Budapest! The Star of the Danube. The Heart of Europe. Paris of the East. The Thermal Spa Capital of the World! There are several sobriquets all testifying to the magnificence and significance of this grand city, the capital of Hungary. Despite having a history going back to pre-Roman times, the city of Budapest is surprisingly young. It was born of an amalgamation of Obuda, Buda, and Pest in 1873, and this led to many of the city’s most remarkable structures having been erected near the turn of the previous century. Modern Budapest is a city of commerce, education, arts, and of course tourism!
For the traveler, Budapest offers an abundance of sightseeing activities, and is home to numerous historic landmarks. These date back to when the area was known as the Roman settlement of Aquincum, through the days of the Hungarian kingdom and Ottoman rule, and up into the 20th century under Nazi and communist oppression. The city also boasts copious galleries, theaters, museums, as well as renowned restaurants and bars. You can also find many fascinating shops to satisfy both the budget traveler and those with an eye for luxury brands.
When researching where to go and what to see in Budapest, the options pile up to a dizzying selection. We’ve done our best to narrow down the list to our picks for the top 5 must-see attractions. However, in confession, we’ve cheated a little by suggesting single places that will actually put you at the doorstep of a few more. If the list still makes your head spin, remember that GoWithGuide has a team of local private guides who can help you smoothly through your tour and fill you in on the cultural and historical significance of the sites you choose to see.
Cruise the Danube
Take a cruise down the famous Danube River and enjoy some of Budapest’s main sightseeing attractions. The Danube River separates the hilly Buda side from the flat Pest side of the city. The central area of Budapest along the river is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which includes the Szechenyi and Liberty Bridges, Buda Castle Hill, Matthias Church, Margaret Island, and the fantastic neo-gothic architecture of the Hungarian Parliament Building. Each of these landmarks played an important role in the region's history, and many are places you will want to visit on foot later. Delight your taste buds with a cruise serving drinks and meals, or take a scenic night cruise to see the city lit up and reflected in the water. Maybe even dance a few waltzing steps to Johan Strauss II’s “The Blue Danube” on deck as you drift leisurely past the captivating scenery.
You should later visit the parliament building, it is the third largest in the world with 691 rooms and 19 kilometers (nearly 12 miles) of corridors. There are guided tours when parliament is not in session, and you may have a chance to see the Hungarian Crown Jewels.
Castle Hill and Buda Castle
Castle Hill is the historical center of Budapest and is home to many of the city’s best-known landmarks. The crown is Buda Castle, a majestic 18th century structure with a history actually dating back to 1265. Over nearly eight centuries, the building has experienced repeated stages of renovation, expansion, and reconstruction, and was nearly destroyed more than once. It has served as a residential palace many times, a munitions storage and barracks, a nunnery, and a university with a library and printing press. It is currently the home of the Hungarian National Gallery and the Hungarian National Museum. Enjoy visiting the museums and take a guided walking tour telling you about the castle’s multifarious history, and even some myths about vampires! Also, don’t miss the spectacular illumination of the building at night.
The castle sits on Buda Hill which is also home to Matthias Church - yet another building of striking beauty, and the location where the coronation of Emperor Franz Josef took place. The church is located right in front of the Fisherman’s Bastion, one of Budapest’s most popular tourist spots with neo-Gothic architecture that looks like a fairytale castle. For a slow ride up to the castle with a view along the way, there’s the Castle Funicular Railway, and for a darker touch, how about visiting the Hospital in the Rock Nuclear Bunker Museum? This was a hospital created in caverns excavated beneath Buda Castle in preparation for the Second World War. It later served as a nuclear bunker. You can also polish up your headlamps for subterranean tours of natural caves as well as older tunnels excavated as far back as 800 years ago.
Szechenyi Thermal Bath
Budapest is known as the ‘Thermal Bath Capital of the World’ due to several thermal springs in the area that have been used since Paleolithic times. The temperatures of the springs vary, with some reaching up to 58°C (136°F). The springs are also believed to have medicinal properties because of the many minerals that naturally percolate from the bedrock into the waters.
The Szechenyi Thermal Bath was established in 1913 and is the largest such facility in Europe, capable of admitting a thousand visitors at once. There are three outdoor pools and over a dozen indoor pools, including adventure pools that are great for kids, as well as saunas, steam rooms, and massages. The architecture provides a striking visual for hot spring revelers enjoying a rejuvenating soak.
A visit to Budapest must include Andrassy Avenue. Now a World Heritage Site, the boulevard was decreed in 1870 to connect the inner city with the city park, and to divert traffic off the main boulevard. Andrassy Avenue sports a host of museums, restaurants, and shops, and connects to Heroes’ Square, the Palace of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts. Along the avenue, you will also find the Hungarian State Opera House, a worthy place to visit for its attractive design and gorgeous interior. There’s also the Museum of Terror, commemorating Hungary’s brutal 20th century regimes and their victims. There are also plenty of name brand shops along the avenue such as Gucci, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Louis Vitton, and more.
Beneath the avenue runs the Budapest Metro, the first underground railway in continental Europe, completed in 1896. In compliance with UNESCO regulations, the stations are kept in their original designs.
The Great Market Hall
Also known as the Central Market Hall, this cavernous building is a fantastic place simply to visit and take in the cornucopia of market foods for sale such as green produce, pastries, candies, spices, and spirits. Eateries and tourist souvenirs can be found on the second floor mezzanine, and there is a basement level for fish and pickled foods. When you need to take a rest, find a spot to relax with a beverage and enjoy people watching.
The Central Market Hall is located on the Pest side of the Danube, across the Liberty Bridge and at the end of the popular shopping street, Vaci utca. It was completed in 1897 in response to recurring suggestions that something be done to improve the city’s food supply by upgrading market halls. There are several historic market halls in Budapest, and the Central Market Hall is the largest and most beautiful of them all. There are even tours of the hall which include tastings, and many guides agree that this is one of the most popular spots in the city with tourists.
Budapest will definitely keep you moving with all its sightseeing spots, historical landmarks, restaurants, and shops. Thankfully, many of these can be enjoyed by simply visiting one location such as Castle Hill or Andrassy Avenue. From those places, you can take your pick of what is important for your stay in Budapest.
With so much to see and so much history and culture, having a private guide to help you navigate and find the best of Budapest is highly recommended. GoWithGuide has many experienced guides who are eager to help you enjoy the city to the fullest. Take a look at who we have standing by, and then get the ball rolling on planning your trip!