11 Aug A Week in Brilliant Budapest, Hungary
“Shall we take a short tour of the city?” asked our Airbnb host Tibor, who’d come to pick us up from the bus station in Budapest, Hungary. Agreeing, we soon found ourselves driving alongside the River Danube, which separates the now unified Buda and Pest districts of the city; grand bridges stretched over the murky water and boats trundled along beneath in the gathering darkness. On the riverbank lights began to blink on in the Hogwarts-esque Parliament building and across the brown water on a grassy hillside, the spiky spires and turrets of the castle district rose into the twilight.
We were immediately captivated by Budapest’s beauty and throughout our week-long stay we fell deeper under the city’s spell. Budapest is one of the top 10 most visited cities in the world and the more we explored, the more we realised there was to see; from World Heritage Sites to religious buildings, geothermal baths, parks and squares. Our days passed in a whirl of sightseeing, museum visits, climbs to scenic viewpoints and hours of random wandering, soaking in the city’s energy. Here’s what we got up to during our week in Brilliant Budapest.
The Castle District in Budapest, Hungary
A steep climb in the mid-afternoon heat took us up to the Buda Castle District, a World Heritage Site perched on a hill overlooking the river Danube. The area is full of historical buildings, the most impressive being Buda Castle (the Royal Palace) and St Matthias Church. From the white-stone, turreted walls of the Fisherman’s Bastion we got some impressive views of the river, the famous Chain Bridge and the flat planes of the Pest area of the city.
Away from the main squares and museums in the Castle District we wandered the almost-deserted ancient streets which are lined with little medieval-style buildings, lanes leading to tiny courtyards and pretty cafes. We watched wedding parties gathering outside the mosaic-covered St Matthias Church and admired the many ornate statues and fountains in the squares.
Budapest Parliament and the Pest Side of the River
Hungary’s Parliament building is the third largest in the world and one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen; reminiscent of the Houses of Parliament in London. From there you can walk along the river or head into the city streets, stumbling upon squares, strips of restaurants and bars and modern shopping areas. While wandering you’ll come across beautiful pieces of architecture; our favourite was St Stephen’s Basilica with its spikes and peaks.
One of the most famous and picturesque streets in Budapest is Andrassy Boulevard, a sweeping stately street lined with expensive houses and shops which connects the downtown area with Heroes’ Square, where you’ll find some of the most impressive statues in the city.
The Budapest Jewish Quarter
Before World War II there were around 45,000 Jewish people in Budapest and 125 synagogues in the city, including the second largest in the world, Dohany Street Synagogue. During the holocaust, the area surrounding the synagogue was made into a ghetto and thousands of Jewish people were crammed into the area; many died from disease, cold and starvation while others were sent to death camps – over six hundred thousand Hungarian Jews died during the holocaust.
A ticket allows you to access the Synagogue, its courtyards, a museum and memorial garden where you’ll find a silver weeping willow tree to commemorate the holocaust victims. On the Pest side of the city there’s also a haunting Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial to remember the Jewish people who were ordered to line up on the riverbank and take off their shoes before being shot into the water.
We also came across a controversial statue in Liberty Square which depicts Hungary as an innocent child being attacked by a sinister Nazi eagle; underneath the statue there are protest posters calling for the statue to be torn down, proclaiming that it was an attempt to airbrush history and paint the Hungarian Government in a good light. In fact, Hungary had its own anti-Semitic laws as far back as the 1920s and later struck a deal with the Nazis, agreeing to ship Hungarian Jews off to death camps. As always, when we travel we learn so much about history and the numerous different ways in which it can be told and interpreted.
Budapest Food and the Central Market
We ate nearly all of our meals in Budapest at Gozsdu Udvar street in the Jewish Quarter, a long street of restaurants, cafes and bars. While Andrew tried Hungarian Goulash, I gorged on pasta and when we wanted a cheap lunch we headed to the Central Market hall where we bought bags of fruit and delicious pastries for just a few pounds.
The House of Terror Museum and the Hungarian National Museum
To learn about the darker periods in Hungary’s history we visited the House of Terror Museum, a building which was formally used by terror regimes to imprison, torture and kill. In 1944 the Nazi Hungarian Arrow Cross Party used the building as their headquarters and between 1945 and 1956 it was taken over by a Soviet communist dictatorship and became known as the State Security Authority building (AVH). The later regime captured, tortured or killed one person from every third Hungarian family; cellars under the building were expanded and connected to form dark, stone prison cells which you can now walk through.
I knew barely anything of Hungary’s traumatic history and the museum was a sobering lesson; rooms were filled with video and audio testimonies from victims who suffered through those dark periods. They told stories of an oppressed nation of people living in fear, families being made to inform on each other and people imprisoned and executed without fair trial or representation. Farmers were forced to give their crops to the state, men were sent off to labour camps, never to be seen again. Finally, there were also stories of the Hungarian revolution in the 1980s, which has lead to it becoming the democratic parliamentary republic it is today.
We also took a less traumatic visit to the Hungarian National Museum, where we learnt more about the more ancient history of Hungary; there was also an exhibition there displaying photos from the 1989 revolution.
The Budapest Thermal Baths
Budapest has 80 geothermal springs and there are a few popular baths you can visit to get a dose of healing water and a massage. We headed to one of the biggest and oldest complexes, the Szechenyi Baths, to wallow in the warm waters for a couple of hours. The outdoor pools were packed with people and although we had fun, the baths weren’t as clean or relaxing as ones we’ve visited in New Zealand and Taiwan.
We also made the trek up through park land to Gellert Hill, another popular viewpoint on the Buda side of the city. At the top sits an impressive citadel from the 1800s which was used over the years by Austrian and German forces to control the city. We took in the panoramic views of the city and the river stretching out over the Danube to the mountains beyond.
On the way down we passed a cave church and the Liberty and Gellert monuments; the later depicts a statue of Bishop Gellert, who the hill was named after. You can find the prestigious Gellert Hotel and popular Gellert Baths at the foot of the hill.
On our final evening in Budapest we watched the sun set and walked along the Buda side of the river; across the dark water the Parliament was lit up, bathed in gold. Birds, or perhaps bats, swooped around in the dim halo above the building’s domes and spikes forming a final striking, image of Budapest.