Majestic and grand, Budapest is an enchanting city, a hybrid of Paris and Vienna, but with her own distinct Magyar character and personality. This really is a tale of two cities, with the hills of Buda overlooking the center of Pest. The most magnificent view is from the Fisherman’s Bastion on the Buda side. Between the two is the greatest river of the region – the mighty Danube. Below are a few of our favorite sites and experiences in and around Budapest. Just outside the capital, enjoy spending the day at Lake Balaton or visiting the town of Tihany, famous for its Benedictine abbey.
Experience a Private Danube River Cruise
Apart from being the longest river in Europe, the Danube is the heart and soul of Budapest, but rather than dividing the two sides of Buda and Pest, it unites them. There any many boat cruise options, and if you have time, it is a great idea to do a day time cruise and one after sunset, where you can see the main sights along the riverbank spectacularly lit by thousands of white lights. Sip a glass of champagne on our favorite small private boat, while cruising past the beautiful city landscape.
See the Sun Rise at the Fisherman’s Bastion
The Fisherman’s Bastion (Halászbástya in Hungarian) is almost as iconic as the city’s parliament building. Located on Castle Hill in Buda, the best views over the Danube and Pest are from here. A visit at daybreak (if you can bear the early wake-up call!) is perfect – you will have it to yourself and the light is very special. Alternatively, a glass of local wine at sunset at the café located within the turrets of the Bastion is also a great option.
This area is known as Varhegy and you will also see the Matthias Church, a splendid Neo-Gothic reconstruction dating from 1874. The entire cobble-stoned area is lined with cafés and small shops and is perfect for spending an afternoon.
Go to an Outdoor Concert on Margaret Island
If the weather is good, you can easily venture to Margaret Island, one of Budapest’s most beautiful parks. The island is filled with exotic gardens, monuments, statues, and hotels that offer thermal baths from the natural springs. You can easily spend an hour or two walking through this beautiful slice of nature in the heart of the city. There is also an open air theater, and in the summer months performances as part of the Budapest Summer Festival take place here.
Bathe in Thermal Waters
Budapest is blessed with many natural spas. The two that are most famous are the Gellért Hotel and Baths, situated on natural springs in Buda that have offered year-round 111-degree mineral water for more than 2,000 years!
Back in Pest are the Szechenyi Baths, the deepest and hottest baths in Budapest. The spa, housed in a Neo-Baroque building, is open air but popular all year long due to the natural hot springs that supply the water at a temperature as hot as 180-degrees Fahrenheit!
Visit the House of Terror
Before World War II, the building housing the House Of Terror was the headquarters of the INSERT. After World War II, the building was used as the Communist Party Headquarters, and was used by both organizations as one of the most notorious prisons in Hungary. The interactive and creative permanent exhibition illustrates local life under both Fascist and Communist ideologies.
Take a Day Trip to Tihany on Lake Balaton
While Hungary is landlocked, it is home to the largest freshwater lake in Central Europe, Lake Balaton. And for local Hungarians, it is like the just as good as the sea! One of our favorite spots is on the peninsula of Tihany, featuring an abbey dating back over 1,000 years. Enjoy lunch in Tihany at Ferenc Pince, with a spectacular view over the lake and the Tihany peninsula, as well as, a wine tasting it their very own wine cellar. Combine this with a visit to Balatonfured, the oldest and most traditional bathing town of the Balaton area. Ask about joining one of the lake cruises before you return to the city.
Explore Local Wines at Etyek
The closest wine region to Budapest the Etyek region, and is known for its sparkling wine production. We recommend spending half a day here to taste the wines at one of the boutique wineries, known for their chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and pinot gris.
Taste Local Produce at the Grand Market Hall
Budapest Market Hall was built in the 19th century. This incredible covered market has soaring metal columns, high walkways and a multitude of produce shops and independent food stalls. More than being a place where one can purchase some handcrafted and typical Hungarian souvenirs, it’s a market where locals go to purchase their produce and meats. It is a meeting place for many and a place where you can enjoy authentic local flavor and a number of traditional Hungarian delicacies.
Tour the House of Parliament
The largest building in Budapest and the symbol of the city, a visit inside the magnificent House of Parliament is not to be missed. Built in the gothic revival style between 1885 and 1902, the stunning interiors combine sweeping grand staircases, original frescoes, paintings, and sculptures. For most, the highlight of this visit is the viewing of the crown jewels of Hungary. One of the most notable items in the collection is the Holy Crown of Hungary, the only crown known today with the “holy” attribute and dating from the 11th century. This crown has had quite a history – seized by the U.S. Army in 1945, it was held in Fort Knox until 1978, when it was returned to Hungary. Today the building is protected by UNESCO.
Visit Buda Castle
Buda’s historic Royal Palace was a former Habsburg palace during the 19-century and rebuilt in the Neo-Classical style after it was destroyed during World War II. Today the castle is home to the Hungarian National Gallery featuring the best of Hungarian art and temporary exhibitions from now until November 4th you will have the opportunity to see an exhibition of Frida Kahlo’s works.
Admire the View from St Stephen’s
St. Stephen’s Basilica is Budapest’s most beloved church and in the very epicenter of the city. St Stephen’s Square is the best place to sit and have a coffee and admire the architecture and dome. There is an elevator that takes you to the top and the cupola, for incredible views over the city. Not advised for those with vertigo!
Visit Europe’s Largest Synagogue
Budapest’s Great Synagogue (Dohany Street Synagogue), is the largest in Europe and second largest in the world. The interior is very impressive with Byzantine and Moorish style architecture. Budapest has the largest of Central Europe’s Jewish communities numbering about 50,000. There are 23 synagogues in total in the city. We recommend also visiting the Jewish Museum that is part of the synagogue, and the Holocaust Memorial, a sculpture of a weeping willow designed in memory of the almost 600,000 Hungarian Jews who died under the Nazis in World War II.
Enjoy Cocktails with a Spectacular View
The High Note Sky Bar on the roof of the 49-bedroom Aria hotel should not be missed. Reservations essential for lunch or evening.
Eat Goulash & Dobos Cake
Goulash soup or a full Goulash (Gulyas in Hungarian) is a must, even if just to find out exactly what Hungarians do with all that paprika you see!
The other famous Hungarian dish is Dobos, layered sponge cake with buttercream and caramel. It is (surprisingly) incredibly light and DELICIOUS! Both are on many menus in local restaurants and heated debates can ensue as to who has the best. It is pretty hard to get a bad version of either, so we suggest you enjoy as the mood takes you!
Take a Tour to the Village of the Arts – Szentendre
Located only about 30 miles from Budapest, Szentendre has been favored by artists as a haven in which to live and work since the early 1900’s. Today about 100 artists still live and work here. Consider making a full day of it and taking a private boat along the Danube to get there.
Dine in a Michelin Starred restaurant
Hungarian food is not just about goulash and dobos cake. We love both, but for those looking for something a little more refined there are 25 Michelin rated restaurants, one, Onyx with two stars and three with one star. Our favorite with one star is Borkonyha (Wine Kitchen) because of its relaxed and laid-back atmosphere.
Just a few blocks from the Danube on a pedestrianized street, this gem of a restaurant offers over 200 types of Hungarian wines, many offered by the glass. The menu consists of traditional Hungarian dishes re-imagined with contemporary touches. There is also a chalkboard listing numerous daily specials.