Popular Budapest Shore Excursions
The Castle District: A maze of cobbled streets and medieval courtyards, the Castle District is Budapest's crowning achievement -- literally. It hangs grandly above the city on the Buda side, and the lovely Matthias Church that is its centerpiece is known locally as "the coronation church." Austria's Franz Josef was crowned king of Hungary there in 1867 to the strains of Franz Liszt's coronation mass, composed especially for the occasion. Today, as it has for centuries, the rampart next to the 700-year-old church offers incomparable views of the Danube and Pest across the river. There's also a tourism office next to the church. (Open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
The scene of battles and wars since the 13th century, the district also is home to the former Royal Palace, one of Hungary's most important national symbols. There are shops and restaurants in the complex in addition to a number of museums that include, notably, the Budapest History Museum and the House of Hungarian Wines. The wine museum houses more than 700 wines from the country's 22 growing regions. For a few forints, samples are available. (Szentharomsag Ter 6; + 36 1 900 9071; open daily, noon to 8 p.m.)
Andrassay Avenue: Almost 2 miles long, Andrassy Utca is the city's grandest boulevard, considered so special that the street was granted World Heritage status by UNESCO in 2002. There, you'll find the stunning State Opera House, opened in 1884 (guided tours at 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. daily); chic boutiques and grand villas with gardens; Franz Liszt Square with its open-air cafes; and, at the very end farthest from Danube, Heroes' Square. No visit to Budapest would be complete without a walk around the magnificent square, dominated by the 118-foot high Millenary Monument. The cenotaph is topped by the Archangel Gabriel, credited with converting the pagan Magyars to Christianity. At the base of the column are seven figures on horseback, representing the Magyar tribes.
Jewish Quarter: In the late 1930s, the Jewish Quarter was a thriving community with about 200,000 Jews. Most perished in the Holocaust. Today, the Great Synagogue, the world's second-largest after Temple Emanu-El in New York City, dominates the neighborhood. Built between 1854 and 1859 by a Viennese architect, the synagogue, with its onion-shaped domes, looks Moorish. The synagogue, closed Saturdays, seats 3,000 people. The complex also includes a Hall of Heroes, where the Monument of Hungarian-Jewish Martyrs was erected in 1991; a Jewish Museum; and a Holocaust memorial room.
Shoes on the Danube: It's not in the Jewish Quarter, but the memorial -- on the riverbank, just south of the parliament building -- is especially moving. The simple memorial, installed in 2005, features 60 pairs of cast-iron shoes, representing thousands of Jews who were shot on that spot by soldiers in World War II. Many fell or were pushed into the icy Danube and died.
Margaret Island: A 1.5-mile-long island in the middle of the Danube, Margaret Island is a green oasis in Budapest, with lush trees, lots of flowers and trails for biking, walking and running. It isn't open to motor traffic, except for buses. The island features restaurants and bars along with a small zoo. To get to Margaret Island, take the Margaret Bridge; coming from Pest, the island entrance is on your right. (It's on the left coming from the Buda side.)
Szechenyi Baths: Located in a sumptuous yellow building in City Park next to Heroes' Square, Szechenyi is the largest thermal bath complex in Budapest and one of the biggest in Europe. It's where friends come to meet, gossip and relax in healing waters that are fed by the 120 thermal springs that feed the Danube. There are indoor and outdoor pools of different temperatures, and it's not unusual to see bathers playing chess on floating game boards. Massages are also available. Prices begin at less than $20 for entry and locker rental. Individual changing rooms can also be rented, along with towels, robes and other items. It's worth bringing flip-flops if you have them, as they're not available. Tickets can be purchased online in advance, from authorized outlets in the city and at the baths. Note: You can pay by credit card at the cashier's desk at the entrance to the baths, but once inside, only local currency is accepted at the booths if you want to buy treatments or rent additional items. (Allatkerti 9-11; +36 1 363 3210; open daily 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.)
Hospital in the Rock: A lesser-known but fascinating attraction is the underground hospital hewn into caves beneath Castle Hill. The subterranean hospital was used during the World War II siege of Budapest and 1956 revolution. Wards and rooms contain original equipment and are brought to life by waxwork figures (some of them rather creepy). The entry fee includes a short introductory film and guided one-hour tour. It can get chilly in the tunnels, so bring a jacket. Alternatively, visitors can borrow nurses' capes at the entrance for free. (Lovas Utca 4/c; +36 70 707 0101; open daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.)