Upon arrival in Budapest, visitors soon realize that the banks of the Danube are where the city’s rich history and architecture come together. The area, dating back to the Roman Empire, is protected under the UNESCO World Heritage Sites program. One of the best ways to see Budapest, often called the “Pearl of the Danube,” is from a cruise boat on the famous river. From that superb vantage point, tourists can take in many of the top attractions, which are located on the river’s shores. The Danube intersects Budapest into its two-part namesake: Buda on the west and Pest on the east.
Numerous bridges connect the two halves of Budapest, but perhaps the most famous and arguably most striking is the Chain Bridge. The suspension bridge was the first permanent crossing to be installed over the Danube, in 1849. It was widely lauded for its beautiful design, which includes four lion statues posted on the abutments. Chain Bridge was badly damaged in World War II and has gone through several refurbishings. Lit at night, it has also appeared in Katy Perry video “Firework” and in several films. One of the best ways to experience the bridge is to take the short walk across, where the panoramic views of Budapest are nothing short of spectacular.
Hungarian National Parliament
Even if you’re not a political buff, this site is not to be missed. Located on the shores of the Danube on the Pest side, the parliament buildings of Hungary’s capital are stunning. The neo-Gothic design features a central dome done in the Renaissance Revival style with two symmetrical facades reaching from either side of it. You’ll be awed by the sheer size of this architectural marvel -- it’s the world’s third-largest parliament. But more striking are its features. The outside façade displays Hungarian leaders and militia, and inside, you can see mosaics, stained glass, and grand staircases. If you’re into sparkle, don’t miss the Hungarian Crown Jewels (part of the guided tour).
No trip to Budapest would be complete without a visit to Buda Castle -- visible from everywhere in the city. Located as part of the Castle Hill district on the Buda side, the current castle, also known as the Royal Palace, rises 48 metres above the Danube and dates back to the 14th century. The castle has undergone many renovations and various architectural styles can be seen, from Gothic to Medieval to Renaissance to Baroque. Today, it houses the National Széchényi Library and the Budapest History Museum.
Shoes on the Danube
Not as architecturally stunning, but no less important, is the art installation “Shoes on the Danube.” Located in Pest not far from Parliament, the visually arresting piece is a stark memorial to Jews shot into the Danube by the fascist Arrow Cross militia during World War II. Artist Gyula Pauer painstakingly sculpted 60 pairs of shoes in 1940s styles to represent the fact that the Jews were ordered to remove their shoes before being shot, as shoes were considered valuable.
Although the city contains plenty of historical buildings, the vastly different modernity of the National Theatre is a beautiful contrast on the Pest side. It was opened in 2000 to replace the city’s original national theatre building, and is the main destination for theatre in the city. The building’s round design makes it a standout and it features a park with a huge hedge maze and information on Hungary’s theatre and film history.
Gellért Hill (Statue of Liberty)
Gellért Hill is one of the most stunning ways to see the sweeping panorama of Hungary. Overlooking the Danube, it contains numerous parks and landmarks. One of the most imposing and significant is Budapest’s own Liberty Statue. The statue can be seen from anywhere in Budapest and was built by the Soviet Red Army to commemorate their victory after World War II. Gellért Hill also contains a network of caves and the unique Gellért Hill Cave Church, built into the caves.
Gresham Palace on Roosevelt Square
Although Gresham Palace isn’t listed on every top 10 list, it should be. It’s a gem on the Pest side that shouldn’t be missed. Located a stone’s throw from the Chain Bridge, the palace was, surprisingly, not a palace at all but an office building and a home for British aristocrats when it first opened in 1906. Gloriously lit in the evening, this spectacular example of Art-Nouveau architecture -- many consider it one of the best examples in all of Europe -- it contains everything you might expect in a castle: detailed ironwork, sweeping staircases, gilded statues, mosaics, and stained glass. Since being purchased and refurbished by the Four Seasons chain in 2001, the palace is also one of the city’s most luxurious hotels.
Although Budapest is home to a lively music and arts culture, it also contains much greenspace. Margaret Island -- an island in the middle of the Danube -- is a recreation lover’s dream, with beautiful walking and cycling paths, 11 pools, and a spa. But perhaps one of the more unique sights on the island -- besides being yet another photographer’s dream -- is its musical fountain. Several times a day, the fountain waters dance in time with everything from Vivaldi to Simon and Garfunkel.