Budapest has been under the spotlight more and more lately. Over the past few years, many articles have featured the Hungarian capital city as one of Europe’s most budget-friendly destinations, with easy access from most European cities thanks to the increase of low-cost flights.
Budapest has also become a major party capital, drawing in many bachelors and bachelorettes on the lookout for an original party destination and party-goers wanting to join the fun in the city’s infamous ruin bars or in thermal pools turned night clubs during the weekend.
The cinema industry hasn’t turned a blind eye to the charms of the city either and the number of films shot in Budapest is increasing every year, adding to its worldwide appeal. Munich, Transporter 3, World War Z, Blade Runner 2049, you name it.
It wouldn’t be fair to judge Budapest by its cover only though as the city is also a cultural hotspot, boasting many architectural styles and influences from Gothic and Baroque churches to Art Nouveau buildings and Ottoman bath houses. Buda on one side and Pest on the other embody the tale of two cities that have developed separately before being unified into the city we now know.
With so many assets on display, there is no wonder that Budapest has made it into the short list of the world’s best city breaks. Here is our top picks to discover the essential sights of the city.
1. Parliament :
The massive Hungarian Parliament, in the Pest side of the city and on the banks of the Danube, has become such an iconic face of Budapest that it is hard to imagine the city without it. Yet, the Parliament was only built in the late 19th century and opened its doors in 1902.
Designed in neo-Gothic style, the building sure doesn’t go unnoticed and it is the third-largest building in the world, only topped by the Pentagon and Ceausescu’s Palace in Bucharest. The building is a delight for the eyes, be it seen from the other side of the Danube or at night, when its façade gets draped in lights.
Guided tours take place every day in a variety of languages to further explore the history of the building, which is closely linked to the history of Hungary as a whole. Even a non-history lover will find the tour interesting though, if only for the refinement of the Parliament’s interior design. These tours can get crowded fairly soon though so it is best to check the official site of the Parliament ahead of schedule.
2. Fisherman’s Bastion :
The Fisherman’s Bastion isn’t one to leave anyone indifferent. Built as a lookout tower overlooking the Danube and the Pest side of the city, this monument is actually quite hard to describe. From afar, it looks like a genuine fairy-tale castle but up close, its architecture looks all over the place, like a wannabe Disney castle, only much older.
That being said, the Bastion goes a long way and was built in the late 19th century on the foundations of a wall kept by the fishermen’s guild to protect the Buda castle, hence the name. The seven turrets overlooking the terrace were also designed to represent the 7 Hungarian tribes who founded the country. The Bastion’s eccentric appeal has turned it into a major tourist hostpot and contributed to overshadow the Matthias Church that stands right next to it.
It is a pity though as this church is loaded with history. It is believed to have been built in Romanesque style in the 11th century and has been used to crown the kings throughout the years. Its late 14th-century Gothic architecture and vibrant tiled roof makes it one of the most beautiful holy places in the city and one of the most unique churches in Europe.
3. Buda Castle :
The Buda Castle has been watching over the city for many years. As the formal residence of the Hungarian kings, it is one of the most historically significant places across the city. It sits on the tip of Castle Hill, beyond the beautiful Chain Bridge and its fierce lion statues, and can be either reached by funicular or by foot.
To be fair, the hill leading to the castle compounds can be climbed easily and it delivers beautiful panoramic views on the Pest side of the city, most notably on the Parliament building.
The castle now houses two museums, the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum. I only visited the latter and the experience was interesting, although a bit lacklustre since the exhibition is in need of some serious modernization. The layout of the museum is obviously out-dated but the collections are still diversified enough to grab the attention of any history lover.
4. Thermal Baths:
Thermal baths are an essential fabric of the Budapest way of life and have been so for a very long while. The history of thermal baths in the city is actually intertwined with the history of the city itself.
The first baths can be traced back to the Roman settlement of the 1st century, as demonstrated by the Thermae Mairoes that can now be visited. Much later, the Ottomans invaded the city and in turn, built hammams and steam baths such as the ones of Rudas and Kiraly.
The early 20th century saw a revival of the hot springs tradition, leading to the erection of thermal baths that surpassed their ancestors in grandeur and style, as demonstrated by some of the city’s best known baths, such as the Gellert and the Szechenyi baths. Hot spring lovers will therefore thrive in Budapest but even casual visitors will enjoy joining in with the locals to soak in the old-fashioned yet classy atmosphere of the city’s many thermal baths.
5. House of Terror:
Budapest has come a long way from the traumatic events of the 20th century which led to Hungary’s occupation by Nazi Germany and Communist USSR. This page of history is explored at length within the House of Terror, which acts as both a memorial to the victims and a museum.
The House of Terror opened in 2002 and is divided into two parts. Partly original and partly reconstructed detainment cells can be visited in the basement. On the upper floors, the museum aims at depicting life under the rule of the most vicious regimes of the 20th century through a dynamic staging, recreating rooms, displaying many period items and making room for much audio and visual content.
Overall, the exhibition is very immersive although an audio-guide is absolutely required to really delve deeper into the complex history that’s being depicted. Past their well thought-out design, most rooms indeed lack much informative value. Some even tend to emphasize emotion over educational value, playing loud and oppressive music to add to the tense atmosphere in a way that might not feel necessary to understand the horrors the museum is shedding light on. Even so, the experience is well worth a visit to understand what Budapest endured in its recent history.