I first visited Budapest in the spring of 2014. And then this October, Colin, Ellie and I visited again. Budapest is a city I could keep coming back to. It’s beautiful, full of great culture and architecture, and it’s certainly not boring. There are just so many things to do in Budapest!
In fact, I can think of 21 things to do in Budapest!
Without further ado, here’s everything you should add to your Budapest itinerary.
Go on a night cruise
One of the best things to do in Budapest is take a night cruise along the Danube River. The Danube River runs right through Budapest and splits it into the towns of Buda and Pest. Yes, Budapest is a portmanteau!
A lot of Budapest’s famous sights are along the river, and taking a cruise is a great way to see them. It’s also a great way to get a lay of the land and orient yourself in the city, like going on a walking tour. There are tons of boat tours offered, most including an audio guide and some with dinner and a show.
But I especially recommend going at night so you can see Budapest all lit up. The prettiest sight is the Parliament Building. It was so magical to see the ginormous parliament building glowing in the night with a flock of white birds circling around the top. Even with the group of Italian ladies talking very loudly next to us, it was still a really nice experience.
Walk across the Széchenyi Chain Bridge
The Széchenyi Chain Bridge is Budapest’s famous bridge over the Danube with lion statues guarding each end. It’s Budapest’s version of the Brooklyn Bridge or Golden Gate Bridge. It was the first bridge to be constructed over the Danube in Budapest and, at the time, was said to be an engineering wonder.
I don’t know much about bridges, but I’ve seen a number of remarkable ones during my travels. The Chain Bridge is certainly worth a visit!
Stroll along the Danube
I promise not all of these itinerary items will be related to the river. But it really is the heartbeat of Budapest. Besides taking a cruise along it and a bridge over it, it’s also really nice to stroll along the Danube.
We walked along the Pest side with Ellie, enjoying the warm October weather and nice scenery. It’s a very picturesque walk past bridges, islands and sights on the other bank. Plus, it leads to the next two things to do in Budapest!
Take a moment at the Shoes on the Danube Bank
The Shoes on the Danube Bank is a memorial along the Danube river that was created by Gyula Pauer in 2005. It’s in memory of the Jewish people in Budapest who lost their lives during the Holocaust. Jews were made to strip, leaving behind all of their valuables, including their shoes, and then were shot in the back of the head. Their dead bodies would then fall into the river.
This memorial is super powerful. It’s so simple but it’s a really jarring look at history. And, excuse the pun, a very visual way to stand in the shoes of the people who lost their lives.
It’s also a very crowded memorial. When we visited in late October, there were lots of people and I’m sure it’s even worse in the summer. Please remember to be respectful when visiting. Photos are okay but selfies are probably not.
Gawk at the Parliament Building
The Hungarian Parliament Building is one of the landmarks of Budapest and is not to be missed. Even if you saw it at night on your river cruise, it’s worth another trip in the daytime. This building is absolutely massive and the detailing on it is beautiful. At 193,800 sq ft, it’s the largest building in Hungary.
They do offer guided tours of the building, but Colin and I just opted to walk around the exterior. It was a beautiful day and we had Ellie with us, so this worked better. Plus, we weren’t too interested in a tour (or paying for it). The outside of the building was interesting enough for us but I’d love to hear if the inside is worth going back for!
Admire St. Stephen’s Basilica
St. Stephen’s Basilica is one of the most famous churches in Budapest. This beautiful Roman Catholic church, named for the first King of Hungary, was opened in 1905. Today it’s still a beautiful church and set in a really lively square.
I loved how we caught our first glimpse of this church. We were coming around the corner and then, out of nowhere, there was this giant church and the sun was hitting it perfectly. Again, we didn’t go in, but it was very pretty to check out from the outside.
Try to see the Hungarian State Opera
Budapest’s opera house, the Hungarian State Opera, is supposed to be a beautiful neo-Renaissance style building. It was opened in 1884 but as of our visit in 2019, it was under construction.
We walked all the way down the street just to catch a glimpse of this famous building, only to see that it was completely covered in tarp and scaffolding. All we could do was laugh! PS: If you’re familiar with Jack Whitehall’s Travels with My Father (check it out on Netflix!), they had a very similar experience in Budapest. When is this building not under construction?
Shop along Andrássy Avenue
Even though we didn’t see the opera house, we did see some other beautiful buildings on Andrássy Avenue. Andrássy Avenue is one of Budapest’s most famous streets, known for it’s neo-Renaissance architecture. It also became a World Heritage Site in 2002. So basically, this street is gorgeous!
And it’s also the place to be if you want to do some high-end shopping. Of course, hitting up Cartier or Louis Vuitton isn’t usually a part of our trip itineraries but we did enjoy admiring the street and buildings.
Visit the Dohány Street Synagogue
Another famous religious site in Budapest is the Dohány Street Synagogue. The Dohány Street Synagogue is actually the largest synagogue in Europe, with a seating capacity of 3000 people. Built in the 1850’s, the building sustained major damage during WWII. But following the war, it once again became a prayer house for the Jewish community. Rebuilding began in the 1990’s and the building is once again strong and beautiful today.
In addition to being a very beautiful building, there’s also a WWII memorial in the back courtyard. Even if the synagogue isn’t open, you’re able to see the memorial from the sidewalk. The main art piece looks like a weeping willow and bears the names of the 400,000 Hungarian Jews who lost their lives during WWII.
Take photos at the New York Cafe
The New York Cafe is said to be the most beautiful cafe in the world. And it is beautiful (check out my blog post to see how beautiful). But is the New York Cafe in Budapest worth it? I didn’t think so. My advice is to skip eating there and just pop in for a few photos! If you do want to stay for a meal, be sure to make a reservation online in advance (and to lower your expectations in terms of service and quality!).
Wander around Buda Castle
Over on the Buda side of the river, we have the Buda Castle. This is definitely one of the coolest, and most crowded, parts of Budapest. The best part is that you can wander around the castle, through the courtyards and to the viewing areas all for free. There’s lots to see like the fountain, lion statues, and beautiful view over the river.
When we visited, there was some political event happening, so the area was even busier as certain streets and buildings were closed off. The funicular that runs up to the castle was also closed, making it a little harder to access. We ended up taking a bus partway and then walking up the stairs (that I complained about the whole time). But the big walk up was well worth it!
Look up at Matthias Church
An easy walk from Buda Castle, and up at the same elevation, is the area of Fisherman’s Bastion. The big icon of the area is Matthias Church. Seriously, you can’t miss it. Technically the Church of the Assumption of the Buda Castle, Matthias Church was originally built in the 11th Century and has been updated or rebuilt every century since.
The most impressive part of this church is definitely the giant tower that you can see from miles away. But there are lots of other beautiful details to take in like the doorways and roof tiles. We didn’t go in as it was closed, but I’m sure the inside is gorgeous too. The churches in Europe rarely disappoint!
Explore Fisherman’s Bastion
Fisherman’s Bastion is my favourite part of Budapest. I remember first exploring this area when I visited back in 2014. It was a beautiful sunny day in March and we happened to be visiting during a national holiday. So we got to enjoy hitting up a food market, listening to music performers and, not to mention, wandering around this awesome castle structure.
Fisherman’s Bastion is still a great spot in Budapest, though a lot more crowded than I remembered. I’ve heard from some influencers that if you go first thing in the morning, you can enjoy the area almost by yourself (you might be sharing it with a few other influencers and their tripods). But even when it’s busy, it’s still a pretty cool spot. If you ever built a castle out of cardboard as a kid, this is like that come to life.
Tour Hospital in the Rock
The Hospital in the Rock was definitely one of our favourite things to do in Budapest and was such a great find. This little hospital turned museum is tucked away, as the name implies, in the rock under Fisherman’s Bastion. You can only visit on a tour, and English tours are given every hour, on the hour. Only 25 people can go on the tour at a time and you can’t buy tickets in advance. There are no photos allowed, and it’s cold inside the museum, so they even offer coats you can wear during the tour. I know it sounds like a lot of hoops to jump through but I promise, it’s worth it!
During WWII, the hospital was created so Budapest could treat their sick and wounded during air raids. It was built within the cave system of Buda Hill, a natural cave system that was created by glaciers. After WWII, the hospital closed and then was re-opened during the Cold War and also used as a nuclear bunker.
Today, you can go on a tour through the caves to see how it was once used as a hospital and war bunker, as well as learn some of the history of Budapest. It’s so cool because where else do you get to see a hospital in a cave? It’s also a great opportunity to learn about history on a small group guided tour, a treat for Colin and I as those are usually out of our budget.
Grab a drink at Szimpla Kert
Szimpla Kert is one of the ruin bars that Budapest is best known for. Ruin bars are a staple of Budapest nightlife (at least for tourists, that is!). They’re basically large pre-war apartment buildings that have been converted into bars. They’re not as rebellious or underground as they once were, especially not popular ones like Szimpla Kert, but they are still really cool.
We’re not big nightlife people. But even we managed to drag ourselves out after dark to spend a couple of hours at the ruin bars. And it was awesome! The best part was just wandering around Szimple Kert and discovering all of the cool rooms and decor. I remember first visiting back in 2014 but it was still cool five years later. And, because it’s us, you know we were still home by 10 eating take-out on the couch.
Learn about history at the House of Terror
The House of Terror is a museum that shares the terrors Budapest went through during World War II and the Cold War. The museum is also built on the site where victims were imprisoned, tortured and killed, making it even more impactful.
Be warned: this museum is one of the most popular attractions in Budapest. We visited on a rainy weekday in late October and it was still lined up around the block. By some stroke of luck, we managed to walk in right behind a tour group and joined the line inside without having to wait out in the rain. I swear we weren’t trying to butt the line; we just happened to walk in from the metro and the door was being held open. It wasn’t until we got inside that it started to dawn on us that we might have skipped something…
Okay, back to the museum! This museum is extremely design-focused. From an artistic perspective, it’s really beautiful and has lots of creative elements. There are videos from survivors telling their stories, interesting artifacts and displays, and you can even walk through cells and rooms that used to hold prisoners.
But the down side is that it’s not laid out very well for accessibility. There were lots of very tiny corridors and sections where you had to turn around and exit the other way – not a great idea in a crowded museum. At the very end, there’s an elevator down to the prison cells, but it only comes every five minutes as there’s a video display that happens while you ride the elevator. While I appreciated the creativity of a video display, waiting five minutes between every group of eight people in a very crowded museum is not a good idea. Basically, I think this place was designed beautifully but not for the number of people who visit it these days.
The other downside was the flow of the museum. There weren’t plaques to describe most of the artifacts. There were info sheets at the beginning of every room which were helpful for context, but often didn’t describe the actual displays. I think there might have been an audio guide, which I wish we had opted for!
Bottom line: The House of Terror is definitely worth visiting. Try to buy tickets ahead if you can, pack your patience and grab an audio guide if one is available!
Walk around Heroes’ Square
Heroes’ Square or Hősök tere is a big square in Budapest located at the end of Andrassy Avenue. There’s a large pillar in the middle and columns on the side, with lots of statues of famous Hungarians.
We didn’t visit Heroes’ Square this trip but I did visit back in 2014. I remember it being pretty cool, but very far away. Granted, it was a cold March day and we walked there. But if you’re in the area, or visiting in warmer temperatures, definitely stop by!
Visit the Cave Church
Budapest has a thing about building places in caves and it’s the coolest! In addition to a hospital, they also built a church within the rocks of Gellért Hill Cave. This cave church was first built in the 1920’s. During WWII, church leaders saved refugees by dressing them like monks. Sadly, during the communist regime the cave church was walled up. In 1989, it was opened again and today you can tour the church as well as visit for service.
This is a church that you have to pay to enter, but it’s not too expensive and well worth it. Your entrance fee gets you an audio guide that you can play while you walk around the church. The guide starts with an emphasis on the history and construction of the cave but it gets pretty religious towards the end. Even if you’re not into that, the cave church is still really cool and a fun thing to do in Budapest.
Take a dip in the thermal baths
You really can’t visit Budapest without visiting one of their thermal baths. This city is famous for their bath houses Budapest is built on a series of thermal springs and heading to the baths has been a tradition since the Roman times. Today, it’s still a popular activity for both locals and tourists.
Budapest has many baths but the most famous ones are the Gellert Thermal Bath and Széchenyi Thermal Bath. There are also lots of small baths but we opted for the Gellert Bath because it was beautiful and just across the bridge from our Airbnb!
I was super happy with the Gellert Bath. It really is a beautiful bathhouse so in addition to enjoying the waters, you also have some beautiful architecture to admire. Being one of the more popular baths it is busy, but apparently Szechenyi is way worse. Be warned: the baths are expensive! We paid $26 CAD each for entrance to the baths and use of lockers. This is the cheapest price (lockers aren’t optional) and the price only goes up if you want to add spa services or rent things like towels and flip flops. I highly recommend bringing your own towel and flip flops!
Once you’re in, get changed and claim a locker. I learned the hard way that it’s not a good idea to bring your towel around with you to the baths (unless you have more than one towel). I brought mine from bath to bath and more than once it got dropped on the floor. Meaning when it came time for us to shower, change and head home, my towel was soaked.
Leaving your towel behind, you can now explore the Gellert baths! There are two main baths inside, as well as smaller rooms off to each side, saunas and cold plunge pools. It’s a bit of a maze to find all of the baths but they’re worth seeking out. There are also outside baths, which are super fun in the cold weather. We only spent a couple of hours there, but your entrance ticket is good for the whole day. If you have the time, I highly recommend bringing a book (head to the second floor for nice lounge chairs with a view), grabbing lunch at the cafe, and maybe splurging on a spa service.
Explore more caves
I told you Budapest was all about the caves! This time we went to the Hospital in the Rock and the Cave Church, but back in 2014 I also went exploring in some of the Buda caves. I’m a little foggy on the details but I do remember it was a long trek from our hostel in Pest to reach these caves. Google tells me there are lots of cave exploring options in Budapest, so if that sounds fun to you, go for it!
Eat Hungarian food
Full disclosure: I did not eat a lot of Hungarian food. I’m just not a goulash kind of person. But I do have a few recommendations. The Great Market Hall in Budapest is not to be missed. It’s a massive indoor market with fresh produce on the ground floor, and prepared meals and souvenirs on the second floor. It can get very crowded, but it’s still a lot of fun. And it’s where Colin and I got langos, which is like a deep fried Hungarian pizza. We paid way too much for them but they were delicious!
Other great meals we had were burgers and yam fries from Chilly’s and this amazing salmon I got from a restaurant up at Fisherman’s Bastion called Ramazuri Bistronomy. Clearly we’re not great at eating local. But I put out a call on Twitter and Bronwen of @babblesnbooks said, “We went to Vintage Garden and the panorama restaurant at the Fisherman’s Bastion, which were amazing. Mr Funk and High Note Skybar were also amazing.” Bon appetit!
And there you have it! Those are my suggestions for 21 things to do in Budapest.
A couple of honourable mentions that didn’t quite make my list: climbing up to Gellert Hill to check out the statues and the awesome view, and visiting Margaret Island, the island in the middle of the Danube. I’ve heard both of these things are great, and apparently I did them both briefly in 2014, but my memory is a little hazy on the details. I guess I’ll have to revisit them on my next visit to Budapest!
If you can’t tell by now, Budapest is an incredible city. Honestly, it’s one of my favourites. There’s so much to do and it’s not just boring museums or same-old parks. There is stuff in Budapest that you won’t find anywhere else. And it’s enough to keep you entertained for a while, not just a day or two. Plus, it’s affordable! If you’re looking for a spot in Europe to spend 3+ days with a ton to see and do, beautiful architecture, and you’re sticking to a budget, look no farther than Budapest. I highly recommend it!
Have you been to Budapest? What was your favourite thing to do?
Or, if you haven’t been, have I convinced you to book the trip?
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