If you happen to seek a European city with a colorful spin, journey to Budapest! Known for its thermal hot springs and trademark spice, paprika, the city provides a feast for the eyes with impressive architecture in every direction.
Grasp the grandeur as you cross the many bridges over the Danube River linking Buda on the west side and Pest on the east side. The energy of the people can be felt in the streets and adventure can be found in the most unlikely places, even underground!
Budapest was the seventh city of our Eastern Europe backpacking trip and we spent four full days wandering a plethora of sites. Out of all the cities we visited, Budapest was the only one where I felt we only scratched the surface. The city warrants more time and I hope to return one day.
Here are my top recommendations for things to do in the Hungarian capital. Take advantage of the affordable transit system and don't forget your walking shoes!
#1 Buda Castle
Venture up to Castle Hill for a variety of museums, statues, and viewpoints. The lush grounds are free to explore and the escalator to the top provides easy access. Admire the Baroque architecture and soak in the beauty of this magnificent city.
Nearby on Castle Hill is a spooky labyrinth deep inside a natural cave. For 3000 HUF (around $10 USD), you can enter and explore the deep passageways all on your own. For a dark twist, visit after 6pm for the oil lamp tour which takes about 30 minutes. Brad and I had a blast finding our way in the foggy, damp, and smoky air. Haunting opera arias and Dracula lore make this attraction unforgettable.
#3 Fisherman's Bastion
Once you emerge from the depths, watch the sunset from the Neo-Romanesque terraces of Fisherman's Bastion. Completed in 1902, the stone structure has seven towers commemorating the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars, who founded Hungary in 895.
Admire the statue of King Saint Stephen I and the Gothic architecture of Matthias Church. The glow of the main façade of the Hungarian Parliament Building is truly stunning at night.
#4 Faust Wine Cellar
If you can't get enough of the labyrinth beneath Castle Hill, venture to Faust Wine Cellar for an intimate tasting of delicious Hungarian wines. The knowledgeable staff provides a unique cultural experience through their explanation of wine complexity and vineyard history.
The romantic cellar has only five tables and reservations are recommended. The cellar is located inside of the Hilton Hotel with helpful signs to direct the way.
#5 Ruin Bar Crawl
Ready for a fun night out with a group of strangers and local guides to take you on a drinking experience of a lifetime? DUH! If you can handle crowds and obnoxious drunk people I highly recommend signing up for a ruin bar crawl.
Ruin bars are essentially abandoned buildings and spaces covered in eclectic decor with makeshift bars serving cheap drinks. Ruin bars are a staple in Budapest and the party can last all night...seriously! Meet fellow travelers and sample unicum, a Hungarian liquor made from a secret recipe of herbs. We went through AllNightCrash Pub Crawl Budapest and made some fun memories.
#6 Szechenyi Thermal Baths
To recharge your batteries, or in our case nurse a hangover (see #5), spend an afternoon soaking in the mineral hot-springs. Budapest is known for its baths and Szechenyi is a popular choice. We were fortunate to have a sunny September day and took full advantage of the outdoor pools.
The yellow paint and Neo-Baroque architecture provide a beautiful backdrop while you explore the complex, which is confusing to navigate. We bought a bottle of rosé and played a game of rummy while we dried off. Running around Budapest can be exhausting so make sure to treat yourself to this unique attraction.
#7 Great Market Hall
Visit the largest and oldest indoor market in Budapest to get a comprehensive taste of Hungarian culture. Centrally located near the Danube River, this three-level market is a treasure trove of meats, vegetables, baked goods, paprika, souvenirs, and tasty dishes.
Come hungry and sample as much as you can! We enjoyed porkolt (a tender beef stew), hortobagyi palacsinta (a crepe filled with chicken smothered in a paprika sour cream sauce), and langos (fried bread topped with either savory or sweet toppings). Once you've had your fill, admire the vendor stalls and find a keepsake to take back home.
Workout your legs and embark on a strenuous walk up Gellert Hill to the Citadella; the massive fortress has stunning views of Budapest. Originally built by the Hapsburgs in 1854, the Nazis took control during World War II and subsequently the Soviet Union until its withdrawal in 1991.
A monument celebrating the Red Army's liberation of Hungary was constructed with five bronze statues. Three are still on display, but the 46-foot-tall woman holding a palm leaf up to the sky representing liberty is the most striking.
#9 Memento Park
Take a stroll in Memento Park to see a variety of Communist statues which were once erected throughout Budapest. Learn the history behind the Soviet Union's occupation of Hungary and the level of propaganda and strife inflicted on its people.
Statues of Lenin, Karl Marx, and Stalin along with allegorical scenes highlight the socialist agenda. For 5100 HUF (around $19 USD) per person, enjoy a roundtrip bus ride, entry ticket, and guided tour. Don't miss out on this 2.5 hour excursion!
#10 House of Terror Museum
Immerse yourself in the tumultuous history of Hungary during the 20th Century in a restored building where actual interrogations took place. The House of Terror Museum provides an in-depth examination of Soviet Union forced labor camps, torture, Communist propaganda, and agricultural collectivization.
The audio tour enhances the multimedia exhibits which include genuine artifacts and victim accounts. This museum is powerful and well worth the visit during your stay.
Budapest is a vibrant sensory experience and an ideal destination for travelers. With so many interesting and affordable activities, you are bound to have a memorable time. The Bohemian flair and urban chic vibe of the city will satisfy your spirit!