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Twin city sights: The Best Things To Do In Budapest

Old-world charm meets modern ease and elegance in Budapest, the heart of Europe. | By Paul Oswell | March 16, 2022

It’s true that the Hungarian capital is two destinations for the price of one: Buda and Pest. They face each other across the Danube River, hilly Buda with its medieval quarter and lively Pest, lined with historical cafes and UNESCO sites.

There are so many things to do in Budapest, so make the most of both sides of the city by:

  • Soaking in the local culture: You’ll feel rejuvenated after taking a soak in a historic thermal bath

  • Going for a hike: Enjoy a leisurely hike around the hills overlooking the city, and take in the panoramic views

  • Indulging in comfort foods: Try rich, wholesome Hungarian cuisine, and be sure to leave room for the famously decadent desserts

Museums and entertainment

One of the best things to do in Budapest to really get to know the city is through its art at the spectacular Hungarian National Gallery, which takes up four wings of the Royal Palace. Here you can view almost 300 years of Hungary’s greatest artists in the most regal of settings. If you prefer more contemporary styles, then head for the Neo-Classical walls of the Kunsthalle, or the Ludwig Museum inside Müpa Budapest. You can head here for a lively evening filled with music and dancing.

Culture is the lifeblood of Budapest, and even if opera and classical music aren’t usually your thing, they’re worth taking a chance on here. Performances are affordable and memorably lavish, whether it's the Hungarian National Ballet in the neo-Renaissance grandeur of the Hungarian State Opera or a night at the Béla Bartók National Concert Hall listening to Bartók or Liszt.

Parks and gardens

On sunny days, though, you should be out in the shady, wooded hills around Buda where you can take a casual hike or a picnic in one of the countless idyllic meadows. If you want the best views in town, then it’s worth climbing János Hill and taking in the panorama from Elizabeth Lookout Tower. Or snap pictures of the Danube River and the Liberty Statue by wandering the shady paths of Gellért Hill, just west of the city center.

You can take a morning to walk to the Roman ruins at Aquincum before an afternoon spent exploring Margaret Island. Here you’ll find landscaped gardens, a UNESCO-listed water tower and the largest outdoor pool in the city, heated by thermal springs.

If you’re in the mood for quirky, Budapest has a wealth of weird, subterranean spots. You can join a tour of the underground Cave Church or the Hospital in the Rock Nuclear Bunker Museum, a fascinating artifact of the Communist era. If you prefer more natural surroundings, then the nearby Szemlő-hegyi, Pál-völgy and Mátyás-hegyi caves have dramatic rock formations shaped by the thermal springs.

Thermal baths

After all of that walking, you’ll likely need some relaxation. Budapest’s location above hot springs means that public baths are part of city life, so join the locals in the restorative waters. It feels decadent to bathe, surrounded by historical art nouveau architecture or basking in the steam of an Ottoman-era hammam. You can luxuriate in outdoor pools that date back to 1894 at Lukács Baths.

What to eat and drink in Budapest

Complete your recuperation with some of Hungary’s rich, hearty comfort food. A bowl of goulash is an obvious go-to, but you should also try lángos, deep-fried discs of dough with cheese and sour cream. Save room for the decadent dobos torte, a layered sponge cake with chocolate and buttercream. If you want the full local experience, settle into the corner of a historical kávéház (coffee house) like the aristocratic Café Gerbeaud for a tasty treat.

After dark, you can revisit a couple of those dilapidated buildings. Some have been turned into “ruin bars,” and they have brought new life to previously derelict structures. Many of them celebrate local art and music, and you should raise a glass of pálinka (fruit brandy) in the original ruin bar, Szimpla Kert, a kitsch reworking of an old factory. If your sea legs are up to it, there’s a host of floating bars on the Danube where you can sip a cocktail in the shadow of UNESCO World Heritage Sights.

Where to shop

For souvenirs, you’ll want to pick up a packet of paprika at least, and you’ll find the best among the crowds of Central Market Hall. From there, you can move onto the shops along Váci Street, and the pedestrian-friendly Vörösmarty Square with its fast-fashion outlets and cafes.

If you’re looking for affordable designer labels, then Deák Ferenc Street is your best bet, and there are more upscale boutiques on the UNESCO-protected Andrássy Avenue. If you’re a fan of vintage finds, then Nagykörút (Grand Boulevard) and the eclectic Ecseri Flea Market are goldmines for antiques.

Make your Budapest memory

You can't help but be charmed by Budapest's cobbled streets and Gothic architecture. The city conjures up an elegance from a bygone age, and it’s easy to combine sightseeing and downtown with an escape to the quieter, scenic hills that overlook the city center. Open yourself up to the cultural offerings, whether that’s a dip in the hot springs or a night at the opera, and you’ll come away with lasting memories and a deep appreciation for this Hungarian capital.

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Paul Oswell is an award-winning travel writer, and has been reporting from all seven continents for over twenty years. He is based in New Orleans and is the author of “The Bucket List North America: 1,000 Adventures Big and Small.”

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