Budapest is a familiar name on the Central Europe tourist trail, serving as the start or end point to many Central or Eastern Europe tours and Danube cruises. Yet the city has so much more to offer. At its centre, there’s no mistaking Budapest as the capital of what was once a much larger empire, and while Hungary’s borders may be more modest today, its cultural achievements, not to mention Budapest’s uniqueness, scale, and creativity, are not. With a thriving party and artistic scene playing out amid architecture that has seen it dubbed “the Paris of the East,” Budapest offers something for everyone, regardless of age or budget.
If you just want an overview of Budapest’s most impressive structures and unique architecture, you can tick off most of the star attractions in a day, though you may want to slow down if you plan to tour inside. Understand that Budapest is literally the coming together of picturesque “Buda” on the western side of the Danube, and lively, cosmopolitan “Pest” on the eastern side.
Dominating the skyline is Buda Castle. Like many European castles, it’s a rebuild, the previous incarnation having been devastated in World War 2. But the grounds are worth a walk, offering close-up views of the famous Chain Bridge (also a post-WW2 rebuild). The Hungarian National Gallery and the Castle Museum are both here if you feel like lingering. Otherwise, dive into the medieval laneways of the castle quarter, until you reach the Fisherman’s Bastion. Besides being an architectural standout in its own right, this lookout probably offers Budapest’s best view of the famous parliament building.
If many of Budapest’s buildings seem unrealistically huge, remember that they were built for a city that oversaw a much larger dominion. For instance, vast sections of the Hungarian Parliament Building remain unused, though a tour inside is a must for those interested in the history or architecture of Hungary. Cross through Szabadsag ter, and you’ll come to St Stephen’s Basilica. Equal in height (315ft) to the parliament, the Basilica is the centre of Catholicism in Hungary, supposedly holding the right hand of Stephen, the country’s first king. Then zip around to the beginning of Andrassy, Budapest’s grandest boulevard, home to the Hungarian State Opera House. The Hungarians claim that when Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria partly funded the project, he did so on the condition it could not be as large as the Vienna Opera House. The Hungarians responded by making theirs more opulent instead, and the good Emperor is said to have stormed off on opening night in a jealous rage.
Another Budapest icon rumbles under your feet. Line 1 of the Budapest metro is the second oldest underground railway in the world, after the London Underground. Why not take a ride up to Heroes Square? Watched over by the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars and fourteen former kings, Heroes Square tells the story of Hungary, in the shadow of two of Budapest’s largest art galleries.
While in Budapest on Europe tours, a must visit is the Jewish Quarter, which includes the Dohany Street Synagogue, one of the largest in the world, and the largest in Europe. It’s also one of the most ornate and impressive, making it a must-see. To the rear of the Synagogue lies the Raul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park, the highlight of which is Imre Varga’s moving willow sculpture, on which the victims’ names are inscribed on leaves. Another memorial to Budapest’s Jews lines the banks of the Danube just south of the parliament. The Shoes on the Danube Bank are a sobering reminder of the city’s past, honouring the Jews killed by the fascist Arrow Cross.
WW2 left devastating scars on Budapest. But the story of what came next remains an object of morbid fascination for historians, and is readily told by some of the city’s most intriguing attractions. Get the stark, unnerving story of the country’s days under both Nazi and Communist rule at the House of Terror, housed in the former headquarters of both the SS, and later, the State Protection Authority, until they were reined in by moderate Prime Minister Imre Nagy.
While Hungary was one of the more progressive Communist states, the country is in no rush to revisit or glorify the era, and has banished its statues to Memento Park, in suburban Buda. It’s a worthwhile trip here. These typically grandiose monuments are bewildering, kitsch, and unnerving in equal measure, while a small museum within the park tells the story of the failed 1956 revolution. For a somewhat less bleak glimpse of a troubled past, visit the Hospital in the Rock, back in the Castle Quarter. This underground bunker was used throughout WW2 and the Cold War, when Budapest was ready for the worst.
Budapest at Play
Two big attractions distinguish Budapest from other European cities. One is the thermal baths that dot the city. There’s quite possibly no better way to unwind from a big day of sightseeing than to spend a couple of hours soaking at one of these, whether it’s a traditional, health-focused bath like Rudas, opulent tourist favourite Gellert, or the expansive, fun-focused Szechenyi in City Park. Enjoy the outdoor pools, but don’t neglect the indoor, temperature-controlled pools for the full experience. Facilities vary from bath to bath, as do opening hours, but these are easy to find with a little research. And feel free to try a new one each day. No two baths are exactly the same.
After dark, hit the Jewish Quarter and explore Budapest’s greatest contribution to European nightlife, its ruin bars. Built within long-abandoned apartment blocks, these can incorporate everything from live music, to restaurants, to wine bars, to games rooms to… in fact they’re probably better to experience than describe. Much like the beloved attic of an eccentric aunt, each ruin bar has its own distinctive character, clientele, art, and vibe. As the night goes on, many turn into fully fledged nightclubs, some of which have attracted world class DJs. But if you’d prefer to just stop by for early drinks to satisfy your curiosity, that’s just as welcome.
With so much to offer, you’d expect Budapest’s big attractions to be crammed with tourists. But the city has one more surprise up its sleeve. While Europeans have been enjoying Budapest’s charms for years, the big bus tours have yet to land. Many North American visitors only experience Budapest as a picturesque stop on their cruise down the Danube, while on Europe tours. But you might want to take advantage of their mistake soon. With its fascinating history, unique attractions, endlessly energetic nightlife, and jaw-dropping beauty, this gateway to the east won’t stay one of Europe’s hidden secrets forever.