Destination Guide: Budapest
Brilliant Budapest has all the grandeur and history that you would expect from a European capital. With magnificent basilicas, ornate palaces, and a famous river running through its center, it has much in common with some of the great cities of Western Europe. Yet this exhilarating destination has a bit more edge to it than the stately powerhouses of the west. There’s a spice to its food, an energy to its nightlife, and an earthiness to its people that gives the city real vigor. Plus, a trip here will cost you a few forints less than excursions to Berlin, Paris, or Vienna.
The city is split into two regions. Pest, on the eastern side of the Danube River, is densely packed with attractions. Stroll around its storied streets to see buildings from Budapest’s “Golden Age” of the late 19th century. The Hungarian State Opera House, the Palace of Art and the concert hall known as Pesti Vigadó are all the kind of buildings to make you stop and stare. To learn more about the history of the country, explore the Hungarian National Museum, housed in a purpose-built neoclassical building in the heart of Pest. Wander along the river to snap pictures or take a tour of the gigantic Parliament building, a turn-of-the-century wonder with an iconic dome.
Of course, if you get tired of sightseeing (and the list of sights is exhausting), it’s just as appealing to go on a shopping trip. Váci Utca is a popular pedestrianized street with boutique stores housed in gorgeous buildings. Relax after a day spent pounding Pest’s pavements with a trip to the city’s famous thermal baths, which have been attracting visitors to their healing waters for centuries.
On the other side of the river you’ll find Buda, with its steep hills climbing to spectacular viewpoints. This half of the city, too, is hardly short of attractions. The Citadella is a fortress overlooking Pest, built after Hungary became independent in the mid-19th century. The Royal Palace, meanwhile, is one of the city’s architectural highlights, a vast, sprawling château that hosts two museums and a library.
There’s never any cause to be hungry in Hungary. The most famous dish is goulash, a rich, spiced stew with beef and vegetables. Trying a serving of this is essential, and it’s easy to find in Budapest’s numerous acclaimed restaurants. There’s more to Hungarian cuisine than goulash, though, from deep-fried flatbread known as lángos to the popular dessert of somlói galuska, a layered cake.
Top Three Attractions in Budapest
It’s impossible to miss the Royal Palace. This pastel-pink landmark sits overlooking the Danube, covering almost two square miles (five square kilometers) on the banks of the river. The palace’s story dates back to the 13th century, but in reality, the building you can see is much younger, as it has undergone numerous reconstructions since then. Today it’s not just an eye-catching monument – although you will definitely want to cross the river for photos taking in the entire building. Visit the palace to explore the two museums and library inside. The National Gallery and the Castle Museum can take up hours of exploring, with fine art masterworks and exhibits dedicated to the history of the Magyar people.
Soaking in the hot mineral waters of a thermal spa is one of the quintessential Budapest experiences. After all, people have been coming here for the springs since the Roman era. Choose from one of over a hundred spas across the city that harness the naturally occurring hot springs and ease away your aches in reinvigorating water. Some of the bathhouses here, such as the 16th-century Rudas Baths, date back hundreds of years. The Palatinus Baths are the best place to go if you’re visiting with children, as they feature family-friendly additions such as wave pools and flumes. Several baths are hosted privately by hotels, but you can pick from 15 public thermal baths for an enjoyably communal experience in these ever-warm waters.
If you’re feeling energetic, stride out into the Buda Hills, the peaks on the western side of the river that are lined with hiking trails and quiet parks. Arguably the best place for views of the city is at Elizabeth Lookout, from the vantage point of János Hill, the highest point in the area. If you can’t face the climb, take the Children’s Railway that chugs through all of the popular spots in the Buda Hills. Seek out Pálvölgy Cave, a long cavern with stunning limestone formations. You can explore this as part of a guided tour that heads under the Buda Hills.