The Queen of the Danube has long served as one of Europe’s most popular destinations. Still, few are really familiar with what exactly put Budapest on the map to begin with.
Budapest is famous for its displays of elegant, unique architecture, the local castle and its funicular, and legendary Roman-style hot baths. Budapest is also known for its underground cave network, colorful nightlife, and rich, multinational history.
No matter what imagery Budapest conjures up in your mind, rest assured that the city has a lot more to offer than that. Let’s get right into it and explore this list of the most world-famous things about Budapest!
1. Twin cities became one
It remains a bit of a little-known fact among casual tourists even today, but Budapest spent most of its original history not as one unified capital of Hungary, but as two separate cities!
Perhaps a bit predictably, their names were Buda and Pest – facing each other from opposite banks of the river Danube.
Today, the historical borders of Buda and Pest still constitute separate regions or neighborhoods within Budapest.
Locals and travelers alike usually have a preference for one or the other – think Paris and its age-old rive gauche-rive droite debate.
While this divide, just like the Parisian one, is way too deep and complex to delve into fully in a short guide, suffice it to say that Buda is considered the more “original” town by most.
Its architecture is much older and more residential for the most part, and the terrain is a lot more diverse, with dozens of hills and some forests to trek and hike through. This is also where most of the really famous sights of the city are.
Pest, on the other hand, has more attractions and more of a “downtown” vibe going on. This is the area that generally feels more like the quintessential contemporary European metropolis, whereas Buda reminds me more of the city centers of older capitals like Prague, Bratislava, or even the old town of Warsaw.
I for one don’t think you can go wrong with either of the two – just pick whichever best suits your personal style!
2. The Chain Bridge
On the subject of Buda and Pest: if you are feeling curious and want to see the other side of the city for a bit, chances are you’ll do so by crossing the famous Chain Bridge.
It’s been one of Budapest’s most enduring landmarks since the 1840s.
Curiously enough, the design and construction were actually handled by two British engineers! Still, the Chain Bridge is considered one of the most enduring symbols of prosperity and East-West unity within Hungary and the Danube region as a whole.
After its construction, the bridge became – and for a long time remained – the only permanent crossing of the Danube in the whole country! This is what enabled people from Buda and Pest to mingle much more easily, and arguably led to the two cities’ unification a few decades later.
3. The ruin bars
Very few attractions have arguably defined the appeal of Budapest in the hearts and minds of travelers as much as the Ruin Bars.
Curiously enough, they’re a relatively recent phenomenon! The story goes that, following World War Two, the seventh district of Budapest, which formerly housed the city’s Jewish Ghetto, became dilapidated and neglected by the local authorities.
This lasted for many decades until at some point in the 2000s, people began to invest in and re-fashion the district’s many ruins into moody little ateliers, bars, and cafés.
Today, visiting this area of the city, it’s basically impossible not to run into at least a few of the Ruin Bars – just follow the noise!
Szimpla Kert is probably the most famous (and supposedly the oldest) of these, and it remains the quintessential example of what most imagine a Ruin Bar is like.
Similarly, if you want to get a taste of the “shabby chic” aesthetic with some drinks to match, check out Instant, Mazel Tov, and Doboz.
I would also recommend Tűzraktár – it’s a bit of an experimental take, not just a bar but more of a cultural space fashioned out of the skeletal remains of an abandoned factory. It’s truly huge, and at night there’s always something lively going on here!
Most of the action is concentrated in and around the sixth, seventh, and eighth districts within Pest.
This is yet again one defining feature of the two towns and their diverging personalities – Buda at night is truly gorgeous thanks to its mountaintop views and cobblestone alleys, but it’s also quiet, calm, and slow.
Pest, on the other hand, stays up 24 hours a day, always loud, on the move, and full of energy!
Note that the Budapest clubbing scene has quite a reputation – so much so that, to get into some of the more name-brand establishments, you might be better off booking in advance.
5. No skyscrapers
I mentioned especially Pest as having that quintessential “European metropolis” vibe, and for the most part that’s true – except when you look up and realize all the rooflines are surprisingly low.
The reason for this is as simple as it is endearing: the tallest church in Budapest, the St. Stephen’s Basilica, and the Parliament building are both 96 meters tall. This is a reference to 896, the year that Hungary formally came into existence as a country.
As a result, there is actually a law on the books that says that no structure within the area of Budapest can be any taller than these two. Makes for a pretty unique-looking cityscape today, doesn’t it?
6. The shoes on the riverbank
This is more of a somber note on one thing that Budapest is known for, but it deserves mentioning.
Especially to me personally as a Jewish traveler, the histories of Jewish culture, and ultimately expulsion and genocide during the Holocaust in Europe are incredibly important.
Based on my experience, I can say that Budapest has one of the most unique memorials commemorating this dark time out of all the great cities of Europe I’ve been to – so unique in fact, that you might not realize what it is that you’re looking at when you first see it.
The memorial consists of a long row of life-sized, sculpted shoes standing on the bank of the Danube on the Pest (East) side. These symbolize the shoes that thousands of Jewish victims were told to take off before they were rounded up right here by the river and executed by mass shooting, their bodies dumped into the water.
Chilling, understated, and a beautiful addition to the city’s diverse backdrop of aesthetic clashes, the shoes by the Danube are rightly one of the many things that Budapest is famous for today.
7. Markets galore
If you’re thrifty like me and would never pass up on the opportunity to find a real steal, Budapest is going to make you happy.
Arguably the greatest attraction – and the one that Budapest is the most famous for – is the Central Market, or Nagy Vásárcsarnok. It’s a giant indoor affair housed in a classy neo-Gothic building, with lots of wares inside from fresh food to antiquities and knickknacks.
There is also the giant Ecseri flea market, a more traditional and impromptu event that takes place mostly outdoors at the very edge of Pest.
Sure, the Hungarian national dish doesn’t originate from what is now Budapest specifically. But nowhere else are you going to find as many storied, world-renowned places to try authentic beef goulash as here!
Budapest is famous for its many cozy eateries where goulash is usually part of the main course served for lunch or dinner. I’d recommend places like Gettó Gulyás, Menza, Rosenstein, and Tüköry.
Most of these are located in the Jewish Quarter and draw from a long history of making traditional Hungarian dishes, including everyone’s favorite beef stew. But you’ll also find plenty of places out in the narrow alleys of Buda to please your taste buds!
9. Excellent transportation
Budapest, especially throughout Pest which is much flatter and lower in elevation, has some excellent public transport. Punctual, easy to understand, quick – it’s everything you could ask for.
Sure, this might not be the most exciting thing to say about a city, but it’s not just that everything is well-connected. Budapest is actually known for having one of the oldest and most historically significant public transportation networks in the world!
The Budapest Metro is particularly notable as being the first of its kind in continental Europe, having been in operation since the year 1896!
Because the Metro has only ever totaled four lines, the bulk of public transportation is carried out by Budapest’s buses – which number in the thousands and run a whopping 231 different lines!
There are actually so many buses on the road today that the municipal authority has decided to freeze further bus line expansion in favor of trams, which have also been a part of the Budapest cityscape for many generations.
10. The funicular
If you’ve ever had the chance to visit Lyon, you know that one of the most pride-filled idiosyncrasies of that beautiful city is its charming little network of funiculaires.
Similarly, Budapest has its own, equally historic and romantic funicular railway. It operates in Buda, hauling visitors from sea level all the way up a steep hill towards the Buda castle. This is why it is also called the “Castle funicular” sometimes.
While it’s a bit annoying that you have to pay a special fare to take a trip on the funicular (the regular public transport tickets aren’t valid), I’d say it’s still worth it. Not just for the sake of those San Francisco-esque train cars, but also for the amazing views!
11. Buda Castle
So, what do you do when you’re up that hill? Why not go and see one of the pieces of architecture that Budapest is most known for worldwide: Buda Castle!
Situated near the peak of the tallest hill in Buda, the castle was originally constructed in the 13th century as the primary residence of the ruling aristocracy in Hungary.
Later additions were completed over the following centuries until the original castle-and-palace complex was almost entirely destroyed in bombing raids during the war.
The castle you see today is a slightly toned-down reconstruction from the 1960s.
Still, with the sheer scale, baroque opulence, and sense of power that the castle evokes today, you have to marvel at what it must have been like to stand there back then!
12. Thermal baths
Perennially visited and enjoyed by countless foreigners (and locals) year-round, Budapest’s hot baths are legendary.
Due to the city’s unique location right on top of a geological fault line, the soil under Budapest is home to countless thermal springs.
Already during Roman times, and later under the Ottoman Empire, these were harnessed to create dozens of lavish public spas.
Today, Budapest is famous for being not just Hungary’s or Europe’s spa capital, but the world’s.
By far the largest and most culturally significant remains Széchenyi Bath, but do also check out the beautiful Gellért Baths with their art nouveau ambiance, as well as Lukákcs.
13. Caves to lose yourself in
Budapest is known the world over for its underground caves.
In fact, it is the only major city in the world where there is an extensive network of caves and tunnels hidden beneath the streets!
There are a few large caves that have become significant tourist attractions, and for a modest fee, you can book a walking tour there. The biggest ones are Pálvölgyi, Szemlőhegy, and Mátyáshegy.
For real enthusiasts and fans of extreme sports, there are hundreds more worth exploring – though you should do so at your own risk, and preferably in the presence of an experienced guide.
Budapest attracts thousands of travelers each year who come here specifically for “caving”. That is, exploring some of the more unmapped and geologically impressive caves that can be dangerous to traverse.
I’ve personally met a few who have dared to venture into the depths this way, and they tell me that Budapest’s caves in particular, formed by geological processes unique to this region of Hungary, are some of the trickiest they’ve seen.
While caving might not be for everyone, you don’t have to risk your life to admire the fact that Budapest is not just one of the world’s most beautiful cities, but also exists right on top of one of the most impressive geological formations in the world!
14. A capital of many nations
Let’s finish off this guide to the things that have made Budapest famous with a little history lesson.
What we know now as Budapest already existed before the notion of “Hungary” was on anyone’s minds – as early as 50-30 BC, the Celts were probably the first to settle on some of the hills in what is now Buda.
The Romans invaded and greatly expanded the settlement later, and after that came the Huns, the Bulgars, the French, and finally the independent Hungarian kingdom, which would reign here until the Ottomans swooped in and occupied the city for about a century and a half starting in 1541.
Later still, Budapest benefited from significant cultural exchange as the second capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire until 1918.
With that in mind, it is no wonder that to this day Budapest is famous for being one of the most international and culturally diverse European capitals.
From strong Ottoman, West European, and Roman influences to the undeniable footprint of the Romani people that have lived here for centuries, Budapest is what it is today thanks to this eclectic mix of backgrounds.