If you're a first-time visitor to Budapest, the sites below 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, located atop the Castle Hill on the Buda side, 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. This step-by-step guide will help you navigate the Castle Hill.
#2 - Go to the Museum of Fine Arts: The Museum of Fine Arts (Szépművészeti Múzeum) is known for its world-class collection of old masters paintings by artists such as Lucas Cranach the Elder, Albrecht Dürer, Raphael, Giorgione, Correggio, Titian, Tintoretto, Pontormo, El Greco, Paul Peter Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, Frans Hals, Jan Steen, Diego Velázquez, Francisco Goya, and many others. Much of the collection belonged to Prince Nikolaus II Esterházy before the family sold it to the museum in 1870. The giant neoclassical building on Heroes' Square is furnished with Romanesque, Renaissance, and Baroque halls. More Budapest museum ideas.
#3 - Visit the Hungarian Parliament & Liberty Square: Built during Budapest’s golden era when the city was a capital of Austria-Hungary, this monumental Gothic Revival building dominates its Danube bank. The 45-minute guided tour is just the right amount of time to appreciate the lavish interior without getting tired and lost in one of its 691 rooms. After the tour, be sure to stop by the poignant Shoes Memorial just steps away on the riverbank. Nearby Liberty Square is also worth a glimpse for its strange amalgam of statues and dramatic buildings from this period.
#4 - Stroll down Andrássy Avenue: Budapest’s version of the Champs-Élysées and the Ringstrasse, this 2.3 km (1.4 mile) grand boulevard connects the city center with Heroes' Square and the City Park. Starting in downtown, you'll pass fancy retail stores, then end up among handsome villas, many of them embassies now, taking in the heart of the city along the way, including the impressive Opera House. Those with extra energy should visit some of the treasures hidden in the side streets.
#5 - Go to the National Gallery: The National Gallery, located inside the Buda Castle, is home to paintings and sculpture by Hungary's leading artists. 15th-century Gothic triptychs; strangely fun Biedermeier paintings; the solemn 19th-century romanticism of László Mednyánszky; Károly Ferenczy's brand of impressionism; the works by Nyolcak, the Hungarian art group inspired by Parisian fauvism and German expressionism; the proto-abstract Lajos Vajda; the haunting sculptures of Tibor Vilt. And so much more! Budapest museum ideas.
#6 - Go to the House of Music: Budapest's most recent museum tracks the development of music from its tribal beginnings to the present day. The high-tech exhibition halls provide countless samples and take visitors to detours about Hungary's great composers, such as Ferenc Liszt, Béla Bartók, and Zoltán Kodály. The museum is located inside an astonishing building designed by well-known Japanese architect, Sou Fujimoto. Be sure to check the concert calendar, too.
#7 - Go to a smaller museum: There are also smaller, thematic museums in Budapest, for example one about Unicum, the iconic herbal liqueur, which, yes, does include a taste. Or the recently opened exhibit on Robert Capa, the famous war photographer. Or an architecture show inside a modernist house, the Walter Rózsi-villa. Is it stamps that get you going? No problem. Here, more Budapest museum ideas.
#8 - Wander through the City Park: With the completion of several striking museum buildings, Budapest's City Park has reinvented itself in recent years. Take in the eye-catching architecture of the Museum of Ethnography, the House of Music, the Millennium háza, the Vajdahunyad Castle, and the Széchenyi Baths as you roam the park. For those with children: the country's top playground is also here. You can walk to the City Park from downtown via the grand Andrássy Avenue; on the way back, take the museum-worthy M1 Millennium Underground (see next point).
#9 - Take a ride on Europe's oldest subway line: Budapest's M1 line was completed just in time for the thousand-year birthday celebrations of Hungary in 1896. The adorably undersized cars, at least by today's standards, connect the city center with the City Park and Heroes's Square (locals refer to it as the "kisföldalatti," meaning small underground). The stations are located conveniently close to the ground level and the train runs below Andrássy Avenue, so you can hop on for a few stops for the experience (tickets are sold at the machines). Just be sure to watch your head.
#10 - 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 Hungarian 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).
#11 - Learn about the Communist-era 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.
#12 - Go to a thermal bath: Budapest's bathing culture harks back to the Romans, who first enjoyed soaking in the mineral-rich hot water here. Today, you can visit medieval hammams built during Budapest's occupation by Ottoman Turkey or ornate baths dating back to Austria-Hungary. This thermal bath guide will help you choose one that suits you best.
#13 - Walk the “synagogue triangle” in the old Jewish Quarter: Before Hungary’s alliance with Nazi Germany and participation in the Holocaust, the country was home to a thriving community of almost one million Jewish people. In Budapest, where nearly a quarter of the population was Jewish, Jews had been central to the development of the economy, the arts, and many academic fields. Inside the city's old Jewish Quarter, you can visit three dazzling synagogues near one another, including Europe’s biggest in Dohány Street.
#14 - Pay Tribute to Budapest's Holocaust Memorials: As mentioned above, Jewish people contributed immensely to Budapest transforming into a successful metropolis by 1900. Unlike in Vienna, antisemitism had been rooted out by the political leaders of Hungary until WW I. Not so in the following period: nearly all Jewish people from the Hungarian countryisde were deported to and killed in Auschwitz in 1944, with active support from locals. Budapest fared somewhat better, but members of the Arrow Cross movement murdered tens of thousands. Here, the main memorials.
#15 - 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 for fresh fruits, vegetables, and paprika-laced sausages. Upstairs, amid vendors of knick-knacks and tchotchkes, you'll find food stalls that serve lángos, a popular flatbread topped with sour cream and cheese.
#16 - Eat your way through the city with our Foodapest card: I've logged the city's quintessential foods and drinks that locals rely on to get through their days. Note: this isn’t a list of strictly traditional Hungarian fare; it’s a deeply local, beloved cross-section of what Budapest residents actually eat and drink. So you, too, can feel like one, even if you’re visiting. Read this brief explainer to each of the featured items and then print the card.
#17 - Go to a pastry shop: Dating back to the days of Austria Hungary, there's still a vibrant pastry shop culture in Budapest. After all, who doesn't like to socialize over luscious cakes and hot chocolate? Many pastry shops (cukrászda) scatter across the city; these places are my favorite for a Dobos or an Esterházy torte. Before you trip, learn more about the top traditional Hungarian cakes.
#18 - Try Hungarian wine: Unlike beer, wine has been essential all throughout Hungary's history. The most renowned wine region is Tokaj, once the drink of emperors and presidents. Native grapes include furmint and hárslevelű (white) and kékfrankos/Blaufränkisch, which you can try at these Budapest wine bars. If you're new to Hungarian wines, read my beginner's guide.
#19 - Go shopping: Budapest's shopping options span antiques, contemporary designer products, high-end china, vinyl records, handmade shoe manufacturers, craft chocolate, and more. See if the city's top stores offer something of interest to you.
#20 - Climb up to the Liberty Statue: The reward of the half-hour cardio exercise that's required to mount the verdant Gellért Hill is the sweeping 360-degree views of Budapest. For the best experience, take the quieter path setting off opposite the Gellért Baths and descend on the other side.
#21 - Take in the city's architecture: Budapest offers plenty of eye candy for architecture fans. The consistent revival architecture from the turn of the 20th century still dominates the cityscape, but also unique are the buildings of Ödön Lechner, who pioneered Hungary's distinct style of Art Nouveau.
#22 - Use MOL 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 (App Store; Google Play) provides an excellent coverage of all downtown neighborhoods, featuring more than 1,800 bikes and 170 docking stations. You can pedal away at wallet-friendly rates (a 30-minute ride amounts to less than €2). Just keep your wits about you and be respectful of others sharing the road. (More tips about getting around Budapest.)
#23 - Take the Children's Railway and the Libegő chairlift: Since 1948, Budapest runs an official rail line operated by children with adult supervision. The small train lumbers through beautiful nature with occasional panoramic vistas over Budapest. Get off at Jánoshegy and take the Libegő chairlift down from the hillside, also with striking views. The Children's Railway departs from Hűvösvölgy, about half an hour away from the city center by public transport. Both of these activities are ideal for families with small children.
#24 - Amble through Várkert Bazár: These nicely refurbished neo-Renaissance buildings lie between the Castle Hill and the Danube's bank. In the past, the area was home to everything from stores to artists' studios and open-air concerts but today you're here for the panoramic views. Note that there's direct access to the Royal Castle, so you can combine this with #1 above.
#25 - Go to a classical music concert: Every year, many tourists head to Budapest specifically for its rich classical music scene, which is far from stuffy or old-fashioned. Start by perusing the musical calendars of Müpa Budapest, the Hungarian State Opera, and the Liszt Academy, or that of Iván Fischer's Budapest Festival Orchestra. The chamber music concerts at the charming Bartók Memorial House are another option. If experimental contemporary art is what you're after, head to Trafó.
#26 - Discover the Palace Quarter: With pre-war mansions and quaint courtyards, the Palace Quarter (inner parts of District 8) was once the most desirable and the playground of the wealthy. Communism’s gray pallor is still notable, but the area is currently springing back to life thanks to charming restaurants and cafés.
#27 - Grab a drink at a ruin bar: Budapest’s ruin bars started when a few creatively minded locals opened unpretentious drinking joints inside the neglected buildings of the old Jewish Quarter that barely escaped the bulldozers. Cheap drinks and a hodgepodge of flea-market furniture became their defining featues. Although Szimpla Kert, the city’s first ruin bar, has become a major tourist attraction, it's still worth a visit.
#28 - Travel back in time at a coffeehouse: Similar to Vienna, 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 working and socializing under the sky-high ceilings. Though popular tourist attractions today, the few coffeehouses that remain offer a journey back in time in addition to coffee and cakes.
#29 - 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 could see how the local artisanal scene stacks up against those in other cities you've visited. Budapest's specialty coffee culture is especially vibrant.
#30 - Visit Újlipótváros, a hip residential area set along the Danube: With a unique architecture and well-heeled residents, Újlipótváros is a little city within the city that flies under the radar of most tourists. Specialty cafés, bookstores, and impressive modernist buildings from the 1930s and 1940s line Pozsonyi Road, the artery of the neighborhood.
#31 - Discover the Bartók Béla Boulevard: Although the Pest side is where most of the action is, the lively Bartók Béla Boulevard in Buda gives it a run for its money. This revitalized area is teeming with cafés, bars, and art galleries. Local residents are an eclectic mix: fashionable Millennials, engineering students from the nearby university, and old-timers.
#32 - Go to an art gallery: After more than four decades of Communist-era censorship, Budapest's art world is slowly coming back to life. At the city's top contemporary art galleries you can sample anything from conceptual art from the 1960s to works of the younger generations. Most artworks command high prices but the exhibits are free and open to the public.
#33 - Visit the Lehel Market: Inside a quirky postmodern building lies one of Budapest's liveliest markets. You'll find here everything from Hungarian cold cuts to fresh and pickled vegetables and homemade jams. There's also low-priced drinking joints where you can accompany local regulars for a beer and a shot of Unicum, the local herbal liqueur. Compared with the Great Market Hall, Lehel draws fewer tourists. For the best experience, visit on a Saturday morning.
#34 - Explore the Fiumei Road Cemetery: This vast 56 hectare (140 acre) park near the city center hides a beautiful garden cemetery. Stroll through the towering limestone mausoleums and impressively designed tombstones while getting to know Hungary’s prominent statesmen and artists (or Communist heroes), including Lajos Kossuth and Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka. In the back but accessed from outside is the Salgótarjáni Street Jewish Cemetery, with elaborate tombstones of the Jewish upper class.
#35 - Stroll down the Danube promenade in Ferencváros: Unfortunately, cars in Budapest have better access to precious Danube River views than people, but an exception is the green promenade stretching from the Great Market Hall to the Müpa cultural center (a 25-minute walk). Along the way, you can grab a drink at the whale-shaped contemporary building, Bálna, where bars offer panoramic vistas.
#36 - Walk or bike around Margaret Island: This car-free, leafy island perched in the middle of the Danube River is a true paradise — no wonder the Habsburgs family kept it close to its chest before finally selling it to the city in 1908. Bike around the island's manicured lawns; observe the remains of the medieval monastery where lived Saint Margaret (1242-1270), daughter of King Béla IV; see how many busts of Hungary's greats can you recognize along the "artists' promenade;" or join packs of locals on the running track ringing the island.
#37 - Eat in Budapest's Chinatown: With more than 30,000 people, Budapest's Chinese community is the biggest in Central Europe. This means that excellent Chinese food abounds, be it Sichuan fare, seafood, noodle soups, or Chinese hotpot. Budapest's Chinatown (Monori Center) is located a bit outside the city center, reachable in half-hour by public transport from downtown.
#38 - Go to a Michelin-starred restaurant: While a Michelin meal always runs the risk of being a bit over-the-top, Budapest's Michelin-starred restaurants could still be worth a visit: most of them showcase a unique blend of traditional Hungarian fare and contemporary fine dining trends.
#39 - 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 prestigious Architizer A+ Award in 2014.
#40 - Walk across the Chain Bridge: The first permanent connection between Pest and Buda and a symbol of the city, the Chain Bridge dates back to the first half of the 19th century when ancient Rome inspired architecture. Hence those stone pillars resembling a triumphal arch. In 1945, during the siege of Budapest, both the advancing Soviet and the retreating German armies tried blowing up the bridge (the Germans succeeded in this). Recently car-free and bicycle-friendly – and no longer with a toll, as was the case until 1918 – there's never been a better time cross the Danube via the Chain Bridge!
#41 - 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 need a break from the Budapest crowds, it makes for a relaxing day trip. This Szentendre guide will help you get around.
#42 - Take a weekend trip to Pécs: The city of Marcel Breuer, of excellent museums, of rich Roman and Ottoman remains, Pécs is the most cultural city in Hungary beside Budapest, reachable within two hours by car. It's also a dynamic university town with a growing restaurant landscape. Here, find out how to spend an event-packed weekend in Pécs.
#43 - Take a weekend trip to Lake Balaton: During the warmer months, locals like to wind down by Balaton, Central Europe's biggest lake located in Western Hungary. There are countless villages and vacations resorts to visit; my favorite is Keszthely, historically the cultural capital of Balaton. Although less fashionable and a bit farther than some other parts, the rich legacy of the Festetics family makes Keszthely a worthy weekend destination. My guide will help you discover it.
#44 - Take a weekend trip to the Tokaj wine region: "The wine of kings, the king of wines," said Louis XIV of France about Tokaj, the world's oldest designated wine region, located about three hours from Budapest by car. If you're into wines and curious about a uniquely beautiful (and rather poor) part of the Hungarian countryside, you should consider a Tokaj trip. This beginners guide will get you started, and I also wrote about Tokaj's top wineries, hotels, restaurants, and non-wine-related activities.
#45 - Prepare for your Budapest trip by reading some interviews: Find out what other people think about Budapest. Whether it's an art historian from Columbia University; a local star professor; a New York Times journalist; an expert of Austria-Hungary; or a culinary ethnographer who knows everything about Hungarian food. Here, the full list of people.
#46 - Visit the Budapest Zoo: Not far from Budapest's city center lies one of the oldest zoos in Europe, dating back to 1866. With elaborate Art Nouveau buildings housing the animals, a visit doubles as a tour of architecture. Although open year-round, note that some of the animals might be hibernating in the winter months away from the public eye. Economically, the thermal water of the neighboring Széchenyi baths provides much of the zoo's heating.
#47 - Visit a local supermarket: One of the best ways to see the real side of a city? Visit a grocery store! It's there that you'll glimpse a broad cross-section of Hungarian people and what they actually eat and drink. Any grocery store will do, but try a CBA store, part of a domestic chain, for the truest-to-Budapest experience.
#48 - Climb up to the scenic tomb of Gül Baba: Gül Baba, "father of the roses," was a muslim monk who died in 1541, when Ottoman Turkey occupied Budapest. His impressive octagonal tomb (türbe) is tucked away on a tranquil hillside with sweeping views. 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.
#49 - Go to a concert on the A38 ship docked in the Danube: The ship was a Ukrainian stone carrier lumbering on the Danube before being converted into the city's go-to concert venue, hosting well-known international and local bands almost every night of the week.
#50 - Experience the nightlife of the old Jewish Quarter: After the Holocaust, Budapest's Jewish Quarter was neglected for decades. Recently, though, thanks to an influx of young people and tourists, the streets are home to a revitalized culture, lined with cafés, bars, and restaurants.
#51 - Prep for your Vienna trip: The two capitals of Habsburg-ruled Austria-Hungary, Vienna and Budapest, still share many similarities when it comes to food, architecture, and culture in general (notable differences also exist, of course, starting with language). If your next destination is Vienna, where I live part-time, you could read a similar things-to-do list or about the city's restaurants, coffeehouses, and museums. My interview with Habsburg historian Steven Beller might also be a good starting point.