Over two million people – one-fifth of Hungary’s population – live in Budapest, and it is the political, cultural and commercial heart of the country. After the 1867 Compromise, which gave the Hungarian monarchy equal status with Austria under the final half-century of the Hapsburg Empire and ushered in a high age of Hungarian nationalism, the city was rapidly developed to become a standing celebration of Hungarian culture and power, and the sheer scale of it's vast iconic buildings, from the castle to the Parliament to the Gellért Baths, testifies to Hungary’s central role in European history. Pest is located on the eastern bank of the Danube and Buda on the hilly west bank. Since the unification of these two distinct cities in 1873, the Danube (Duna) is less a dividing line, more the heart of the capital itself, providing its most splendid vistas, from both banks. Each of Budapest’s 23 districts (kerületek) is designated on maps and at the beginning of addresses by a Roman numeral; “V” is Belváros (inner city),
on the Pest side; “I” is the Castle district in Buda.
Castle Hill(Várhegy) is the crowning feature of the Buda side; a plateau 1.6km long, it rises steeply from the Danube bank, bearing the imposing Buda Palace, a web of cobbled streets and the Mátyás Church, symbolic of Hungarian nationalism. Pest is thick with hip cafés and bars, as well as home to the historic Belváros (central old town) and the intimate Jewish district.
If you want to be close to Budapest’s nightlife, cafés and central sights, the best places to stay are districts V, VI and VII in Pest. Buda’s lush residential district (XI) is quieter and less hectic – as long as you’re game for a sprightly half-hour walk to get to downtown Pest.
To the east of St Stephen’s basilica, Andrássy Út runs dead straight for 2.5km, a wide avenue lined with grand if sometimes tumbledown buildings. Including the magnificent Opera House at no. 22. At no. 60, out east towards Hősök tere, is the House of Terror. Once the headquarters of the fascist Arrow Cross and later of the Communist secret police (the ÁVO), the House of Terror is now a hard-hitting museum to the “dual terror” of Fascism and Communism. Original footage, photographs and interviews with survivors are powerfully used to tell the story of the twin tyrannies that Hungary suffered in the twentieth century.
Budapest has some of Europe's grandest baths, and they are much more affordable than you might expect. Hungarians love to wallow in the thermal waters bubbling up from subterranean springs, and a Budapest spa visit is a must-do experience – it’s fantastically restorative and sure to ease any aches and pains. A basic ticket covers three hours in the pools, sauna and steam rooms (gözfürdo), with services such as mud baths (iszapfürdo) or massages (masszázs) extra: for information on all Budapest’s baths check w budapestgyogyfurdoi.hu.
Built in 1913 on the Buda side of Freedom Bridge, the magnificent Gellért baths, with original Art Nouveau furnishings, stunning mosaics, sculptures and stained glass, offer the most exclusive experience (daily 6am–8pm; from 5100Ft pool and locker). The atmospheric Rudasbaths at Döbrentei tér 9 on the Buda side of Erszébet bridge, meanwhile, house a charming octagonal pool beneath a characteristic Turkish dome (men only Mon & Wed–Fri, women only Tues, mixed Sat & Sun; daily 6am–8pm; from 3200Ft). The popular, highly recommended Széchenyi Baths, by Heroes’ Square in Pest, are the hottest in the capital, with large outdoor pools where old men play chess on floating boards, and fun features such as water rapids and underwater bubble jets (daily 6am–10pm; from 4700Ft). On Saturday nights they stage steamy, extravagant SPArties with drinks, DJs and dancing in and out of the water (10.30pm–3am; tickets from €35/10,900Ft at w spartybooking.com).
Castle Hill stands on the western bank of the Chain Bridge (Széchenyi lánchíd), opened in 1849, and – amazingly – the first permanent bridge between Buda and Pest. From Clark Ádám tér on the Buda side, you can reach Castle Hill on the dinky nineteenth-century funicular or Sikló (daily 7.30am–10pm; 1200Ft) or take bus #16/16A from Széll Kálmaán tér metro station direction Disz tér.
Topping the crest of Castle Hill, close by the point where the funicular railway emerges, stands Buda Palace. The fortifications and interiors have been endlessly remodelled, with the palace’s destruction in World War II only the latest in a long line of onslaughts since the thirteenth century. The National Gallery (Tues–Sun 10am–6pm, last ticket 5pm; 1800Ft; t 01 201 9082), which occupies the central wings B, C and D of the palace compound, contains Hungarian art from the Middle Ages onwards including heavily symbolic nineteenth-century representations of idealized national myths.
On the other side, facing the Palace’s Lion Courtyard, the Budapest History Museum in Wing E (Tues–Sun: March–Oct 10am–6pm; Nov–Feb 10am–4pm; 2000Ft; T01 487 8800) gives some further historical context with a gathering of artefacts from Budapest’s dark ages and medieval past, but is rather old-fashioned, and arguably underwhelming for the price.
On Szentháromság tér, the busy square at the heart of Buda, stands the bright-roofed Mátyás Church (Mon–Sat 9am–5pm, Sun 1–5pm; 1500Ft). Inside, the church is fabulously exuberant, with the original thirteenth-century structure used as the base for a late nineteenth-century redesign in a Romantic Nationalist style. The splendid gold leaf and nationalist motifs clearly reclaimed the church as Hungarian – it had been a mosque for a time under Ottoman rule. A statue of King Stephen (Szent Istvan) on horseback stands outside - he is revered as the founder of the Hungarian state and the one responsible for converting Hungarians to Christianity.
Behind the church is the neo-Romanesque Fishermen’s Bastion or Halászbástya, constructed in 1902 on the spot supposedly defended in the past by the guild of fishermen against would-be invaders. Today it’s an excellent place for looking out across the river to the splendid Parliament building rising up on the east bank.
The Memento Park, on the Buda side of the river 15km south of town, houses statues of Marx, Engels, Lenin and friends, as well as heroic scenes from Communist legend, and is a lively glimpse into the Communist past of eastern Europe for the uninitiated. It is not easily accessed by public transport, unfortunately: the easiest option, but far from cheap, is to take the Statue Park bus from Deák tér.
The floating party scene (held on river boats on the Danube) comes alive in the summer: check flyers and posters around town. Budapest Official Guide provides practical info on sights and transport. The fortnightly Budapest Funzine is the best publication in English for nightlife and events updates. Pestiest (Hungarian only) has comprehensive events listings. All are available from hotels, cafés and tourist information points.
There are some great eating-out options in Budapest, and it’s also easy to refuel cheaply and on-the-go at the growing numbers of cafés serving falafel, sandwiches and hummus-based snacks. Patisseries are also – as everywhere in Hungary – ubiquitous. By Western European standards prices are very reasonable.
See w www.festivalcity.hu for information on all Budapest’s festivals.
Budapest Spring Festival Last two weeks in March w www.btf.hu. Jazz, folk, opera, chamber music, flamenco and theatre takes place in venues across the capital.
Summer on the Chain Bridge Every weekend in July–Aug. Scores of classical and popular concerts; the famous bridge is jam-packed with market stalls and musicians. Ask at Tourinform for details.
Sziget Festival Mid-Aug w www.sziget.hu. The week-long Sziget (meaning “island”) Festival is an open-air pop and rock fest fondly known as the “Hungarian Woodstock”.
St Stephen’s Day Aug 20. Craft fairs, folk dancing, river parades and fireworks launched from barges on the river to celebrate the nation’s founding father.
Autumn Festival Mid-Oct w www.bof.hu. Music, ballet, theatre and film from Hungarian and international artists.
Close by the Szabadság híd (Freedom bridge) on the Buda side is Gellért Hill (Gellérthegy), home to the best known of the city’s baths, Gellért Baths and topped by the Liberation Monument, constructed in 1947 to commemorate Hungary’s liberation from Nazi rule. Known by locals as The Bottle Opener, it depicts a woman holding aloft the palm of victory, and is one of the few Soviet monuments to survive the fall of the Iron Curtain in situ (most have been destroyed or moved out of town to the Memento Park). Below, the Citadella, a mock-medieval fortress built by the Habsburgs to cow the population after the 1848–49 revolution, hugs the west bank of the Danube.
Extremely popular and insanely busy, a magical complex of six interconnecting courtyards between Kiraly utca and Dob utca, Gozsdu Udvar houses an antique market, cocktail bars, American diner-style restaurants, pull-your-own-pint pubs, cafés, handicraft stalls, Latin-themed bars, penny arcades, a gym – and, did we mention, bars?
On the corner of Wesselényi and Dohány utca stands the Great Synagogue or Dohány Street synagogue (March Sun–Thurs 10am–6pm, Fri 10am–3.30pm; April–Oct Sun–Thurs 10am–6pm, Fri 10am–4.30pm; Nov–Feb Sun–Thurs 10am–4pm, Fri 10am–2pm; 3000Ft; T01 343 0420. It is the world’s second-largest synagogue (the largest is in New York) and the central place of worship for what remains – despite the devastation of the Holocaust – of Central Europe’s largest Jewish community. The Byzantine-Moorish interior is worth a look, but seek out too the silver weeping willow in the “garden of remembrance” named after Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who rescued many Jews during World War II. You will also find there a prominent commemorative plaque to Sir Nicholas Winton who arranged the Kindertransport in 1938, saving 669 children. The ticket also allows access to a new Jewish Museum, next to the synagogue: opened in 2016, it displays items from 1681 (a marriage contract from Verona) to contemporary Judaica (a 2015 octahedral Hannukah Minorah).
The bombastic Hősök tere (Heroes’ Square) was created to mark the 1000th anniversary of the Magyar conquest in 1896, and its triumphant conquerors and rearing horses recall a time when Hungarian nationalism was at full throttle. Its centrepiece is the Millenary Monument, portraying the Magyar leader Prince Árpád, and the surrounding semicircle of greats of Hungarian history includes King Stephen and Lajos Kossuth, who spearheaded Hungary’s short-lived independent government after the 1848 revolution. Also on Heroes’ Square is the Museum of Fine Arts, at Dózsa György (currently closed for renovation; check szepmuveszeti.hu for details on its reopening), with a good, but not hugely extensive, collection of paintings by big names including Bruegel, Rembrandt and El Greco.
At Muzeumkörút 14–16 (the road named after it), and easily accessed by MKálvin tér, is the grandiose Neoclassical National Museum (Tues–Sun 10am–6pm; 1600Ft; T01 338 2122), which gives a comprehensive overview of Hungarian history from the Magyar tribes’ arrival to the collapse of Communism.
The most unmissable sight in Pest by far is the Parliament, Hungary’s biggest and arguably most beautiful building. It houses the old Coronation Regalia, including national hero St Stephen’s crown, sceptre and orb, and its impressive interior features sweeping staircases and a 96m-high gilded central dome. There are daily tours of the building – in English – (10am, noon, 1pm, 2pm & 3pm; 2200Ft for visitors with EU passport, 5400Ft for others). Tickets can be purchased on the day from the Visitors’ Centre on the north side (daily; Nov–March daily 8am–4pm; April–Oct Mon–Fri 8am–6pm, Sat & Sun 8am–4pm) or in advance from w jegymester.hu.
Central Vörösmarty tér is flooded with crowded café terraces and dominated by the Gerbeaud patisserie, a belle époque high-society haunt, now sadly partly converted to a bistro and a cocktail bar. By Gerbeaud’s terrace is the entrance to Budapest's underground Line 1, continental Europe’s first metro line and the second in the world after London’s, when it opened in 1896. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Váci utca, a mix of chic shops and tourist tat stalls, runs south from Vörösmarty tér. Past the Pesti Theatre, where the twelve-year-old Frank (Ferenc) Liszt made his concert debut. It then continues south to the Central Market hall (Mon 6am–5pm, Tues–Fri 6am–6pm, Sat 6am–3pm), a grand high-roofed hall whose stalls are laden with Hungarian products and pricey street food. Halfway along the central aisle stands the Kmetty & Kmetty stall with a picture of Margaret Thatcher who famously shopped there during her 1984 visit.
The Statue Park (Szoborpark; daily 10am–sunset; 1500Ft; T01 424 7500), on the Buda side of the river 15km south of town, houses statues of Marx, Engels, Lenin and friends, as well as heroic scenes from Communist legends, and gives a lively glimpse into Hungary’s Communist past for the uninitiated. Buses #101, #101B and #101E depart from Kelenföld metro station (Line 4) every 10 minutes; get off at the Memento park stop. The easiest option, though far from cheap, is to take the private tour bus from Deák tér (daily 11am; July & August also at 3pm; 4900Ft return, includes entrance fee).
Looming over the rooftops to the north of Vörösmarty tér is the dome of St Stephen’s Basilica,(daily 9am–7pm; donation expected) an assertive nineteenth-century cathedral whose heavy ornamentation inspires awe more than contemplation. The dome collapsed shortly after building but is now sturdy enough to climb for its panoramic views of Budapest (July–Sept Mon–Sat 10am–6.30pm; Oct–June 10am–4.30pm; 500Ft). On St Stephen’s Day, August 20, the mummified hand of St Stephen – Hungary’s most revered relic – is brought out of a side-chapel and paraded round the building.
SZENTENDRE on the west bank of the Danube Bend is a popular day-trip from Budapest, a picturesque if rather touristy “town of artists” with narrow cobbled streets and quaint houses.
Szentendre was originally populated by Serbs seeking refuge from the Ottomans in the late seventeenth century and the Serbian cultural imprint remains, particularly in the atmospheric, incense-filled Blagovestenska Church (April–Oct Tues–Sun 10am–5pm; 400Ft; T26 312 399), on the north side of the main square, Fő tér. Just around the corner at Vastagh György utca 1 is the Margit Kovács Museum (daily 10am–6pm; 1200Ft; T26 310 244), displaying the lifetime work of Hungary’s greatest ceramicist and sculptor, born in 1902.
There’s a charming view over Szentendre’s steeply banked rooftops and gardens from the hilltop Templom tér, above Fő tér, where the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral is visible inside its walled garden; tourists are generally not admitted, but you can see the cathedral iconostasis and treasury in the adjacent museum (May–Sept Tues–Sun 10am–6pm; Oct–April Tues–Sun 10am–4pm; 700Ft; T26 312 399).
Try and spend some time in Szentendre, as there are at least half a dozen more art collections, exhibitions and galleries worth a look – indeed, you won’t want to miss the Marzipan Museum with its sculpted pastries at Dumtsa Jenő utca 12 (daily: April–Oct 9am–7pm; Nov–March 9am–6pm; 500Ft; T26 311 931). There are spring-welcoming folk dances on March and April weekends, music festivals over the summer and a rich programme leading to New Year’s Eve. Ask Tourinform for details.
The Városliget (City Park), which starts just behind the Hosök tere, holds the Vajdahunyad Castle, a somewhat kitsch imitation Transylvanian castle which incorporates no fewer than 21 architectural styles from across Hungary’s regions and was built in 1896 as a celebration of Hungarian art and design. In the courtyard is a statue of the monk Anonymus – a celebrated twelfth-century chronicler of Hungarian history. An artificial lake at the foot of the castle is filled with water for rowing and pedaloes in summer and an ice-rink in winter.
Top image: Budapest from the Gellert hill © Resul Muslu/Shutterstock