(First published on http://welovebudapest.com/budapest.and.hungary/top.10.things.to.do.in.budapest.1 7 August 2014)
Royal Palace and Castle District
You can't miss the World Heritage-listed Royal Palace and Castle Hill. The palace is one of the city skyline's most distinct features, with its huge green dome towering over the city; this majestic building is home to the Hungarian National Gallery and theBudapest History Museum, and nearby landmarks include the Sándor Palace (the Magyar president's residence) and the National Dance Theater. Spend a few hours exploring the Castle District: check out the view from the famous Fishermen's Bastion, admire the tiled roof of the Matthias Church, perhaps try a delicious cake at the Ruszwurm café, or simply soak up the atmosphere while walking the cobbled streets. You can take a leisurely walk up to the Castle Hill plateau, but a popular alternative is the funicular that leaves from Clark Ádám Square at the Buda end of the Chain Bridge.
District VII ruin pubs and party places
Budapest's huge nightlife scene is widely renowned, and it's largely centered in the Jewish Quarter of District VII. The area's top party places are all within easy walking distance from each other, so explore streets such as Kazinczy, Király, Dob, and Akácfa along with spacious gathering points like Gozsdu Udvar and Madách Square. While there are plenty of restaurants and cafés to be found, this area is particularly famous for its ruin pubs. Must-see venues include Szimpla Kert, Fogasház, Mazel Tov,Ellátó Kert, and the restaurants and bars of Gozsdu Udvar. In the warmer months, garden bars and rooftop venues are very popular, so try Gozsdu Sky Terrace andKőleves Kert, while in winter cozy venues like Lokál and Lámpás are popular. But don't let this list restrict you – there are literally dozens of other hotspots to stumble upon. If you do happen to cross into neighboring districts V, VI, or VIII, here are some other places you could visit: Anker't, Instant, Most, Tip Top Bar, and Corvintető.
Relax in a thermal bath
Budapest’s abundant underground thermal waters mean that there are dozens of thermal baths dotted throughout the city. The stunning architecture of the Széchenyi Bath mean it’s like swimming in a beautiful palace (although it can get very crowded with fellow visitors). The hot thermal waters allow the outdoor pools to remain open in the winter months – swimming outside amid falling snow is a surreal experience. The Gellért Bath has old-world charm and is particularly popular with older people soaking their bones. The Király Bath is dates back to the 1500s, during the time of Ottoman rule; here there's a relaxed atmosphere, plus the feel of a traditional Turkish bath. For something that's less about relaxing and more about partying in your bathing suit, Széchenyi Bath is the location for frequent Saturday-night pool parties.
Walk in District V: St. Stephen's Basilica and the Parliament House
There is so much to see in District V – just around every corner there’s a beautiful building or a historic sight. The newly renovated Parliament House and the redeveloped Kossuth Square are near the Margaret Bridge end of the district on the banks of the Danube. There’s a 45-minute tour of Parliament you can book in advance, although walking around the building itself is also something special. Closer to Deák Square lies St. Stephen's Basilica – for a small fee, ascend to the balcony surrounding the Basilica dome, offering some of the best views of the city. Other places to look out for in District V are Váci Utca (a historic pedestrianized shopping street), Vörösmarty Square (site of the venerable Gerbeaud House and Christmas markets), and the Sziget Eye during summertime. If exploring the city on foot is your preferred option, then here are some walking tours to consider.
Explore the Danube and its bridges by boat
While you can walk along both banks of the Danube, taking a boat ride is a great way to enjoy the beautiful panorama of the city by day – and also at night, when the city lights are simply magical. Another way to experience this view is by walking across any one of the central bridges; the views from Margaret Bridge, the Chain Bridge, Elizabeth Bridge, and Liberty Bridge are especially breathtaking.
See Heroes' Square and City Park
At the end of Andrássy Avenue lies Heroes’ Square, which is one of Budapest’s postcard superstars. The complex showcases statues of Hungarian leaders and national figures, while the square itself is flanked on both sides by museums. Behind it is City Park, where you can enjoy a picnic, walk through open fields, or relax by the lake (where you can ice skate in winter). Vajdahunyad Castle is also located at City Park, and this architectural marvel is definitely worth exploring. The glorious Széchenyi Bath and the family-friendly Budapest Zoo are within City Park also. If you need a break – and are looking for a treat – head to the Gundel restaurant for an elegant meal, or visit the eternally romantic Robinson restaurant.
Explore Margaret Island
This charming parkland isle in the middle of the Danube just north of downtown is a popular open-air retreat for locals and visitors alike. We Love Budapest has already provided a rundown on what to see around Margaret Island, so don't miss discovering these alluring destinations. While most of the activities are geared toward the warmer months, during winter it's still possible to run the 5.8km-long rubberized track around the island.
Climb Gellért Hill
The highest peak of central Budapest is Gellért Hill, named after Saint Gerard, who – legend has it – was squeezed into a barrel by pagans rising up against Christianity, before he was thrown down the hill. Beginning your hike beside the Gellért Baths, it'll take an hour, at most, to walk up to the Citadel, where there are viewing platforms down onto the Danube and the entire inner city. Atop the hill is the iconic Liberty Statue, which you can catch glimpses of from many parts of the city. On the way up you can also visit the Gellért Hill Caves. If you happen to be walking up from the opposite side, you’ll come across the Saint Gellért Monument, marking the location where he was allegedly thrown to his death, but now providing stunning views over the river and Elizabeth Bridge.
Traditional Hungarian food
Hungary is famous for its cuisine, which is heavy on its use of paprika, meat, and cabbage. Traditional dishes include gulyás (meat soup), paprikás csirke (paprika chicken), lecsó (tomato and pepper stew), töltött káposzta (meat stuffed in cabbage), and kolbász (sausage), among many others. For dessert, favorites includesomlói galuska (chocolate and cream sponge cake), gundel palacsinta (pancakes with chocolate and nuts), and dobos torta (layered sponge cake with a hard caramel top). For a snack, try lángos or kürtős kalács at the famous Central Market Hall. Some popular traditional-Hungarian restaurants include Pozsonyi Kisvendéglő, Tüköry Étterem, and Mátyás Pince. For a modern twist on Hungarian cuisine, try theserestaurants with panoramic views of the city. We've mentioned some other confectioneries throughout this list (Ruszwurm, Gerbeaud, Lotz Cafe), but without a doubt one of the most beautiful places to have cake and coffee is the New York Cafe.
Andrássy Avenue and the Opera House
Budapest's most famous and exclusive boulevard is Andrássy Avenue, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed street lined with expensive shops, embassies, and beautiful villas. On one end is Heroes’ Square, and at the other lies Erzsébet Square. Enjoy a pleasant walk along this street while taking detours along little side streets such as Liszt Ferenc Square, Nagymező Street, and Hajós Street. Running underneath Andrássy Avenue is continental Europe’s first metro (the yellow line M1), providing an easy way to see the major sights. Undoubtedly you’ll pass the Hungarian State Opera building, and if you happen to be in Budapest during opera season, it’s worthwhile to see a show as much for the performance as to admire the ambience. (Keep in mind tickets often sell out in advance.) Nearby are two other places of note: within the Alexandra bookstore, head inside and up the escalator to the Lotz Hall, a café with one of the most beautiful interiors in Budapest. Right next door, follow the signs to the rooftop 360 Bar, where you can enjoy a relaxed drink amid a beautiful panorama of the city.
Visit a museum
Budapest has some excellent museums and exhibitions, so make sure to check out what's happening around town. The permanent exhibitions of the Hungarian National Gallery in the Royal Palace, the Museum of Fine Arts at Heroes’ Square, or the House of Terror on Andrássy Avenue are interesting to view anytime.