It’s impossible to stroll across Budapest’s Margaret Bridge at night without stopping to gaze along the River Danube towards the illuminated glories of Parliament Building, Chain Bridge, Gellert Hill and Buda Castle. It’s one of those iconic views that needs to be savoured. It needs time to become embedded in your memory bank so that you can recall it whenever you think of your time in Hungary’s beautiful capital city.
However, at minus 5 degrees and a wind chill factor making it feel a whole lot worse, we weren’t hanging around.
Certainly, exploring Budapest on foot in the depths of winter is pretty challenging. Even drinking copious amounts of hot mulled wine has a limited effect on stifling the biting cold. But, hey, this is Central Europe, and it’s December. Which means crisp blue skies, Christmas markets and huge pots of bubbling goulash in pop-up eateries,
If you haven’t been there yet, we’re here to tell you that if you choose one city in Central Europe to visit then this should be it. Obviously, visiting in the summer would present a different experience to ours – it does get very hot during July and August. But, whatever time of year you go, give yourself a minimum of two nights/three days (or more if you can) to fully immerse yourself in this gem of a city.
And, to help you get the most out of your visit, here are 15 of the best things to do in Budapest and where you can find them…..
1. Gellert Hill
Named after a bishop who was thrown to his death off the hill by pagans over a millennium ago, it’s iconic Liberty Statue stands proudly at the summit. Unlike most other Communist-era icons, it wasn’t removed after Hungary’s independence from the Soviet Union and it remains an important symbol of the city.
The walk up is fairly straightforward and once you get to the top, the Danube stretches out before you. At this point, you’re actually in the old city of Buda and looking out across the river to the original city of Pest. It was in 1873 that the two cities were united to form Budapest.
And what a view you get! Particularly on a clear, sunny day.
2. Explore the city’s “ruin pubs”
These are now becoming as iconic as Budapest’s much older, historic sites.
They came about during the last decade in the city’s Jewish Quarter. Partly-ruined buildings and courtyards were furnished with anything local entrepreneurs could get their hands on. The decor was left to local artists who would let their minds run amok onto the walls and ceilings while paying customers would occasionally add their own marks. Out of this grew a collection of ruin pubs that also act as a hub for anyone with a passing interest in bohemian culture.
Szimpla Kert is recognised as the grandaddy of them all and is something of a Budapest institution. It’s also the one that any self-respecting pub-lover should visit at least once. As soon as you walk through the front door you’re confronted with a full-on visual assault in every direction – including upwards. And it’s such a large, sprawling beast that it’s difficult to decide where exactly to sit yourself down.
Of course, it’s much more than just a pub. It’s a cinema and a live music venue. It even has a Farmer’s Market every Sunday morning. And it’s well and truly on the tour guide circuit so expect it to be packed in the evenings.
Elesztohaz is another good option, although it’s not actually in the Jewish Quarter. Set in a large courtyard it has its own craft beer brewery, wine bar, coffee shop, restaurant and apartments. It has a pretty industrial ambience but you can also sit in an atmospheric room with a vaulted stone ceiling like we did. To be honest, it was almost empty when we visited, but I hear it gets packed out in the summer.
Smaller and more intimate bars we tried and can recommend are Kisuzem and Lehuto. To be honest, though, you’re spoiled for choice and there are plenty of other options depending on your own preferences. But if you’re into craft beer then you’ll be in seventh heaven.
A good place to start is the ruinpubs.com website.
3. Stroll across its historic bridges
Just like its bars, if you’re into bridges then Budapest gives you them in droves. To be honest, we’re not exactly professional bridge-hunters but it would have been pretty churlish of us not to be impressed by the four structures that stretch over the Danube at the centre of the city.
The most famous is Chain Bridge, which was the first stone-built bridge to connect Buda and Pest. You’ll undoubtedly walk over it as you cross on foot from Pest to access Buda Castle or Fisherman’s Bastion.
A good place to start is the ruinpubs.com website.
Arguably more attractive is Liberty Bridge, which connects Fovam Square and the Great Market Hall on the Pest side of the river with Gellert Hill in Buda. If you stop in the middle you’ll be rewarded with a great view down-river towards Elizabeth and Chain Bridges.
The highlight for us, though was the walk across Margaret Bridge at night, as I mentioned at the beginning. Don’t miss it, particularly if the weather is warm enough for you to linger for a while. The bridge itself is so-so but the view is memorable…
4. Fisherman’s Bastion
Rivalling Gellert Hill for the best panoramic views in Budapest, Fisherman’s Bastion and its ornate viewing platform is right up there with the city’s top tourist spots. But there’s actually a lot more to see and do other than just take in the view.
For instance, you can take your own self-guided walking tour, including the likes of Matthias Church and the Music History Museum. Unfortunately, the biting cold got the better of us so we can’t give you our first-hand experience.
What we can recommend is to time your visit to the viewing platform in the hour or so before sunset as the low light shines beautifully onto the magnificent Parliament Building on the other side of the river. There’s a cafe there, too so you can soak up the view with a glass or two.
And by the way, in case you’re wondering where it got its name from, it was built on the site of a Middle Ages rampart, protected by a guild of fishermen. So now you know.
5. The Great Market Hall
Situated just off the Pest side of Liberty Bridge, this is the city’s largest indoor market, and is split over three levels.
The original market had a canal running through it so that goods could be delivered directly to the traders by barge. But, after severe damage during the Second World War and subsequent neglect, it was restored complete with a brand new roof decorated with Zsolnay tiles in the 1990’s.
Once inside it becomes clear that the market’s aimed at tourists as much as it is the locals. There are seemingly stalls everywhere selling nicely packaged Hungarian paprika, which you can actually buy much cheaper from a grocery store next door.
But, even if you don’t want to buy anything it’s worthwhile spending an hour or so just wandering around. And you can lunch or have dinner in one of the numerous eateries on the top floor.
6. Enjoy traditional Hungarian food
We skipped the fancier restaurants and instead went for the smaller outlets, which were largely temporary wooden huts serving an admittedly meat-based fayre of sausages, stews and the like. But if you haven’t yet tasted a Hungarian paprika-infused sausage or porkolt then don’t pass up the opportunity while you’re there.
However, there was one calorie-laden local delicacy that became a bit of an obsession for me. Retes (strudels) are pastries stuffed with a range of fillings, such as pumpkin/poppy seed, sour cherry/plum, and apricot/curd cheese. You can eat them cold, of course. But, for me, served hot straight out of the oven, they’re a taste sensation! And there’s a stall on the ground floor of the Great Market Hall that’ll serve them to you just like that.
Seek them out!!
And just one other mention if you’re visiting Budapest during the harsh winter. There’s a cracking soup bar just up the road from the Great Market Hall that serves a daily-changing range of home made soups to take away. You’ll be thankful after an afternoon walking around in the cold…
7. Heroe’s Square & Vajdahunyad Castle
Heroe’s Square dates from the late 19-Century when it was created to commemorate the thousand year anniversary of Hungary’s conquest by the Magyars and was built as a tribute to the country’s leaders down the centuries. The square is flanked by the Museum of Fine Arts and the Palace of Arts.
You can reach it either by taking the Metro to Hosok Tere (M1), or better still, by walking the length of Andrassy Ut (Avenue), with its incredible mansions, townhouses and Opera House. But unless you go early there’s bound to be a large number of tour parties so we’d suggest go there first and walk back along Andrassy Ut afterwards.
While you’re there you can also take in the City Park, which is situated just behind the square. The park is pleasant enough but the big draw here is the ornate Vajdahunyad Castle.
And, if you visit during winter you might even want to fit in a spot of ice-skating…
8. House of Terror Museum
In our opinion, to gain an understanding of the Hungarian psyche, this is just as essential to visiting Budapest as Auschwitz is to Krakow and The Killing Fields are to Phnom Penh.
The museum covers the horrors of Budapest’s occupation by the Nazis and Soviet Communists during and after the Second World War. It’s pretty harrowing at times. In particular the video interviews of people who tell their own personal stories.
But don’t let that put you off. And, if you’re not part of a tour group, we’d suggest you rent an audio guide.
You’ll find it on Andrassy Ut, so it’s easy to combine with a visit to Heroe’s Square. More information at the House of Terror Museum website. Closed Mondays.
9. Memento Park
Another of the city’s sites that serve to reflect on its occupied past. This time, huge statues and monuments erected in Soviet Budapest were relocated in 1991 as a celebration of the fall of Communism.
For instance, there’s a surreal statue of Stalin where only his boots remain. You’re left to imagine for yourself the absolute scale of the original. And, standing close to some of the other statues dotted around the park, you do begin to realise just how intimidating they must have been to the people of Budapest.
Again, if you’re interested in history it’s well worth a visit. To get there you can either get a direct bus or use public transport from the city centre. More information here.
10. Hungarian Parliament Building
It’s the third largest parliament building in the world and undoubtedly one of the most beautiful.
Situated right on the Danube and accessible either as part of a walking tour or via the number 2 tram, it’s a place to appreciate the sheer magnificence of the architecture – both inside and out. And there’s a bonus that the riverfront and rear views are totally different.
Make sure you don’t miss the view from the opposite side of the river when the sun goes down, either. Of course, you can get a great panoramic view from Fisherman’s Bastion, but I took this photograph from right beside the river…
11. Walk the Danube Promenade
In fact, one way of getting to the Parliament Building is to walk along the Danube Promenade from Elizabeth Bridge to Chain Bridge and then continue the footpath onwards.
Along the way, you’ll pass views of Buda Castle, quirky sculptures and plenty of cafes and bars. Unfortunately, you’ll also pass 1960/70’s monstrosities like the Marriott and Intercontinental hotels.
But, beyond Chain Bridge, you’ll also come across yet another of Budapest’s poignant reminders of its dark past. Almost without warning, you’ll stumble across a set of iron shoes randomly positioned along the water’s edge. They were created in memory of the Jewish people who, during the Second World War, were ordered to take off their shoes before they were shot by Hungarian fascists. The memorial represents the shoes that were left behind after their bodies fell into the river.
12. Indulge yourself in a thermal spa
Budapest really is a city made for exploring on foot. But, because there’s so much to see you’re very likely to get footsore before too long. Luckily, as you’re in the City of Spas, you’re in the right place!
Listen to Budapest’s tourist board and they’ll tell you that it’s the spa capital of the world. We’ve no reason to dispute that but we’d also hazard a guess that it’s one of the world’s cheapest places to enjoy natural thermal baths, too.
There’s plenty to choose from such as Szechenyi, St Gellert and St Lukacs. We went for Rudas, which is located on the Buda side of the Danube, along the riverfront from Liberty Bridge (turn right after you cross it from Pest).
The central part of the spa is a 500-year-old Turkish bath complex with a range of pools of different temperatures. The one at 42 degrees I found myself in was enough to bring tears to my eyes. Not to mention the bucket shower of ice cold water that followed.
You’ve also got a choice of saunas, steam rooms, swimming pool and massage treatments depending on what package you buy. And a great way to finish is to soak in the outdoor rooftop spa, which overlooks the Danube. A fantastic feeling when the ambient temperature is below freezing.
Although we could have done without the couple beside us who thought it was an ideal spot to try out their newly discovered hobby of tonsil tickling.
13. St Stephen’s Basilica
Yet another of Budapest’s iconic buildings, the basilica was named after Hungary’s first king. Indeed there’s a glass case inside which reputedly contains his mummified right hand.
It’s an impressive building, as you’d expect. And, while we were there it was home to a nightly Advent light show projected onto it.
But the highlight for us was to take the lift and spiral staircase up to the viewing platform for 360-degree panoramic views of the city. Take a tourist map up with you as, if nothing else it gives you a great sense of perspective as to where many of the sights are located.
14. Take the tram
Of course, walking around for hours is great for the soul and will undoubtedly help shed some of the excess calories you’ve inevitably taken on during your stay.
But a visit to Budapest wouldn’t be complete without at least taking a ride on one of its famous trams. And, in particular, the number 2 tram, which National Geographic rated as one of the Top 10 tram rides in the world. Which isn’t surprising as it runs along the Danube embankment past a whole host of iconic sights.
By the way, whether you travel by train (metro) or tram, a single ticket will cost the same irrespective of the length of the journey. So, if you plan to use public transport extensively during your stay you might want to look at a 72-hour or 7-day travel card. More information on that here.
15. Explore the city at night
I can’t imagine there’s a more atmospheric European city at night than Budapest.
Of course, there are the usual city staples of restaurants, cafes, bars and casinos. And, if you’ve booked well ahead there’s the entertainment on offer at the Hungarian State Opera House. But what makes this place so special is the almost loving care and attention the local council have taken to light up its historical monuments, buildings and bridges once the sun goes down.
So for instance, in addition to crossing Margaret Bridge, this would also be a great time to walk along the Danube Promenade. Or you could take a cruise along the river if you prefer. But to be honest, just wandering around and soaking it all up would be our choice. And stopping off at the occasional ruin bar, naturally.
What did you think? Have you been to Budapest? If so, do you have any recommendations to share? Or maybe you’re planning on visiting soon? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
Hi, we’re Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we’d like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.