sights & culture

7 essential Budapest walking tours for spring

Writers

  • Kessler Gretchen

3/10/2020 9:57 AM

The best way to see a city is on foot, and the best way to learn about what you're looking at is with a walking tour. Budapest is home to a score of tour companies, offering themed walks relevant to city history and interesting dives into its hidden aspects. Whether you’re coming here for the first time or you’ve lived here for years, a walking tour will greatly enrich your knowledge of all things Budapest.

Free Budapest Walk with Free Walking Tours

Photo: Free Walking Tours

Every day at 10.30am and 2.30pm, local guides lead a reasonably large and good-natured gaggle around key Budapest sights, from the city centre to Buda Castle. For new arrivals and those finding their way in town, this is an ideal introduction to Budapest and notable aspects of its history and culture. Tours last around 2-2.5hrs, with breaks, and are free of charge. Guides earn tips while also promoting other themed walks the company offers.

Photo: Free Walking Tours

Starting at Erzsébet tér, the English-speaking group in one huddle, the Spanish-speaking one in another, the tour takes in numerous landmarks – St Stephen’s Basilica, the Chain Bridge, Matthias Church – while indicating others in the vicinity, such as the Jewish Quarter from Erzsébet tér and Parliament from Széchenyi tér. Most stops prompt an entertaining and related diversion of some sort, about Hungarian food when you rub the belly of the Fat Policeman statue and Hungarian inventions when standing outside the Academy of Sciences

Photo: Free Walking Tours

Registration is not required – just show up on time and let your personable guide do the rest. The tour finishes near Fishermen’s Bastion, so you’ll need a bus ticket to return to the start or follow your footsteps back the way you came. Bring suitable warm and/or rainproof clothing if weather demands, alternatively a hat and drinking water in high summer.

Communism tour with Free Walking Tours

Photo: Gretchen Kessler - We Love Budapest

Under Soviet influence, Hungary operated as a Communist country from 1949-1989, and remnants of that time can still be seen around the city. Every day at 10am (and 3.30pm from March to January), a local guide leads visitors around the downtown streets of Budapest, providing insight into religion, housing, education, media, propaganda and all other aspects of life under Communism in Hungary. 

Photo: Gretchen Kessler - We Love Budapest

This tour lasts for roughly 2-2.5 hours, but involves more standing than walking, so it’s a great way to learn about history without expending too much energy. The tour meets in Erzsebet tér, in the park facing the ferris wheel, and ends by the Parliament building. On the way, you pass the last remaining monument to the Soviet régime, as well as reminders of the bloody revolution which was fought in protest – and a larger-than-life statue of Ronald Reagan. 

No registration is required – simply show up with a smile! The tour is free, guides only work for tips, so make sure to come with a couple of thousand forints to thank them for their time and knowledge. Find out more information – including additional tours offered by the company – on their website.

Photo: Gretchen Kessler - We Love Budapest

Jewish Legacy Tour with Generation Tours

Photo: Bódis Krisztián - We Love Budapest

Take a walk through the historic Jewish District on this 2.5-hour tour, which features famous synagogues in Budapest, monuments and memorials dedicated to Hungarian Holocaust victims, and an in-depth look at the Jewish people who lived in the city from the 1600s onwards. The tour meets Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays at 10.30am outside St Stephen's Basilica, and ends in front of the iconic Great Synagogue, the second-largest of its kind in the world. 

Photo: Bódis Krisztián - We Love Budapest

Winding its way through the streets and sights of the Jewish District, this walk is packed with history, and is a great way to begin a trip in Budapest, or learn something new about the city you call home. Guides are enthusiastic and knowledgeable, and speak passionately on the subject. The tour is free, but registration is necessary, so be sure to book in advance to ensure a spot. Again, guides work on a tip basis. Find out more information, and secure a booking, online.

Secret Gardens Tour with ImagineBudapest

Photo: Imagine Budapest

Budapest is a city filled with beautiful architecture steeped in history, but the story doesn't end at its stoic doors and crumbling façades. Lying within is a world of inner courtyards and private gardens, hidden away from the curious public eye. With Imagine Budapest’s themed sightseeing tour, these secrets are revealed to a privileged few. 

Photo: Imagine Budapest

Discover marble wells, hidden gardens, ornate flower arrangements and other gems on this 2.5-hour tour, the only opportunity to see some of these green oases within the concrete jungle of Budapest. As the tour meanders through winding paths and centuries-old trees, participants are invited to slow down and absorb the harmonious co-existence of man and nature, and emerge refreshed for the rest of their day. Tickets are 4,500 forints and can be ordered online. The next tour will be in March, and tickets are on sale now.

Mysterium Budapest Bloody Tales within the Castle Walls

Photo: Mysterium Tours

Explore the dark and brutal history of invasions, battles and myths surrounding Budapest on this spooky night-time walking tour. More than just another guided stroll, this is performance, led by a guide in costume with a real oil lamp. The tour begins at the base of the Buda Castle walls, and leaves the bustle of the city behind as you climb up the cobblestoned streets, and subsequently back in time.

Photo: Mysterium Tours

As the tour progresses, you learn about Austrian and Turkish invasion attempts on the castle. Looking down at the river where Austrian forces were drowned in the hundreds, it brings the dark past of Budapest into sharp relief. Following the flickering flame of the guide’s lamp, participants wind their way through the close, twisting streets, past the major Buda landmarks like the Fishermen’s Bastion, Matthias Church and Buda Tower, and pauses to take in the impressive sight of Pest at night. After all the other tourists have left, the view is serenely quiet, adding to the haunting nature of the walk’s subject matter.

As well as historical facts, the tour delves into superstition, telling real stories of vampirism and accusations of witchcraft in Hungarian history, and local folk monsters such as the lidérc: a gold-hoarding creature which will make its owner rich, but feeds on their blood and energy in return. Tickets cost €20, students €17, children (5-11s) €12. The tour meets at the Zero Kilometre Stone on Clark Ádám tér and ends near a bus stop which takes participants back into the city centre.

Budapest Alternative Tour

Photo: Gretchen Kessler - We Love Budapest

If street art is something you enjoy, then the Budapest Alternative Tour by Original Europe Tours cannot be missed. The passionate guides make the experience feel more like a walk around town with good friends, rather than an organised business venture. As you walk through the Seventh District of Budapest, your eye is guided towards all sorts of artworks which you might otherwise pass by without noticing. 

Photo: Gretchen Kessler - We Love Budapest

Art on the tour ranges from small bronze statues near the Great Synagogue, to large murals on the sides of buildings, and contributions by local artists which often comment on political or social matters related to Budapest or Hungary at large. Don't worry about not getting it first time – the guides explain the meaning of each piece you come across, so you can understand the message. The Hungarian version of Banksy is also mentioned on the tour, his provocative pieces carrying equal impact.

As for the larger murals, it would be hard not to notice the ten-metre tall canvases which cover the sides of buildings. At each one, you stop for a quick overview of the meaning, who painted it, and its significance to the viewer. One mural of particular interest is a purple and gold façade with a portrait of Sisi, the famous Habsburg Empress Elisabeth, after whom the district is named. The major streets of the neighbourhood are written above her portrait, each in a different font to signify the diversity and special character of District VII.

Once the guides show you where to look for such artworks, you begin to notice them on your own. This is truly a tour which shows you the underbelly of the city, and you leave feeling more like a local than a tourist. The tour concludes at Szimpla Kert, where you are free to stay for a beer or coffee, or get some food at any of the numerous restaurants nearby. Again, this is a free tour, so tips are graciously accepted at the end. 

Walking tours in the Buda Castle caves

Photo: Buda Caves Walking Tour

The story of Budapest doesn’t stop at ground level – for a truly unique experience, ditch the sun and head down to the ancient cave system which riddles Buda Castle hill. There are 60 kilometres of caves beneath Budapest, and for centuries the local residents have been utilising these natural structures as cellars for storing wine, shelters during World War II bombings and even as a medieval prison beneath the old City Hall. (Massive iron rings remain in the walls, to which unfortunate prisoners would be chained. When the lights are switched off, the bleak reality of this punishing environment is all too apparent.)

Photo: Buda Caves Walking Tour

The Buda Caves Walking Tour begins in the cellar of one of the old houses near Matthias Church, and descends a steep set of stairs into a labyrinth of passageways, with old wells, columns and archways dating back to the Middle Ages. In fact, many of the buildings in the area have had access to the caves at one point, and you pass numerous stairs along the tour, rising up and out of the dark. Now such entrances to the caves are blocked, so there’s no fear of people sneaking into the cave system at night (or people sneaking into houses from the cave system, either!).

Some 300,000 years ago, hot springs bubbled up from deep below, and today you can admire the limestone creations left in their wake, which give the ceiling its undulating appearance. Stalactites are in their infancy in the corridors – created by humans – and, at one point, the imprint of an ancient mammoth tooth can be seen in the rocks. Human and animal bones have also been found in the caves, particularly in the Harem Lady Well, into which, according to local legend, the invading Turkish Sultan used to throw his concubines after he tired of them. Whether true or not, the well remains.

Photo: Buda Caves Walking Tour

The tour lasts between 1.5-2 hours, depending on the group size. The temperature in the caves is a cool 12°, so blankets are provided to guests in the summer, when they might be otherwise improperly dressed. Watch out for low ceilings and uneven steps – this is a cave, after all! It is also important to not wander from the group – as the guide, Viki, quips, “If you get lost, I'll find you next Wednesday!” As the nature of a cave is its dark ambience, it is a good idea to bring your own flashlight, so you can peer into the obscure depths and ponder the ancient history below Budapest. There are toilets at the exit.

Tickets can be purchased online.  

Book a private tour

To really dive into the culture and diversity of Budapest, there are speciality tours available which do not run on a regular basis. These are offered through organisations such as the Hungarian Contemporary Architecture Centre (KÉK) and Beyond Budapest, among others. Upon request, sightseeing walks can be arranged covering topics like the luxury within the Ervin Szabó LibraryArt Nouveau in Budapest and Architectural Histories of the Eighth District, the Golden Age of the Hungarian Literature and more. Contact the providers online to find out how a private tour can be arranged. 

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