50 best things to do in Budapest
Attracting record numbers of visitors, Budapest is the destination of choice for many a discerning traveller looking to explore the historic Castle District, soak in the guidebook-superstar Széchenyi Baths and carouse at Szimpla, the pioneer of ruin bars. But there are many more things to do around town – here’s our guide to the best 50.
Ride scenic tram 2
Frequently cited as the most panoramic tram journey in the world, the rattling old-school streetcars of line 2 are often packed with tourists enjoying a ride along the Pest Embankment. The trip, connecting Jászai Mari tér by Margaret Bridge with south Pest, showcases the historic sights along the Buda bank, all for a price of a regular transport ticket.
Gorge on lángos, Hungary’s top street food
The national street food, lángos, is deep-fried dough, crispy on the outside and soft within. Drenched in as much oil as the body can possibly handle and slathered with a messy assembly of calorie-busting toppings, it’s as irresistible as it sounds. You’ll find this disc-shaped compunction at major market halls and tourist-favourite hangouts, where it’s often served with unusual toppings.
Ascend to the Castle aboard the historic funicular
From the Buda side of Chain Bridge, the funicular whisks you up to the Castle District in three minutes. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, these old-fashioned cars are connected like counterbalancing pendulums: while one runs uphill, the other goes down. It’s a highly popular attraction, so be prepared for queues.
Gaze over Budapest from Fishermen’s Bastion
Running parallel to the Danube, this former medieval wall built to protect Buda Castle is now the first port of call for many a visitor to Hungary’s capital. Every day, hundreds pose by it for photos backdropped by views over the Danube and the Pest cityscape. A distinguishing feature is the cone-topped turrets that represent the seven Magyar chieftains who settled here to found the present-day nation more than 1,100 years ago.
Take a guided tour of the National Gallery
Currently housing the National Gallery of fine arts, the Royal Palace contains a chronological display of Hungarian art from medieval Gothic to Habsburg-era master Mihály Munkácsy. The museum offers regular guided tours around their permanent and crowd-pulling temporary exhibitions in English – booking is available here.
Stroll showcase Andrássy út
Tree-lined showcase boulevard Andrássy út runs from Erzsébet tér in the city centre to landmark Heroes’ Square. Flanked by high-end boutiques and century-old villas, this is where you also find the Hungarian State Opera (currently closed for renovation), while nearby Liszt Ferenc tér is graced by the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, an institution founded by the composer himself.
Play chess in the spa waters of the Széchenyi Baths
Curtains of steam rise from the open-air thermal pools of the Széchenyi Baths, where soakers enjoy muscle-melting pleasures come snow or shine. By day, regulars play chess in the water – ask if you can join the game or gather some new-found friends and take to the board for this strategic challenge.
Discover the heroes on Heroes’ Square
Honouring the kings and statesmen whose lives had a major impact on Hungary’s history, a semi-circular colonnade gives a distinctive outline to Heroes’ Square, gateway to City Park. The grand monument is centrepieced by the equestrian embodiment of the seven chieftains, the original tribal leaders of the Hungarians at the time of their arrival in the Carpathian Basin.
Admire the Roman Hall at the Museum of Fine Arts
Recently reopened after a comprehensive overhaul, the Museum of Fine Arts contains the elaborate Roman Hall, a medieval-style structure covered with colourful murals. As part of the museum’s permanent collection, it also presents relics from Ancient Egypt, and works by Raphael, Titian and El Greco.
Ride the historic Millennium Underground
The yellow Millennium Underground runs under many of Budapest’s landmarks, as its cars zip from downtown Vörösmarty tér through low-ceilinged tunnels beneath the length of Andrássy út. Referred to as the Kisföldalatti by locals, this was the first underground in Continental Europe, built for the 1896 Millennial Jubilee to commemorate the Magyars’ arrival in Hungary.
Start the day with a Hungarian breakfast
When in Hungary, don’t miss out on Hungarian breakfast treats. Typical eats consumed as a morning booster include scrambled eggs with smoked sausage, egg-coated fried bread bundáskenyér and everyone’s favourite kakaóscsiga, a tasty concentric circle of pastry swirled around a sweet cocoa-cream filling. Several hangouts focus on breakfast, often served all day long and tailored to suit all wallets, moods and locations.
Selfie yourselves silly on the Danube Promenade
Once the scene of elegant meanders either side of World War I, the promenade between Chain Bridge and Elizabeth Bridge changed character with the building of chain hotels from the 1960s onwards. Alongside runs tram 2, Budapest’s most scenic line, captured on numerous photos and selfies with the imposing Buda Castle in the background across the river.
Take a guided tour of the Pesti Vigadó
The crown jewel of panoramic Danube Promenade, the Pesti Vigadó once hosted legendary composers from Johann Strauss to Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt. Seriously damaged during World War II, this eclectic edifice underwent complete restoration to re-establish itself as a centre of Budapest culture. Visitors can sign up for English-language guided tours around the multiple halls of this storied building.
Savour goose liver at the historic Gundel
Considered a legend in Budapest’s ever-evolving gastronomic scene, the Gundel restaurant has hosted acclaimed guests from Queen Elizabeth II to Jennifer Lawrence. Dating back 120 years, this traditional Hungarian dining destination has recently switched up a gear to serve the cream of Magyar cuisine, including its iconic goose liver, served smoked, pan-fried and creamed, on delicate Zsolnay-porcelain plates.
Take in an organ concert at St Stephen’s Basilica
The monumental interior of city-centre St Stephen’s Basilica resonates with hallowed harmonies by Liszt, Vivaldi and Mozart during recurring pipe-organ recitals. When there, view the nation’s most revered religious relic, the embalmed holy right hand of Hungary’s founding king, Szent István, or pay a little extra to enjoy city vistas from the circular balcony encompassing the dome.
Observe modern art at the Ludwig Museum
A leading exhibition space for modern and contemporary art, riverside Ludwig Museum is open year-round for temporary shows by major artists from around the world. Displays here may be in the form of abstract drawings, surreal statues or innovative digital media. The museum shop is a treasure trove for design souvenirs.
Let the kids play driver on the M4 metro line
The city’s newest metro line is fully automated and runs with driverless trains. When on board, passengers can take a seat in the front car, where a small window allows you to watch as the train navigates through the tunnel from station to station. Kids especially enjoy this experience, as they can play at being driver.
Take a free walking tour around the city
The best way to discover Budapest is on foot, following local guides who volunteer to show the city’s key landmarks and hidden secrets as part of a group tour. Many companies offer this tip-based service daily, in English and other languages. Free Budapest Walking Tours run two generic and a couple of themed trips. Booking is not required, just show up with a smile at the meeting point by the Budapest Eye.
Sip spritzers on the steps of the Akvárium
Right in the heart of downtown Pest, the terrace tables on the huge staircase leading to this labyrinthine club are packed from midday through midnight during the warmer months. Couples, friends and lonesome patrons keep spirits high with the locals’ revered summertime drink fröccs, bubbly soda water intertwined with fruity wine.
Tour the Great Synagogue
At the heart of Hungary’s Jewish community, the Moorish-style Great Synagogue towers above what was the Budapest Ghetto during World War II. This outstanding landmark, among the biggest synagogues in the world, is not only a place of worship, but also contains the Hungarian Jewish Museum. Visits around it can be individual or by guided tour.
Be amazed by a spectacular new-circus show
Watch gravity-defying acts presented on the stage of the prestigious Müpa Palace of Arts by globally renowned company Recirquel. The troupe’s recent ballet-like production My Land was top-rated by critics at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and it’s been playing to sold-out crowds in Budapest. Another popular Recirquel piece, Paris de Nuit, is also on view at Müpa, but tickets always go fast.
Browse the Great Market Hall
Budapest’s biggest indoor bazaar is housed in a three-storey building by Liberty Bridge. Its interior, bathed in plenty of natural light, contains row after row after row of vendors proffering fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy produce under ornate steel beams. Freshly fried sausages and lángos deep-fried dough are served on the mezzanine level.
Carouse at Szimpla, the queen of ruin bars
At this famous nightlife nexus, both the indoor and outdoor sections are decorated with unpredictable knickknacks that provide otherworldly settings for blurry nights out. This dilapidated structure, housed within an abandoned building, contains everything from broken mannequins to a Communist-era Trabant car. Live-music events and Sunday farmers’ markets also feature.
Take the chairlift to the highest point in Budapest
When the bustle of downtown Budapest becomes overwhelming, escape the crowds with an easy day trip to the Buda hills, where the Zugliget Chairlift will take you up the side of János Hill in about 15 minutes. From here, the Elizabeth Lookout Tower, the highest point in Budapest, can be reached after a calf-strengthening uphill walk.
Relax at panoramic Normafa
Found atop the Buda Hills, Normafa is a popular hiking spot whatever the season. A wooded wonderland for all ages, this elevated parkland features playgrounds, picnic tables, workout equipment, a rubberised running track, snack stands and rolling meadows, all set before scenic views over Budapest and beyond. It’s a popular spot for sledging in winter and a stop along the Children’s Railway. Get there by bus 21 or 21A from Széll Kálmán tér.
Kick back in the rooftop jacuzzi of the Rudas Baths
The panoramic jacuzzi and sun deck on the roof of Ottoman-era Rudas was the showcase attraction to be added as part of the major overhaul of this landmark spa in 2014. The Rudas is single-sex during the week (ladies on Tuesdays) and co-ed through the night at weekends, when it is open until 4am on Fridays and Saturdays.
Dine at Michelin-starred Costes
The first Hungarian restaurant granted a Michelin star, Costes now has two venues with the ultimate culinary accolade. Talented young chef Eszter Palágyi oversees high-end pioneering cuisine, crowned by inventive smoked sturgeon, wild pigeon, and pasta with baby pumpkin, all served alongside matching Hungarian wines.
Cross Chain Bridge before it closes
Bookended by stone-carved lions, the Chain Bridge is Budapest’s most iconic landmark, completed in 1849 as the first permanent span between Buda and Pest. While the start date of the work has yet to be announced, the bridge is due for an 18-month reconstruction, which will close it to motorised and pedestrian traffic.
Crowning focal Kossuth tér, neo-Gothic Parliament is equally appealing within, where regular English-language guided tours allow visitors to view its gilded Dome Hall, marble-lined Grand Stairway and the Holy Crown of Hungary, secured behind a glass showcase. For public holidays on 15 March, 20 August and 23 October, Hungarian-language tours are offered with no admission.
Spot landmarks from the 360 Bar
Luxuriating in a 360° panorama across the whole city, the 360 Bar is an iconic Budapest roof terrace atop a historic building on Andrássy út. This hot hangout is open year-round, its main attraction during winter are themed igloos, each featuring eight seats for guests and see-through walls. Special events bring DJs to the bar to provide a suitable audio backdrop for cheerful consumption of the cocktails, wines, burgers and fondue treats served here.
Swim amid the Art-Nouveau decor of the Gellért Baths
The century-old Gellért attracts bathers with its picturesque Zsolnay tiles, turquoise walls and stained-glass windows. Outside, the world’s first wave pool was opened here in 1927, still a major summer feature of the baths today. The baths have also served as the location for two international photo sessions by Gucci and GQ Magazine that featured a posing Ryan Gosling.
Sit down with a book at Károlyi Kert
What once was a private hangout of Hungary’s noble Károlyi family is now a graceful chill zone hidden in the heart of the city and enjoyed by many during spring and summer. Several benches line the winding pathways and arbours, where you can retreat for a read while listening to the sounds of the water gushing from the park’s fountain.
Ride the Budapest Eye
A huge Ferris wheel in central Budapest is among the city’s newest landmarks, providing carnival fun and a fine panorama over Deák tér, Andrássy út, the Basilica and the Buda hills. Open daily, this whirling attraction becomes an illuminated backdrop to the city’s nightlife, and even those who don’t take the rotating ride can still enjoy admiring the LED-lit spectacle when the sun goes down.
Book a cruise down the Danube
From sightseeing trips along the city’s downtown waterway to thrilling speedboat rides, Budapest boat companies offer a cornucopia of voyages. Run by the Mahart riverboat services, the Duna Corso cruise opens the season on 15 March, taking passengers on a one-hour leisurely tour several times a day. Trips start at the Vigadó tér docking station and shuttle between Margaret Bridge and Rákóczi Bridge.
Go to City Park for a skate or a picnic
Set behind landmark Heroes’ Square, Városliget (City Park) attracts generations of locals seeking green space and tranquillity. Once the main venue for the 1896 millennial celebrations, today this urban oasis is a popular picnic spot in summer, while winter sees skaters fill its sprawling ice rink. The area has currently been undergoing major renovations for the Liget Project to revitalise the parkland with recreational facilities and a museum quarter.
Take the family to Budapest Zoo
Home to animal species from seven continents, Art Nouveau-style Budapest Zoo draws a large number of visitors all year. Its recently installed Shark School shows young marine predators interacting with trainers and other aquatic animals. This new attraction is to prepare sharks for the life at the menagerie’s new Pannon Park biodome, an indoor facility being built to house exotic animals from warmer climes.
Find a retro relic at Ecseri flea market
The largest flea market in Budapest is open throughout the week, but is busiest on Saturdays, when haggling begins at 6am. From a Lenin bust to Commuist-era clocks, quirky knickknacks epitomise the proverb, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”. Get there by taking tram 2 from downtown Budapest to its south Pest terminus at Közvágóhíd and change for bus 54 or 55, alighting at Naszód utca.
Spot funky murals downtown
Storied artworks turn drab Budapest firewalls into an open storybook that anyone can view for free. The annual Színes Város festival invites local and international artists to breathe new life into dilapidated urban buildings by covering their walls with colourful murals. Other, long-established artworks portray Hungary’s revered Habsburg Empress Elisabeth and the 1956 cover of Time magazine when it named a Hungarian Freedom Fighter as ‘Man of the Year’.
Sample pálinka at its own museum
At the crack of dawn or to change gears on a big night out, to celebrate a birth or bid a final farewell at a wake, pálinka is integral to Hungarian drinking culture. Produced from plums, apricots, even elderflowers, this revered spirit enhances or salves every social occasion and state of mind. Sample many a variety of this elixir at the Pálinka Museum Shop Bar, opposite party hub, the Gozsdu Udvar.
Chill all day on Margaret Island
Stretching between Margaret Bridge and Árpád Bridge, eye-shaped Margaret Island is the green heart of Budapest. Several promenades criss-cross this huge recreational space, ideal for leisurely walks, cycling or a picnic. Its most popular attraction is a rubberised running track, the longest in Budapest. Summertime sites on the island include the popular Palatinus lido, a petting zoo, a musical fountain and a Japanese Garden.
Sip coffee at the gilded New York Café
On any given day, the stately New York Café throngs with tourists sipping latte macchiato in an opulent interior of marble columns, crystal chandeliers and red velvet chairs. A century ago, this palatial structure was a significant haunt for the city’s intellectual crowd, a function that is still preserved today to a certain extent. Menu prices reflect its continued exclusivity.
Relish the views from Citadella
Atop Gellért Hill, crowned by the distinctive skyline feature of the statue of Lady Liberty, Citadella is a fortress built by the Habsburgs after the 1848 Revolution. It’s also an excellent lookout point and wedding-photo location, over the beautiful bridges straddling the Danube, the Pest embankment and the Buda hills. During the day, its car park fills with coaches unloading tourists for a scenic stopover.
Find the best goulash in town
Made with beef cubes, vegetables and plenty of powdered paprika, goulash is the best-known Hungarian staple, yet it often seems hard to find in Budapest restaurants. Prix-fixe spot Stand 25, Gettó Gulyás in the Jewish District and trendy Bestia by the Basilica serve fine versions of this iconic Magyar treat.
Learn about Hungary’s Communist past
Traces of Hungary’s Communist era remain visible throughout Budapest. The decades of Soviet-dominated history are amply chronicled at the House of Terror Museum, showing the darkest aspects of the dictatorship within the building once occupied by the Secret Police. Displaying the gigantic statues of the day, removed from the streets of Budapest after the collapse of Socialism in 1989-90, Memento Park is a powerful reminder of the time.
Spread the vibe at the Sziget Festival
This world-famous music festival is the highlight of summer, when big names draw massive crowds to an island north of Budapest for a week-long party. By day, revellers can enjoy theatre shows, new-circus acts, games and art workshops. After dark, anything goes. In recent years, the festival has introduced the Love Revolution as its central theme to promote peace and save the planet.
Break out of an escape room
Invented here in Hungary, escape rooms are as big a draw as ruin bars and healing spas. The same principle features for these communal puzzle games: a group, usually four, is locked in a room and has 60 minutes to break out, working together to figure out patterns and unlock combinations. Games are English-friendly and located all over the city, on the Grand Boulevard, Gozsdu Udvar and the furthest reaches of Buda.
Drink fine Hungarian wines
Golden Tokaji aszú, volcanic Juhfark and fruity Kadarka are among the prime Hungarian wines that keep oenophiles happy in Budapest. From rustic hangouts to sleek sipping stations and upscale bars, the city features many locales for aromatic Magyar libations. A menu of Hungarian-style treats and tasting platters are available at most wine bars. Popular places include Doblo, DiVino, MyWine and Kadarka.
Pick out a handmade souvenir at the Christmas market
Every Advent, merrymakers flock to focal Vörösmarty tér, hosting the city’s most famous Yuletide bazaar. Beginning early winter, chimney cake, mulled wine and handmade baubles draw the crowds and the square remains a packed plaza for picking out craft candleholders, jewellery and ceramic house-number signs – all the way until New Year’s Eve.
Rock out aboard a repurposed cargo boat
Former Ukrainian cargo boat, the A38 is a concert venue, cultural centre and restaurant floating on the Danube near the foot of Petőfi Bridge on the Buda side. While the huge concert hall in the hull of this pleasure vessel hosts shows all year round, the bow bar and top-deck dance floor also welcome party people in summertime. A regular agenda of noted acts should nicely round off your visit to Budapest.