Have you ever been somewhere where you had no idea what to expect? I had no idea what Budapest was going to be like, and it turned out to be the best surprise. Arriving in the snow, it was like a beautiful fairytale…a fairytale filled with potent alochol which nearly derailed my trip before it had even begun.
My plane landed at 7pm and I went straight to dinner once in the city, which involved a restaurant where a man with a violin serenaded us as we ate huge plates of meat with about 7 glasses of wine and palinka. On the way back to the hotel I threw myself in the snow to make snow angels, then totally missed my alarm the next morning and was seriously battling a bad head on my first day exploring.
Luckily, I managed to get out of bed and had the best day. Unfortunately, Budapest is a city where alcohol presents itself around every corner – so by the end you just accept the slightly fuzzy morning heads. But there is so much more to Budapest than bars, stag dos and palinka fuelled snow angels. It’s an incredible, historic city.
From architectural masterpieces, to communist history, to epic escape rooms and breathtaking views – Budapest has it all. Having not known what to expect when I arrived, I left with Budapest firmly atop my favourite city breaks of all time, and here are 20 must visit attractions in the city – all of which I managed in a 5 day visit (and you could probably do in 3 days without the alcohol).
ONE. The Parliament Building
One of the finest buildings in the world, in my humble opinion. The epic Hungarian Parliament building is the third largest assembly building in the world (shout out Romania and Argentina who beat it) and has survived two world wars, revolutions and uprisings. You can tour the building every hour or so, and it’s well worth your time. There is a sign saying you’re not allowed to enter with a megaphone though, so be sure to leave that handbag essential at home…
TWO. Fisherman’s Bastion
Looking for the best view in town? The Fisherman’s Bastion is home to it. Stunning views out over the Danube are all yours from this beautiful spot. I also like it because it looks like the Disney logo – but older and lovelier. We visited in the snow which meant it was even more lovely.
THREE. Buda Castle
This massive baroque palace, built in the 1700s, has been home to everyone from Hungarian kings, to Ottoman sultans, nuns and Nazis. You can explore its fascinating history in the Buda Castle museum, which we happily spent a couple of hours in. It is also a great view spot over the river to the Parliament building.
FOUR. Heroes Square
An imposing square encircled by statues of Hungarian kings and heroes from Kind Bela IV to Lajos Kossuth, who led the Hungarian war of independence. The large column is a war memorial, which also pays tribute to those who lost their lives in the fight for independence. Imre Nagy, leader of the anti-Soviet revolution in 1956, is also buried here.
FIVE. Gellert Hill and The Citadel
Panoramic views out over Budapest is your reward for hiking up this hill, a little way out of the main centre of town but well worth a visit. At the top of the Citadel you will also find a WW2 museum and Hungary’s very own statue of liberty. Initially erected by the Soviets to celebrate Hungary’s liberation from the Nazis, the Hungarians decided to keep the monument after the fall of Communism in the country. Unlike most statues, which were moved to the Communist Statue park.
SIX. Chain Bridge
The Chain Bridge connects Buda and Pest across the Danube. Opened in 1849, it was the first permanent bridge across the Daunbe in Hungary. A bit like the Brooklyn Bridge to New York, the Chain Bridge is a big cultural, social and economic symbol to Budapest.
SEVEN. Ruin bars
So Hungary is famous for ‘Ruin Bars’ – basically bars which are just quirky and different. When in Hungary you have to try Unicum; it’s utterly disgusting but as a truly Hungarian delicacy you have to try it. I much preferred Palinka, which is an Hungarian fruit brandy and much, much tastier than Unicum! Sitting in a ruin bar for a few hours, sampling the local Palinka, was definitely a highlight for me.
EIGHT. St Stephen’s Basilica
Named after the first king of Hungary (and still home to his right hand), this church is the third largest in Hungary and is beautiful inside. It’s definitely worth a visit, especially to see the stunning cupola.
NINE. Hospital in the Rock
Have you ever been in a nuclear bunker? This underground system of caves and tunnels became an underground hospital during WW2 as the Nazis attacked and occupied Budapest. You can only tour the hospital on a guided tour, and our guide was so informative and really funny. Tours last about an hour, so well worth it if you can spare the time.
TEN. Matthias Church
Sitting right in front of Fisherman’s Bastion, this unique and ornate church was originally built in 1015. You have to pay to enter, but it’s really nice to wander around and it’s also home to a little ecclesiastical art gallery as well.
ELEVEN. Danube River Cruise
I love a good boat trip on holiday, especially one that offers free wine as you go. There are lots of tour operators offering cruises up and down the Danube from Budapest varying from 30 minutes to a whole day. From the river you can get great views of the Parliament building, the Castle and all from the comfort of your seat.
TWELVE. Shoes on the Danube bank
A sobering memorial which pays tribute to Jews who were killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest during World War 2. I’ve been to a lot of countries, and a lot of war memorials, and every time I visit one I’m shocked by how awful humanity can be, and how easily, and how regularly. And how we must never forget the human stories, human lives lost and lessons in humanity learnt.
THIRTEEN. Escape rooms
Budapest is home to escape rooms. For those of you who don’t know, escape rooms are rooms you are locked in to and have to solve puzzles to get out of. I’ve probably played about 40 escape rooms now, in countries from Germany to the UK to America to, well, Hungary. And Budapest has a great selection – our favourite was Locked Room Budapest, closely followed by the Egyptian room at Scavenger Escape.
FOURTEEN. Thermal baths
One of the most famous attractions in Budapest, the poster boy of thermal baths in Budapest is the Szecheyni Baths, sourced from 2 natural hot springs. Alternative choices are the Gellert baths or Rudas baths. Here you can relax in the hot waters after a busy day sightseeing – or even treat yourself to a massage as well.
FIFTEEN. Vajdahunyad Castle
Vajdahunyad Castle was built as part of an exhibition to celebrate 1,000 years of Hungary. It’s lovely to walk around the lake outside, as well as the wider grounds. Inside the castle is now the largest agricultural museum in Europe, if that’s your thing.
SIXTEEN. House of Terror
House of Terror is a museum located in the building from which the secret police conducted their reign of terror during the communist era. It now contains exhibits related to the fascist and communist regimes in 20th-century Hungary and is also a memorial to the victims of these regimes, including those detained, interrogated, tortured or killed in the building. Again a truly horrifying museum, and worth at least a couple of hours of your time.
SEVENTEEN. Cave Church
One of the coolest churches I’ve ever seen, a little bit like the rock church in Helsinki, this still functioning church is carved in to the cave systems of Gellert Hill. The audio guide is definitely worth taking as well.
EIGHTEEN. Dohany Street Synagogue
This is the largest synagogue in Europe, seating almost 3,000 people. A beautiful building and truly spectacular inside.
NINETEEN. Hungarian National Museum
The national museum for art, history and archaeology, with a quite amazing staircase – this museum is good for anyone with an interest in the history of Hungary. One thing I will say though is that it doesn’t truly acknowledge all parts of Hungarian history. For example, it speaks of war time atrocities being due to the Nazis, but the reality is that Hungary was ruled by the Arrow Cross Party – a far right Hungarian group who committed plenty of atrocities against the Hungarian population themselves.
A bit of light relief from intense museums – Miniversum is great for kids (and big kids). It’s a giant version of Hungary in miniature – there’s even a mini UK downstairs! Fun to lose a few hours and learn about the other regions of Hungary.
Thanks for reading! Are you planning to visit Budapest once lock down is over? Hopefully this list has helped if so. I’ll also be posting a ‘perfect weekend in Budapest’ itinerary soon. And fingers crossed we can all travel again soon.