Things to do in Budapest – where to begin? A city rich in culture and heritage, it's hard to know what to prioritise during a short trip. The first thing though, if possible, is to make sure your visit isn't too short on time – schedule at least 3 full days if you hope to even scratch the surface of what this wonderful city has to offer. I struggled to choose the best from my long list of things I loved doing in Budapest, but in the end I was brutal and cut it down to the Top 5 things that shouldn't be missed if visiting Budapest for the first time:
1. UNITED EUROPE FREE WALKING TOUR
Budapest is an overwhelmingly large city – comprising of two sides, hilly 'Buda' and urban centre 'Pest' – and a walking tour can be a useful way to get quickly acquainted with the Hungarian capital on your first day, before going it alone. I joined the free walking tour with United Europe starting at Vörösmarty Square. It's a popular tour, but the guides do a good job of dividing the crowd up into smaller more manageable groups (but it's worth noting that even after this, the groups are still somewhat large, so if you are looking for more of an in-depth experience then it's better to book your own private tour instead). I was more than satisfied with my tour with United Europe though – despite the larger group sizes I felt that the guide involved everyone, herded us all along at a nice pace, and that I gained some detailed and really great local insight into the city in such a short time. The tour allows you tick off several of Budapest's main sights – the Danube Promenade, Municipal Concert Hall, St.Stephen’s Basilica, the Chain Bridge, the Castle District, the Royal Palace, Matthias Church and the Fisherman's Bastion, to name but a few. The great thing is, that as you walk along, you can make a note of those sights which you would like to learn more about and return to later to explore in more detail. The tour ends at the Fisherman's Bastion, a convenient spot whether your next stop is on the Buda or the Pest Side. As it ends around lunchtime though, I'd highly recommend having a pit stop in the Castle District. However, don't be drawn into the tourist traps. Head instead to the self-service, canteen-style restaurants that the locals frequent, such as Vár Bistro. The set lunchtime menus are winners on taste, and on price.
2. HUNGARIAN PARLIAMENT
As you may have realised from my other guides, I'm not a museum junkie. I prefer to spend the day walking around the city streets and getting lost, rather than queueing in a long line. Maybe I'm missing out, maybe I'm not – each to their own. I do, however, make some exceptions, and Budapest's Parliament was one of them. The Parliament's impressive building dominates the city skyline on the Pest side, so it's impossible to ignore. And ignore it I did not. Luckily for queue-haters like myself, those wishing to visit the Parliament can bear witness to tourist handling efficiency at its finest. Not only do visitors get assigned a time slot, it's also possible to book tickets online – which means there's no need to wait around whatsoever. If, like me, you want to leave your itinerary open and not tie yourself to a time, then it's possible to check the website the night before, see how many tickets are left for the next day, and then take a chance. I can recommend getting there early when there are less crowds, more tickets for English tours, and because the Parliament looks truly beautiful in the early morning light. The whole visit lasts around 50 minutes, including security check, but at no point do you feel rushed and hurried along by the guides. It's also worth noting that EU citizens get a significant discount on the entrance fee – so make sure to have that all-important ID handy.
3. VAJDAHUNYAD CASTLE
The Castle District on the Buda side of the Danube gets all of the attention, but there is a lesser-known castle beauty which deserves more than a fleeting look on your way to the thermal baths. Located in the City Park, around the corner from Széchenyi, is Vajdahunyad Castle. Looking like it stepped straight out of a Disney film, it seems unfair that a beautiful piece of architechture like Vajdahunyad is so overshadowed by other sights in Budapest – I had no idea of its existence and stumbled across it merely by chance when I saw its turrets sticking out above the tree tops. Although it appears as if it were built centuries ago, the castle was in fact built in 1896 as part of the Millennial Exhibition, and is a pastiche of the various celebrated architectural styles which can be seen throughout the city of Budapest. The castle is home to the Hungarian Agricultural Museum, but I think the best way to experience it, is simply to take some time to wander through the grounds. In summer, several musical events take place here – and even when I visited in the September there was a medieval market in full swing, with many tasty delights on offer to sample. While you are at it, do make sure to explore the rest of the City Park, too.
4. GELLÉRT HILL
One of the first things I find out when I arrive in a city, is where the best views are to be found. In Budapest you are somewhat spoilt for choice, with hilly Buda offering several different vantage points, and the bridges over the Danube offering great spots for watching the sun go down. Among the crème de la crème for perfect panoramas though, is certainly Géllert Hill – easily recognisable by the Liberty Statue and citadel which sit atop it. Take your time wandering through the parkland and be ready to be rewarded handsomely for your efforts with stunning uninterrupted views of the skyline, and all eight bridges running across the Danube. Once you're done soaking up the views, take time for a soak in the Art Nouveau style Géllert Thermal Baths located at the bottom of the hill – arguably one of the most beautiful in Budapest thanks to its glass roof.
5. THERMAL BATHS
A trip to Budapest wouldn't truly be complete without experiencing one or more of the many thermal baths in the city. Based in Bavaria, I'm no stranger to thermal baths – and I love them. I wasn't sure what to expect in Budapest, as Germany and Austria had already set the bar somewhat high, but I enjoyed every moment of soaking in the Hungarian thermal waters. What sets the experience apart from other thermal baths, is most certainly the architecture. Take Géllert Thermal Bath for example, with its light shafts streaming elegantly down from the glass ceiling, which make it feel akin to a place of worship and/or home of holy waters. The beautiful architectural features continue at the considerably bigger Széchenyi Bath – a veritable labyrinth of a place which unsurprisingly takes the title of the largest medicinal bath in Europe. Going it alone at the thermal baths in Budapest isn't a problem, as despite many baths now having a mixed-sex policy, swimwear stays on at all times – even in the steam rooms (phew!). Furthermore, keeping valuables safe isn't a hassle because most baths now have electronic locker keys. The keys work for your main locker inside the changing rooms and also for the smaller ones in outside areas, where you may wish to keep your money for when you get parched or peckish so you don't have to trek back (a distinct advantage for Széchenyi). I recommend always packing swimwear, a quick-dry towel and some flip flops in your backpack, so that way you can take a dip in one of the baths when the mood takes you. It's worth noting too, that some baths such as Géllert require a swim cap for the swimming pool parts. Don't get confused at Géllert though, a cap is not required for the thermal pools, so if you don't want to spend your money on a cap and aren't fussed about going in the swimming pools, then you don't need one. I, however, do recommend paying the extra pennies and getting a cap (or bringing your own with you) because a) the pool in the main hall with the glass ceiling requires a cap and is worth experiencing, and b) it offers the ideal opportunity for some 'sexy' swim cap selfies – who doesn't love those?