Budapest won’t let you get bored. The secret places hidden around the sights familiar from postcards, centuries-old pomp and modern minimalism, cultural variety and natural treasures – Budapest is the place to go for a long weekend and maybe stay for a lifetime.
1. Spectacular Castle Hill
Towering over the Danube, Castle Hill contains many of Budapest’s most important medieval monuments and museums. Undoubtedly the most spectacular of these impressive structures is the 18th-century Buda Castle, a massive 200-roomed palace that, like much of the city, is spectacularly illuminated at night. Another Castle Hill highlight is the late 19th-century Fisherman’s Bastion, built on the spot where in the Middle Ages the local fishermen had their defense installations. Built behind the lovely Matthias Church, its Neo-Romanesque towers, colonnades and embrasures have been completely restored. Castle Hill is also home to a number of excellent statues.
2. Exploring Gellért Hill
Another of Budapest’s most striking features is the panoramic Gellért Hill, a 235-meter block of dolomite that falls steeply down to the Danube. It’s here along the hill’s geological fault line that several of the city’s most famous medicinal springs emerge to supply the Gellért Spa and Rudas Baths, which have lured visitors from far and wide since the 13th century. Named after St Gellért, a Benedictine monk who died in 1046, the hill’s northeast slope is home to the Gellért Monument. The tribute to Hungary’s most famous saint is perched high above a man-made waterfall with magnificent views over the city.
The Citadel, built by the Austrians on the summit in 1851, is also fun to explore. Another landmark is the Liberation Monument, erected in 1947 in memory of the Soviet soldiers who died fighting in WWII. Finally, if you’ve energy left, take a stroll around Jubilee Park. Laid out to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution, it’s home to many charming walkways, beautiful flowerbeds and valuable artistic sculptures.
3. The Museum of Fine Arts
The Museum of Fine Arts is not only Budapest’s most important art gallery, it houses one of the largest collections of works by the Old Masters to be found in Europe. The extensive array of Italian, Spanish and Dutch paintings are on display in a spectacular, classically influenced 19th century building with long rooms for the larger paintings, cabinets for smaller and more intimate items, together with architecturally interesting space such as the Renaissance Hall.
Established in 1870 after Hungary inherited a fine collection of paintings, drawings and prints, the museum is divided in six excellent departments: Egyptian Art, Ancient Art, the Old Sculpture Gallery, the Old Painter Gallery, the Modern Collection, and the Graphics Collection. The adjacent Palace of Art is the city’s leading contemporary art museum and hosts many temporary exhibits, so be sure to check for current offerings. (Note that this is not to be confused with the Palace of Arts, a high-tech arts center that houses the Ludwig Museum, a contemporary art collection with works by Picasso, David Hockney and numerous Hungarian Masters.)
Hours: Tues-Sun 10am-6pm
Admission: Adults, HUF 1800; Children (under 6), Free (Advance tickets available online)
Address: 1146 Budapest, Dózsa György út 41
4. The Hungarian National Museum
Although founded in 1802, the superb Hungarian National Museum didn’t move into its current home, a large classical building surrounding two courtyards, until 1847. In addition to its massive portico, a monument to the famous Hungarian poet János Arany impresses, as do its park-like gardens with their numerous busts of famous people. Major exhibits comprise the Royal Regalia (including the magnificent Crown of St. Stephen with its precious stones and pearls), as well as Hungary’s pre- and early history from the Stone Age through to Roman times and the early Middle Ages. Also of interest are the many exhibits and artifacts dealing with the country’s many struggles for independence, as well as historic Hungarian and Turkish weapons. For music buffs, Beethoven’s grand piano, which later belonged to Franz Liszt, can be seen here.
Hours: Tues-Sun, 10am-6pm
Admission: Adults, HUF 1,100; Children (under 6), Free
Address: 1088 Budapest, Múzeum körút 14-16
5. Parliament Buildings and Crown Jewels
A highlight of a walk around Budapest’s lovely pedestrian-friendly cobbled streets is the area around the country’s architecturally pleasing Parliament building, and its neighbors, the Museum of Ethnography and the Ministry of Agriculture. The world’s third largest parliament building, this Neo-Gothic building was inaugurated in 1886 to mark the country’s 1,000th anniversary. (Hungary was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.) It boasts 691 rooms as well as an impressive 19 kilometers of corridors and stairs. Guided tours (approximately 45 minutes) are available whenever the government is not sitting and include many of the building’s highlights, such as the main entrance hall, various lobbies, and the Hungarian Crown Jewels.
Address: 1055 Budapest, Kossuth Lajos tér 1-3
6. The Danube Promenade
The Danube (or “Duna” in Hungarian) flows through Budapest from north to south, and in places within city boundaries it is as much as 640 meters in width. There are many places from which to enjoy views of this magnificent, majestic river. One of the best is simply to stroll its banks (either the Buda or Pest sides, they’re both good) as you take in the city’s stunning architecture.
It’s also on the banks of the Danube (the northeast side, close to the Hungarian Parliament buildings) that you’ll find the chilling Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial, a series of 60 pairs of steel sculpted shoes commemorating Jews shot here in WWII. The memorial is located along the Danube Promenade, a pleasant century-old riverside walk extending from the Elisabeth and Széchenyi Chain Bridges. Another great way to explore the Danube is by boat, and numerous tourist excursions depart regularly from the landing stages at Vigadó tér on the Pest bank and Bem József tér on the Buda bank. (It’s also fun watching these sturdy vessels from the historic Freedom Bridge as they whip down river only to have to struggle back against the current).
7. Heroes’ Square and the Millennium Monument
The impressive Heroes’ Square (Hosök tere) was largely the work of architect Albert Schickedanz, who was also responsible for the huge Museum of Fine Arts that flanks this large open space. Highlights include the Millennium Monument, a 36-meter column crowned by a figure of the Archangel Gabriel and unveiled in the late 19th century. Around the plinth can be seen a group of bronze horsemen representing the conquering Magyar Prince Árpád and six of his fellow warriors. On either side of the column, colonnades extend in a semi-circle, and between the individual pillars stand statues of Hungarian rulers. Above the corner pillars are beautiful works in bronze by Zala. In front of the Millennium Monument stands a memorial to the Unknown Soldier.
8. City Woodland Park – Városliget
With its pretty lake, City Woodland Park (Városliget) is a popular recreational site for Budapest locals and visitors alike. Covering some 302 acres, the park was laid out in the 19th century to designs by famous French landscape gardener Nebbion. Numerous cultural and recreational facilities have developed here over the years, including two large art museums (the above mentioned Museum of Fine Arts, and the Palace of Art); the Municipal Zoological and Botanical Garden; the excellent Transport Museum of Budapest, boasting one of Europe’s oldest collections of scale model railways; the Tivoli Pleasure Park with its kids’ rides and arcades; the massive open-air Széchenyi Medicinal Bath; the fairytale Vajdahunyad Castle; and the 100,000 seat People’s Stadium, in addition to a number of smaller sports venues.
9. Budapest’s Busiest Boulevard – Andrássy út
Stretching 2.4 kilometers, Andrássy út is Budapest’s busiest avenue both for pedestrians and vehicles. Laid out in 1876, this wonderful boulevard leads from Erzsébet Square to the Millennium Monument at the Városliget. Splendid palaces, important cultural buildings such as the State Opera and the Academy of Music, the Ferenc Hopp Museum of East Asian Art, and the Zoltán Kodály Memorial Museum, a beautifully laid-out circular open space named after the great Hungarian composer and bounded by statues of Hungarian freedom fighters. Andrássy út is also a popular shopping destination and boasts numerous high-end boutique stores, excellent cafés, restaurants and theaters.
10. Magnificent Margaret Island
Margaret Island (Margit-sziget), barely 2.4 kilometers long and 503 meters wide is Budapest’s main recreation and recuperative center for most locals. Thermal spring-fed medicinal baths, carefully tended gardens and paths, as well as the ruins of many historic buildings, all serve to attract many daily visitors. A highlight of any visit is the Palatinus Baths, a huge spa complex that covers more than 17 acres and includes a bath with artificial waves, together with various medicinal, swimming and children’s pools capable of accommodating up to 20,000 bathers at a time.
Other island highlights are the pretty Rose Garden (Rózsakert); the Union Monument, a metal sculpture by István Kiss (1972) in the form of a flower; ruins of the Dominican convent, once home to Princess Margaret, the daughter of King Béla IV; the 51-meter water-tower, built in 1911, with its excellent viewing platform; and a large open-air theater.
11. Budapest’s Inner Ring
The Inner Ring encircles the old town center of Pest, following the former town walls. In addition to the excellent Hungarian National Museum, it’s here you’ll find the 18th century University Church, one of the finest Baroque churches in the city, as well as the Petofi Literary Museum with its collection of works by the country’s leading poets and writers.
Pest Synagogue and Jewish Museum are also of interest. Built in 1859 to the plans of Viennese architect Ludwig Förster, the romanticized Moorish-Byzantine style of this three-aisled temple is very pleasing to the eye, as is its fine interior. Other important attractions include the Reformed Church, a single-aisled church in a severe Classical style built between 1816 and 1859; the Bible Museum featuring the first printed Greek New Testament and the first complete Hungarian translation of the Bible; and the 19th century Central Market, long popular for its fresh produce, meat and flowers.
12. The Outer Ring
The four-kilometer long Outer Ring starts at the east end of Margaret Bridge and continues in a semicircle, almost parallel to the Inner Ring, around the city of Pest to the east end of Petofi Bridge. Opened to traffic in 1896, the Outer Ring is home to many imposing buildings dating from the end of the last century. Highlights include West Station, a protected building erected in the 1870s by the Parisian firm of Eiffel, as well as Central Europe’s largest shopping mall, the WestEnd City Center, with over 400 stores.
Other highlights include St. Stephen’s Ring, home to the Comedy Theatre of Budapest (built in the 1890s), and Elisabeth Ring, along which can be found the splendid 19th-century Hotel Royal, the Madách Theatre with its impressive wall mosaics, and famous Café New York, a favorite rendezvous of writers and various well-known personalities. Another important attraction is the imposing Joseph Town Parish Church with its twin towers built at the end of the 18th century in late Baroque style.
13. The Buda Ring
The semi-circular Buda Ring encircles Castle Hill like a crescent moon, leading from the western end of Elisabeth Bridge and sweeping northward in a long arc to the western end of Margaret Bridge. The most important stretches are Krisztina körút/Attila út and Margit körút. Highlights include Rose Hill, long one of Budapest’s most exclusive residential areas, with its elegant villas, large gardens, avenues and footpaths; the Turbe of Gül Baba mausoleum museum of the Muslim Dervish, built between 1543 and 1548; and Városmajor Park, a lovely 200 year-old municipal park once used for hunting. Philatelists will want to take in the excellent Postal Stamp Museum with its fine collection of stamps from around the world (plus a collection of forgeries).
14. The University Church
The most beautiful Baroque church in Budapest is somewhat hidden, lying as it does in the south of Pest away from the main shopping streets. Its main front faces onto a narrow side street, which scarcely does it justice. Built between 1725-42 (the two mighty towers were not completed until 1771), the principal façade incorporates a triangular tympanum with representations of St. Paul and St. Anthony, as well as the arms of the Pauline Order (a palm between two lions and a raven). The church has a single nave with pilasters and enclosed side-chapels, and its walls are clad in artificial marble. Highlights include the frescoes on the barrel-vaulted ceilings depicting scenes from the life of Mary (1776), the choir-stalls, and the sculptures of St. Paul and St. Anthony on the High Altar (1746). Also of note is the Pauline Monastery near the church.
15. Margaret Bridge and its Baths
Margaret Bridge is in two sections, the first connecting the Buda Ring with the southern tip of Margaret Island, and the second providing a link with the Outer Ring. Constructed in 1876, it’s the second oldest bridge over the Danube, and although destroyed during the WWII it was rebuilt in 1948. It’s near here you’ll find the superb Lukács Baths, a spa that can trace its roots back as far as the 12th century. Another spa of note is the well-known Császár Thermal Bath, Budapest’s oldest continually operating thermal bath and part of the National Institute of Rheumatology and Physiotherapy. Also of interest is the Mill Pond, the water level of which corresponds with that of the neighboring thermal springs.