Expert travel reporter Nathan Kay has taken readers of Culture Trip on a tour of the 20 must-visit attractions in Budapest.
From majestic Art Nouveau thermal baths to trendy ruin bars, Kay writes that a whole host of new experiences await at Budapest’s must-visit attractions.
To make the most out of a trip to Budapest, Kay advises visitors to skip the queue by booking the city’s top attractions online in advance, whether it’s touring the spectacular Neo-Gothic parliament building, diving into the underground cave system or battling it out at the Pinball Museum.
Budapest is nicknamed the “City of Spas” for good reason. More than 118 natural thermal springs deliver 70 million litres of therapeutic waters to the city each day. Housed within the world-famous Gellért Hotel, Gellért Baths is just one of a dozen spas where you can take advantage of spa water’s healing qualities. The sumptuous spa offers a steam room, sauna, sun terrace, thermal baths and massage rooms, housed in a spectacular Art Nouveau-style building. Head there early in the morning to avoid the crowds, or book a guided tour to skip the queues.
River Danube, Budapest
For a fresh perspective on the Hungarian capital, see it from the waters of the River Danube. Upon its Budapest banks, the Neo-Gothic Hungarian parliament building stands opposite the ornate Buda Castle and Fisherman’s Bastion, while river cruises also provide views of the Liberty Statue, Chain Bridge and Margaret Island. To avoid the hassle of looking for the best river cruise during precious holiday time, guided tours can be booked online in advance.
Pinball Museum (Flippermúzeum)
The Budapest Pinball Museum might sound like an attraction that caters only to die-hard gamers, but this quirky museum offers a fascinating journey back in time with its collection of over 130 pinball machines. Positioned close to Margaret Island in the heart of the city, the Flippermúzeum houses Europe’s largest ongoing interactive pinball exhibition and includes the Mesovonat – the only Hungarian-made pinball machine. To ensure a stress-free experience, book tickets online.
Hungarian Folk Show at the Danube Palace
Hungary has a rich tradition of folk dancing – Budapest even has its own college dedicated to the study of these historical dances. The art of Hungarian folk dance offers a fascinating insight into the music, costumes and dance heritage of Hungary through the years. To experience a real-life Hungarian folk show first-hand, grab tickets for a one-and-a-half hour performance at the Danube Palace (Duna Palota) theatre by one of Hungary’s foremost folk ensembles – either the Danube Folk Ensemble, Hungarian State Folk Ensemble or Rajkó Folk Ensemble.
Budapest Chocolate Museum
To satisfy those with a sweet tooth, the Chocolate Museum on the outskirts of Budapest provides guests with a rich history of Hungarian chocolate. Taking a leaf out of Willy Wonka’s book, the museum is a unique place where visitors are taken on a culinary journey through the history of chocolate, complete with tasting sessions. Guests can dip marzipan balls into a chocolate fountain, make their own handmade chocolates, and explore the museum’s collection of historic Hungarian paintings. Visitors are advised to book tickets in advance to secure a slot.
St Stephen’s Basilica
Many class St Stephen’s Basilica as the jewel in Budapest’s crown. Taking pride of place in the centre of the city, the world-famous Roman Catholic Basilica is named after Stephen, the first King of Hungary who ruled between 975-1038. Completed in 1905 after 54 years of construction, the Neo-Classical building remains to this day the most important church in the country. Housing a stunning interior with intricate paintings adorning the walls and ceiling, this architectural masterpiece can be best appreciated while enjoying an enchanting organ recital within its walls.
Dohány Street Synagogue
The Dohány Street Synagogue is undoubtedly a key highlight of the up-and-coming seventh district. Built between 1854 and 1859 in the Moorish Revival architectural style and with a capacity of over 3,000 people, it is the largest synagogue in Europe. The synagogue complex houses the Great Synagogue, the Heroes’ Temple, the graveyard, the Memorial and the Jewish Museum. To learn more about the rich history of the synagogue complex and its relationship to the Holocaust, guided tours can be booked in advance.
Széchenyi Thermal Baths
Situated in the heart of Budapest City Park, the Széchenyi Baths is one of Europe’s largest thermal bath complexes. Built in 1913, the spa houses three large outdoor pools, 10 inside plunge pools, massage rooms, saunas, steam rooms and even a beer bath. Open all year round and popular not least due to its opulent Neo-Baroque style, Széchenyi is best experienced with a full-day skip-the-line ticket, which can be booked in advance.
Hungarian Parliament Building
The Hungarian Parliament Building is among Budapest’s leading attractions, drawing nearly 700,000 visitors each year. Situated on the UNESCO-listed banks of the River Danube, the building is one of the finest examples of Gothic Revival and Renaissance Revival architecture in the world. The House of Parliament is still very much a functioning law-making body today, but it is open to the public at certain designated times. Long queues often form outside, so book online to avoid the crowds.
The iconic Buda Castle District houses the historical castle and palace complex. The awe-inspiring Baroque-style palace was completed in 1769, but the complex was first constructed as far back as 1265. Part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the former Royal Palace is now home to the Budapest History Museum and the Hungarian National Gallery. Castle Hill, which comprises the entire upper quadrant of the Várnegyed (Castle Quarter), houses an array of museums, shops, restaurants, cafés and hotels. Although visiting the site does not require advanced booking, it’s strongly advised that you sign up for a guided tour to learn more about the history of the castle and the palace complex.
Szimpla Kert (Ruin Bar)
Budapest’s ruin bars – unconventional hangout spots and nightclubs set up in abandoned buildings – have become the highlights of Budapest nightlife. As the first ruin bar established in Budapest, Szimpla Kert should be a first port of call when exploring ruin bar culture. Moving around a few times before settling into its current home in the Jewish Quarter in 2004, Szimpla Kert now hosts a farmers’ market and flea market during the day and live music and film screenings at night. Here, you can expect eclectic music and unique furniture, including an old Trabant car that has been repurposed as a quirky centrepiece in the outside courtyard. One of the most popular ruin bars in Budapest, Szimpla Kert can be explored as part of a wider ruin bar tour.
Hungarian State Opera House
The Hungarian State Opera House is renowned as one of the finest examples of Neo-Renaissance architecture in existence today. Completed in 1884, it boasts a grand chandelier that weighs a whopping three tonnes and almost three kilogrammes of gold were used to gild the cherubs and nymphs of its lavishly ornate interior. Although the Opera House is closed for refurbishments until early 2020, tours of the building are still available.
The Neo-Romanesque lookout towers housed within the Fisherman’s Bastion provide some of the best views across Budapest. Built between 1895 and 1902, its seven towers symbolise the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars who founded the country in 895. Today’s structure stands where thick walls once protected Buda Castle from enemy attack – legend has it that the building was protected by the guild of fishermen, giving the Bastion its name. To appreciate the beauty and history of Fisherman’s Bastion, consider booking a tour online.
Built in 1896 as part of the Millennium exhibition to commemorate 1,000 years since the Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin, Vajdahunyad Castle sits majestically within Budapest City Park. First built out of wood and cardboard, the site became so popular that it was rebuilt from stone and brick in 1908. Surrounded by a boating lake in the summer which turns into an ice rink in winter, the castle houses the Hungarian Museum of Agriculture, the largest agricultural museum in Europe.
Széchenyi Chain Bridge
The Széchenyi Chain Bridge is an impressive example of 19th-century engineering spanning the River Danube, linking Buda to Pest. Designed by English engineer William Tierney Clark and built by Scottish engineer Adam Clark (not related!), the cast-iron structure opened in 1849 and was the first permanent bridge constructed across the river. Connecting Széchenyi Square in front of Gresham Palace to Adam Clark Square below the Castle Hill Funicular, the Széchenyi Chain Bridge is a symbol of bringing people together: from all walks of life, from the east and west of the city. Walking tours afford an ideal opportunity to learn more about the Széchenyi Chain Bridge.
Sitting between the Margaret and Árpád Bridges on the River Danube, the leafy 2.5-kilometre-long (1.55-mile-long) Margaret Island (Margitsziget) hosts open-air swimming pools, running trails, bars, luxury hotels, a wildlife park and even the ruins of a 13th-century Dominican convent. The pièce de résistance, however, is the dancing musical fountain – one of the largest and most dramatic in Europe – which pairs dancing water jets with a diverse playlist of music.
Built in 1896, Heroes’ Square takes pride of place at the tip of Andrássy Avenue, Budapest’s Champs-Élysées-esque boulevard replete with upmarket stores, cafés and restaurants. Heroes’ Square features the colossal Seven Chieftains of the Magyars statue complex and the Memorial Stone of Heroes, which stands in tribute to those who have died defending Hungary. The Museum of Fine Arts and the Palace of Arts are also positioned around the outside edges of the square, which make an informative cultural addition to any guided tour of the area.
Hospital in the Rock
The Hospital in the Rock was built into a 10km-long (6mi-long) underground cave system situated directly beneath the Buda Castle District. Built as a secret military and hospital bunker during the 1930s in preparation for the Second World War, the hospital was used to full capacity during the siege of Budapest in 1944-45, with both civilians and soldiers treated there. Although the hospital was closed in July 1945, it was still used by the Vaccine-Producing Institute to develop medicines to tackle typhus for many years afterwards. English guided tours depart every hour on the hour from 10am-7pm, with tickets available to purchase on-site or online in advance.
Great Market Hall
Ever abuzz with activity, Budapest’s Central Market Hall (also known as the Great Market Hall) promises an adventure in culture and retail therapy, offering up traditional Hungarian clothing and local delicacies such as beech wood-smoked Gyulai kolbasz sausage. Built in 1897, this magnificent venue holds more than 100 stalls over three floors, housed in a Neo-Gothic style listed building. Taking advantage of a guided tour will not only give you an in-depth history of the building, but will also give you the opportunity to try authentic Hungarian food and enjoy wine tasting en route.
The Kőbánya cellar system is a vast network of subterranean tunnels underneath Budapest’s tenth district. During World War II, the tunnels were used to assemble aircraft engines and as a bomb shelter for civilians. Also referred to as the ‘Dreher Cellars’ by virtue of the Dreher Breweries that once resided there, the former quarry is now extremely popular with cave divers and beer enthusiasts.
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