Whether it’s playing chess alfresco while soaking in thermal waters, eating a crispy lángos snack of deep-fried dough, or embarking on an epic night out hopping between hip ruin pubs, Budapest offers many activities that cannot be experienced anywhere else in the world. Among all of the not-to-be-missed experiences to discover in the Magyar metropolis, we’ve rounded up a collection of ten must-try sensations to help you draft the ultimate Budapest bucket list.
When browsing through iconic travel snapshots of Budapest, it’s hard to miss the legendary Széchenyi Bath – as one of Europe’s biggest spa complexes, this landmark wellness facility is a picturesque sight of numerous thermal-water pools and statuesque structures. However, the spa’s most-photographed part must be the steamy outdoor pool area featuring chessboards surrounded by intently focused soakers. But who said that only locals can join the fun? If you are a chess aficionado or just simply want to show off your gaming skills, you can challenge those regulars while letting your muscles melt amid the heated waters. Apart from Széchenyi, Budapest is sprinkled with other unique thermal spas, like the Rudas Bath – now featuring a new rooftop hot tub with a breathtaking panorama – or the imposing Gellért Bath adorned with intricate Art Nouveau design. Meanwhile, those who would like to bask in peaceful serenity can opt for the quiet pools of the Turkish-style Veli Bej Bath near the Buda side of Margaret Bridge.
Rise from the foot of the Chain Bridge all the way up to the Buda Castle in style, while admiring the breathtaking panorama of the iconic lion-guarded span, the fast-flowing Danube, the grand Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace, and the massive dome of St. Stephen’s Basilica pointing skyward in the background. The wooden-framed funicular was the second vehicle of its kind ever built, and with a capacity of transporting 24 passengers at a time in either direction, it’s a truly moving attraction of the Hungarian capital. However, it’s not only the sprawling vistas that enchant riders – the vintage vibe of the glass-lined carts present a one-of-a-kind experience to passengers on board of this cliffside cableway. Those who can’t get enough of Budapest’s retro railways should not miss a timeless ride with the city’s classic yellow underground – the very first metro line of Continental Europe – running under notable sights of downtown Pest.
Embark on a time-transcending journey to Budapest’s communist era, get a feel of the country’s times under Soviet control, and try to comprehend what life was like while experiencing every day amid occupying forces. One of the most shocking testaments to this time is the House of Terror Museum, located on prominent Andrássy Avenue – formerly the secret-police headquarters of the State Security Office. Those who enter will face unsettling scenes, while learning about the atrocities that occurred in Hungary during the 20th-century communist regime. The interactive showcase commemorates the victims of repression who were detained, interrogated, tortured, and killed in the building. In addition to these disturbing displays, the city’s struggle-infused past is reflected across many locales, which are unveiled to visitors through the communist-themed excursions hosted by Free Budapest Walking Tours, offering daily guided strolls that include key sites of the 1956 Revolution against Soviet repression.
There is no better place to solve the mysterious Rubik’s Cube than within the puzzle’s actual birthplace, Hungary’s capital. Invented by Hungarian architect and professor Ernő Rubik in 1974 as a demonstration for his students, this colorful 3D game has kept the young and old occupied throughout the decades since then, and it’s available for purchase literally everywhere from the United States to India to Australia – and naturally here in Budapest. Plenty of alternative versions have been developed from Rubik’s original idea, and now different varieties feature LED-lit cubes, irregularly shaped forms, and online incarnations, while various contests testify to its ongoing popularity, like the speed-cubing competition (the current record stands at 5.25 seconds, held by American teenager Collin Burns). If you don't already have one, you can get hold of this playful invention at Reflexshop (Budapest 1067, Eötvös Street 39) near Nyugati Square. Other colorful Hungarian inventions worth acknowledging while touring the Magyar metropolis include László Bíró’s ballpoint pen and Dénes Gábor’s holograph.
Attain the key to the exit door of dimly lit rooms and dark cellars while racing the clock by visiting an escape-room game, a relatively recent local invention that spread across the Hungarian capital and beyond. Ranging from secret-agent scenes to horror themes, many different types of enclosed chambers challenge guests to figure out how to break free at many locales all around the city, like the creepy circus-themed e-exit on Nyár Street in downtown Budapest, or Gozsdu Mission within the bustling nightlife zone of Gozsdu Udvar, where four haunted rooms await adrenaline addicts. However, it’s not only Budapest’s central districts that are home to these panic-inducing scenes: adventurous souls can try to escape from a bloodcurdling atmosphere with serial killers and bank robbers at the Locked Escape Game on Buda’s Vérmező Road, while Kalózbarlang (“Pirate Cave” in Hungarian) offers a one-of-a-kind treasure-hunt experience in Budapest’s District X.
Budapest is becoming a notable culinary capital of Europe, and classic Hungarian dishes are part of the reason why. Many delicious Hungarian delicacies reveal Turkish and Austrian influences throughout history, and today goulash and paprika chicken are edible icons of this country, with dashes of spices and lots of meat as the local cuisine’s main characteristics. Even though paprika pretty much comprises a central part of the country’s gastronomy, there is more than just crimson stews on the menu for anyone who craves traditional treats: light eaters can sample a variety of thick and saucy vegetable pottages at HOKEDLI on Nagymező Street, while people with a big appetite should grab an oil-soaked lángos (deep-fried dough topped with sour cream, cheese, and garlic) at the recently renovated Klauzál Square Market Hall – and if that’s not enough, a sugar-coated chimney cake is a scrumptious conclusion to any meal, offered by Molnár Kürtőskalács on Váci Street all year round. Many eateries provide high-quality Hungarian eats across Budapest, like the rustic Kéhli in Buda’s District III, the trendy Menza on Pest’s lively Liszt Ferenc Square, or the epicurean Émile in District II on the Buda side.
For many people, Budapest is revered for its affordably priced alcohol offered across high-class and downscale drinking destinations citywide. Whether we find ourselves ordering a glass of full-bodied red wine to accompany our culinary delicacy at a fancy restaurant, or a glass of sparkling fröccs (wine mixed with soda water in varied proportions) in one of the city’s hip ruin pubs, or a pint of locally brewed beer at a casual riverfront hangout, various regional tipples can be found for all tastes and occasions. Magyar-made wines are revered for their quality and diversity, from dark-scarlet Egri Bikavér to sweet golden Tokaji Aszú, and we can sample them at many wine bars across town – notable locales include DiVino right across from St. Stephen’s Basilica or Doblo in the heart of Pest’s Jewish Quarter. Alongside Hungary’s centuries-old winemaking traditions, a new culture of small-scale craft beer is rapidly advancing as well, with an increasing number of world-class brew bars opening up around the city, such as Jónás Craft Beer House within the whale-shaped edifice of Bálna beside the Danube. If you long for a high-spirited tipple, don’t miss out on a few pálinka shots made of plum, apricot, pear, or grapes; you can sample a good choice of this aromatic drink at 5 cl, located in District VII.
Attracting an ever-increasing crowd of eccentric globetrotters, Budapest’s renowned ruin pubs play a great part in elevating the city among the top global destinations for bohemian souls, competing with number-one hipster hangouts like London and Berlin. The first generation of ruin pubs embarked on their journey to fame more than a decade ago, with the now iconic Szimpla and Instant featuring surreal art and psychedelic settings amid crumbling brick walls of abandoned buildings. Seeing the instant sensation, many more locales tapped into this success formula – like Fogas Ház and Ellátó Kert – and now ruin bars are part of this city’s DNA to attract an ever-increasing nonconformist crowd. But are Budapest’s ruin pubs becoming an endangered species with all the changing urban circumstances that surround them, and with the sleek new-wave ruin bars that popped up during the past few years, like the streamlined Mazel Tov or Anker’t? We certainly hope that they will persevere into the future of partying, and that we can continually enjoy many alcohol-infused nights amid the dreamlike vibes that these places provide.
Anyone wandering the streets of Budapest will inevitably come across rundown taverns characterized by a heavy alcohol smell lingering around the entrance, where drunkards gather around the counter amid ill-lit settings. These bars often sell inexpensive wines (e.g. 80 forints per glass, equal to 0.25 euro) and cheap alcohol concoctions for their sleazy clientele, and while dive bars provide a whole different kind of experience from visiting a ruin pub, trying one certainly won’t be at the top of everyone’s list. However, not all bars of its kind are exactly decrepit establishments – many of these watering holes sell higher quality drinks for lower prices, while still offering a colorful dive-bar atmosphere, without being overtly hazardous to your health. Among these belongs the Amigo Bar (Budapest 1072, Hársfa Street 1), featuring a countryside rockabilly-roadhouse vibe, or Klub Vittula with its anarchic ambience and graffiti-covered walls; both bars are located in District VII. On the other side of the river in one of Buda’s most upscale neighborhoods, the Rózsadomb Presszó (Budapest 1024, Margit krt. 7) accurately feels like a holdover from the 1980s with its pink-and-blue neon lights and inexpensive drinks.
Fortunately, an increasing number of local residents speak English in Budapest, and the proportion increases dramatically as we dive deeper into main tourist zones. While almost anyone can navigate around the city for a few days without much hassle, knowing a few expressions of the local language will surely earn many appreciative smiles, along with a few new friends (plus, you can tap into all the aforementioned action with much greater ease). For those who decide to scratch the surface of the Magyar language, the possibilities are endless, ranging from humor-filled Hungarian textbooks to online podcasts to stopping random strangers on the street. To pick up a few basics in a playful and easy way, sign up for Fungarian’s cheerful crash courses, where learning is combined with basic orientation to Budapest’s geography and culture, with an optional walking tour around town covering some of the city’s prime sights. After the session, overhearing the word “puszi” (“kiss” in Hungarian) won’t feel awkward anymore.