If you're a first-time visitor to Budapest, the below sites will give you a snapshot of the city’s past and present. Refer to this map for the specific locations.
#1 - Roam the streets of the Castle Hill: Budapest’s charming medieval Old Town is usually swarming with tourists, but if you go up here a little before sunset, after visitors have returned to the Pest side, you should have the Buda Castle, the Matthias Church, the Fisherman's Bastion, and the winding historic streets mostly to yourself. Read this step-by-step guide to get the most out of the Castle Hill.
#2 - Visit the Parliament & Liberty Square: Built during Budapest’s golden era when the city was a capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, this monumental Gothic Revival building dominates its Danube bank. The 45-minute guided tour is just the right amount of time to appreciate its lavish interior without getting tired and lost in one of its 691 rooms. After the tour, stop by nearby Liberty Square for more dramatic buildings from this period.
#3 - Stroll down Andrássy Avenue: Budapest’s version of the Champs-Élysées, this 2.3 km (1.4 mile) grand boulevard connects the city center with Heroes' Square and the City Park. Starting in downtown, you will pass fancy retail stores, then end up amongst handsome villas, many of them embassies now, taking in the heart of the city along your way. Be sure to pause at the Opera House and the House of Terror. If you have extra energy, visit some of the treasures hidden in the side streets.
#4 - Take a river cruise on the Danube: It's one of the best ways to appreciate Budapest's beauty in the fullest. As part of a cruise ride, which takes about an hour, the Chain Bridge, the Buda Castle, the Parliament building, and Margaret Island all appear within arm's reach. There are many cruise operators to choose from; my experience is that Legenda offers a consistently comfortable experience (and audio guides in 30 languages).
#5 - Learn about communism in Hungary at the House of Terror: Democracy may indeed be the way forward, but Hungary is still suffering the legacy of the four-decades-long communist regime that reigned until 1989. This museum, inside the building that once headquartered the Communist Secret Police, is a must-see for anyone interested in exploring Hungary’s past and understanding its present. (Here’s our list of Budapest’s best museums.)
#6 - Go to a thermal bath: The city's bathing culture dates back to the Romans, who first enjoyed soaking in mineral-rich hot water. Today, you can visit medieval hammams built by a Turkish pasha—these are some of the last traces of the Ottoman century-and-a-half occupation of Budapest—or stunningly ornate baths dating back to Austria-Hungary. Read our thermal bath guide to find the one that suits you best.
#7 - Walk the “synagogue triangle” in the old Jewish Quarter: Before Hungary’s alliance with Nazi Germany and participation in the Holocaust, Budapest was home to a thriving community of more than 200,000 Jewish people. Jews had been integral to Budapest's commerce, arts, and sciences. Inside the old Jewish Quarter, you can still visit three dazzling synagogues near one another, including Europe’s largest in Dohány Street.
#8 - Explore the Great Market Hall: Opened in 1897, this enormous brick-and-steel indoor market is usually teeming with tourists, but plenty of locals, too, come here to pick up fresh fruits, vegetables, and charcuterie. Upstairs, amid vendors of knick-knacks and tchotchkes, you'll find food stalls that serve lángos, Hungary's iconic flatbread topped with sour cream and cheese.
#9 - Try traditional Hungarian food: Although the gut-busting traditional Hungarian fare of the past is being updated with lighter and healthier ingredients, make no mistake, Hungarians still love a hearty goulash and chicken paprikash. You have a number of options: there are traditional Hungarian restaurants, everyday eateries where you dine alongside locals, and places that serve modern Hungarian food—see what strikes your fancy.
#10 - Go to a pastry shop: Harkening back to the days of the Austro Hungarian Empire, there's still a vibrant pastry shop culture in Budapest. After all, who doesn't like to socialize over luscious cakes and hot chocolate? Myriad pastry shops (cukrászda in Hungarian) scatter across the city, but we've featured some of the best ones that serve traditional Hungarian cakes.
#11 - Try Hungarian wine: Hungary’s most famous wine is Tokaji, the wine that once counted emperors and presidents among its admirers. These days, Hungary produces some excellent dry wines, too. The main grape varieties indigenous to the region include furmint, hárslevelű, and juhfark (white), and kadarka and kékfrankos (red), all of which you can find at these Budapest wine bars. If you're new to Hungarian wines, read our beginner's guide.
#12 - Go shopping: Budapest's shopping options span from antiques to contemporary designer products, with plenty in-between—local clothing labels, high-end china, Hungarian wines, craft chocolate, vinyl records, and more. See if the city's best stores offer something of interest to you.
#13 - Go to a museum: Be it a gigantic fine arts museum that could be the envy of most cities around the world, or a small, thematic exhibit about Hungary's iconic liqueur, the Unicum (which, yes, does include a taste), museums abound in Budapest. See which one strikes your fancy.
#14 - Climb up to the Liberty Statue: In exchange for the half-hour cardio exercise that's required to mount the verdant Gellért Hill, your reward will be sweeping 360-degree views of Budapest. For the best experience, take the path that's to the south of the hill, setting off opposite Gellért Bath, and descend on the other side.
#15 - Take in the city's architecture: Ranging from Roman ruins to contemporary buildings, Budapest offers plenty of eye candy for architecture fans. Most interesting of all are the buildings of Ödön Lechner, who pioneered Hungary's distinct art nouveau style, taking inspiration from Hungarian and Asian folk motifs. One of the best examples is the Postal Savings Bank from 1901.
#16 - Use BuBi, Budapest’s city bike system: With densely built streets and a flat surface, the Pest side lends itself to be discovered on two wheels. BuBi provides an excellent coverage of all downtown neighborhoods, featuring 1,500 bikes and 127 docking stations. You can pedal away for the whole day for the equivalent of less than €2 (within 30-minute intervals). Just keep your wits about you and be respectful of others sharing the road.
#17 - Visit the food court inside the Hold Street Market: This historic downtown market hall has been transformed into a bustling food court where many local celebrity chefs operate fast-casual restaurants. My favorites include A Séf utcája and Buja Disznó(k).
#18 - Amble through the Várkert Bazár: A beautifully refurbished set of historic buildings with a park line the foot of the Castle Hill, right by the Danube's bank in Buda. In the past, the area was home to everything from shops to artists' studios and open-air concerts. Today you're here for the stunning views, but the temporary exhibits inside the building are often worth dropping by. There's direct access to the Royal Palace from here, so you can combine this with #1 above.
#19 - Go to a classical music concert: Every year, many tourists head to Budapest specifically for its rich classical music history. Here, classical music is far from stuffy or old-fashioned — and a poignant portal into deeper aspects of Hungarian life than you think. Start by perusing the musical calendars of Müpa Budapest, the Hungarian State Opera, and the Liszt Academy. If experimental contemporary art is what you're after, head to Trafó.
#20 - Discover the Palace Quarter: Ever more locals flee to the Palace Quarter from the overcrowded streets of the nearby Jewish Quarter. With pre-war palaces and quaint courtyards, the Palace Quarter was once the most desirable—the playground of the wealthy nobility. Communism’s gray pallor is still notable, but the area is springing back to life thanks to charming restaurants and cafés.
#21 - Grab a drink at a ruin bar: Budapest’s ruin bars started when some creatively minded locals set up bare-bones drinking joints inside derelict, pre-war buildings that barely escaped the bulldozers. These places serve cheap drinks and feature a hodgepodge of flea-market furniture. Although Szimpla Kert, the city’s first ruin bar, has become a major tourist attraction, it's still worth a visit for the experience.
#22 - Travel back in time at a coffeehouse: As Vienna did, Budapest also enjoyed a thriving coffeehouse culture in the late 19th century. The city's fast-growing population, especially artists and journalists, spent endless hours in these grand, high-ceilinged places working and socializing. The few coffeehouses that remain today are popular tourist attractions, but if you enjoy a journey back in time, drop by for a coffee and a cake.
#23 - Experience the contemporary side of Budapest: Sure, you don't need to come all the way to Budapest to try specialty coffee, craft beers, or bespoke cocktails, but if you're already here, you might as well see how Budapest's artisanal scene stacks up against those in other cities you've visited.
#24 - Visit Újlipótváros, Budapest’s West Village: Újlipótváros is a little city within the city that flies under the radar of most tourists. With a 1930s and '40s modernist housing stock, this middle-class neighborhood looks and feels different from the rest of Budapest. Lined with bookstores and trendy cafés, Pozsonyi Road is the main artery of the area.
#25 - Discover the coolest Buda neighborhood: There's little doubt that Pest is where most of the action is, but the stately Bartók Béla Boulevard in Buda gives it a run for its money. This revitalized area is teeming with cafés, bars, art galleries, and draws a local, bourgeois-bohemian crowd.
#26 - Go to an art gallery: After more than four decades of communist-era censorship in the fine arts (until 1989), today Budapest's art world is throbbing with life. At the city's best contemporary art galleries you can sample anything from conceptual art from the 1960s and '70s to the latest works of the younger generations. Make no mistake, these are serious artworks that command high prices, but even if you aren't ready to shell out a fortune, go see the exhibits, which are free and open to the public.
#27 - Visit the Lehel Market: Inside this quirky building lies one of Budapest's liveliest markets. You'll find everything from smoked, cured, and spiced sausages to fresh and pickled vegetables, and home-made jams. At the low-priced drinking joints you can accompany local regulars for a beer and a shot of Unicum. Compared with the Great Market Hall, Lehel feels more local. For the best experience, visit on a Saturday morning.
#28 - Explore the Fiumei Road Cemetery: This vast 56 hectare (140 acre) park not far from the city center hides a landscaped garden cemetery ("the Père Lachaise of Budapest”). Enjoy a stroll through its towering limestone mausoleums and impressively designed tombstones while getting to know Hungary’s most famous statesmen and artists, including Lajos Kossuth and Tivadar Csontváry. At the back, but accessed from outside, is the Salgótarjáni Street Jewish Cemetery, hiding the elaborate tombstones of the turn-of-the-20th-century Jewish upper class.
#29 - Stroll down the Danube promenade in Ferencváros: Unfortunately, cars in Budapest have more access to precious Danube River views than people. One of the few exceptions is the green promenade running from the Great Market Hall to the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art. Along the way, grab a drink at the whale-shaped contemporary building where bars offer panoramic vistas.
#30 - Walk or bike around Budapest’s Central Park: Margaret Island is a quaint, leafy area perched in the middle of the Danube River—no wonder that the royal family kept it close to its chest before finally selling it to the city in 1908. Bike around the island's manicured lawns or join packs of locals on the running track stretching around the island.
#31 - Eat in Budapest's Chinatown: With over 30,000 people, Budapest has the largest Chinese community in Central Europe. This of course means that excellent Chinese food abounds, be it Sichuan fare, seafood, noodle soups, or Chinese hotpot. Chinatown (Monori Center) is located a bit outside the city center, reachable in half-hour by public transport from downtown.
#32 - Go to a Michelin-starred restaurant: Budapest has six Michelin-starred restaurants, more than each of the other Central European capitals. While a Michelin meal always runs the risk of being a bit over-the-top, these restaurants showcase a unique blend of traditional Hungarian dishes and contemporary fine dining trends.
#33 - Check out the award-winning M4 subway stations: A crisscross system of exposed concrete beams, playful lighting solutions, and customized designs lend a distinctly 21st century feel to the platforms of Budapest's recently completed M4 subway line. The Fővám Square and Szent Gellért Square stations won the highly prestigious Architizer A+ Award in 2014.
#34 - Take a day trip to Szentendre: Szentendre is a small, picturesque town about 45-minutes from Budapest, best known for its Mediterranean atmosphere and vibrant museum scene. If you feel like taking a break from Budapest’s bustle, it makes for a relaxing day trip. Our Szentendre guide will help you get around.
#35 - Take a weekend trip to the Tokaj wine region: If you're interested in wine, consider visiting Tokaj, the world's oldest designated wine region, located in northeastern Hungary about three hours from Budapest by car. "The wine of kings, the king of wines" is how Louis XIV of France famously referred to Tokaj. Our step-by-step guide will help you plan out your trip, including winery visits.
#36 - Visit the Budapest Zoo: Not far from the city center lies one of the oldest zoos in Europe, dating back to 1866. With elaborate Art Nouveau buildings housing the animals, it also offers a tour of architecture. Although open year-round, remember that some of the animals might be hibernating in the winter months, away from the public eye. Bizarrely, the thermal water of the neighboring Széchenyi bath provides much of the zoo's heating.
#37 - Visit the scenic tomb of Gül Baba: Gül Baba, "father of the roses" in Turkish, was a Bektashi monk who died in 1541 in Buda, when the Ottomans occupied the city. His octagonal tomb (türbe) is the northernmost point of Islamic pilgrimage in the world and also a scenic and peaceful area with sweeping views of Budapest. For the best experience, climb up on Mecset Street through the rose garden, and leave the area on the other side down the winding Gül Baba Street.
#38 - Go to a concert on the A38 ship docked on the Danube: This commercial-ship-turned-concert-venue is one of those unique Budapest inventions, similar to ruin bars, that marries resourcefulness with locality. The ship used to be a Ukrainian stone-carrier lumbering on the Danube before being converted into Budapest's go-to concert venue. It hosts A-level international and local bands almost every night of the week. For more Budapest concerts, check out our event guide.
#39 - Experience the nightlife of the old Jewish Quarter: After the Holocaust, Budapest's Jewish Quarter was neglected for decades. Recently, however, thanks to an influx of young people, these streets are home to a revitalized culture, lined with cafés, bars, and restaurants. Thronged with both locals and tourists at night, the area has become the Budapest’s party district.
#40 - Mingle with locals: The best way to get to know a city is by meeting locals. Here are some casual, laid-back bars, where you will be able to meet some Hungarians, who hopefully will be glad to meet you.
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