Budapest is huge with nearly two million people. The city is split down the center by the Danube River – on the east side is flat Pest (pronounced “pesht”), and on the west side is hilly Buda.
Buda is dominated by Castle Hill; Pest is divided into two sections: Leopold Town which surrounds the giant Parliament building; and Town Center which is a thriving shopping, dining, nightlife, and residential zone.
Here are our top 10 things to see and do in Budapest on your next vacation.
1. Hungarian Parliament Building
With its impressive façade and even more extravagant interior, this building dominates Pest’s skyline and is the centerpiece of the city’s banking and business district. It has a huge Neo-Gothic base topped by a soaring Neo-Renaissance dome and is one of the city’s top landmarks.
A tour of the building offers the chance to stroll through one of Budapest’s most beautiful interiors, including a 96-step grand staircase covered in gold foil and frescoes, a view into the ornate interior of the gilded dome, statues of 16 Hungarian monarchs from St. Istvan to Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa, plus a glimpse of the heavily guarded Hungarian crown. Don’t miss it.
Address: Budapest, Kossuth Lajos tér 1-3, 1055 Hungary
2. Castle Hill
An UNESCO site with the Royal Palace, museums, charming cobblestone streets, a medieval atmosphere, and the best views across the Danube to Pest.
This area includes the Hungarian National Gallery, the Budapest History Museum, WWII-era Hospital in the Rock and Nuclear Bunker, and Fisherman’s Bastion which adorns Castle Hill like a decorative frieze.
Address: Budapest, Castle Hill, Hungary
3. Matthias Church
Originally erected in the 13th century, Budapest’s finest church inside and out has been rebuilt several times. Today it is an ornately decorated lesson in Hungarian history and is arguably Castle Hill’s best site, with its frilly Neo-Gothic spire and gilded Hungarian historical motifs on every interior wall.
From the humble Loreto Chapel to altars devoted to top Hungarian kings, to a replica of the crown of Hungary inside, every inch of the church oozes history.
Address: Budapest, Szentháromság tér 2, 1014 Hungary
4. Szechenyi Baths
Many visitors to Budapest report that the thermal baths were their favorite Hungarian experience. Hungary’s Carpathian Basin is essentially a thin crust covering a vast reservoir of hot water, so Budapest has 123 natural springs and some two dozen thermal baths.
Operated by the government, they are actually part of the country’s healthcare system, with doctors prescribing treatments that include soaking, massage, and swimming laps. Szechenyi, the big copper-domed building in the middle of City Park is considered by most to be the best of Budapest’s many bath experiences.
Address: Budapest, Állatkerti krt. 9-11, 1146 Hungary
Opened: June 16, 1913
5. The Chain Bridge
Built by Scotsman Adam Clark between 1842 and 1849, this bridge connects Buda and Pest and is one of the city’s most enjoyable and convenient to cross on foot. Its entrance is guarded by sculptures of lions symbolizing power.
Like all of the city’s bridges it was destroyed by the Nazis at the end of WWII, but was quickly rebuilt.
Address: Budapest, Széchenyi Lánchíd, 1051 Hungary
Construction started: 1840
Total length: 1,230′
6. Heroes Square and City Park
The vast Heroes Square culminates at the Millenium Monument, built in 1896 to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of the Magyars’ arrival in Hungary. Standing in its colonnades are 14 Hungarian leaders who represent the entire span of this nation’s illustrious history.
The square is also flanked by two museums – The Museum of Fine Arts, and The Hall of Art – which features temporary exhibits by contemporary artists. The enjoyable and entertaining City Park sprawls beyond Heroes Square, and here one can explore the fantasy castle of Vajdahunyad, visit the city’s zoo , rent a rowboat, or just go for a stroll.
Address: Budapest, Hősök tere, 1146 Hungary
7. Great Market Hall
If it’s Hungarian, you’ll find it here. One of the city’s top tourist attractions, you’ll find t-shirts, embroidered tablecloths, pastries, green-white-red flags, and paprika of every degree of spiciness among its offerings. It’s a great place to shop for souvenirs, buy a picnic lunch, or just browse around the huge, picturesque, Industrial Age hall.
Address: Budapest, Vámház krt. 1-3, 1093 Hungary
8. House of Terror
This building was home to horrible parts of two destructive governments: The Arrow-Cross (Gestapo-like enforcers of Nazi-occupied Hungary), and later the AVO and AVH secret police (KGB-type division of the Soviet satellite government). Exhibits use high tech, conceptual formats to document the sad, ugly moments in Hungary’s difficult 20th century. Thought-provoking and well presented, it is one of Budapest’s top attractions about the communist era.
Address: Budapest, Andrássy út 60, 1062 Hungary
9. Evening Cruise on the Danube
A nighttime boat ride offers one of the most beautiful views of Budapest. The buildings along the river are lit up in the evening, providing an amazing and incredibly dramatic view of this lovely city. Particularly impressive is the Parliament Building all lit up, its lights reflected in the river below. Many of the cruises offer drinks and light appetizers as part of the experience.
Address: Budapest, Károly krt. 5, 1075 Hungary
10. Eat Hungarian Goulash!
Don’t miss the opportunity to sample Hungary’s national dish – pronounced “goo-yash.” It’s a delicious stew or soup-type dish of beef, potatoes, onion, parsnip, carrots, tomatoes, celery, and green pepper in a wonderful sauce made from paprika (lots of it!), garlic, caraway seed, salt and pepper. It can be made with extra water and served as a soup with crusty bread, or as a stew over dumplings, noodles, or even rice. Bon Appetit!