The enchanting two-sided city of Budapest is hard not to fall in love with. From the moment we stepped off the train, we were immediately mesmerized by the city’s timeless beauty. At every step and turn an architectural wonder awaits. Baroque, art nouveau, neoclassical and eclectic structures line the city streets, plenty to cause your head to spin. Feeling like we could spend well over a week in Budapest, we wished we had planned for a longer stay.
Interestingly enough, the city had once been three cities separated by the Danube River. Buda city lies on the western side of the Danube consisting mostly of tourist attractions, including Castle Hill. Pest is on the eastern side and is where most local Hungarians call home today. The cities joined together in the late 1800’s to mold what is today Budapest. Although the city was destroyed several times through war, the Hungarians have done a stellar job in rebuilding the structures to model its traditional architecture. When looking at buildings we were shocked to find that most were constructed only within the last century. Our guide was amazed that tourists say they love the medieval architecture when its really as new as America. She reminded us of Hungary’s sad history being conquered and ruled by the Mongols, Romans, Turks, Habsburg Austrians, Soviets and Nazi Germans.
As we’ve done in several other places, we took the Budapest Free Walking Tour. The tours are always fabulous and run by young adults who are passionate about their history and culture. They work only for tips and always try to make a special impact during the tour. It was slightly raining the morning we went to meet up for the tour, however there were still close to 150 tourists that showed up to participate. With such a large group, we were divided into three groups. The sights in Budapest are quite spread out, making it easy to feel like you are the only tourist at times. Definitely a variance from Prague, which felt very crowded and congested. Budapest was quite peaceful and we could always find a quiet cafe or place to relax.
Our tour began on the Pest side with a visit to St. Stephen’s Basilica and several other monuments of noteworthy discussion from our guide. Hungary has only recently (in 1987) escaped Communism. You can imagine we saw several examples of streets blended with beautiful classical architecture next to sterile Communist buildings. It’s incredible how far Budapest has come since their times of Soviet rule and Communism.
We crossed over the Szecherty Chain Bridge to the Buda side of the city, where we discovered the most charming medieval streets and mind-blowing views. Buda sits on a large hill with Castle Hill being the city’s main tourist attraction. We visited the Royal Palace, Magdalene Tower and the neo-Gothic Matthias Church. From the Fisherman’s Bastion, we also spotted the Liberty Monument on top of a nearby hill. The statue of the lady with her palm up previously signified Communism. As the Soviet soldiers lost their fight to control Hungary, the people agreed to reintroduce it as a symbol of freedom. The ascend to Buda may be a steep climb, but it’s well worth the stunning views of Pest, the bridges and the Danube River. At the blah blah area where they stored ammunition in underground tunnels, we witnessed bullet holes in the building walls. It just so happened that Die Hard 5 was being filmed as Moscow during the Cold War here. Our tour ended with our guide explaining Hungary’s sad role as prey to neighboring empires. giving us several tips on where to go for restaurants, bars and other attractions.
The old Jewish Quarter was very close to the Gaia Hostel, so we spent plenty of time meandering around its historic streets. Built in 1859, the Great Synagogue (Dohany Synagogue) is the center of the quarter and the largest Synagogue in Europe. We were excited to visit the inside, until we discovered it was $15/person for a tour. We both just felt it was wrong to charge that much to enter a place of worship. And, on principal we just couldn’t pay it knowing the money wasn’t going to the Jewish community. Instead, we decided to walk around the old quarter and visit some other functional synagogues and community places.
The Jewish Quarter has become a trendy place for nightlife. There are many Ruin Pubs scattered around the quarter. Ruin Pubs are a new thing in Budapest, where bars take over old building ruins to make an open air pub environment. The Ruin Pubs have sprouted up all over different areas of the city and seem to be constantly changing locations as the government decides to demolish the building ruins. The pubs are all full of character and artsy designs. Our favorite restaurant was “blah blah”.
Attending an Opera while in Europe was high on Christie’s list of things to do while we travel. However, we were disappointed to find that Opera season is only in September through October. This schedule is strange since most tourism happens in the summer. At any rate, we wanted to do something cultural, so Brett found a traditional Hungarian Dance Rhapsody which is a performance of folk dances choreographed on Bartok’s music. The show took place in a gorgeous old theatre house called Danube Palace. The musicians were quite talented, particularly one violinist who stole the show. There were six men and six women dancers who performed several traditional Hungarian dances with a bit of theatrical performances mixed in such as sword fighting. The costume design and presentation of the entire performance was flawless. We had never seen anything like it and were pleased that we attended the dance rhapsody.
Stag party tourism is hugely popular around Pest. There were several crews of Dutch and Spanish teens at or hostel partying for days on end. Someone told us a hilarious story of British guys paying to visit Budapest…. to get in fights and beaten by Hungarian policemen. It was tempting to visit the underground club at the “Aquarium”, but our laid back approach really didn’t take away from our experience. One day, we walked through Andrassy Ut and considered visiting the Terror House Museum or “House of Terror”. This was the former headquarters for the Fascist Secret Police (and Nazis) up until the 1956 uprising. Here, awful crimes of torture and killing are on exhibition. After recently visiting the Auschwitz camps, we didn’t have the emotional energy to do it. The popular Turkish baths are at the end of Andrassy and Margaret Island is on our list for next time!
Our visit was packed with wonderful sites to see and chill cafes to explore. We left after four nights feeling satisfied with our coverage and time there. Budapest has the right blend of historical sites, nightlife, museums and entertainment.
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