Whether you’re a culture vulture or an outdoorsy type, Budapest has a host of things to see and do, from blockbuster collections of classical fine art and archaeological finds gathered over centuries, to sightseeing cruises on the Danube and narrow-gauge railway rides into the forests of the Buda Hills. It’s worth remembering that Monday – rather than Sunday – tends to be the day when certain attractions like galleries and museums are closed, so do check in advance.
Soak under the stars
The Széchenyi Baths, the biggest ‘medicinal’ spa complex in Europe, sit on a natural thermal spring and have occupied a neo-Baroque mansion in City Park since the early 20th century. Indoor halls contain 16 pools of differing temperatures, as well as saunas and steam rooms, while outside are more pools where bathers play chess on stone boards at the water’s edge. The baths – inside and out – are open all year round.
Insider’s tip: Take your own towel and flip-flops or you will have to pay to rent/buy them. Because the pools are open all year, if you happen to be in the city during winter months then you can bathe outside – it’s quite an experience, with the surface of the water steaming in the cold air.
If you fancy getting above it all for a bird’s eye view of City Park, Heroes’ Square and the rest of Budapest beyond (and, assuming the air is clear, you’ll be able to see the Buda Hills far in the distance), take to the sky with a trip on Balloonfly. This tethered balloon (attached to the ground with a thick cable) carries up to 30 people to a height of 150m, offering a hot-air balloon experience without the difficulty of unpredictable take-off and landing sites. Each ride lasts around 15 minutes.
Insider tip: There are reduced-price tickets (HUF5,000 rather than HUF8,500) for rides taken during the first two hours every Monday morning. .
Nearest metro: M1 Széchenyi Fürdő/Hősök tere
Take to the ice
When the temperature drops, Budapesters head to the largest outdoor ice rink in Europe. For most of the year, this is part of City Park’s leafy boating lake, but from late November the freezing machines are turned on and it becomes a dramatic spot to go skating, with Heroes’ Square in front and the eccentric, turreted Vajdahunyad Castle looming in the background.
Insider’s tip: Children under the age of six can skate free of charge. You can rent skates and buy hot drinks at the adjacent palace-like entrance building.
Nearest metro: M1 Széchenyi Fürdő/Hősök tere
Get lost in music
If you visit one exhibition during your stay, make it the permanent one at the House of Music, Hungary. Housed in a building with real wow factor – Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto’s design uses gold and glass to create a structure that feels organic, like a man-made forest – the exhibition focuses on both Hungary’s musical heritage and international influences. You’ll don a headset that offers relevant narration or sounds depending on where precisely you are standing, before heading off on a journey that takes in everything from choral music and folk music to the works of Liszt and Haydn, Hendrix and Clapton, and many more. There is the chance to bang drums and twiddle radio dials, try a traditional Hungarian dance – complete with authentic costume – or just sit and absorb some very, very well put together displays. This is a place that’s guaranteed to engage young and old alike.
Insider’s tip: As well as its temporary and permanent exhibitions, the centre has a state-of-the-art, glass-walled concert hall where a range of ticketed performances are hosted. But there’s an open-air stage too where concerts and festivals (featuring everything from classical to techno music) are held most days during the summer, and two out of every three of these are free to attend.
Nearest metro: M1 Széchenyi Fürdő/Hősök tere
Browse for foodie finds
Whether you’re buying or not, the Great Market Hall – constructed in 1897 – is worth an hour of your time. Its multi-coloured ceramic roof tiles and chunky girders bring an architectural artistry that you wouldn’t expect from a market building. Its floors bustle with activity, with stalls offering fresh produce and craft items.
Insider’s tip: The Great Market Hall is a good place to pick up a souvenir, from a bag of powdered paprika to a lace tablecloth. But it’s also a handy spot for a cheap snack – booths on the first floor sell buffet-style hot food.
Nearest metro: M4 Fővám tér
Step back in history
The Terror Háza, or House of Terror, isn’t your typical museum. If the walls could speak, you’d probably close your ears, for this seemingly innocuous building was the headquarters first for the Nazis and then for the much-feared Communist secret police. It was a place of brutal interrogation, torture and execution. The museum tells the story of the terror regimes with photographs of victims, videos of witnesses who survived, examples of Communist propaganda and more. It’s as fascinating as it is chilling.
Insider’s tip: Note that on the first Sunday of each month, admission is free for people under 26, children under 18 and an accompanying adult of the EEA-European Economic Area.
Get your steps in
The dome of St Stephen’s Basilica has had a chequered history: it collapsed when first built in 1845 and then burnt down in 1946. Fortunately it rose from the ashes – its 96-metre height a symbolic nod to the year AD896, when the country’s ancestors are said to have arrived here – and today has a gallery running around the outside that offers visitors some of the city’s best views.
Insider’s tip: It’s a 300-step climb to the gallery, but those wanting a gentler ascent can take a lift two-thirds of the way. While you’re at the Basilica, take a look at the mummified right hand of St Stephen, the country’s founding Christian king, which is displayed in a casket inside.
Nearest metro: M1/2/3 Deák tér and M3 Arany János utca
Seek out some statues
Some huge landmark statues grace Budapest’s squares and skyline – think the freedom fighters of Heroes’ Square or the Liberty Statue at the top of Gellért Hill. But look out too for some of those at a smaller scale in places a little out of the way. ‘Shoes on the Danube Bank’ is a poignant sculpture on the eastern bank that commemorates the execution of Jews here during the Second World War. The ‘Garden of Philosophy’ features a ring of the world’s most significant religious figures, standing quietly in a little park on the side of Gellért Hill.
Insider’s tip: Perhaps most striking is ‘Umbrellas’, a shiny sculpture of women sheltering from the rain by Imre Varga; you’ll find it outside the Imre Varga Collection, a museum dedicated to the artist in Óbuda.
Go for a moonlit riverside stroll
On a warm summer evening, or a winter’s night when the pavements sparkle with frost, there’s no better way to let your dinner settle than with a walk along the pedestrianised Danube Promenade (Duna-korzó). This 500-metre stretch of riverside – running between the sleek Elizabeth Bridge and the classical Chain Bridge, illuminated against the dark water – is surely among the most romantic in Europe.
Insider’s tip: Buda’s choicest sights are strung along the skyline opposite, from the Citadel to the Fishermen’s Bastion, while on the Pest side you’ll pass lively restaurants and intriguing street sculptures (look out for the Little Princess, perched on a railing).
Nearest metro: M1 Vörösmarty tér
Explore the medieval district
Castle Hill – with its domed palace looming high above the river – is a must visit during a trip to Budapest. This is the city’s medieval district, an area that has witnessed more than 30 sieges over its long history, and suffered terrible damage when the Germans made a last stand during World War II. You wouldn’t know it now. Among its pretty cobbled streets are the white turrets of the Fishermen’s Bastion monument, which pays tribute to the nomadic Magyar tribes who founded the country, and the breathtaking Mátyás Church, every inch of its interior painted with pastel colours. The palace itself houses the Hungarian National Gallery, an immense collection of the nation’s most precious art, from Renaissance stonework to monumental works of 19th-century Romantic painting.
Insider tip: The Castle District is at its best early in the morning or at the end of the day, when it’s free from coach parties, and you can enjoy the views in peace from its fortified walls.
Address: I, Castle District
Nearest metro: Funicular railway; M2 Batthyány tér
Go beneath the surface
The Buda Hills sit above a system of caves, and some of them can be explored. Szemlo Hill Cave is over 2,000m in length, including several larger chambers and some impressive natural mineral deposits on the walls that glint and sparkle under light. The cave is cool – just above 10 degrees Celsius all year round, which offers welcome respite from the fiercest heat of the summer – and the purity of the air inside is said to help those with asthma. You can take a 40-minute tour along specially built walkways (suitable for all ages); wear long sleeves and suitably supportive shoes.
Insider’s tip: A combined ticket is available to buy that also offers access to both the Szemlo Hill and Pál-völgyi caves.
Nearest metro: N/A – bus 29 from Szentlélek tér (Árpád híd)
Take to the hills
The Buda Hills are the perfect stop for a bike ride, but there are other ways to explore too. Start your journey into the hills on the clattering, open-sided Cogwheel Railway from Városmajor to Széchenyi Hill; from here, follow a trail for a few minutes to join the Children’s Railway, famously staffed by local children; alight at János Hill and make a peaceful descent above the treeline aboard the chairlift.
Insider’s tip: You can of course do this route the other way round, but the views are better from the chairlift if you are descending the hill, with the city unfurling below.
Nearest metro: M2 Széll Kálmán tér
Spend a quiet moment among the gravestones
A graveyard isn’t usually top of a tourist’s checklist, but Kerepesi Cemetery is as fascinating as it is peaceful. The 56 hectares are laid with paths through chestnut trees, and all around are resting places of the great and good. Here are Batthyány, Deák and Kossuth, leaders who loom large in Hungary’s history books; there are the nation’s best writers, from Endre Ady to the Nobel Prize-winning Imre Kertész. Here too are those who fought on either side of the various uprisings that have taken place over the last 170 years, from the secret police to the revolutionaries themselves. Some of the mausoleums are works of art in themselves.
Contact: 00 36 1 896 3889; fiumeiutisirkert.nori.gov.hu
Opening times: Nov-Feb 7.30am-5pm; Mar 7am-5.30pm; Apr/Aug 7am-7pm; May-Jul 7am-8pm; Sep 7am-6pm; Oct 7am-5pm
Nearest metro: M2 Keleti Pályaudvar