Budapest is one of the world’s most enchanting destinations and my favorite city in Eastern Europe. It seems suspended between centuries, imperiously displaying elements of past and present. With its architectural wonders, colorful hills, grungy atmosphere, healing thermal waters, and a mix of old and new, Budapest has a lot to offer. 3 days in Budapest isn’t nearly enough time to explore all the city has to offer but gives you enough time to get a good overview of the city. Here’s our lowdown on some of the best things to do in Budapest over the weekend.
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How to Get Around During Your 3 Days in Budapest
Budapest is a city meant to be explored on foot as every pedestrian will find something of interest literally around each street corner. Walking is the best way to discover Budapest’s picturesque alleyways and appreciate the true charm of its backstreets. Many of the city’s major attractions are within comfortable walking distance of each other.
As you stroll across the city, be sure to look up at the buildings even if you have to stop a minute. There is a wealth of missed treasures above normal views that go unnoticed by many. Take time to seek out the gargoyles and decorative motifs that adorn the multitude of impressive late 19th and early 20th century buildings.
However, to make the most of your 72 hours in Budapest and to get around the city quickly, or to visit a more distant sight, public transport is a great option. Budapest has an efficient and extensive public transport network consisting of trams, buses, trolleybuses, funiculars, and the underground (metro) system. For getting around the inner city, the tram is probably the most pleasant mode of transport.
A 24-hour ticket only costs 1650 HUF while a 72-hour ticket costs 4150 HUF. You can also buy single or transfer tickets for 350 HUF and 530 HUF respectively. Tickets can be purchased from the automatic machines at the entrance of all metro stations, at some tram or bus stops. Just make sure to validate your ticket at the start of your journey in one of the validation machines. Periodic checks are carried out by plain-clothes ticket inspectors and you’ll incur a hefty fine if you don’t. You can find more information on this public transport guide. You can plan your journey here.
I wouldn’t recommend using taxis unless it’s absolutely necessary. It’s very difficult not to get fleeced unless you speak Hungarian or know the terrain. Taxis can be hailed off the street but to avoid problems it is often better to book from your hotel or by phone. There are several taxi companies operating throughout Budapest. Some of the better ones are Budapest Taxi and Taxi 4.
Cycling is also an alternate option of getting around Budapest. I should warn you though that cycling in Budapest is rather difficult and fairly dangerous. Uneven, cobblestoned surfaces of some roads, a lack of dedicated bike lanes, sunken tram-lines, and poor air quality are some of the major drawbacks. However, if you’re keen on cycling, you can check out Budapest’s MOL Bubi bike-sharing system.
Is the Budapest Card Worth It For 3 Days?
If you’re spending a long weekend in Budapest, it might be worth investing in the Budapest Card. The Budapest Card accords you free unlimited access on all public transport in Budapest and also free admission or up to a 50% discount on a spate of attractions and sights.
If you’re planning on visiting a lot of museums and attractions, then buying the Budapest Card might be a good option. It does also beat the hassle of constantly waiting in line to purchase tickets. Thus, the Budapest Card MAY be worth it, depending on how much you would like to fit into Budapest in 3 days.
Your Weekend in Budapest Itinerary
For this three-day itinerary of Budapest, I have included almost all the must-see sights in the city. It is also possible to follow this itinerary if you are spending a weekend in Budapest. I’ve split the itinerary in such a way that it gives you a multifaceted view of the city. For your convenience, this post includes a free map of the top sights in Budapest. You can find addresses of the attractions by clicking on the icons in the map.
Naturally, everyone travels at a different pace so feel free to choose the destinations according to your own pace. The earlier you start your day the more time you’ll have to see the attractions. Below I have compiled a list of the best things to see (or eat) in Budapest over the course of three days:
Day 1 in Budapest
1. Gellért Thermal Baths
2. Gellért Hill Cave Church
3. Gellért Hill & Citadel
4. Széchenyi Chain Bridge
5. Castle Hill Funicular
6. Buda Castle
7. Matthias Fountain
8. Hungarian National Gallery
9. Matthias Church
10. Fisherman’s Bastion
11. Danube River Cruise
Day 2 in Budapest
1. Central Market Hall
2. Hungarian Parliament Building
3. Shoes on the Danube Bank
4. Liberty Square
5. Postal Savings Bank
6. St. Stephen’s Basilica
7. Hungarian State Opera
8. Gresham Palace
9. Váci Street
10. Dohány Street Synagogue & Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park
11. Visit a Ruin Bar
Day 1 in Budapest
Day One of this ‘3 days in Budapest’ itinerary will mostly focus on the classical sights in Buda, i.e. the hilly part of Budapest which lies on the western bank of the Danube River. Spread across several green hills, Buda is full of narrow winding streets that form the ancient core of Budapest. It feels more suburban and oozes a serene classical quality. Buda is also home to some of the major points of interest in Budapest, sights that conjure up the most vivid and romantic images of the city.
1. Gellért Thermal Baths
The best way to kick-off your three days in Budapest would be by heading to the Gellért Thermal Baths (Gellért Gyógyfürdő). Budapest has been called the World’s Spa Capital and is home to more than a hundred springs offering an endless supply of hot water at temperatures of up to 76˚°C. Visiting one of the many baths is a quintessential experience when visiting Budapest and shouldn’t be missed. Along with Reykjavik, Budapest is one of only two capitals in the world to be blessed with thermal springs.
Although the baths of Budapest have a long history, stretching back to Roman times, the thermal baths were popularized by the Turks who started building them in 1565 giving them a place to bathe in case of a siege on the city. Under Islamic law, the precept for washing five times a day before prayers is thought to have spawned a popular bathing culture here. Today, the baths are an important social hub, where people come to sit and chat as they follow the rituals.
The denizens of Budapest are strong believers in the social, psychological, and medical benefits of thermal baths. Most of the city’s thermal waters contain high levels of sulfur and the mineral-rich waters are said to be beneficial in treating rheumatism, arthritis, poor blood circulation, menstrual pain, and even Parkinson’s disease. Wallowing in the thermal waters is also rumored to be the best cure for a hangover. Even if you are not in need of the health benefits, time spent in thermal baths will boost your spirits.
The Gellért Baths are one of Budapest’s most spectacular bathhouses and are located in Buda’s Hotel Gellért, the oldest Hungarian spa hotel which also happens to be one of the finest examples of Art Nouveau architecture in Budapest. During the 1930s and 1940s, this was considered one of the Grand Hotels of Europe, and it has hosted virtually every dignitary that has ever visited Hungary. The Art Nouveau interior of the lobby is spectacular, especially the stained-glass windows, elaborate mosaics, and ostentatious statues.
There are 12 pools in total, including swimming pools and thermal water baths ranging from 19˚°C to 38˚°C, plus an array of saunas. The stunning Neoclassical main pool is the finest part of the Gellért Baths. Surrounded by rose marble Roman columns soaring to support glass cathedral ceilings, it is decorated with colorful mosaics.
The Gellért Baths boast the most beautiful indoor swimming pools in Budapest. The Art Nouveau thermal steam baths comprise four pools spread across two chambers Each room is clad in turquoise and marine-green Zsolnay ceramics, punctuated by neoclassical cherub statues, striking botanical friezes, and stone lion heads spouting water. For the visuals alone, a visit to the Gellért Baths is worth the money.
The Gellért Baths complex is also known for its large outdoor swimming pool, famous for its 1920s wave machine that shakes things up on the hour. Unfortunately, the outdoor pools are closed in winter.
The world’s largest geothermal cave system is located underground Budapest. Europe’s largest underground lake also was recently found under Budapest’s Gellért Hill.
Practical Tips for Visiting the Baths
The Gellért Baths are open daily from 6:00–20:00 and you can check the prices here. Personally, I would recommend getting a cabin for your stay rather than a locker. Make sure to specify that when you buy your ticket, as they will most likely give you a locker otherwise. This will give you a little more privacy to get ready for sightseeing after you are done. Cabins can also be shared.
You can rent a towel from the counter after the entrance for 2500 HUF (+2000 HUF deposit). It’s a bit pricey but beats lugging around a wet towel all day. There are also options to rent swimming costumes and slippers. Hairdryers are available by the showers.
2. Gellért Hill Cave Church
The entrance to Gellért Hill Cave Church lies on the southern side of the Gellért Hill, quite close to the famous Gellért Baths. Having seen so many churches with high ceilings, ornate domes, and towers, I was really keen on seeing the Cave Church. It is basically hewn into the dolomite rock of Gellert Hill and is the antithesis of a traditional church.
The church has had an intriguing history with the entrance to the caves being constructed by Pauline monks in the 1920s to its closure during the Communist regime. In the late 1950s, the Communist authorities suspended the activities of the church, accusing the monks of treason, and sealed the entrance to the grotto. It subsequently reopened after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
The rock wall and the dim lighting create a slightly spooky atmosphere. I was really impressed with the altar and the replica of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa that is said to possess miraculous powers.
The Opening hours of the Gellért Hill Cave Church are Monday–Saturday: 09:30–19:30. The entrance costs 600 HUF and includes an audio guide. It is definitely worth a quick tour.
3. Gellért Hill & Citadel
Gellert Hill soars majestically above the Danube River, to a commanding height of 235 meters. The hike up Gellert Hill can be exhausting but is totally worth the effort.
The hill is named after the Italian bishop and missionary Ghirardus (Gellért in Hungarian), who converted pagan Magyars to Christianity at the behest of Hungary’s first Christian king, Stephen I. After his royal protector’s demise, vengeful pagans converted through the force and violent nature of Stephen’s proselytism, strapped Gellért to a barrow and toppled him off the cliff, where a larger-than-life statue of St. Gellért now stands.
On the summit of Gellért Hill, you’ll find the Liberation Monument (Felszabadulási emlékmn). Built in 1947 to commemorate the Red Army’s liberation of Budapest from Nazi occupation, the monument represents the Hungarians’ unparalleled love for liberty, patriotism and nationalistic fervor.
It shows a female figure brandishing the palm of victory over 30 meters aloft. To her sides are statues representing progress and destruction. Following the end of communist rule in 1990, there was much discussion as to whether the statue should be removed since the Soviet troops were more occupants than liberators.
The Citadel (Citadella)is a fortress that sits atop Gellert Hill. It’s a massive structure built by the Habsburgs between 1850 and 1854 in order to better govern Budapest after the suppression of the Hungarian War of Independence. It has seen a lot of history in its time and today most of the citadel structure stands.
The Nazis and Communists used it for surveillance, taking advantage of its strategic position over the city. From here you are accorded jaw-dropping vistas of Buda Castle, the Danube, Chain Bridge, and Hungarian Parliament Building all visible below. The views are particularly magical at twilight or night-time when the city is lit up. Don’t bother paying extra to traipse up to the upper level; the view is not that much higher, so don’t waste your money.
4. Széchenyi Chain Bridge
Though there are several bridges that connect Buda and Pest, Széchenyi Chain Bridge (Széchenyi Lánchíd) is the most famous one. It has a special place in the heart of locals as it was the first permanent link across the Danube River between Buda and Pest, which were separate cities at the time. Until the mid-19th century, only pontoon barges linked Buda and Pest. In the winter, the pontoons had to be pulled in, leaving locals to rely on ferries or a frozen river.
The idea for the bridge was conceived and funded by 19th-century Hungarian reformer, Count István Széchenyi. Széchenyi was on the Pest side of the river when he received word that his father was on his deathbed. Due to a major storm, Széchenyi was unable to get a boat to traverse the river for a week, thus missing seeing his father one last time before he died. He vowed this would never occur again. The bridge was constructed between 1842 and 1849 and was named in honor of Széchenyi himself.
Not only did the Széchenyi Chain Bridge have practical implications, but it also aided the cultural and economic advancements for the natives of Budapest. The bridge spans a length of 375 meters across the Danube and its two bridge towers are decorated with the Hungarian coat of arms. During World War II, the Wehrmacht blew up the Chain Bridge in 1945 (just like all of Budapest’s bridges) in a bid to thwart the progress of the Red Army. The bridge was subsequently rebuilt after the war and opened in 1949.
A pair of imposing stone lions, added in 1852, guard the bridge on either side. Their addition led to a humorous folk legend. When a group of schoolchildren were brought to view the lions and the bridge, the sculptor who was in attendance bragged about the lifelike details of his lions. One youth pointed out that the lions did not have tongues. The sculptor was so heartbroken over this missing detail; he jumped to his death into the Danube. Of course, this is only a legend as the sculptor lived well into old age and a closer inspection will reveal the lions do actually have tongues.
5. Castle Hill Funicular
Next, take the Castle Hill Funicular (Budavári Sikló) to get to the top of Castle Hill right up to Buda Palace. The funicular, which dates back to 1870, is the second-oldest funicular in Europe. It climbs a length of 95 meters at an inclination of 48% using two cars.
During World War II, the funicular was destroyed by a shell in 1945. Fortunately, it was restored in the 1980s and reopened in 1986. It’s lovely wooden carriages, which are replicas of the originals, are now lifted by an electric winch rather than a steam engine. They’re step-shaped to provide as many people as possible spectacular views over the Danube River and Pest. Riding on the century-old funicular is one of my favorite things to do in Budapest.
The Castle Hill Funicular is open daily from 07:30-22:00. A single ticket costs 1400 HUF while a return ticket costs 2000 HUF. The journey is short and the cabins are tiny. Plus, on a chilly or rainy day, it beats walking up to the castle.
6. Buda Castle
Occupying a commanding position on top of Castle Hill, the Buda Castle (Budavári Palota) is an imposing presence. The castle has endured a turbulent history and has been razed and rebuilt six times in the last seven centuries mirroring the ups and downs of Hungary’s fortunes. Today, it is also sometimes referred to as The Royal Palace (Királyi Palota).
The first fortifications and dwellings of Buda Castle date back to the mid-13th century and subsequent kings added to it. The castle experienced its glory days in the 15th century when it was one of the grandest Renaissance palaces in Europe. After the long Turkish occupation, which had left the complex completely in ruins, the Habsburgs built a smaller Baroque-style palace.
The present form of Buda Castle was rebuilt after suffering heavy damage in World War II. It’s a loose rebuilding of previous versions and is rather austere and soulless compared to its predecessors. Nonetheless, the castle’s more than 300-meter long facade facing the Danube is quite impressive as is its imposing Neoclassical dome.
Buda Castle is now home to the National Library and two museums, the National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum. Its walking terrace provides some of the best views of the city.
The city of Budapest came into being in 1873, making it relatively young in its present form. It is the result of a union of three separate cities: Buda, Pest, and Óbuda. Buda and Óbuda lie on the western bank of the Danube while Pest occupies the eastern side.
7. Matthias Fountain
The ornate Matthias Fountain (Mátyás kút) lies in the northwest courtyard of the Royal Palace. It was designed in 1904 and is dedicated to the great Renaissance king, King Matthias Corvinus (Mátyás). A quintessential Renaissance king, King Matthias is generally considered to be the greatest of all Hungarian kings.
According to popular folklore, King Matthias was on an incognito hunting trip when a beautiful peasant girl named Ilonka came across him by chance. She was oblivious to the fact that he was the king and fell in love instantly and him with her. He didn’t reveal his identity and invited Ilonka to visit him later in Buda. When Ilonka traveled to Buda and saw Matthias in full regalia on horseback, she was stunned to discover she had fallen in love with the king. Being a poor peasant girl, Ilonka became convinced that she could never wed King Matthias and walked home despondent with grief. Shortly after, she died of a broken heart.
The fountain depicts a hunting scene and shows King Matthias disguised as a hunter, holding a crossbow in his hand and standing proudly near a slain deer. At his feet are three large hunting dogs accompanied by Matthias’s trumpeting shield-bearer and gamekeeper. The seated figure of Italian court scribe Galeotto Marzio who initially recorded the narrative of Ilonka is beneath the left-hand Corinthian columns. Beneath the columns on the right is the figure of the young Ilonka, stroking her tame doe.
Matthias Fountain is probably the most photographed statue in the city and is often referred to as the “Trevi Fountain of Budapest”. Popular legend says that anyone wishing to revisit Budapest should toss some coins into the fountain to be granted a safe return to the city.
8. Hungarian National Gallery
With a rich collection of countless art objects, the Hungarian National Gallery (Nemzeti Galéria) is not for the cultural faint of heart. The magnificent compendium of Hungarian art covers the period from the beginning of Hungary as a nation to the present day. While not quite a must-see, the museum is the best place in Hungary to appreciate the works of homegrown artists.
Permanent exhibitions include medieval and Renaissance lapidariums, Gothic wood carvings, Gothic winged altars, Renaissance, and Baroque art. Particularly impressive are the works of art by 19th and 20th-century artists. Watch out for several works by two great Hungarian Realist painters, Mihály Munkácsy and László Paál; and paintings by the enigmatic Post-Impressionist Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka.
Some of the artworks to look out for at the Hungarian National Gallery include Recapture of Buda Castle in 1686 by Gyula Benczúr, Women of Eger by Bertalan Székely, The Yawning Apprentice by Mihály Munkácsy, The Visitation by Master MS, Birdsong by Károly Ferenczy, Pilgrimage to the Cedars in Lebanon and the vast Ruins of the Greek Theatre at Taormina by Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka, Paintress by Károly Ferenczy, and Picnic in May by Pál Szinyei-Merse.
The National Gallery is open Tuesday-Sunday from 10:00–17:00 (last admission), and the building closes at 18:00. The entrance fee is 1800 HUF, and an audio guide rental is 800 HUF. The size of the museum can be overwhelming meaning you can’t see it all, so pick a focus (e.g. artist, time period, genre).
9. Matthias Church
Officially named the Church of Our Lady (Nagyboldogasszony templom), this famous landmark in the Castle District is better known as the Matthias Church. It gets this name from the beloved 15th century Renaissance monarch Matthias Corvinus who ordered the transformation of the Church’s original southern tower and was married here twice.
The Church dates back to the 11th century and has frequently been restored, repaired, and remodeled in whatever architectural style was in vogue at the time. Today’s version is the Neo-Gothic structure from the 19th century. The most significant restoration works were carried out in the late 19th century when turrets and gargoyles were added to the exterior. I was most impressed with its magnificent diamond-patterned tiled roof that really is an eye-catcher.
The church’s sumptuous interior is wallpapered with gilded pages from a Hungarian history textbook with different eras being represented by symbolic motifs. Painted leaves and geometric motifs run up the church’s columns, while shafts of light fall through rose windows onto gilded altars and statues with striking effect.
Beneath the south tower, is the Loreto Chapel, containing a red marble statue of the Madonna and Child. The story goes that the original statue was set into a wall of the church during the Turkish occupation. After this wall was destroyed in 1686, the Madonna made a miraculous appearance. The Turks took this as a harbinger of defeat and at dawn the next day they surrendered.
Other highlights of the interior include the elaborate tomb after the mortal remains of King Béla III and his first wife Anne de Châtillon, the Neo-Gothic gilded main altar, decorative paintings, eye-catching stained-glass windows, and magnificent frescoes.
The Matthias Church is open Mon-Fri 9:00-17:00, Sat 9:00-13:00 and Sun 13:00-17:00. The entrance fee is 1800 HUF.
10. Fisherman’s Bastion
The popular Fisherman’s Bastion (Halászbástya) is undoubtedly one of the best things to see in Budapest. The ornate viewing terrace sits on the site of Buda’s old defensive walls and a former fish market. It gets its name from the fishermen who ran the nearby fish market and supposedly guarded the ramparts in the Middle Ages.
The bastion was constructed between 1895 and 1902 and is purely an aesthetic addition to Castle Hill, functioning as a perfect foil to the Matthias Church. With its round Neo-Gothic and Neo-Romanesque towers and undulating white rampart of cloisters and stairways, it looks like it has been plucked straight out of a fairy tale.
The bastion’s seven white stone towers represent the seven Magyar leaders and their tribes that conquered the Carpathian Basin and settled down here in 896, which led to the founding of modern-day Hungary. The conical towers are an allusion to the tribal tents of the early Magyars. Various motifs and reliefs of coats-of-arms adorn the majestic double stairway, which connects the bastion with the streets below.
As you can imagine, the entire structure is a photographer’s delight and you’ll be presented with ample opportunities for taking great selfies, all the while admiring great views across the Danube into Pest.
The Fisherman’s Bastion is open 24/7 throughout the year except for the upper terraces which are open from 9:00-19:00 or 9:00-20:00, depending on the time of the year. It is free to walk around the ramparts and cloisters. There is a small charge of 1000 HUF to enter the upper-level terraces but it’s not really worth it in my opinion.
11. Danube River Cruise
The Danube River is a key element of Budapest and the city is probably the best place to take a cruise on the mighty river. You can sip some wine or chug down a beer while taking in the beautiful views of many sights of both Buda and Pest. There are several different companies operating river cruises and the prices vary according to the length and time of the cruise. You can check out more information about the cruises here.
Day 2 in Budapest
Day Two of this ‘3 days in Budapest’ itinerary will cover the must-see attractions in Central Pest and the area around the Parliament. Central Pest is the city’s commercial hub and is filled with fine buildings, shops, and cafés. Many of the streets and squares are entirely pedestrianized. It is undoubtedly the most touristy part of Budapest. The area around the Parliament reeks with history and power, boasting large squares, broad avenues, and Secessionist architecture.
1. Central Market Hall
Start your day early by heading to the Central Market Hall. The Central Market Hall, also called the Great Market Hall, is one of the city’s many fantastic local markets. Opened in 1897, it remains the largest and oldest indoor market in Budapest. The fabulous ironwork is still there, reminding one of the Eiffel Tower.
The cavernous building is not only a tourist attraction but a place frequented by locals to do their daily shopping. There’s everything on offer here like butcher stalls, comestibles, piles of local produce, seasonal vegetables, and fruit. The upper floor has several street food stalls, restaurants, and souvenir shops. The balcony overlooking the market hall is great for people watching and an experience you shouldn’t miss.
Strings of hanging dried paprika and spicy Hungarian kolbász salami are a ubiquitous sight in the market hall and the aroma had me practically salivating. Hungary is one of the world’s main paprika-producing regions, with several varieties that differ in pungency and color.
Paprika powder and paprika paste are Hungarian staples that make perfect souvenirs. The famed Hungarian dessert wine, Tokaji Aszu (from the Tokaj region in Hungary), one of the world’s most coveted libations is also available as a souvenir.
Speaking of wines, Tokaji is the world’s original sweet white wine and the Tokaji wine region also has the distinction of being the first in Europe to be classified.
You can also purchase Pálinka, the infamous Hungarian fruit brandy that is regarded as an elixir in Hungary. My Hungarian friends forced me to drink it once and all I can say is that the sensation is akin to someone shooting a cherry-flavored flame thrower down your throat. Go ahead and try pálinka if you’re feeling adventurous. Since Jacky and I are neither big wine nor liqueur connoisseurs, we just purchased a lot of paprika and salami.
The Central Market Hall is open Monday: 06:00–17:00, Tuesday–Friday: 06:00–18:00, and Saturday: 06:00–15:00.
2. Hungarian Parliament Building
Few buildings in the world can command the grandeur of the Hungarian National Parliament in Budapest. I’ve always considered it to be the most beautiful parliament building in the world and it should be on top of almost any list of global architectural sites. It’s an unmissable focal point in Budapest and the facade of the Hungarian Parliament Building is possibly the city’s defining image.
This Neo-Gothic masterpiece, stretched along the bank of the river Danube, is the third-largest parliament building in the world. London’s Houses of Parliament served as inspiration for the building’s design and no expense was spared during its construction. Over 17 years an average of 1,000 workers toiled on it daily.
Seeing the Parliament Building up close gives you a good idea of how immense it really is. It sprawls for 268 meters along the Danube embankment and measures 118 meters in width. It is arranged around ten central courtyards and contains more than 20 kilometers of corridors, as well as 691 rooms! Painfully photogenic at all times of the day and night, I highly recommend seeing it from the opposite bank of the Danube River or from the water—especially in the late-afternoon sunlight.
I love how almost every corner of the Parliament Building features gables with pinnacles based on Gothic sculptures. One interesting aspect about the building is that it is made entirely with Hungarian materials, except for the eight rose-colored pillars situated next to the main staircase which were imported from Sweden.
The ostentatious interior is definitely worth seeing and is filled with extraordinary murals, paintings, statues, and ornately crafted floors, walls, and windows. One of the standouts is the sumptuous main staircase which is decorated with three outstanding ceiling frescoes.
The Parliament Building also holds the Hungarian Coronation Regalia, whose centerpiece, St Stephen’s Crown, has symbolized Hungarian statehood for over a thousand years. Other highlights of the interior are Domed Hall and Deputy Council Chamber. The massive pillars that support the building’s 96-meter tall central dome are adorned with figures of some of the rulers of Hungary.
The interior of the Hungarian Parliament Building can only be enjoyed on a guided tour. The extent to which the interior is accessible to visitors depends on the Parliament’s activities, but you will at least get to see the Grand Staircase, the Cupola Hall, and the Lords Chamber. I strongly suggest you book your tour in advance as guided tours get sold out quickly.
Both runner-up designs for the Hungarian Parliament were built facing the Parliament Building. One is the Museum of Ethnography (formerly the Palace of Justice) and the other is the Ministry of Agriculture. They are very impressive in their own right.
3. Shoes on the Danube Bank
When spending a long weekend in Budapest you will without a doubt spend some time walking along the banks of the alluring River Danube. While walking you will come across a memorial consisting of pairs of cast iron shoes. The ‘Shoes on the Danube Bank’ Memorial in Budapest is one of those places that will stir the heart to the very soul.
This memorial was created in 2005 to honor the Jews who were killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen during World War II. Not unlike the German Nazis, the Arrow Cross Party was a highly nationalistic party that sent thousands of Jews to concentration camps, it publicly murdered scores of Jews all over Budapest.
3500 men, women, and even children were forced to take off their clothes and footwear before being shot at the edge of the river! It was convenient to throw them into the Danube because the river quickly carried the bodies away. During these terrible winter days of 1944-1945, the Danube River was referred to as “the Jewish Cemetery.”
The shoes themselves are period-appropriate, reflecting the style of footwear which the victims would have worn in the 1940s. They’re also made in different sizes and styles, to depict how nobody, not even children, was spared the brutality of the Arrow Cross regime. At the time, shoes were a prized commodity and the murderers were quite aware of that, so they would trade the shoes on the black market or wear them themselves.
As you might envision, Shoes on the Danube Bank is an extremely plaintive and moving memorial. You’ll be struck by the tangible sense of melancholy and solitude which emanates from this simple tribute.
4. Liberty Square
Budapest’s spacious Freedom Square (Szabadság Tér) aka Liberty Square was laid out in the 19th century. One of the major squares in Budapest, it is a site of great historical significance and the spot remains essential to understanding Hungary’s past. The square became a symbol of repression after the Hungarian revolution in 1848-1849 when many Hungarians were imprisoned and executed here.
It later became the focus of public sorrow over the tragic Treaty of Trianon, which led to Hungary losing at least two-thirds of its former territory and its inhabitants. The four small lawns at the top of the square were once each occupied with a statue, representing the land lost to Slovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Austria.
Liberty Square is lined with attractive flower beds and benches to relax making it a perfect place for a leisurely stroll. Due to its central location, the square is a popular meeting place. It also features an interactive fountain designed for kids. The square is surrounded by monumental fin-de-siècle buildings that symbolize Budapest’s growing wealth and importance at the time.
The most prominent monument in Freedom Square is the Soviet War Memorial. Built in 1945 the memorial commemorates the Red Army soldiers who died during the liberation of Budapest in 1944–5. It consists of an obelisk with a crest showing the Communist hammer and sickle and is topped by the last Soviet Star remaining in post-Communist Budapest.
Many Hungarians aren’t too fond of this monument as it is a reminder of the Soviet occupation and also as the monument stands at the exact location of an earlier monument that was erected in protest of the aforementioned Treaty of Trianon.
Freedom Square is also the location of a statue of Ronald Reagan, the 40th American President. Now, Budapest might seem like quite a weird location for a statue of Reagan since he never even visited Hungary during his presidency. But Hungarians are grateful for the former U.S. president’s efforts in bringing the Cold War to a close, which in turn helped to end the Soviet influence in Hungary. The statue was unveiled in 2011 and is about 2 or so meters high, rests on a block of granite, and shows him walking mid-stride.
5. Postal Savings Bank
The magnificent Postal Savings Bank building (Postatakarékpénztár) is my favorite architectural edifice in Budapest. I may be a little biased in my selection because it was built in the Secessionist style, which happens to be my preferred architectural style. The building was completed in 1901 and was designed by Hungarian architect Ödön Lechner, commonly referred to as the “Hungarian Gaudi”.
Lechner was known for favoring vibrant ornamentation that blended Magyar and Turkic folk designs. He incorporated new materials such as reinforced concrete and glazed Zsolnay tiles to produce an eclectic visual style for his work. The Postal Savings Bank building is regarded as Lechner’s masterpiece and is a work of art, encapsulated by the fabulous curvature and striking colors of the polychromatic roof.
The facade experiments with shapes and ornamentation, combining ceramic, brick, tile, iron, and glass. Watch out for the bees that seem to climb up the building’s green and gold facade toward the yellow ceramic beehives, a great metaphor for saving money and a fitting symbol for a bank.
Unfortunately, much of the building’s detail is lost from the street view unless you have a pair of binoculars. When Lechner was asked why he focused so much effort on the roof details, which no one could see, he is said to have replied, “The birds will see it.”
6. St. Stephen’s Basilica
Not only is St. Stephen’s Basilica (Szent István Bazilika) Budapest’s most venerated church, it is the most sacred Catholic Church in Hungary. Construction on St. Stephen’s Basilica began in 1851 and took a whopping 54 years to complete. One of the highlights of its imposing facade is its dome, which at 96 meters, is exactly the same height as the dome of the Hungarian Parliament Building – both allude to the putative date of settlement of the Magyar tribes in the Carpathian Basin.
The facade is framed by two large bell towers. Hungary’s biggest bell hangs in the southern tower, weighing over 9 tonnes. Splendidly lit in the evening, St. Stephen’s Basilica is one of the most photographed sights in the city Look out for the tympanum which contains a bas-relief representing the Virgin Mary surrounded by Hungarian saints.
As you enter the basilica, don’t forget to admire the colossal oak front door decorated with medallions that depict the heads of the 12 Apostles. St. Stephen’s Basilica’s cavernous interior is beautifully decorated with frescoes, gilded stucco, and bronze moldings, variegated marble, stained glass windows, and stone covered columns. The main altar is located in the center under the dome and shows St. Stephen is standing with an apostolic cross and an orb as tokens of his apostolic authority as well as royal power in hand.
The main attraction, however, is “The Holy Right“. This most unusual relic is a mummified, jewel-adorned right hand of St. Stephen that rests inside an ornate golden reliquary in the church’s Holy Right chapel. Talk about the gory! You can either see it inside the basilica or wait until August 20, the anniversary of his death, when it is paraded around the city.
Don’t leave St. Stephen’s Basilica until you have gone up to its cupola which provides a 360° view of Budapest from a height of 65 meters and will provide lifetime camera shots.
St. Stephen’s Basilica is open Mon-Fri 9:00-17:00, Sat 9:00-13:00, and Sun 13:00-17:00. The entrance to the church is free, but there is a fee of 600 HUF to go up to the observation deck.
The number 96 is very important in Hungary. The crowning of Arpád as first king of the Magyars (Hungarians) heralded the creation of the Hungarian state in 896. Budapest’s metro was inaugurated on the country’s millennial anniversary in 1896. By law, buildings in Budapest must not exceed 96 meters, and the Hungarian national anthem should be sung in 96 seconds (if sung at a proper tempo)!
7. Hungarian State Opera
The Hungarian State Opera House (Magyar Állami Operaház) is one of the premier opera venues in Europe. This splendid building took nearly a decade to build and was completed in 1884 in Neo-Renaissance style to rival those of Paris, Vienna, and Dresden. It is Budapest’s and Hungary’s most celebrated performance hall, its roll call of musical directors reads like a who’s who of Central European music – Ferenc Erkel, Gustav Mahler, Otto Klemperer, among others.
The building features a two-story symmetrical facade with a portico and a loggia, both of which are embellished with a number of Baroque elements. It is topped by a Mansard roof decorated with ornate tin air vents. Statues of the two Hungarian musical greats, Ferenc Erkel and Franz Liszt can be found in the niches on either side of the main entrance.
In addition to these two statues, you will see sixteen statues of great composers, including Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Wagner, and Monteverdi. In corner niches, you will find the muses Terpsichore, Erato, Thalia, and Melpomene representing dance, love poetry, comedy, and tragedy.
The interior of the Opera House is positively breathtaking and is a study in opulence and grandeur. The lavish foyer is festooned with marble columns, a gilded vaulted ceiling, chandeliers, and portraits and busts of Hungarian divas and composers. Look out for the foyer’s sensational murals which cover the entire ceiling and depict the nine Muses and other allegorical scenes.
I also love the opera’s sweeping main staircase. A red carpet covers the marble stairs beneath a huge chandelier in another classic set-piece. The gilded ceiling panels contain nine paintings of the awakening and triumph of music.
The pièce de résistance is the horseshoe-shaped, three-story auditorium whose walls are plastered with several kilograms of gold. Its chandelier weighs over 2,000 kilograms and illuminates a fresco of the Greek gods on Olympus. The royal box is gloriously decorated with sculptures symbolizing the four operatic voices – soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.
To see the interior of the Hungarian State Opera, you can either take a guided tour (approx. 35-40 minutes) that is offered daily or by attending a performance. The guided tour costs 2500 HUF and starts at 14:00, 15:00, and 16:00. Tours are available in English only.
8. Gresham Palace
Budapest is loaded with stunning Art Nouveau architecture. Art Nouveau is my favorite style of architecture and seeing the swirling maidens and foliage on apartment block balustrades on the sumptuous facades and rooftops of many iconic edifices in the city was a real delight. These structures perfectly capture the essence of Hungarian Art Nouveau.
If there’s one other building in Budapest I love almost as much as the Postal Savings Bank it’s the famous Gresham Palace (Gresham Palota), one of the city’s architectural highlights. This Art Nouveau building, one of the most elegant and magnificent edifices in the city, stands as one of the finest in the world.
The Gresham Palace was completed in 1907 having been commissioned by the London-based Gresham Life Insurance Company in 1904. It is named after the financier Sir Thomas Gresham, founder of the Royal Exchange in London. Badly destroyed in World War II, the building lay in tatters for decades before it was immaculately restored to its original grandeur.
Gresham Palace’s exterior is a masterclass of Secessionist architecture. The facade stands out for its sinuous curves, flowing lines, organic themes, and ornamental decorations inspired by floral motifs. I love how the ornately carved window surrounds appear as though they are projecting from the walls. Two peacocks, a classic Secession motif, also decorate its wrought-iron gates. Keep an eye out for the bust of Sir Thomas Gresham at the top of the building.
Today, the Gresham Palace is home to the upscale Four Seasons Gresham Palace Hotel. Members of the public are permitted to walk inside and admire the many architectural Art Nouveau embellishments.
The Budapest Metro is the oldest underground railway in continental Europe dating back to 1896, and is the second oldest in the world after London.
9. Váci Street
The bustling Váci Street (Váci Utca) is Budapest’s most acclaimed shopping street. It stretches for over a kilometer from Vorosmarty Square to the Central Market Hall. During the Cold War era, its colorful street life became a symbol of the “Goulash Communism” that distinguished Hungary from other Eastern Bloc states. In the 1980s, Eastern Bloc residents flocked to Váci Street to gawk at Western products before they were introduced elsewhere in the Warsaw Pact region.
The street is loaded with souvenir shops, high-end stores, lodging facilities, entertainment facilities, cafes, eateries, bars, and more. Off the street, there are old courtyards and shopping arcades.
Some parts of Váci Street can feel a trifle touristy but its inviting promenade makes for a perfect stroll in the evening when it is lavishly illuminated. The street is to be mostly enjoyed for its lively atmosphere and the grandiose architecture of the surrounding buildings. One of the ones to keep an eye out for is the gorgeous Art Nouveau Thonet House (no. 11) which is coated with blue Zsolnay tiles. Also, look out for several lovely fountains along the way.
Most places on Váci Street tend to be expensive, and some have dubious pricing policies. Be vigilant if you purchase anything. Since there are many tourists strolling here, beware of pickpockets and scammers.
10. Dohány Street Synagogue & Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park
The Dohány Street Synagogue (Dohány utcai zsinagóga) aka Great Synagogue is one of the must-see attractions in Budapest. With 3600 seats and a total capacity for over 5000 worshippers, it is the largest synagogue in Europe and the third-largest in the world after the Belz Great Synagogue in Jerusalem and NYC’s Temple Emanu-El.
The massive synagogue was built in 1859 and oddly enough, the architect who designed it was non-Jewish. A patchwork of Byzantine and Moorish elements can be seen in its facade. I really like the Moorish towers that are topped with Byzantine onion domes.
Some Gothic touches, like the arched windows and trefoil ledge, can also be seen. The facade is composed of yellow and red brick and intricately designed ceramic friezes. A large rose stained-glass window dominates the facade-a reference to the architecture of medieval Hungarian churches
After suffering heavy damage during World War II, the synagogue was restored in the 1990s at a cost of over $40 million. The synagogue belongs to the Neolog community, a Hungarian denomination combining elements of Reform and Orthodox Judaism.
The richly-ornamented interior borders on the surreal, an extravagant blend of colors, shapes, and architectural styles. Arabesques and stars of David adorn the ceiling, balconies for female worshippers are surmounted by gilded arches, and the floor is inset with eight-pointed stars.
The layout reflects the synagogue’s Neolog identity, with the Ark of the Torah, at one end, in the Reform fashion, but with men and women seated apart according to Orthodox tradition. The ark is immense, the size of a small house with its own arches and columns, adorned with architectural detail in gold relief.
Head upstairs to the Jewish Museum which is devoted to Jewish artifacts, historical relics, Judaic devotional items, and beautifully crafted objects such as Sabbath lamps. The final room covers the Holocaust in Hungary, with chilling photos and examples of anti-Semitic propaganda.
Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, who sought the establishment of a Jewish state in the Middle East was born within the grounds of the Great Synagogue in 1860. The house where he was born is now the site of the Jewish Museum.
The Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park (Raoul Wallenberg Emlékpark) in the rear courtyard of the Dohány Street Synagogue, named after the Swedish consul who saved 20,000 Jews during World War II. The park’s centerpiece is a Holocaust Memorial dedicated to Jewish Holocaust victims in the form of a weeping willow, with names of the dead and disappeared inscribed on the leaves.
The Dohány Street Synagogue is open from Sunday–Friday. The synagogue starts welcoming visitors at 10:00. Closing hours vary according to the time of year. The entrance costs 5000 HUF. You can check the opening hours here.
11. Visit a Ruin Bar
One of the top things to do in Budapest is visiting one of the city’s famous ruin pubs. Ruin bars are makeshift bars that are located in dilapidated old buildings, abandoned industrial spaces, and deserted parking lots. These buildings were re-purposed into eclectic, exciting bars, where 19th-century architecture is combined with cars and vintage computers hanging from ceilings. You can also see bizarre paintings hanging upside down on walls, illuminated by funky lighting.
Many ruin pubs offer cheap beer and live music. Nothing defines Budapest’s grungy character quite like ruin pubs. They are the perfect spot to unwind on a warm summer night after a busy day of sightseeing. Take out your phone for some epic Instagram opportunities!
Most of Budapest’s ruin pubs are situated in Budapest’s trendy 7th district, formerly a thriving Jewish community. Each ruin pub is unique, but they all share certain similarities. Jacky and I went to Szimpla Kert, the oldest and most famous ruin pub. Szimpla came to fruition simply because its owners were reluctant to pay for the ramshackle building’s renovation and they simply just piled it with junk and rebranded it! Other popular ruin bars are Kuplung, Instant, and Mazel Tov.
Day 3 in Budapest
Day Three of this ‘3 days in Budapest’ itinerary will cover the main sights around City Park. Everything here is built on a gloriously grand scale, from the cafés and bistros home to some of the finest buildings and widest boulevards in the city. For the final stop of the day, depending on your interests, you can choose between Margaret Island—a heavenly green oasis and Memento Park—a park known for its Socialist-era statues.
1. Széchenyi Thermal Baths
If you’re feeling the urge to again relax in the mineral-rich waters of a thermal bath, you ought to pay a visit to the famous Széchenyi Thermal Baths (Széchenyi Gyógyfürdő). The Széchenyi Baths is the largest such complex in Europe, the complex has 18 pools (both indoor and outdoor) and provides a full range of thermal water treatments.
So impressive is the facade of the Neo-Baroque main building of the Széchenyi Baths that it could be easily mistaken for a palace. The pools are naturally heated courtesy of two thermal springs, which provide water with temperatures up to 38°C (100 °F). One of the things I love about the Széchenyi Baths is that the outdoor pools are also open year-round. There is just something unique about soaking outside as the steamy, mineral-rich water creates a mist as it mixes with the frigid Budapest air.
The Széchenyi Baths complex is equally popular with locals and tourists alike. It is probably best known for the ubiquitous pictures of men engaged in games of chess in steaming water while submerged up to their chests (the former world champion Bobby Fischer even played here).
Practical Tips for Visiting the Baths
The Széchenyi Baths are open daily from 6:00–22:00 and you can check the prices here. Personally, we’d recommend getting a cabin for your stay rather than a locker. Make sure to specify that when you buy your ticket, as they will most likely give you a locker otherwise. This will give you a little more privacy to get ready for sightseeing after you are done. Cabins can also be shared.
You can rent a towel from the counter after the entrance for 3000 HUF (+2000 HUF deposit). It’s a bit pricey but beats lugging around a wet towel all day. There are also options to rent swimming costumes and slippers. Hairdryers are available by the showers.
Alternatively, you can also relax in the baths in the evening but be aware that it will be more crowded. I strongly recommend getting the skip the line ticket in order to save some valuable time.
2. City Park
City Park (Városliget) is one of Budapest’s most-visited attractions. This not-so centrally located park was once an area of marshland, which served as a royal hunting ground until the mid-19th century when it was opened to the public. The park was laid out in the English style when it was chosen as the focus of the Millennium Celebrations in 1896, celebrating Hungary’s 1,000th anniversary.
Today, this vast oasis of green is home to an enchanting castle, a boating lake, museums, a well-kept green area, and a scattering of fantastic restaurants. Its willows and plane trees, attractive walking paths, monuments, and picnic hideaways are sure to enchant visitors with a unique side of the Hungarian capital. One of the favorites is the artificial lake, used for boating in the summer and which morphs into a huge outdoor skating rink in the winter when it freezes over.
City Park is also home to some interesting statues and monuments such as the Statue of Anonymous—a popular attraction that shows a seated cloaked monk who chronicled the early history of the Hunnic-Magyar people. Other monuments in City Park include a giant, circular Time Wheel, the Anna Lindh Memorial, and the George Washington Statue.
3. Vajdahunyad Castle
The fairytale-like Vajdahunyad Castle (Vajdahunyad Vára) lies among the trees at the edge of the artificial lake in the tranquil City Park. Despite its appearance as a Gothic castle from the Middle Ages, the castle wasn’t built until 1896 for the Millennium Celebrations celebrating 1000 years of Hungarians being in the Carpathian Basin.
Vajdahunyad Castle was designed to include replicas of four of the most outstanding buildings in Hungary. These buildings were the Roman chapel of Ják, the Transylvanian Hunyadi Castle (also called Corvin), the Renaissance palace of Visegrad and the Baroque Palace of Gödöllő. The castle was actually made out of cardboard and wood since it was only intended to be a temporary exhibit. But it proved so popular with the locals that they insisted it stay, so it was rebuilt in brick and stone.
The castle’s eye-catching architecture is a unique ensemble of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque styles. The best part of the castle is undoubtedly the ramparts facing the lake, modeled after the famous Corvin Castle and the Clock Tower of Sighișoara, both in present-day Romania. The castle is so enchanting that one could gaze at it for hours finding different cool angles to take unbelievable photos!
The Museum of Agriculture is the only part of Vajdahunyad Castle that is open to the public. We ended up going inside on a whim and were mighty chuffed we did. This rather esoteric museum is famed for its incredible ‘Hunting Hall’. It displays some outstanding antlers and trophies of wild boar, mouflon, fallow deer, and Roebuck.
The grandness and attention to detail of the displays are amazing. The hall itself has beautifully decorated vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows making it look like a cathedral for deer.
The Museum of Agriculture is open Tuesday–Sunday from 10:00–17:00. The entrance costs 1600 HUF.
4. Heroes’ Square & Millennium Monument
Heroes’ Square (Hosök tere) is one of the best things to see in Budapest. Like so many other things in the city, it was built to celebrate the arrival and settling of the Magyars’ forming a nation in 896. Over the course of time, Heroes’ Square has been the venue of countless public demonstrations, concerts, and fairs.
The focal point of Heroes’ Square is the Millennium Monument and the triumphal colonnades behind it. The 36-meter tall Corinthian column in the middle of the square is topped with Archangel Gabriel who holds the crown of Hungary’s first king St. Stephen in his right hand, and in his left hand, the angel holds a two barred apostolic cross, a symbol awarded to Saint Stephen by the Pope in recognition of his efforts to convert Hungary to Christianity. Around the base of the column, you will find statues representing the original seven chieftains of Hungary.
The two imposing curved colonnades behind the monument each contain seven statues of illustrious statesmen and monarchs who made their mark on Hungarian history. Statues atop the colonnades represent War, Peace, Work, Welfare, Knowledge, and Glory.
5. Museum of Fine Arts
If there’s one museum in Budapest that shouldn’t be missed, it’s the Museum of Fine Arts (Szépművészeti Múzeum). Housed in a Neoclassical building that resembles the Parthenon in Greece, the museum’s rich collection encompasses international art dating from antiquity to the 20th century.
Before heading upstairs, visit the grand Renaissance Hall, used for hanging large allegorical or religious works on loan from other museums. The dazzling Romanesque Hall is equally impressive and evokes a Romanesque Basilica with large pillars and columns.
The museum’s impressive collection is a treasure trove of European art from the 13th to the late 18th centuries. Its forte is its hoard of Old Masters, in particular the Spanish Collection, which is arguably the best in the world outside Spain.
The most important features of this collection are seven paintings by El Greco, including The Annunciation, The Disrobing of Christ, The Agony in the Garden, and The Penance of St. Mary Magdalene. Velázquez’s Peasants at Table, Ribera’s gory Martyrdom of St. Andrew, and Goya’s The Water Carrier are some of the other highlights.
Besides this, the museum’s collection of French, Italian, German, Flemish, and Dutch artworks is also top-notch. Some of the artworks to look out for at the Museum of Fine Arts include Rubens’ Mucius Scaevola before Porsenna, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s St. John the Baptist’s Sermon, Jacob van Ruisdael’s dreamy View of Amsterdam, Egon Schiele’s Two Women Embracing, Dürer’s simple yet beautiful Portrait of a Young Man, Raphael’s exquisite Esterházy Madonna, Giambattista Tiepolo’s vast St. James Conquers the Moors and Nicolas Poussin’s epic Resting on the Journey to Egypt.
The Museum of Fine Arts is also renowned for its excellent haul of Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan, and Roman artifacts. The rich collection of Egyptian stone sculptures and Greek vases ranks as one of the best of its kind in Europe. The museum also houses galleries dedicated to a variety of modern art. Alongside its collection of sculptures, there are priceless drawings and works of graphic art.
The Museum of Fine Arts is open Tuesday–Sunday from 10:00–18:00. Admission costs 3200 HUF. Although you could easily spend all afternoon here, try to restrict yourself to a short visit.
6. Andrássy Avenue
No trip to Budapest would be complete without taking a stroll down Andrássy Avenue (Andrássy út), Budapest’s grandest boulevard, and the city’s equivalent of the Champs-Élysées. Running in a perfectly straight line for 2.3 km, Andrássy Avenue cuts through central Pest connecting Erzsébet Square and the City Park. The avenue is one of Budapest’s primary shopping destinations and is home to a slew of fine cafés, restaurants, and luxury boutiques.
I really love strolling on Andrássy Avenue to admire the eclectic architecture, in particular the spectacular Neo-Renaissance mansions and townhouses. To truly appreciate the neighborhood’s quiet charm and remarkable palazzos, venture out to Benczúr and Bajza Streets, just off Andrássy.
As you make your way from Heroes Square towards Central Pest, you’ll notice that its character changes. Initially, you’ll see many stately offices and foreign embassies in sumptuous looking villas while the latter section comprises Budapest’s high-end shopping area.
7. House of Terror
The soulless blue-gray House of Terror (Terror Háza) building has got to be one of the most recognizable landmarks in Budapest. The ominous black overhang that surmounts the reconstructed Beaux-Arts building has giant stenciled letters cut out into it. When the sun shines, and the light falls through the cut-outs and on to the facade, the huge letters spell out the word “TERROR”.
This seemingly innocuous building is an address that sends a chill to the spine of many Hungarians. Starting in World War II, the building first served as the headquarters of the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross regime who dubbed it “House of Loyalty”.
It then immediately turned into the headquarters for the much-feared Orwellian Communist secret police till the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. During these grim times, brutal interrogations and torturing of countless political activists and dissidents took place.
The building is now home to a museum that chronicles the grim events and practices of the successive oppressive regimes in Hungary using photographs of victims, videos of witnesses, and more. While the exhibition is both chilling and fascinating, it has received some criticism for putting more energy into the Communist times over the Fascist regime.
One of the highlights here is a Soviet T-54 tank in the atrium. Tanks like this one rolled into Hungary to crush the 1956 Uprising. Behind the tank, stretching to the ceiling is a vast wall covered with 3,200 portraits of people who were murdered by the Nazis or the communists in this very building.
The displays begin on the second floor with a couple of rooms dealing briskly with the murder of 600,000 Jews and Gypsies in the Holocaust, before moving on to the Soviet “liberation”, deportations of “class enemies”, rigged elections, collectivization, and other themes.
The most harrowing part of the museum is the basement, where the various types of prison cells and torture rooms have been recreated. The House of Terror is not an easy place to visit. Funereal sounds and powerful images mix with heart-wrenching testimony from video screens and occasional sobs from visitors.
The House of Terror Museum is open Tuesday–Sunday from 10:00–18:00. The entrance costs 3000 HUF. I would say that the House of Terror is a good museum and definitely interesting for anyone with an affinity for history. If, however, you think that the museum sounds a bit too grim for you, you can skip this and move on to the next site.
HISTORY 101: Hungarian Revolution of 1956
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” in 1956 in which he denounced Joseph Stalin’s dictatorial rule emboldened the Soviet Bloc’s dissidents. Drawing inspiration from a workers’ strike in Poznań, Poland, a rising tide of unrest and discontent in Hungary broke out into mass anti-Soviet demonstrations and active fighting on October 23 1956. Rebels won the first phase of the revolution and the Hungarian Communist Party’s Central Committee elected the popular politician Imre Nagy as prime minister. Along with agreeing to establish a multiparty system, Nagy declared Hungarian neutrality and appealed to the United Nations for support. However, Western powers were reluctant to risk a global confrontation and didn’t intervene. On 4 November, however, just 18 days after he assumed office, the Soviet army invaded Hungary and crushed the new regime. Nagy was arrested and executed in 1958. Over 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops were killed in the conflict, and 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees. Anyone who had participated in the uprising was blacklisted. The 23rd of October remains Hungary’s most cherished holiday.
8. Margaret Island
There’s a saying in Budapest that “love begins and ends on Margaret Island (Margit-Sziget)”, for this verdant island has been a favorite meeting place for paramours since the 19th century. Margaret Island is today Budapest’s most beautiful park, a car-free oasis of greenery in the middle of the city, and the ideal location for a peaceful saunter. You can jog, bicycle, swim, play tennis, throw frisbees, relax in thermal pools, sunbathe along its steep embankments, walk along park pathways, sit on park benches, eat at its restaurants and enjoy the day.
It has an interesting royalty-related history going back to King Béla IV. Legend has it that during the Mongol invasion from 1241 to 1242, he said that if God would grant a victory he would devote his daughter to religion. He vowed to bring his daughter Margit (Margaret) up as a nun if the Mongols never returned. They never did and in 1251 Béla made good on his vow and sent his 9-year old daughter to the island’s convent, where she stayed for the rest of her life.
On the island, there are ruins attesting to the religious who lived here. You can walk around what is left of the Dominican Convent where you’ll find signs mentioning St. Margaret. You will also come across the secluded ruins of the 14th-century Franciscan church which lie in the island’s center. Though there is very little left to admire among the scant remains, it still has a fine arched window and a staircase.
If you’re visiting in the summertime, you can witness the spectacle of the island’s popular musical fountain. The fountain leaps into action every 20 minutes, emitting water to a classical piece or pop song. Colored lights are added for evening performances. Other worthy sights on Margaret Island include the striking Modernist Centenary Monument and the UNESCO protected Water Tower.
My favorite spot on Margaret Island is the enchanting Japanese Garden. This lush garden at the northwestern end of the island has giant water lilies, koi carp, bamboo groves, Japanese maples, rock gardens, and waterfalls.
9. Memento Park
If you’re on the lookout for the old communist statues that once decorated Budapest, you’ll have to venture out into the city’s outskirts. After the fall of the communist regime, Budapest’s City Council decided to round up in one place Communist monuments which had formerly occupied prestigious locations in the city. The result is Memento Park, a socialist Disneyland which brings together more than 40 Communist-era statues and plaques. Though it can be time-consuming to visit, Memento Park is one of my favorite places to visit in Budapest and a must-see for those fascinated by Hungary’s communist past.
Memento Park has been enlarged since its inception and features some astonishingly huge monuments of the Communist regime. The park lies behind a bogus Classical gate framing a giant statue of Vladimir Lenin and a funky cubist one of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. As you enter the park, the statues are divided into three main loops, each with a different theme.
Inside the grounds, you’ll encounter the Red Army soldier that guarded the foot of the Liberation Monument on Gellért Hill and dozens of other statues and memorials, large and small. My favorite one is undoubtedly the Herculean communist worker figure of the Republic of Councils Monument (statue no. 33) in full flight, charging into the future for the Communist cause. Watch out for a rusty pair of workers’ hands (statue no. 31) holding a sphere (which was once adorned with a red star). This represented the hard-won ideals of communism.
After you’re done inspecting the statues, return to the entry gate and peruse the fun parade of communist kitsch at the gift shop. The shop sells Lenin and Stalin candles, posters, books, model Trabant cars, and selections of revolutionary songs, which can be heard playing from a 1950s’ radio set. There’s also a real Trabant – the classic two-stroke commie-mobile known as “the people’s car” – on show.
Across the parking lot, you’ll be greeted by a replica of the Stalin grandstand, from which the Communist Party leaders reviewed parades. Above the tribune stood an 8 meter tall bronze of Stalin, but it was pulled down during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. All that remains are the giant replica of Stalin’s boots which provide an excellent selfie-op. Multimedia displays in a barracks-style building reveal some of the methods the AVH, the Hungarian secret police, used to spy on their own people and how they used to bug or search premises and recruit informers.
Memento Park is open daily from 10:00-dusk. The entrance costs 1500 HUF.
What to Eat in Budapest
When spending a long weekend in Budapest, you should definitely try some delectable Hungarian food. The fusion of Magyar, Turkish, Austrian, and Balkan influences has made Hungarian cuisine one of the most interesting and flavourful in central Europe. Some of the foods you should definitely try in Budapest are:
1. Lángos: Langos is a deep-fried flatbread that is Hungary’s most beloved snack. It is made from a potato dough which is then deep-fried. The result is a surprisingly heavy, delectably large, flat, round, crispy snack. is usually smothered with sour cream and cheese. Other possible toppings include garlic sauce or ketchup.
2. Chicken paprikash (Csirkepaprikás): Chicken stew in a creamy sauce made from paprika and sour cream. Hot & spicy, it is generally accompanied by a side of dumplings or pasta.
3. Goulash (Gulyás): Goulash is the quintessential “Hungarian” dish. It contains chunks of beef, potatoes, and vegetables, plus plenty of paprika and spices.
4. Fisherman’s soup (Halászlé): A traditional Hungarian soup of paprika-spiced broth and thick cuts of river fish (usually carp or catfish).
5. Stuffed cabbage (Töltött Káposzta): One of the best Hungarian comfort foods, it consists of large leaves of cabbage, stuffed with meat and rice, which are cooked and then smattered with sour cream.
6. Crêpes (Palacsinta): A paper-thin crepe stuffed with a multitude of offerings for either a sweet or a savory light bite.
7. Meat stew (Pörkölt): One of my favorite Hungarian foods, a thick stew made of meat (often beef or chicken gizzards), tomato, paprika, and onions, usually served with a side of Hungarian noodles and a paprika-spiced sauce.
8. Dobos Cake (Dobostorta): A chocolate buttercream-layered sponge cake, topped with crystallized caramel and covered on the edges with nuts.
In addition to the traditional cuisine, Budapest’s gastronomic scene is diverse and the city offers a vast range of restaurants serving good food. Even the pickiest eaters won’t have a problem in finding something they like.
Where to Eat in Budapest
Budapest has plenty of great dining options offering all sorts of cuisines. We recommend the following establishments during your 3 days in Budapest:
1. Hungarikum Bisztro: a great place for sampling traditional Hungarian fare
2. Rosenstein Vendéglő: an iconic restaurant in Budapest, serving some of the best traditional Hungarian and Hungarian-Jewish dishes in the city.
3. Gettó Gulyás: a trendy restaurant in the Jewish Quarter offering Hungarian classics.
4. Street Food Karavan Budapest: This hipster-like place with picnic tables has plenty of dining options such as Hungarian, Thai, Mexican, Italian, etc. Carry some cash on you as some stalls don’t accept cards.
5. Retró Lángos: One of the best places in Budapest to try a classic lángos.
6. Comme Chez Soi: An amazing restaurant serving a lovely mix of traditional Italian/French cuisine and Hungarian favorites.
7. Taj Mahal: arguably the best Indian restaurant in Budapest.
8. Élesztő: an excellent gastropub with an excellent range of craft beers.
9. Ruszwurm Confectionery: diminutive confectionary near Matthias Church that is a great place to sample some of these delights.
10. Café Gerbeaud: Budapest’s most renowned pâtisserie which is a must for coffee and dessert-lovers.
11. New York Cafe: Often touted as the “most beautiful cafe in the world”, the gilded Neo-Baroque interiors are astounding with grand chandeliers and marble pillars.
Where to Stay in Budapest
The selection of accommodation in Budapest is vast, and it’s possible to find something to suit all tastes and budgets. The greatest choice of hotels and hostels can be found in Pest where many hotels are literally only a few steps away from most of the major tourist attractions. Even if you decide to stay in Buda or some of the other outer-lying suburbs, try and look for a place with good public transport connections.
Hostel: Wombats CITY Hostel, a great choice right in the heart of downtown.
Budget: Medosz Hotel, solid option just off Andrássy Avenue.
Mid-range: Hotel Zenit Budapest Palace, excellent choice on the Danube riverbank, close to the Chain bridge.
Splurge: Hilton Budapest, a sumptuous choice on Buda next to Fisherman’s Bastion.
Now, what do you think? How would you spend 3 days in Budapest? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!