What to See and Do in Budapest
Budapest is a grand old city with a long and imprressive history stretching as far back as the second millenium BC. One of the largest cities in the European Union, in recent years, Budapest has been a much maligned city, having had years of authoritarian rule in the form of the communist regimes and the Nazi occupation in World War II. However, it is the lasting legacy of the imperial times of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which largely shapes the modern city that you find today.
You may already be aware that Budapest is in fact made up of two cities which straddle each side of the might Danube, namely Buda and Pest. Since 1873, these twin cities have been considered as one although the first mention of Buda-Pest dates back as far as 1831. Buda itself was already the capital of Hungary since 1361.
Indeed, the history of Budapest is in many ways a microcosm of the history of many cities in Europe. Early settlements, marauding tribes from the east, empires that come and go, political upheaval, turmoil and totalitarian regimes. Although it is the capital of Hungary, the Hungarians themselves (the Magyars in their own language) have only been in this region since 896 AD. Prior to this, the land that is now considered Hungary was occupied by all manner of tribes and peoples including Celts, Romans, Huns, Germanic tribes, Lombards, Slavs and finally the Magyar (who became the modern day Hungarians).
Given the richness of Budapest's history, there is much to see and do in this beautiful city. From exploriing the historical sites, taking a cruise on the Danube to the obligatory visit to one of the famous spas, one thing's for sure – you won't get bored in Budapest! We have put together some recommendations of what to see and do to help you make the most of your stay...
A visit to a spa
Spas and Budapest are synonymous. Sitting as it does atop over 400 mineral springs, Budapest has spas dating back to the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century as well as many new additions. If you don't visit one you will probably leave Budapest feeling like you have missed out on something which is at the core of the Hungarian experience. To make it easier for you to choose the right one for you, we have a run down of some of the more well-known spas in the city.
• Gellert Baths:
The stunning art-nouveau Gellért Baths are located in Pest at the Hotel Gellért. This beautiful spa has stained glass windows, mosaic floors and stunning wooden changing rooms. Unlike the Széchenyi Baths, the Gellért Baths are not all mixed and there are six single sex pools (three for the ladies and three for the gents). Costumes are therefore optional so be warned if you are of a sensitive disposition! To get to the Gellért Baths, you can take a tram (numbers 19,47 or 49) to Szt. Gellért tér station
• Szechenyi Baths:
Located on the Pest side of the Danube, the Széchenyi Baths are one of the most famous spas in Budapest – famed for the images of men playing chess in the steaming waters! Ease your joints in the mineral rich waters, have a sauna, enjoy a mud-pack or just a swim or simply kick back and relax and take the opportunity people-watch. Remember that these baths are mixed and swimming costumes must be worn at all times! To get to Széchenyi Baths, you can take the underground (line M1) and alight at the Széchenyi fürdo station.
• Kiraly Baths:
The Kiraly baths are one of the few remaining survivors from the Ottoman period and date back to the 16th century. The baths suffered extensive bomb damage in the second world war and were reopened again in 1959. The waters at the Kiraly Baths are said to be good for easing the effects of inflammatory diseases.
• Rudas Baths:
Another survivor from the 16th century is the Rudas Baths built by Pasha of Buda Sokoli Mustapha. It remains largely unchanged and is fed by a total of 18 different springs! The waters are rich in sulphates and flourides and are considered to have a rejuvenating effect.
• Danubius Thermal Hotel
Located on the tranquil Margaret Island, this spa hotel takes its supply from the natural hot springs on the island itself and has a wide range of facilities including a spa, bathing, physiotherapy and other medical facilities. This particular spa is popular amongst artists and writers.
• Dagaly Spa (and Swimming Pool):
First opened in 1949, the Dagaly Spa and pool complex has a wide range of modern facilities including a total of 12 pools. Getting its water supply from the Beke well and its hot thermal waters from the nearby Szechenyi Baths, this complex is reknowned for its treatment of injuries and for articular diseases.
• King Baths:
: Another original Ottoman spa, the King Baths is housed in a listed building with a suitably grand and ornate ambience. There are four main pools, one with a “skydome” which dates right back to 1570. It gets its water supply from the Lukacs Baths
Statue (Memento) Park
This must be one the most bizarre tourist attractions in Budapest if not in the whole of Europe.
After the fall of the communist regime in 1989-1990, most countries were very quick to pull down and melt down the huge, iconic communist staues of Lenin, Stalin and various other communist-era leaders. Hungary was different in this respect and some visionary people set to work to gather together these poignant reminders of authoritarian rule. What transpired is a unique look at some of the most stunning and imposing statues and memorials from this era in the form of a park which has become a popular tourist destination. Although it is located a little way out of the centre of Budapest, it is very much worth a look. To get there your best bet is to take the direct bus from Deák tér (where three of the Budapest underground lines interesect). We recommend that you leave half a day to make the most of your visit and the plethora of great picture opportunities.
The Roman Ruins of Aquincum
As we alluded to above, Budapest has a long and varied history having been settled by various tribes and empires down the years. The Romans were no exception and there are extensive remains of the settlement of Aquincum which dates from the second century AD. Aquincum was originally the capital of the Roman province of Pannonia and was an important miltary base and city housing over 40,000 people. Today, the city walls are still largely intact and visitors can also enjoy remains of homes, temples and even an amphitheatre. There is also a museum which houses various permanent and temporary exhibitions throughout the year. To get there, take the overground train (HEV) from Batthyany ter to Aquincum
A visit to the Budapest Flea Market
Whether it's browsing for bargains that you are after or quirky presents for loved ones back home, a visit to the Budapest Flea Market could be the answer. Known as Esceri Piac (Piac is Hungarian for market), this could be considered as the equivalent of Portobello Road in London. The market is a fascinating and lively place with a variety of antique and modern objects and curios. The best time to visit the market is on Saturday mornings when it is busiest and there are more stallholders selling their wares. To get to the market, take the underground (line 3) to Határ út from where you can catch a bus (number 54) to the market itself.
Museum of Terror
Dark tourism is tourism involving places that have a history of death and tragedy. Nothing comes much darker than the Museum of Terror on Andrássy út which opened in 2002. This aptly name museum traces the history of the savage authoritarian regimes of the Nazi occupation years and the long, dark post-war communist era. It also serves as a memorial to the victims and survivors of these regimes. Exhibits include material relating to the secret police (AVH) of the communist period, the fascist Arrow Cross Party and deals with torture, surveillance and loss of liberty. It is certainly not an easy place to visit but is both fascinating and rewarding for those wishing to discover more about the darker side of Hungarian and European history and the human psyche. Centrally located on Andrássy út, you can reach the museum by taking the underground (line 1) to Vörösmarty utca or take the tram (number 4 or 6) to Oktogon.
János Hill lookout Tower and Chairlift
To get a real sense of the scale and grandeur of Budapest (not to mention some great photos for the collection), we recommend taking a trip to the János Hill lookout tower on the Buda side. To get there, you can take the bus (number 158) from Moszkva tér to the bottom of the hill at Zugliget from where you can take the 15 minute chairlift ride up to the top. Once there, it is a short walk to get to the lookout tower itself from where you will get stunning views (weather dependent!) of this magnificent city from a breathtaking 529m up! Do bear in mind, however, that this area is protected as a nature reserve and littering is heavily penalised.
Popular with tourists and locals alike, the 2.5km long, 500m wide Margaret Island provides a tranquil haven from the hustle and bustle of Budapest city life. Covering an area of around 100 hectares, the car-free island is essentially a playground for active types such as joggers, cyclists or walkers and nature-lovers. As well as getting some fresh air and much needed exercise to burn off all the holiday food, there is also the Centennial Memorial which commemorates the 100 years since the joining of Pest, Buda and Obuda into one city, a zoo park with many unusual and exotic bird species, an art-nouveau water tower (which is used as a lookout post these days) and a Japanese garden. If you wish to extend your stay, there are in fact two hotels to choose from on the northern part of the island. Getting to Margaret Island is relatively straightforward – simply take a bus (number 26) from Nyugati tér.
City Park (Hungarian name: Városliget)
Located close to Heroes Square in the centre of Budapest, City Park offers much to do for locals and tourists alike. This 1.2km² park was originally developed as part of the millennium festivities in Hungary in 1896 at the same time that many of the cities most famous streets were constructed. In summer it is a haven for those looking to escape the heat and noise of the city. People come here to walk, to picnic by the lake or even take a boat trip on it (boats are available to rent in the park). In winter the lake (Városligeti Mujégpálya) becomes a public ice-rink and is in fact the largest artificial ice surface in the whole of Europe!
There are a number of other sights and activities in the park that will keep you busy for hours and have you coming back for more. These include the Municlpal Zoological and Botanical Garden, an amusement park, the Palace of Art, the Municipal Grand Circus, the Széchenyi Medicinal Baths and Swimming Pool, Heroes' Square, the Transport Museum of Budapest, Vajdahunyad Castle, the Museum of Fine Arts and Vajdahunyad Castle! To get to the park, take the millenium underground (line M1) to Hosök tere.
As one might expect with a large capital city in a country with a relatively young population, Budapest has much to offer in the way of nightlife.
Unlike some cities, however, Budapest's nightlife is not centred on a particular area or neighbourhood and a good time can be found almost anywhere in the city. From local bars and restaurants with authentic locals and music to large nightclubs, it is really just a question of preference and taste as to where you choose to go. Most bars open very late by UK standards – some will stay open all night and others may close at 4.00am. Do bear in mind that the minimum age for drinking in Hungary is 18 - the same as in the UK.
Two types of bar that you will find in Budapest are Borozos and Sorozos. The former are essentially wine cellars (usually located in a basement/ cellar) and these are predominantly frequented by men although women are welcomed. Sorozos are more like pubs in that they specialise in beer but will also generally serve food as well. Please do bear in mind that through a quirk of history it is not the accepted practice to “clink” beer glasses in Hungary!
To make the most of your stay and night time enjoyment of Budapest, it is always worth checking local listings to see what is happening whilst you are there. Many bars offer live music, karaoke, special promotions etc. To keep well informed, there are several publications worth checking out – the weekly “Open”, “Pesti Est” and the aptly named monthly guide called “Budapest” which you will find available free of charge in many hotels.
There are of course a wealth of different bars to visit in Budapest but as with any growing city, the scene is a constantly changing one. There are, however, some constants in the form of the five star hotels with their trendy bars open to hotel guests and visitors alike. For the beer connoisseur, The Crazy Café has 20 different bottled varieties and over 100 different draught beers. In the summer, Café Mediterranean is open late and has an attractive terrace area. Beckett's is a huge Irish pub which is popular with tourists (particularly the anglophone crowds of Brits, Aussies, Kiwis and North Americans) which offers familiarity and the slightly cliché and cheesy Irish experience. Night and Day is, as you might expect, a 24 hour bar popular with a slightly more mature clientèle. For cocktail lovers, head to Negro. These are just a few suggestions. The key to Budapest is to find your own experience. There are of course a plethora of great little local bars in every neighbourhood.
If you fancy a flutter, Budapest has a number of fully licensed casinos that will keep even the most avid gambler enthralled. Most of the casinos are found in the five star hotels along Dunakorzó and some require you to be dressed formally. Casual clothes will see you refused entry. As the legal age for gambling is 18, photographic ID is required for proof of age. Nowadays it is also possible (if perhaps not wise!) to gamble using your credit cards.
For those that like to shake off the glad rags and dance the night away, there are some excellent clubs in Budapest – many open until 6am for the truly committed! Most will charge an entrance fee and many will not accept credit cards so it is worth having cash on you to make the most of your evening. One of the most popular clubs is Supersonic Technicum which has three dancefloors decked out with fountains, pistons and ducts. The downside is that the club is located in Obuda which is quite a trek for those staying in the centre of Budapest. Other popular spots include the Franklin Trocadero Café which specialises in Latin music, the Piaf piano bar, and the unfortunately named “Old Man's Music Pub” which is located near the Ferenc Korut metro station and which is always popular with locals and tourists alike – usually with live music late evening.
Whether you want a sophisticated cocktail experience, a wild night of drinking, gambling or dancing, one thing is for sure - Budapest will have something for you.
These are of course just some recommendations of things to do in this most impressive and fascinating of cities. Depending on the length of your stay you may simply wish to take it easy, do some shopping and relax in the many cafés and restaurants that straddle the mighty Danube. Alternatively, if you are staying longer and do need more inspiration, please do contact a member of our team on 020 8518 1010 – they will be more than happy to help you make the most of your stay in Budapest.