Castles, Cruises and Caves: The Best Things To Do in Budapest

A classic tram rides past the Hungarian Parliament building in Budapest
A classic tram rides past the Hungarian Parliament building in Budapest | © Zoltán Csipke / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Gretchen Kessler
19 September 2019

The vibrant Hungarian capital, Budapest, has become one of Central Europe’s premier city-break destinations. From the buzzing ruin bar culture to peaceful boat rides along the Danube River, Budapest has no shortage of activities to help visitors fill their itinerary.

Known for its striking Art Nouveau and Gothic architecture, Budapest dates back to the 4th century BC. Any guide to Budapest will suggest paying a visit to Fisherman’s Bastion and exploring the majestic Buda Castle, while more unusual options include enjoying an al fresco film and partaking in beer therapy at the iconic Széchenyi Thermal Baths.

Capture a picture-perfect moment at Fisherman’s Bastion

According to Budapestian photographer Olga Eregina, who scopes out the city’s most beautiful backdrops for her photo shoots, the Fisherman’s Bastion should be a first port of call for visitors to the Hungarian capital. Perched on Castle Hill with a stunning view of downtown Budapest, the Fisherman’s Bastion is a grand terrace with ornate stone turrets, balconies, spires and statues in Neo-Gothic and Neo-Romanesque style. Completed in 1902, today’s structure stands where thick walls once protected Buda Castle from enemy attack. Legend says this particular section of wall was safeguarded by the fisherman’s guild, giving the Bastion its name. Now this iconic landmark faces hordes of tourists rather than the threat of battle, but a visit is worthwhile despite the inevitable crowds. Tickets can be purchased to climb up the turrets, but it’s otherwise free to walk around.

Fisherman’s Bastion offers views across the Danube | © Gabriel Rif / Alamy Stock Photo

Indulge in a ‘Beer Spa’ session

How much do you love beer? Enough to bathe in it? At the famous Széchenyi Thermal Baths, this is exactly what €30 (£26) can get you. Pamper yourself in hop-filled heaven as you soak in malt- and hop-infused water (great for your skin and hair!), paired with all the beer you can drink for 45 minutes. “Guests love it – I’m always recommending it to my friends who come and see the city. The infused water is great for your skin too,” says Keaghan D’Silva, who runs one of Budapest’s popular ruin bar crawls. Groups of up to 12 can take part in this unique spa experience, and tickets can be purchased at the Széchenyi website or in person on the day. Pro tip: try not to stumble into the pools on your way out!

The Széchenyi Thermal Baths are the largest medicinal baths in Europe | © PJPHOTO / Alamy Stock Photo

Dine at a Transylvanian castle

Adjacent to Heroes’ Square in Városliget (Budapest City Park) sits a castle on a lake. Vajdahunyad Castle was modelled after a Gothic fortress in Transylvania, and hugging its foundations is the stylish restaurant known as Anonymus. Golden lights hang above the tables and chairs, reflecting into the water, while a fountain splashes in the foreground – a true fairytale scene. Here you can enjoy Hungarian classics such as goulash with parsley potatoes, along with signature dishes like the ‘Anonym Burger’. After dinner, take an evening stroll by the lake and stop by for a drink at open-air bar Kertem.

Vajdahunyad Castle was modelled after a Gothic fortress | © Yury Dmitrienko / Alamy Stock Photo

Discover Budapest’s ruin bar scene

Budapest’s ruin bars began as a simple experiment – an unassuming bar set up in an abandoned building. Within a decade, these unconventional nightclubs have exploded in popularity, becoming the hottest places to party in the city. Some are open during the day as well, like Szimpla Kert in the Jewish District. Each ruin bar is unique, with eclectic furniture, funky decorations, incredible light shows and maze-like layouts. Each room is different from the one before, with music ranging from electronic and hip hop to rock and alternative. Pro-tip: some ruin bars are strictly cash-only. Beyond the famed Szimpla Kert, highly recommended ruin bars include Mazel Tov and Anker’t.

In addition to their diverse music and vibrant decor, ruin bars can offer a fun introduction to the Hungarian wine scene. Local wine tourism specialist and founder of Enotourist Hungary, Gvantsa Sekhniashvili rates ruin bars as an essential Budapest experience and an opportunity to discover local wine. “Szimpla Kert is one of my favourite places in the city,” she says. “I often choose the wine bar on the ground floor of Szimpla, with rare Hungarian wines such as Juhfark, from the Somló region, which is the smallest wine region in Hungary.” She also highlights the more ‘trendy’ wines available, including dry Furmint from the renowned Tokaj region. “Visitors can also sample Tokaju Aszú, the country’s most admired dessert wine,” Sekhniashvili adds.

Szimpla Kert is one of the oldest and most famous ruin bars in Budapest | © Hercules Milas / Alamy Stock Photo

Putt with pilsner

Located just steps from Margit Bridge in the 13th District, through an entrance disguised as a public toilet, lies the perfect option for an unusual evening in Budapest: psychedelic mini golf. Local blogger and small business owner Jordan Lee calls Ütős Mini Golf “fun and different, with crazy routes and a bar where the seats hang from the ceiling!” Set within a pub, the course is imaginative – think putting through a fake washing machine, a mini-Manhattan and a black-room – and adorned in bold neon lights.

Cruise the Danube for the price of a bus ticket

While there are a large number of organised boat tours on offer in Budapest, an inexpensive alternative is to take a ride on the public ferries run by BKK, the company in charge of Budapest’s public transport system. BKK has four boat lines that offer ticket-holders scenic jaunts along the Danube for just 750 forints (£2). Simply board at any one of the participating docks (you can find a full timetable at the BKK website), and enjoy the ride. Bikes are also permitted on board, so active visitors might like to take the boat up river and bike back into town. The participating boat lines are D2, D11, D12, and D14, which all run well into the evening.

A boat trip is a popular option for getting a fresh perspective on Budapest | © Andrey Andronov / Alamy Stock Photo

Explore the labyrinthine caves beneath Buda Castle

Once closed to visitors, the natural caves beneath Buda Castle are open again for exploration. Twisting and turning and stretching for over three kilometres (two miles), these cellars have been used over the years for a multitude of purposes; a shelter during the Middle Ages, a prison, a 16th-century Turkish harem residence, and a hospital during the Second World War. Tours of this maze of caves – which is well-paved but sometimes poorly lit – takes in ruins of medieval buildings, cave drawing reproductions, and even a nod to Dracula. According to local myth, Vlad Tepes, better known as Count Dracula, was imprisoned here by Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus. A special Oil Lamp Tour is offered every evening at 6pm, led by the glow of a spooky flickering light.

Over three kilometres of caves wind beneath Buda Castle | © Johnny Madsen / Alamy Stock Photo

Enjoy an al fresco movie at a rooftop cinema

There’s no better way to spend a summer evening in the Hungarian capital than lying back in a deckchair to enjoy a movie at a rooftop cinema. The Budapest Rooftop Cinema has been running since 2012, showing a diverse range of films – from cinema classics to recent Hollywood blockbusters. Each film is shown in its original language with Hungarian or other international subtitles, so it’s a great place for out-of-town visitors.

An evening at an open-air cinema is a popular summer pastime in Budapest | © Julio Etchart / Alamy Stock Photo

Marvel at the beauty of the Ervin Szabó Library

The principal repository of Budapest’s public library system, the Ervin Szabó Library is located in the converted palatial mansion of a 19th-century Hungarian aristocrat (Count Frigyes Wenckheim). The property was purchased by the City Council in 1931, and is now open to the public – visitors can either visit the ground-floor café or register at reception (don’t forget your photo ID) to gain access to more of the building. The mansion’s Dining Room has been converted to a beautiful reading room, and the Smoking Room, with a sweeping spiral staircase, features dark mahogany bookshelves and a hanging chandelier.

The Ervin Szabó Library is set within a converted mansion | © Yury Dmitrienko / Alamy Stock Photo

Take the scenic tramline 2

Budapest’s Line 2 tram route is picturesque, even by Budapest standards – it’s frequently called the most scenic tram journey in the world. Some sights along the way include the Palace of Arts, Buda Castle, the Chain Bridge, the Margit Bridge and the stunning Neo-Gothic Parliament Building. The tram itself is a piece of Budapest history, a retro yellow vehicle dating back to Hungary’s Communist era.

Tramline 2 passes the Hungarian Parliament Building | © Anders Tukler / Alamy Stock Photo

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