Best things to do in Hungary
Find out more about those top places in Hungary
Budapest is a city of two complimentary halves that meet on the banks of the mighty Danube River. The ‘Buda’ side of the river is littered with medieval fortifications, baroque palaces and glorious monuments built for Hungary’s millennial celebrations in 1895. On the opposite side of the Danube, ‘Pest’ is the city’s cosmopolitan beating heart famed for its hedonistic nightlife and dynamic culinary scene, both of which are unrivaled in Central Europe. Many of Budapest’s biggest draws date from its time as the Habsburg Empire’s second-city but a crop of new museums on the Nazi occupation and the 1956 Soviet invasion are unlocking the city’s traumatic 20th century history for visitors. No visit to Budapest would be complete without a dip one of the city’s many thermal baths, which range from atmospheric medieval Turkish bathhouses to the bathing palaces of the 19th century and Communist-era sanatoriums.
Perched high above the mighty Danube, Buda Castle has been Budapest’s core since at least the reign of King Bela IV in the 13th century. While the original medieval castle was destroyed during the battle to expel the Turks from the city in the 17th century, the Habsburg’s replaced it with one of Europe’s most jaw-dropping baroque palaces that now contains the Hungarian National Gallery, the Castle Museum and the National Library.
Seemingly floating atop the surface of the Danube, Hungary’s vast neo-gothic parliament is one of the world’s most spectacular seats of government. Completed in 1902 and inspired by London’s Palace of Westminster, the parliament has nearly 700 grand rooms that can be explored via regular guided tours. Make sure to watch out for the Golden Staircase and the Dome Hall, which houses Hungary’s national icon – the Crown of Saint Stephen.
Looking like it has been torn straight from the pages of The Lord of the Rings, Fisherman’s Bastion is Budapest’s most picture perfect location. However, while the gleaming white ramparts and turreted towers may look medieval, they were actually built as a viewing platform in 1905 to mark the millennial anniversary of the founding of the Hungarian Kingdom.
Although the Hungarian capital is not short on thermal spas, the grandest of them all is the palace-like Széchenyi. Located in the idyllic City Park, the thermal baths have numerous indoor and outdoor pools ranging in temperature from 40 °C to freezing plunge pools. What is more, beyond being one of Budapest’s most memorable attractions, the high calcium, magnesium and hydrogen carbonate content of the thermal baths allegedly works wonders for joint pains and blood circulation.
Sitting atop the architecturally eclectic UNESCO World Heritage listed Andrássy Avenue is Heroes’ Square. The square is bounded by the City Park and two of Budapest’s finest museums, the Kunsthalle and the Museum of Fine Arts, and contains a treasure trove of monuments celebrating Hungary’s history. In order to get the best understanding of the square’s rich symbolism guided tours are recommended.
Located opposite the Museum of Military History, the Mary Magdalene Tower is one of the landmarks of the Buda side of Budapest. While the tower lay derelict for decades, in 2017 it reopened as a breathtaking viewing platform and exhibition space that details the site’s rich history, including its role as a mosque during the Turkish occupation.
Before World War Two, Budapest was one of Europe’s most multicultural cities. To get a feel for the Budapest of yesterday, visit the Oriental-style Great Synagogue, the world’s largest Jewish house of worship outside of New York. The synagogue today is also home to the fascinating Hungarian Jewish Museum and the poignant Holocaust Tree of Life Memorial.
Situated in the heart of Pest, Saint Stephen’s Basilica is Hungary’s most revered Catholic church as it contains the country’s most important religious relic: the mummified hand of King Saint Stephen. The church itself was built in the neoclassical style in the late 19th century and the view from the dome across Budapest’s commercial center is one of the city’s most romantic.
Underneath the city streets of Budapest is one of Europe’s largest urban cave systems with almost 100 kilometers of caverns, tunnels and grottoes to be explored. Guided tours give visitors access to this phantasmagoria of stalagmites, stalactites and other magical rock formations and explain how the cave system works to fuel the city’s hot springs.
Hungarian folk culture is amongst Europe’s most charming and there is no better way to experience it than through a traditional performance of music and dance by the famed Hungarian Folk Ensemble. Held in the gilded surroundings of the Danube Palace Theater, the show is one of Hungary’s most unforgettable experiences.
Just beyond Budapest’s city boundaries is the Etyek wine region that can be explored through half-day tasting tours. Visitors can expect to explore two or three family run vineyards, sample some of Hungary’s finest wines in historic wine cellars and get treated to a traditional Hungarian meal at a local farmstead.
Built as the venue for many of Hungary’s millennial anniversary celebrations, City Park is today known as Budapest’s green lung. Stretching from Heroes’ Square into the suburbs, the park contains a treasure trove of historic and cultural attractions ranging from the mock-Transylvanian Vajdahunyad Castle to a picture perfect botanical gardens and one of Central Europe’s most biologically diverse zoos.
At the baroque Gödöllo Palace visitors can take a trip back to the heyday of the Habsburg Empire with the Sissi Tour, which offers unique insights into the life of Empress Elizabeth, known affectionately as Sissi. The palace is the world’s second largest baroque chateaux and while it was left to rot and ruin during the communist era it has since been painstakingly renovated.
Lake Balaton is Eastern Europe’s playground. Historically a favorite retreat for leaders of the Soviet Union, today the lake is where landlocked Hungarians go to escape the sweltering summer temperatures in Budapest. Lake Balaton, which is Europe’s biggest and shallowest lake, is home to some of the continent’s best beaches and provides countless opportunities for water-sports of all kinds. However, beyond the lakeside the surrounding countryside is home to Hungary’s hidden gems with ancient Transdanubian villages producing the country’s finest wine, ancient monasteries that still show the scars of the country’s Ottoman occupation and the spectacular Balaton Uplands National Park.
Set spectacularly on the shores of Lake Balaton, Tihanyi Bencés Apátság is one of Central Europe’s most historic Benedictine monasteries having been founded in 1055. Tihanyi’s main draws are undoubtedly the crypt-like tomb of King Andrew, the only intact grave of a medieval Hungarian monarch in existence, and the twin-spired baroque abbey that dates from 18th century.
Peppered with dormant volcanoes, wetlands of international importance and subterranean cave systems, the Balaton Uplands National Park encompasses Hungary’s most dramatic landscapes. Highlights of the park include the Orange Trail, which leads visitors high into the volcanic crags to underground Greek Orthodox chapels, and Kis-Balaton, a vast wetland home to some of Europe’s unique birdlife.
Lake Balaton is one of Europe’s largest expanses of fresh water and during the summer it is criss-crossed by boats offering enchanting cruises. The most popular starting point for cruises is the stylish fin-de-siècle resort town of Balatonfüred where boats whisk visitors to the lake’s many nature reserves and historic monuments.