Visiting Budapest was a serious dream come true for me and it really lived up to all expectations. Here are my top twelve things to do in the capital of Hungary.
1. Castle Hill and Fisherman’s Bastion
The Castle District on top of Castle Hill is one of the most important places to see in Budapest and is also an UNESCO world heritage site. The original royal residence was built in the 13th century but it was ruined during the Second World War and restored between 1950 and 1980.
The Royal Palace, also known as Buda Castle houses the National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum. The area can be discovered easily at your own pace as there are gorgeous panoramic views over the Danube and the Pest side of the river.
(That’s the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest at the end of the bridge).
Take a wonder through the cobbled streets and you’ll also discover the Matthias Church which has been there since 1015, it was founded by the first Hungarian king.
A fairytale complex of turrets, archways and passages known as Fisherman’s Bastion, so called because this section of the Medieval castle’s walls was assigned to the Fisherman’s Guild for defence.
It’s super pretty and utterly Instagrammable but you may need to head there very early in the morning to get your photos.
2. The Chain Bridge
Széchenyi Chain Bridge is one of the most iconic images of Budapest. Buda and Pest, the western and eastern sides of Budapest used to be separate towns but Count Széchenyi, a prominent statesman, resolved to build a bridge connecting the two after being stuck on one side meant he missed his father’s funeral. William Tierney Clark designed the bridge and it was opened in 1849, after the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. The first permanent bridge in Budapest.
The Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace is located right at the end of the Chain Bridge and our room had a view right over the iconic construction.
3. Christmas Markets
Budapest is a wonderful place to visit at Christmas time – think sparkly lights, hot chocolate, mulled wine and gingerbread! We visited two Christmas markets during our time in the city and both were utterly gorgeous.
Advent Feast at the Basilica lies beneath the facade of St Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest’s biggest church. There’s lots of cute stalls selling food and Christmassy trinkets and there’s even an Ice Rink with a Christmas tree in the middle. By night this Advent market in Szent István square is illuminated with strings of lights and projections on to the Basilica itself.
Alternatively the Budapest Christmas Fair at Vörösmarty Square is listed as one of the ten prettiest Christmas Markets in Europe. It’s a total winter wonderland and every vendor is carefully checked to assure quality. There’s a huge gastro terrace where you can buy classics such as goulash, chimney cake, strudel and roasted chestnuts.
Mr S was particularly impressed with the giant sausage!
A word of warning – while the markets were incredibly atmospheric by night, they were also very crowded and I personally preferred them in the day time.
4. Take a Boat trip on The River Danube
Seeing a city from the water always give a whole new perspective and Budapest is the perfect place to take a river cruise especially as so many of the main attractions are found by the Danube. Mr S had booked the Pannonia ship, a beautifully restored boat from the 1920’s for an intimate river cruise with afternoon tea and wine tasting. Unfortunately there was a problem with our boat and we were transferred to the stationery Kossuth Museum Ship for our wine tasting and cake. The almost 100-year-old steamboat is pretty but quite old fashioned and we enjoyed three different wines and a platter of Hungarian cakes on board.
After our wine and cake we were transferred to a second more touristy boat for the cruise itself.
While it was incredible to see the parliament building all lit up from the water, we would have preferred the more personalised experience that Mr S had already booked – plus the whole thing took around four hours. Instead I recommend a private boat such as Thetis or Dunarama and a 1 – 2 hour tour.
5. The Parliament
One of the most significant and iconic buildings in Budapest and one of the largest parliaments in Europe.
Work began the Neo-Gothic building by architect Imre Steindl on the parliament in 1884 and it was completed in 1902. Why such a big parliament building for a small country? Hungary used to be part of the dual Austro-Hungarian Empire which was both rich and huge in size. Though we didn’t have time to do it, you can take a tour inside the parliament building and see the famous Main Staircase, the Old Upper House Hall, the Lounge and the coronation jewels.
6. The Great Synagogue
Located on Dohány Street, the Great Synagogue is the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world and it can accommodate 3,000 people. It was built in 1859 in Moorish revival style and highlights the size and wealth of Jewish population at the time that was later mostly wiped out by the Second World War.
The synagogue also contains a museum, the Heroes temple and a Jewish cemetery where over 2,000 people are buried who died in the Jewish ghetto at the end of the war.
Most poignant for me was the Raul Wallenberg Memorial Park, home to the Holocaust Memorial at the back of the synagogue. A weeping willow tree, known as the Emanuel Tree with names of Hungarian Jews killed in the Holocaust inscribed on the leaves. The tree is sponsored by the Emanuel Foundation of New York created by actor Tony Curtis.
7. The House of Terror
On his first visit to Budapest Mr S was incredibly moved by The House of Terror, a museum located at 60 Andrássy út, the former head quarters of the secret police. The museum recounts the fascist and Communist regimes that ruled in 20th century Hungary and describes the victims of the regimes who were interrogated, tortured and killed in the very building.
The ghastly history of the house is utterly harrowing especially when you see the cells where victims were kept but I knew nothing about this period of Hungarian history and it was fascinating to learnt about it.
8. Central Market Hall
The largest and oldest indoor market in Budapest, The Central Market Hall is not only filled with stands of fresh food and Hungarian delicacies, it’s also a really beautiful building.
9. Thermal Baths
Budapest is known as the ‘City of Spas or ‘The City of Healing water’ as it has more thermal and medicinal water springs that any other capital city in the world! There are actually 118 springs in the city with temperatures ranging between 21 and 78 Celsius. Enjoying the thermal baths have been a past time dating back to the 2nd century and some of the locals that we met told us it was their favourite way to relax. Unfortunately with only two full days in the city, we didn’t have time to dedicate to an afternoon of relaxing in the baths but I still wanted to mention it in this post as it’s such a popular activity.
The Széchenyi Baths is the largest and most famous thermal bath in Budapest and is a series of 15 different pools with three larger pools and 12 thermal baths. There’s also a wellness centre and fitness room. Now as I never visited myself I can’t really comment but we were warned that the Széchenyi Baths were very crowded and touristy. The concierge at The Four Seasons Gresham Palace told us his favourite was the Gellért Thermal Baths, known to be one of the most beautiful in the city, containing 13 baths in the Art Nouveau style building.
10. Go for a Drink
Mr S and I tried a diverse range of different drinking establishments during our time in Budapest (it is my job after all). On the high end scale I’d definitely recommend the Bar and Lobby Lounge at Four Seasons Gresham Palace which serves the best boozy hot chocolates and mulled wine. For incredible views of the city I’d recommend High Note SkyBar at the Aria Hotel which is located right next to St. Stephen’s Basilica and has two panoramic terraces.
Alternatively St Andrea SkyBar is a beautiful bar and restaurant with a panoramic view and is located on at Vörösmarty square right by the Christmas market. If you’re looking for something more casual check out the famous Ruin Bars of Budapest (dilapidated buildings turned into cool hot spots). I’d recommend Szimpla Kert, the most famous and original ruin bar or Mazel Tov, a more upscale adaptation of a ruin bar. You can read more about them in this post.
11. Something to Eat?
Mr S and I absolutely loved the dining scene in Budapest. The city is home to four Michelin-starred restaurants of which we tried two: Onyx Restaurant for a fabulous romantic dinner and Borkonyha WineKitchen for an exquisite lunch in a more informal setting. Though we didn’t get to try it Costes Restaurant, the first in Budapest to gain a Michelin Star, and sister restaurant Costes Downtown were also recommended to us. Other fine dining places that we tried were Babel (which we felt should get a star soon) and Nobu Budapest which had a more trendy vibrant atmosphere.
Kollázs Restaurant at Four Seasons Gresham Palace is a great from somewhere that’s smart yet casual and affordable. We had lunch there on the day of our boat trip so we could be near the river. Another great casual choice is Mazel Tov in the Jewish Quarter, an adaptation of a Ruin Bar serving Israeli food.
I usually like to try somewhere really traditional that reflects the classics of country but we ran out of time to do this, however recommended to us were Café Kor, Zeller Bisztró and Bock Bistro. I also ran out of time to try New York Café, one of the most beautiful and beloved coffee houses in Budapest. Our tour guide in Budapest actually has his own website recommending restaurants so check out Offbeat Budapest for some options from a local.
12. Stay in a Beautiful Hotel
I think you can tell I couldn’t recommend Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest enough! It was absolutely gorgeous with utterly exquisite service, decor and a perfect location. It’s known to be the best hotel in Budapest, and in the whole of Hungary.
The Ritz-Carlton Budapest is another ultra-luxurious hotel in the city and though I didn’t actually visit, Lauren loved it. We did stick our noses into the Hilton Budapest which had a great location right next to Fisherman’s Bastion on the Buda side. You can read a full review on Aftab’s blog. If you prefer a boutique hotel that’s totally unique, I’d recommend taking a look at Aria Hotel Budapest. The design is inspired by music and I loved the piano key floor tiles in the lobby and the idea that each wing of the hotel is inspired by one of four major genres of music: Classical, Opera, Contemporary, and Jazz.
Jean who writes the blog Holy Smithereens wrote a full review of this hotel, which is how I first heard of it.
Those are my top 12 things to do in Budapest. Have you been to Budapest? What do you recommend doing?
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