Budapest used to be Europe’s sleeping giant, at least as far as tourism goes. It flew just below the mainstream radar, but left those lucky enough to stumble across it in awe of its beauty and energy. These days more and more travelers are adding this central European city to their itineraries. With easy rail connections to Vienna and beyond, and many things to do in Budapest, it’s fast becoming one of the most popular and celebrated cities on the continent.
1. Walk (or jog) the Danube
Budapest is set on the banks of the sparkling Danube – quite possibly the most beautiful river in all of Europe. The fresh blue water flows steadily through the city, separating Buda and Pest, and there are few better ways to fall in love with Budapest than by walking or jogging along its banks. Budapest also has several impressive bridges that span the width of the river. A walk across one, or all, of these is a rewarding experience in itself. Start at the famous Chain Bridge and make your way towards the Hungarian national parliament building.
Insider tip: The Danube is particularly special in the early evening. Pack a beverage of your choice and find a quiet spot to watch the waters change color with the setting sun.
2. Visit Fisherman’s Bastion and Castle Hill
The views from the Fisherman’s Bastion and Castle Hill on the Buda side of the city are among the most impressive in Budapest, day or night. The kilometer-long hill is also a World Heritage Site and home to several museums. Plan to spend a couple of hours exploring the hill and taking in the panoramic views of Pest. If your legs start to fail you, there are several busses and a funicular railway that service the hill.
Insider tip: There’s a fascinating and often overlooked museum hidden in the network of tunnels beneath Castle Hill called Hospital in the Rock.
3. Take a pedal around Margaret Island
Margaret Island sits nonchalantly in the middle of the Danube. Many visitors overlook it in search of other more famous landmarks. But this tranquil green lung is perfect for an evening picnic, casual walk, or circular jog. For those who want to cover more distance but are less enthralled by exercise, there are several fun, non-motorized transport options available for rent on the island.
Insider tip: There’s a fountain near the entrance that shoots water 10 meters into the air in time with classical and popular music, which is always a hit with the young and young at heart. There are full shows at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m., and shorter shows at 10:30 a.m., 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
4. Explore Budapest’s history in the House of Terror
Budapest has a sad and sordid history. Nowhere is this more obvious in the aptly named House of Terror museum. It offers insight into the Nazi and communist terror that was rampant in Budapest’s past. Set in a building that housed both the Nazis and State Security Police at various points in history, the basement is a labyrinth of prison cells and torture chambers that have been carefully restored. While the museum is somewhat controversial and far from uplifting, it provides important context for the city.
Insider tip: Each room has an extensive information sheet that highlights important details, so opt for the audio guide if you think reading will detract from the experience.
5. Drink in a ruin pub
Budapest’s ruin pubs are the understated heroes of the city’s ever-expanding nightlife scene. At the turn of the 21st century, a handful of enterprising young revelers found function and beauty in the city center’s derelict factories and tenement houses. They turned these into quaint, quirky, and often totally offbeat bars. Whether you’re looking for a big night out, or just for a well-priced drink in a truly fascinating environment, you can’t go wrong with a Budapest ruin pub.
Insider tip: Several ruin pubs seem to garner the most attention, including Szimpla kert, Kertem and Corvin tető. Keep an eye out for new additions or sister bars, particularly during the summer months.
6. Soak it off in a thermal bath
If a late night at the ruin pubs has taken its toll, or even if it hasn’t, head to one of Budapest’s celebrated thermal baths. There are several baths dotted throughout the city that offer a range of features and services. The most popular, Széchenyi Thermal Bath, offers a throwback to an altogether different era. The several indoor and outdoor pools, both heated and cold, are thoroughly relaxing.
Insider tip: If you’re a fan of pool parties, keep an eye out for the popular SPArties that take place at thermal baths throughout the city.
7. Coffee and street food
Hungary’s capital has seen an explosion of popular wallet-friendly coffee shops and street-food style eateries. These are essential items to add to your list of things to do in Budapest. Keep an eye out for queues around lunch hour and hop on the back – they usually move fast, and it’s a sign that you’re in for a treat.
The best thing about Budapest is that there’s so much to see and do around the city. If you’re lucky enough to have more time, go to Memento Park, Dohány Street Synagogue, the Budapest Keleti railway station, Royal Palace, and the famous Parliament buildings.
The reality is that with so many things to do in Budapest, one visit is unlikely to be enough. And that’s precisely why you should add it to your Hungary itinerary on your next rail journey through central Europe.
Originally written for Eurail.com