After landing in Budapest, Hungary, we got stuck in the passport control line in the airport for over an hour, and ended up chatting with an American expat living in Budapest. Seizing the opportunity, we hit him up for a few local recommendations. His main advice was to break out of the Pest side of the city and explore the Buda Hills. We spent plenty of time on the more popular Pest side of the city, visiting places that top most lists of the ten best things to do in Budapest, and eating our way through Budapest’s Jewish Quarter. After fully exploring the Pest side, we headed over to the Buda side. Here are our favorite things to do in Budapest, on the Buda side!
Buda Castle District
The castle district is probably on everyone’s to-do list, for good reason. So many of the best things to do in Budapest are over in the Buda Castle District. Here you have Buda Castle, Matthias Church, and Fisherman’s Bastion all within a short walk of each other.
Though there has been some form of a royal palace here for hundreds of years, Buda Castle was blasted with heavy artillery fire and burned out during WWII, so the current incarnation was reconstructed within the last 60 years. Housed within the Castle are three museums, including the Hungarian National Gallery. I was pleasantly surprised by this modest, but well-curated collection. As you make your way through the museum, you experience the movements in the Hungarian art scene by room. The information on the walls succinctly describes the era and influences, and I left the museum feeling like I had a basic, but well-rounded understanding of the country’s artists without being overwhelmed.
The museum also houses a small collection of works by big name artists like Raphael, El Greco, Frans Hals, and Monet.
As part of your museum entrance, you can go to the top of the dome. Budapest is full of amazing lookouts, and this is one of the best views in Budapest. Here you get sweeping views of the Danube and the Pest side of the city.
Similar to the castle, a place of worship has been on this site since Medieval times. With destruction from wars and occupations over the centuries, the structure has gone through many revisions with the most recent restoration completed in 2013. My favorite part was the multi-colored, patterned roof made with Zsolnay ceramic tiles.
Fisherman’s Bastion is one place you cannot miss when you go to Budapest! Directly in front of the Matthias Church on the hill’s edge is Fisherman’s Bastion, supposedly named for the fishermen responsible for defending this stretch of the bank against invaders in the Middle Ages. This white stone fairytale terrace topped with seven turrets is swarmed with visitors snapping shots of the panoramic views of the Danube, Margaret Island, Pest and Gellért Hill. The main level balconies are free, but it costs 700 Forint to venture up to the top of the turrets. At the Gozsdu Antique Market, I picked up a 1920s postcard of Fisherman’s Bastion. It was fun to think of the sender walking up the same steps and enjoying the same views.
Castle Hill Funicular
Though it’s not a long walk up the hill, it’s fun to take the Castle Hill Funicular.
Where to eat near Buda Castle
Most of the places around Buda Castle are touristy and overpriced, but we found a few places that made a great place to stop and eat during our day of exploring the Buda side of Budapest. So if you’re in the castle district and hunger strikes, check out Ruszwurm Cukrászda or the government workers’ cafeteria.
The highlight of Ruszwurm Cukrászda is it’s 200 year old cherry-wood counter displaying cakes and strudel. This café is cosy and the cake delicious, but definitely catering to tourists as it’s steps away from Matthias Church and the lovely people serving your cake are in traditional costumes.
A few minutes walk away just off the street Fortuna Utca is the government workers’ café. Nothing fancy, but it serves up solid, traditional Hungarian food for cheap. We’re talking big portions for what equates to €3. If you walk under the arch off Fortuna and into the passage, pass the first restaurant and go through an unsigned door up to the first floor. Here you’ll have plenty of options in a self-service cafeteria.
This place may be a bit hard to find, so if you go on the original Free Budapest Walking Tour that starts at 10:30 am, you’ll end up on the hill around lunch time and your guide will show you the way.
We climbed around Gellért Hill our first night in Buda, mesmerized by all of the buildings and bridges lit up along the Danube. Budapest is one of the most beautiful cities at night.
Though Margaret Island is technically in the middle of the Danube, the vibes are more in line with the Buda side. We had a long list of things to do in Budapest, but loved slowing down and spending a relaxing afternoon at this wooded park. Margaret Island is the perfect place to get away from it all without having to go far at all. It’s fun to explore on foot or in a bringo cart.
No trip to Budapest would be complete without a dip in a thermal bath. The thermal baths are incredibly popular with both tourist and locals. A visit to the Szechenyi baths was at the top of our list of things to do in Budapest, with the ornate yellow buildings, whirpools, and large outdoor pools. There are a few thermal baths on the Buda side of the city, like the Rudas Baths or the Gellért Spa.
Hiking in the Buda Hills
Buda and Pest developed as two distinctly different cities on opposite sides of the Danube with no bridge connecting them until 1849, when the Chain Bridge created a path across the river. On our way to take the chairlift up to the highest point of Budapest, Elizabeth Lookout Tower on János Hill, we got off the bus a stop early and took a stroll through the neighborhood. The open space and quiet, residential streets with large houses buried behind gates and trees stood in direct contrast to the busy, grand boulevards of Pest.
We got a nice surprise once we arrived at the Zugliget Chairlift. The posted sign read “Down for maintenance.” It was a beautiful spring day, and we’re always up for a little adventure, so we decided to hike up. It started off as paved stairs, then turned into a dusty steep trail. I noticed trails all over the mountain on the way to the top, so I’m not exactly sure which one was the official trail. I just kept heading up, which eventually worked out. When we got to the final hill capped with Elizabeth Lookout Tower, there was a set of stairs to the top. Someone on the way down cautioned me to be careful with a baby, that it was a bit dodgy to get to the top. I had to laugh, it was only a small set of stairs . If he only knew.
Once you get to the top, there is a network of well-maintained, white gravel walking paths, great for running or biking all around the Buda Hills. You have a complete 360-degree view from the lookout tower, and there are several parks with play equipment, picnic tables, and of course beautiful views.
Randomly enough, after I made my way down from the Buda Hills that day, I ended up running into the gentlemen we met in the airport just outside of St. Stephen’s Basilica. This is basically in the most touristy part on the Pest side. I quickly wanted to say, “Hey, I haven’t been hanging out here the whole time! I just spent all morning hiking the Buda Hills!” I don’t know why I felt like I had to defend myself. The Pest side is great too, even the touristy parts. But I really loved experiencing this distinctly different and beautiful side of the city.
[Quick note: The Zugliget Chairlift was also down for maintenance when this gentleman’s parents came to visit a few weeks prior. When I was there, workers were currently working on the lift, so it wasn’t like someone put up a sign and walked away. Perhaps it has problems often, or this was just a coincidence? I hope it’s working when you go, otherwise it’s a beautiful hike!]