European cities like Paris and Berlin may be common vacation destinations, but there’s one city that’s steadily gaining in popularity because of its rich culture, beautiful architecture, and incredible sights. I’m talking about the Heart of Europe, the Pearl of the Danube – Budapest, Hungary. Budapest, the capital and largest city in Hungary, is increasingly becoming a must see spot for travelers in Europe, and with good reason. While the population of Budapest rests at just under 2 million, the city brings in approximately 4.3 million tourists every year – a statistic that has made it the 6th most popular city for travelers in Europe, and the 25th most popular in the world.
There are a variety of factors that attract travelers to certain cities – the food, the culture, the architecture, etc. This list focuses on ten of Budapest’s top must see tourist attractions. Here’s a handy Hungarian phrase: szeretném látni mindent (translation – I want to see everything!). Now you’re all ready for your Hungarian adventures. Make sure to stop by these ten spots.
10 Andrássy Avenue
If you want a little taste of everything the city has to offer, you can stroll down the 2.5 kilometre long Andrássy Avenue, named after a former Hungarian prime minister, Count Gyula Andrássy. While obviously many of the restaurants and stores lining the street have changed over the years, and many buildings have been converted from their original uses, the street itself dates all the way back to 1872.
Andrássy Avenue was recognized as a World Heritage Site in 2002, and its vibrant street life and varied offerings demonstrates why. The street consists of four ‘sections’ that each have something to offer. Between Erzsébet Square and Oktogon lies luxury shopping for those with full wallets, and the Budapest Opera House for those who want to treat their ears. From Oktogon to the Kodály Körönd, the street features green spaces, a tree-lined path on either side of the road, and several residential buildings. From the Körönd to Bajza Street, there are large palaces with front yards, and the section from Bajza to Heroes’ Square contains villas, embassies, art galleries, and cafes. There is plenty to see and enjoy on every inch of this lively street.
9 Sziget Festival
If history and architecture aren’t really your thing, Budapest can appeal to the music and pop culture lover in you. Every year in August, the city puts on Sziget Festival. Sziget, one of Europe’s largest music and cultural festivals, attracts tourists from all over Europe and boasts over 1,000 performances over its seven day span. That’s right – Budapest isn’t content to party and have fun for two or three days, as is the typical festival length – they stretch it out over an entire week. The festival is relatively young, as it started only in 1993. However, it has garnered a lot of attention, particularly recently. The Independent ranked Sziget one of the 5 best festivals in Europe in 2011, and in 2012 it also won the Best Major European Festival at the European Festivals Award.
Also, unlike many genre-specific festivals, Sziget boasts a wide variety of musical acts. And, even if music isn’t an attraction for you, there are countless other activities within the festival grounds, from theatre to sports to arts. As it’s located within the Budapest city limits, festival goers can (and should) explore the city itself during or before/after the festival.
8 Budapest Opera House
For both classically inclined music fans, and fans of amazing architecture, the Budapest Opera House is a necessary stop. Designed by Hungarian architect Miklós Ybl, the neo-Renaissance style building itself is as enchanting as the on stage performances within it. Along the main facade there are statues of famous composers such as Beethoven, Mozart, and Verdi. The main entrance is guarded by two stone sphinxes, alongside statues of Hungarian composer Franz Liszt and the first director of the Opera House, Ferenc Erkel (who, incidentally, also composed the Hungarian national anthem). If you want to learn about the building as you take it all in, the Opera House offers daily tours in several languages.
The Budapest Opera House is world renowned and its vast auditorium seats 1200 people. The design, fittingly, was very attentive to acoustics, and the horseshoe-shaped auditorium is judged to provide some of the best acoustics in Europe. It is a truly magnificent destination for both the eyes and ears.
7 Buda Castle
Buda Castle has a long, complex history; it was originally the palace complex of a Hungarian king, and was previously called Royal Castle/Royal Palace. It sits atop Castle Hill, which is recognized as a World Heritage Site, and is visible from all over the city. While it has a rich history, today Buda Castle is used primarily for cultural purposes: it houses several museums (the Hungarian National Gallery and Budapest History Museum), a famous library (Széchényi Library, the national library of Hungary), and is often the location for various cultural festivals such as the Hungarian Palinka Festival, the Budapest Wine Festival, and the Hungarian Festival of Folk Arts.
There is no entrance fee to view the castle area itself, so visitors can wander the beautiful courtyards and look at all the incredible architecture and statues. The Castle’s first iteration appeared in the 13th century, when the structure housed Hungarian kings. Tumultuous European history has led to several reconstructions over the years, but the rich history just makes this site even more interesting.
6 Fisherman’s Bastion
Fisherman’s Bastion is straight out of a fairy tale with its pale stone and ornate turrets. Built at the end of the 19th century, the Bastion is a neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque style terrace in the Castle Hill area. It is comprised of seven towers, each symbolizing one of the seven Magyar tribes who settled in the area in 896. A double stairway, which is always crowded with individuals clambering up for the amazing view, connects the bastion to the streets below.
It overlooks the Danube and boasts incredible panoramic views of the city, which offer glimpses of many of Budapest’s most popular tourist attractions. Unlike many tourist attractions, Fisherman’s Bastion is open 24/7, so you can take in both sunrises and sunsets from the terrace.
If you really want to feel like a local, after your visit to Fisherman’s Bastion, enjoy a hot bowl of Fisherman’s Soup (halaszle), a traditional Hungarian dish. It’s a hit or miss (depends how much you like seafood!), but something that should be tried at least once, perhaps in the restaurant conveniently located near the Bastion's entrance.
5 St. Stephen’s Basilica
St. Stephen’s Basilica, named after Stephen, the first Christian King of Hungary, is the most important church in Hungary, and is tied with the Parliament building for the tallest building in Budapest. The Neo-Classical beauty draws tourists and locals alike every day. It took 54 years of construction to build the ornate structure (partly because of the dome’s collapse at one point in the construction process) and has a breathtaking dome flanked by two bell towers. Visitors can climb to the dome level and, on the terrace surrounding the dome, get an incredible 360 degree view of the city.
The Basilica also contains one of Hungary’s most important religious relics, the preserved right hand of St. Stephen, which is kept in a shrine in the church’s interior. However, if that doesn’t appeal to you, the interior also boasts about fifty different types of marble, several sculptures, and intricate ornamentation throughout. For classical music lovers, the Basilica also hosts organ concerts weekly as well as several classical music events throughout the year.
4 Gellért Hill
If you want a little slice of nature within the city, Gellért Hill is what you’re looking for. It is a 140 high metre rock rising in Buda that offers countless things to do.
If you’re up to the trek, the hike to the top will provide you with beautiful greenery, and upon reaching the top you’ll be rewarded with – a common factor in many of Budapest’s tourist attractions – an incredible view. Atop the Hill is the Statue of Liberty (Szabadság szobor), not the one in New York, but another huge statue that became the symbol of Budapest. The statue commemorates Hungary’s liberation from Nazi rule, and can be seen from nearly every part of the city. It’s an entirely different experience to be looking out at the city from your position beside her, rather than looking up at her, and one worth experiencing.
You can go either day or night to see the amazing view, and many take picnics in order to truly enjoy the piece of nature within the bustling city.
3 Széchenyi Chain Bridge
The Chain Bridge is an incredible suspension bridge that crosses the Danube between Buda and Pest. It was the first permanent bridge across the Danube in all of Hungary, and was open for use in 1849. In the mid nineteenth century, it was a marvel of engineering, and remains one of Budapest’s cultural, social, and economic hubs.
Count István Széchenyi, the Bridge's namesake, commissioned English engineer William Tierney Clark to design the bridge, due to Clark’s experience with suspension bridges over the Thames in London. The Bridge has many cast iron decorations and visitors can walk across and take photos from all angles. At both abutments are two stone lions carved by Hungarian sculptor János Marschalkó (though they were added in 1852, a few years after the Bridge’s opening). The Chain Bridge is 375 meters long and offers tourists an incredible opportunity to admire not only the bridge itself, but the Danube river, from up close.
2 Parliament Building
The Hungarian Parliament Building is a must see for both its national significance and sheer vastness. The Parliament building lies in Lajos Kossuth Square, along the banks of the Danube, and is both the tallest building in Budapest (tied with St. Stephen’s Basilica) and largest building in Hungary. It is also the world’s third largest Parliament building. It was completed in 1904 and construction required over one thousand laborers, forty million bricks, half a million precious stones, and 40 kilograms of gold. Designed in the Gothic Revival style, the Parliament Building has a symmetrical facade and stunning central dome. Around the facade are over 200 statues of Hungarian rulers and military leaders.
When the National Assembly is not in session, guided tours are available for visitors; the tour provides a view of the main entrance stairs and grand hall, one of the lobbies, the old House of Lords, and the Hungarian Crown Jewels. The interior is as beautiful as the architecture and facade, and not a single inch of the vast structure is undecorated.
1 The Danube
Any river with a waltz written about it is obviously a must see. The Danube passes through a staggering ten countries: Romania, Hungary, Serbia, Austria, Germany, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Croatia, Ukraine, and Moldova. However, Hungary holds the second largest portion of the Danube (11.6% of it flows through Hungary) and Budapest’s nickname of “The Pearl of the Danube” indicates that Hungarians hold it near and dear to their hearts. Budapest is also the largest city on the Danube. Put on the Strauss waltz and take it all in.