The vibrant city of Budapest straddles the Danube River, offering travellers a treasure trove of unique experiences. The Hungarian capital isn’t only home to marvellous architecture, relaxing thermal baths, hearty traditional food, pretty parks, and one-of-a-kind souvenirs – but it’s also been named one of the safest cities in the world.

Budapest was formed in 1873 when Buda and Óbuda on the western bank were united with Pest on the east. And, today, this lively metropolis seamlessly blends old-world charm with cosmopolitan flair. The city’s rich architectural heritage spans millennia, from Roman ruins to Gothic churches, grand Baroque palaces, and stunning Art Nouveau buildings.

The culinary scene is deliciously diverse too, featuring traditional Hungarian dishes like goulash and chimney cake, alongside international cuisine. Meanwhile, public transport – including the famous yellow trams and the world’s oldest underground railway – is cheap and efficient. Though, because Budapest is compact, you can also get around on foot.

With its romantic scenery, riverside setting, and unique cultural offerings, Budapest has become known as the ‘Pearl of the Danube’. But with so much to do in this characterful city, how can you decide which attractions are a must-visit?

To help, here are 12 of the best things to do in Budapest.

1. Soak in Széchenyi Baths

Soak in Széchenyi Baths

Budapest’s thermal baths – a legacy of Roman and Turkish influences – are a defining feature of the city, and over 100 natural hot springs feed numerous bathing facilities. Among these, Széchenyi Baths stands out as the largest and most popular thermal bath complex in Europe.

Built in 1913, Széchenyi Baths’s impressive neo-baroque architecture makes it feel like a royal palace. The complex features 18 pools – three outdoor and 15 indoor – with temperatures ranging from 22°C to 38°C. Its outdoor area is particularly iconic, with large pools where both locals and tourists soak in mineral-rich waters year-round.

But the baths are about more than just relaxation. People also gather to chat, play chess, or simply unwind. Popular ‘sparty’ nights – combining the spa experience with nightlife entertainment – are even held here.

2. Walk over the Széchenyi Chain Bridge

Walk over the Széchenyi Chain Bridge

The Széchenyi Chain Bridge is a renowned symbol of Budapest that gracefully spans the Danube River, connecting Buda and Pest. Opened in 1849, this architectural wonder has a stunning suspension design, with iron chains and majestic stone lion sculptures guarding its entrances.

Recently renovated, the bridge offers fantastic views of Budapest’s skyline, including landmarks like Buda Castle and the Hungarian Parliament Building. When illuminated at night, the Chain Bridge itself becomes even more magical, adding to the city’s charm and romance.

3. Step back in time at the House of Terror

Step back in time at the House of Terror

The House of Terror serves as a powerful memorial and educational centre, dedicated to the victims of the fascist and communist regimes in 20th-century Hungary.

Opened in 2002, the building itself has a dark history. During World War II, it was the headquarters of the Arrow Cross Party (Hungarian Nazis), and later served as the base for the State Security Authority (ÁVH) who were the secret police of the Communist era.

The museum features immersive and chilling displays on Nazi occupation, Soviet rule, and the operations of the secret police. Included are prison cells, torture instruments, propaganda materials, and personal stories of victims shared through photographs, documents, and video testimonies. The museum also educates on daily life under totalitarian control, resistance movements, and the eventual fall of communism.

4. Be enchanted at Fisherman’s Bastion

Be enchanted at Fisherman’s Bastion

Perched atop Castle Hill, this enchanting neo-Romanesque fortress will leave you feeling as though you’ve stepped into a fairytale. Built between 1895 and 1902, Fisherman’s Bastion was designed by architect Frigyes Schulek as part of a series of developments celebrating the 1000th anniversary of the Hungarian state.

This magical monument features seven turrets symbolising the seven Magyar tribes that settled in the Carpathian Basin in 896. And its name comes from the guild of fishermen responsible for defending this stretch of the castle wall during the Middle Ages.

Despite its castle-like appearance, the bastion was built purely for decorative purposes and as a viewing platform. It’s made up of ornate stairways, parapets, and lookout towers, from which you can soak up stunning vistas of Budapest’s iconic landmarks, including the Parliament building and Széchenyi Chain Bridge.

5. Sip coffee at the New York Café

Sip coffee at the New York Café

This opulent cafe has been hailed as ‘the most beautiful café in the world’ (it even says it on the window!). Opened in 1894, New York Café quickly became a hub for writers, artists, and intellectuals – and, today, it attracts both tourists and locals, offering a menu of coffee, cakes, and Hungarian specialties.

The café’s stunning neo-Renaissance architecture showcases high ceilings, intricate frescoes, and sparkling chandeliers – and, when you first walk in, it’s a challenge not to become mesmerised. Most people enjoy a delicious cake and coffee or some lunch or dinner here, before heading to the balcony to take photos of the café’s grandeur.

Open daily from 8am to midnight, the café accepts dinner reservations after 6pm, but daytime seating is first-come, first-served. Despite mixed reviews – with some visitors complaining that it’s overpriced and crowded – the New York Café remains a city favourite. And while you often have to queue for a table, we’d say it’s worth it!

6. Visit Buda Castle

Visit Buda Castle

Buda Castle is a sprawling castle and palace complex that’s served as the residence of Hungarian kings since the 13th century. Today, it houses the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest Historical Museum, which are great cultural pit stops for anyone interested in learning more about the history and culture of the city.

The castle complex is part of the Budapest World Heritage Site and offers wonderful views over the city and the Danube River. Despite significant damage during World War II, Buda Castle was rebuilt in a more simplified style. But, it’s still one of the city’s greatest treasures – with beautiful statues, courtyards, fountains.

You can reach the castle by climbing Castle Hill on foot or taking the funicular. Visitors can explore the various wings, including the Lion Courtyard and the National Library – and a night tour will also reveal more about the dark side of Buda Castle.

7. Shop for souvenirs at the Great Market Hall

Shop for souvenirs at the Great Market Hall

If you love to shop or just want to pick up something to remember your trip by, The Great Market Hall, or Central Market Hall, is a must-visit. Built in 1897, it’s Budapest’s largest and oldest indoor market, located on the Pest side of Liberty Bridge. The neo-Gothic building, designed by Samu Pecz, has a distinctive roof with colourful Zsolnay tiling.

Spanning 10,000 square metres across three floors, it offers a wide variety of stalls selling fresh produce, meats, pastries, spices, and local specialties. The ground floor focuses on selling food items – mostly fruits, vegetables, meats, and spices – while the upper level houses eateries and souvenir shops.

Like Buda Castle, the market building was badly damaged during World War II, but was thoroughly renovated in 1991 and reopened in 1997. Today, it bustles with life, and it’s a great place to pick up little trinkets. For something authentic, why not pick up a Hungarian secret box – perfect for keeping keepsakes in?

8. Pay your respects by The Shoes on the Danube Bank

Pay your respects by The Shoes on the Danube Bank

This unique memorial, known as ‘The Shoes on the Danube Bank’, stands as a sombre reminder of the Holocaust. Created by Can Togay and Gyula Pauer, this installation consists of 60 pairs of iron shoes cast in 1940s styles, representing Hungarian Jews murdered by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944-45.

The victims were forced to remove their shoes before being shot at the river’s edge, their bodies falling into the water. The memorial includes men’s, women’s, and children’s footwear, symbolising the diverse lives lost. Visitors often leave flowers or light candles inside the shoes, creating a deeply moving experience that connects present-day observers with the tragic past.

9. Marvel at St Stephen’s Basilica

Marvel at St Stephen’s Basilica

A crown jewel of Budapest’s skyline, St. Stephen’s Basilica is a must-visit architectural marvel. Named after Hungary’s first king, this Neo-Renaissance masterpiece was completed in 1905 and took over 50 years to build. Its stunning facade and 96-metre dome offer amazing vistas for those willing to climb or take the elevator.

Inside, prepare to be awestruck by lavish gold leaf decor, intricate mosaics, and the mummified right hand of St. Stephen himself. The basilica also hosts enchanting organ concerts, filling the grand space with heavenly music. Whether you’re an architecture enthusiast, history buff, or simply seeking beauty, St. Stephen’s Basilica promises an unforgettable experience.

10. Head to a rooftop bar

Head to a rooftop bar

By now, you might have realised that one of Budapest’s main perks is its incredible skyline, so it may come as no surprise that there are plenty of rooftop bars where you can look out over the city, cocktail in hand. These make great places to catch a fiery sunset too and, when dark, admire the twinkling lights down below. The Parliament building and Széchenyi Chain Bridge, in particular, look extraordinary when illuminated at night.

While there are various rooftop bars to choose from, we’d recommend trying High Note SkyBar next to the Basilica, where you can enjoy cocktails, lunch, or dinner, seven floors up. The service is great, you can choose indoor or outdoor seating and comfy chairs or high stools for a better view. If you like gin, they serve a lovely watermelon version too, which is especially refreshing after sightseeing on a warm day.

11. Spend a day on Margaret Island

Spend a day on Margaret Island

A lush oasis in the heart of Budapest, this 2.5-km-long car-free island is a refreshing escape if you fancy getting out of the city. It’s located on the Danube between Buda and Pest, and can be reached on foot or by tram.

Margaret Island’s pretty parklands, fragrant rose gardens, and mediaeval ruins are a joy to explore on foot or by renting bicycles or electric scooters. The island also boasts a popular musical fountain, running track, and various other sports facilities available.

For those looking to relax, the Palatinus water park and historic Danubius Health Spa Resort offer soothing thermal baths; while wildlife lovers can enjoy the small zoo and Japanese garden.

12. Visit Dohány Street Synagogue

Visit Dohány Street Synagogue

The Dohány Street Synagogue, also known as the Great Synagogue, is the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world. Built between 1854 and 1859 in Moorish Revival style, it’s found in Budapest’s Jewish Quarter.

The synagogue complex includes the main sanctuary, the Heroes’ Temple, a graveyard, a Holocaust memorial, and the Jewish Museum. It can seat 3,000 people and features stunning architectural elements like twin octagonal towers with onion domes, a rose stained-glass window, and richly decorated interiors.

The synagogue played a significant role during World War II as part of the Jewish ghetto – and, today, it serves as a place of worship, a cultural centre, and a popular tourist attraction.

Final thoughts…

Whether you’re exploring historic castles, soaking in thermal baths, savouring local cuisine, or simply strolling along the Danube promenade, Budapest offers a captivating blend of experiences for every traveller.

As you discover the hidden gems and iconic landmarks of the city, you’ll understand why it’s not just the ‘Pearl of the Danube’, but a true jewel of Europe. With its perfect balance of old-world charm and modern energy, Budapest invites you to create unforgettable memories in one of the continent’s most beautiful and dynamic capitals.

For more inspiration for your next trip, why not check out our article; 14 city breaks from around the world?

Have you been to Budapest? What was your favourite thing to do? Or are you thinking about visiting for the first time? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.