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By Norbert Figueroa, an experienced architect, travel writer, long-term budget traveler, and photographer with over 13 years of travel experience in over 139 countries and counting. @globotreks

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As a large, vibrant, and photogenic capital city with a history that dates back to the 1st century AD, Budapest might feel overwhelming to a first-time visitor who only has a day or two to absorb what makes this city so great.

Yet, it’s possible to enjoy the city and get an overall sense of its history if you pick the best sights and plan your day carefully. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which gives you some idea of how much there is to see!

From the gorgeous Baroque and Gothic architecture to the dramatic history behind its sights, here’s how you can spend a weekend in “the Pearl of the Danube.”

Budapest Aerial View

1. See and Understand the Danube River

The Danube River holds an important role in the city’s history and development. Originally, Budapest was three separate regions, with Buda and Óbuda (Old Buda) on the western side of the Danube, and Pest on the eastern side.

It wasn’t until 1849, when a permanent bridge connected Buda with Pest, that these two regions began to function more like a city –leading to its official unification as a city in 1873– now known as Budapest.

Today, people still refer to each of the three regions by their old name, so it’s common to hear “Head to Buda,” and so on. Generally, Buda and Óbuda are the older parts of the city, while Pest is the newer part – though we are still talking about the 1800’s.

Additionally, the Danube is a beautiful river worth seeing, either along the shore or by taking one of its popular sightseeing cruises. You can choose between a traditional 1-hour sightseeing cruise, a 2-hour dinner cruise, or a wine-tasting cruise, among others. You can check your cruise options here.

Chain Bridge in Budapest

2. Cross the Chain Bridge

The Széchenyi Lánchíd, or Chain Bridge, is the most famous bridge in the city and the first permanent bridge to connect both sides of Budapest – since 1849.

At 380 meters long, not only was the bridge considered an engineering feat at the time, but it was also a beautiful structure with stone lions, pillars, and wrought-iron lamps.

During World War II, the bridge was bombed and mostly destroyed during the Siege of Budapest, but in 1949, it was rebuilt to what we see today.

Citadella in Budapest, Hungary

3. Hike Up to the Citadella

The Citadella is a preserved World War II air-raid bunker located on top of Gellért Hill, in the heart of Budapest.

The Citadella Fortress was built in 1854 and gained special military importance during WWII, becoming the headquarters of the air defense of Budapest.

From the Summer of 1944, part of the German Luftwaffe headquarters also moved to the Citadella to combat the heavy air raids that were launched against Budapest.

During the war, a 750 m2, three-level deep bunker of thick reinforced concrete was built to sustain the intensive Allied air raids. Today, there’s a WWII museum, in addition to the Siege of Budapest.

Aerial view of Buda side of Budapest
The view of Buda from the Citadella.

Plus, right in front of the bunker is the Liberty Statue of Budapest, and if you walk around the Citadella, you’ll get some of the best views of Budapest from above. It’s also worth going during sunset.

Buda Castle District in Budapest, Hungary

4. Visit the Buda Castle District

The Buda side of the city is mostly composed of medieval buildings atop leafy hills, medieval castles, and a well-preserved old town.

There you can visit the Matthias Church, Fisherman’s Bastion, and Buda Castle, and walk through its cobbled streets – which look so well preserved. However, in reality, they were heavily damaged during World War II.

One of the most interesting sights on the Buda side is the Hospital in the Rock, with its series of tunnels underneath Castle Hill that were turned into a hospital in 1935 as the city prepared for World War II (they were also used during the Hungarian Uprising). 

Parliament in Budapest, Hungary

5. Marvel at the Hungarian Parliament

Arguably Budapest’s most impressive building, a visit to the Hungarian Parliament should be on your list – or at least seeing it from across the Danube should be.

The parliament, opened in 1904, is currently the largest building in Hungary and is still the tallest building in Budapest.

Should you wish to visit it, you can take one of its 45-minute tours, where you’ll learn about Hungary’s government. You’ll also get the chance to see the interiors and get a close-up of its exterior, designed in a Gothic Revival style. To save time, buy your tickets online beforehand.

St. Stephen Cathedral, Budapest

6. See a Mummified Hand at St. Stephen’s Basilica

St. Stephen’s Basilica, named after Saint Stephen, who became king of Hungary in 997, was finished in 1905 with a neo-classical and neo-renaissance architectural style.

Saint Stephen, the king, was celebrated by the church and canonized after his death in 1038. It is said that after his death, his right hand (now referred to as the Holy Right Hand) was found intact, making it a revered object.

The hand traveled from Hungary to Vienna, Transylvania, and Dubrovnik before returning to Hungary in 1945, where it has been on display in St. Stephen’s Basilica ever since.

Also, for those interested in unusual sights, did you know there’s a Ronald Reagan Statue in Budapest? It’s located at Liberty Square, not too far from the Basilica.

Vajdahunyad Castle in Budapest

7. Romanticize at the Vajdahunyad Castle Budapest in City Park

Vajdahunyad Castle is considered one of the most romantic castles in Budapest. It’s located in the City Park, next to the boating lake.

Even though it looks like a medieval castle, it was only built in 1896 and is, in fact, an amalgamation showcasing the Hungarian architectural evolution from the Middle Ages to the 18th century – including Romanesque, Baroque, Gothic Renaissance, and more. The castle is the home of several concerts, festivals, and exhibitions.

If a pastiche of a castle is not your thing, spend some time at the park, which is quite relaxing for a picnic and leisure boating. 

Heroes' Monument

8. Visit Heroes’ Square

The 19th-century Heroes’ Square is a large and quite impressive square built to commemorate the 1,000-year anniversary of Hungary’s settlement in 896.

Walk along the Millennium Memorial – which commemorates past leaders and war heroes in Hungary’s history.

The memorial features Archangel Gabriel in the central column, flanked by the seven leaders of the tribes that settled Hungary on one side and other important leaders in Hungary’s history on the other side.

There is also the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. While it is known as a tomb, no one is buried here.

Terror House, Budapest

9. Ride the Millennium Line and Visit the House of Terror

Take the Millennium Line of the Metro from Heroes Square station to Vorosmarty Utca station.

This was the first metro line in continental Europe. It was constructed for the Millennium Celebration of 1896, commemorating the Hungarian Conquest of 896.

It’s a regular modern train, but hey, it’s fun to say you’ve been on the oldest metro line in continental Europe! Once out of the station, look for the building with the huge void letters on its ceiling spelling: T E R R O R.

This is the House of Terror. It’s two parts informative and one part spooky, with one of the best-curated exhibitions that tells you all about two tragic periods in Hungarian history (and more) – including the repressive rules of the Nazis and later of the Soviets.  It’s so well-represented that it will give you chills!

Széchenyi Thermals Baths in Budapest

10. Relax in the Széchenyi Thermal Baths

Budapest is home to 118 natural thermal springs, which makes it possible for Budapest to have several thermal baths. The thermal bath culture, though, was brought by the Turks when they invaded Hungary centuries ago.

The most famous, and a full experience on its own, is the Széchenyi Baths. These are the largest thermal baths in Europe, with a combination of outdoor and indoor pools that range in temperatures from 38 to 42 degrees Celsius.

It is said these waters have healing powers, so why not give them a try?

Budapest Funicular to Buda Castle

11. Get a Unique View From the Buda Castle Funicular

If you’re planning to visit the castle, save your legs and hitch a ride on the Funicular! This is a railway line consisting of a 95-meter-long track that runs from the banks of the Danube to the top of Buda Hill.

It’s been around since 1870, and construction was initiated by the Hungarian statesman Count Ödön Széchenyi. It was modeled after the funicular in Lyon, France, and was hit by a bomb during WWII. It didn’t get going again until 1986.

The ride may be very short (about 95 seconds) but you have just enough time to get a stunning view of the city and snap a few photos.

Ruin Bars in Budapest

12. Witness the Lively Side of Budapest at the Ruin Bars

After WWII, the Old Jewish Quarter was in ruins and has never been rebuilt. Instead, it was left to sink further into decay. However, in the 1990s, the people of Budapest took it upon themselves to breathe new life into this abandoned region of the city.

Gradually, bars began to be established within the ruins and the area is now the beating heart of Budapest’s exceptional nightlife scene.

Whether you prefer a laid-back beer surrounded by fairy lights or an upbeat nightclub vibe, Budapest’s Ruin Bars have what you’re looking for.

My personal favorites are Instant-Fogas and Szimpla Kert, but I’d recommend visiting as many as you can to see which ones you like best.

Budapest Sunset with Buda Castle

13. Educate Yourself at the Budapest History Museum

The Budapest History Museum is located inside Buda Castle and is spread across four floors. It’s the perfect place to learn all you need to know about the rich history of Budapest.

If possible, plan a visit at the start of your trip so that you have some historical context for the other sites you’ll visit while you’re in the city.

All the other things to see in Budapest will be even more impressive when you understand how they fit into the tapestry of this amazing city.

Buda Castle, Budapest

14. Feast Your Eyes on Art at the Hungarian National Gallery

Within Buda Castle, you’ll also find the Hungarian National Gallery. It’s dedicated to Hungarian artists throughout history, and features works that span centuries.

As with many of the other sites in Budapest, the part of the building that houses it was badly damaged during WWII and wasn’t fully restored until the 1960s.

Today, it’s a proud reminder of the Hungarian people’s contribution to the arts.

Great Market Hall in Budapest

15. Be Amazed at the Scale of the Great Market Hall

The Great Market Hall, also known as Central Market Hall, is the largest indoor market in Hungary. Despite the name, I wasn’t expecting it to be quite as massive as it is!

The bottom floor is full of stalls selling candies, meats, baked goods, and other local produce. Upstairs, you’ll find a large selection of souvenir shops and excellent restaurants.

The only downside is that it can be pretty busy and a little on the expensive side. Still, even if you don’t fancy spending any money there, I’d advise taking a walk around it to soak up the frenetic atmosphere and sheer scale of the building.

Cave Church in Budapest

16. Explore the Cave Church

The Cave Church, known as Saint Ivan’s Cave, was built by Catholic monks in the 1920s within the cave system of Gellért Hill. During WWII, it was used as a hospital but the communists concealed it in concrete during their reign of terror.

When the communists fell in 1989, the church was reopened as a place of worship and is now a well-known tourist destination.

The House of Houdini in Budapest
Image from Wikipedia

17. Stop Off at the House of Houdini

The famous escape artist Harry Houdini was born in Hungary and Budapest is home to the only museum dedicated to his life and work.

His mind-blowing tricks included escaping from chains, handcuffs, and a grave in which he was buried alive.

Now, you can visit the House of Houdini in Dísz Square and see a collection of the original props he used in his stunts, as well as various pieces of memorabilia.

In the true spirit of Houdini, you even have to solve a puzzle before you’re allowed to enter!

Margaret Island in Budapest

18. Walk to Margaret Island

The Danube River is home to a number of small islands that you can visit during your weekend getaway in Budapest. The best, and easiest to get to, is Margaret Island. To reach it, you can walk over the Margaret or Árpád Bridge.

On the island, you’ll find swimming pools, a big park, and a musical fountain. It’s a great way to spend a relaxing afternoon (especially in the summer).

If you’re feeling more adventurous, then head to Óbuda Island which you can also reach by crossing Árpád Bridge. The island offers plenty of fun activities like jet skiing and wakeboarding.

Plus, if you go there in August, you can catch the Sziget Festival of Music which includes more than 1,000 performances over six days.

Wine Bottles in a Cellar

19. Enjoy a Glass at the Faust Wine Cellars

The Faust Wine Cellar sits beneath Buda Castle and provides tastings of Hungarian wines and pálinka, a traditional brandy made with fruits such as apples, plums, apricots, and pears.

You can choose to simply kick back with a glass and admire the caverns, or you can take a tour of the wine cellar to truly get a feel for the place. You can also book a wine and cheese tasting session that’ll really tickle your tastebuds!

Budapest Zoo, Budapest

20. See the Animals at the Budapest Zoo

Established in 1866, Budapest Zoo is one of the oldest in the whole of Europe. It’s home to almost 9,000 animals, including hippos and apes. You’ll find it in the City Park, and its 18.4 hectares also contain Budapest’s Botanical Garden.

While this might not be the first place you think of visiting during a trip to Budapest, it’s a great option if you’re traveling with kids. While there, you can take a look at some famous Art Nouveau buildings designed by the architects Károly Kós and Kornél Neuschloss.

Top Tip: Buy a Budapest Card

Lastly, I recommend buying the Budapest Card for 24, 48, 72, and up to 120 hours to make the most of your day and have a hassle-free experience.

It includes unlimited travel on public transportation, two free walking tours, free entry to lots of museums and spas, discounts on other sights, and the airport shuttle service. Well worth its cost! You can buy yours here.

10 Best Things to See on a Weekend in Budapest
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  1. I’ve been to Budapest on weekend-long trips only, about 4 of them I think 😉 There’s actually so much to do! I still haven’t visited the Margaret Island for example. Have you been to any of the ruin bars?