Thermal Baths & Spas
Budapest sits on a crazy quilt of almost 125 thermal springs, and ‘taking the waters’ is very much a part of everyday life here. Some baths such as the Rudas date from Turkish times, others are art nouveau marvels and still others are spick-and-span modern establishments offering all sorts of treatments. Which one you choose is a matter of taste and what exactly you’re looking for – be it fun, a hangover cure or relief for something more serious.
Bombed and rebuilt at least half-a-dozen times since King Béla IV established a royal residence here in the mid-13th century, the Royal Palace has been home to kings and queens, occupiers such as the Turks in the 16th and 17th centuries, and nondomiciled rulers like the Habsburg royalty. Today the Royal Palace contains two important museums, the national library and an abundance of statues and monuments. It is the focal point of Buda's Castle Hill and the city’s most visited sight.
Ruin Pubs & Garden Clubs
A visit to Budapest during the long, hot summer is not complete without an evening in one of the city's many so-called kertek, literally 'gardens' but in Budapest any outdoor spot that has been converted into an entertainment zone. These often rough-and-ready venues, including courtyards, rooftops and romkocsmák (ruin pubs) that rise phoenix-like from abandoned buildings, can change from year to year and are seasonal, but some of the more successful ones, like Szimpla Kert, are now permanent and open year-round.
If the Royal Palace atop Castle Hill is the focal point on the Buda side, Parliament is the centrepiece along the Danube in Pest. Stretching for some 268m along the river and counting a superlative number of rooms (691) and courtyards (10), it is Hungary’s largest building. Parliament is the seat of the unicameral National Assembly, but parts of it, including the awesome Dome Hall, which contains the iconic Crown of St Stephen, can be visited on a guided tour.
The Danube & Its Bridges
Budapest’s dustless highway is ever present, neatly dividing the city and still serving as an important means of transport. The Danube bridges (all eight of them, not counting train bridges), at once landmarks and vantage points over the river, are the stitches that have bound Buda and Pest together since well before the two were linked politically in 1873. The four bridges in the centre stand head and shoulders above the rest: Margaret Bridge, wonderful Széchenyi Chain Bridge, Elizabeth Bridge and Liberty Bridge.
The largest Jewish place of worship outside New York City, the Moorish-style Great Synagogue is one of Budapest’s most eye-catching buildings. Built in 1859 for 3000 Conservative faithful, the distinctive structure, with its crenellated red-and-yellow glazed-brick facade and two enormous towers, stands next to the Hungarian Jewish Museum. In the courtyard is the poignant Holocaust Tree of Life Memorial, designed by sculptor Imre Varga. On the leaves of the metal 'tree of life' are the family names of some of the hundreds of thousands of victims.
Andrássy út & Heroes’ Square
Andrássy út, an elegant and leafy boulevard stretching 2.5km, links Deák Ferenc tér to the south with City Park in the north and contains so much to see, do and enjoy that it has been given an entry on Unesco’s World Heritage list. Along the way are museums, cafes and architectural marvels, but perhaps its most important sight comes at the end. Heroes’ Sq, the entrance to the park, is the nation’s monument to its earliest ancestors and a memorial to its war dead.
Basilica of St Stephen
Budapest’s largest and most important Christian house of worship is a gem of neoclassical architecture that took more than half a century to complete (largely due to the setback in 1868 when its dome came crashing down in a storm). The dome can now be scaled, and there is a rich treasury of ecclesiastical objects. But the main reason for coming is to view (and perhaps venerate) Hungary’s most sacred object: the mummified right hand of King St Stephen.
Containing statues and other memorials from the communist past, Memento Park can only be described as a cemetery of socialist mistakes, or a well-manicured trash heap of history. In southern Buda, it’s home to about four-dozen statues, busts and plaques of Lenin, Marx and home-grown henchmen like Béla Kun. Ogle the socialist-realist ‘art’ and try to imagine that some of the monstrosities were still being erected in the late 1980s and in place until the early 1990s.
They may be short on sights – though Béla Bartók’s house, where he spent his final year in Hungary, is open to visitors here – but the Buda Hills are a very welcome respite from the hot, dusty city in the warmer months. Perhaps their biggest draws are their unusual forms of transport: a narrow-gauge cog railway dating from the late 19th century will get you up into the hills, a train run by children takes you across them and a chairlift will glide you back down to terra firma.