Things To Do In Budapest
Architecturally rich, culturally unique, and home to two world-class thermal baths, few cities are more deserving of the title ‘Paris of the East’ than Budapest. From Magyar tribes to the Red Army, civilisations have clashed on the site of its founding for over a thousand years, forging what has slowly but surely become one of Europe's most distinctive national identities.
These qualities rank the Hungarian capital among the world’s most intriguing city break destinations - a place where rich history melds seamlessly with modern nightlife and contemporary chic. To make the most of your own trip to Budapest, consider giving the following activities a try:
1) Thermal Baths:
If ever a city had a clearly defined raison d'etre, Budapest's would be rooted in its natural thermal springs - one of only two capital cities in the world to have them (Reykjavík being the other). As such, a relaxing soak in one of Budapest's thermal baths is a must.
Széchenyi, Gellért and Lukacs are the two main ones, but for sheer atmosphere and tranquillity we also strongly recommend the Mandala Day Spa. Located on Ipoly Street, this award-winning day spa is as classy as it is suave. Spa treatments on offer include the Rainfall Jacuzzi, which comes complete with fresh towels, slippers, bathrobes and a spa. It also has tons of special hen packages, massages, and beauty treatments to choose from.
You can also enjoy a steaming cup of their famed herbal tea in the in-house oriental tea house, alongside complementary chocolates, cookies and fruit. It's the perfect pampering session for you and your group.
If you've ever wondered what a thermal bath crossed with a nightclub would look like then stick a Sparty on your Budapest to-do list. These audio-visual pool parties are held each Saturday night at Budapest’s famous bathhouses.
For instance, summer parties, or ‘Szecska’, take place at the Szechenyi Baths, while winter and spring parties, also called the ‘Magic Bath’ series, take place in the Lukacs Baths. Whichever sparty you select, you must purchase an advance ticket to attend.
3) Budapest Zoo & Botanical Gardens:
If you’re travelling with kids or just love the natural world, then Budapest Zoo and Botanical Garden is a must-visit. It is a family-friendly entertainment spot housing several iconic features like the Elephant House, the Palm House, and the one-hundred-year-old legacy merry-go-round.
The zoo began operating way back in 1866, making it one of the oldest zoos in the world. It’s home to over 700 animal species, and its unique design is the work of renowned Art Nouveau architect Karoly Kos.
4) Danube Islands:
The three islands on the Danube are considered the diamonds of the city. The one closest to the centre, Margaret Island, is particularly notable as a place of leisure and relaxation. It’s packed with all manner of attractions, from a miniature extension of Budapest Zoo to the iconic Music Fountain and the Water Tower. Be sure not to miss its open-air theatres and music festivals as well.
Hajogyari Island, on the other hand, is known for its vibrant nightlife and has become a prominent party-going hub. Hajogyari also offers quality sporting activities, with cycle routes and tennis courts.
5) Eating Locally:
Hungary’s national dish is Goulash, a spicy meat soup served with delectable onions. Then there’s Greek Gyros. Plenty of these local pita shops dot the city, most of which have whole rotisserie pigs right behind the counters. Make sure you try this local favourite, which is especially grand after a couple of drinks.
Alternatively, consider visiting 21 Magyar Vendeglo, a friendly bistro that serves high Hungarian cuisine and wines. Another option is Costes, a gourmet restaurant in Budapest. It sources its quality ingredients from all around Europe and has a 2 Michelin-starred chef at its helm.
6) Explore Buda Hill:
The mountainous landscape of Buda, located on the west bank of the Danube, is a must-visit. Buda Castle (once known as the Royal Palace) sits atop steep hills overlooking Pest. Its modern name actually refers to the wider complex more than the Baroque palace itself, but the latter is home to three key attractions: The Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest History Museum and the National Széchényi Library.
A popular way to explore the wider district is by Castle Segway Tour. These excursions run all year round and depart every hour between 09:00 to 18:00. Led by a professional English-speaking guide, you'll visit significant landmarks such as Fisherman's Bastion and Matthias Church, as well as Mary Magdalene Tower, the Vienna Gate and more.
7) Fisherman's Bastion:
If you cherish beautiful cityscapes, Fishermen’s Bastion will enthral you. This remarkable lookout is located at the summit of Castle Hill. Although the Bastion is purely decorative, its name derives from the fishermen who dedicated their lives to defending the city during the middle ages. This lovely site also has seven distinctive tent-like towers, each representing the seven Hungarian tribes who settled in the Carpathian Basin.
There’s two levels to Fishermen’s Bastion lookout, an upper and a lower. Magnificent panoramic views are still available on the lower level, but the finest vistas are to witnessed on the level above. While the lower level is free, there’s a small entry fee to progress to the next step.
8) Dohány Street Synagogue:
Located on Dohány Street is the Great Synagogue. As the name suggests, it is the largest synagogue in Europe, and second largest in the world. It can accommodate about 3000 worshippers and was once used by the Germans as a radio communication centre during World War 2.
Nowadays, it is the centre of Budapest’s Jewish community and houses the Jewish Museum, the Heroes’ Temple, the Jewish Cemetery, and the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park. The memorial park has four red marble plates that celebrate Raoul Wallenberg as well as various non-Jewish Hungarians who saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.
No history lover’s trip to Budapest would be complete without taking one of the site’s enlightening self-guided tours. Alternatively, check out one of our two Jewish Heritage Walking Tours, which include entry to the Dohány Street Synagogue plus much more.
9) Shoes On The Danube:
Another famous landmark worth visiting is the Shoes of the Danube, situated in Pest. This poignant memorial consists of sixty pairs of bronze shoes arranged in a row along edge the river. These shoes tell the story of the Budapest Jews who were paraded and shot into the Danube. Since shoes were in short supply at the time, victims had to remove their footware before Arrow Cross militiamen executed them. The Shoes of the Danube is a harrowing yet picturesque place to learn about Budapest’s Jewish heritage.
10) Ruin Bars:
Busy, vibrant and cosmopolitan, Pest endows the capital with that modern ‘city feel’. A wide assortment of gourmet restaurants, cafes, clubs, and bars will provide ideal chill spots for your group. While here you should definitely consider popping into one of the iconic ‘ruin bars’ located in Budapest's old Jewish Quarter.
If you've looked into Budapest's ruin bars at any length you'll no doubt have encountered the name 'Szimpla'. As far as ruin bars go Szimpla Kert has it all. Its crazy décor has a grunge-boho-punk vibe that you will absolutely adore. The food is also delectably simple and fairly priced. What’s more, Szimpla has a great selection of drinks to choose from, whether to wash down your brunch or dinner, or kick off a night on the town. Fancy hitting the dance floor? You’re likely to hear plenty of recognisable tunes.
11) Clubs & Party Cruises:
As the sun disappears over the horizon consider taking a guided bar crawl or go guest-list clubbing at one of the city’s popular nightclubs. Check out: Corven Club, A38 Ship, Akvárium Klub, Lärm or Toldi Klub if you’re looking for a memorable night on the dance floor. There’s also the option of partying in style by sailing down the Danube on a popular Party Cruise.
12) Stroll Along Andrassy Avenue:
Andrassy Avenue is itself a World Heritage Site. Constructed during the 1870s, its original purpose was to connect City Park with the city centre. Since then the boulevard has captured the attention of luxury brand names such as Burberry, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Ermenegildo Zegna, most of whom have shops along its edges. Similarly, there are traditional cafes and plenty of chain restaurants such as Burger King here.
Andrassy Avenue is an ideal place to experience the buzz of daily life, try out different delicacies, and do a bit of people-watching. Towards its south-western end you’ll also find our next attraction recommendation.
13) Budapest Opera House:
Besides being one of the finest-looking Neo-Renaissance buildings in Europe, Budapest Opera House ranks among the best of its kind in terms of acoustics. Its auditorium has a 1200 sitting capacity and features a traditional horseshoe shape.
Towering in front of the Opera House building are the statues of two great composers, Ferenc Erkel and Ferenc Liszt. Erkel was the first music director of the opera and is noted for having composed Hungary’s national anthem.
By day, the Opera ushers in tourists eager to ogle and learn about its gorgeous architecture. Come evening, however, guests are treated to world-class musical performances.
14) Pál-Völgyi and Szemlő-Hegyi Caves:
Up for a bit of spelunking? Beneath Budapest are numerous pristine caves carved out over millions of years by subterranean thermal waters. Two notable networks are the Pál-völgyi and Szemlő-hegyi caverns. Thanks to their spectacular rock formations, these natural caves are the most breathtaking in the Buda Hills mountain range.
The Pál-völgyi cave is about seven kilometres long so be prepared for a bit of hiking and ducking through narrow passages. The Szemlo however, is filled with magnificent crystal formations and has clean air. Furthermore, it is relatively smooth making it ideal for younger explorers. Guided tours of both caves take about 45 minutes.
For those who love exotic birds and aquatic life, Budapest’s Tropicarium is the perfect treat. It is one of the largest saltwater aquariums in Europe. Here, you will get up close and personal with different animals such as exotic birds, tropical fish, Hungarian fish species and alligators. You might even catch sight of a few squirrel monkeys as you walk through the rainforest. Conversely, experience a rush of adrenaline as you view the feeding of the sharks through a glass observation tunnel.
The Tropicarium is ideal for birthday parties and team building activities, although experienced sea divers can engage in the swim-with-the-shark escapades.
16) Ride The Millennium Underground:
It wouldn’t be appropriate to tour Budapest and fail to visit one of the city’s World Heritage Sites - the Millennium Underground. Despite being the first subway line in mainland Europe it is still operational and runs along the Andrassy Avenue, once a masterpiece of city planning. You can visit the Millennium Underground to learn about its rich history, or to catch a ride from Vorosmarty Square to Budapest Zoo.
17) Big Bus Budapest:
Budapest has a number of public transport options including a modern underground metro system. Metro tickets are cheap and should be purchased before boarding, otherwise you may be fined for trying to travel without one. Taxis are slightly more expensive, though still generally affordable.
Other sightseeing options include a range of Danube city cruises, Segway tours, walking tours, and the Big Bus Budapest Tour. All of these services provide a unique way to get around while learning more about the city. In most cases, staff can also advise on the best bars to hit, places to eat and additional activities to try.
18) Budapest Card:
Whether you’re planning a first-time visit to Budapest or are rediscovering an old favourite, it’s always handy to have a Budapest Card by your side. Devised by the city’s tourism board for the benefit of international visitors, it provides discounted rates and free admission into some of Budapest’s top attractions. As well as acting as a comprehensive entry ticket, the Budapest Card also functions as a travel pass.
For instance, you can enjoy unlimited free rides on the capital’s public transport system, discounted access to popular sightseeing tours, and even free walking guided tours. You, therefore, end up making significant savings during your visit.
How Does It Work?
There are two ways to get hold of a Budapest Card: purchasing it once you arrive, or reserving it online. If you decide to buy once you’re in the city then the easiest place to pick one up is at Liszt Ferenc International Airport (terminals 2A & 2B), or you can get them from any of the BKK Kiosks dotted around the city.
If you reserve your card online you can either request hotel delivery or collect it yourself at the Hungária Koncert ticket office in Danube Palace (Budapest, Zrínyi u. 5, H-1051). Hotel delivery is a service offered by Hungaria Koncert Ltd, a friendly and professional tourism partner of CityXplora Ltd.
Whichever way you get your Budapest Card, you will need to validate it with a signature. As soon as you have done that, you are ready to go. Show the card to staff at any attraction you wish to visit and enjoy either free or discounted entry!
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