it’s own. It feels quite different here in the daytime compared to at night! It is a colorful, musical place!
In contrast, Margaret Island is a terrific place to come to unwind from the hustle and bustle of the city. No vehicles are allowed on the island, so plan to walk around or rent a bike or peddle buggy. The gardens are lush, the fountains dance to music, and the green space is plentiful.
CENTRAL MARKET HALL
On the south side of Pest lies the Central Market Hall. Built in the late 1800’s, this enormous market houses many shops and eateries and is worth perusing even if you’re not hungry. It’s a good place to snag a souvenir, then head straight up Vaci utca from there – another popular street for shopping and eateries!
Shoes on the Danube
This haunting and poignant memorial honors the Jewish lives lost to Arrow Cross Militiamen during World War II. The Nazi sympathizers took part in the Holocaust by ordering Hungarian Jews to remove their shoes, then they were shot and their bodies fell into the Danube and were washed away. All that remained was their shoes as a gruesome memory of the massacre. From Parliament, walk along the Danube on the Pest side until you reach the memorial, then head back towards Liberty Square and on through to St. Stephen’s Basilica.
Spot the statues!
There are so many! Instead of explaining them all or pinpointing them on a map, take a look at their photos below and keep an eye out for them in the city. There are so many fun ones to snap a photo with!
STATUES (no order): Little Princess, Girl With Her Dog, Empress Sisi, Fat Policeman, Atilla József, Ronald Reagan, Columbo, Bud Spencer, Ifj. Roskovics Ignác szobra, Shakespeare, Anonymous, Newspaper seller, Franz Liszt, Arthur Koestler
NEW YORK CAFÉ
Want to feel like a fancy socialite for the day? Make a reservation at the ornate and glamorous New York Café in Budapest! It’s expensive for a simple breakfast or lunch, but it’s a fun place to go to see the amazing decor. The building was erected in the late 1800’s as a local head office for the New York Life Insurance company; today it is a fancy hotel and gorgeous restaurant. Even if you just have coffee it will be worth it!
Just outside the city, Budapest has a “graveyard” of sorts for communist-era memorabilia. All of the statues and art from the time of Soviet occupation is collected in one park that serves as a ghostly reminder of a terrible time in Hungarian history. For more on Hungarian history, I recommend reading my synopsis at the beginning of “It’s Different Here!“
Two memorials are dedicated to the 1956 uprising in Budapest. One is located near the parliament building and represents Bloody Thursday, an important day in the Hungarian Revolution. The other is located at the Ministry of Agriculture building behind Parliament, and it commemorates the peaceful protestors who took shelter here and were gunned down during the two week uprising.
Liberty square fountain and Jewish Memorial Monument
This sculpture and fountain is a memorial to the victims of the German occupation. Although it is controversial (it is said it absolves Hungary of any wrongdoing during WWII), it is a beautiful site that has been unofficially commandeered as a Jewish memorial.
Weekend market (gozsdu UDVAR in jewish qtr)
This market is not to be missed! It is only open on weekends but it is so fun and loaded with all kinds of unique goodies and souvenirs. Support local artisans! It is also a hot spot for great food and is a must see even during the week.
CAVE CHURCH (Gellért Hill Cave)
I wouldn’t say this is a must-see, but if you are interested in such things, the Gellért Hill Cave Church is a unique place to experience. The cave houses a Catholic chapel – check times before you go!
While you’re on the Gellért Hill, definitely check out the awesome playground! This is my second favorite playground in Budapest (first is below). There are no bathroom facilities here, so plan accordingly, but there is sometimes a dude with a cart selling goodies.
This brand new playground in City Park is enormous and amazing! There are so many awesome features, great facilities, and even a wonderful skate park! This is a must visit for families.
Budapest Zoo & Botanical Garden
Also located in the City Park is the old but lovely Budapest Zoo. It is one of the oldest in the world, with features like a Japanese garden with Bonsai trees, an alligator pond, themed areas from different continents, indoor and outdoor exhibits, and it features over 1,000 animal species.
Palatinus Strand Baths
Like the popular adult thermals mentioned earlier, the Palatinus Strand Baths on Margaret Island are a wonderful place to visit – but are family friendly. Nice warm water and plenty of beautiful pools for the whole family!
City Park Ice Rink
If you’re visiting beautiful Budapest in the winter, don’t miss the City Park Ice Rink! It’s one of those big, sprawling rinks like you see in the movies. Super cool!
Like most cities, Budapest has a great ferris wheel called the Budapest Eye – it’s a great way to see near and far! Try it at night to see the iconic lights of the city!
Finally, if you’re perusing Pest during the Christmas season, don’t miss the markets! (Pandemic pending, of course). There are several different market hotspots but my favorites are near St. Stephen’s and Vaci utca!
My best advice in Budapest is just keep going! There is so much to do and see, you really can’t go wrong. If you make a list of what you want to see, you can really accomplish a lot! The city is big, but everything is within reach!
See this blog for more details on Thermal Baths.