The city of Budapest is a heady mixture of Vienna’s elegant coffee-house culture and communism’s rough-edged austerity. Budapest packs a punch, if you are prepared to overlook its drab exterior. It is best described as intriguing and fascinating and has many hidden treasures. Sometimes, you get a feeling of travelling back in time to ‘Old Eastern Europe’, reminiscent of my recollection of the former Yugoslav republic. Budapest is a city that provides many exploring options, starting with the world-famous baths and ruin bars set up in courtyards to the imposing Parliament building.
It is hard not to compare Budapest with Vienna. Each has similar architectural cues. Vienna is the classy one whereas Budapest is a bit more vintage, a little rough around the edges. Things are older, a little more retro and cheaper! This city is ideal for long walks that start after your morning coffee and end in a ruin bar with a hearty goulash.
And of course, the morning coffee can be had in no better cafe than the Muvesz cafe on fashionable Andrássy Ave, which has served delightful pastries and coffee since 1892. Here, you will find an incredible selection of traditional delectable pastries and cakes to accompany your morning coffee. Even Trish has found some gluten free options to savour!
Budapest’s centre (in Pest) contains many of the city’s main sights, such as the Parliament building, St Stephen’s Basilica and the Shoes on the Danube Bank. Because of the large number of attractions in the area, it’s often filled with tourists. The main pedestrian street is reminiscent of Vienna’s Graben and leads you from the Danube to St Stephen’s Basilica. There are, however, some rather nice and uncrowded side streets to wander and attempt to get lost in.
A stroll along the Pest-side of the river, with its views up to Buda, is a wonderful way to take in Budapest’s highlights, such as its bridges and the Parliament building. The Parliament building is an impressive Gothic-style construction from the turn of the century dominating the skyline. It impresses from virtually every angle. The Parliament is symbolic, inside and out. The building is 96 meters tall, to match the last two digits of Hungary’s foundation in 896, and the building’s own inauguration, 1,000 years later.
This is a building with an imposing facade, impressive grand staircase and splendid frescoes. One of the highlights is the medieval coronation regalia, which includes the 11th century Holy Crown as well as a sword, sceptre and orb. The regalia spent much of the Cold War secure in Fort Knox.
When in a new destination, a visit to a signature church is a must. St Stephen’s Basilica is a grand-looking building in a wide, paved courtyard. The interior is dripping with gold detail, intricate decorations and spectacular paintings. The cupola is a kaleidoscope of colour and intricate pattern. It also contains the right hand of the saint-king.
Not far away, in Elizabeth Square, stands a statue dedicated to Sisi, the German born Queen of Hungary. She was revered by the Hungarian people, preferring to stay in Budapest than Vienna, which was the main seat of the Habsburg’s Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her assassination in Geneva sparked widespread mourning. Her legacy endures and a bronze sculpture has pride of place in the square.
It is said that Budapest’s liveliest nightlife is in district VII, also known as the Jewish District. It boasts plenty of bars and boasts the city’s best street art. It feels like this is the most populous district in the city. And it certainly can get pretty busy. During the 19th century, Budapest experienced rapid urbanisation and economic development. Business opportunities arose and the Jewish population seized those opportunities, which drew them in increasing numbers to this part of the city. This urbanisation undoubtedly contributed to the city’s progress.
But for all the positive social and economic impact that the Jews had on Budapest, the Nazis and Hungarian fascists turned the Jewish Quarter into a ghetto and thousands died of famine and starvation. In January of 1945, the Soviet army liberated the ghetto and saved its residents from deportation. A period of deterioration and a hard life followed during communism and residents moved out en-masse or fled from Hungary leaving the neighbourhood in decay. Today, the Dohány Street Synagogue, the largest in Europe, proudly serves Budapest’s Jewish congregation.
There are some reminders of the troubles that the Hungarian Jews experienced. The Emanuel Tree is a weeping willow memorial, located behind the Dohány Street Synagogue. The names of 30,000 Holocaust victims have been inscribed in the tree’s metal leaves. Upside down, the tree resembles a menorah.
The memorial to Carl Lutz, a Swiss diplomat who saved an estimated 60,000 Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, sits in a quiet corner of the district. The bronze memorial honouring Lutz shows an angel descending to help a fallen victim. The caption reads, “Whoever saves a life is considered to have saved an entire world.”
The Shoes on the Danube Bank is a further reminder of Jewish tragedies. The 60 pairs of cast-iron shoes placed on the edge of the Danube’s bank are a memory of Budapest Jews killed here by members of the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross Party. They ordered victims to remove their shoes before shooting them dead, with their bodies falling into the river and drifting away. The memorial has shoes of all sizes, including children’s shoes, setting off a cascade of emotions. Seeing toddler’s booties is a sad sight indeed.
Aside from the Jewish Quarter, the House of Terror provides detailed encounters of the activities undertaken by the fascist and communist regimes on 20th century Hungary. It is a memorial to the victims of these regimes. This memorial does not deify those who suffered, rather it is a poignant reminder of those detained, interrogated, tortured or killed in the building. It outlines the relationships between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and how the fascist Arrow Cross Party treated Hungarian citizens. Hauntingly, you are taken to the basement and see the cells used to break prisoners’ wills.
These memorials are a fitting tribute to all those who lost their lives but it is also a sad reminder of a very dark time.
Remarkably, the streets and dilapidated buildings of the former Jewish Quarter have been revitalised. This area has become the epicentre of Budapest’s nightlife, known especially for its ruin bars. Ruin bars are one of the most unique and quirky things to try in Budapest where ruined old buildings have been turned into drinking establishments around the city.
Aside from enjoying a drink, bathing is a major remedial and social pastime for locals and embraced by tourists to Budapest. There are plenty of baths to choose from. The thermal water is warm year-round (the coolest pools are 27 degrees Celsius), so even a winter visit to Budapest means you can strip down to your togs and relax in the warmth of the outdoor pools. Here, you can easily soak away the day…and any jet lag you may be experiencing.
Worthy of a quick visit is the Great Market Hall. This is a vast covered bazaar where local specialities can be found, including the poster child of Hungarian cuisine, paprika (sweet to hot and everything in between).
The district on the Buda side of the city is a great place to go for stunning panoramic views over Pest and the Danube. This is more of a residential area. The medieval Castle Hill, with the Buda Castle and the Matthias Church, dominate this district’s skyline. This is complemented by some charmingly winding historic streets, which can be delightfully quiet during a walk through the Buda side.
Fisherman’s Bastion is next to Matthias Church and is a dominant feature of Castle Hill. This is a nice example of neo-Gothic architecture and is a dramatically medieval looking viewing platform providing an outstanding view of Budapest. The multi-coloured tiles (vibrant ceramic roof is made of tiles from the renowned Zsolnay factory of Hungary) on Matthias Church are amazing and easily seen from the Bastion.
It is from the Bastion that a wonderful vista of Budapest opens out before you with views across the Danube, the Chain Bridge and the city’s most famous building, the Hungarian Parliament building. The Chain Bridge is the first permanent bridge to link the two cities and create the bond that brought them together. The pedestrian friendly bridge is a favourite way to cross the Danube. It was once considered a wonder of the world, being used since 1849. It is ornate and can be found in every Budapest photo album and Instagram portfolio.
Perched atop neighbouring Gellért Hill is the Liberty Statue. This is a terrific vantage point with sweeping views down the Danube and across Budapest. But be prepared for a steep climb. It is worth the effort.
Budapest’s metro line was the world’s second, predated by London’s underground. The Hungarian capital’s M1 runs beneath the grand Andrassy Avenue. Like a lot of monumental constructions in Budapest, the metro is called the Millenium Underground Railway, built to coincide with the 1,000th anniversary of the Magyars’ arrival in Hungary and officially opening in 1896. It was built to take people to City Park. Today, the M1 still services the good people of Budapest and many tourists. Along the length of the M1, you can stop for many of the city’s scenic highlights, such as St Stephen’s Basilica or the House of Terror. Further along the metro line are the Szechenyi Baths, the sunshine-yellow neo-baroque bathhouse. And not far from the baths is Vajdahunyad Castle, an impressive castle built for the 1896 celebrations.
It’s easy to get into the spirit of Budapest. Traipse the back streets of the Jewish Quarter, enjoy the ruin bars and soak in the baths. Wander Buda’s quiet back streets and enjoy the views from the major vantage points. There is an unmistakable feeling that something a little out of the ordinary is just around the corner. It will be up to you to find it. Finally, sample Unicum, Hungary’s signature herbal liqueur. The taste will stay with you as your evening nears an end.