Budapest was once called the “Pearl of the Danube” for its unprecedented beauty and striking architecture. This city of thermal baths, ruined bars, and caves that were hidden behind the Iron Curtain is nowadays a major destination in the centre of Europe with something to offer everyone. Below you will find my favourite Budapest sights and what to do by district.
The Hungarian capital is really two cities separated by the Danube river. They were merged together in 1873. On the West Bank, you have hilly Buda, with its medieval vibe, cobblestones, Old Town, Castle and panoramic vistas. On the East end, is Pest which is mostly flat and comprises most of the urban area of the city, including some of the most iconic sites built in the 19th century, such as the Parliament, Saint Stephen’s Basilica, Dohany utca (Street) Synagogue to name a few.
Since Budapest has a lot to offer everyone all year round, from festivals to fairs and a weekend isn’t enough to see “everything”, the best way you can organise your time there is by exploring the city by districts. That’s right, instead of hopping around from one place to another you can save time by exploring the main sights of each district.
Favourite spots on the Buda side of the Danube
Obviously, there’s so much you can see when visiting Budapest for a short period of time. However, the some of the main must-see (at least from the outside) sights can be found in the Castle Hill District.
Castle Hill District
Reaching the Castle (Budai Var) is already half the fun. You can stroll across one of Budapest’s 9 crossings (Bridges) and either board the funicular or simply, walk up the hill for about 15 minutes just like I did myself. At the top, you will find a huge complex that hosts the Hungarian National Gallery, National library, medieval tunnels and a long network of caves that were once used as shelters during WWII. I highly recommend visiting the Hospital in the Rock (guided tours only) to learn more about this military hospital that functioned since 1944 and that was believed to be a bunker able to withstand a nuclear attack.
There are other very popular sights here apart from Buda Castle such as Mathias Church and the National Library which will be on every travel guide as they are quite impressive.
However, I was more interested in the great vistas from the Fishermen’s Bastion so instead, I spent most of my time there.
Top tip: There’s a nice cafe across the square called Panoramia which offers great views over the city. Also, if you are looking for a place to relax after a long day walking around there’s a renovated Turkish-style thermal bath called Rudas located in this area. It gets super packed, so try to reserve in advance, bring flip flops and be prepared to pay full price fee to get access to the outdoor Jacuzzi with a view of the city.
Exploring the Pest side and my favourite sights
Incredibly vibrant and stunning fin-de-siècle architecture.
District V – Inner City or Downtown Budapest
This is the centre of town and where most landmarks are located. Great area for restaurants and local cuisine.
- Walking along the Danube Promenade (Duna Corso) is a great way to enjoy the river and castle views
- Great Market Hall and Váci Street which is a popular shopping area
- Budapest’s biggest church Saint Stephen’s Basilica which allegedly houses King Stephen’s right hand in the reliquary
- Soviet War Memorial in the far end of Szabadság Square is a reminder of its communist past and the only one still standing in the centre to this day
Perfect for exploring the cultural scene of the city. This is where the Opera House is located and many concerts and plays are shown here.
District VII – Former Jewish Quarter
It is a hip and cool part of town with lots of cafes, ruined bars, street food places as well as the home of the second biggest and most beautiful Synagogue in Europe (Dohány Street Synagogue). In this area, you will find Kazinczy Street which is one of the nightlife hubs of Budapest.
Go there to see where the locals actually shop and get some typical paprika. This is where the Central Market Hall is located as well as many fine-dining Hungarian restaurants and street food stalls.
District XIV – Zugló
It is quite green with many residential areas. Check out the Botanical Garden, the Heroes’ Square, the Millennium Monument and the castle overlooking the park.
Located on the outskirts of the city. The only reason to come over here is to visit Memento Park which displays some of the monuments and statues of the communist era that were taken down with the Fall of Communism in 1989.
Top tips :
- The transportation system in Budapest is extensive and everything is very well connected. The Metro is super quirky, it has rickety wooden wagons which make travelling more interesting. No need to use Taxis, except for when coming from the airport.
- Purchasing the Budapest Card is a great way of saving money if you have more time and want to visit more than 3 museums, as you also get free transportation, otherwise, it’s not worth it.
- Book thermal baths in advance and avoid weekends during high season.