Ive recently had a few people ask me if I had any suggestions about what to see and do in Budapest, and seeing as I just spent 10 days in Paris of the East (seriously does every eastern European city claim that of itself?) I thought this would be a good chance to post a small list of things to See (and avoid**) in Budapest. If you are off on one of the many cheap city breaks to Budapest, I hope some of these suggestions might provide you with a bit of inspiration for your trip.
**When I say “avoid” or “miss” – I say this from the perspective of someone who has been to Budapest countless times and considers it to be a home (especially since my other half is from Budapest) and this list should be taken with a grain (or spoonful) of salt . This list provides just some alternatives and is by far not definitive. If this is your first time visiting the City and you have the time, go see everything mentioned here – Budapest is a truly wonderful city and is begging to be explored.
Don’t: Országház – The Hungarian Parliament
Why?: The buildings true beauty is its exterior. The crowds of tourists that line up for the tours inside are immense. Unless you are really dying to see where right wing politicians battle it out against staunch communists – give this one a miss
The Hungarian Parliament is truly one of the most beautiful Government Buildings in all of Europe, if not the world. Budapest used to be 3 separate cities, Buda, Obuda and Pest, but in 1873 they were unified into one – and this is where the name Budapest stems from. Oddly enough there was no mention of the name Budapest before the unification, but instead locals used the name Pest-Buda. Doesn’t really roll of the tongue though does it.
The Hungarian Parliament is the largest building in Hungary, and twined with the Basilica as the tallest building in Budapest. There are guided tours through the building (free for EU citizens), and since the year 2000 the Holy Crown of Hungary and the crown jewels are back on display after having been moved from the Hungarian National Museum.
How to get there: Kossuth Lajos tér – Tram 2,2A – Bus 70,78. Free Entry for European citizens
Do: The Citadella
Why?: The Citadella hosts one of the best views over Budapest. Its especially worth visiting at night when the entire city including the Parliament, the Castle and all of the 8 Bridges are light up.
While walking through Budapest you might notice a huge statue on top of the Gellért Hill. What you can see from miles away is the Freedom Statue at the top of the Citadella. The Citadella was built in 1851 under Habsburg rule after the Hungarian Uprising in 1848. After a long political conflict and the creation of Austro-Hungary, the Hungarians demanded that the citadella, a sign of Austrian oppression, be demolished. The Austrians had none of it and decided to hang around a while longer. In 1897 the troops of the citadel decided to call it a day and left. For the next 2 years the city ignored the fort, until the year 1899, when the Hungarians decided it was about as good a time as any and tore down the citadellas walls.
After the soviets “liberated” the city from the Germans during WWII, Marshal Klimient Woroszylow spotted an unfinished monument created by the Hungarian sculptur Zsigmond Kisfaludi Stróbl. Orignially created as a monument for István Horthy – the son of Miklós Horthy (the head of the Hungarian state) after he had gone missing on the eastern front in 1943. Marshal Woroszylow, being a true soviet realized that this statue would serve a much better purpose if it was reformed and dedicated to the Russians Liberating the city. So now there stands a 14 meter tall woman holding a symbolic palm leaf in her hands. On both her sides you find two figures which symbolize “progress” and the fight against evil aka the Nazis. The obligatory statue of a Red Army Soldier was removed after the soviet system collapsed under its excessive amounts of bullshit. It now stands in the Statue Park – amongst all the other unwelcome artistic relics from big brother Russia.
On a side note, the Germans used the citadel as a bunker and anti aircraft position during the later stages of the war. After the war The Russians thought it was the best place to set up their tanks and shell the city after the Hungarian uprising in 1956. (Hungarians tend to have the habit of rising up against unwelcome oppressors)
The Citadel was converted in the 1960s to something more family friendly and now hosts a restaurant (pricey), a Hotel(tacky) and a Nightclub(crap). You can rightley ignore all of those. Come up here to enjoy the spectacular view over the city.
How to get there: Its easiest to get up the hill using the Bus 27. The Buses 5,7,8,78,86,112 and 116 as well as the Tram 19 all stop nearby so you can ascend the hill by foot if you are feeling up for a long walk.
Don’t: St. Stephens Basilica
Why?: Ok its hard to come up with a good reason not to visit this majestic church, especially since there’s a mummified hand hidden in the back, and an elevator for lazy tourist to get up the dome (* part of the stairs are closed at the moment, so everybody gets to enjoy the claustrophobic elevator ride). Most tourists will probably only visit one church when they are in Budapest – and rightly so its this one. There are many other hidden gems in Budapest worth visiting and they are by far less crowded as the Basilica.
Named after St. Stephen – the first Christian Hungarian King (whose mummified right hand is on display in the back of the church) the construction of the basilica started in 1848. It probably wasn’t the best time to undergo such a monumental project, especially since the Hungarians were busy trying to wrestle their Independence from the Austrians so the work was stopped. Construction was picked up again in 1851 – but in 1868 the dome collapsed due to poor foundation works. The whole dome and large parts of the cathedral had to be rebuilt – with the cathedral being inaugurated on the 9th of November 1905(Thus making it 9 months younger then the Berlin Cathedral). The dome of the church is accessible (Cost:400 HUF) and provides splendid view over city and can be reached either via 297 steps, or for the very lazy tourists with the help of an elevator. An interesting side note, The Basilica and the Parliament are both 96 meters high – symbolizing that both the spiritual and worldly thought/ideas are of the same importance. There’s even a law in place forbidding any building in Budapest to be higher than 96 meters.
How to get there: Szent Itsván tér – Metro M3 Deák Ferenc tér. (seeing as you cant miss it and its directly in the city center you can easily walk to it)
Do: Kapucinus Templom (Capuchin Church), Belvárosi Plébániatemplom (The Inner Town Parish Church) and Gellért Sziklakápolna (Gellért Hill Cave)
Why?: I’m not going to lie. none of these three churches will really blow you away compared to St. Stephens Basilica, but each of these 3 are very unique to Budapest and definitely worth visiting – especially since all three are located very close to other popular destinations
The Kapucinus Templom – The Capuchin Church. This Church lies on the Buda side, within the Castle Quarter. The origins of the church date back into the 14th century when Queen Elizabeth (not the one you are thinking of) decided to erect a church there. When Budapest was under ottoman control all churches were transformed into mosques – and one of the few surviving testimonies of this can be observed when looking at the Turkish styled outer windows and the southern portal of this church (aside from the Turkish baths there are hardly any Turkish remnants left in the city). If I’m not mistaken the opening times (if there are any) are quite unreliable, so if your lucky it will be open.
*While you are in the area its worth talking a short walk up the Rószadomb – the Rose Hill, where you can find the tomb of Gül Baba – an Ottoman Bektashi dervish poet and companion of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.
How to get there: Fö ucta 32 – Just a short walk up north from the Castle Quarter
The Belvárosi Plébániatemplom – The Inner Town Parish Church. This Church has been inaccessible for quite some time as it has undergone extensive repairs and restorations, but it is now open to the public again and looks simply marvelous. Only few visitors and passersby realize that this church is actually the oldest building in Pest (almost everyone passes by this church as its located directly next to Erzebet Bridge. It was erected under King Istvan the first, at the site where the Martyr Gellért was buried (there’s a giant statue of him on the Gellért hill directly opposite of the church). As with all the other churches in Budapest, this too was transformed into a mosque. If you look closely you can even spot a Mihrab (the spot which directs you to Mekka) – probably the only surviving relic of its kind of the ottoman occupation in a church in Budapest.
How to get there:Március 15 tér – Bus : 5, 7, 7E, 8, 112, 173, 173E, 178, 233E, 239 – Metro M3 Ferenciek tere
The Gellért Sziklakápolna – The Gellért Hill Cave. Now this made the list of things to see because like many of the others its a) easy to get to b)close to other popular attractions and c) actually quite cool. On the southern side of the Gellért hill quite close to the famous Gellért Hotel and Bath, you’ll find the entrance to the Gellért Hill Cave Church. It was built by Kálmán Lux in 1926 and was used by the monks of The Order of Saint Paul. Apparently this Order was quite unpopular in Hungary as Joseph II disbanded them in1784 and most of the monks sought refuge in Poland. A handfull returned in 1934 and stayed until the late 1950s when the communists realized they didn’t like the monks either and banned the order again and sealed off the cave. The Church and the nearby monastery reopened again in 1989 and is open to visitors once again. Definitely worth a quick visit.
How to get there: Gellért rakpart 1a – Bus: 7,7A,86 – Tram: 18,19,47,49
Don’t: Gellért Bath
Why?: Most tourists will frequent this bath (not that its a bad thing) but its not really worth the hype. The hotel is beautiful, but there are more interesting and bigger baths in Budapest which will give you more bang for the buck.
How to get there: Szent Gellért tér – Bus 7,7A,86 – Tram 18,19,47,49
Do: Széchenyi Bath and Rudas Bath
Why?: Both the Széchenyi Bath and the Rudas Bath offer a better and more peaceful bathing experience than the Gellért Bath. They are cheaper too and are (in my opinion) much nicer to look at.
There are over 120 Thermal springs in Budapest which flow into 21 Baths. These thermal baths have had a long tradition in Budapest with the Romans first making use of the natural springs. With the Turkish invasion and occupation in the late 16th and 17th century, Hamams sprung up throughout the whole city. Even after the Turks had left, the baths remained immensely popular. Towards the end of the 19th century a wave of new luxurious baths, such as the Gellert, Széchényi and Lukács Baths were constructed.
The Széchényi Bath is by far the most impressive. Not only does it offer the hottest water of all the baths in Budapest- a whopping 75C – but it also is the largest bathing complex in all of Europe.
The thermal springs of the Széchenyi bath were only discovered in 1879 (which is relatively late considering that the other springs had been in use since the roman times) and were the first to be found on the Pest side of the City. The first bath was built in 1881 – but by 1899 the city soon realized that the current bath was too small to cope with the demand. New plans were drawn up and in 1909 the construction of the Széchényi Bath began. The over 75,000 m2 large bathing complex was completed in 1913 and boasts over 3o baths (some separately for men and women) both inside and outside. There is also a sauna complex and massages are available. The bath is open from 6-22 and entry prices start at 2700 (they depend on what baths and services you want). More information can be found here
How to get there: Állatkerti körút 11 – Kacsóh Pongrác út – Bus 72, Tram 1, 1A
Right at the foot of the Gellért Hill, next to the Danube you’ll find the Rudas Bath (formerly known as the Zöldoszlopos fürdő or the Green Column Bath) which was first established in 1550.
The core of the complex, the thermal bath was remodeled in 1566 under the rule of the Pasha Szokoli Musztafa, and has not changed much since then. for over 450 years this bath has remained in its original condition, earning it not only the title of the oldest, but also the most beautiful Turkish baths in all of Budapest.
The main octagonal bath is surrounded by 8 red marble columns which support beautiful Turkish dome. The dome which spans 10 meters across used to be the only source of light for the whole bath. The bath was renovated in 2004 and since its reopening in 2006 the old entry rules of “Men Only” have been reintroduced. This didn’t sit so well with the female customers and the city gave in and introduced “women only days”. In the evening/night and on the weekends the bath is now also open to both men and women. Opening times are from 6-10 and prices start at 1500. Make sure to check the website when its open for men/women/mixed.
How to get there: Döbrentei tér 9 – Rudas gyógyfürdő – Bus 86
Don’t: Szoborpark Múzeum – Memento Park – aka Statue Park
Why?: After the collapse of the soviet union, the Hungarians were quite rightly pissed off. not only had they lived under communism for a good 40 years, but their whole city was littered with some truly horrendous statues. most people wanted to smash them to bits, but instead the newly elected government collected them all and put them on display in a park in the middle of no where.
So why not visit this fascinating display of ugliness? well for one its in the middle of nowhere. Unless your hotel, late room, or apartment is in the 22nd district – it will take you a good hour to get there with public transportation (as its not even really in Budapest) and the entry prices are quite steep. You’re better off getting an easyjet flight to Berlin and looking at the same stuff for free.
How to get there: Balatoni út – Szabadkai utca sarok – Budafok, Vincellér út – Bus: 150
Do : The Labyrinth of Buda Castle and the House of Terror
Why?:Even though the Labyrinth is now closed – I still put it in this list in the vain hope that it once may open again. It was shut down under dubious circumstances, you can read up on the whole thing here.
Under the Budapest Castle there is a gigantic Cave system which has been used for decades, mostly for military and storage purposes. In the late 1930s a military hospital was built inside, and a shelter was created which could house over 10000 people in times of need. After the second world war it was still used for military purposes but by the late 1980s it was slowly being transformed into a cultural venue housing Hungary’s first set of waxworks. After undergoing some serious renovations in 1996, the labyrinth regained most of its pre war look and 4000 additional sqm had been made accessible. A variety of tours were offered throughout the cave system, and you could even go it at night. Sadly, for reasons only known to those responsible, the maze is closed and most likely wont open again.
The Terror Haza – The House of Terror was set up in the year 2002 as a museum documenting the crimes of the fascist and communist regimes which have ruled over Hungary in the past 60 years. From 1937 to 1944 the building was used as a prison and political headquarters of the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party, and was referred to as the Hűség háza – The House of Loyalty. From 1945 onwards the Communists took it over and continued to use it as a prison to torture and murder political prisoners. The Secret police vastly extended the underground prison, eventually turning the underground of the entire city block into a gigantic prison. After the uprising in 1956, the communists tried to wipe out all traces of their dirty deeds and bricked up/destroyed the cellar, and turned the building into the headquarters of the Communist youth.
The main exhibition focuses on the crimes of both the fascists and the communists, but there is a slight “bias” towards highlighting the crimes of the communists and the Russians (using a popular explanation: while the fascist regime of Ferenc Szálasi lasted only few months, the Hungarian Communist regime lasted for forty years).
There are various temporary exhibition on display as well which can be looked up on the official website.
**Note: When I first visited all the display information was in Hungarian – and I believe this is still the case. There are sheets though in front of every room in English with detailed information.
How to get there: Andrássy út 60 –Vörösmarty utca – Metro M1 – Opening times are 10-6 (closed on Monday’s) and costs 2000 HUF.
Why?: A38 is an ex Ukrainian stone hauler ship which was transformed into a club venue in 2003. It currently rests along the banks of the Danube and hosts a variety of cultural events and concerts. Apparently its even been voted the “Worlds Best Bar” by Lonely Planet – which in my opinion is total crock. Its an interesting venue but certainly not the best in the world. Its pricey, even for Budapest standards, the music is crap (depending on what night you show up) and I wasn’t totally comfortable with the feeling of having too much to drink and having the floor move under my feet. Its a cool place – but give this one a miss if you are only visiting for a few days. You’re better off checking out some of the Ruin Bars that “everybody” is talking about.
How to get there: Budai alsó rakpart – Petőfi híd, budai hídfő – Tram: 4,6 – Bus: 203, 203A, 212, 918
Why?: Ruin Bars come and go in Budapest. Some of them come and go within the space of a month (if even) wheres others have become well known institutions. Its happened to us a few times that we were looking for a Bar that we had been to before, only to realize that its not there anymore. Long story short – don’t worry if the place you were looking for is closed, there’s probably 3 new ones that opened in its place.
Possibly my favorite venue in Budapest is Corvintető (not really a ruin bar but still truly awesome). Its located directly in the city center – but here’s the kicker – its on the roof of an old state owned shopping center. Its located directly next to the M2 Metro Station, so its dead easy to get to. The entrance is a bit hard to find and the surroundings look a bit sketchy(especially at night), but once you head up the stairs and end up on the roof, you know you’ve made the right choice to come here.
The roof terrace is open from spring until Autumn (it boasts 600sqm) and offers a simply stunning view over the city and a simply awesome feeling – and the club venue a floor down below is always open. There’s a decent selection of drinks and the prices are cheap. The music is good, and if your lucky there might even be a band performing there. If you’re in Budapest and looking for a good night out – this is the place you should check out.
**other bars def. worth visiting are Szimpla Kert (Kertész utca 48) and Kuplung (Király utca 46)
How to get there: Blaha Lujza tér 1 – Metro M2 Blaha Lujza tér, Corvin Áruház, 4th floor. Entrance from Somogyi Béla street