If you’ve already arrived in Budapest or just starting to plan your trip to the heart of Europe, let us give you a helping hand on what to visit, so you can find out and enjoy all of what Budapest’s vibrant cultural scene has to offer. There’s more to Budapest than meets the eye! With an ever so rich Hungarian music heritage, a lively museum scene and numerous world-famous artists, it’s impossible to run out of attractions to see and experience in Budapest. To make sure you don’t miss out on the top things to do, we’ve put together a little guide to help you dive right in the fun!
Quick Historic Facts
Hungary, and it’s vibrant capital Budapest has an ever so rich cultural and historical heritage, as the country has a history over 1000 years strong, far surpassing ruin pubs, wild stag nights, Goulash soup, and the Parliament.
The history of Hungary goes all the way back to 895, when the Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin (known as “honfoglalás”) took place, followed by a series of historical events ending with the Hungarians settling in Central Europe. The Christian Monarchy and the Kingdom of Hungary was founded by the first king of Hungary, King Saint Stephen – and although the exact date is unknown, his coronation was in 1000 or 1001!
For further knowledge on Hungarian history and culture, take a visit to the Hungarian National Museum, a beautiful purpose-built Neoclassical building, where you’ll find various artifacts portraying the main events of former times. By the time you leave you’ll be completely up to date on the history, art and archeology of Hungary.
Top Tip: One of the most important and most impressive events of the year, is the dazzling firework display held on August 20th, with the main fireworks set above the Danube in Budapest. Firework displays can be seen all over the country in celebration of King Saint Stephen, his canonization and the foundation of the Hungarian state. If you can, it’s worthwhile planning your holiday schedule around the date.
Culture Heaven: Language, Literature & More
Another interesting part of Hungarian culture is it’s language, with the Hungarian language coming from the Uralic region of Asia, and belonging to the Finno-Ugric language group (part of the Uralic language family). This actually means the language closest to Finnish and Estonian!
The Hungarian language is also considered to be one of the hardest to learn (although 13 million people have already succeeded!), which is not surprising, considering it has a staggering 14 vowels (in English there are only 5), as follows: a, á, o, ó, u, ú, e, é, ö, ő, ü, ű, i, í. Hungarian also has one of the longest words, made up of 44 letters: “Megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért” – meaning “due to your behaviour of showing no respect towards something holy or very much respected”. Another interesting part of the Hungarian language is its ancient form, named as Old Hungarian (Hungarian Runic, “Rovash script”) with the alphabetic writing system also being included in the ISO 15924 standard.
Top Tip: Take a trip to the Petőfi Literary Museum (named after one of the greatest poets of the nation, Sándor Petőfi – also an icon of the Freedom War of 1848-49 in Hungary) which in Budapest, is filled with both classical and contemporary Hungarian literary heritage, including Hungarian poems with translations provided. In Sátoraljaújhely, the museum has a division which focuses solely on the Hungarian language, a perfect outing for philologists!
Top Read: Anything by the Hungarian literary icons Attila József, Endre Ady, Gyula Juhász, Mihály Babits, János Arany, Imre Madách and Mihály Radnóti – read their work, and discover the minds of those who have contributed immensely to Hungarian culture.
Budapest – A World of Art & Beauty
It’s true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but in Budapest, it really is easy to find something new to admire on every corner – ideal for travelers who truly appreciate works of art. The capital has a wonderful mix of art museums and cultural centers, with galleries representing Hungarian culture dotted all over town.
Museums in Budapest encompass various types and techniques of art, and are home to the finest pieces of Hungarian art collections. The following selection of Budapest galleries and museums provide insight to the highlights of Hungarian visual culture, so go ahead and see any of these institutions, they won’t disappoint: the Hungarian National Gallery, the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Budapest, the Kunsthalle, the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center, and finally, the Museum of Applied Arts.
Relax like the Romans: The Rejuvenating Thermal Baths of Budapest
Budapest is also known as the ‘Spa Capital’ of Europe, with a strong wellness culture, thanks to the delightful benefits of the Carpathian Basin’s thermal water. A well-known “secret” of the Hungarians, Budapest baths playing a vital part in Hungarian culture.
The Romans were the first to introduce bathing culture in the region, and archaeologists have found the remains of various baths of the onetime Pannonia. After the Romans, came influence from the Turks, with three Turkish baths still existing in Budapest today: the Rudas, Király and Rác baths.
Budapest hot baths are an integral part of everyday life, and not just for pampering sessions. Due to the water’s healing properties that works wonders for joint problems, arthritis and stress, we recommend a visit to anyone interested in looking after their health. Acknowledged and subsidized by the national healthcare service, locals are encouraged to go for sauna and massage sessions too! Our top 3 recommendations for some well-deserved of rest and recreation, would be the Széchenyi, Gellért and Rudas Baths (at Rudas there’s even a rooftop pool with panoramic views of the city).
Fun Fact: Playing chess at the Széchenyi baths has been supported for many years, and guests are welcome to join both amateur and trained chess players for a game – and remember, it’s a game with no language barriers in place.
Experience the Buzz: Festival Fun
If you are looking for a buzzing experience in Hungary, plan ahead, book you tickets early, and spend your time enjoying a day (or week) full of great music, wine, food and art!
The most famous music festival in Budapest is Sziget, as one of the largest music and cultural festivals in Europe, it’s been going strong since ’93. Situated on the Óbudai-sziget, in the middle of the Danube, Sziget Festival has and continues to be a part of Hungary’s modern day culture, with acts like Lana Del Ray and Mumford & Sons playing in the past, and Ed Sheeran lined up for 2019. This is a festival you won’t want to miss!
Ozora Festival is another exciting music event, a perfect mix of freedom and fun, where the 21st century party-goer will still feel at home thanks to the “Peace & Love” atmosphere. The annual psychedelic trance festival takes place in the village of Ozora, where during the day, there are many cultural events to enjoy.
Although most of Budapest’s festivals are timed for the summer, there are several other festivals throughout the year too, including wine festivals such as the Budapest Wine Festival held in the beautiful Buda Castle, and the Wine Festival of Etyek, where top Hungarian wineries from all around Hungary present their wines.
If dancing and drinking is not your thing, we have another top tip: the Valley of Arts Festival. This festival is the oldest art festival of Hungary, debuting in 1989, set in the magical villages of Lake Balaton Uplands with the aim of preserving cultural quality and local ties through concerts, literary events and interactive eco-conscious games.
Listen and Dance to a Musical Mix: Classical, Jazz & Folk
Hungarians are well-known for their love of music and dance, which started off with traditional Hungarian folk music, and then became even more complex with the appearance of classical music. Hungarian musical pioneers include Franz Liszt, Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály.
Thanks to the above, downtown Budapest is full of concerts, with many opportunities to get to know the thriving Hungarian music scene and to enjoy an array of Budapest concerts on any day of the week.
For a start, Hungary boasts a record number of symphonic orchestras (almost 40!) which for a population of 10 million, is quite something. So to get a feel for Hungarian music and talent it’s worthwhile visiting the Liszt Academy, an Art Nouveau conservatory boasting unparalleled acoustics and a legendary concert venue.
Another place to visit for (not just) classical music lovers is MÜPA Budapest, a venue that provides a home for all sorts of genres, such as classical, contemporary, popular and world music, not to mention jazz and opera, and dance and film shows. Operating since 2005, it’s one of Hungary’s best known cultural brands and offers concerts and cultural events of the highest quality. Other fun places to go for great jazz music and Budapest concerts include venues such as the Opus Jazz Club/Budapest Music Center, Budapest Jazz Club, and iF Jazz Café Budapest.
Apart from classical and jazz, Hungary also has a very unique heritage: Hungarian folk music (magyar népzene) – one of the most important areas of Hungarian culture, as folk music and art has an influence on almost all aspects of Hungarian culture. Safeguarding folk and dance music, and preserving Hungarian traditions plays a huge role in the country, and for this reason, many dance groups and dance houses exist.
Special tip: For a traditional experience, visit the established center of Hungarian culture, Fonó, a melting pot for cultural and creative groups, through workshops, concerts and its very own festivals. Fonó is primarily focused on showcasing Central European/Hungarian folk dance and music. Ranging from traditional dance houses (worry not – dance classes are usually included too) from various regions of Hungary and Transylvania, to folk dance performances and live concerts, there will be something for everyone to enjoy!