Budapest is an incredibly gorgeous city (I think it’s the most beautiful) in Europe that often is overlooked by travelers visiting the continent. It’s also extremely affordable. We had spent a lot of time in Europe before finally deciding to go to Budapest, and even then we figured we’d only spend about 5-7 days there before moving on. However, we fell head over heels in love instantly, stayed more just over a month, and now we hope to live there.
So plan on visiting, and here are some things to consider when you’re wondering what to do in Budapest.
A few notes first
- The city is split into two large areas—Buda and Pest. They have very different personalities. We prefer to stay on the Pest (pronounced like pesht) side. It’s way more lively, and most of the best spots to visit and explore in Budapest are located here. The Buda side tends to be more quiet and feels less urban, and it definitely has some worthwhile places to visit. If you forget which side is which, just remember Buda is the side with hills, Pest is flat. There are multiple bridges between the two sides, and there is plenty of public transportation available. It’s still easy to explore Pest if you’re in Buda. My personal recommendation, however, is to stay somewhere between districts V and VIII (Pest).
- When getting on public transportation, make sure you have validated your ticket. Look for a small box (usually orange) at the stop, before escalators and often on the platforms for the metro, and on the trams, trolleys, and buses. They do have inspectors regularly, and if you get caught without a validated ticket, it’s a pricey fine. They don’t care that you’re a tourist.
- Most restaurants, nonstops, and markets will accept credit/debit cards, but it never hurts to make sure you have some forint (Hungarian currency, abbreviated as HUF) on hand.
- Almost everyone in Budapest speaks some English, so it’s really easy to get around, get directions, etc. Menus are usually bilingual.
- Consider getting the Budapest Card. Among other things, like free admission into one of the baths, it also gives you unlimited use of the city’s public transportation. We were given a 3-day card to use during our first stay in Budapest and it was very useful.
I put this as the first activity for a variety of reasons, but probably the biggest reason is because my fondest food memories in Europe involved Budapest, and when I asked Tigger what were his favorite things to do there, his immediate response was: “Eat!”
I’m sure being a teenager had nothing to do with his answer.
Budapest has a wonderful emerging food scene, so you can find pretty much something of everything there, including really good pho. District VII has the biggest collection of places serving amazing food. On top of having excellent food, it’s also really inexpensive to eat out.
I love that combination! Especially since I have a teenager who is always hungry.
While meat is a very big part of the Hungarian diet, there are more and places offering full vegetarian and vegan menus (even some raw food places). We saw lots of places with gluten-free offerings as well and several shops dedicated to selling low-carb items.
There are some companies offering river dinner cruises if you want to do something romantic/special.
The Tasting Table also offers different types of wine tastings, some of which include Hungarian cuisine, while others are larger events accompanied by other fare. I attended one of their afternoon tastings with lunch, and I learned a lot about Hungarian wine, and discovered just how delicious it is. Most Hungarian wine is consumed within the country, so it’s hard to find it internationally.
Check out my Budapest restaurant post for food suggestions.
A lot. Budapest is incredibly walkable. We only took public transportation when we were feeling lazy or were going to the other side of the city. We stayed in District V and found it to be incredibly central for practically every place we wanted to go.
The other joy of walking in Budapest is the sheer beauty of the architecture and facades, the surprise fountains and memorials, plazas, and parks. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed taking so many purposeless walks as much as I have in this city. I hardly ever left the apartment without my camera, and when you walk you have to make sure to also look up so you don’t miss out on a beatiful view.
If you want more green for your meandering, head down to the wonderful City Park or to Margaret Island. The latter will make you forget you’re in a large city.
We also enjoyed walking along the Danube River. On this walk you’ll pass by the Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial in memory of the Jews who were lined up along the river’s edge and shot by the Arrow Cross soldiers during World War II. You can also experience the change in personality from each of the various districts and neighborhoods.
Explore the Jewish District
At one time, Budapest was home to quite possibly the largest Jewish populations in Europe (and it still is one of the largest). There is a lot of history and interesting architecture here.
If you’re interested in digging a little deeper, I’d recommend taking one of the tours offered by Taste Hungary. I took their tour that combined Jewish culture and cuisine, and it was a wonderful experience. There is also a free walking tour that explores the district (and they have other tours as well). I haven’t personally done this walking tour, but I’ve heard good things.
Make sure to check out the Orthodox Kazinczy Street Synagogue as well. There is an admission fee, but it’s small, and the interior of the synagogue is really something to see.
There are various memorials all over the district, including to some non-Jews who were responsible for saving thousands of Jewish lives during World War II. Some are very simple, perhaps just a plaque, while others are very ornate works of art.
This area is also known as District VII (awesome food).
Soak in the Baths/Water Park
Budapest is chock full of thermal spas, and these baths vary from the humble, old Turkish baths to the glamorous art nouveau surroundings. Going to the baths is a very local thing to do in Budapest.
My favorite one is Király.
During the summer, there is a really cool water park on Margaret Island with water slides, a wave pool, numerous pools, and thermal baths.
Attend a Festival
There are tons of festivals year round in Budapest. This online calendar is pretty helpful for doing some planning and figuring out what is going on.
I mentioned City Park for its greenery, but there are a lot of activities to do there. In winter, they have a ice skating rink in the lake, and in the summer you can often rent a small boat to take out. There are also museums, the immensely popular Széchenyi Baths, a zoo, botanical garden, circus, amusement park, etc. Like I said, check it out.
The Szabadság park is really interesting, too. It’s a great place to chill, but there are also some very cool buildings surrounding the park as well as some war memorials. There is an area with fountains that the kids can run through if they want to cool down or whatever. This is where some of the smaller festivals are held as well.
Erzsébet is another popular park. It’s also home to the Budapest Eye, a large Ferris wheel. Just be aware the wheel isn’t open year round, so you might want to check before making a special trip just for that. The square is a very popular hangout for locals, especially university students.
Another nice park on the Buda side is Millennium Park. It has a great play area, and a lot of Budapest’s larger festivals are held here.
As you might expect, a great city like Budapest is home to some unique sights and experiences. Here are some of the more interesting ones.
This is an open-air museum dedicated to Communist memorabilia. When Hungary was liberated from Russia, rather than destroying all the Communist statues, etc., they just moved them here. There are various exhibits and interesting activities, like being able to “call” and listen to recordings from various Communist leaders. We didn’t find out about the park until after we had left, so it’s on our plans for when we return to Budapest.
They offer their own transportation (book online for a package deal), or you can get there by city bus (routes 101 and 150).
Zoo and Cat Cafes
Budapest has a couple of cat cafés and one zoo café. If the idea of enjoying a nice beverage and/or pastry while being able to pet and play with cats appeals to you, head to the Cat Café at Révay u. 3 (near the basilica). I wouldn’t bother with the other one.
If you enjoy animals, definitely visit the Zoo Cafe located at Fejér György u. 3. While the service is very . . . shall we say Eastern European, you can interact with many different types of critters. We held chameleons, a python, cats, birds, a guinea pig, and we pet a chinchilla. The drinks are pretty good, too. I had a Nutella latte.
Take a derelict building or an abandoned open space, thrown in a bunch of mismatched furnishings, perhaps hang some hammocks, and sell adult beverages and you have a ruin pub.
Okay, it may not seem quirky to go to one of these, but if you visit Szimpla Kert you’ll see why I classify this as a quirky activity. Even if you don’t drink, go check it out. They also host a farmer’s market on Sundays.
Szimpla is probably the most famous ruin pub, but there are many others, each with its own unique style and personality. They are quite popular with locals and tourists alike. And while it may seem like a place that would attract only young hipsters, you will even find retirees hanging around enjoying a nice, cheap, craft beer.
This church is built inside Gellért Hill, across from the well-known Gellért Baths. This cave was created by thermal springs and has a very interesting history. It has served as a church (and is still in use for this), hospital, and asylum. Definitely worth checking out. There aren’t too many of these in the world.
Beneath Castle Hill, on the Buda side of the city, is a 6-mile (only 1 mile is used for tours) complex of caves and cellars. It has been used for military purposes by the Turks in the 16th century and as a hospital during World War II. However, the infamous Dracula inspiration, Vlad Tepes, was held prisoner here during the 15th century.
There are various tours, including some designed just for children, of the cave system. They have a nighttime tour done by lantern which sounds really cool to me. This was another place I didn’t learn about until after we had left. You can bet it’s on my list!
As far as I’m concerned, most of District VII falls under this category. However, in addition to the places already mentioned, here are some other places you might want to check out.
Here you’ll find a castle, some beautiful plazas, St. Matthias Church, and the Fisherman’s Bastion. Walking around the latter is like passing through a fairy tale land. If you only have a short time in this amazing city, the Bastion should be on your must-see list.
In addition to the gorgeous buildings, you will have some absolutely stunning views of the Pest side, including the iconic parliament building.
St. Stephen’s Basilica
The basilica is named in honor of Hungary’s first king, and often you can view a mummified right hand which reportedly belongs to him (the reliquary isn’t always on display). It is considered to be the most important church in Hungary.
The interior of the church is absolutely gorgeous, and you can also walk along the cupola (open from April through October only). As this is the 2nd largest largest building in Budapest, you can get some wonderful views of the city from up there.
At different times of the year, they hold organ concerts inside the cathedral.
Admission to the cathedral is free; however, if you wish to visit the cupola, treasury, and/or do a tour, there is a nominal fee.
The Great Synagogue
This is a rather unique and impressive structure. It is the largest synagogue in Europe and the 2nd largest in the world. It can accommodate about 5000 people, just to give you an idea of its size. Adjoined to the building is the Hungarian Jewish Museum, and the site houses other museums and memorials.
As it is a functioning place of worship, make sure to check their schedule before planning a visit. It’s closed to tours every Saturday.
Admission is about $10 USD for adults/non-students.
There are also some organized tours that include the synagogue as well as some that also take you to other important sites in the Jewish district.
If you’ve read anything about Budapest, you’ve no doubt seen a photo of this building. It is absolutely stunning, and the grounds offer some beautiful scenery as well as a nice place to relax, let the kids run around, etc.
If you take a guided tour inside the building, you will also be able to view St. Stephen’s crown, scepter, and orb.
It’s advised that you get your tickets online. At this link, you can find the various tours offered (sorted by language).
Have I given you enough information about what to do in Budapest? What else would you like to know?
April 24, 2016
Oh the Opera House is amazing and so cheap! We loved eating at the market too. I also bought the coolest old bible from an old man trying to sell it in a bookstore. Just rich with history and when we were there they were shooting a movie that was supposed to be set in Russia during the Cold War era but Russia has now been “done up” too much so they film in Budapest. Lovely place — although we did find some of the service and people in outlying areas (around the zoo etc) to be well, less than chipper in nature:)
April 24, 2016
Yeah, customer service isn’t exactly a Hungarian (or central/eastern European) thing.
March 10, 2016
Yes! Budapest is so underrated! I’ve become a missionary for Budapest since visiting there the first time. I think it’s a must-see for anyone traveling Europe.
March 10, 2016
I absolutely agree!