To someone coming for the first time, the first impression about Budapest may come as a surprise. Here, in a seemingly peripheral region of Europe, a small, former Soviet block country, you would expect to find something ordinary, maybe even a bit grey and dull. And then suddenly you are in the middle of a grand, colourful world class metropolis, very much alive and filled with spectacular architecture, history and culture.
With hills and a fairy tale like castle looking down on the Danube flowing majestically through the middle of the city, iconic bridges, grand avenues, monumental squares and palaces mixed with romantic little streets and plazas, exotic baths, cafes, terraces and buzzling social life, it is hardly a coincidence Budapest has been dubbed ’Paris of Eastern Europe’. Almost all of the inner city has been declared a World Heritage site. Add to all this a strange, incomprehensible, yet somehow melodious language, and it makes an almost exotic, a bit even mysterious experience right in the middle of Europe.
Must See Sights on Pest
St. István Basilica on St. István Square
In the heart of Budapest, reminiscent of its great cousin St. Peter's in Rome, the Basilica’s grand structure exudes a Mediterranean atmosphere. Rising 96 meters, exactly the same height as the Parliament, the Basilica is the tallest building in the city center. If you have the stamina, it is worth climbing the steps to the terrace of the dome (or try the elevator), where you’ll find a fabulous view of the city and you may learn about the unusual story of the bell.
The Parliament on Kossuth Lajos Square
Though a small country, Hungary still has one of the largest parliament building on the European continent. This neo-gothic masterpiece, the visionary synthesis of Hungarian eclectic architecture, looks more like the domain of duchesses, magic spells and fairy-tale princesses than the House of Parliament. You can register to a guided tour at our concierge.
Shoes on the Danube next to the Parliament
On the only section of the inner city Danube bank reserved for walkers rather than cars, a pile of abandoned shoes occupies a scenic space in front of the Parliament. This memorial, so affective in its simplicity, serves the memory of those Budapest Jews and the citizens who attempted to aid them who were mercilessly shot into the river by the fascist Arrow Cross Party in 1944. Stopping here for a moment to inspect the shoes and take in the beautiful panorama they face, it is difficult not to be moved.
House of Hungarian Secession near Freedom Square (Honved Street 3.)
"Jugendstil," "art nouveau" and the "New Style" are all names of the dominant current of turn of the century European art. Hungarians used a different term, "Secession Style," mirroring the fact that their representation was also different. Led by the famous architect Ödön Lechner, Hungarians took the style over the top with some deeply inaccessible references to ancient Magyar culture. One of the best representations is the House of Hungarian Secession, just off Szabadság tér, but numerous great examples are dotted throughout the city, including the Postal Savings Bank.
Academy of Music on Liszt Ferenc Square
At the far end of Liszt Ferenc tér stands the imposing building of the Academy of Music. Hungary is justifiably proud of its internationally acclaimed music academy, which has produced more than a few great names and is attended by students from all over the world. As founder and one of the great teachers, Liszt has never taken his eyes off his pupils. His bronze statue rests above the entrance of the art-nouveau building. You can enter the music academy at any time, but a concert is an even better occasion for taking a look at the building.
The Opera House on Andrássy Avenue
When Andrássy út was constructed, urban planners wanted to turn this grubby little suburban district into a real attraction with a glamorous promenade. The biggest boost to the street’s prestige was given by the State Opera House. Looking at the building, it seems to have been worth it. One of the greatest architectural feats about it is that the huge building does not look large at all, except when viewed from afar.. Take a guided tour if you have time, as the auditorium is magnificent.
Elizabeth Square: A Decorative Pit
Next to Deák Square is the lovely Elizabeth Square. Its beauty has been sorely tested over the years however, as it used to be the site of a busy bus terminal full of clumsy tourist buses and a parking lot. Renovations didn’t exactly get off to an easy start either. Plans in the 1990s called for this to be the site of the National Theater. Work had begun, with the foundation dug, but then a new administration was elected and construction was stopped. Necessity was the mother of a fabulous solution: underneath the square is a garage, and the surface was made into a park. Its sunken center houses an event center called “The Pit” (Gödör) that is worth a visit any day of the week. Here you’ll find exhibitions, performances, concerts and a café with a large terrace. Next to Gödör Club you can also find a contemporary cultural center called the Design Terminal in the former bus terminal with interesting temporary exhibitions.
The Great Synagogue in Dohány Street
The synagogue on Dohány utca is among the most beautiful in the world. This monumental building, built in the Moorish style, is the largest functioning synagogue in Europe, and the second largest in the world, after the Temple Emanu-El in New York. One of the most remarkable features of the synagogue is in the garden named after Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved many Jews in WWII. Here you’ll find a memorial sculpture in the shape of a weeping willow with each leaf bearing the name of a Holocaust victim.
The Guardrail Princess on the River Side Promenade (Dunacorso)
Sometimes the elaborate iron railings on the Corso make more inviting seats than the chairs on the promenade. Perched on the rail alone or entangled with a lover, you can soak up the view almost to infinity. Yet there is someone on the rail who never turns around to look at the picturesque skyline of Buda. The bronze fairy princess with her pointy hat is a favorite of those who frequent the Corso. Like Andersen’s Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, the princess has become one of the city’s symbols.
The Millennium Monument on Heroes‘ Square
The grandiose memorial that dominates Heroes’ Square was built to mark the thousandth anniversary of the foundation of the Hungarian state. In the center stands a 36-meter column, topped by the Archangel Gabriel holding the holy crown in his right hand and a crucifix in his left. The figures at the base of the column are the seven chieftains of the conquering Magyar tribes, led by King Árpád. Behind the column, the eclectically styled, 85 meter-wide, semi-circular colonnade of statues depicts the leading figures of 1,000 years of Hungarian history.
Vajdahunyad: the Eclectic Castle in the City Park
Walking around this magical building, you will find copies of several definitive Hungarian buildings forming an unusual mix of Romanesque, gothic and baroque styles. No two turrets are the same, yet the numerous contrasting forms somehow work together to give the impression of a fairytale castle. Built to mark the 1000th anniversary of the Hungarian state, it was intended to represent Hungary’s architectural history in three dimensions.
Széchenyi Baths in City Park
In a city of spas, the Széchenyi Baths stand out with their imposing yellow building perched proudly in the City Park. Every year more than two million people visit this bath complex for its healing thermal waters and the beautiful, relaxing atmosphere. The water that makes it all possible springs from 970 meters below at a temperature of 74.5 degrees Celsius and is one of Europe’s hottest springs. The baths are open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, even in winter, attracting a wonderful mix of serious chess-playing retired locals, young romantics and curious visitors.
Budapest’s Pantry: The Great Market Hall on Vámház Boulevard
At the end of the nineteenth century, Budapest had rapidly grown into a major city in just over two decades, and its population needed modern shopping amenities. So by 1897, only a few years after its famous French counterpart Les Halles in Paris, the Great Market Hall of Budapest was built. This is the biggest and most impressive of all market halls in town, do pay a visit and try some of its delights.
Must See Sights on Buda
Buda Castle Funicular by the Buda Side of the Chain Bridge: The Shortest Railway
The funicular was built in 1868 at the foot of the only Danube bridge of the time. In those days the structure was thought of as extremely modern and unique. The 48 meter vertical distance was traveled in less than a minute. During the short trip in the two glass cabins, you can enjoy an extraordinary view. If walking is not a priority and a simple bus ride is not enough excitement, taking the funicular is recommended.
Fisherman’s Bastion at the Castle Hill
One of the most spectacular sights of the Castle district is the limestone edifices of Fisherman’s Bastion right behind Matthias Church. Its name originates from medieval times when a fish market operated behind the church and the adjacent section of the town wall was protected by the Fishermen’s Guild in case of battle. The seven towers represent the tents of the seven tribal chieftains, who originally conquered the Hungarian homeland, and the promenade’s white limestone shapes gracefully fit into the impressive and eclectic panorama of the Castle District.
Statue of Liberty on Gellért Hill
A breathtaking panorama awaits those who climb the shady serpentine path to the highest point on Gellért Hill to reach Budapest’s landmark Statue of Liberty. The entire statue measures 40 meters high. Originally intended as a memorial for the son of Regent Miklós Horthy, a fighter pilot in WWII, Soviet authorities, after the war, altered the statue by replacing the originally planned propeller held by the female figure with a palm branch, thus creating a Statue of Liberty and added a 6 meter bronze figure with a machine gun, serving as a reminder to Hungarians of who the liberating soldiers were. When the Soviets finally left in 1989, the machine gun-wielding statue was happily removed.
Széchenyi Chain Bridge
What the Karel Bridge is to Prague or the Golden Gate is to San Francisco, the Chain Bridge is to Budapest. The city’s first permanent bridge, connecting Clark Ádám Square on the Buda side with Roosevelt Square in Pest, has become a symbol for the entire country. You can walk across it anytime though, as even during heavy weekday traffic the bridge offers pleasant sidewalks with fantastic views of the riverfront.