Nicknamed the “Paris of the East,” Budapest is Hungary’s thriving capital city known for its thermal baths and UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There are plenty of cultural attractions to keep your itinerary full, including Castle Hill and its medieval history to beautiful churches, classic concerts and quaint outdoor cafes. From soaking in the city’s famous baths to river cruises down the Danube, here are the best things to do in Budapest.
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Marvel at Buda Castle
Start your exploration of Budapest at Castle Hill, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates back to the 11th century when protective walls were created to keep Mongolian attackers out. Towering over the Danube, the 18th century Buda Castle is a massive 200-room palace that houses the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum. Make sure to see the other iconic landmarks on Castle Hill, such as Matthias Church, to admire its beautiful architecture and learn about its historical symbolism.
Soak in the Széchenyi Baths
Considered a quintessential Budapest experience, you can’t leave the city without soaking in its thermal baths. Heated by natural thermal springs, there are more than 100 places you can choose to unwind, but the most popular is the Széchenyi Baths in City Park. Dating back to 1913, these baths include 18 pools and look more like a Baroque palace than a medicinal bath. Enjoy the pools, sauna and steam bath, or take a few laps while admiring its grandiose architecture.
Take a Danube River Cruise
An excellent activity for both day and night, seeing Budapest’s beauty unfold before you on a river cruise is particularly spectacular. Embark on a cruise and learn interesting facts about the history of the city, the buildings and cruise past some of the most iconic landmarks. You can take a day trip that includes a stroll through Margaret Island, while more romantic buffet-style dinner cruises are also available. Evenings on the water are absolutely stunning, as the city is illuminated against the reflection of the Danube.
See a performance at Budapest Opera House
Dating back to 1884, the Budapest Opera House is considered a cultural institution in Budapest. The Neo-Renaissance style venue has a reputation for its excellent acoustics, best appreciated at a live show. If you can’t attend one, however, visit the venue to admire its opulent architectural details that include marble columns, gilded vaulted ceilings, bronze chandeliers and beautiful murals and frescoes that depict Greek mythology. One of the best opera houses in the world, it is well worth taking a tour.
Admire Hungary’s Parliament Building
One of Budapest’s most famous landmarks, the Parliament Building is known for its Gothic Revival architecture, beautiful statues and paintings. Serving as a symbol of the country’s independence, take a 45-minute tour of its interior to learn about its 691 rooms and impressive 11 miles of corridors and stairs. Whenever the National Assembly is not in session, you can see one of its lobbies, the old House of Lords and the Hungarian Crown Jewels.
Explore Fisherman’s Bastion
For some of the best panoramic views of the city, head to Fisherman’s Bastion. The Neo-Gothic terrace overlooking the Danube offers visitors a chance to soak up the sights, while the seven ornate turrets and fairytale-like ambiance make it feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Explore the Neo-Romanesque complex of courtyards, colonnades and walls and admire the bronze equestrian statue of St. Stephen, the first King of Hungary. This is a great area to take photographs of the Danube, Margaret Island and Pest.
Shop at the Central Market Hall
If you want to mingle with locals, spend a day browsing the Central Market Hall. Built in the 19th century, it is the largest indoor market in Budapest and features local vendors showcasing traditional Hungarian products. You’ll find anything from meats, cheese, fruits and vegetables on the first floor, then you can venture to the second floor to pick up a variety of handicrafts, clothing, embroidery and chessboards. It has an interesting history, as ships sailed right into the building using special docks when it first opened.
Marvel at artwork in the Museum of Fine Arts
Showcasing the history of visual arts in Europe, the Museum of Fine Arts displays impressive paintings, drawings and sculptures from European origin. One of the highlight exhibitions is the horseman sculpture carved by Leonardo da Vinci, while it also boasts an extensive collection of 19th and 20th-century paintings and the second largest Spanish art collection outside of Spain. Admire Italian sculptures that date back to the 4th century, Egyptian and ancient art, Medieval drawings and Late Gothic paintings.
Visit the historic St. Stephen’s Basilica
Dedicated to St. Stephen, Hungary’s holy king that was the founder of the Hungarian state, St. Stephen’s Basilica is beloved for its beautiful architecture, ornate interior and panoramic views from its dome. Walk inside to see its precious mosaics that adorn its walls, including the five-part Venetian mosaic that represents the allegories of the mass, then see the holy relic displayed under glass in the chapel. For a bird’s-eye view of the city, climb up the 364 steps of the basilica to the cupola.
Take a break on Margaret Island
Only 1.5 miles long and 1,600 feet wide, Margaret Island is a tranquil escape from the bustle of the city. A highlight of the island is the Palatinus Baths, a 17-acre spa complex where thermal spring-fed medicinal baths and beautiful gardens and paths offer a tranquil atmosphere. Take a tour of the island to see the Centennial Memorial, a Japanese Garden, a small zoo and music fountain. There’s also an outdoor theater that hosts operas, concerts and plays in the summer.
Have coffee in New York Cafe
Considered one of the most beautiful cafes in the world, New York Cafe offers a sophisticated ambiance to enjoy after a day of sightseeing. Occupying the ground floor of the New York Palace, an opulent renaissance revival building that dates back to 1894, the cafe has a long history known for its bohemian crowd of artists and entertainers. Preserving its original decorations and showcasing the charm of the Belle Epoque, the ceiling boasts ornate frescoes, Venetian lamps reflect off gold plated stuccoes and gleaming marble columns.