After nearly nine years of living in Europe, Budapest remains our favorite city on the European continent. Yes, we like it more than Paris, Rome or even London. It’s the only place, aside from St. Maarten in the Caribbean and Iceland, that we have returned to time and time again. So just what it is about the city that has us answering its our favorite without a second thought? It’s not just any one thing that makes Budapest our favorite European city. It’s known as the Paris of the East and that it certainly is with the Danube splitting Buda from Pest, its elegant architecture and sophisticated scene. Budapest is also far less expensive than Paris and we love the variety of activities to do there. So we’ve compiled this list of what we think are the top things to do in Budapest:
1. Soak in the Széchenyi Baths
One of the last remnants of the Turkish influence in Hungary, a visit to the thermal baths is a quintessential Budapest experience. We haven’t visited all of the baths in Budapest, but we have been to several of the most famous Budapest baths and the grandiose Széchenyi Baths are by far our favorite. (Check out our comparison in Battle of the Budapest Famous Baths.) Early morning or just before sunset are our favorite times for a soak in the thermal, healing waters of Széchenyi’s outdoor pools.
2. Take a Danube River Cruise
Budapest is beautiful by day, but absolutely stunning by night as the buildings lining the banks of the Danube twinkle and reflect on the dark waters. We’ve taken a Danube River sightseeing cruise twice, both times at night. One hour evening sightseeing cruises are available with audio headsets that give interesting facts about the history of Budapest, the buildings, and little known facts like that the Rubik’s Cube was invented by a Hungarian in Budapest in 1974. Longer and more romantic buffet-style dinner cruises are also available. We’ve done both and recommend both.
3. Walk Across the Chain Bridge
Ah, the Chain Bridge – one of my very favorite bridges in the world. It was the first bridge to permanently connect Buda and Pest and was completed in 1849. At the time, the Chain Bridge was considered to be one of the wonders of the world and the architect was so immensely proud of his work that he challenged anyone to find fault with the bridge. It is said that when it was discovered that the lions that stand guard at either end are missing their tongues, the architect committed suicide. We haven’t missed an evening stroll across the bridge when it is all lit up on a trip to Budapest yet.
4. Go Hungarian Wine Tasting
Faust Wine Cellar is part of the vast labyrinth system winding beneath Buda Castle. Gábor Nagy, owner and wine sommelier at Faust Wine Cellar, travels throughout Hungary’s 22 wine regions regularly in search of only the best to supply their cellar with. The cellar is such a relaxed and romantic setting and you’ll be sure to leave your tasting with a rich understanding of Hungarian wine.
5. Go Caving Beneath Budapest
Those soothing thermal waters of Budapest’s famous baths are responsible for me than a city full of relaxed Hungarians. The rushing waters formed a huge cave system, which is thought to be more than 100 kilometers long. Pulling on overalls, helmets, and headlamps, we prepared to get dirty and we inched on our bellies and wormed our way through tight crevices in “Superman” poses in the longest cave of Hungary, the Mátyás-hegyi cave in the Pál-völgyi cave system. The cave tour lasts 2.5 – 3 hours and is lead by a caving guide. This adventurous activity is definitely not for the claustrophobic since it goes through natural parts of the cave. You won’t find any nicely paved paths a la “show” caves.
6. Slink Around the Labyrinth of Buda Castle
Speaking of the worlds beneath Budapest, the Labyrinth of Buda Castle is one of the 7 wonders of the underground world and adding to its’ allure and mystery, was closed down in 2011 after police raided it and forced everyone to evacuate immediately. It since re-opened and 1 mile of the 6 mile long labyrinth can be visited. Raining outside, we (including Emma) slinked around the slightly misty former prison where its most famous prisoner Vlad Tepes, better known as Count Dracula, was held in captivity by Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus during the 15th century with nothing but the light of candle-lit lanterns to guide us.
7. Take a Segway Tour of Budapest
No experience with a segway? No problem! A Budapest segway tour starts out with an orientation on a quiet street to get the hang of operating it. And then we were off, zipping along Budapest’s streets to all the major attractions with our guide Agnes giving us plenty of info along the way. The 2.5 hour tour gave us an excellent introduction to the city and there were plenty of photo opportunities along the way.
8. Lookout from the Fisherman’s Bastion
The neo-Gothic terrace of the Fisherman’s Bastion is located on the Castle Hill and provides panoramic views of the city. Blown away by the views, don’t forget to explore the seven ornate turrets, of the fairy tale like structure. The turrets symbolize the tents of the seven Magyar tribe leaders who settled the Carpathian Basin in 896, which ultimately lead to the existence of modern-day Hungary.
9. Shop at the Central Market Hall
Built in the 19th century, the Central Market Hall is the largest indoor market in Budapest and the focus is on typical Hungarian products. The first floor is the food hall with vendors selling everything from fresh vegetables to Hungarian sausages and Hungarian paprika to Hungarian wines. The market is a great place to visit several vendors for an inexpensive lunch of traditional Hungarian foods. The second floor is full of vendors selling wares like souvenirs and traditional Hungarian embroidery.
10. Try a Traditional Hungarian Dish Paired with Hungarian Wine
Budapest, like any other major European city, is filled with touristy restaurants. But it is also filled with local haunts serving sophisticated Hungarian cuisine at reasonable prices. We apply the same logic here as when traveling anywhere else. Avoid restaurants along the beaten tourist path and ask the locals where to eat. Pálinka Bistrot offers home made traditional Hungarian dishes and we had a delicious meal of Hungarian goulash soup, rabbit with dumplings, gravy, and cream, and paired it all wonderfully with Hungarian Tocai.
11. Indulge on Pastries From Budapest’s Oldest Confectioner
Budapest is full of cafes to have a delicious cuppa joe and try one of the sweets Budapest is famous for. Cafe Ruszwurm, on the Castle Hill, is one of Budapest’s oldest traditional confectioners still operating as a cafe. We sought out the cafe, which has just about a dozen seats, and though we had a little wait for a table we weren’t disappointed. There is a wide selection of the day’s fresh pastries, truffles, and coffee concoctions to choose from. The decor is charming too with antique furniture and tools of the old confectionery trade in the glass curio cabinets.
Cafe Ruszwurm is located at Szentháromság u. 7 and is open 9am – 8pm Spring through Fall and 10am – 7pm in Winter.
12. Hike Up Gellért Hill to the Citadella
From the Elisabeth Bridge, hike up the sets of stairs and paths for a stunning panorama over both Buda and Pest from the Citadella. Once a fortress built by the Habsburgs in 1854, it was an important strategic point to see over all of Budapest. Nowadays there is a market set up at the top where you’ll find Hungarians pedaling their handicrafts like dolls, wooden toys, and handmade clothing and scarves.
13. Visit the Real Dracula’s Castle on a Day Trip to Visegrád
Visegrád is a small town on the right bank of the Danube in the Danube Bend and a great day trip from Budapest. Visegrád is famous for the remains of the early Renaissance summer palace of King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary and the citadel or “upper castle.”
The citadel, atop a 328 meter high hill, was originally built in a triangular shape and had two towers. It dates back to the 13th century and was home to Hungarian kings. It later became their summer residence.
New wings and an external wall were built during the Angevin period. Around 1400 King Sigismund also had a third curtain wall constructed and enlarged the palace buildings. At the end of the 15th century, King Matthias Corvinus had the interior part of the castle renovated.
The upper castle also served for the safekeeping of the Hungarian royal insignia between the 14th century and 1526.
The hexagonal Solomon Tower was built in 1258. Vlad Tepes, more famously known as Dracula, was imprisoned here between 1462-74. So if you want to visit the real “Dracula’s castle,” head to Visegrád and not to Romania, as Vlad the Impaler never actually lived in Bran Castle.
If you don’t want to rent a car or do this day trip on your own, this Danube Bend Day Trip from Budapest is a good way to visit both Visegrád and Szentendre.
14. Admire a Marzipan Princess Diana and Michael Jackson on a Day Trip to Szentendre
Szentendre is another small town at the foot of the Pilis Hill along the Danube Bend and the day trip can be combined with a stop in Visegrád.
Szentendre was part of the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire under Ulcisia Castra from the 2nd centuty AD. In the 13th century the Mongols and then the Turks in the 15-16th century destroyed the town. It was rebuilt in Baroque style in the 17th century and has been preserved ever since.
A Barqoue cross stands in the main square, Fő tér. The cross was erected in 1763 to commemorate the fact that plague avoided the town. The Baroque-Rococo Blagovestenska church also stands tall in the square and was built by settlers living in the Greek quarter next to the church in the mid 18th century. Above its wooden gate are frescoes of St. Helene and St Constantine.
Winding streets lead off from Fő tér and are packed with museums, restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops. Stop by any of the shops to find Tokaji wine, pálinka (Hungarian fruit brandy), Hungarian paprika and goose liver.
Stop by the Labirintus Restaurant in the National Wine Museum for a delicious Hungarian meal.You can dine in three different rooms: in the Tokaji Room in the cool cellar, in the Kupa Room on the ground level, or in the Vadász (Hunter’s) Room on the first level. In The 220 year old cellar system, you can taste and buy fine Tokaji wines.
We dined in the Kupa Room, which intimately acommodates just 24 people. Its countryside atmosphere is reached through the exhibition of authentic objects from the every-day life of the village. Try the garlic soup in the rye bread bowl and the turkey breast stuffed with peach and camembert.
Don’t miss a stop in the Szabó Marzipan Museum, where you can follow the process of confectioner work and marzipan handicraft. The display cases have marzipan creations of many Disney characters, a 2-meter tall Michael Jackson made of white chocolate, a Princess Diana, the 160 cm long Hungarian Parliament building, and a wedding cake so large that it would need 970 eggs, 25 liters of cream, 15 kg of butter, 35 kg of sugar, 15 kg of chocolate, 20 kg of flour, and 10 kg of icing.
Where to Stay in Budapest
We’ve stayed at various accommodations over our years visiting Budapest and though we don’t often advocate for holiday apartment stays, we really love Golden Stars Apartments. Right in the heart of the city and close to all of Budapest’s attractions, the luxury holiday apartments give you the best of both worlds. The stylishly decorated apartments have the elegance of a luxe hotel, while still offering amenities like a full kitchen, washing machine and multiple bedrooms at an affordable price. And the owner, Tomas, runs the properties as a business, so you get the great customer service of a hotel at a holiday apartment.
If a traditional hotel experience is what you’re looking for, Intercontinental Budapest is steps from the Danube and Chain Bridge. With a stunning view looking to the Chain Bridge and Royal Palace, there’s hardly a more prestigious spot in the city. The hotel is an excellent position for exploring all Budapest has to offer by foot and by tram, with a stop just in front of the hotel. The rooms are decorated classically with neutral Intercontinental interiors and have modern amenities. The hotel is also pet friendly, unlike the Golden Stars Apartments, and is a perfect spot if your furry family members are coming along.
Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace is the epitome of luxury in Budapest. The Chain Bridge practically spills on to the palatial hotel, which has panoramic views of the Danube and Buda Hill. The posh rooms are an art-deco design and many of them have step out balconies that you can admire the twinkling lights of Budapest from. Located just 400 meters from St. Stephen’s Basilica and at the end of the Chain Bridge, you’re in the heart of Budeapst. And Four Seasons is also pet-friendly.
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