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Feel the allure of the golden age – the late 19th century – as you explore treasure-filled Budapest. Architecture buffs are in heaven, marveling at the Baroque, neoclassical and art nouveau buildings, while historian types are captivated by the city’s role in World War II. Before you embark on your best-of-Budapest tour, however, remember that there is “Buda” and there is “Pest.” For a classier, residential ambience, head for Buda – it’s the place for leisurely sightseeing. For the lively nightlife for which Budapest is known and for a more tourist-centric vibe, make your way to Pest. 

Wherever you go first, here’s what can’t be missed: 

Take a Nighttime Illuminations Cruise 

See the city light up on an evening sightseeing cruise along the Danube River. You’ll see all the famous sights that line the banks of the river, which is itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Pass under the Chain Bridge and the Elisabeth Bridge and take in the majestic Hungarian Parliament Building. Consider taking one of the candlelit dinner cruises, during which you’ll see the illuminated sites while enjoying a four-course dinner.

Visit the Shoes Memorial Statue 

Pay homage to a sobering era of world history when you visit the Shoes Memorial Statue. A trail of 60 pairs of 1940s-style iron shoes mark the area along the banks of the Danube River where approximately 20,000 Jews were forced to remove their footwear at gunpoint just before their death. You’ll find this chilling memorial on the Pest side of the Danube, just south of the Hungarian Parliament Building.

Marvel at the Matthias Cathedral 

Known for its colorful tiled roof, Matthias Cathedral is set atop Buda Castle hill and remains one of the most striking churches in Europe. The cathedral has been around since 1015 and continues to marvel visitors with its neo-Gothic features, delicate turrets and, inside, floor-to-ceiling frescoes in hues of orange, brown and gold and magnificent stained-glass windows. The wooden pews inside are a century old and traces of the church’s medieval roots remain. 

Ride the Funicular to Old Town 

If you need a quick and easy way to ascend Buda Castle Hill from river level, head to the funicular at the Buda end of the Chain Bridge. The Buda Hill Funicular starts from here and takes just a few minutes to get to the top of the hill. For an inexpensive fare, you’ll get some of the best views in the city, including the Danube River, the Fisherman’s Bastion, Margaret Island and Gresham Palace. 

Shop at the Fisherman’s Bastion 

Ponder what Budapest was like in the 19th century as you take in the views from the lookout towers of the Fisherman’s Bastion. Built as a lookout back then, the structure never actually served as fortification, but lends credence to Budapest’s nickname as the “Pearl of the Danube.” From here, you’ll get beautiful views of the Danube River and the city, including Buda Castle, elegant mansions, the Chain Bridge, the Hungarian Parliament Building, Gresham Palace and more. There is no charge to wander about the ramparts and cloisters of the site and just a small fee to climb the tower. Several delightful cafes are nearby. 

Walk Down “Mansion Road”

Another of Budapest’s numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Andrássy Avenue makes for an eye-popping stroll. A self-guided walk along this famous boulevard, which dates back to 1870, takes you from Heroes’ Square nearly to St. Stephen’s Basilica. Along the way, enjoy the blend of old and new architecture, the bustle of the city center and the café scene. Of particular note are the Hungarian State Opera House, the Liszt Ferenc Music Academy, the Ballet Institute and the many neo-Renaissance and neo-Baroque villas and mansions dating to the 19th century.

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