Things to Do in Hungary
Flowing through the heart of Budapest, the Danube River is the lifeline of the Hungarian capital, as well as its geographic center, separating the hilly Buda district on the west bank from the bustling Pest on the east bank. The striking waterfront is also part of Budapest’s UNESCO World Heritage–listed treasures, home to landmarks such as the Szechenyi Chain Bridge, the Liberty Bridge, Buda Castle Hill, Matthias Church, the Hungarian Parliament Building, and Margaret Island.
Szentendre sits on the western flank of the River Danube Bend just north of Budapest, an arty hotspot crammed with brightly painted Baroque houses, Orthodox churches and museums tucked among scores of galleries, craft shops and cafés. Largely constructed in the 18th century by Serbian refugees, the heart of the town is found in the cobbled, triangular Main Square (Széchenyi Tér or Fo Tér), which is dominated by an elaborate memorial cross erected by the Serbian Trade Association in thanks for being spared an epidemic in 1763. Today surrounded by delicate wrought-iron railings, the cross is inscribed with the dates of its renovations across three centuries. Also standing on the square is the Baroque Serbian Orthodox Church, constructed in 1752 and topped with a bronze spire, along with the pastel-hued town houses of Serbian merchants. In summer music and drama festivals take place in the square, in winter a bustling Christmas market takes pride of place. The souvenir stores in the labyrinthine winding lanes leading off the Main Square all have colorful displays spilling out into the streets; this is the spot to load up with pálinka (Hungarian fruit brandy) and hand-embroidered linen tablecloths.
Perched on a hilltop overlooking the Danube riverfront, the Buda Castle (Budai Vár), or Buda Royal Palace, is one of Budapest’s most photographed landmarks. The magnificent palace dates back to the 13th century, but has been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times throughout history, most recently in a neo-baroque style.
The Hungarian House of Parliament (Országház) is one of the world’s most photogenic government buildings. Perched on the UNESCO World Heritage–listed banks of the Danube River, the mainly neo-Gothic structure features 691 rooms, a handful of which are open to the public—including the Domed Hall, where the Crown of St. Stephen is on display.
One of the largest and most famous thermal baths in Europe, Budapest’s Széchenyi Thermal Baths (Széchenyi Gyógyfürdo) are one of Hungary's most visited attractions. Soaking in the mineral-rich baths, with startling blue pools set against a backdrop of a grand neo-baroque palace, is a quintessential Budapest experience. It’s also a luxurious one, especially when coupled with a visit to the spa, which offers everything from saunas and mudpacks to rejuvenating massages and balneal therapies.
Matthias Church (Matays-templom), is a top sight in Budapest's must-see Castle Hill district. This Roman Catholic church boasts neo-Gothic architecture and intricate detailing, from ornately tiled roof and carved gargoyles, to frescoes and stained-glass windows. Visit Matthias Church as part of a Buda Castle complex tour.
Tokaj is an historic town in northern Hungary, as well as the center of the Tokaj Wine Region Historic Cultural Region, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2002. The region is home to almost 600 wineries and is where the world renowned Tokaji wine is produced. The oldest classified wine region in Europe, vineyards were established here as early as the 12th century, although most wine cellars were built between the 16th and 17th centuries, including a vast system of cellars carved out of solid rock. The region produces only white wines, primarily sweet dessert wines.
The town of Tokaj stands at the confluence of the Tisza and Bodrog Rivers and dates back to the 14th century. Although it once belonged to Hungary’s royal family, it suffered during the world wars and lost its importance, only regaining town status in 1986.
Budapest’s Chain Bridge (Széchenyi Lanchid) was the city’s first – and is still its most famous – crossing of the Danube, connecting Baroque Buda on the western river bank with the wide boulevards of Pest on the east. Opened in 1849, the bridge is 375 meters long and 16 meters wide; it is made of made of stone slabs and suspended in place by two massive linked iron chains. Originally a toll bridge, it was designed by English engineer Alan Clark, who also had a hand in Hammersmith Bridge across the River Thames in London. The stone lions guarding both ends of the Chain Bridge were carved by János Marschalkó and added in 1852.
From the Buda side of the Chain Bridge a road tunnel leads northwards underneath Castle Hill; as the bridge united the east and west sides of the city it was indirectly responsible for Budapest’s rapid flowering as a major metropolis in the late 19th century. Continuing to play a large part in the city’s history, the bridge was blown up by the Nazis in World War II to halt the progress of Russian troops across the Danube. It was one of the first structures in Budapest to be rebuilt after the war and today it remains a potent symbol of the city and Hungary’s independence; the bridge was the scene of fierce demonstrations during the 1989 protests against Communist occupation. Walking across it at night gives views of Buda Castle and Parliament House gloriously floodlit across the river.
Heroes' Square (H?sök Tere) is a grand public space at the entrance to Budapest's City Park. Visitors find sweeping columns, statues, and monuments to Hungary's celebrated statesmen. A worthy place to visit, Heroes' Square is an ideal stop for visitors wandering the park, or before stepping into Budapest's well-curated Museum of Fine Arts.
Nestled in the Danube River, Margaret Island (Margit-sziget) is an oasis in Hungary’s capital of Budapest. This verdant park is packed with attractions, including a pool, a spa, playgrounds, and a Japanese garden. When the sun is shining, locals and tourists picnic on the island’s green lawns and, in summer, listen to free concerts.
More Things to Do in Hungary
With everything from holy relics to frescoes, the neoclassical St. Stephen’s Basilica (Szent István Bazilika) is a must for first-time visitors to Budapest. Marvel at the architecture, the clock towers, the stained glass windows—and the preserved hand of St. Stephen, the first king of Hungary.
Gellert Hill (Gellert-hegy) is best known for its panoramic city views, 19th century Citadel, and historic monuments. While the hike up Gellert Hill’s stone steps can be challenging, the sweeping vistas of Budapest and the Danube River from the top are worth the climb.
Rising 140 meters on the west side of the Danube, Gellért Hill is crowned with the fortified hulk of Citadella, which provides one of the best viewpoints in Budapest. From the ramparts there are far-reaching panoramas north to Buda Castle, and down the river to Széchenyi Chain Bridge, St Stephen’s Basilica and the Parliament House. Constructed by occupying Austrian forces in the 1840s, the citadel was loathed by the Hungarians, who tore down its fortified gates when the Austrians eventually left the city in 1897. Its 60 canon placements still remain, as do the six-meter ‘U’-shaped walls of the fort.
During World War II an air raid shelter was built in the Citadella, and this now houses a small museum about the war. In 1956, Soviet troops suppressed the Hungarian rebellion against Communism by firing heavy artillery from the fortress and Russian artillery is still scattered around the complex. Today the fortress encompasses an open-air history exhibition and is one of Budapest’s best free visitor attractions; a mini-village of bars, souvenir stores and restaurants has grown up around it, while the military barracks have been converted into a hotel.
Other sights on UNESCO-listed Gellért Hill include the vast steel Statue of Liberty, built by the Russians in Socialist-Realist style to celebrate victory over the Nazis in the late 1940s. When the Communists finally departed Budapest in 1989, city fathers elected for the statue to remain as a symbol of the Hungary’s troubled past. Halfway up the slope, the underground Cave Church (Sziklatemplom) was built by monks in the 1920s and was requisitioned as a hospital in World War II. It opened again in 1992 after the fall of Communism. Tucked in at the foot of the hill are the famous Gellért spa baths, Secessionist in design and dating from 1918, although a spa has existed on this spot since the mid-17th century.
The elegant boulevard of Andrássy Avenue (Andrássy Út) was completed in 1885 as part of the expansion of Budapest under Emperor Franz Joseph I to celebrate the thousand-year anniversary of the state of Hungary. It connects the Pest-side city center at Erzsébet Square to the City Park (Városliget) and as a masterpiece of urban planning was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2002, along with Heroes’ Square.
Elegant townhouses lined the avenue and it became the preserve of wealthy bankers and the aristocracy. In order to conserve Andrássy’s architectural harmony, the city fathers decided to build a train line underneath the avenue. And so the Millennium Underground Railway opened, the first in continental Europe; it was first used to transport people from the city center to Városliget, which was the focus of the millennium celebrations in 1896.
Today the Art Nouveau architecture competes for attention with sleek cafés and bars and upscale shopping. In its 1.5-mile (2.5-km) march through Pest, Andrássy is punctuated by the vast octagonal square of Oktagon and is home to the Hungarian State Opera House, the House of Terror Museum in the old headquarter of the secret police, and Budapest’s gloriously grand and much-loved Gerbeaud Café.
Fisherman’s Bastion, or Halaszbastya, is one of Budapest’s most picturesque lookouts. Nestled high on Castle Hill, the neo-Romanesque terrace was built between 1895 and 1902, in celebration of millennial Hungary. Though today’s structure is decorative, it sits on fortified walls that were used to defend the city throughout its early history.
Eger is the second largest city in northern Hungary and with a castle, thermal baths, historic buildings and great wine, it makes a perfect day or weekend trip from Budapest. Founded in the 10th century by St. Stephen, the first Christian king of Hungary, the city was destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century and then rebuilt around a new stone fortress in the 14th and 15th centuries. After being ruled by the Turks for almost a century, the city prospered once again as part of the Habsburg Empire during the 18th century. A remnant of Eger’s Turkish rule is the Turkish minaret, which can be climbed for panoramic views of the city.
Among Eger’s most popular sights are its castle, an imposing 19th century basilica, the town’s main square and an 18th century baroque minarite church. The town is also well known for its red and white wines and is the third most visited city in Hungary. Located on the Eger Stream on the hills of Bukk Mountain, many also say it is the most beautiful city in the country.
Budapest’s largest indoor market is a hub of activity, with hundreds of stalls spread over three floors. Housed in a striking 19th-century building, it’s a place where local chefs shop for fresh produce, tourists haggle over traditional handicrafts, and the upstairs food court serves delicious Hungarian cuisine.
This neo-Renaissance opera house (Magyar Állami Operaház) has an illustrious history as one of Budapest’s greatest cultural venues, with legendary composer Gustav Mahler having once served as director here. Behind the Miklós Ybl–designed facade, which features statues of Puccini, Mozart, Liszt, and Verdi, is a plush interior with gilding, marble, and chandeliers.
The century-old Gellért Thermal Bath and Spa is one of Budapest’s largest and most luxurious spa complexes. Housed in a magnificent art nouveau building, it boasts a grand colonnaded indoor pool, multiple thermal baths, saunas, steam rooms, a rooftop wave pool, and a panoramic sun terrace.
Ranking as the largest synagogue in Europe—and the second-largest in the world—Dohány Street Synagogue is one of Budapest’s most striking monuments. Aptly nicknamed the “Great Synagogue,” it’s not only an architectural marvel but also an important part of Budapest’s Jewish history and heritage.
Vajdahunyad Castle is a picturesque attraction nestled in Budapest's City Park (Városliget). Originally built in 1896 for Hungary's millennial festivities, the architecturally diverse complex includes the city's agricultural museum inside the palace. Wander the lovely grounds, or stop by museum exhibits on hunting, forestry, and wine.
Castle Hill (Várhegy) is the medieval heart of Budapest and the centerpiece of the Buda neighborhood. Part of the Budapest UNESCO World Heritage site, the district is home to the city's big-hitter attractions, including the royal fortress of Buda Castle, Matthias Church, and the Fisherman's Bastion. Stroll through Old Town’s cobblestone streets and you’ll find a wealth of historical sites, as well as spectacular views of the the Danube River and adjacent Pest neighborhood.
Several bridges cross the Danube River connecting Buda and Pest, the two sides of Budapest, Hungary. The Elisabeth Bridge (Erzsébet Híd) was named after the Hapsburg Queen Elisabeth, who was the wife of Francis Joseph I. An international competition was held in 1894 for the design of the bridge, and construction began in 1897. The bridge was inaugurated on Oct. 10, 1903, and until 1926, it was the largest chain-type bridge in the world. Unfortunately Elisabeth Bridge was bombed by German troops towards the end of World War II, and it was the only bridge in Budapest so badly damaged that it had to be completely replaced. From 1960 to 1964, nearly two decades after the original bridge was destroyed, the new bridge was built in the same place to reconnect Gellért Hill on the Buda side to Ferenciek Ter on the Pest side of the city.
There was once a tram that went across the bridge, but it was stopped running this route in 1972. Several bus lines still go across the bridge. Today the Elisabeth Bridge receives the most amount of vehicle traffic of all the bridges in the city. It has three lanes of traffic in each direction.
At 48 miles (77 kilometers) in length and seven miles (11 kilometers) at its widest point, Balaton is Central Europe’s largest freshwater lake and landlocked Hungary’s prime summer playground, with spectacular scenery and swim-friendly milky green waters. The lake is fringed by beach resorts, a national park, and wine-producing vineyards.
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