While the Hungarian capital will offer you a lot to see, you may not have all the time to explore each place. The three of us chicas had all of one and a half days to explore the exquisite city before we headed back to Italy.
If you are planning to visit Budapest on a tight schedule, here are the things that you absolutely must do. Especially if you, like us, are on a budget.
*The most important rule is to walk everywhere. Saves money, and damn do you get to take in Budapest! Also, have a map or your GPS in hand.*
1. Walk to the Hungarian Parliament
One of Europe’s oldest legislative buildings, the parliament, the seat of the National Assembly of Hungary is a giant structure that is hard to miss. Located on the Pest side of the city (traditionally the Buda castle hill side is called Buda and the side across it is called Pest), the neo-gothic, neo-baroque and partly Romanesque styled structure built in 1902, lies on the banks of the Danube and boasts of long spires with a red rotunda. Standing at an impressive height of 315 feet, it is Hungary’s tallest building.
The parliament has 691 rooms of which only 44 are open to visitors on guided tours. Visitors can also get a glimpse of Hungary’s first king, St. Stephen’s crown. Entry will cost you around 4000 HUF (€ 12).
Or you could just gaze at it from the outside.
At night, the building is lit up spectacularly so taking a nighttime stroll to see it won’t be such a bad idea either.
2. Offer a prayer at the St. Istvan Bazilika (St. Stephen’s Basilica)
Named after Stephen I (c. 975 – 1035) the first king of Hungary, St. Istvan Bazilika is a neoclassical cathedral and one of Budapest’s most famous churches.
It was completed in 1905 long after construction was interrupted when the dome collapsed in 1868, forcing labourers to rebuild it from scratch.
On the inside, the basilica is adorned with gold everywhere.
The cathedral also houses the right hand (the Holy Right) Stephen, which was restored to Hungary by the Hapsburg empress Maria Theresa in the 18th century.
Entry is free. Offerings are welcome.
3. Hike up the Buda Castle
The Buda castle is located on a hill across the Danube on what is known as the Buda side of the Hungarian capital. You can either take a boat, bus, tram or the funicular railway once you cross over.
Or you could walk across the bridge and up the hill by the Royal Steps, which take you up a winding path through some shrubbery. But is refreshing nonetheless.
The Castle Hill or Várhegy, a Unesco World Heritage Site and consists of two parts: the Old Town where commoners once lived, and the Royal Palace, the original site of the castle built in the 13th century.
As you emerge onto the hill, you notice buildings in the castle complex – administrative buildings – with bullet hole markings leftover from WWII during which Hungary fought on behalf of the Axis powers.
Walk some more and you will emerge near the Sandor Palota (Sandor Palace), the official residence of the Hungarian president. If you are lucky, you may even get to see the ceremonial changing of the guard – a tradition that was not part of communist Hungary but was revived much recently in 2003.
Just a step away is the Buda castle itself. A walk down the Hapsburg steps will lead you to the castle.
The medieval, baroque and modernist styled castle first completed construction in 1265 under King Béla IV; subsequent monarchs later added to the construction.
When I say “first completed construction” I refer to the fact that the castle was razed to the ground and rebuilt a number of times between the 14th and 20th centuries (it was once even destroyed during the 1686 Battle of Buda between Christian forces and the Ottoman Empire). Thus the medieval, baroque, modernist styles.
Also called the Royal Palace, it was declared a World Heritage Site by the UN in 1987.
Feel free to roam around the complex and gulp in an amazing view of the Danube and Pest.
While entry into the complex is free, I think you may have to shell a few HUFs to enter the castle itself.
4. Get lost in Dracula’s Labyrinth
The Budavári Labirintus or the Labyrinth of the Buda Castle lies towards the Old Town once you leave the castle premises.
Follow the signs around the street and you will find yourself at a very inconspicuous entrance to a basement from where cold air emanates – mind you, the cold blast is not from solid air conditioning, but the caves’ natural ‘breeze’, if I may call it that. The temperature down here is about 20 °C so its a huge relief on a hot summer’s day.
This 1200m-long cave system is located some 16 meters under the Castle District. The prehistoric caves have survived generations of wars and conquests.
Five separate labyrinths encompass 10 halls here. The floors are damp owing to the fact that the caves are ‘thermal’, built out of limestone deposits by hot water springs millions of years ago.
Over time, the caves have served as home to the prehistoric man, as wine cellars, jails and torture chambers during the Middle Ages, as military shelters in the 1930s and also were Dracula’s very own personal prison.
Don’t miss a lamp-lit tour of the labyrinths. Tickets will cost around 2000 HUF. Or you can sneak a peek till the ticket barrier like we did. *wink wink*
5. Look over Budapest from the Fisherman’s Bastion
Further down the street lies what looks like a portion of white battlements. White turrets line the edge of the hill. The Fisherman’s Bastion looks onto the Danube and Pest.
Compared to the Castle itself, the battlements are fairly new, constructed by Hungarian architect Frigyes Schulek, in 1905. It serves no actual purpose other than as viewing platform but during the medieval times, fishermen defended the stretch of the wall which is where the bastion got its name from.
You can take pictures of the bastions and of the view before actually entering the structure itself. Saves some HUFs. Entry normally costs 700 HUF.
6. Witness a wedding at St. Matthias Church
Just about two meters from the Fisherman’s Bastion is the St. Matthias Church also built in 1015 AD. The facade resembles that of any Catholic Gothic/Romanesque church in Europe except for the turrets which look like colourful, pretty Lego blocks stacked in a geometric design.
The church was actually built by St. Stephen but destroyed by the Mongols in 1241. Much later in the 19th Century AD, the church was restored and named after the then king Matthias.
Though we couldn’t go in, we were lucky enough to witness a wedding from outside the church.
7. Eat gyros, guzzle beer, down some Palinka
If you don’t have the time to sit down in a restaurant, a great street food choice is eating gyros, which are interestingly not Hungarian but Greek, and can be found in abundance down the streets of Budapest. Bread wrapped with a mix of rotisserie meat and chunky veggies topped with some lipsmacking sauces, they are literally good to go and cost less than €1 or around 250 HUF. Accompanied with ice cold beer, a gyro can be the most delicious street food on a hot summer’s day.
Don’t forget to have some Palinka too while you are out drinking. The drink particular to the area is usually made out of apricots – a sort of fruit brandy. But beware, this baby is lethal with anywhere between 37% – 86% alcohol content. YIKES!
8. Get invited to a party on a boat
Though we did not go for one, we did get invited and it was an offer that truly was difficult to refuse. The parties are usually held on boats in the Danube; drinks, food, a great view of the sights and a good time are guaranteed!
If you can spare a night, do go!
9. Pose for a picture with a confused Columbo and his dog
If you happen to pass the Falk Miksa Street during your walk to the Széchenyi Chain Bridge (that links Buda and Pest), you might come across two bronze statues – a very confused man looking at his basset hound. The man is Columbo, a fictional American homicide detective portrayed by actor Peter Falk and his dog, well named Dog.
The statue is relatively new, being installed in 2014. The statutes cost a massive $63,000 but the odd thing is nobody really knows why the piece was installed. One theory is that Peter Falk may have been related to prominent 19th-century Hungarian political figure Miksa Falk. Peter is said to have Hungarian roots on one side of the family although no one really knows if he was actually related to Miksa.
10. See the Heros’ Square
The Heroes’ Square or Hősök tere is one of Budapest’s most iconic squares. It lies in the city’s Andrassy Avenue. It features seven chiefs of the native Magyar tribe along the columns and rulers like Stephen I, Bela IV, Matthias among others; it also houses the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Visitors can walk through the square and take pictures without any fee.
If you are lucky enough, you may see revelers drinking beer on Budapest’s famous pedal bars!
11. Unwind or go wild at the Szchenyi spas
The best experience in Budapest that money can buy. Visit the Szchenyi spas less than a kilometer from the Heroes’ Square for €15. The thermal spas and baths are Europe’s biggest and offer the traveler an unforgettable experience.
12. Walk past the House of Terror
The House of Terror is a museum home to exhibits during the fascist and communist regimes that 20th century Hungary was subjected to. If you don’t have time to go inside, walk around it to see portraits of victims of the regime.
On the sidewalk next to it are also huge displays of stories of those who fought and lost their lives for Hungary.
13. Party at a Ruin Pub
This is a night-life experience like no other. After numerous recommendations, we ended up in Szimpla Kert, one of the best ruin pubs in Budapest. Best part was that it was just behind our hostel so we didn’t need to worry much about getting lost.
What are ruin pubs? Well they are abandoned buildings around the city which were turned into clubs about a decade ago and thus began a new culture, somewhat of a ‘patented’ nightlife of the city.
Like most ruin pubs of its kind, Szimpla Kert looked like an old 19th century house falling into disrepair. Once inside, you would think otherwise; the interior looks like it has been put together using random household ‘junk’ – old chandeliers, paintings, bikes, TVs and more adorned the derelict walls.
On the right is the bar that offers all sorts of cheap booze and on the left is a staircase that leads into a seating area upstairs complete with mismatched furniture. Down below on the right is a small area cordoned off for gigs and right in front is the open courtyard with more seating. The whole place gives a chill vibe and is a great place to meet both locals and tourists alike.
(We saw many inscriptions left by visitors over the years and we discreetly left our mark too! Please do not follow this step though!)
14. Walk down to Margit Island
You may have noticed a small island in the middle of the Danube between Buda and Pest. Walk down the Margit Hid bridge to reach the Margit (Margaret) Island. The 2.5 kilometer island is perfect for a stroll or a run (on its famed 5.35 km rubber track).
The island is known to have the ruins of a Franciscan church and a Dominican church although we didn’t see them.
There are a few shops there that serve eats. So grab a cone and sit on one of the benches on the ‘shore’ and watch ferries and boats go down the Danube. Very peaceful!
15. Peek in at the Holocaust Memorial
This was a hurried stop before we left for the airport and we just managed to steal a peek while we were shopping for souvenirs in the area.
The Great Synagogue in the city’s Dohány Street is perhaps the largest Synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world. Built between 1854 and 1859 the site is now also home to the Jewish Museum.
You will be able to spot it easily by the enormous steel tree outside it – also known as the Emanuel Tree,the man-made weeping willow has the names of Hungarian Jews killed during the Holocaust on each of its leaves.
Another Jewish memorial to visit if you have the time is the Shoes on the Danube, a unique memorial commemorating Jews who were killed by fascists during World War II in Hungary. Unfortunately we had to miss this.