Learn about the city’s checkered history in the Castle District, where you can visit the UNESCO-listed Royal Palace, also known as Buda Castle, which was extensively bombed and ransacked during various crises but now houses the Hungarian National Gallery ($6) and the National Széchényi Library. Marvel at the nearby 700 year-old Matthias Church (Szentháromság tér 2; $4), featuring a flamboyant melange of Romanesque and Gothic styles as well as a gallery containing medieval crypts, sacred relics, and replicas of the Hungarian crown jewels.
Visit the Liberty Statue, an imposing bronze holdover from the Soviet era set high on Gellert Hill, south of the Castle District. Built to commemorate the Soviet liberation of Budapest after World War II, it remains a contentious symbol thanks to decades of grueling communist rule. For another contentious landmark, trek to the fascinating Memento Park, an open-air museum containing huge statues of Lenin, Marx, and Engels.
Embark on a crawl of downtown Pest’s “ruin bars,” an ever-expanding set of ad hoc nightspots often located in derelict buildings or abandoned spaces that have been reclaimed by artsy young entrepreneurs. Start out at Ötkert, a former apartment building now decked out with whimsical touches like Playmobil toys and a soundtrack of Michael Jackson and Prince. Visit the original ruin bar, Szimpla Kert, where backgammon tournaments and a hookah lend themselves to a convivial, laid-back atmosphere. Head to Corvintető, a communist-era department store that’s been transformed into a sophisticated watering hole with a massive rooftop garden and an opium den-like bar indoors. End your crawl at Instant, one of the most talked-about new spots in the city due to its striking décor of fake trees growing out of walls and an “upside-down lounge” with furniture on the ceiling.