Budapest, the capital of Hungary, is a beautiful city and often described as the “Little Paris of Middle Europe”. Influenced by the Roman, Ottoman, and Austro Hungarian Empires, there is a rich historical and cultural heritage that will keep you occupied during your visit to this amazing city.
1. Visit the Thermal Baths
Soaking up the thermal waters of Budapest is a popular past time, and is should be one of the things you definitely experience whilst visiting Budapest (especially during the winter months). The mineral rich waters are said to be effective against a variety of illnesses, although I get the impression many people just go to relax and be lazy. As the city was founded on thermal springs, there are many thermal baths to choose from, although I’ve only ever made it to three of them; Széchenyi in City park (Városliget), Dandár, and Gellért, which is in the hotel of the same name, next to Liberty Bridge (Szabadság híd).
I usually visit the Széchenyi baths, which have a range of indoor and outdoor pools at various temperatures, in addition to sauna’s and steam rooms. Unfortuantely it’s now a well established tourist attraction, which is reflected in the 5400 HUF (18 euros) entrance fee, and is probably only worth visiting if you plan to spend the day there. Other baths I have visited include the Gellért and Dandár thermal spas. Whilst the Gellért (5500 HUF) is also touristy, the main swimming pool with its Roman style pillars is a spectacular place for swimming, whereas the Dandár is smaller, quieter, and considerably cheaper (2400 HUF).
2. Take a walk along Andrássy út
As the twin capital of a dual monarchy in the Austro Hungarian Empire, Budapest has it’s fair share of impressive architectural marvels, many of which are around Andrássy út. A main thoroughfare in Budapest, this tree lined boulevard has a diverse composition including residential, University, and commercial buildings, as well as theatres and museums. At the top of Andrássy út is Heroes Square (Hősök tere), which is one of the iconic symbols of the city, and features several statues of important individuals from Hungarian history.
As you walk towards central Pest, you’ll pass the Hungarian House of Terror, which documents the fascist and communist regimes that ruled Hungary during the previous century. It’s a sombre experience.
Next up is Oktogon, one of the main intersections in the city, where you’ll find many cafes and restaurants in the surrounding streets, and as you continue towards Deák Ferenc tér, you’ll pass Budapest’s impressive Opera House, which is even more so from the inside.
3. Great Market Hall
The Great Market Hall near Liberty Bridge (Szabadság híd) is the place to go if you want to buy local produce and Hungarian specialities.
There are many stalls on the ground floor, which are quite touristy, however the basement floor is more popular with the locals. You’ll find plenty of places selling paprika, the national spice of Hungary, and palinka, the national distilate made from various types of fruit. The upper floor has some stalls selling arts, crafts, antiques, as well as a few eating places. I highly recommend the goulash soup.
4. Hungarian Parliament
Completed in 1904, the Hungarian parliament is an excellent example of Neo-Gothic architecture. Situated in Kossuth Lajos Square in central Pest, it’s the third largest parliament building in the world and is one of the most impressive buildings on the banks of Danube. Guided tours of the parliament are available in several languages, although as these are quite popular you need to book in advance.
5. Buda Castle and the Fishermans Bastion
Built in the 13th century, Buda Castle, like most larger castles in central Europe, has seen several additions and improvements over the years, and is now known as a castle and palace complex. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987, it’s a popular tourist attraction, and not something you should ignore. There are several footpaths to the top, as well as a funicular railway (if you’re feeling lazy).
The Fisherman’s Bastion is part of the castle complex, and offers excellent panoramic views of the Danube the central Pest. There are seven towers representing the seven tribes that settled in the Carpathian Basin during the 9th century, which later became Hungary. Built at the end of the 19th century in neo-Gothic and neoclassical styles, it takes it’s name from the fisherman who used to defend this area, although the terrace is more of a monument than defensive structure.
6. The Danube
Budapest is a beautiful city, and one of the best ways to experience it is from the water, ideally in the evening when the bridges and buildings are lit up. There are several companies offering guided cruises, although there is very little difference between them.
A much cheaper option is to use the BKK public transport boats which serve a variety of stops on either side of the river during the. If you’re not up for a river cruise, you can travel along the Danube by tram #2 from Jászai Mari tér to Boráros tér H. Ticket inspectors are known to frequent this route and pray on unsuspecting tourists, so remember to validate your ticket upon entering the tram. Watch out for pickpockets.
7. Citadella and Liberty Statue
The Citadella is a fortification at the top of Gellért Hill, and this area probably provides the best views of Budapest. You can also visit the Liberty Statue, which is a prominant feature of the Budapest skyline. Orginally celebrating the Soviet liberation of Hungary from the Nazis during the Second World War, today it is a symbol of freedom and Hungarian independence. It’s a fair hike to the top, especially in the blistering summer heat, although Bus #27 from Móricz Zsigmond körtér gets you relatively close.
8. Margaret Island
A large island in the centre of the Danube comprises several parks, and is a popular recreational area for swimming and running, or just having a lazy afternoon away from the crowds in the city. You can easily walk here via Margaret bridge (Margit Híd), or take trams #4 or #6, which stop on the bridge at the southern tip of the island.
9. Memento Park
Memento Park is an open-air musuem featuring many statues from the communist period (1949-1989), which were removed from their orginal locations after the fall of communism. This is a rather unique concept within Europe, as the communist statues in many other countries were destroyed following the collapse of the Soviet Union. To get here, take public transport from Budapest-Kelenföld (Buses #101 or #150), or the Memento Park direct bus transfer from Deák Ferenc tér in central Pest.
10. Exploring the Buda Hills
With an excellent network of hiking trails, the Buda Hills are a popular recreational area for locals (and visitors) who wish to escape the city for an afternoon. Perhaps the most notable attraction in this area is the Elizabeth lookout (Erzsébet-kilátó); a historic tower built on the summit of János-hegy, which at 527 m, is the highest point in Budapest. Entrance is free, and there are superb panoramic views of the city and surrounding areas. An 11.2 km narrow gauge railway snakes its way through the hills and is a convenient method of transport. The most unusual aspect of this railway (Gyermekvasút) is that it’s operated by children (under adult supervision), except the driving of the train. There are frequent buses to Normafa and Szépjuhászné, trams to Hűvösvölgy, and a chairlift from Libegő, Zugliget.
The Buda Hills are also famous for their caves, which can be a welcome respite from the intense summer temperatures – back in 2006 I visited Pálvölgy Cave which was easily accessible by bus from Kolosy tér.
Like most major cities in central and Eastern Europe, Budapest has an excellent integrated public transport system that is both efficient and cheap. A travel pass (24-hour, 72-hour, or 7-day) will take you anywhere within the city limits, and thus is probably the best option. Budapest is also an ideal city for walking around too. Whilst Buda is somewhat hilly, the major sites are within a short distance, whereas sprawling Pest is incredibly flat. Just take a decent pair of walking shoes.
Additional things to consider
Despite my numerous trips to Budapest over the years, there are still plenty of things I’ve yet to see. These include;
- Ecseri Flea Market, which is one of the biggest in Europe
- Inside the parliament building
- Visit one of the many ruin pubs
- visit a few more thermal spas