Replete with UNESCO World Heritage Sites, breathtaking architecture, and named the spa capital of the world, Budapest is the jewel in the Hungarian crown. Surrounded by rolling hilltops of the Carpathians, impressive bridges, and Margaret Island, make Budapest’s visual identity is unmistakable.
The city straddles the Danube river, which divides it into two parts – Buda and Pest. Buda is settled on the upper hills, and Pest spreads out on a flat plain on the opposite bank. They feel like separate cities even today, offering a depth of history and discovery for travelers to dive into.
Whichever side of the city you are on, it is filled with beauty best enjoyed from the many lookout points. We had to make a bet to run an extra mile for every time we used the word view during our stay. It was hard to resist. Luckily the mouthwatering langos we consumed fueled us to tackle the distance that added up quickly.
Let us take you around the city, ticking off the best things to see on both sides of the Danube, tasting must-try Hungarian dishes, and making memories.
Szechenyi Chain Bridge
Start your quest for iconic landmarks in Budapest on the first permanent bridge that connected the two parts of the city – the Szechenyi Chain Bridge. Opened in 1849 after the Hungarian Revolution, the impressive structure offers sweeping city views and serves as a reminder of bringing people together.
Cross over to the Buda side, take the funicular up to Buda Hill and admire the iconic Buda Castle, part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A panoramic city view unveils as the clouds disperse by midday, which is the time to see the changing of the guard. Art fans will be pleased to find the Hungarian National Gallery housed inside the castle containing incredible pieces dating back to the 15th century. The gallery is enormous so go with plenty of time to spare.
Continue your tour underneath the Buda Castle in the caves that were transformed into an emergency hospital and bunker, the Hospital in the Rock. It was used during World War II and the uprising against Soviet rule, now serving as a museum, which we recommend seeing with a guide. If you want to continue exploring Budapest’s complicated past and the effects of Fascist and Communist regimes on Hungary, head to the House of Terror Museum. Located on the other side of the Danube, it is set in the former headquarters of the Hungarian Nazi Party.
Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion
Just a short walk from Buda Castle, you will find the Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church in front of it. Discover the vies from the seven turrets and climb up Matthias Church for gorgeous city views and a closer look at colorful roof tiles. Notice the earthy tones throughout the entire city, as if the palette of colors was picked to match perfectly.
Hungarian Parliament Building
The Hungarian Parliament is the largest building in Hungary. It sits on the UNESCO-listed banks of the Danube river and is an architectural masterpiece. Grab a drink across the river at sunset, wait for the building to illuminate, and watch the reflection dancing in the Danube river. Take your time appreciating the stature of this work of art because the architect who designed it, unfortunately, went blind before he could see the final product, which took 17 years to complete.
St. Stephens Basilica
On the Pest side, this stunning Roman Catholic Basilica houses intricate interiors filled with ambient organ recitals. In addition, it offers the opportunity to take the elevator up to one of its towers to enjoy 360-degree views of Pest and beyond.
Budapest Thermal Baths
Thermal baths are probably one of the most iconic things about Budapest. The massive underground system of hot springs supplies healing water to the many thermal baths in the city. After a long day of exploring, the steaming heated pools in Szechenyi baths, the largest medicinal baths in Europe, were the best remedy. The complex houses three outdoor pools, including a lap and a whirlpool, and ten indoor pools, each with unique medicinal properties. There are also saunas and steam rooms, with plenty of relaxation methods.
Central Market Hall
This indoor market is a foodie’s mecca, offering a colorful array of fresh local produce, cheeses, and local delicacies such as smoked sausage. With over 100 stalls spread over three floors, take your time checking out the goods, grab a quick bite or stock up on souvenirs like traditional Hungarian clothing. It’s the perfect place to grab a quick breakfast or lunch.
An amazing thing about Budapest is how easy it is to escape into nature. Margaret Island, located on the Danube, is in the middle of the city, yet it feels like a far-away oasis. So whether you are looking for a peaceful afternoon of people-watching, or running trails, this is the place to go.
Venture out to Lake Balaton for a fantastic day trip only two hours away from Budapest. It is the biggest lake in Central Europe and one of the top resort towns in Hungary. Whether you are looking for a day trip or a getaway, there are chic beachfront hotels and small romantic towns ready to house you. We recommend spending at least one night in the area as there is so much to explore around the lake. Start your day discovering the hiking trails and wetlands at Balaton Uplands National Park. Finish with a sunset wine tasting at some of the best Hungarian vineyards in the area.
Pro tip: the small town Tihany on the Lake Balaton peninsula glazes over with lavender fields in the summer. This beautiful sight of purple against the lake’s edge draws thousands of visitors to the annual Lavender Festival.
Eat Your Way Through Budapest
It isn’t easy to choose in Budapest’s burgeoning café scene when countless beautifully decorated venues beckon. But before we make any suggestions, here is a quick overview of must-try Hungarian dishes:
Langos – fried dough with sour cream and cheese fueled our runs and adventures around Budapest.
Goulash – this was one of our favorite must-tries and the perfect remedy for a chilly day, which resembles a meat stew.
Chicken paprikash – chicken cooked in cream with famous Hungarian paprika sauce.
New York Cafe
New York Café is easily one of the most beautiful cafes in the world. The elegant interiors, marble columns, sparkling chandeliers, delicious cake selections, and incredible ambiance is absolutely breathtaking. The experience resembled one we had in coffee houses in Vienna, as Budapest is also known for its café culture. Try the traditional Dobos torte and enjoy the live music played from 11 am.
Menza restaurant offers a modern take on the traditional grand café dining experience serving Hungarian dishes. Surrounded by a lovely atmosphere, Menza is the perfect spot to have lunch in between tours.
Getto Gulyas is an up-and-coming restaurant located in the Jewish Quarter. Popular among locals, as the name suggests, it serves up a mean traditional goulash, except at this restaurant, you can choose from a large variety of meat.
Retro Langos is the place to try traditional Hungarian langos. Made with fresh ingredients right before your eyes, this mouthwatering dish is even more appetizing. Pay it a visit for a quick breakfast or snack.
We did our best exploring local spots and landmarks and venturing out of the city. Budapest has so many things to see that you’d need well over a week to do the city justice. Having someone explain the complexity of historical events and Hungarian culture makes a huge difference. We suggest taking a walking and food tour during the first few days of your stay. Let us know if you still have questions we didn’t answer in the comments below!
If you are in this area of Europe, be sure to make the short trip up to Vienna, Austria. It is also a wonderful city and you can see our Vienna blog here.