From ancient Celtic origins through to pillaging by the Mongols and on to become the co-capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Budapest has a fascinating and complex history astride the River Danube.
Take a walk across the Széchenyi Chain Bridge for some of the best views along the river and up to the castle, and then take a look at the more unusual things to see in Budapest.
1. St. Stephen’s Basilica
The basilica is worth visiting for its grand facade and peaceful nave, but the real surprise is in the Chapel of the Holy Right. Yes, it really is a thousand-year-old mummified hand in a golden box.
The Holy Right Hand of St Stephen (or St Istvan in Hungarian) heads the national parade on St Stephen’s Day on August 20th. As the founder of the Hungarian nation, the saint’s relic rests at the heart of the city. You can pay a few forints (Hungarian currency) to turn the lights on so you can get a good picture!
2. Dohány Street Synagogue
Consecrated in 1859, the impressive synagogue in the Pest area of the city is the largest synagogue in Europe. Only New York’s Temple Emanu-El is larger in the world.
It’s built in the Moorish style with ornate brickwork and a distinctive rose window reminiscent of medieval Spain.
The synagogue was part of the Jewish Ghetto in 1944-45 under Nazi occupation and there’s a cemetery in the garden for those who died at the time.
There’s a metal sculpture of a weeping willow in the memorial garden, each leaf engraved with the name of those who died or disappeared under the Nazi occupation.
An extension houses the Hungarian Jewish Museum, built in 1930-31, which holds many valuable religious articles.
Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Hungary. Just before I visited in 2012, the far-right Jobbik party called for a national list of Jews [BBC]. This event sparked the idea for my novel, One Day in Budapest, which opens with a terrorist act blamed on the Jews of Budapest.
3. Turkish Baths
Budapest sits on over 200 caves, many carved out by thermal water, and the city’s residents enjoy many Turkish baths and spas including the famous Széchényi and Gellért Baths, with both indoor and outdoor pools.
The Király or the Veli Bej baths boast fewer crowds while the Rudas Baths stay open until 4 am on Fridays and Saturdays. Barely changed since the Ottoman rule of 1550, the baths provide a good insight into traditional Hungarian architecture.
That said, the Széchényi Baths now offer modern aquafit sessions alongside the more traditional saunas and jacuzzi pools!
4. Caving beneath the city
Some of Budapest’s network of caves are open to tourists. The more adventurous visitor can follow a 30km long climb/crawl through a multi-level cave system. It takes almost three hours to complete and involves narrow passages so it’s better suited to experienced climbers.
If that makes you shudder, then the cave walk is the better option. Its collection of cave corals and calcite plates lead to the cave being dubbed the ‘underground flower garden’ of Budapest.
5. Hospital in the Rock Nuclear Bunker Museum
Staying with the underground theme, the Hospital in the Rock is a subterranean hospital museum under Buda Castle built in the late 1930s in preparation for the Second World War. It harbored the wounded and the dead during the Siege of Budapest in 1944-45.
It’s part of the six miles of tunnels and caves beneath Buda Castle Hill, which also housed the labyrinth. An interactive experience tells the history of the hospital during the Second World War.
The hospital expanded to include a military bunker during the Cold War. It opened as a museum in 2008. While the shelters never saw actual use, you can try your hand at a nuclear readiness drill alongside other visitors.
6. Shoes on the Danube Memorial
Walk along the bank of the Danube towards the Parliament building and you’ll find sixty pairs of shoes cast in iron.
Between December 1944 and January 1945, the Fascist Arrow Cross militia killed thousands of Jews here, pushing their bodies into the river — after telling them to remove their shoes. This sculpture honors the dead.
7. House of Terror Museum
Occupied by both the Nazis and the Soviet Union, Budapest has seen both fascism and communism in the last century. The House of Terror Museum occupies the former headquarters of the secret police where many people entered and never emerged again. You can see a memorial to the disappeared outside the building and their faces on the walls inside the museum.
Both the fascist Arrow Cross Party and the communist AVH organization feature in the interactive exhibitions. The displays commemorate those detained and killed in the building by AVH operatives (similar to the KGB).
The content can be disturbing, especially the cells in the basement where the torture and executions took place, but it’s well worth a visit to catch a glimpse of a terrifying past.
8. Memento Park
After Communism collapsed in Hungary in 1989, many of the Soviet sculptures were collected in Memento Park including a replica of Stalin’s boots.
9. Golden Eagle Pharmacy Museum
If medicine interests you, then this strange collection of oddities is one of the most unusual things to see in Budapest. It even contains a box of mummy powder, which is exactly what it sounds like.
Ground corpse dust.
Mummy powder became so popular that unscrupulous dealers made fake mummies by drying out recent corpses. Many other ingredients are equally Shakespearean, including hanging bats and dried crocodiles. There’s bound to be ‘eye of newt’ in there too. In all seriousness, the museum chronicles the development of medieval medicine.
If you’re going to Budapest for St Stephen’s Day, then there’s free admission on August 20.
10. Vajdahunyad Castle
I love architecture and Vajdahunyad Castle acts as the perfect showcase for the development of architectural styles in Budapest, including Romanesque, Renaissance, Gothic, and Baroque.
Architect Ignác Alpár designed the building in 1896 as part of celebrations to commemorate 1000 years of Magyars on the site. Cardboard and wood made up the temporary building. Eight years later, the current stone structure replaced the original.
If you look closely, you might find the statue of Bela Lugosi, the Hungarian actor famous for playing Dracula in the 1931 original.
11. Szabo Ervin Library
Originally a palace built in the 19th century, this secret library hides within the modern library surrounding it.
The rooms of the beautiful Wenckheim Palace became reading rooms for the new Central Library in 1931. The old Smoking Room is a must-see space, with its gallery and spiral staircase.
So, those are some of my must-see places in Budapest. If you’re there in the winter, try Pálinka, the local fruit brandy to warm you up!
If you’d like to try a thriller set in the city, check out One Day in Budapest. A relic, stolen from the heart of an ancient city as the far right rises once more.