In addition to the many things to do on Castle Hill and along Andrássy Ut, these are the top attractions in Budapest: Hungarian Parliament Building, Basilica of Saint Stephen, Great Synagogue, Gellért Baths, and Great Market Hall.
Of these, the most iconic sight in Budapest is surely the Parliament Building. Inspired by the Palace of Westminster in London, the gleaming white structure is a magnificent mass of neo-Gothic spires and arches stretching 268 meters alongside the Danube River. The central dome reaches 96 meters high, making it the tallest building in the city. The grand staircase at the entrance is made up of 96 steps, as that number references the founding of Hungary in 896 and the millennial celebrations of 1896 when the building was inaugurated.
The interior of the Parliament building resembles a Baroque palace, with nearly 40 kilos of gold used in the ornamentation. Statues of Hungarian and Austrian monarchs adorn the columns and the seating is covered in red velvet. Massive chandeliers cast everything in an antique yellow glow.
I took one of the several daily English tours and was shown around three areas of the building, including the landing where the Hungarian national treasures are kept under lock and key. The most important is the Crown of Saint Stephen, the 12th century regalia once worn by Hungary’s kings. Interestingly, the cross on top of the crown was bent – no one knows how – and never fixed. This precious item is the only thing we were asked not to photograph during the tour. For more information, visit the official website.
St Stephen’s Basilica is actually tied with Parliament as Budapest’s tallest building, standing 96 meters high. The Roman Catholic church is named for Hungary’s first king, whose mummified right hand is enshrined within. Saint Stephen’s hand is remarkably well preserved considering it’s over 1,000 years old.
Opened in 1905, the Basilica took an astonishing 54 years to complete due to the collapse of the central dome. The damage was so severe, the whole structure had to be demolished and rebuilt from scratch. Classical music concerts are held inside Saint Stephen’s Basilica every Thursday. To be surrounded by such visual and acoustic beauty is truly inspiring.
It’s possible visit the top of the dome for sweeping views of the city. (You can climb 364 steps to the top, though I’m not sure why you’d want to when a perfectly good elevator will whisk you up in a few seconds.) Time your visit to the top of the dome to coincide with the hourly ringing of the bells. The sound is incredible! You can find information about entry times and prices here.
Budapest’s Dohány Street Synagogue, also known as the Great Synagogue, is one of the largest Jewish temples in the world. Originally built in the mid-19th century, the Great Synagogue was bombed by the Nazis in 1939 and used as a horse stable during World War II. Restoration work began in the 1990s, funded largely by Estée Lauder, whose parents were of Hungarian Jewish descent. Today the space is lovely, in shades of pink, white and gold, and it’s difficult to imagine the hatred that once destroyed such a sacred place.
The Great Synagogue also serves as Budapest’s Jewish Museum and Holocaust Memorial, which honors the 450,000 Hungarian Jews killed by the Nazis. In the back courtyard, a silver weeping willow stands over the mass grave of the thousands who perished in Budapest’s Jewish ghetto. The names of the victims are engraved on the leaves of the tree.
The largest and oldest market in Budapest, the Great Market Hall is a showstopper. Neo-Gothic in design, the spired roof of the 19th century building is covered in striking Zsolnay tiles. Taking up nearly 10,000 square meters, the market boasts hundreds of stalls spread over three floors. You can buy everything here from fresh fish and produce to tins of smoked paprika and embroidered table linens. Locals and tourists alike flock to the Great Market for staples and souvenirs. Foodies can also find plenty to excite them, including freshly baked strudels and lángos, a deep-fried flat bread covered with cheese and sour cream. Check the market’s opening hours before going to avoid disappointment.
Located above a major fault line, Budapest is a geothermal hot spot. Of all the thermal spas in Budapest, Gellért Baths is the most atmospheric. The gorgeous art nouveau complex was built to impress, from the vaulted stained-glass ceiling in the lobby to the fountains covered with porcelain mosaics. The spa is attached to the Hotel Gellért, named for the martyred saint who first introduced Christianity to Hungary.
The Gellért Baths consist of 13 pools, with water temperatures ranging from 26-38 °C. About half the pools are co-ed, so you will need a swimsuit; bathing caps are required for the large indoor swimming pool. Both items are available for rent along with towels. During summer, a large wave pool and sundeck are opened on the roof, making this the perfect place to relax for a day.
Which of these top Budapest attractions would you most like to visit?