Of all the Eastern European capitals, Budapest might boast the most culture. It was the co-capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for nearly half a century and has long been considered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. However, a Budapest vacation often gets overlooked in favour of its Western European counterparts like Paris and Rome. This needs to stop.
Not only is Budapest cheaper than other cities in Europe, but it’s also overlooked in terms of tourism, meaning you’re less likely to jockey for space alongside other travellers (although it’s by no means an off-the-beaten-path destination). It’s also home to a lot of historical and cultural wonders, so much so that you might have a hard time winnowing down your activity options once you visit, on a trip to Hungary.
From gorgeous churches to terrifying museums to one of the largest parliament buildings in the world, and a surplus of natural hot springs, a Budapest vacation has a lot to entice travellers. Drawing on the multitude of options awaiting globetrotters lucky enough to head to Budapest, we’ve put together the following 10 essential things to do in Budapest.
Visit the Hungarian Parliament Building
The Hungarian Parliament Building is the largest building in the country and the third-largest parliament building in the world. Beyond its size, the building is a marvellous work of architecture. The Neo-Gothic style is all spires and intricate trims, as if the building were the result of a marriage between a Venetian mansion and a Gothic cathedral like Cologne Cathedral. You can tour the building to see the parliamentary halls and admire the frescoes painted along the ceiling above the ornamental stairs. The best views of the building are at sundown, when it lights up and brilliantly illuminates the Danube River. It’s certainly a sight to behold.
Admire Relics at St. Stephen’s Basilica
St. Stephen’s Basilica is likely the best known building in Budapest after the Hungarian Parliament Building. It was named after the first king of Hungary and is the third-largest church in the country. It’s also one of the tallest buildings in Budapest, sitting nearly 100m high. You’ll notice restored frescoes along the ceiling when you enter the church, as well as the enormous sanctuary that can accommodate multiple thousands of people. The church’s chief attraction is the right hand of St. Stephen, which remains in a gilded box in the church and is the country’s main relic. If you’re not one for relics, you can head to the top of the cupola by stairs or elevator to take advantage of the church’s height, and enjoy views of the city.
Soak in Szechenyi Baths and Gellert Baths
In terms of geography, Budapest is known for two things: hills and hot springs. The city is built on an extensive series of natural hot springs, making it one of the best places in Europe to relax in warm waters. While there are plenty of places to take advantage of the springs and warm your well-travelled body, two hot springs reign supreme – Szechenyi Baths and Gellert Baths. Szechenyi is more popular as its massive outdoor pool and mixed gender policy attracts locals and globetrotters alike. Gellert Baths splits up the genders, but has ornate Turkish design and a gorgeous central pool within its hotel structure. You can’t go wrong with either bath, although be aware that things can get hot in these springs. I remember a dry sauna at Gellert that went up to 70°C, which is pretty hot, to put it mildly.
Climb Castle Hill to see Buda Castle
Just as it’s essential you head to one of the baths to take advantage of Budapest’s natural hot springs, your Budapest tours need to take advantage of the hills as well. The best place to do so is atop Castle Hill, where the Royal Palace, also known as Buda Castle, crowns the city. This royal residence dates back to the 14th century, but was mostly rebuilt in the 18th century. Its 200 rooms are home to the Hungarian National Gallery and Budapest History Museum, among other museums. Even if you don’t go inside, you’ll still enjoy the mixture of Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque architecture and the vantage point Castle Hill allows. Similar to most landmarks in Budapest, Castle Hill is most spectacular at nighttime when lights transform it into a glittering crown on a hill.
Cruise the Danube River
Did we mention that Budapest is gorgeous at night? There’s no better way to appreciate its twilit beauty than on a cruise along the Danube River. On a Danube River Cruise, you’ll see all the highlights. You’ll pass beneath the famous Chain Bridge, head alongside Buda Castle, and get the best view of the Hungarian Parliament Building as it lights up at sundown. You can even splurge and add a fine meal to your evening as plenty of cruise companies offer fine dining aboard their river vessels. The Danube is one of the great rivers of Europe, and Budapest reveals its best side to the water, so be sure to take advantage of the river while in town.
Learn Sombre Lessons at the House of Terror
Visiting the House of Terror is not a light experience. This museum documents the tragedies and atrocities committed by the fascist and communist governments of Hungary during the 20th century. During World War II, it was a secret police station for the fascist Arrow Cross Party. After the war, the Soviets took up residence in the building, using it as a base to imprison political dissidents and execute prisoners. It’s fair if you have no interest in enduring such a harrowing afternoon during your Budapest vacation, but if, like me, you’re largely ignorant of history in Eastern Europe, a visit to the House of Terror will reveal some shocking and significant facts about what Hungary had to endure for the better part of a century.
Visit the Hungarian State Opera House
Another building that deserves your attention on a trip to Budapest is the Hungarian State Opera House. Built at the end of the 19th century, the Hungarian State Opera House is a Neo-Renaissance building on the main avenue of Andrassy ut in Budapest. It can hold a little over 1,200 people in its seats and is renowned for its incredible acoustics, which are some of the best in the world. When you enter, you’ll find depictions of conductor Ferenc Erkel and composer Franz Liszt on either side of the entrance. The Hungarian State Opera House puts on symphonies and operas, so you can take in a show while visiting Budapest. You can also opt for a tour to witness its ornate beauty. Either way, you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy one of the most beautiful buildings in the city.
Enjoy the Views at Fisherman’s Bastion
This fairy tale-like assortment of Neo-Romanesque towers, walls, and fortifications was built at the turn of the 20th century on the spot where the Fisherman’s Guild built their walls in medieval times. The white stone walls and turret steeples give the bastion its unique look, while the incredible views over the Danube River attract many sightseers. You’ll also find bas reliefs depicting the life of St. Stephen, as well as a bronze statue of him riding a horse in the south courtyard. Fisherman’s Bastion is one of the many essential architectural highlights of this gorgeous city.
Marvel at the Great Synagogue
Aside from St. Stephen’s Basilica, the greatest religious landmark in Budapest is the Dohany Street Synagogue or Great Synagogue. The Great Synagogue would be noteworthy if it were simply the main Jewish landmark in a city that was once home to a large Jewish population. However, it’s more than that. It’s an architectural triumph and an astonishingly-large demonstration of the Moorish Revival style. It is the largest synagogue in Europe and one of the largest synagogues around the globe. Its twin towers with onion-shaped domes give it its distinct look, while the massive interior and intricate stonework add to its impressive heft. You’ll find few buildings as religiously significant or architecturally impressive during your Eastern European vacation.
Feast on Hungarian Goulash
Before you end your Budapest vacation, you have to make sure that you enjoy the food. In particular, it’s essential you try goulash (gulyas). This hearty stew is made from meat marinated in spicy paprika and vinegar, and cooked in a broth of vegetables, often including tomatoes. Goulash can be cooked with beef or pork, veal or lamb, and can be served as a soup or thick stew. It doesn’t really matter what form you try while visiting on a trip to Hungary, because whatever variation will be delicious. There are few meals as satisfying as a spicy Hungarian goulash served with fried spaetzli and some red cabbage, paired with a sweet Hungarian wine or a glass of palinka. Hungarian food can seem rustic compared to the bright flavours of Spain or France, but it’s absolutely delicious and one of the great highlights of any time spent in Eastern Europe.
Budapest is one of the greatest cities and should be high on most globetrotters’ lists of places to visit on their next Europe vacation. It’s gorgeous, chock-full of historical and cultural monuments, and affordable to boot. If you have chance to visit Hungary, take that chance. You won’t be disappointed. And these 10 essential things to do on a Budapest vacation will ensure you see the best of the city when you visit.