Budapest was definitely one of the grandest cities I visited during my two years in Europe. I’m glad I chose to visit the Hungarian capital and that too with very few expectations. Since I had already visited Prague and Vienna, I didn’t know how Budapest was going to top them. So before my stint in Europe ended, I made sure to visit Budapest.
My first few hours in Hungary were an adventure in itself. You see, Budapest’s airport lies well outside the city limits. There are many ways to get to the city centre but the easiest, and perhaps the quickest, way is the train. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that and in a hurry, climbed onto a rickety old bus outside the airport terminal building. According to the map on the bus, my stop was the last. I asked the driver how much was the fare. He obviously didn’t understand a word that I had said and looked perplexed. I tried again. No response. Eventually, he gestured to get out of his way. So I went and sat down at the back thinking that I had managed to snag a free bus ride.
And what a bus ride it was. It took an hour and a half long through the many neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Budapest to arrive at a stop for the Budapest metro. Another 20 minutes later, I finally made it to the city centre. From the moment I stepped out of the underground station, everything just took my breath away.
Top things to do in Budapest
There are so many attractions in Budapest and most of them feature on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. The city, although big, is littered with historical monuments, buildings of great significance and world heritage sites. The city’s attractions are larger than life. I felt so small walking along the banks of the Danube, looking at the bridges and the Buda Castle. If there is one feeling that comes back to me time and time again while reminiscing about my time in Budapest, it is a feeling of absolute awe!
My hotel was on the Pest side of the city next to the Erzsébet bridge, and I personally think it was an amazing location. For those unaware, the capital city of Hungary is an amalgamation of three cities – Buda, Óbuda (on the west bank) and Pest (on the east bank) – that united in 1873.
With so much on display, I thought I’d put down some of the highlights and must-sees and things to do in Budapest.
Walk Along The Danube
Start with a stroll on the Danube promenade between the Széchenyi Chain Bridge and the Erzsébet Bridge on the Pest side. The promenade is a UNESCO World Heritage site that has the best views of the Buda side. Avoid all the overpriced restaurants that serve as tourist traps and just take this opportunity to soak in the magnificence of the Buda Castle, Fisherman’s Bastion and the beautiful buildings on the Pest side, including the Four Seasons hotel.
Visit The Buda Castle
Cross the Chain Bridge to the Buda side to access the Buda Castle. This historical castle and palace were home to the Hungarian kings in Budapest and today are one of the many World Heritage monuments in the city.
Visit the St. Stephen’s Basilica
St. Stephen’s Basilica is definitely one of the grandest looking buildings in all of Budapest. Its ceilings and interiors are absolutely breathtaking. As one of the two tallest buildings in Budapest, the St. Stephen’s Basilica is really looking bigger in person than in the pictures.
Relax At Margaret Island
Margaret Island is a 2.5 km long island in the middle of the Danube River, between Buda and Pest. Yes, it’s an island on the river. It’s easily accessible on foot and mostly consists of parks, gardens, and running tracks. The island also has a tiny zoo that is home to a variety of exotic birds. I found it a great place to relax, unwind or even have a picnic.
Admire The Parliament Building
The Hungarian Parliament is probably the most gorgeous parliament in the whole world. Picturesquely located on the Danube river, it is one of Europe’s oldest legislative buildings, a notable landmark and popular tourist destination of Budapest. To get the best views, go to the Fisherman’s Bastion or right across the river from the building.
Soak In The Views From The Citadel
The fortress of Citadel was built in 1851 on top of the Gellért Hill is a strategic point from where the Habsburgs had an overview of both Buda and Pest. It offers some of the best views of the city and I highly recommend walking up the hill rather than the temptation to take a bus or taxi.
Cross All The Bridges
Budapest is a city of bridges – grand and beautiful bridges. They span across the river Danube at different points, joining Buda to Pest, and making it Budapest. Ah, nothing like symbolism. If there’s one feature that stands out in the city, it’s the bridges. In fact, one of my favourite pictures ever was taken on a bridge in Budapest.
Pay your respect at The Budapest Dohany Street Synagogue
The Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest is one of the biggest synagogues in the world and the biggest in Europe. The building is also home to the Heroes’ Temple, the graveyard, the Memorial and the Hungarian Jewish Museum. Although the building is architecturally beautiful, its graveyard is a painful reminder of the suffering during World War II. If you’re interested, here is a list of facts about the Great Synagogue of Budapest.
Visit the Fisherman’s Bastion
The Fisherman’s Bastion is a lookout point with some of the best views in the city. It derives its name from a guild of fishermen who protected this part of the city wall during the Medieval ages. Parts of the Bastion reminded me of a castle, which is funny because the official website states that it “looks like the logo of Walt Disney films, only nicer and older”.
Shop At The Great Market Hall
The Great Market Hall of Budapest is a wonderful way to discover local flavours and food stalls. I only walked into the market because it was too hot to walk outside. As I entered, I wondered why this wasn’t on my list. I was glad that I discovered it and if you’re in the city, make sure that you do too. There’s a great post on this website about the market.
Unwind The City Park & Thermal Baths
The City Park turned out to be my favourite attraction in all of Budapest. Without any prior knowledge or expectations, I walked into one of the biggest and most happening parks in any city I’ve ever visited. With grand palatial buildings, boating lakes, and thermal baths, the park was buzzing with life. Not to mention that I visited it on a day of a festival. There were food stalls everywhere (pictures of food below), music bands performing, and people just having a really good time.
Walk Down Andrássy Way
Andrassy Way is a World Heritage Site (road?) that connects the centre of the city to the City Park. It is the main street in the city, lined with spectacular neo-renaissance mansions and townhouses featuring extravagant facades, museums, luxury shops and boutiques, cafes and the famous Opera house. It’s a long avenue, but in my opinion, it’s definitely worth the walk. Walk from the Opera house all the way to Heroes Square to really get a flavour of Budapest.
Visit Heroes Square
Located at the end of Andrássy Way and next to City Park, Heroes Square is the largest and most impressive square in Budapest. Heroes Square is most famous for its iconic statue featuring the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars as well as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. FYI, the City Park is connected to the square.
Wait, did I miss anything!? I probably did. It was impossible to see every single attraction in Budapest even though I spend three days in the city. For those who really want to see it all, here’s the official list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the city.
Relish Hungarian Food
Food-wise, two things came out of the trip, Goulash soup and Paprika (with chicken, fish…you name it). The city is relatively cheaper than its neighbouring countries, so you don’t feel bad splurging a bit more on food and drinks. I was also extremely fortunate to have walked into a festival in the City Park. I kid you not, I made it a point to try everything I saw that day. It was absolutely delicious!