One of the Europe’s most underrated big cities, Budapest with its attractions can be as challenging as it is enchanting. Budapest (locals say “Boo-daw-pesht”) is huge, with nearly two million people. Like Vienna, the city was built as the head of a much larger empire than it currently governs. But the city is surprisingly easy to manage especially for those who are comfortable with the metro, trams and buses. I have already shared my favorite non-touristy things to do in Budapest and my favorite Budapest cafés and now it’s time to show you the more touristy places too – let me show you remarkable places to visit in Budapest.
The city is split down the center by the Danube River. On the east side of the Danube is flat Pest and on the west is hilly Buda. A third part of the city, Obuda, sits to the north of Buda. Many bridges connect Buda and Pest. From north to south there are Margaret Bridge, Chain Bridge, Elisabeth Bridge & Libery Bridge – I’ve named only those bridges that lie in the tourist zone. Budapest uses a district system (like Paris and Vienna) and there are 23 districts, identified by Roman numerals.
Budapest boomed in the late 19th century, after it became the co-capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Most of its finest buildings date from this age. In this article I will show you some of my favorite Budapest attractions.
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For me, the most impressive building of Budapest is, without a single doubt, the Hungarian Parliament, set on Danube waterfront. This building looks magnificient during the day and it’s also impressive at night, brightly illuminated in a golden glow. It continually impresses with the brilliant architecture. It’s one of the city’s top and most recognizable landmarks.
You can also stroll through Parliament and admire one of the best Budapest’s interiors for 6700 HUF / 3500 HUF for EEA citizens (European Economic Area). I haven’t done the Parliament tour, but I will do it the next time.
Near the Parliament you will find the Kossuth Lajos tér with many monuments and Museum of Etnography (Néprajzi Múzeum) with excellent collection of Hungarian folk artifacts mostly from the late 19th century. The museum also has a collection of artifacts from other European and world cultures.
ST. ISTVAN BASILICA
Budapest’s biggest church is one of the top Budapest attractions. It celebrates St. István, Hungary’s first Christian king. You can climb up stairs (or take an elevator) to a panorama terrace with views over the rooftops of Budapest. Is it worth it to pay the entrance fee and head to the panorama terrace? If you cherish some good views over the city, the answer is yes. It’s totally worth it.
The St. Istvan tér is a classic example of how Budapest has spiffed up its once gloomy downtown. This space was an ugly parking lot until a German engineering firm created an experimental parking garage beneath this square. The streets aroung this plaza have been transformed into one of Budapest’s trendiest nightlife zones with lots of bars and restaurants.
Both places are a part of Leopold Town and I’ve done the Leopold Town self-guided walking tour. It was pretty easy for me, because I was located in District V, next to the Parliament building. If you are located somewhere else, the easiest way to get there is by metro line M2.
LEOPOLD TOWN WALK
You should allow yourself 1,5 – 2 hours to do the tour (time to enter the sights is not included). I’ve started on Kossuth Lajos tér with one of the most famous Budapest attractions and decided to take a look at some nearby attrations (do the 360° turn and you won’t miss any of significant building around the Kossuth tér). From Kossuth tér you can also get the view of Buda.
After leaving Kossuth tér you can take a look on Holocaust Monument Shoes on the Danube and then head to the Liberty Square with the monument of Ronald Reagan (you will see this monument right after you’ll enter the square), the Soviet War Memorial commemorating Liberation Day, Monument to the Hungarian Victims of the Nazis (on a lighter note, the fountain that faces the monument is particulary entertaining – sensors can tell when you’re about to walk through the wall of water… and the water automatically parts just long enough for you to pass – try it). Turning your back to the monument, go left and then the first right and head down for two blocks. Those streets are home to several trendy restaurants. After that you will get to the St. Istvan Basilica and later you can walk down the traffic-free Zrinyi utca.
PEST TOWN CENTER – BELVÁROS
Pest’s Belváros (Inner Town) is its urban heart – its most beautiful and ugliest district. You’ll see fancy facades, some of Pest’s best views from the Danube embankment, richly decorated old coffeehouses, parks, pedestrianized streets and colorful market hall filled with Hungarian goodies.
The central square of the Town Center is the hub of Pest sightseeing. Within a few steps of here are the main walking street Váci utca and the Danube promenade. In Budapest’s Golden Age, Váci utca was where well-heeled urbanites would shop and then show off for one another. During the Cold War it was the first place in the Eastern Bloc where you could buy a Big Mac or Adidas sneakers. Today it’s overrated and overpriced tourist trap disguised as a pretty street. Walk Váci utca to satisfy your curiosity, but then venture off it to discover the real Budapest.
The most of the buildings you’ll see are no older than 200 years. This square is named for the 19th century poet Mihály Vörösmarty, whose statue dominates the little park in the square’s center. At the north end of the square is the landmark Gerbeaud Café and pastry shop.
GREAT MARKET HALL
It is big marketplace on three levels with produce, meats and other foods on the ground floor, souvenirs and food stalls upstairs and shops in the basement (called Hungarikum Utca). The Great Market Hall has become one of the top Budapest tourist attractions. There you’ll find salamis, goose liver, Tokaj wine, pickled peppers, paprikas of every degree of spiciness, … if it’s Hungarian, you’ll find it here. Come to shop for souvenirs or just to wander around this picturesque hall. I don’t recommend you to eat there, because the food is overpriced and you can eat better food somewhere in the city.
Along the river behind the market hall is the sleek, glass-roofed Bálna, a modern cultural center (with an extension of the Great Market Hall’s vendors, an art gallery and inviting public spaces).
HUNGARIAN NATIONAL MUSEUM
One of the Budapest’s biggest museums features all manner of Hungarian historic bric-a-brac. The museum adds substance to your understanding of Hungary’s story.
Franciscan Square is the perfect place to view Pest as a city in transition – a mix of old, sooty architecture and newly scrubber facades. The boulevard was developed in the late 19th century to connect the Keleti train station with the Elisabeth Bridge.
KÁROLY MIHÁLY UTCA & KÁROLY PARK
As you walk up the street, appreciate the pretty corner spires on the buildings. The yellow one marks the university library. At the end of the block, cross Irány utca, and you’ll be face to face with the entrance to the Central Kávéház (another of Budapest’s classic cafés).
Károly park offers the perfect break from loud and urban Pest. Once it was the private garden of the aristocratic Károly family.
Pest’s Jewish Quarter is gradually restoring its once grand sights. Today’s Jewish Quarter is a ramshackle neighborhood – still quite run-down despite its city center location that contains several synagogues, Jewish themed restaurants and other remnants of once thriving Jewish community.
In the last few years this neighborhood has emerged as Budapest’s most lively nightlife zone, known as Seventh District. It isn’t known for being the district with lots of Budapest attractions, but many tourists visit this district and its well-known ruin pubs. One of the most famous ruin pubs is Szimpla Kert, located near the Great Synagogoue. If you are interested in partying you can go on a pub crawl, also known as a “bar-hopping”.
The world’s second biggest synagogue sits tucked behind a workday building on the Small Boulevard. Attached to the synagogue is the small but well-presented Hungarian Jewish Museum and behind it’s a memorial garden with the Tree of life monument to Hungarian victims of the Holocaust. The synagogue is also a starting point for various tours of the building and of the surrounding Jewish sights.
Just two blocks behind the Great Synagogue there’s Budapest’s second-most interesting Jewish sight, Orthodox Synagogue.
Connecting downtown Pest to City Park, Andrássy út is Budapest’s main boulevard, lined with trees, shops, theaters, cafés and locals living very wel. People of Budapest like to think of Andrássy út as the Champs-Elysées and Broadway rolled into one. It’s a good place to stroll, get a feel for today’s urban Pest and visit a few top attractions on the way to Heroes Square and City Park.
Andrássy út is divided roughly into thirds. The most interesting first section from Deák tér to the Oktogon is the focus of this streetm the middle section features one major sight, the House of Terror and the final third offers fewer sightseeing opportunities. The metro line M1 runs every couple of minutes under the street, so you can skip several blocks ahead.
This is one of Europe’s finest opera houses. Built in the late 19th century it boasts one of the Budapest’s very best interiors. The 45-minute tours of the Opera House are a must for music lovers and enjoyable for everyone.
HOUSE OF TERROR / TERROR HÁZA
The building was home to the vilest parts of two destructive regimes – first the Arrow Cross, then the AVO and AVH secret police. Now reenvisioned as the “House of Terror” this building uses high-tech, highly conceptual exhibits to document the ugliest months in Hungary’s difficult 20th century. It rivals Memento park as Budapest’s best attractions about the communist age.
HEROES SQUARE AND CITY PARK
The grand finale of Andrássy út, at the edge of the city center, is also one of Budapest’s most entertaining quarters. If you walk the full lenght of Andrássy út, you’ll run right into the Heroes Square, but most visitors come with the M1 metro line and hop off at the Hősök tere stop. If you’re heading directly for the baths, you could ride to the Széchenyi fürdő stop.
HEROES SQUARE / HŐSÖK TERE
Built in 1896 (ironically it wasn’t finished until 1929) to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of the Magyars arrival in Hungary. Standing stoically in its colonnades are 14 Hungarian leaders who represent the whole span of this nation’s colorful history. It’s an ideal place to appreciate Budapest’s greatness and to learn a little about its story. Nearby you’ll find Museum of Fine Arts and Hall of Art.
It sprawls behing Heroes Square and it is endlessly entertaining. You can explore the castle of Vajdahunyad, visit the animals inside the city’s zoo, go for a stroll or take a dip in Budapest’s ultimate thermal spa, the Széchenyi Baths.
Vajdahunyad Castle is divided into four typical, traditional schools of Hungarian architecture. It’s free and always open to explore
Splashing and relaxing in Budapest’s thermal baths is the city’s top attraction. The big, yellow, copper-domed building in the middle of City Park, Széchenyi is the best of Budapest’s many bath experiences. Soak in hot water and let the jets ans cascades pour away your tension. The price of daily ticket with locker usage is 7100 HUF (weekdays) or 7600 HUF (on weekends and holidays).
Thermal baths are as Hungarian as can be. Locals brag that if you poke a hole in the ground anywhere in Hungary, you’ll find a hot water spring. Budapest has 123 natural springs ans some two dozen thermal baths – fürdő. The baths are actually a part of the health-care system. While Budapest has several mostly nude, gender segregated Turkish baths (such as Rudas), Széchenyi and Gellért are less intimidating.
The mighty river running through the heart of the city defines Budapest. Make time for a stroll along the delightful riverfront embankments of both Buda and Pest. For many, a highlight is taking beautiful boat cruise up and down the Danube – especially at night. Talking about the Danube river, you should also visit the river’s best island – Margaret Island. No cars are allowed on the island – just public buses. The island rivals City Park as the best spot in town for strolling, jogging and biking.
Some of the best views in Budapest are from this walkway facing Castle Hill. Especially the stretch between the white Elisabeth Bridge and the Chain Bridge. This is a favorite place to stroll aimlessly. Take in the views of Buda across the river – Gellért Hill, the Royal Palace and the colorful tile roof of the Matthias Church. Along the promenade it goes the tram #2 – it goes frequently in each direction and it is a handy and scenic way to connect riverside sights in Pest.
Lining the embankment are several boats – some of them are excursion boats for sightseeing trips, while other are scenic (and overpriced) restaurants. The Budapest river cruise will cost you from 9€ (if you travel on a budget) to about 88€. The river cruise is a great option to see some of Budapest attractions from the water and they look majestic – especially at night time.
The most of Budapest attractions are located in the Pest side, but there are some amazing places for sightseeing in Buda district. Nearly all of Buda’s top sights are concentrated on or near Castle Hill and Gellért Hill. There’s nothing much of interest to tourists in Buda beyond Castle Hill and Gellért Hills. The Víziváros is squeezed between Castle Hill and Danube and it’s useful home base for sleeping and eating.
CASTLE HILL WALK
Once the seat of Hungarian royalty and now the city’s highest profile tourist zone. Scenic from far, but a bit soulless from up close. The major landmarks are the green-domed Royal Palace, known as Buda Castle and the Matthias Church. In between are pedestrian streets and historic buildings. The most worthwhile attractions include also the Fisherman’s Bastion, the Hungarian National Gallery and the WWII-era Hospital in the Rock. Castle Hill is crowded with tour groups in the morning, so the best time to come is early in the morning or in the afternoon. The night views from the Fisherman’s Bastion are also spectacular.
The metro and trams won’t take you to the top of Castle Hill, but you have several other good options – a walk-escalator combination, a bus or the funicular. The funicular is a Budapest landmark. It was used as a cheap transportation to Castle Hill workers, but today it’s a pricey tourist trip. To leave the hilltop, the easiest way is just to walk down after the visit.
ROYAL PALACE & PALACE COURTYARD
The former Royal Palace has been razed and rebuilt at least half a dozen times over the past seven centuries. The Royal Palace now contains the Hungarian National Gallery, the Castle Museum and the National Szechenyi Library.
Palace Courtyard somehow feels like an empty husk and it didn’t left a mark on me. The Royal Palace wasn’t one of my favorite places in Budapest and it looked better from the Danube embankment.
From here, you’ll see how topographically different the two sides of Budapest really are. You are standing on the hilly side of Budapest (the hill is considered one of the last foothills of the Alps), but across the Danube everything is so flat. Here begins the Great Hungarian Plain, which compromises much of the country. You can’t miss some of the Budapest attractions from there – the Parliament with its giant red dome, the Chain Bridge with Gresham Palace and the St. Istvan Basilica lined beyond it.
The Parliament and St. Istvan’s are both exactly 96 meters tall – in honor of the celebration in 1896.
One of the Budapest best attractions has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. Examine the exterior of this church – most of what you see outside was added for the 1896 millennial celebration. Matthias Church is one of those buildings in Budapest that leaves you staring for a long time.
In the Middle ages the fish market was just below here – in today’s Víziváros (“Water Town”) so this part actually was guarded by fishermen. The current structure is completely artificial. Its seven pointy towers represent the seven Magyar tribes. Explore the full lenght of the bastion and enjoy in the free views from the bastion. You can also grab a cup of coffee – there are several scenic cafés along the bastion. Or you can look for a Ruszwurm café – the oldest in Budapest.
READ ALSO: The best cafés and patisseries in Budapest
GELLÉRT HILL & NEARBY
Gellért hill rises from the Danube just downriver from the castle. On the top there is a strategic fortress, built by the Habsburgs, called Citadella. There is not much to do there, but it’s a good place for an uphill hike and it provides magnificent panoramic view over all of Budapest. The hill is crowned by the Liberation Monument.
Hidden in the hillside – across the street from Gellért Hotel – is Budapest’s cave church, right into the rock face.
Although this can’t be listed as one of the Budapest attractions, there are also Gellért Baths, located at the famous and once exclusive Gellért Hotel, right at the Buda end of the Liberty Bridge.
Along the Danube towards Castle Hill from Gellért Baths, there are Rudas Baths that offers Budapest’s most old-fashioned Turkish style bathing experience.
Have you visited Budapest and some of those attractions already? How do you feel about Budapest? Let me know in the comments below or save it for your next Budapest visit.
Planing your visit to Budapest? Read this ultimate Budapest guide.