Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, Sydney Opera House … one thing is for sure: Every city has certain iconic, visit-worthy attractions. There’s a reason they are popular with visitors and if you’re visiting a new city, you don’t want to miss any of them. If you are visiting Budapest and only have a day or two to explore the most iconic parts of the city, you’ve come to the right place. This guide will get you to the best must-see places.
Getting from place to place
You might like to begin underground: Budapest has the distinction of having built the first subway line on the European continent. Its excellent public transportation system now includes buses, trams, trolley-buses, taxis and metro. (You’ll find full timetable information for all modes of local public transport at www.bkv.hu.)
Budapest is very walkable and we never needed to pay for any public transportation. The whole time we were there, we walked … and burned off some of the calories we’d gotten from all the great Hungarian wine we enjoyed.
A more exciting way around the city is using the Hop-on Hop-off tour bus. Besides getting the obvious transportation benefit to each site, you get a guided narrative of this fantastic city. Tickets can match your time in the city from 24, 48, to 72 hour tickets.
In the interest of full disclosure, we didn’t take the Ho-Ho tour, because we knew a guided tour is included in our Viking River Cruise itinerary.
10 Budapest sights you don’t want to miss
Of all the things to see in Budapest, the best attractions are in two relatively small areas.
1. Chain Bridge
The iconic Chain Bridge was the first bridge to span the Danube and connect Buda and Pest. Statues of lions guard each end of the bridge, but don’t let that stop you from crossing Chain Bridge on foot. It’s worth it: The view is beautiful from the middle of the bridge.
2. Buda Hill
Cross the bridge to the Buda side and you’ll be at Clark Ádám Square. Here you’ll find Hungary’s Mile Zero and a funicular. Buy a ticket and ride to the top of Buda Hill. This is where Buda began in the 13th century, and you can still find traces of its medieval roots.
Buda Castle Quarter is a World Heritage Site, mostly pedestrian and full of 18th century Baroque houses and cobblestone streets. However, there are a few must-see sights, most notably:
- Buda Castle – The medieval castle is long gone, thanks to fires, invasions and wars. That said, the present-day Buda Castle is worth visiting, either with a guided tour or on your own. The extensive Buda Castle Labyrinth system beneath Buda Castle used to be must-see sight. Unfortunately it was abruptly closed to the public in 2011.
- Mathias Church – Since it was built over 700 years ago the Roman Catholic Matthias Church has seen several coronations and royal weddings. It was named for the country’s revered King Matthias, who was married here (twice). Tourism is strongly discouraged during church services.
- Fisherman’s Bastion – Fairytale? You bet it is. This Disney-esque lookout was named in honor of the fishermen who kept watch over the city in days gone by. Its seven yurt-like turrets symbolize the seven Hungarian tribes that first arrived. Most people stick with the lower levels, which offer excellent vistas of the Danube River and Pest. If that’s not enough, be prepared to pay to visit the top level.
- Café Ruszwurm – Okay, not really a must-see sight, but what is a visit without food? To experience café culture Budapest-style – and you really should – head nearby to the city’s best-known confectioner, Ruszwurm Cukrászda. Not only is it one of the oldest traditional cafes & confectioners in the city it also offers an amazing selection of traditional pastries, coffees and cakes. Sit inside and soak up its historic ambiance, complete with antique wood furniture and waitresses dressed in traditional garb.
3. Gellért Baths
Not only does Budapest have a massive subterranean cave system, it is also blessed with a plethora of mineral-rich thermal springs. Some of its spas date as far back as the 16th century.
Our favorite spa resort is Gellért Baths, built a century ago. It is connected to the beautiful Art Nouveau-style Danubius Hotel Gellert. Here you can indulge in any number of beauty and health treatments for a pittance. Most memorable: a Roman-style swimming pool in a sun-lit, columned gallery. It’s probably the most elegant spa in the city.
Gellert is on the Buda side of the river, not far from Elizabeth Bridge and Gellert Hill.
4. Gellért Hill and the citadel
Gellért Hill offers one of the most impressive panoramic views of the city. Getting to the top can be a workout in itself, or you can take a tram or bus.
Mostly parkland, partly residential, the hill is also home to a variety of monuments and a Habsburg-era citadel. You can easily spend hours there if you’re a nature lover.
Gellért Hill is part of the “Banks of Danube” UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Gellért Hill was named after Saint Gerard, a missionary who was killed there in 1046. He was put in a barrel and rolled down into the river from the top of the hill.
5. Andrassy Avenue
On the Pest side side of the river, Andrássy Avenue is to Budapest what Fifth Avenue is to New York. There is one notable exception, though: Andrássy Avenue is part of a World Heritage Site.
This street is full of beautiful, turn-of-the-century buildings, such as the State Opera House. Walk along this long avenue and you’ll see exclusive shops, quaint cafés, museums, embassies, and homes.
Also on Andrássy: the building that once served as Nazi party headquarters and waslater occupied by the Hungarian version of the KGB. These days it houses a museum that contains mementos of both regimes.
6. Heroes’ Square and City Park
Heroes’ Square is one of the most popular tourist sites in the city, day or night. Marking one end of Andrássy Avenue and flanked by two art museums, it commemorates the 1000-year settlement by the seven Magyar tribes.
Buried here is Imre Nagy, former Prime Minister of Hungary, who was executed in 1958.
Heroes’ Square is also the entrance to City Park, the largest park in Budapest. It’s huge.
Within its grounds is a castle, zoo, amusement park, circus, an exclusive restaurant and Szechenyi Baths, the largest thermal spa in the city.
7. St. Stephen’s Basilica
You might think that Hungary’s largest church is named for the first Christian martyr, but you’d be wrong. It’s dedicated to Hungary’s founding king, Stephen I, who is venerated as the country’s patron saint.
St. Stephen’s Basilica contains the “Holy Right,” a.k.a. the king’s mummified right hand. Once hidden, it is now on display in a specially designed glass case.
8. Dohany Street Synagogue
Budapest is home to the largest Jewish synagogue in Europe and the second-largest in the world. (Only New York’s Temple Emanu-El is larger.) Its two Moorish onion-domed towers make it one of the most easily recognized buildings in the city.
Used as a stable during World War II,
Dohany Synagogue was reconstructed in the 1990s. The funds came in large part from Estée Lauder and Tony Curtis, who wanted to honor their Hungarian-Jewish roots.
Take one of their Jewish Quarter guided tours. They will help you to…
- understand the Hungarian Jewish history
- know more about the everyday Jewish life of Budapest
- discover the synagogues in the Budapest Jewish Quarter
The Jewish synagogue’s is built in the Neolog style. Everywhere you look, its ornate interior is full of color and gleams with gold, both unusual features for a synagogue.
Arguably the most distinctive feature is its huge, 5000-pipe organ. It was once played by virtuosos Franz Liszt and Camille Saint-Saëns. Now, however, it is played by a Christian organist so as to avoid violating the commandment against working on Shabbat.
ⓘ TIP: Get an advantage by getting this “skip the line” ticket in advance.
Raul Wallenberg Memorial Park
Behind the Great Synagogue is Raul Wallenberg Memorial Park. It houses:
- Emanuel Tree – Each leaf on this weeping willow tree sculpture is inscribed with the name and tattoo number of a Hungarian Jew killed during the Holocaust.
- Jewish Museum – Built on the site where Theodor Herzl’s house once stood, the Museum features Jewish traditions, costumes, as well a detailed history of Hungarian Jews.
- Heroes’ Temple – Heroes’ Temple is a memorial to Hungarian Jews who gave their lives during World War I. In its backyard is the Jewish Cemetery. Buried there are over 2,000 people who died in the Jewish ghetto during the winter of 1944-45.
9. Hungarian Parliament Building
The beautiful neo-Gothic architecture of the Hungarian Parliament Building was partly inspired by London’s Palace of Westminster.
There’s a law in Budapest that forbids anything to be built higher than its dome, so St. Stephen’s is the same height. It’s been called “one of the most beautiful legislatures in the world, a cathedral of democracy.” Take a tour through the building and see if you agree.
10. Banks of the Danube
The Banks of the Danube have been designated a UNESCO site, partly because of the Danube Promenade that runs along the riverbank in Pest. Lined by nice hotels it offers remarkable views of Buda.
North of Chain Bridge, you’ll find a moving monument called Shoes on the Danube. The bronze shoes memorialize a horrific World War II event. In the winter of 1944, the ruling Arrow Cross Party rounded up Jews and forced them to strip naked. Then they shot them on the banks of the Danube so that their bodies would fall into the river and be washed away.
Like all river banks, the Danube is best enjoyed from a river cruise boat. The city lights up in a spectacular way at night, with building displaying various colors to the lucky cruiser.
ⓘ TIP: A great way to enjoy the Danube is a candle light sunset dinner cruise. The buildings are beautiful at night.