The best things to do in Budapest, Hungary, my new favourite European city break!
If you’re planning your next European city break then definitely make sure that you have the Hungarian capital of Budapest on your list.
The city is impressive on so many levels. It has beautiful architecture every turn, a ton of cool stuff to see and do, great food, and it’s also really affordable. I was blown away by how much there was to cram into our itinerary. You can expect everything from fairy tale towers, enchanting views, gorgeous sunsets, and even some indulgent thermal baths to warm yourself up in after a long day wandering around. What could be better?
It also turns into a winter wonderland in December, when I visited, with twinkly fairy lights, delicious street food to munch on, and everything covered in blanket of snow. Yes, it’s chilly, but even if you do get a rainy day in Budapest there’s everything from museums to cool AF ruin bars to explore, and you can even go ice skating to warm up. What’s not to like?
Here are the 10 best things to do in Budapest
1) Visit the ruin bars
The graffiti-ridden ruin bars are a must-visit when you’re in Budapest. Opening at the beginning of the 21st century, the ruin bars were created out of dilapidated buildings that local entrepreneurs bought and turned into bars. The most famous ruin bar is Szimple Kert. It’s located in the Jewish Quarter and has a dirty underground vibe that is cool AF.
Everywhere you look there’s something charmingly off-beat ready to catch your attention; graffitied walks, twinkly fairy lights, mismatched tables and chairs, old gym furniture, and even an old car nestled under the stairs and covered hundreds of stickers.
As you wander around you’ll find lots of different bars to chill out in, all with a slightly different vibe. I’ve never been anywhere like it. It did look like the beginning of a horror movie but the drinks were cheap, nooks and crannies to explore, and plenty of outdoor heaters to cosy up next to. All in all, it was an amazing place to spend an hour or two.
2) Climb the Gellert Hill
Looking for breath-taking views of Budapest? Then your best bet is to climb the Gellert Hill. It’s named after Saint Gellert, who was thrown to his death from the hill, and stands a mighty 235m high. We started from the Elisabeth Bridge and made our way up that way, although there are other routes you can take. It’s a fair old hike so make sure you’re wearing appropriate clothing. Once you reach the top you can enjoy panoramic views of the city. Get a close up of the Liberty Statue and sip on some mulled wine on one of the takeaway stands at the top. The perfect refreshment after a hike, right?
3) Take a sunset cruise on the Danube
If you’re in Budapest you should definitely take a sunset cruise along the Danube. I don’t know about you but if you’re into sunsets, drinks, and amazing views then you can’t go wrong here. Apart from anything else it’s a chance to warm after walking around all day in the cold all day. You’ll get one alcoholic drink as part of your ticket, but everyone was also served a hot fruit tea to start, which was delicious. Probably better than the wine!
That said, it was lovely to be able to sip on a glass of red while watching the sun slowly sink in the sky. And the sunset was incredible! I don’t know if I’d ever seen a sunset like it. You’ll also be able to enjoy great views of both the Buda and the Pest, and the spectacular parliament building is also right on the river. Definitely put this on your to-do list!
4) Explore Fisherman’s Bastion
If fairy tale castles are your thing then you absolutely have to visit Fisherman’s Bastion in Budapest. You can’t fail to be enchanted by it, from the richly ornate architecture to the turrets to the breath-taking views out onto the Danube. When I was there it was draped in snow, which only made it even more magical. And the best thing about Fisherman’s Bastion is that it’s the majority of the turrets are completely free, so walk around, explore, and enjoy feeling like you’re in a Disney movie for a little while.
Looking for more free things to do in Budapest? Read my guide right here!
5) Ride the funicular up to the Castle District
Ah, I love a funicular. I remember getting one at Lake Como in Italy and it was great, so I was happy to repeat the experience here in Budapest. This one has been in service since 1870 but has been reconstructed in a vintage style after it was bombed during WWII. It leaves from the river level and will take you up to the Castle Hill in only a couple of minutes.
Be warned: there are a ton of tourist hawks around about the funicular who will try to sell you hop on hop off bus tickets up to the Castle District. I guess if you were rocking up first thing in the morning this would be ideal as there is a lot of the Castle District to cover on foot. For us though, it was around 2 in the afternoon. We wanted to go up, walk around a bit, and then head back to the hotel. Plus getting a funicular always seems fun, right?
6) Nuclear bunker
If you’re interested in history then the Hospital in the Rock museum is one of the best things to do in Budapest. Nestled in the rock face of the Buda Castle District, it reveals a 10km long natural cave system that was transformed during WWII. It was used as a hospital between 1944 and 1945 and then expanded into a nuclear bunker in the 1950s. The bunker now functions as a museum and is set out how it would look, complete with hospital beds and life-size models, while the tour guides do an excellent job of bringing its fascinating history to life. Don’t miss it.
7) Go to the House of Terror museum
A confession: I wasn’t really up to speed on Hungary’s communist history before visiting. However, this museum shines a light on it in a compelling way. You’ll spot the striking signage on the outside with die cut letters running along the rooftop – when the sun comes out the shadows spell out ‘terror’ onto the front of the building. The exhibition itself is impressive and tells the story in a compelling way with lots of intriguing and interactive exhibits. I found it to be a really impactful and sobering experience.
8) Wander through the Christmas markets in Budapest
Visit Budapest in December and you will be rewarded with glittering fairy lights, blanket wrapped chairs and outdoor heaters in all the outdoor cafes, and maybe even a frosting of snow. Budapest is also a great place for Christmas markets. There are plenty of Christmas markets to choose from in Budapest, all with the usual craft products for sale at the stands, but I think the real strength of the Christmas markets in Budapest is the food. We munched our way through Hungarian goulash in a bread roll and a traditional langos topped with sour cream and cheese – more on those below! The mulled hot tea is also delicious.
9) Cross the Chain Bridge
The Chain Bridge joins the Buda and the Pest and is one of the most famous landmarks in Budapest. There’s a urban myth about the stone lions statues on either side of the bridge: apparently the sculptor was so devastated when he realised that the lions didn’t have tongues that he threw himself off the bridge in despair. However, the lions DO actually have tongues. Either way, it’s an iconic landmark in Budapest and if you can cross it at sunset you’ll probably be rewarded with some beautiful views.
10) Visit the thermal baths
You definitely don’t want to miss out going to the thermal baths on your trip to Budapest. To me, this was just a super cool thing to be able to do in the middle of winter, and it felt like an added extra for a city break.
We went to the Szechenyi Spa Baths in Budapest. These were built in 1913 and are ornate, neo Baroque in design, and painted a charming canary yellow. Visiting here felt like stepping back in time. Of course you’ll want to head straight outside to the outdoor baths, but there are plenty inside too. In fact, there’s 15 indoor pools and three grandiose outdoor pools.
A note: we got a tiny bit lost trying to figure out how to get outside (along with a bunch of other tourists so it wasn’t just us being dunces.) You have to walk through a ton of smaller baths before you finally come to the door to the outside baths. The walk from there to the water is something else, especially in December, but once you’re in it’s worth it. If we didn’t have such a tightly packed schedule I could have sat there all day.
Oh, and unlike in Iceland where the natural thermal baths smell of sulphur, these are delightfully fragrant.
Other things to do in Budapest in winter
Right, I’m going to put my hands in the air and say that I didn’t actually *do* any of the below activities. However, that was possibly due to being short of time rather than anything else. There really is so many things to do in Budapest and I struggled to fit it all in. If I visited again I would definitely love to cram in more activities, including some of these…
Yes, Budapest really is the city where you can do pretty much anything, including caving. The caves underneath Budapest are formed by the same thermal springs that created the thermal spas. Apparently there’s over 200 caves on the Buda side of the city. A confession: I actually have The Fear of caving… but it’s also something I’m kind of intrigued by and would like to try at some point. The good news is that for scaredy cats like me there is a less scary underground option for you, and that’s doing a cave walk. Baby steps, right? If you’re feeling brave you can go for the full caving experience and do proper adventure caving, which involves lots of crawling through narrow passages. I have the heebie jeebies just thinking about it!
2) Skating at Varosligeti ice skating rink
Oh, go on then, let’s talk about another magical experience in Budapest. Ice skating with a real-life castle as a backdrop probably sounds like something out of a Disney movie, and to be honest that isn’t too far removed from what’s this was like. The setting is beautiful, and with stunning Vajdahunyad castle in the background you can’t get much better really.
I’m not going to lie, I was completely intimidated by the level of the ice skating in Budapest. Everyone was so good! There’s also no barrier to cling onto if you’re not that confident, like you’d get in the UK. I figured I’d probably land on my face in mere moments, so we left it this time. If you do fancy giving it a go then I’m sure you’ll have a brilliant time!
3) Visit Margaret Island
This is one of the places that I’m gutted we didn’t visit during our stay at Budapest, however, some of reviews I’ve read say that it’s better to visit in spring or summer, so the jury’s out on that one. Despite being an island you don’t have to get a boat to Margaret Island. You can either walk along the main Danube promenade or simply catch a bus. It seems like a peaceful place to get away from it all. You can wander around the beautiful Japanese garden, explore the water tower, monastery or even hire bikes to cover more ground. Oh yes, and you can also grab a drink at the ruin bar on the island – perfect!
Where to stay in Budapest
We stayed at the Hotel Rum in Budapest which I would definitely recommend. If you’re looking for a cosy and stylish stay when you’re in the city then this is it. I’m quite into stylish interiors and so whenever I’m staying anywhere I always want to make sure it’s to my taste. It’s part of the overall experience. Right? Luckily, the decor at design hotel, Hotel Rum, ticks all the boxes. It’s cosy, contemporary, and cool. I loved the twinkling fairy lights, the faux plants, the chic chairs, and the dark hexagonal floor tiles in their rooftop bar. I actually have really similar tiles in my bathroom, so that must have been a sign that this was the hotel for me.
What I enjoyed about Hotel Rum in Budapest
The location. Hotel Rum is in an absolutely brilliant location on the Pest side of the river. Not only is the hotel only a five-minute walk from the airport bus stop but there’s also a Starbucks just outside. That was exactly what we needed after a long journey. There were also a good selection of lovely restaurants within walking distance of the hotel, which were perfect to pop into in the evenings after a long day of walking around.
The gorgeous rooms. The rooms are beautiful and are stylishly kitted out with everything you’d expect from a contemporary hotel: cosy furnishings, on-trend light fittings, and metro tiles in the bathroom. The rooms are small, yes, but perfectly formed. Considering you’re hardly in your room during a city break because you’re out all day it was absolutely perfect.
The breakfast. I don’t know about you but whenever I’m on holiday I always wake up absolutely starving! Luckily Hotel Rum has a wonderful breakfast that you can enjoy with amazing views of the city, courtesy of their rooftop bar and restaurant. Expect the usual fare: a cooked breakfast buffet, a selection breads and bakery items, fresh juices, and tea and coffee. They also had soya milk for my tea, so that got a thumbs up!
What to eat in Budapest
Looking for hearty food that will warm you up after trudging around in the cold all day? Good news: there’s plenty to choose from in Budapest. I’ve written a detailed post on all of my favourite things to eat in Budapest here but let’s throw out a couple of my favourites. Definitely order langos. Langos are a traditional Hungarian dish and are essentially a deep-fried flatbread topped with sour cream and grated cheese. Heavenly!
The second dish you have to try when you’re in Budapest are the Hungarian dumplings. They look a little bit like gnocci and come topped with, once again, a big dollop of sour cream. I had these after a morning of wandering about in the snow and they definitely hit the spot. Add a glass of red wine for extra indulgence. Goulash and soup in bread roll were another couple of favourite of mine, especially with the molten cheese on top!
As I mentioned, there were also a few lovely restaurants close to our hotel that we went to for dinner. One of my favourites was Italian restaurant La Coppola (which was packed out every time) and La Botte, an Italian and Hungarian restaurant. You won’t be disappointed by either!
What to pack for Budapest in winter
10 things you should definitely include in your packing list for Budapest…
- A winter coat. Either a good quality wool coat or a waterproof coat that’s preferably also warm. It’s not the time or place for a thin little cagoule. The temperature was below zero when we were in Budapest so you won’t want to venture out without one, trust me!
- A good pair of boots, preferably flat and with a good grip on them. I say this because I slipped and slided my way up the Gellert Hill in pretty thick snow. My little fashion boots just weren’t designed to handle those kind of extreme weather conditions. You may not get snow, but Budapest is a city you can walk around, so good walking shoes are ideal.
- A bikini! Not what you’d usually pack for a winter city break, but of course Budapest is known for its thermal baths. That’s definitely not an experience you’d want to miss out on. Everything else is supplied, at least at the baths we visited, so you don’t have to worry about packing towels. They would definitely take up way too much suitcase space!
- A hair bobble. It’s also a good idea to have a hair bobble to tie your hair up for when you visit the thermal baths. That was another thing I strangely managed to forget to pack. We had to go on a hunt in the local shops and I ended up with a velvet scrunchie of all things.
- An umbrella. It snowed when we were in Budapest so a good quality umbrella that will help you battle the elements is always a good shout in the winter. Of course, I forgot and had to buy one there. That meant I got snowed on for half an hour of our first day. Be better than me!
- Layers. When it’s cold outside it’s all about the layers. Make sure you pack long sleeve tops, jumpers, a gilet, thermal tights, and so on. You might think you’re being excessive, but you’re probably not.
- Sunglasses. Think the sun doesn’t come out during the winter? Nope, this isn’t Norway and there’s still plenty of hours of sunshine in Budapest in the winter. Have some cute sunglasses to hand so you’re not squinting into the sun in all your photographs.
- Winter accessories, such as a beanie hat, scarf, and gloves or mittens. Have I mentioned that it gets pretty cold in Budapest in winter? Definitely make sure you’re all kitted out with these accessories. Trust me, you don’t want to be stuck up a hill somewhere without them.
- Good quality knits. It gets pretty chilly in Budapest in winter. You’re probably going to be walking around in the cold a lot. I’d packed a military-style jumper from Zara for my trip and I pretty much didn’t take it off the whole time. A snug jumper can make a real difference!
- A cute hat or knitted hairband. We can’t be practical all the time, right? I picked myself up a cute corduroy baker boy hat at the airport on the way to Budapest and I wore it on all the days that it wasn’t absolutely freezing. What can I say? I love cute headgear.