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5 top places to visit in Budapest

Jan Richardson / 24 November 2016 ( 13 March 2017 )

Beautiful Budapest is a jewel of a city to put on your travel wish list. We share our top 5 places to put on your to-do list while you're there.

Budapest with chain bridge and parliament, Hungary
Bisected by the River Danube, the Hungarian capital sits partly in Buda, linked by the 19th century Chain Bridge to its other half, Pest.

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Bisected by the River Danube, the Hungarian capital sits partly in Buda, linked by the 19th century Chain Bridge to its other half, Pest.

Before the advent of the Chain Bridge, Buda and Pest were separate entities. The Castle District in Buda’s old town, on the hilly side of Budapest, can be accessed by funicular railway and there you will find many places of interest.

Pest, on the eastern, flatter bank of the river, is the main part of Budapest and where it’s all ‘at’. In fact, Budapest is often referred to as simply ‘Pest’.

The Buda Castle District (Varnegyed)

Budapest at night - Buda castle and Szechenyi chain bridge over the Danube
Budapest at night - Buda castle and Szechenyi chain bridge over the Danube

If you are lucky enough to be on the river at night, the orange-yellow glow of illuminated Buda Castle, Budavári palota, high on the hill above you on the Buda side will surely take your breath away.

This imposing 14th century castle, perched nobly on the edge of the hill overlooking the river, has an interesting history. Built originally in Romanesque style, the castle was later replaced by a Gothic style palace. In the 15th century the palace underwent a Renaissance-style make-over.

The city was ruled by Turkey during the 16th and 17th centuries and on its recapture the palace was left to ruin. 

There is nothing left to see of the original building. During the 18th century, the Habsburgs built a smaller, Baroque style palace, but between fire damage and the Hungarian Revolt, this too was destroyed.

In the mid 19th century there was a need for a bold statement – a symbol of independence, so the palace was rebuilt once more, grandly refurbished and embellished with an impressive dome. During the Second World War, the palace suffered more extensive destruction and needed further renovation.

The Baroque dome was replaced by a Classicist dome and the ruined old 15th century palace was integrated into the new palace.

Although there is nothing to see inside Buda Palace, since all ornamentation has been removed, why not visit the Budapest History Museum, where you can trace Budapest’s history from before Roman times, and the National Gallery, which displays Hungarian art collections from the medieval era to modernity.

Then, if it takes your fancy, you can wander around the palace’s attractive gardens, statues and fountains, or take in the wonderful panoramic views from its front façade.

Leaving the palace, take a walk towards Trinity Square, browsing the many souvenir shops as you go and admiring the architecture of the medieval streets. 

You might even catch a glimpse of bullet holes in walls opposite the old House of Parliament – a grim reminder of Hungary’s 1956 fight against its then communist government.

The view from Trinity Square to Fisherman's Bastion

View on the Old Fishermen Bastion in Budapest at morning time
View on the Old Fishermen Bastion in Budapest at morning time.

Once in Trinity Square you will stand and wonder at the sight of the strange construction before you. This is Fisherman’s Bastion, Halaszbastya, its outlandish decorative structure with its seven 19th century fortification towers makes it one of the most popular places on the tourist trail.

It was rebuilt on the site of the old medieval fish market which was defended in those days by the men from ‘watertown’, Vízívaros, down below. 

Its lovely many-arched white fairy-tale form can be seen from miles around. Climb one of the massive side staircases for breath-taking views of the river and beyond.

A short walk away from the Fisherman’s Bastion, you will not be able to resist having a closer look at Matthias Church, with its beautiful 19th century roof of coloured diamond-shaped tiles.

Originally built in the 13th century as Buda’s parish church, it was later named after King Matthias who ruled Hungary in the 15th century.

In the 16th century, under Turkish rule, it was used as a mosque.

The story goes that when one of the walls was knocked down and a statue of the Madonna was revealed, the Turks capitulated and it was taken over by Jesuits who restored it in Baroque style.

Over the years of its existence, the church has seen many renovations before its eventual return to its original splendour in the 19th century.

It is now officially known as The Church of Our Lady, Nagyboldogasszony templom. If you can gain access to the interior, with its colourful frescoes and statues, it is well worth a visit.

St Stephen’s Basilica (Szent Istvan Bazilika)

St. Stephen's Basilica in Budapest, Hungary
St. Stephen's Basilica in Budapest, Hungary

Pest, the largest and most vibrant part of Budapest, has attractions of its own to offer you. Cross the Chain Bridge, coming from Buda into the Pest district, and you will shortly come across St Stephen’s Basilica, the largest church in Budapest.

The church was named after its patron saint Stephen, the first King of Hungary, whose statue stands inside the church and whose mummified right hand, a revered religious relic, is kept in a glass case by the side of the altar.

Its cavernous cathedral architecture will hold approximately 8,500 people

Its rather sombre interior is decorated by works of famous Hungarian artists and sculptors.

If you are feeling energetic why not climb the 300 or more stairs, or better still, take the lift, up to the top of the basilica’s 96m high dome, from where you will be able to see wonderful panoramic views over Budapest.

If architecture is up your street, St Stephen’s has two bell towers, one of which houses Hungary’s largest bell, weighing nine and a half tons. If you are a fan of music, the basilica hosts many organ concerts over the year, but you will need to check the events diary before you go.

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Hero’s Square (Hősök tere)

Heroes' Square, Hosok Tere or Millennium Monument, with it's 36 m high Corinthian column in the centre of Budapest
Heroes' Square, Hosok Tere or Millennium Monument, with it's 36 m high Corinthian column in the centre of Budapest

Heroes’ Square, at the end of long Andrássy Avenue, is the largest of Budapest’s squares and serves as the entrance to the lawns, lake, museums, zoo and botanical gardens of City Park, Városliget.

This splendid square is the most visited and the most photographed in Budapest. It is flanked by the 19th century Palace of Arts, Muveszetek Palotaja, on one side and the Museum of Fine Arts, Szepmuveszeti, which was inaugurated in the 20th century, on the other.

If you are a fan of art and sculpture, you will not want to miss out on Heroes’ Square, with its complex arcaded columns and statues arranged in two sweeping arcs, portraying seven important characters from Hungarian history.

In the centre of the two arcs stands a 36m high central column, topped by the Angel Gabriel holding the holy crown and surrounded on its base by a series of Magyar heroes mounted on horseback, seemingly ready for action should the need arise.

Thermal Baths (Szechenyi)

Courtyard of the Thermal or Szechenyi Baths in Budapest
Courtyard of the Thermal or Szechenyi Baths in Budapest

After walking the length of Andrássy Avenue on your way up to the square and then wandering round its museums, you might like to refresh your weary limbs in the thermal baths.

Even if your visit is impromptu and unprepared, you can purchase or rent towels, swimming hats or swimsuits on site and changing rooms and lockers for your valuables are also available, so there is no excuse!

Szechenyi Spa Bath, in the heart of City Park, is the most popular of Budapest’s many spa baths. Originally constructed in a makeshift house, it was transformed into a beautiful palace at the end of the 19th century.

You can choose from over 20 thermal pools including an outside hot pool, a sauna, a steam room and various warm to cool pools. If you have pre-planned to bathe in the baths, you can pay admission on site or pre-book tickets to save time.

Great Market Hall (Nagyvásárcsarnok)

Great Market Hall- largest and oldest indoor market in Budapest
Great Market Hall- largest and oldest indoor market in Budapest

For a souvenir or goods from a real Hungarian market, why not join the locals in the 19th century Great Market Hall, the oldest, largest and most attractive indoor market in Budapest, located close to Liberty Bridge.

Fresh products were originally delivered via a canal that ran through the centre of the market hall. Although the canal is long gone now, why not spend a couple of hours here, browsing stall after stall of typical Hungarian produce - fresh local delicacies, vegetables, fruits, salamis, and quality meats - and goods, as well as typical Hungarian souvenirs.

Paprika is a ground spice made from red air-dried pods of the pepper plant and is often associated with Hungarian cuisine. It is in evidence everywhere in the Great Market Hall, in all shapes and forms, whether on sale as a foodstuff or printed on souvenirs.

Be sure to stop at intervals to take refreshment in one of the buffet-cafes and take time to appreciate the architecture of the building before moving on again. There are three floors in the Great Market Hall, so you will never be short of something to look at – or something to buy. Above all, enjoy your shopping spree!

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.