Once a destination that flew under the tourist radar, savvy travellers have now clued into Budapest – or Boo-dah-pesht as the locals pronounce it.
The city is not only divided physically by the glittering River Danube but is also split in terms of its personality: leafy Buda with its undulating hills, historic castle district, and refined museums and galleries; gritty Pest with its urban back streets, endless eccentric bars and cafes, and pulsating nightlife.
Here’s a city guide to the top things to do in Budapest.
Hungary’s history is vast, varied and full of epic tales. It has been conquered by the Romans, invaded by the Mongols, captured by the Turks, the second capital of the great Austro-Hungarian empire and occupied by the Soviets.
All of these factors have left an indelible mark, making Budapest – officially unified in 1873 – what it is today: a city of ornate architecture, heavy with diverse culinary and cultural influences, and home to a unique national language that may leave you a little tongue-tied.
The city saw a violent chapter of anti-Semitic acts during World War II. The fascist Arrow Cross party brutally forced the city’s Hungarian-Jewish population into a walled-off ghetto and oversaw the massacre and deportation of the Jews to concentration camps.
The Shoes on the Danube Bank is a poignant tribute to the Jewish victims, while the Tree of Life monument located in the courtyard of the Dohány Street Great Synagogue – the largest synagogue in Europe and one of the city’s top ten tourist sites – bears the names of victims inscribed on its metallic leaves.
For cultural things to do in Budapest, start on the Buda side for an unrivalled panorama of the city. Spend the day exploring the Castle District, a World Heritage-listed hotspot, with the Royal Palace, Fishermen’s Bastion and Matthias Church all within walking distance of each other.
Then cross over the impressive Széchenyi Chain Bridge, flanked by majestic life-like stone lions, to vibrant Pest, and amble down Andrássy Avenue, lined with magnificent buildings, to Heroes Square before taking in a performance at the stately Hungarian State Opera House.
Squeeze a ruin pub (romkocsma) into your schedule. Essentially these are pubs born out of abandoned, decrepit buildings, largely concentrated in the Jewish Quarter and filled with quirky knick-knacks to create a frenzied visual feast.
It’s the ultimate in bohemian chic and you’ll feel like a bona fide free spirit as you navigate the labyrinth of intricate detail found in these spectacular spaces.
Budapest has had a gastronomic resurgence of late. Traditional Hungarian fare of hearty goulash (more a soup than a stew), paprika chicken (served with a type of egg noodle called nokedli) and lángos (pastry topped with sour cream and cheese) mix with Jewish kosher cuisine, making for an exotic culinary adventure.
Hungary also has twenty-two wine regions producing a great variety of wines.
Spend time at the splendid Central Market Hall – the largest indoor market in Budapest – and stock up on local produce on the ground floor before heading upstairs to Fakanál Restaurant for an authentic Hungarian feast in a relaxed environment.
You may also need a second stomach for dessert because you won’t be able to resist the tempting pastry and cake shops you’ll wander past, such as Auguszt Cukrászda. Taste the rétes (traditional strudel with various fillings) or kürtőskalács (baked sweet dough rolled in sugar).
Budapest’s shopping promenades are found on the Pest side of the river. The main strip runs along Váci Street, a pedestrian thoroughfare, which is lined with fashion stores, souvenir shops, cafes and restaurants.
Király Street, known as Budapest’s Design Street, is also popular with shoppers and features trendy boutiques and contemporary galleries.
There are also plenty of vintage flea markets to rummage around in for hidden gems and you’re bound to find that elusive treasure you’ve been searching for at the Ecseri Flea Market.
There are plenty of relaxing things to do in Budapest. Known as the ‘city of spas’, no trip to Budapest would be complete without spending a few hours soaking in the medicinal hot spring waters of one of the city’s thermal baths.
The largest spa is the Neo-Baroque style Széchenyi Baths which has fifteen indoor baths and three outdoor pools. Pampering services such as massages and facial treatments are also available.
If you’re after a more intimate experience, visit the Gellért Baths – famous for its Art Nouveau furnishings and exquisite mosaic detailing. It’s often touted as the most photographed spa in Budapest—and for good reason.
Do you have any tips for top things to do in Budapest? We would love to hear from you. Please leave us a comment.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Camha Pham is a freelance writer and editor who has recently swapped the cosmopolitan laneways of Melbourne for the sunny beaches of Perth. Struck with the wanderlust bug from an early age, she has travelled extensively through Asia, Europe and parts of North America. When she isn’t travelling, Camha is planning her next adventure and loves nothing more than the thrill of exploring new destinations and learning about other cultures. Travel highlights to date include chasing waterfalls in enchanting Iceland, hot-air ballooning over the lunar-like landscape of Cappadocia and accepting a surprise marriage proposal from her now fiancé at the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto!