Top 5 things to do in Budapest

By Eloise Barker

Photography by Peter Horvath / Getty Images

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It’s a city of two sides – the ruined past and the dynamic present. You can see both just by lounging in a bath lit by funky modern lighting at the historic Gellert spa. Whether you want to haunt the Castle District or prop up a ruin bar, Budapest has all the makings of a fantastic city break.

This is spa-town

No other city quite embraces its downtime in the same way as Budapest. People have been taking bathing to the next level here since the Romans lay aside their togas two millennia ago. Not only are the baths inexpensive, they are an integral part of the culture. Feel no shame in ducking out of a sightseeing tour to spend an afternoon wrapped in a robe. While the Gellert is the most historic, climb up to the rooftop bath of the Rudas for views over the city. Visit the Szechenyi on a weekend night at your peril – it’s a party spot. 

Where to stay: The luxurious Ritz-Carlton Budapest opened its spa in 2017. Head up to the 8th floor for a 24-hour gym, treatments and a swimming pool under the glass roof.

Visit the Budapest Gellert Thermal Spa

Those who are worried about running into stag dos (or who want to escape their own) in the Jewish Quarter’s ruin bars should check out the craft beers at Neked csak Dezso

Looking back

Hungary’s recent history looms large. Rather than letting this cast a shadow over the city, a series of brilliant museums strive to shine light upon the past. Grab an audio guide when you walk around the House of Terror. The former headquarters of the secret police is now home to an excellent, if terrifying, permanent exhibit on communist policing in Budapest. If you want to travel further back in time, cross into the Castle District of Buda. The impressive Castle Museum is actually comprised of three massive museums. Outside, the streets themselves, winding up to the spindly architecture of Matthias Church, have their own hidden histories. Take in the romantic terraces of Fisherman’s Bastion – you might walk in on someone else’s marriage proposal. Cure lovesickness in the vaulted chambers of the Golden Eagle Pharmacy Museum.

Where to stay: Hotel Moments is a boutique historic hotel. Though it’s on the same street as the House of Terror, it’s a far more welcoming prospect. All the rooms are uniquely designed and the whole place oozes character.

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  • Decorated arch in the famous Gellert spa. Photo credit: Kasuba Gyorgy / 123rf.

    Night on the tiles

    The beautiful blue Danube has nothing on the Gellert Spa. It’s decorated in the Art Noveau style but the changing rooms and lockers are surprisingly high tech.

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Get ruined

Budapest is beautiful by night and an evening riverside walk will reward you with a transformed city. The Danube ripples with reflections of the illuminated waterfront: the glorious symmetry of the Parliament building, the Chain Bridge and the street lamps. For a grand night out, the Hungarian State Opera is far less expensive than its Parisian and Viennese counterparts, though the standards inside are no less impressive. Those who are worried about running into stag dos (or who want to escape their own) in the Jewish Quarter’s ruin bars should check out the craft beers at Neked csak Dezso. All the beers at this bar - named after a communist film - are equally good.

Where to stay: Bo33 near the Jewish Quarter is just down the road after a night in the ruin bars. Best of all, it has its own rooftop sauna.

See Budapest by night

  • Sesame Tuna dish at the Buddah-Bar Hotel Budapest restaurant. Photo credit: Buddah-Bar Hotel Budapest.

    Oh my goulash

    You’ll want to save Hungary’s traditional dishes for another day when you see the modern fusion cuisine served up in restaurants like the Buddah-Bar.

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  • Gelarto Rosa, Budapest. Photo credit: Gelarto Rosa.

    Good enough to eat

    Block the view of St Stephen’s Basilica with a glorious ice cream. The church was bombed in World War II but now stands proud on the square.

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  • Locals and tourists in the central hall of Nagycsarnok Great Market. Photo credit: Buena Vista Images / Getty Images.

    To market

    Built in 1897, the massive, historic building of the Great Market Hall is always bustling. Pick up some goose liver pate and sausages from the butcher, or just follow your nose.

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Ice cream in the snow

Even in the freezing pit of January, there will be people queueing for Gelarto Rosa next to St Stephen's Basilica. The ice cream is served sculpted into a perfect rose shape that has to be seen to be believed. Elsewhere in the city, winter markets serve warmer fare and all year around you can buy specialities from the Great Market Hall. Hungarian food can be hearty and paprika-spiced, as found served on the white tablecloths of the wonderful Gundel restaurant. But the gastronomic scene is growing and with it comes a new generation of modern restaurants. Visit Macesz Bistro, which riffs imaginatively on the city’s Jewish heritage.

Where to stay: The luxurious, music-themed Aria Hotel serves great quality food and inventive cocktails, while the High Note SkyBar offers Instagram-worthy views of St Stephen's Basilica.

  • Dancers of the ballet company of the Hungarian State Opera. Photo credit: Csaba Domotor/Xinhua/Alamy Live News

    That holiday feeling

    Book flights from London to Budapest plus a three night stay from

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Family fun

Children – and adults, too – can’t fail to be impressed by the castles of Budapest and the stories they tell. While the rickety trams make for fun rides around town, go further afield to the Zugliget Chairlift, which whisks you up to Janos Hill, the city’s highest point. Alternatively take the nearby Children’s Railway, another unique transport attraction. Children with good grades from the local school run the whole experience. Be prepared for your kids to be very jealous.

Where to stay: Book a Deluxe Suite at the NH Collection in Budapest. It has an adjoining living room and kitchen, and a separate bath and shower, too, so it’s ideal for families.

Take a cruise on the Danube Budapest